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Philip Meltzer: Israel and Gaza

The following are the full remarks presented by Philip Meltzer, Past President of ARZA and currently a member of the Board of Trustees at URJ, at Temple Am Echad on August 5, 2014:

Before I begin my talk, a personal comment:
On August 11, my granddaughter, JILLIAN MELTZER, who just graduated from Columbia University and Jewish Theological Seminary will be making aliyah. She will be joining the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) as a “LONE SOLDIER”. We are quite proud of her, while being concerned. She has decided to link her life to the people and State of Israel.

These are difficult times for Israel and the Jewish people. Beyond the fighting in Israel and Gaza we see rampant anti-semitism in much of the world, especially in Europe. Synagogues have been attacked; already 10% of French Jews have made aliyah – moved to Israel. Many countries in South America have recalled their ambassadors from Israel such as Brazil, Chile and Peru. But to better understand the conflict in Gaza some historical perspective and background is necessary.

Just nine years ago, in 2005, Israel led by Ariel Sharon, withdrew from Gaza. It uprooted all of its settlements, evacuated its military and turned over all of Gaza to the Palestinians. Not one citizen, not one Israeli remained. Some of you may remember the television programs showing Jews being dragged from their homes and synagogues by Israeli soldiers to complete the disengagement. The hope was that Gaza would become a prosperous community and the forerunner of a new Palestinian state that would live in peace alongside Israel. To further this goal Israel gave the Palestinians, among other assets, 3,000 flourishing greenhouses that had been successfully exporting fruit and flowers, mainly to Europe. The Palestinians promptly destroyed them claiming that it did not want handouts from the Jews. There was no blockade; border crossings were opened. Israel had a strong desire for normalization of relations.

Simultaneously, Israel dismantled four settlements in the West Bank as a clear indication of what Israel hoped would be a step towards arriving at a two-state solution; one Israeli and another Palestinian, living peacefully alongside one another.

Two years later in 2007 the Palestinians elected Hamas as their political leadership. What does Hamas believe? Don’t take my word for it. Read its charter. The Hamas Covenant, Article Seven reads: “The Day of Judgment will not come about until Moslems fight the Jews (killing the Jews) when the Jews will hide between stones and trees. The stones and trees will say, O Muslims, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.” The Hamas preamble states, “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam obliterates it.”

These are not mere words in a political platform. Hamas has been designated as a terrorist organization by the United States, the countries of Western Europe and Israel because of its actions. Hundred of Israeli civilians have been killed by suicide bombings; thousands of missiles have been fired indiscriminately at civilians and Israeli cities. How do you think our country, the United States, would react if rockets and missiles were fired by Mexico into Dallas or San Antonio or by Canada into Buffalo? How would you want our country to respond?

Israel has given the Palestinians in Gaza millions of tons of concrete to build homes, schools and hospitals. Hamas has taken the concrete and used it to build an extensive network of underground tunnels running from Gaza into Israel more than seventy feet under Israeli homes, schools, kibbutzim and towns. These tunnels are equipped with electricity; they contain explosives, weapons, handcuffs and tranquilizers. From examining the tunnels and from information gathered from intelligence and interrogations, Israel learned that the tunnels were to be used by Hamas terrorists on Rosh Hashanah, next month, to attack, kill and abduct civilians, men, women, and children as well as IDF soldiers. The intention was to have simultaneous attacks from many of the tunnels that had penetrated Israel. Israel has in the current campaign destroyed dozens of the tunnels and the intention is to complete this mission of finding and destroying the tunnels for the security of its citizens.

It is true that many civilians have been killed and wounded in Gaza, including women and children who were not combatants. That is a terrible tragedy. No one can help but feel sympathy for them and not feel revulsion at seeing the photos of the death and destruction. But where is the world’s outrage at the over 100,000 people murdered in Syria and the more than one million displaced, or the over 1,000 people who were beheaded by ISIS in Iraq in the last month? Where are the front page pictures in the NY Times or CNN? To say there is a double standard where Israel or the Jews are involved is an understatement.

But lets get back to Gaza. Who is responsible for the carnage? Hamas has imbedded its weapons in homes, mosques, hospitals, and in parks where children play. It has fired rockets into Israel from these locations aimed indiscriminately at Israeli citizens and cities. A clear war crime. Fortunately, Israel has the IRON DOME missile defense system which has intercepted many of the rockets and destroyed them in the air before reaching their destinations. Israel has a red alert early warning notification of incoming missiles. When the sirens sound, Israelis immediately go into the nearest shelter, or if in their homes to the “ma’amad”, the armored room or safe room.

A Reform rabbi in Nebraska tells the story of how a few weeks ago a young Israeli couple was visiting Omaha. The mother and four year old daughter were in the supermarket and the little girl was looking around. The mother asked what she was looking for. The little girl said, “I am looking for the room we are supposed to go to when the sirens sound.” Do not think that the rockets do not have a serious effect on Israelis. The lives of their children are as precious to Palestinians as they are to Israelis. But not to HAMAS. As has been said: Israel uses its missiles, the Iron Dome, to protect its civilians; while Hamas uses its civilians to protect its missiles. Israel had no alternative but to eliminate the missiles being fired by Hamas. Hamas having decided that it is best to use its civilians as shields and propaganda tools, has resulted in Israel being forced to take actions whose consequences are the responsibility of Hamas, resulting in the death and wounding of Palestinians.

Let me read to you a short note sent by an IDF soldier about his experience in Gaza:
We went into Shuja’iya, to discover and destroy the Hamas’ terrorist tunnels. We discovered there an entire underground city, with multi-shaft, wide tunnels, with Wi-Fi & air-conditioning systems, concrete walls, and stocked to the ceiling with weapons and explosives. Some of the tunnels are so wide, that they can ride back and forwards on Vespa-type scooters. And then came the worst! The Hamas “fighters” started sending towards us 13- and 14-year-old-Palestinian children, running at us, wearing explosive-laden suicide-bomber belts!! Those children were death-trapped, and became human bombs, by the community’s adults!! We were trained to fight adult soldiers or any other skilled adults, enabling us to defend our families and countrymen. But this?? We had no other option but, in self-defense, to shoot them at as far a range from us as we could, before the “responsible adult” that sent them used his mobile phone to detonate the belts, and kill us.” One of the injured soldiers ended up saying, “I do not know if I’ll ever be able to sleep again; the pictures of those poor children, killed by my gun, will probably never leave me!”

As Golda Meier once famously said, “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children, but we can never forgive them for forcing us to kill their children.”

The exposure of the Hamas tunnels to be used for attacks on Israeli homes, kindergartens and settlements, within Israel, and their huge storage of munitions, the continued firing of rockets into Israel leads to the conclusion that this is a just and unavoidable war. Let me ask you this: What other country would drop leaflets advising civilians that they were coming and to get out of harms way; would set up field hospitals to treat the enemy and their civilians; would declare a humanitarian cease fire in the middle of a conflict it is winning?

Some have argued that since more Palestinians have been killed than Israelis that therefore Israel has acted disproportionately. While the numbers are accurate, the conclusion is invalid. Israel is determined to protect its civilians and not to use them as human shields. It is more skilled both offensively and defensively. Are they saying if there were more dead Israelis they would feel better? Proportionality by body count is a bizarre argument. A proportional response by Israel to the firing of rockets by Hamas at Israeli cities over the last seven years would be for Israel to have fired a rocket into Gaza after each of the 5,000 rockets that were launched by Hamas. Israel rejected this course then as it does now.

Let us not forget how American forces flew halfway across the world to Afghanistan to fight the terrorists who carried out an attack on America on September 11. Far more Afghanis were killed than the loss we suffered on that day. More Germans, civilians and military, were killed in World War II than allied forces. Proportionality is not determined by body count.

When Egypt, not exactly a Zionist country or a lover of Israel proposed a cease fire to lead to negotiations, Israel promptly accepted, Hamas refused. There is a silent alliance between Israel and the relatively moderate Arab countries including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. All recognize that Hamas is an evil, religiously fanatic terrorist organization that threatens not only Israel, but them as well. Egypt, as well as Israel has closed its borders to Hamas led Gaza.

You can rightly ask – Is there any way out of this constant conflict between Israel and Hamas? Can it find a way to live in peace with its neighbors? Where does Israel go from here? Good questions with no easy answers. What I have said up to now is a historical analysis that I believe is accurate. In my closing sentence or two I would like to give you my thoughts as to how Israel should move ahead in this difficult neighborhood where it lives.

To put it bluntly, Hamas has to be militarily destroyed. It must not be allowed to exist as a force for death and destruction. Gaza must be demilitarized. A cease fire that does no more than temporarily halt the fighting and allows Hamas to rearm is not a solution; it is just a continuation of the status quo. But mere demilitarization, while necessary, is not enough. The equivalent of a Marshall Plan for the reconstruction of Gaza is needed; the rebuilding of its infrastructure and the giving of hope to its inhabitants is also necessary. The people of Gaza must see that the light at the end of the conflict is not the forces of death and evil represented by Hamas, but the dawn of a new day with a promise of a better life.

At the same time, Israel must stop the expansion of its settlements in the West Bank. To the extent prudent, it must ease travel restrictions on Palestinians in the West Bank. The message must be that a two state solution is still a goal, however elusive that might be. I do not expect that peace and good will break out tomorrow, but Israel must take the necessary steps, while always being prepared to defend itself.