I’ve never wanted to write about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s easy to come off sounding like a brainless partisan or a Friedmanesque utopian. And no matter what you write, someone is going to hate you. But the current conflict is making me crawl out of my little comfy North American hole.
The conflict itself is a painful, violent remnant of European colonialism, fed by hatred of Jews, apathy about Arabs, ignorance of complexity, and continued geopolitical gaming. It’s senseless to argue about which land “originally” belonged to whom—the entire region has been a battle ground since Biblical times. What matters most is the current reality on the ground.
The current reality: The region that makes up Israel and the putative Palestinian state will eventually become two independent states, one majority Arab, one majority Jewish. Utopian visions of a single state are also a colonial pipe dream as can be seen with nearly every other state in the Mideast. When this will happen though is anyone’s guess, as the parties continue to play out their zero-sum game of futile militarism.
To “take sides” in this conflict as is shown in the media is also a fool’s errand. The people of both states have an absolute right to live safely and govern themselves. But they are in each others’ way and the world has made a decision: Israel, the stronger state-entity is the bad guy.
This is true. And it’s not. Israel has done some horrible things. That’s not surprising given that it is in a perpetual state of war, surrounded by countries that wish it dead and by non-state actors doing the actual killing. No one “wins” wars. It’s always the so-called non-combatants who suffer the most. But to paint this as a simple “Big Bad Israel” against the poor Palestinian refugees is incorrect at best, anti-Semitic at worst.
The classic “tu quoque” fallacy—“I know I did, but you did it too!”—is easy to fall into here, but there is truth to the complaint that while Israel has killed civilians in defending its citizens, its neighbors are slaughtering their each other in numbers unimaginable in Israel and Palestine. It is good and proper to hold nations accountable for their actions, but why this special focus on Israel’s misdeeds?
The origins of the State of Israel lie in Europe. While there has always been a Jewish presence in Israel, the greatest number of Jews until the mid-20th century lived in Europe. Mostly-secular Jewish intellectuals saw that Europe, with its endless pogroms and laws limiting Jews’ freedoms would not be a permanent home for the Jewish people, no matter how much they might wish it. They came up with a plan to form a state where all Jews would be welcome, and would survive by their own hands, live by their strengths, and fail by their own faults. The dissolution of colonialism along with the Holocaust gave birth to the Jewish state, and several kinds of hatred and prejudice gave rise to what will become a Palestinian state. Many Arabs were forced out of Israel during the War of Independence, many more fled, and those that did flee did not find welcoming homes in other Arab countries. Jews however continued to find relative safety in Israel, a safety they fought for daily.
In many ways the greatest tragedy of the conflict is the de facto partition that tore Jewish and Arab neighbors apart, and that exiled Jews from Arab lands, forcing them into the new Jewish state and creating more hostility between Jew and Arab.
But that’s history. The now is not so different for the people of the region. Violence flares often. The killing in Israel and the Territories, the limits on freedom, the daily humiliations are not nearly of the scale in Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Egypt. But the killing is real. And so is the hate that drives the world to focus on Israel’s culpability. Israel and the Territories fill a small bit of geography, and it’s a bad neighborhood. Distances are small. Hamas, a terrorist organization dedicated to preventing a two-state solution can easily attack Israeli civilians, keeping Israelis scared and alert. And wakening their military might. Hamas is also embedded in a very crowded strip of land, one that makes any fighting deadly to non-combatants. The problem here isn’t that Israel is killing civilians in its fight for survival but that there is fighting at all.
The only way to stop the violence in Israel/Palestine is to continue good-faith negotiations, but this is difficult when Israelis build settlements in traditionally-Palestinian lands and when those who claim to represent the Palestinians dedicate themselves to murder. And it’s not just terrorism used as a negotiating tool. Hamas’ goal is the complete annihilation of Israel and its Jews. This is why there is an “asymmetric” war, why Israel must maintain a powerful military, why Israel’s right manages to garner so many votes. Jews don’t want to lose their country, and they don’t want to be murdered.
And the pro-Palestinian demonstrations cropping up around Europe and the US, and the BDS movement, reveal the real feelings of the rest of the world. The greater world isn’t out to “save” the Palestinians but to destroy the Jews. To non-Jews this inevitably sounds paranoid, but we have a little bit of experience here. And look at the demonstrations around the world–they are not pro-Palestinian, not anti-Israeli, but anti-Jewish.
If the world is serious about helping bring peace they will give up their hypocrisy and recognize that as horrible as the situation is, the violence is minimal compared to the rest of the region. The violence in the Mideast is not a “Jew thing”. It is regional. It is horrible. It may be unforgivable. But it is not Jewish. There is a war, a war in which one side is divided as to how to live in peace with its impoverished neighbors living in unjust conditions. The other side simply wants to kill all the Jews. And it has found easy allies throughout Europe and the Mideast.
Israel has no real friends. The Jews never have. America is the closest thing, but politics are fickle. Europe made its feelings clear for centuries. Terrorists with a stated purpose to kill ALL the Jews are lobbing rockets at Israeli civilians. Any Israeli government that did not respond militarily would rightly fall. What else is Israel to do? If they were to suddenly lay down arms and recognize the pre-67 borders, recognize a Palestinian state, and pull out of the West Bank, what would happen? Would they suddenly have a valuable trading partner across the border? Would the two states suddenly become the economic powerhouse they could be together?
Clearly not. Palestinian politicians aren’t ready to keep peace with Israel, no matter the conditions. They probably couldn’t if they wanted to as one radical army or another would move in and set up bases to attack Israel. And as long as Israelis feel this threat, and see that they have no one in the world who will say, “Israel has the right to live in peace,” it will be politically impossible, and perhaps literal suicide to treat with the other side.
Those who are not intimately tied to this conflict, who are not Palestinian, Jewish, or Israeli, can have opinions but they cannot understand what we feel. Palestinians and Jews legitimately feel we are fighting for our survival, our very right to live. To judge us harshly is to participate in the colonialism that got us into this mess in the first place.
Want to help? Then help support Palestinians who aren’t anti-Israel. Support Israeli organizations that are pro-Peace. But don’t tell us to lay down our arms just because of ridiculous concepts of “asymmetry” or what have you. In war, people die, usually innocents. The way to prevent it is to support peace, not to demonize one side or the other.