Israel’s fragile cease-fire
Fighting in Israel has paused for now, but what does it mean for long-term peace negotiations?
Munir Kakish did not venture far from his home in the West Bank city of Ramallah during the 11-day battle between Israeli forces and Hamas militants. He pastors Arab churches in both the West Bank and Israel but didn’t feel safe driving to Tel Aviv when Hamas began firing rockets into the city.
But the clashes on the streets worried him more. Kakish said it was the worst fighting he’s seen among Israeli citizens since he began his ministry 42 years ago. Violent mobs of Jews and Arabs poured into the streets, attacking bystanders and vandalizing property.
“I don’t think anybody expected that, as they have been living together for the past 70 years, and of course the Arabs have Israeli citizenship,” said Kakish, who is also the president of the Council of Local Evangelical Churches in the Holy Land.
That was the situation that greeted U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken as he launched a three-day Middle East trip this week to cement an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire and revive stalled peace talks. Last week’s cease-fire brought a welcome quiet to a deadly confrontation that killed more than 250 people, mostly Palestinians, but tensions are still simmering in a decadeslong conflict still far from over.
The recent escalation put the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the Biden administration’s agenda and renewed discussions about a two-state solution.
On the eve of his Middle East tour, Blinken told ABC’s This Week that President Joe Biden is committed to a two-state solution as “the only way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state and, of course, the only way to give the Palestinians the state to which they’re entitled.”
Pastor Kakish agrees with that conclusion. He blames the latest confrontation on growing unrest in the Gaza Strip, which Israel and Egypt have both blockaded since Hamas won local elections in 2006 and seized control from the Palestinian Authority in 2007. Kakish used to preach monthly at a Baptist church in Gaza and witnessed the hardships Palestinians encounter on a daily basis. He says the cycle of violence will continue until a two-state solution comes to fruition.
“In my opinion, if Israel would make the life of people [in Gaza] better, we would see a decrease of violence,” Kakish said. “You cannot continue blocking 2 million people from going in and out. You cannot.” He compared the situation to a cat trapped in a corner: “He’s going to start scratching people.”
But the push for a Palestinian state faces significant challenges: The Gaza Strip is ruled by Hamas, an Iranian-funded terrorist group that will only accept a one-state solution. That means no Jewish state anywhere in the region.
Mordechai Kedar, an expert on Islam and the Arab world at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, blames Hamas for fueling anti-Israel sentiment and maintaining a charter that calls for Israel’s destruction. “What we saw in the last few weeks is another link in a long chain which is called jihad,” Kedar said.
A popular Palestinian scarf he bought from a friend in Jerusalem’s Old City proves his point. The scarf includes a map of a Palestinian state in all of Israel and the words “Jerusalem is ours” in Arabic. A similar item with the same phrase in Arabic is available from Amazon, though it does not include the map.
According to a recent poll, 57 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip oppose a two-state solution and support an armed struggle against Israel. Hamas has grown in popularity, while Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, has struggled to win support.
Abbas postponed long-overdue Palestinian parliamentary elections scheduled for May, blaming Israel for an election technicality, but many analysts say there is more to the story. Abbas’ Fatah party would likely lose to Hamas, which could expand the terrorist group’s authority to the West Bank.
Blinken has not explained how the United States would launch peace talks with Abbas’ popularity waning and an ongoing feud between the two factions. Abbas has not been allowed in the Gaza Strip since Hamas took over, and the United States will not negotiate with a terrorist group.
The Biden administration openly supported Israel’s right to defend itself from Hamas, an unpopular platform among many congressional Democrats who have criticized Israel for what they say are disproportionate responses during the conflict.
The Israel Defense Force (IDF) hit Gaza with airstrikes they claim destroyed 9 miles of militant tunnels in Gaza and killed more than 200 Hamas members, but the offensive also cost the lives of civilians, including women and children.
Hamas often houses its weapons factories and launch sites in civilian centers like schools, hospitals, and private homes. The IDF tries to avoid civilian casualties by first warning residents with phone calls and “knock on the roof” nonexplosive missiles.
The bombing of an Associated Press office in Gaza on May 15 drew widespread criticism, but the IDF claims it warned the building’s residents prior to the strike and was targeting Hamas offices also located in the building.
Kedar has little sympathy for the journalists. He said he has read the requirements Hamas gives to local journalists demanding they only report on approved topics: “Even the media working in Gaza have to abide by the rules Hamas imposed on them. Hamas is using foreign media as part of the jihad.”
Kedar said the Biden administration needs to wake up to Iran’s involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the risk posed by returning to the Iran nuclear deal. This would only pump more money into Tehran without holding the regime accountable for supplying terrorist groups like Hamas.
He also thinks this jeopardizes the Abraham Accords, the agreement the Trump administration brokered last year: “In my view, it’s only a matter of time before the Iranians feel so secure and so confident about themselves that they tell the Emiratis and the Bahrainis they need to get rid of their Israeli embassies. The Abraham Accords will be nullified by the Iranians.”
The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain normalized relations with Israel last year through the accords, and Sudan and Morocco followed suit.
As world leaders try to defuse the conflict, Pastor Kakish said the church in the region can play an important role in reconciliation between Arabs and Jews. And he says the suffering in Gaza is an opportunity for Christians in the West to show the love of Christ by supplying humanitarian needs to a mostly Muslim enclave: “This is our job: to be peacemakers as Matthew 5:9 tells us.”
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