taking the words of Jesus seriously

Israeli bombs demolish Gaza. Hamas rockets launch toward Israel. Palestinians die in scores. Israelis take cover amidst the wailing sirens. The tit-for-tat violence has escalated and deescalated countless times over the past 70 years. Turning on the U.S. news cycle, I hear language of “ceasefire” and “truce” tossed about like a hot potato.  Though a ceasefire’s necessity is certainly immediate, we cannot make the mistake of believing it is sufficient.

I heard someone say while I was studying in Belfast that, regarding the 30-year Troubles in Northern Ireland, it might be said that “justice was sacrificed for peace.” Ostensibly, such a comment may seem appropriate, but only when “peace” references the notion of negative peace – that is, a lack of physical violence.

While negative peace is indeed necessary, ceasefires are not the proverbial recipe for sustainable peace after violent conflict, and certainly not in deeply divided and inextricably connected societies like in Northern Ireland, or in Israel and Occupied Palestine.

Numerous conflict resolution theorists and practitioners encourage us to see beyond the limitations of negative peace and instead ultimately strive for positive peace – that is, peace characterized by justice and the additional address of structural and cultural violence, as well as physical. In Israel and Occupied Palestine – a land hot with conflict for a century – negative peace will not suffice in the end because the immediate physical violence is not the fundamental issue there. To create a lasting peace, practitioners must excavate the cratered terrain of conflict, digging below the surface of the presenting problems to find the core issues from which the presenting ones stem.

Related: Left Behind, Failed Peace, and the Human Implications of (bad) Theology

The core problem in Israel and Occupied Palestine is not the recent escalation of violence between Israel and Gazan militants. Rather, the core issue there is injustice. It is a military occupation and blockade that restricts the movement and liberty of an entire people group, suffocating their livelihood, and warehousing them like inmates under mass incarceration. News correspondents have analyzed the timeline of the last weeks in order to debate whether the responsibility for the recent violence lies primarily with Israel or Hamas. Such attempts, however, are shortsighted.

This conflict did not begin last week with Hamas rockets, Israeli bombs, or the murder of settler youths and subsequent revenge killing of a Palestinian teen. The animosity can be traced back numerous decades, and it all comes back to land. Both peoples claim the same land – their stories, ancestors, songs, and trees connect them to that place. Though each people’s longing for the land may be symmetrical, the conflict itself is not.

In fact, the language of “conflict” is misleading – has been for some time. This is not an even fight that will end in stalemate, like in Belfast. Israel is winning and always has been, which is why the peace talks never succeed. Israel has little incentive for peace. It controls an entire people group, and with each new settlement built, secures itself yet another piece of Palestinian land.

But Israel cannot expect to occupy another nation without retaliation. On an interpersonal level, if I push some smaller, weaker individual into a corner and use my foot to crush his or her neck, I should surely expect that eventually that person will fight back. To announce, “I will stop crushing you when you stop hitting me” is as foolish as it is unfair. You cannot oppress a people and then claim “self-defense” when they fight back.

Undoubtedly, some readers will offer accusations of imbalance and lack of objectivity. But occupations and apartheid are not balanced. They are not objective or unbiased. The scales of justice are heavily tipped, favoring Israel. If balance and equality are to be realized, then the Palestinians must be set free from the noose of external impositions and devastating restrictions.

This is no way to suggest that Israeli civilians in Tel Aviv, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Jerusalem, or anywhere else deserve Hamas’ missiles. It is right to fear for their safety and to grieve when the rockets destroy lives. Every death is tragic. But crushing Gaza will not protect Israeli citizens.

For Israel to permanently expel Hamas, it must maintain an occupation of Gaza. Israel knows this and knows the enormous ramifications of such. Full military occupation on two fronts is surely too daunting for Israeli leaders to pursue. The demographic threat of annexation is also too threatening, whether in the context of apartheid or true democracy. The only hope Israel could have had in such overwhelming force towards Gaza is to crush the Palestinian spirit into accepting the status quo and submitting to Israeli authority. But Israel surely knows this can never happen.

The dream of Israel’s occupation has been to press down on the Palestinians so unbearably that they are forced to leave. One needs only to spend some time in the West Bank or Gaza before this becomes obvious. Yet, Israel has continually found that the harder they suppress the Palestinians, the deeper the Palestinian feet become rooted in the soil. Theirs is a struggle for freedom and self-determination. Collective punishment will not make them leave. It will only fan the flame of their determination and reignite their insurrection.

If Israel wants peace and security, as it claims, it must end the occupation and blockade of the Palestinian territories. Hamas must disarm, but Israel cannot expect such a unilateral move from an occupied or blockaded people. As the structured and recognized power, the first move toward peace lies with Israel. To be satisfied with ceasefires and conflict settlement without offering any intention to deal with the deeper, motivating factors of injustice and external control is at best naïve and at worst enabling.

Also by Michael: It’s Time to Stop Killing! A Former Tennessee Prison Chaplain on Capital Punishment

Israel has the right to security, and it is justified in its concern for such. But those who claim unwarranted aggression from the Palestinians must stop fooling themselves that Palestinians have an innate hatred towards the Jewish people and that military occupation and blockade have nothing to do with Palestinian violence. They have everything to do with it.

Justice cannot be sacrificed for sustainable peace. Rather, justice is the foundation.

For more on the recent wave of violence, click here.

Michael McRay holds an MPhil in Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation from Trinity College Dublin at Belfast. He is an adjunct professor in forgiveness and reconciliation, international conflict resolution, restorative justice, and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict at Lipscomb University in Nashville, TN. He has visited Israel and Palestine numerous times and worked with Christian Peacemaker Teams in Hebron. He is the author of Letters from “Apartheid Street”: A Christian Peacemaker in Occupied Palestine. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

About The Author


Michael McRay is a Nashville-based author of multiple books, including the new I Am Not Your Enemy: Stories to Transform a Divided World (released April 21). He facilitates, speaks, trains, and leads retreats as part of his work in story. To see more, visit his website MichaelMcRay.com. Follow him on Facebook and Instagram @michaeltmcray.

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