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    Israel and Palestine Under Siege

    By Jamie Leno Zimron–

    On Shabbat morning October 7, 2023, Israelis in the tightknit agricultural communities along the Gaza border awoke to swarms of Hamas terrorists in their streets, homes, bedrooms, safe rooms. Bloodthirsty raiders bulldozed through and paraglided over high-tech border barriers to come butcher and abduct them, while rockets were sending off terrifying waves of sirens and dashes to bomb shelters all across the country. There are absolutely no words for the savagery of the wanton slaughter and hostage taking of women, men, babies, toddlers, teens, elderly and disabled people, young revelers at a music festival in nature … . Along with everyone in Israel, my heart and stomach are just sick, my mind beyond boggled, and my soul can’t stop wailing.

    As a dual American-Israeli Jewish citizen and member of the human race, I am searching to say something to help make any sense of these ghastly atrocities. I have been back and forth to Israel since age 17, and volunteered on farms in the Golan Heights and Negev desert after the Yom Kippur War. I speak Hebrew fluently, a little Arabic, sing Hebrew prayers and songs in the shower, and often chant from the Torah. Since soon after the 1993 Oslo Accords, I have been working with Palestinians and Israelis on peaceful coexistence projects. My wife is Israeli, living in Jerusalem (due to U.S. immigration issues before there was marriage equality, but that’s another story). Half our family lives literally across the road from those communities murderously infiltrated, oh so luckily a bit out of reach and spared.

    I share these things so you know how deep is my love for Israel, my Jewish identity, and social justice upbringing. And that I have up-close views of dynamics contributing to this human earthquake ripping up everyone and everything there. Just talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict too often turns bitterly volatile. While speaking out is so touchy, I am afraid for all my loved ones, friends, and colleagues there, and long to realize Israel’s ideal as a “light unto the nations.” Nothing can ever begin to mitigate or justify Hamas’ sadistic crimes against the Israelis and humanity. At the same time, we need to look into what could have fueled such an eruption of evil if we are to emerge from this terrifying trauma and forge better conditions of life for everyone in the region and world.

    Sensei Jamie Leno Zimron (center) leading a class
    of youngsters and adults

    After 2000 years of exile and persecution culminating in the unfathomable Nazi Holocaust, the State of Israel stands as a miraculous and essential haven for the Jewish people. Zionism was not an imperialist or colonial project, but the age-old Jewish dream of returning to ancestral Zion as part of the 20th century nationalism movement. For Palestinians living for centuries in the Holy Land, the rise of Israel has been “Al Nakba”; catastrophic displacement, occupation, and second-class status inside the Jewish state, with no end in sight. For many complex reasons, of their own and others’ making, Palestinian aspirations for sovereign statehood have failed at every turn. All the while, the inherent tensions and contradictions of two peoples attached so deeply to the same holy homeland keep stoking intractable lethal conflict.

    It is no secret that, over the past 10 months, the actions of Israel’s extremist right-wing religious government have prompted vulnerability. In indescribable shock and grief, Israelis are furious at Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, who remains more concerned with staying in power and out of jail rather than keeping the citizenry safe. He has made devilish coalition deals with incompetent, anti-democratic supremacists that have exposed Israel to fractures and weakness apparent to all the world. Day by day, their pursuit of an autocratic judicial coup and unilateral annexation of the West Bank have eroded the cohesion of Israeli society.

    Israelis are crying out loud, yet the indicted “crime minister” has turned a deaf ear to masses of protesters in the streets every week, and to clear warnings that Israeli military preparedness was slipping. Days before the border breach, Bibi moved three battalions to protect vigilante settlers attacking West Bank villagers, instead of the brave citizens living near Gaza who have had to struggle for years to get needed state resources. Rushing to score a normalization pact with Saudi Arabia, Bibi continued to overlook and sell out the Palestinians, while further inciting Hamas and Iran in their terrorist jihad/holy war against Israel and the west.

    In the shadow of ghettos, pogroms, and genocide, in a small land surrounded by hostile neighbors, the Israelis have built an incredibly thriving nation and mighty military. A strong and highly skilled citizen’s army, innovative economy and technology, and support from world Jewry and western allies have been key to Israel’s survival. Still, there is always a feeling of being on existential edge, and the barbaric Hamas rampage and explosively hot borders have shaken Israelis and Jews everywhere to the core of our core.

    In the series of bloody wars in 1948, 1967, and 1973 that defeated attempts to “throw the Jews into the sea,” Israel’s original U.N. chartered borders expanded. While the borders were justified for Israeli security, millions of Palestinians have been abandoned by Arab leaders and left chafing under Israeli occupation. Stuck in the cordoned-off sliver of the Gaza Strip (less than half the area of New York City) and ever-shrinking West Bank, many still live in squalid refugee camps, and stifled in apartheid-like areas dubbed “A, B, & C.” Older Palestinians yearn to return to their homes and lands inside of Israel, while their progeny in the West Bank and Gaza mostly meet Israelis as soldiers and overlords. The Occupied Territories subsist as smoldering grounds hemmed in by humiliating, militarized checkpoints and walls.

    What most tourists, Jews, Christian pilgrims, foreign service and businesspeople encounter when visiting Israel are the amazingly vibrant people, beautiful seas, ancient sacred sites, and awesome modern-day achievements. Relatively few tour the West Bank, or can even enter Gaza since the Intifadas. They don’t see families squatting in tents beside the rubble of their demolished homes, or trying to stop confiscation of more of their lands and fields, or olive trees uprooted to pave safe bypass roads for zealous gun-toting settlers, or people actually living in caves in the South Hebron Hills, deprived even of access to wells for water.

    I cannot forget seeing such things since first going on Compassionate Listening delegations in the 1990s and learning directly about the Occupation. The situation is not much different today, but 30 years more entrenched. I initially felt scared until getting to know Palestinians, breaking bread together, hearing their experiences, and sharing ours. We discovered we are almost like cousins, and are all scarred by victimization and PTSD. I am constantly blown away by the beauty and resilience of people on both sides. And I knowthat we can listen and speak and come closer in understanding one another’s pains, fears, needs, and gifts.

    Photos courtesy of Jamie Leno Zimron

    In today’s staggering crisis, while standing solidly with the mercilessly slaughtered and existentially imperiled Israelis, it is important not to harden to the agonies of over a million Gazans, already refugees, sealed off from power and supplies, impossibly ordered to flee the deadly siege within hours with no place to go. Most Palestinians are ordinary people and families trapped too long in subjugation, themselves betrayed by Hamas’ depravity. Then there is the odious irony that while laying waste to Gaza in the effort to annihilate Hamas, Netanyahu has for years been funding and sanctioning the terrorists in order to cynically sow division from the Palestinian Authority and cripple prospects for Palestinian statehood.

    As I write, Bibi’s war cabinet is about to blast full steam into Gaza, setting off worldwide protests that Israel is exceeding self-defense, driving civilians into the abyss, and ignoring urgent appeals from Doctors Without Borders, President Biden, the U.N., and world leaders to stop the collective punishment and ballooning humanitarian crisis. Wounded as Israelis are, the dangers are grave of failing to seek viable short- and long-term objectives, or to follow international rules of engagement and our own ethics.

    Terrorism is unequivocally monstrous, intolerable, and self-defeating, hard stop. I am so grateful for the IDF (Israel Defense Forces), and am trembling for my family and friends throughout Israel. Jews, Arabs, Bedouin, Druze, immigrants—all are risking their lives to save the state, and showing up in love and solidarity to help each other through this unprecedented fight. I don’t know if there is a way to negotiate with unmitigated evil. Hitler had to be defeated: so too does Hamas and the likes of Putin, ISIS, neo-fascist parties, and fanatic theocracies and dictatorships.

    Even as Israel battles with full force to survive, what I do know is that the wreaking of mass death and destruction breeds ever-deepening hatred, despair, and revenge. An eye for an eye blinds everyone, and massive bombardment is a losing proposition. No amount of American firepower could crush the Vietnamese or Iraqi people, and neither Russian or U.S. forces succeeded in toppling the Taliban. Sweeping away an anthill does not stop more ants from quickly reappearing. Killing, deprivation, and subjugation trigger people’s worst impulses and solve nothing. Real grievances must be addressed and righted.

    It is time to stop bloody madness, in the Middle East and everywhere, and pursue the dignity, freedom, and equality that do work to bring out people’s best and bring about peace. Compassionate listening, non-violent communication, and meeting humans’ needs do work to build understanding and trust. Crossing borders, face-to-face meetings, and joint projects with mutual benefit build enduring bonds of empathy, friendship, and cooperation. Peace is possible, once people decide to prioritize and catalyze it. There are ways once we commit with will and wisdom.

    The status quo in the Holy Land has long been seethingly unsustainable. It proves fruitless to keep righteously arguing over who was here first or longer, or who has done worse to whom, or hurting each other because “you did this to us because you, no you, no you did this … .” Suffice it for now to say that Israelis and Palestinians are not going anywhere, and everyone has done right and wrong. The vast majority desire peace and prosperity for their families and communities, and to focus on pressing regional and environmental problems. There can be no other choice but to figure out how to properly coexist.

    In these dark days, it is hard to imagine that greater good can come from such bad. But huge crisis opens up huge opportunities. Corrupt politicians and fundamentalists, whether Muslim or Jewish, or any religion or ideology, pose dire threats to others as well as their own people. May this earthquake at last bring the end of Hamas, as well as the misguided rule of Netanyahu and what many term his messianic thugs. Respectful, liberal-minded, inclusive new leaders and people committed to dialogue and collaboration are imperative to usher in a whole new era.

    Nothing can extinguish human light and love. Even now, in so many ways and places, beautiful acts of kindness and assistance are bubbling up and flowing forth. Already now, everyone must start seriously stepping up to envision and fashion positive new realities for all involved.

    Transformation is possible. Who could have foreseen the Germans and Japanese disarming and becoming our allies, or the establishment of the Jewish state on the heels of 6 million exterminated? Hope sustains, and connection and love are generative of miracles and solutions. Israelis and Palestinians can never give up on our commonly beating hearts, humane values, and hopes for our children and a better peaceful future.

    In closing, I’d like to share this cherished comment from a participant in our first-ever Middle East Training Across Borders Aikido Peace Seminar in 2005, who said: “Sensei, you are making our lives so difficult. It’s easier to hate—but now we can’t!”

    May peace prevail, and let it begin with me, and you, and all of us, choosing healing and fresh ways forward, together.

    Jamie Leno Zimron is a former “San Francisco Bay Times” sports and wellness columnist. Known as The Golf Sensei (Master Instructor), she is a Class A LPGA Pro, 6th Degree Aikido Black Belt, Corporate Speaker, MFT Psychologist, Mind-Body Fitness & Peak Performance Trainer, and International Citizen Diplomat. Recently she received the 2023 Excellence in Golf Award, which also honored her lifelong work as an LGBTQ+ advocate and activist.

    Cover Story
    Published on October 19, 2023