On Oct. 7, Hamas fighters crossed the Israeli border in multiple places and systematically murdered men, women and children, resulting in more than 1,400 fatalities, thousands more wounded, and the taking of more than 200 hostages. This assault was as unexpected as it was appalling. Israel’s response, beginning with air strikes and now moving into sustained ground operations in Gaza, has been widely criticized for cutting off humanitarian supplies and a rapidly growing number of civilian casualties in Gaza.
Global opinion is split between those who view the Hamas attack as an unjustifiable act of terror, those who see it as a natural response to decades of Israeli mistreatment of Palestinians and those who can thread the needle and see that horrors have been committed by and to both parties.
This conflict can be seen as another episode in the regional cycle of violence that has followed a predictable pattern for decades. Israel is attacked for simply existing, and is also attacked in response to the dire conditions of the Palestinian people. Israel responds with increasing levels of force, fueling hatred and motivating would-be terrorist recruits across the region — and the cycle starts again. Israel’s stated objective in the current conflict is to wipe Hamas off the face of the earth, likely not an achievable task but one that ensures many more thousands of civilians are likely to die.
Hamas’ intentions, as recently explained by Hamas’ leadership and as stated in the organization’s charter, are clear enough: “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it.” If these are the starting points for each side, in which there is no obvious common denominator, any talk of a negotiated two-state solution seems absurdly unrealistic. Numerous international observers and political leaders have proposed ideas for at least a temporary ceasefire or a “humanitarian pause,” which Israel has so far rejected as potentially offering Hamas the opportunity to regroup.
But as Adam Shatz puts it in the London Review of Books, “The inescapable truth is that Israel cannot extinguish Palestinian resistance by violence, any more than the Palestinians can win an Algerian-style liberation war.” If violence begets violence, and this perpetual cycle perplexes even the world’s leading experts, then perhaps it is time to think of something wildly new: A path that perhaps won’t resolve the blood feud between the Arabs and Jews, but could at least grant a substantial pause, allowing for much needed humanitarian relief. An extraordinary act of peace.
And how might we make good on such a seemingly naïve notion? The current conflict has stirred memories and emotions from my own experience in Iraq during 2004 and 2005 as an attorney with the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps, assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division, 2nd “Black Jack” Brigade. One battle in particular, while I certainly do not intend to draw a direct comparison to the horrors now unfolding in Gaza, illustrates how what look like no-win, high-stakes situations can sometimes be resolved by creative, peaceful means. Whether we choose to avail ourselves of these means is another question.
On Aug. 5, 2004, after months of intermittent fighting with Iraqi and U.S.-led forces, the militia led by Muqtada al-Sadr staged a 2 a.m. attack on a police station in the holy city of Najaf, triggering a battle for control of the city. Al-Sadr, an outspoken cleric and son of the revered Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr (who was assassinated under Saddam Hussein’s rule), waged battles using his militia (sometimes called the “Mahdi army”) in an effort to oust U.S.-led forces, undermine the interim Iraqi government and build an Islamic state.
Following the attack on the police station, reinforcements were called in for support. Two U.S. Army battalions and four Iraqi Army battalions arrived to reinforce the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which was already at the city. Fighting was primarily centered in and around the five-square mile Valley of Peace Cemetery, one the largest in the world and dangerously close to the Imam Ali Shrine, one of Shiite Islam’s holiest sites.
Not long after the battle, I had the opportunity to meet with the chaplain serving in one of the Army battalions that fought in Najaf. As he described it, the battle conditions were the stuff of nightmares. He described how members of the Mahdi army burst out of tombs the size of small houses, with soldiers and Marines returning fire while avoiding booby traps strewn among the graves. He calmly described comforting and praying with U.S. soldiers and Marines wounded in battle. One image in particular has remained with me: His description of holding the hand of a dying Marine, praying for him until he took his last breath.
The stakes were exceptionally high for both sides. For al-Sadr, a victory over U.S.-led forces would gain him notoriety and increased political clout. For Iraq and the United States, victory meant eliminating the threat posed by al-Sadr and his militia and demonstrating that the interim government, backed with U.S. firepower, was capable of maintaining peace and security in post-Saddam Iraq.
Al-Sadr and his followers had established a headquarters in the Imam Ali Shrine, creating a wicked problem for the government and U.S. forces. To eliminate al Sadr would, even in the best possible case, require entering the shrine — itself an act of sacrilege — and at worst would mean causing significant damage to the holy site and endangering civilians in the city.
By Aug. 26, U.S. and Iraqi forces had advanced to within 100 meters of the Imam Ali Shrine. Iraqi soldiers — the only ones authorized to enter the Shrine — were poised to launch a final assault to oust al-Sadr and his 500-strong contingent from their stronghold. Before fighting engulfed the mosque, however, came an unlikely breakthrough.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual and unifying leader of Iraq’s Shiite Muslims and Shiites across the Middle East, entered the scene and quickly resolved the conflict. Returning to Iraq after receiving treatment in England for a heart condition, al-Sistani arrived in Najaf via motorcade and immediately set to work. As described by Michael R. Gordon and Gen. Bernard E. Trainor in their book “The Endgame,” al-Sistani “led a widely publicized march from Basra to Najaf … [and] arrived in Najaf in a convoy of thirty vehicles, with many more of his followers trailing behind.”
Relying on his religious and political influence, the grand ayatollah was able to negotiate a truce that allowed U.S. forces to pull back from the mosque, al-Sadr and his remaining militia to lay down their arms and retreat from the city and, ultimately, protection of the shrine and the civilians in Najaf, many of whom were religious pilgrims. Al-Sistani’s actions were as surprising as they were effective. But that sort of grand gesture is not unique.
History is replete with examples of nonviolent protests and acts of resistance that shifted the course of human events: Consider the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, led by John Lewis and Martin Luther King Jr. to protest the lack of voting rights for African Americans in the South; or Mahatma Gandhi’s Salt March in 1930 to protest British taxation of salt, which impacted the poorest communities in colonial India. Or consider such powerful symbols of atonement as German Chancellor Willy Brandt kneeling before the Warsaw Ghetto memorial in 1970, praying for forgiveness for the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany against European Jews.
Who today has the political and moral leadership to carry the banner of peace and reconciliation? Current religious leaders and scholars, such as al-Sistani, representing the Shiite tradition, and Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, representing (part of) Sunni Islam; Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, representing Judaism; and Pope Francis, representing the world’s largest Christian denomination, could send a powerful message to their combined 3.17 billion followers, nearly 40% of the global population. Including other religious leaders who have long advocated peace, such as the Dalai Lama, would illustrate the universal nature of our humanity, regardless of religious or political affiliation.
There are people making efforts to counter a natural inclination to hate, and these voices need to be amplified and embodied by religious leaders. Who would not be moved by the sight of a group of such leaders marching together along a stretch of the border between Israel and Gaza, holding a combined religious service for peace or serving food to civilians displaced by the violence? Such acts could speak to and encourage alternate means to resolve the conflict in ways that political and military leaders cannot.
Just as al-Sistani was able to do in Najaf, perhaps they can convince both parties to stand down and de-escalate the current crisis. While the conflict in Gaza is in part over territory, security and issues of human rights, it is also an existential conflict with a profound religious text, with each side threatening the other’s basic right to live.
Perhaps, then, religious leaders are best suited to demonstrate an extraordinary act of peace that could, if it does nothing else, create some breathing space in a conflict that seems to be racing toward an awful conclusion, and could perhaps even stir political leaders to find a way to end this continuous cycle of conflict.