Gaza needs a humanitarian pause. Then we need a vision of where we go from here

Bernie Sanders

Palestinians carry a wounded girl after being rescued from under the rubble of buildings that were destroyed by Israeli airstrikes in Jabaliya refugee camp, northern Gaza Strip, Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023. In just 25 days of war, more than 3,600 Palestinian children have been killed in Gaza, according to Gaza's Hamas-run Health Ministry. The advocacy group Save The Children says more children were killed in Gaza in October 2023 than in all conflict zones around the world combined in 2022. (AP Photo/Abed Khaled)
‘Before this present war began, nearly 80% of people in Gaza lived in poverty, and two-thirds were reliant on humanitarian assistance.’ Photograph: Abed Khaled/AP

One thing is clear: there cannot be a return to the status quo that existed in Gaza before the war

Thu 2 Nov 2023 by

The situation in Gaza is a disaster. Congress must take action. The administration must take action. The world must take action.

Today, three weeks after Hamas’s barbaric attack against civilians in Israel, which began this war, many hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women and children in Gaza are facing catastrophe.

Over the past three weeks, it is estimated that some 8,000 people have been killed in bombings – including more than 3,000 children – and far more have been wounded. More than one million people in Gaza have been displaced from their homes and some 670,000 people are sheltering in UN installations, where they are down to one liter of water per person, per day. These people lack sufficient food, water, medical supplies and fuel. The hospitals and medical facilities are in nightmarish conditions, with hundreds of babies in incubators and patients on life support at risk of death, should the generators that sustain them run out of fuel. Corridors are lined with injured and displaced people, and overwhelmed doctors must turn patients away or operate without anesthesia or antibiotics.

The humanitarian crisis is dire and getting worse by the minute. The US Congress must join many in the international community in demanding a humanitarian pause, now, so that sufficient supplies – food, water, medicine, fuel – can reach the people of Gaza. If not, thousands more will die needlessly. A stop to the bombing is critical to save innocent lives and secure the safe return of the hostages.

Let us never forget: the lives of all children are sacred, whether they are Palestinian children, Israeli children, or American children, and we must do everything we can to protect them.

But if we’re going to make any real progress in addressing this never-ending conflict between Israel and Hamas – there have been five wars in the last 15 years – we need to understand the current political realities in the region. If peace is ever to come to the Middle East, and if the Palestinian people are going to be able to enjoy lives of security and dignity, we will also need a vision of where we go from here.

And one thing is clear. There cannot be a return to the status quo that existed in Gaza before the war. Let us never forget that the living conditions there were horrific and inhumane. Before this present war began, nearly 80% of people in Gaza lived in poverty, and two-thirds were reliant on humanitarian assistance. Almost half the population, and 70% of young people, were unemployed. Electricity was intermittent, with 11- to 12-hour blackouts every day. Water and sanitation systems were inadequate, and there were constant shortages of all sorts of essential goods. Gaza was mostly cut off from the world, with Israel and Egypt severely limiting the number of people and the types of goods that could go in or out. In fact, many observers described Gaza as “an open-air prison”. That was the situation before 7 October, and if we are serious about bringing freedom and dignity to the Palestinian people, that is the situation that cannot be returned to. The Palestinian people are entitled to much more than that.

In Gaza, Hamas, an authoritarian terrorist organization, has ruled by force, stockpiling arms and war material, taxing the desperately poor population and stealing resources to build tunnels and rockets. Hamas was elected with a minority vote in 2006 – when most of the people alive in Gaza today were not even born or were children and could not vote. Hamas has not allowed for elections since. Several months before the war, thousands of Palestinians in Gaza courageously took to the streets to protest Hamas rule before they were dispersed by force. Further, there should be no mistaking the reality that Hamas is single-mindedly devoted to destroying the state of Israel and killing Jews. They also advance a fundamentalist ideology which treats women as second-class citizens and threatens to kill people who are gay. Hamas is an authoritarian nightmare, repressing dissent and stealing from Gazans not just the basic materials of life they need, but the dream of a better future.

That was the situation in Gaza before 7 October.

And what was the political situation in Israel before Hamas’s terrorist attack? That country had the most rightwing government in its history, a cabinet that included outright racist ministers who consistently dehumanized the Palestinian population. Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, has been under indictment for a litany of corruption charges, and many believe Israel’s intelligence failures on 7 October had much to do with his government’s preoccupation with his political problems.

Before the war, this rightwing governing coalition had systematically undermined the prospects of peace. Netanyahu and his extremist partners had worked to marginalize Palestinian voices committed to peace, pursued settlement policies designed to foreclose the possibility of a two-state solution, stymied economic development in Palestinian areas, and passed laws that entrench systemic inequality between the Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel.

This year saw record Israeli settlement growth in the West Bank, where more than 700,000 Israelis now live in areas the UN and US agree are occupied territories. Despite that, the Israeli government authorized thousands of new homes for settlers and opened up new areas to construction, while bulldozing thousands of Palestinian homes and schools and further restricting Palestinian movement. Legal experts agree these policies constituted illegal annexation.

These policies also greatly increased tension and violence in the West Bank. Before 7 October, 179 Palestinians had been killed in 2023, which made it the deadliest year in two decades. Since 7 October, 121 more Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank, including some by settlers. These tensions were part of why so much of the IDF was deployed in the West Bank, rather than the border with Gaza.

Then came the 7 October Hamas atrocities that began this latest war.

The Hamas attack was unspeakable. Over 1,300 innocent men, women and children killed. About 240 Israelis and Americans taken hostage, including young children and grandparents. Hundreds of Israeli youth were gunned down in cold blood at a music festival, babies and older people were brutally murdered in their homes. And let’s remember that Hamas did not primarily target the military. They intentionally targeted innocent civilians. Their attack was designed to provoke a response. In that they succeeded.

The people of Israel were horrified and outraged by this attack. Understandably, many wanted to strike back forcefully. Rage and revenge, however, do not often make effective policy. The United States’s response to September 11, and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, offer a cautionary tale that all countries should learn well. Overreaction too often makes a bad situation even worse. Killing innocent Palestinian women and children in Gaza will not bring back to life the innocent Israeli women and children who were killed by Hamas.

Like any other country, Israel has the right to defend itself and destroy the Hamas terrorists who attacked them. But it does not have the right to kill thousands of innocent men, women and children in Gaza. It does not have the right to endanger the lives of millions of Palestinians – half of whom are children – by shutting off water, food, fuel and electricity. That type of action against a helpless and impoverished population is morally unacceptable and in violation of international law. Recently, Israel struck the densely populated Jabalia refugee camp and killed a Hamas commander. But they also killed some 50 other people and injured hundreds more. Alongside innocent Palestinian men, women and children, many aid workers are being killed. Up to this point, some 67 United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) workers have been killed and 44 facilities damaged.

An immediate humanitarian response is vitally important, but it is equally important for Israel to have a political strategy. It cannot bomb its way to a long-term solution. Such a strategy must include, as minimum first steps: a clear promise that Palestinians displaced in the fighting will have the absolute right to safely return to their homes; a commitment to broader peace talks to advance a two-state solution in the wake of this war; an abandonment of Israeli efforts to carve up and annex the West Bank; and a commitment to work with the international community to build genuine Palestinian governing capacity.

The United States, which provides $3.8bn a year in military aid to Israel, should make it clear that these are the conditions of our solidarity. Just as we want Israel to be a vibrant democracy, safe from terrorist attacks, we also want justice and dignity for the Palestinian people. That’s not going to happen with Hamas running the Gaza Strip. It is also not going to happen with continued Israeli domination of Palestinian life.

Palestinians need a state of their own, contiguous, with the freedom of movement and access that can sustain a vibrant economy. Palestinians need a democratic society in which they can elect their leadership and express their views.

This will be a long and difficult road. It will take concerted US and international support, and a doubling down of our political commitment to a two-state solution. We must begin this work with a new sense of urgency, the horrific disaster that has taken place in Israel and Gaza over the last three weeks has shown that the status quo cannot continue. For the sake of the Palestinian people, and for the people of Israel, we must create a process which ends the hatred, the cycle of violence, and allows all to live in peace and security.

  • Bernie Sanders is a US senator, and chairman of the health education labor and pensions committee. He represents the state of Vermont, and is the longest-serving independent in the history of Congress