Gershon Baskin, a Jewish peace activist, became the unlikely negotiator for Shalit's release. Credit Michal Chelbin and Oded Plotnizki for The New York Times

We Can’t Allow Ourselves to Fall into the Pit

Gershon Baskin feels that the loss of hope is the biggest thing. We need to create human relationships with people on all “sides”, talk to each other, listen with compassion, open up our hearts and minds to each other. Ultimately, no matter what the governments do, peace is made between people, on the human dimension. We can’t allow ourselves to fall into the pit.

Jill Berkson Zimmerman

Jill Berkson Zimmerman

Today, I was fortunate to be on a conference call with an individual who spoke to my heart and my head and helped me remember and re-commit to what I have always believed: violence can never be the solution to resolving conflict or creating real lasting change. I have been asked by many people who were unable to be on the call with Dr. Gershon Baskin of Jerusalem, to write up what he said. I will begin with the “facts” that he shared – however, the deeper more important lesson came at the end of the call so I hope you will read until the end. Maybe read the end first. I hope that I am doing justice to what Dr Baskin shared and if anyone heard him say something different, I welcome your additions. In the spirit of civil conversation, please do not use this post to argue.

The conference call this morning with Dr. Gershon Baskin was sponsored by JStreet. He had just come from a talk with Ultra Orthodox Jews in B’nai Brek. On his way home to Jerusalem, he spoke to several hundred of us on the phone. I first learned about Dr Baskin from my colleague and friend Cantor Evan Kent, who made aliyah a year ago with his partner Don and now lives in Jerusalem. Dr. Baskin was the “Israeli Co-Director and founder of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI) – a joint Israeli-Palestinian public policy think and “do”-tank located in Jerusalem.” In addition, he was “the initiator and the person responsible for the secret back channel between Israel and the Hamas that successfully negotiated the release of Israeli abducted soldier Gilead Schalit.” (For his website, see the link below.)

First, Dr Baskin gave a brief history of how we got to the place we are right now in the Israel/Gaza conflict. I’m not going to recapitulate the whole history except to highlight a few items that I believe are enlightening. The clear mission of Israel right now is two-fold: one, to destroy the rockets that Hamas has so that the Israeli population can live free from rocket fire. Yes, the Iron Dome is working however the constant terrorizing of the Israeli public must stop. Secondly, to route out the very serious threat posed by the underground tunnels Hamas has built where militants can enter into Israel and wreak havoc. This morning, evidently there were Hamas terrorists who popped up only 200 meters from a kibbutz and thankfully, they were stopped.

About Hamas: by the end of April of 2014, suddenly Hamas announced that they were willing to have a unity government with Fatah, led by Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen.) Hamas capitulated totally to Fatah and said they wanted a “reconciliation government.” The background for this, Gershon said, is that Hamas was at their weakest, most desperate place they have ever been. They have no friends in the Arab world (not Syria, Iran or Egypt.) Egypt had cut them off as there were 1000 tunnels into Egypt as well. Evidently the tunnels are a huge part of Hamas’ economy. They get 140 million in revenue from this tunnel economy – not only weapons go through the tunnels, but supplies, food, etc. When Egypt cut the tunnels off, Hamas couldn’t even pay the salaries of their people and were in a desperate situation economically. Three months ensued where they could not pay their bills and were in the midst of their own crisis of survival.

Into this context, the three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped (and eventually murdered.) Israel detained and arrested more than 500 Hamasniks. Hamas insists they did not do it. The truth is still not known, yet Gershon surmises that it makes no sense for Hamas to have killed them.

Gershon stated that NOW, the stronger Israel hits Hamas (and the Palestinian people) the stronger Hamas will be. It is a step up from where they were before this crisis. ??Dr Baskin feels very strongly that Abu Mazen IS a partner for Israel. Baskin suggests that the solution is a REGIONAL one – in which Hamas is disarmed by Abu Mazen in collaboration with the Arab League (Jordan, Egypt, etc.) and Israel.

The three areas that must be the focus are:
1) military/security for Israel
2) economic renewal for the people of the West Bank and Gaza
3) renewal of peace process — end the occupation and create a Palestinian state of both the West Bank and Gaza.

A caller asked what the US can do – his answer was :

the US should help strengthen the regional, multilateral effort to disarm Hamas. He said that people know that Hamas has failed. They have not done right by the Palestinian people (and they know it also.) The reconciliation government of Fatah needs to be supported. Children growing up in Gaza have no hope, not future and this must change. It becomes more honorable to die than to live with no future.
the US should help reframe the peace process as a regional solution – an Arab peace initiative.

So now that I’ve recounted the facts that I took notes on, I want to shift to what moved my heart in this call.

The discussion turned to “voices of sanity.” Gershon stated that on his facebook page, he had never seen such hatred. The level of discourse has become unseemly. He decided (and you can see exactly what he wrote on his page) that his page, like his house, has rules. If people are not going to abide by civil conversation, they would be removed or blocked. (I love that he is making this boundary.)

I then asked the question on the call, “What can we, as American jews and leaders, in our own spheres of influence, do to help further the cause of peace. There is so much despair. What can we add to positively add to the conversation and process?”

And this was his response (I’m paraphrasing):

The loss of hope is the biggest thing. Create human relationships with people on all “sides.” Talk to each other. Listen with compassion. We need to open up our hearts and minds to each other. Ultimately, no matter what the governments do, peace is made between people, on the human dimension. We can’t allow ourselves to fall into the pit.

In conclusion, I am buoyed by this call. Again, violence can only bring more violence. We may root out the tunnels – they will build more. We can bomb their bombs, they will buy more. While it may seem to solve the problem on the surface, true, deep and lasting change can only occur when we recognize the humanity in the “other.”''

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