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Todd Deatherage on the Israel-Hamas War

Todd Deatherage on the Israel-Hamas War

As the Israel-Hamas War has continued for several months, rising tensions around the world have led to division among colleagues, friends, family members and institutions. Navigating nuanced conversations can be difficult, but as Christians, it’s important to know how to advocate for humanity, especially in times of turmoil.

Todd Deatherage, the co-founder of the Telos Group, has a long history of advocating for peace and equality between Israel and Palestine. Deatherage has spent decades working in public policy positions educating officials on the Israel-Palestine conflict, including service as the Chief of Staff to a U.S. Senator and in the U.S. State Department where he worked in the Secretary of State’s Office of Policy Planning.

Deatherage spoke with RELEVANT about what the current reality looks live for Israeli and Palestinian civilians, what a likely end scenario looks like, and what role American Christians play in the midst of this conflict.

Telos Group has staff on the ground over in Israel and the Gaza region. What are you hearing from them about the conflict and what’s happening right now?

Todd Deatherage: On the one hand, sort of everyone we know is safe and no one is okay. There’s just such trauma. There was trauma on the other side of this, and what happened on October 7th and what has happened since then has awakened and reminded everyone of historical trauma.

Then, everything since then has also been a recollection back to historic tragedies and traumas. It’s a very, very brutal time, and it’s far from over. Twelve hundred Jewish Israelis died on October 7, and a couple hundred were kidnapped. And now, we’re close to 24,000 people who’ve died in the Gaza Strip now, and that number rises every day, including children. It’s a really brutal time.

Bringing it back to the U.S., with everything going on so much longer than people probably expected it to, we’re starting to see more statements from leaders, we’re seeing protests on college campuses. What are your thoughts about what we’re seeing here in the U.S. with the division and the side picking that’s happening?

It’s really forced people into these hard binaries that had always existed. This is a part of the world that a lot of people care about because it’s the Holy Land. For Jews, Christians and Muslims, this is very central to their faith stories, to their religious identities, to all these other things we’ve cared about it. The way that we’ve cared about it from the outside, though, in the last 100 years of this conflict, has often been to just import it. We choose our side, and so we create activism around the conflict that is a reflection of the conflict itself. So if I’m pro-Israel, I’m anti-Palestinian by default. If I’m pro-Palestinian, I’m anti-Israeli by default. That kind of activism has definitely only contributed to the conflict.

Well, you’ve seen that in spades right now. You’ve seen deep division on college campuses. I have a daughter who’s a high school teacher. In her own school, they really are struggling to know how to address this and deal with it. You’re seeing it in communities throughout the world. That is just a reflection of where we are on this.

But on the other hand, a lot of folks are also struggling to really try to understand this outside that binary. They’re trying to look for the humanity of everyone here in unique ways. That’s been a really interesting development too, I think. This is a space we’ve tried to carve out for 15 years now. Telos was 15 years old this week. In fact, Greg Khalil and I started this work back in January 2009, really trying to carve out this new space. I have to be for the flourishing of all, if there’s anything that’s going to work there. And we rooted that in a deep set of friendships and relationships.

We’ve rooted ourselves in those relationships and always knowing that any reality there had to account for everybody’s being there and their legitimacy there, but they’re flourishing there and their equality there, not to be there under systems of control and occupation and blockade and all of that, but to be there with equality. That vision that we’ve always encouraged and supported with the people there have in that way and tried to build here at home in the U.S., it just turned into a shared grief right now.

But we’re finding that a lot of people share that. We’ve just had so many people come to us in the middle of all this, looking for that space that we’ve been trying to carve out and now trying to hold. LifeWay released some poll numbers back in December, surveying how Christians were thinking about all this. It was incredibly encouraging. It was an enormous amount of nuance in there.

Eight percent of American Christians who responded to this LiveWay survey were definitely understanding that both people had a story that had to be honored and recognized. More than 80% of them supported a two-state solution, which is such an old and tired idea that doesn’t really have any credibility there anymore, but it gets to this idea that some way of dividing, sharing the land, living in a new political arrangement in which everybody’s equal was in the imagination of a lot of American Christians.

I think this moment is revealing that people are really gravitating to the extremes, mostly out of deep pain because they have these personal connections to it and they see it in these ways. But also a lot of people are trying to sort it out in a way that appreciates the humanity of everybody there. And that’s at least that’s something to build onto right now.

It seems like all we’re hearing is protests or people getting dropped by their managers because they tweeted a thing. You know, like it’s just, it seems like everybody’s picking very hard sides right now.

And you have the dangerous rise in anti-Semitism and demonizing people in Gaza as if they’re not even human beings. That’s all out there right now and it’s so ugly and people are afraid to speak often because of these things, right? But yet there is a whole other way. We have to keep arguing for it.

I keep having to explain to friends who kind of see some headlines, but don’t really know what’s going on, that this isn’t a Palestinian war. This isn’t a war of Israel versus Palestine. This is Hamas, and Hamas is a terrorist organization. But that’s not clicking for a lot of people. 

Right, because Hamas is a is a religious and ideological nationalist movement that has was birthed in the 1980s out of the sort of influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. And their vision is a Palestinian state that is observant of their understanding of Islam and Islamic law and that sort of thing. They gained their real purchase as an opposition to the peace agreement.

The dominant Palestinian political movement, the Fatah Party through the PLO, the Palestine Liberation Organization, committed itself to this peace process with Israel to try to create a two-state solution. That was where the vast majority of Palestinians were and all the polling that was happening at the time and Israelis too. Hamas became the resistance to that.

There was a resistance on the Jewish Israeli side, too, that didn’t want that in the end. But the combination of the assassination of a Israeli prime minister by Jewish opposition, Hamas terrorist attacks and the continued growth of settlements — all these things kind of threw that off the rails. But that’s how Hamas really came into its own. Ultimately, they took control of this Palestinian enclave or territory that was under Israeli control called the Gaza Strip. They have controlled it since 2007 under a full Israeli-Egyptian military air, land and sea blockade in terms of what goes in and out.

And so people have been shut off from the world in this place. It’s been the kind of place where extremism is going to breed. It’s a breeding ground for that because people, for the last 17 years, have had no ability to move in inside and out of the Gaza Strip. They have very limited access to what even can come in and go out in terms of goods and materials and things like that. Living in these kinds of conditions, it’s a horrible situation, but they have controlled it pretty brutally, too. The people who live there have lived under this brutal control.

So, it was Hamas who perpetrated this act on October 7, not all the Palestinian people, and that’s definitely got to be understood. They’re also not a state actor. That’s the important part of this too. Gaza is not a nation state. They had no sovereignty. They had no international recognition in that way. They don’t have an army. So they have militants and they have have armed groups, but they don’t operate in the same way as a nation state. It’s not two nation states at war. That has to be understood too.

What we’re seeing right now is this massive response. It felt very much like a 9/11 moment in the immediate aftermath of October 7. But it took us several weeks to respond by going into Afghanistan. It took us a year and a half to go into Iraq, but the Israelis were in Gaza that weekend.

It was not clear at the time, and still not clear today, that they had a real strategy — this mission of we’re gonna topple Hamas, we’re gonna eliminate Hamas. What has been happening is this disproportionate, indiscriminate attack on all of the Gaza Strip. You’ve got 80% of the population now displaced. Over 1.8 million people are out of their homes, and many of their homes have now been destroyed. About half the homes in Gaza have been destroyed or damaged in bombing campaigns. Twenty-four thousand people have been killed up to this point. Many of them are civilians and the estimates are up to 10,000 of them are children.

And so what that is doing is not in any way defeating Hamas. It’s actually building Hamas in my view, not just in Gaza, but in the Middle East.

Why don’t the Palestinian residents who are not Hamas-affiliated push back on Hamas themselves? Or are you seeing people thinking, “Israel has now done so much damage to innocent Palestinians, we’re gonna fight with Hamas”?

It’s hard to know what is actually going on because there’s very little there’s very little media presence inside to know the story of what’s happening there in its fullness. But there are there’s definitely still resistance from Hamas fighters to Israel. Israel has soldiers on the ground and they’re doing these massive bombardments and they’ve moved people around.

The overwhelming majority of people are in no way like resisting or fighting against Israelis. They’re just trying to survive. One of the most important military powers in the Middle East is conducting this campaign against this terrorist organization and against a civilian population. That’s the key part of it. It’s an overwhelmingly civilian population that is bearing the brunt of all this.

But what happens in these situations is that people become drawn to extremism as a result of these kinds of things. I mean, when you have massive civilian death, the response to that is often you create new people with such hatred for what just happened that they end up going on these paths of revenge. And so it’s hard for me to see that this is in any way doing anything but but ensuring that you can’t kill a bad idea. The Hamas ideology is a really noxious idea, but you can’t kill all the people who have a bad idea and eliminate an idea. The more you try to do that, the more innocent people you kill in that process, the more you’re gonna ensure that idea gets perfect. The way you counter a really bad idea is with a better one. If you give people a hope for a better future, many people will gravitate toward it. There will be some who won’t. There will always be the resistors who won’t, but you marginalize them. You push them to the edge if you give people hope. And what people in Gaza have not had for a really long time is any sense of hope. What we have to remember is that the people in the Gaza Strip, the Palestinians who live there, are now displaced and refugees.

Gaza’s a postage stamp size piece of real estate. It’s a very densely populated area with 2.2 million Palestinians. And what you have to know is that 70% of those folks were refugees or they’re descendants of refugees from 1948 when Israel was created. They lived in what was Israel and they got displaced into this area around Gaza City and it became this Palestinian enclave that we call the Gaza Strip at that time. So their whole history is of displacement and they’re being displaced again. They’ve lived in this kind of hopeless condition for not just 17 years, but for more than 70 years without a real vision for a better future, at least since the collapse of the Oslo peace process.

That’s the way you counter a bad idea. You do everything you can to get a better future, create a better reality for everybody. I’d say the people in the south of Israel have lived for many years also without any prospect for a better reality. So the government’s response to the rockets that have been fired out of Gaza for 20 years now onto the south of Israel has just been to what they call “mow the grass,” to bomb Gaza every so often, to push back, but to never really try to deal with the situation in Gaza.

So those people have also been lacking a vision and many of those people have been drawn to kind of a more extremist view of who their neighbors are. There are real exceptions to that, like some people you’ve met, but that’s how extremism grows is when people lose all sense of hope for any possibility of a better future.

A lot of Americans don’t realize the extent that the U.S. government and U.S. taxpayers are funding the Israeli military. What are your thoughts about how our government has responded so far?

Well, I think from the very beginning, President Biden was deeply moved in a very personal way by the horror of October 7. He jumped into that with an immediate embrace of Israel with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, and he really hasn’t really wavered from that position in spite of the fact that we’re over 100 days into this, and again, we have 24,000 Palestinians who have been killed and a massive destruction. He has made the decision to fully own this war. And so America, in the eyes of much of the world, is very much a partner in what Israel is doing in Gaza right now.

The policies that he’s created, the position he’s created, I don’t see as distinct in any way from what a Trump presidency would have been. I can’t imagine how Trump would have responded differently to this. So that’s the decision the president’s made. Now there have been some real attempts at other levels underneath the president to try to walk some of that back as the bombardment continued, as the death toll has mounted, as the potential for this thing to spread regionally, which is still real and still possible and still happening on some level, as that has all really raised so many concerns about peace and security in the world. Others have tried to walk some of that back, have tried to take that bear hug that the United States gave Israel and use it as leverage to get Israel to pull back some. There’s been very little evidence that has had any impact so far.

So at this point, we own this war and we own whatever the ultimate consequences of this are, we are fully seen as being a part of it. So, if your position is that Israel’s right to do all that it’s doing, then we’re very much their supporter in that. But if your position is that this is a disproportionate response and it’s an unhelpful one, then there’s a whole critique of how the U.S. has played its role. The U.S. alone stands out in the world as the country that has prevented all the other international pressure that’s been calling for some kind of negotiated ceasefire and hostage release, even though we have worked with diplomatically with the Qataris and others to get some of the earlier hostages released. The U.S. should get credit for our involvement early on.

But the point of that is, yeah, we own this and we’re Israel’s largest benefactor. They receive more military aid from the United States. We give more military assistance to Israel than any other country in the world — $3.8 billion a year, and we’re trying to give them another 14 billion right now. And the only reason we haven’t is because the Congress is so dysfunctional that they can’t figure out how to do it right now. But there’s broadborder bipartisan support.

So at some point, we’ll give them another 14 billion and probably more on top of that, because that 14 billion dollar number was identified last year as money they needed in real time for the war. There’s now going to be more needs. I’m sure we’ll be providing that as well.

We have a huge role in this, and Americans need to understand our role in this and our complicity in this. If they’re not comfortable with what’s happening in our name, we need to be talking to our elected representatives to say what we think about that, because this is being done in our name. And we need to at least understand that and decide if we agree with it or not. We have been saying, from the very beginning, that violence is how we got into this; violence is not how we get out of it.

This is what got us here. What Hamas did on October 7 in no way made Palestine more free. Everything Israel has done since then, I don’t think has made Israel or any of us more secure and more safe. That’s how these things continue. It’s not how we get out of these things. We’ve been calling for negotiations to end the bombardment and also to get the hostages released. Those are the key things that I think could help us find footing to do something different. But this pathway of holding hostages and massive bombardment and displacement of all these people and all the deaths, there’s no end game in that makes any sense to me.

What is the best case outcome and the worst case outcome that you see?

I don’t even want to talk about the worst case outcome, because there’s a lot of geopolitics. There’s a lot of proxy wars that are happening. I mean, a lot of this is really about our own desire to assert ourselves in that part of the world, and Iranian ambitions and our desire to counter that, and the Russians and the Chinese realizing there’s some power vacuums there that they could step into. And so all of that was the precursor. There’s long historic issues as to what was bubbling up with all of this.

But the immediate precursor was our trying to negotiate a peace deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel as a way to counter Iranian bad behavior and ambitions in the region and to counter Chinese influence. The Chinese had just been signing some deals with our countries. We were playing geopolitics on the Middle Eastern chessboard and it all blew up. Well, those things are those dynamics are still there. You’re still seeing these Iranian-funded resistance movements that have a lot of support from Iran and have collaboration with Iran. Hezbollah south of Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, all these things are live and those things are still very worrisome. There’s some direct U.S. action going on right now between the U.S. and the Houthis in Yemen. All of this could go into much more regional conflict. If it gets to Jerusalem, this becomes a whole bigger thing.

There’s a lot of really worst case scenarios. And I think the Biden administration has some appreciation for that, but what they are not fully appreciating is that the best way to avoid this to be an even greater regional conflagration is to stop what’s happening in Gaza right now, to work on ceasefire, negotiate release of hostages — all these things need to be done as a way to keep this from spinning out because it definitely could do that.

It’s hard to say that what a best case scenario is right now, because there’s this idea that things have been going in a really bad direction for a really long time there. People would often say this is going to blow up and that it’s got to get worse before it gets better. There is a version of it that gets worse and then it gets worse even more. That’s easily where this could go. What we’ve got to do is not let that happen. We have to really redouble all our efforts internationally. All the involvement has to be directed toward supporting all those voices on the ground, supporting all the kind of work on the ground, supporting all the international work that would create a more fair, just, safe, equitable, secure system for everybody there.

We’ve long argued for dignity, security and freedom for Israelis and Palestinians in equal measure. Whatever that political arrangement is that achieves the end of different systems of control that marginalizes extremist ideologies, that minimizes violence in all its forms, not just the direct violence of terrorism and military violence, but the violence of occupation, the violence of these ideologies that create supremacist systems of who’s more favored than the other. There’s these visions that exist on both sides of the land without anybody from the opposite side being able to be present there, at least in the kind of equality.

So we have to really commit ourselves to the work of peacemaking. We’ve got to really commit ourselves to working with those folks that are going to create that reality. We’ve got to make a big commitment to the work of the healing of the traumas. I mean, there’s just so much historic trauma that’s always been there. It’s almost like you’re in this giant, open-air PTSD ward as you walk around.

I mean, everybody has that in their family and in their story, both on the Israeli and the Palestinian side. Well, now they have it even more. We really have to remember these sort of basic concepts, that trauma that’s not transformed is transferred. We’re seeing massive transference of trauma right now. So we have to be looking at ways to bring healing to these people and to allow them to bring healing in their own communities and create a different, more equitable table where people can choose how to live in that reality where nobody lives as a second class citizen.

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