Millions of people around the world, including me, you, and the President of the United States, waited in agony and in hope, for four-year-old Avigail Idan to be released from Hamas captivity. Thank God Avigail is free. But she did not go home to her parents—she cannot. They were murdered on October 7th. Her father had her in his arms when terrorists shot him. But now, at long last, she is safe, and she is home. She will have a chance at a life, at growing up surrounded by people—grandparents, uncles, aunts and siblings—who love her.
Blessedly, Avigail is not alone. So far, 34 children under 18 have been released even as so many others—over 130 brothers, sisters, sons, daughters and parents remain trapped in Gaza. And the fact that some of the hostages are home at least provides a little light in this terrible, suffocating darkness. This is especially true now that hostilities have resumed. We need all of the light we can get right now.
The thing about a light in the darkness, however small, is that it reminds us that the darkness won’t last forever, that one day, dawn will come. But we also know that the dawn of hope, healing, and change that we so desperately want to see will not come on its own. We have to help to bring it. And the only path to that new day runs through a serious return to the difficult, painful search for a diplomatic and political resolution of the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis.
Yes, Israel has a legitimate right, indeed a duty, to fight—to protect its citizens from the murderous threat posed by Hamas. This war, in that sense, has a “just cause.” But even a just cause does not absolve Israel’s leaders of the responsibility to adhere to International Humanitarian Law. I say this as rocket sirens blare across Israel and bombs again rain down on Gazans. I also say this as reports are surfacing of the IDF’s permissiveness around strikes on non-military targets, and as people like pre-eminent Israeli human rights attorney Michael Sfard call for a new, open conversation about the morality of Israel’s military methods.
It’s clear that endless war is not an option. And Prime Minister Netanyahu’s long standing policy of “managing the conflict”—tolerating the extremists of Hamas in Gaza as a counterbalance to the more moderate Palestinian Authority in the West Bank while his governments poured resources into the settlement project there in an attempt to obviate the possibility of the emergence of a Palestinian state—has been revealed to be what it is: a moral and strategic failure, a dead-end. We are already watching as the US puts pressure on Israel to enter a new process with the Palestinians with the goal of a two-state solution. On November 15th, President Biden announced that he had “made it clear to Bibi and his war cabinet that I think the only ultimate answer here is a two state solution that’s real.” Amen, Mr. President.
Of course, the question is: How do we get there? This crisis is far from over. Israeli hostages, including children, remain in Gaza. Innocent Gazans, including children, are trying to survive in unimaginable circumstances. Just a few days ago, at a Jerusalem bus stop, Hamas terrorists murdered three Israelis, while another man, trying to save them, was shot accidentally by Israeli soldiers. And in the West Bank, acts of violence by settlers are becoming more frequent and more brazen. Last Wednesday, settlers disguised as soldiers entered the village of Kfar Marjat in the Jordan Valley after midnight, broke into the residents’ homes, looted and vandalized, and all in front of cameras. They did this not least because they knew they would face no consequences. Last week, Israel’s Channel 12 News reported that these radical settlers’ ideological leader, Minister for National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir, gave explicit orders to Israeli law enforcement agencies not to enforce the law when nationalist Jewish terrorism is committed against Palestinians in the West Bank. Our grantee, Yesh Din and others, issued an urgent letter to the Attorney General’s office demanding an inquiry, and have stated the obvious: that Ben-Gvir’s order “is tantamount to endorsing violence against Palestinians and providing impunity for such activities.”
Of course, it’s not just Ben-Gvir. It’s also his colleagues in the government who call Gazans “human animals”; it’s those who are calling for “A Second Nakba”, and even those who have called for a return for settlers to Gaza. This discourse at the highest levels in Israel is dangerous and extremist.
So, while any serious thinking about the day after this conflict will need to include moderate Palestinian leadership, it will also require moderate Israeli leadership. And we have neither right now.
Despite the entry into the emergency war cabinet of voices from the opposition, the ethno-nationalist, Kahanist ministers who brought Israel to the brink of autocracy and whose anti-democratic agenda divided and distracted the country from the growing threat in Gaza remain in place. As it was before October 7th, when hundreds of thousands of Israelis, joined by people all over the world, protested against it for nearly a year, this government remains a coalition of extremists, messianists, religious fundamentalists, supremacists, and radical settlers, led by a prime minister on trial for corruption. But Israel’s ruling coalition has little support among the Israeli public. An overwhelming majority of Israelis (four out of five) view Netanyahu and this government as responsible for the catastrophic failures that led to October 7th. This past Wednesday the prime minister held a meeting with representatives from the Gaza border communities that were attacked on October 7th. Members of seven of the worst-hit kibbutzim (including Kfar Aza, and Be’eri) refused to meet with him. The refrain I keep hearing from the families of hostages, and from Israelis more broadly, is that right now “there is no government.”
Little Avigail’s grandparents told the Israeli website Ynet that on October 7th, they called every government authority they could think of—and were met with nothing. “There were no answers,” her grandfather said. “Nothing…The fact that my grandchildren had to hide in a closet for 14 hours reminds me of [the Holocaust] eighty years ago, when children were hiding in the attic.” Like so many Israeli families whose relatives were taken captive, Avigail’s family worked day and night to get her back—and the leader who listened to them, stood with them, and seemed truly relieved to see Avigail home was not Benjamin Netanyahu. It was Joe Biden. “Thank God she’s home,” he said when he heard she’d been released. “I wish I was there to hold her.” In turn, Avigail’s grandfather said of the President, “We love him very much for all the help he is giving us, to Israel. Keep going. Keep going. We don’t admire you. We love you.”
President Biden has offered us a light in this darkness. But there is another light, one that shines today in the darkness in Israel: Activists in Israeli civil society—regular Israelis, Arab and Jews, seeking a better, shared future—are leading the way towards a different path—especially grantees like Standing Together, Combatants for Peace, Bereaved Parents—Families Forum, Breaking the Silence, and Yesh Din—who either are co-led by Arabs and Jews or have worked hand in hand with Palestinians for years.
They know that Israelis share the responsibility for envisioning a horizon where tomorrow is better than today—for everyone. Where political solutions give rise to safety, dignity, and equality. This is who NIF, the vast majority of American Jews, and so many Israelis, stand behind. It is who we are. And it is why our work, truly, has never been more important.