The ultimate freedom is to live free from fear.

A friend, a Palestinian refugee, once laughed. "You? You are American. You don't know the meaning of real fear." I remained silent. In the context she described, having lived in Gaza for 17 years of her life, my friend was right.

Perhaps real fear can be exemplified by intimidation and oppression; a lack of control over self-circumstance that obliterates all sense of autonomy and catapults victims into a prolonged state of dependency and helplessness. Maybe it entails a life that unequivocally denies the basic right to existence and an awareness that acceptance is not forthcoming.

However one defines it, it is clearly recognizable in the images of naked suffering coming out of Gaza.

Last Wednesday, in response to reports of rocket strikes in its territory, Israel launched its most ferocious assault on Gaza in four years. This assault rapidly escalated after retaliation from both parties, and despite calls to both sides for reinstatement of pre-existing cease-fire, subsequent events have catapulted the initial violence to the brink of an Israeli ground invasion into Gaza. Tens of thousands of Israeli reservists have been activated, and tanks and troops line the border awaiting orders. The region has reached a full-fledged crisis once again, as a senior Israeli minister vows a Palestinian holocaust.

Hamas — a designated terrorist group by the U.S. government — and the Israeli Defense Forces flex mismatched, disproportionate, yet deadly muscles, and they continue to exchange fire despite international communities' efforts at mediation. As the death toll in Gaza reaches 75 and steadily rises, it begs reflection of the devastating long-term physical, financial, mental and emotional effects that will inevitably ensue. With virtually no safe haven remaining, and families torn, children orphaned, facilities destroyed, and infrastructure crippled, the staggering cost of this air strike campaign only serves to perpetuate instability, erode residual hope for non-violent resolution, and further impede the peace process, which is the biggest casualty in this supremely charged region of the world.

As the fledgling narrative for co-existence is derailed by aerial attacks that claim the lives of innocent Palestinians, and the moderate discourse intended to dissuade blatant extremism is hijacked by rocket attacks that injure and kill Israeli civilians, the only real winners when the fires are extinguished and smoke is cleared are hatred and fear. No accolades are awarded, as both sustain a vicious cycle that only serves to further destabilize the region.

The cries of a moderate majority seeking peaceful conciliation are drowned out by stubborn will and ruthless political agendas. As the world wrings its hands, pats backs, or turns a blind eye, aggressors and militants forge onward, ignoring inevitable consequences or callously chalking them up as collateral damage.

Dwight Eisenhower wisely said, "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed." When the powerful few wage assault, it is the powerless multitudes who suffer.

As the conflict in Gaza continues to escalate, innocent civilians continue to pay most dearly, courtesy of a blank check signed with bloodied ink and issued with the stamp of leaders of the free world. The battle lines appear to have been carved into cement, reinforced by the singleminded will to destroy and conquer, and the voices of reason struggling to be heard have been muted — drowned by the explosions of shells and a booming rhetoric designed to echo political agendas and self-serving philosophies espoused by those in command.

Conditional demands, made by both parties to peacemakers attempting to negotiate cease-fire, ring hollow, lacking conviction or promise. Meanwhile, the power struggle continues to gain heart-sinking momentum, and it is the desperately needed, moderate voice of reason that is effectively being choked in the rising haze of smoke.

Zainab Choudry is the vice president of the Maryland chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations. Her email is zchaudry@cair.com.