Sitting with two truths in Israel and Gaza

RS363038_Oct 17_ bombed houses in Al Remal area in Gaza-lpr
Firefighters, paramedics, and residents clear debris from a building damaged in an airstrike in Gaza City. Marwan Sawwaf/Alef Multi Media/Oxfam

Respect for the human rights of all people is at the crux of Oxfam’s mission and our basic common humanity.

Right now, we are watching a humanitarian catastrophe unfold in the Gaza Strip. We have heard from Oxfam staff in Gaza that they are under a full blackout and terrifying airstrikes, with no electricity, no internet, no landlines. At least a million people were forced to flee their homes in one week. There are more than 2 million people – a million children – in the Gaza Strip facing a terrifying future, where food and water are absent, basic services including medical care and sanitation are unavailable, and nowhere is safe from violence. Many are sheltering with dozens of others in small spaces, and children are simply dreaming of access to showers and their schoolbooks. But not even those sheltering in hospitals are safe -- hundreds of Palestinians seeking treatment and safety were killed in an explosion on the Al Ahli Baptist Hospital in Gaza. In the heartbreaking words of one Oxfam staff member, “I don’t know who of us will make it out and who won’t.” This comes on the heels of the devastating surprise attack by Hamas in Israeli towns and cities that killed civilians and took approximately 200 Israelis hostage, including children and the elderly, sowing shock and fear across Israel.

For decades, Oxfam has been advocating for an end to the occupation and a just and peaceful durable solution to the conflict. Peace should be rooted in the recognition of the human rights and dignity of all Israelis and Palestinians, with a firm foundation in international law. In Gaza, Oxfam has long been active, as well as through supporting partners, in improving economic prospects, combatting gender-based violence, and ensuring basic needs for Palestinian women, men, and youth.

Yet, despite the organization’s decades of work in the region, and my own personal experience living and working in the Occupied Palestinian Territory in the ‘80s and ‘90s, nothing prepared me for this. This is a moment that requires something difficult from all of us who care about human rights, dignity and security, and our common humanity: to hold two truths in our mind at the same time.

Oxfam America President and CEO Abby Maxman. Dagmawi Tadesse/Oxfam

Our solidarity knows no bounds and resides with Palestinians and Israelis as they grapple with catastrophe. Our unequivocal condemnation of intentional deprivation of freedom and violence toward civilians doesn’t lessen the urgency for our long-term demands for justice. It’s hard to sit with these truths in our minds, but I believe this is at the crux of our mission and our basic common humanity.

Suffering ignites dismay and heartache

All suffering in the world is personal, but this conflict especially for many of us ignites our passions, implicates some of our histories and identities, burdens our sense of safety, and weighs on our pursuit of justice. I am from a family of immigrants who fled persecution from Belarus, Ukraine, and Poland in the period spanning World War I and World War II; I had the privilege of a Quaker education as a Jewish kid growing up in Philadelphia – a formative experience in my commitment to nonviolent resolution of conflict, peace, and social justice. I have lived and learned so much from Palestinian and Israeli friends and colleagues over many years, dating back to 1985 when I first lived in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. I am heartsick at this moment, following years of both progress and setbacks, changes in governments that turned the tides of history and upended the prospects for peace and justice that were within reach at different moments in time. For years now, those prospects have slipped away.

All of this came rushing into my mind and my heart when I first heard of the attacks by Hamas. I don’t have words to express the dismay and heartache I feel about the death, destruction and anguish they have caused. For those who have loved ones in Israel, I am with you – in your grief, your anger, and your righteous demand for justice and the return of the hostages. I share in your fears of increasing anti-Semitism, which is sharply on the rise around the world.

Equally, I feel dismay, outrage, and heartache for what is happening to the people of Gaza, including our staff, our partners, and their families. The humanitarian situation in Gaza was already dire before this new escalation of violence. It is now catastrophic. I am sick to think about what lies ahead for Palestinians and am committed to using Oxfam’s voice, resources, and influence to prevent the unfolding disaster and risks to innocent lives. For those who have loved ones in Gaza, I am also with you – in your grief, anger and righteous demand for rights, peace, and security. We are with you in your well-founded fear of rising anti-Arab or anti-Muslim hatred and dehumanization that are being fanned by this conflict, which can have dangerous consequences. We have already seen the killing of a six-year-old Palestinian-American boy in Illinois, Wadea Al-Fayoume. I mourn for his family and his community.

It is impossible for agencies like Oxfam to fully restart humanitarian operations in the face of bombs, shells, rockets and bullets, although Oxfam has started working with local organizations to provide hygiene kits and cash to families crammed into shelters. Ordinary civilians have already borne the brunt of the violence and now those in Gaza face a double blow as the violence escalates and they are cut off from vital humanitarian aid and all public services. As always, in times of crisis, people are helping their neighbors, risking their lives for each other.

Urgent need for ceasefire, humanitarian access

Oxfam is ready to respond to the increasing humanitarian needs, but we need safe access to civilians. Until that time, we are doing our utmost to demand that international humanitarian law be respected, civilians not be targets, Israeli hostages be released, humanitarian access be prioritized and aid be made available to people most in need in Gaza.

After his trip to Israel, we urgently call for President Biden to use his influence to get Israel’s evacuation order rescinded and secure commitments to restore the flow of food, water, and electricity. We call for an immediate ceasefire, an end to the collective punishment of the Palestinian people in Gaza, and an end to hostilities, which is necessary to start to build sustainable security for Israelis and Palestinians and end the unimaginable suffering in Gaza. Israel has the right to defend its people from attacks, and, vitally, a duty to comply with international humanitarian law and to protect civilians. The kind of long-term, sustainable solution that does justice to both Palestinians and Israelis will not be forged in the kind of conflict that claims the lives of so many.

This is a moment of moral reckoning and rebuilding on the long road to peace. Revenge begets revenge; violence begets violence. The cycle must end. We hold these truths together. The path to peace depends on what happens now.

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