Op-Ed: At 90, a former Foreign Service officer looks at Gaza then, and now
Almost 60 years ago, I was a young Foreign Service officer, standing on the Gaza border with my contact from the Israeli Foreign Ministry. The Eisenhower administration had been using all the pressure it could to force Israel to withdraw from Gaza in the wake of the 1956 war. But Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion was adamantly opposed to it. My Israeli contact said to me: “What we really want is for you to persuade Brazil to accept all the population of Gaza and resettle them in the Amazon.” I don’t know whether it was just an idea or an actual proposal, but he said this in all seriousness.
Astonished, I replied, “Well, we will never agree to that, but we might arrange to let you keep Gaza if you took back a majority of the 1948 Palestinian refugees.” I will never forget the look on the face of my Israeli friend as he said, “My God, you have had two years on the Israel desk in Washington and a year in Jerusalem, but you don’t know anything about Israel, do you?”
Two years later, I was talking with Assistant Secretary of State George Allen, head of the Near East division. He expressed surprise as he related that he had also suggested the same proposal to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles: Gaza for the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes in Israel. They were in the White House at the time, and Dulles immediately said, “No, that would be rewarding aggression.”
Moving to the present, Moshe Feiglin, a deputy speaker of the Israeli Knesset, this month proposed in an op-ed article that Israel reoccupy Gaza and expel most of the population — not to Brazil but to the Sinai desert. “They should consider heading to Sinai, which is not far from Gaza.”
Feiglin thinks Gaza should be annexed to Israel. And I’m sure he wouldn’t mind if all the Palestinians disappeared into the Amazon. Out of sight, out of mind. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu espouses a more modest objective: He merely wishes to destroy Hamas and “demilitarize” Gaza.
As for Hamas, it vehemently opposes a two-state solution.
None of this is realistic. In 2010, I watched a group of 500 retired Foreign Service officers question then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton about the Gaza blockade. Clinton frankly said she had no solution. When some of us later suggested that the first step might be to talk with Hamas, we received no response from her office.
I have visited Gaza on numerous occasions and have always made a point of talking to both Hamas and Fatah partisans. In 2006 I passed through the Rafah crossing at Gaza’s border with Egypt as an international election observer. We were able to meet with Mahmoud Zahar, one of the founders of Hamas. I had met him once before, but this time we were in his home. He picked up a picture from a coffee table and said, “This is my 19-year-old son.” We admired the photo, but then he explained that his son had been “killed in this room by an American missile, fired from an American plane, piloted by an Israeli. My wife was so badly injured that she spent a year in hospital.”
The missile, of course, was aimed to kill Zahar. In 2008, they tried again and killed a second son. But even when the missiles hit their intended target, Hamas seems to have an endless reservoir of young men willing to step into the ranks. Indeed, for some, the current Gaza war seems to have revived Hamas’ flagging political fortunes.
Next year is my 90th birthday. I have spent most of my adult life trying to help resolve this terrible conflict. And it seems obvious to me that it is in the interest of all the parties, including Israel, to lay down their weapons, sit down and talk with each other.
It is time to lift the siege of Gaza. We all know the bare outlines of an equitable compromise: two states with borders more or less along the lines of the 1967 armistice lines. The only alternative to diplomacy is endless war, and that is in no one’s interest. We must not reward aggression — by either side.
Eugene Bird served as a Foreign Service officer in the Middle East for a quarter-century and is president of the International Foreign Policy Center (ifpc.org).
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