“If missiles were falling where my two daughters sleep, I would do everything in order to stop that”, said Barack Obama when visiting the Israeli town of Sderot last July. He visited the city that was under Qassam rocket fire from Gaza for some seven years, during his campaign to the US Presidency. He gave his statement at the local police station where hundreds of Qassams were put on display. He visited a local family whose house suffered a Qassam hit, he met Osher, a child who lost his leg from such an attack, he received an ‘I Love Sderot’ T-shirt from the city Mayor, and also a piece of Qassam rocket as a keepsake by the Israeli police. He did everything right. He smiled when he needed to smile, and sobered when seriousness and determination were needed. But he did not mention Gaza.
Barack Obama, whose election to office raised the hopes of so many in the Middle East, probably understood that this was an over-simplified presentation of the conflict. But it was election time and while American Muslims were inclined to vote for him given the recent Republican legacy, many of the American Jews were still weighing their options with a strong encouragement from the State of Israel to consider McCain. Barack Obama most probably knew the conflict did not start with the Qassam rockets; that it wasn’t a simple story of good guys vs. bad guys, of Israeli poor victims vs. Palestinian evil terrorists. He probably knew that Gaza was indeed emptied from Israeli soldiers and settlements in the Disengagement Plan in 2005 but that this was only a tactical change of the means of control Israel employed. He probably knew Palestinians could not practice most of the articles of the Declaration of Human Rights even before the first Qassam was fired: they could not go where they wanted in their own country and travel abroad if they wished; they could not enjoy medical care, a secured and decent job. They could not secure their children on-going education or even practice the basic right to life, freedom and safety. And, as they found out after the last elections, they certainly could not choose their own leaders.
“I think that no country would accept missiles landing on the heads of its citizens”, said Obama at the same visit in Sderot, looking, once again, only at the Israeli experience. “Israelis should not have to live in danger in their homes and schools.” No, Israelis should not, but neither should Palestinians. And one should remember, there is no parity here. Israel is an occupying power, whose policy and practices are channelled to protect this occupation and fight the various ways of resistance to it the Palestinians have practiced: from deporting non-violent Palestinian activists and jailing political leaders, to assassinating others some of who were moderate and others radical and possibly prospective suicide bombers. The Israeli vision for the Palestinian future is on display for all to see, built in cement and barbed wire of the so-called security wall around the Gaza Strip, around and through Jerusalem, and in the West Bank, with hundreds of thousands of settlements and an ongoing land confiscation and siege. Apparently, until the Palestinians will agree to this distorted vision, until they will agree to live in a fragmented political territory made of enclaves enclosed between high walls surrounded with check points and gates the keys of which are in the hands of Israel, Sderot and Gaza, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Nablus and Jenin will not be safe. Is this the future the new presidency will offer the Palestinians and the Israelis? Is this the change we should believe in?
Your silence Mr. President Elect Obama is ringing very loud in the ears of the people of this region. It creates despair in those who had the audacity to hope for change. And despair is a dangerous engine. If you intend to be an honest mediator you should speak now. You should speak of the Malia’s and Sasha’s of Sderot but also of those of Gaza. They all have the right for a decent life free of fear and terror. Since Saturday, Israeli pilots killed 62 children in Gaza. Their parents too wanted them to live a meaningful and happy life; they too wanted them to be able to go to school, to eat shaved ice cream or watch a movie. Yes, we know there is only one president at a time in the US, and that you are closely monitoring the situation from Hawaii but we need you to speak, just to remind us all of the universality of human rights.
On the holy day of Saturday, in one minute, Israeli pilots killed 250 Palestinians. This was the highest number of Palestinians killed in one day since the beginning of the Israeli occupation in 1967. Despite this fact, the US administration supported the attack as did an overwhelming majority of Israeli-Jews. When asked about the success of the operation, Israeli Deputy Minister of Defence, Matan Vilnai, told the reporter: ‘You should go to the funerals in Gaza, and you will then realize’. He said it on the fourth day of the attack, after Israel had already killed 376 Palestinians. The fact that by killing masses of Palestinians one only widens the vicious circle of hate to include more people on both sides and thus hardly making the world a safer place, was left outside the debate, as always.
Barack Obama will need to remember that there are human beings beyond the labels given to them by Israelis and Americans. He will need to dare think beyond CIA reports, and remember that security threats do not emerge in a vacuum. We here in the region hope he will learn from mistakes of former administrations, and realize that enforcing a vote for Fatah, might bring about the exact opposite consequences. The dispute between Hamas and Fatah, encouraged by Israel and the US, is at the end of the day not in the interest of those who want to reach an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. Obama and his administration will need to challenge these very basic assumptions of the US foreign policy.
Gaza and Israel are counting their dead. The people of Gaza are sitting in houses with shattered windows, no fuel or electricity to heat the winter days of this New Year. Israel might soon invade, again, with tanks and armed vehicles this place of desolation, proving its own citizens who are about to go to elections its leaders are tough and mighty. Nobody knows how destroyed, devastated and revengeful Gaza would be in three weeks time, when Obama will step into his new office. Hopefully, by then he will acknowledge that there is more than the Qassam problem in this conflict, and that the daughters of Gaza are also part of our world.
Tami Sarfatti is a PhD candidate in history at UCLA, living in Tel Aviv
Yonatan Mendel is a PhD candidate in Middle Eastern Studies at Cambridge University, living in Jerusalem.
They can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org