Skip to content

Further Thoughts On The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

March 19, 2010
Palestinian children on their way to school run accross a road in front of an advancing Israeli tank in Nablus, Palestine, during clashes between militants and Israeli forces.

Palestinian children on their way to school run accross a road in front of an advancing Israeli tank in Nablus, Palestine, during clashes between militants and Israeli forces. CC Photo and caption via 'Rusty Stewart.'

I’ve been arguing on this blog that Israel’s recent conduct, despite what the organisers of events like Israeli Apartheid Week would have us all believe, is not really very apartheid-like – or at least, is different enough that the analogy is a distortion of the facts. However, I haven’t gone very far towards suggesting an alternative framework. If comparisons to South Africa are not much help in understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, how might one do better?

As I see it, the conflict boils down to nothing more or less than two groups of people fighting over control of one patch of land. Many elements of the situation ought to seem perfectly, even tiresomely, familiar to anyone who has read news reports from Northern Ireland, Kosovo or Sri Lanka, to give just three examples. In each of these cases, two distinct peoples recently engaged in an armed power struggle driven ultimately by their inability to either share or partition a piece of territory on mutually acceptable terms. Guns and bombs replaced political dialogue as a mechanism for settling the basic, inevitable, intractable questions.  If the land was to be partitioned, what quantity and quality of real estate would each group receive? If the land was to be shared, how was political and economic power to be distributed between the two groups?

From my perspective, the same two questions lie at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. The Zionist movement that succeeded in establishing the state of Israel in 1948 can be seen as an ethnonationalist phenomenon, albeit one with a larger than usual garnish of religious fervour. For centuries, Jews had lived as a minority in nations run by other peoples, in Europe and the Middle East and beyond. Their position in these nations was sometimes comfortable and sometimes desperate, but always more or less vulnerable. Perhaps the only surprising thing about the history of Zionism is that it took so long for a significant number of Jews to decide that it was about time to regain control of at least part of their ancestral land at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, in order to found a state where they could live on their own terms. Since the fall of the Hasmonean Dynasty of Jewish kings in the first century BC, that land had been successively controlled by Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders, Mamluks, Turks and Britons.

By the end of the First World War, the two great obstacles in the Zionist path were the British rulers and numerous Palestinian inhabitants of the territory. As a result, the Zionists had to struggle to found their state, and in my opinion it’s fair to say that the struggle involved acts of terrorism against the British and of slaughter and ethnic cleansing against the Palestinians. My sparring partner Ahmed describes the process as one of colonisation, but this rather ignores the deep historical Jewish tie to the land. Is it really possible to colonise territory that your own people once controlled? Or can you merely reclaim it, however brutally?

In any case, the Zionists got their Jewish state, and are now hoping to keep it. That means not only holding onto much of the land they presently control, but standing firm against the concept of a “right of return” for the Palestinian refugees of 1948 and their descendants. Yielding to the right of return could easily lead to a Palestinian majority in Israel, which under democratic arrangements would hand the balance of political power to the Palestinians. The Jews of Israel would again be living in someone else’s house, the very situation they fought hard to overcome. Meanwhile, the former Palestinian residents have been unceremoniously evicted from land they occupied for generations, and would naturally like at least some of it back.

How to decide between these two perfectly good but perfectly incompatible claims to the same land, the same hectares of excessively sanctified dust and soil? The legendary King Solomon, a figure presumably revered by people on both sides of the dispute, could perhaps have crafted an acceptable compromise. In his absence, the question will have to be settled by some combination of negotiation and violence. Canada’s only role, in a spirit of detached but neighbourly interest, should be to encourage more of the former and less of the latter. But above all, let’s remember that this conflict belongs to other people, not to us.

Advertisements
11 Comments leave one →
  1. corsullivan permalink*
    March 27, 2010 10:51 am

    You say if conditions continue that it may be fair to call Israeli control and occupation in the 1967 borders apartheid like. Fair enough.

    Except for my rather firm caveat about Arabs having substantial political rights within Israel. As long as that remains true, I’ll consider the analogy to apartheid to be highly imperfect at best. I must admit that I’m a bit puzzled by your apparent indifference to this point, which to me seems obvious and important.

    • Ahmed permalink
      March 27, 2010 2:25 pm

      I’ve told you that the division between Israel proper and the West Bank and Gaza is a false one. That ten thousand Palestnian prisoners are in Israeli jails, that settlements are approved and funded by institutions in Israel proper, that the idea of a jewish exclusionary state inherently discrimates against Palestinians in Israel while not as brutally, of course, as those under military occupation whose movements, rights, travels, resources are controlled by an occupying power. My basic postion is that of Neve Gordon, who write for haaretz, that Israel has an apartheid like structure which bears strong resemblance to that of South Africa but functions differenty. While Palestinians inside Israel have greater rights than blacks in South Africa, those in the occupying territories are treated far worst, even Desmond Tutu says that. And the fact that you something like Apartheid exists for millions of Palestinians in ther post 1967 territories is in fact a major concession on your part. It echoes the language of Ignatieff writing in 2002, before he was constained by the whims of parlimentary politics

      “When I looked down at the West Bank, at the settlements like Crusader forts occupying the high ground, at the Israeli security cordon along the Jordan river closing off the Palestinian lands from Jordan, I knew I was not looking down at a state or the beginnings of one, but at a Bantustan, one of those pseudo-states created in the dying years of apartheid to keep the African population under control.”

      – Michael Ignatieff, The Guardian, April 19, 2002.

  2. Ahmed permalink
    March 24, 2010 1:48 pm

    After just attending Juan Cole’s excellent lecture at SFU, I remain more convinced that what he, hardly a flaming radical, calls Israel apartheid like conditions in the West Bank and Gaza, are in fact long term and without massive external pressure from outside countries, of the kind you seem to not want, along with boycott campaigns, the situation can go on perhaps for decades. What I find most puzzling about your analysis is its naive believe that the rhetoric of a “two state” solution finds any traction on the ground. Take Bibi’s speech the other night at AIPAC. While some declared that it pledged a commitment to a two state solution, I’d argue that isnt at all the case.

    He did no such thing, of course, unless by “state” one understands an amorphous entity lacking a definite territory, not allowed to control its own borders or airspace, shorn of any vestige of sovereignty (other than a flag and perhaps a national anthem), not allowed to enter into treaties with other states–and permanently disarmed and hence at the mercy of Israel. It would make about as much sense to call an apple an orange or a piano a speedboat as to call such a construct a state, and yet those are the conditions that Netanyahu imposed on the creation of such an entity for the Palestinians (if they get that far in the first place).

    You have admitted that something like Apartheid exists in the West Bank and Gaza yet falsely believe that its short term. Here’s where I think that you;re wrong. And if the present situation can go on for decades, in the absence of either a one state or two state solution, neither being on the horizon, doesnt the apartheid analogy become more and more prescient?

    • corsullivan permalink*
      March 26, 2010 11:56 am

      What I find most puzzling about your analysis is its naive believe that the rhetoric of a “two state” solution finds any traction on the ground. Take Bibi’s speech the other night at AIPAC. While some declared that it pledged a commitment to a two state solution, I’d argue that isnt at all the case.

      I’d suggest that Netanyahu is just establishing a negotiating position. It’s up to the Palestinian side to move him (or whoever ends up speaking for Israel as the process continues) away from that position and towards willingness to concede more territory and allow more autonomy. Also, I wouldn’t be too dismissive of flags and anthems – they can be potent symbols that become rallying points for real action.

      You have admitted that something like Apartheid exists in the West Bank and Gaza yet falsely believe that its short term. Here’s where I think that you;re wrong. And if the present situation can go on for decades, in the absence of either a one state or two state solution, neither being on the horizon, doesnt the apartheid analogy become more and more prescient?

      Yes, the analogy will gradually become more nearly plausible (I don’t know about prescient) if the situation continues to drag on without any resolution. In my opinion, however, it will never quite fit as long as Arabs enjoy substantial political rights within Israel.

      • Ahmed permalink
        March 26, 2010 1:56 pm

        “Yes, the analogy will gradually become more nearly plausible (I don’t know about prescient) if the situation continues to drag on without any resolution. ”

        In other words we have a disagreement about how sustainable and stable Israel’s occupation and apartheid like conditions in the West Bank and Gaza are. I’d argue that you’re ignoring decades long policies meant to forestall any viable creation of a Palestinian state and that the very impossibility of an agreement under these conditions leads me to believe that the situation can go on for a long time and get worst. You seem to think an agreement is close and maybe what Netanyahu is willing to concede isnt all that bad, a position i find naive, but thats where we’re at. You say if conditions continue that it may be fair to call Israeli control and occupation in the 1967 borders apartheid like. Fair enough.

  3. reneethewriter permalink
    March 21, 2010 6:10 pm

    Ah, Silence, how hard it is to keep to. My dear Ahmed and Cor,
    -point taken, Ahmed, although I read various texts on the Palestinian experience and diaspora – my main link to a Palestinian voice, actually through literary theory and writings about music, is Edward Said, one of my literary heroes. But I’m guessing there are scores of men and especially women that I “should” be reading. I make no claim on being either an expert or well read on this “issue.” The process of “making invisible” peoples and their discourses and their existence, is, interestingly enough, one of my central preoccupations as a poet. You can read about some of my new work, thecanadaproject, in a new Canadian literary journal, Ryga. So, I will reflect on your commentary re the flaws of much “liberal/left” discourse – btw, not sure I would categorize myself as either. Edward Said’s last work before his untimely death, On Late Style. Ah, now that is a book I will read, slowly, slowly.

    Cor, sure but you are a gentleman and I thank you for your defence of my aesthetic. So much to read, “the art long, the time short” –
    (as i write this, in the background on t.v., the US House of Reps debate Pres Obama’s proposed healthcare legislation – they are wrangling over procedure, Mr.Speaker etc )

    Okay, well you two, so much for my vow of silence. Look forward to the dialogue here. R

  4. March 21, 2010 5:25 am

    Both Israelis and Palestinians feel that their homeland was taken from them, and both feel entitled to stay and make claim to the land. Black Economic Empowerment

  5. Ahmed permalink
    March 21, 2010 1:30 am

    Forgetting the fact that we live in an increasingly interconnected world and that most Canadians would, on some level, hope that their government would work to comply with international law and institutions which on some level promote the implementation of such policies (the ICJ, UN, Goldstone report) your conclusion is flawed on other levels. Foreign policy realists, Middle Eastern reporters and heck even recently Joe Biden have all argued that one sided western support for Israel has radicalised the middle east, contributed to increased religious fundementalism in the region and provided impetus for anti western forms of populism. In other words, when western policy both underwrites, funds and makes excuses for torture, land theft, blockades, massacres and other kindred forms of brutality, blowback becomes inevitable. Canada is made less safe by the continuation of such policies which more and more of the word rejects. We cannot look the other way.

    Renee list of what she reads is interesting and in fact underlines, in myh opinion, the ethnocentric way in which even liberals or leftists look at this issue. I’ve argued before that because of anti arab racism, Israeli exceptionalism and the wy that the west has historically understood the conflict we have a situation where the Palestinian narrative has been made invisible. Their voices, history and stories are either ignored outright or treated as a secondary story in a larger narriative of progress. Yes, ethnic cleasing is bad and the occupation may be cruel but Israel made the dessert bloom, is “western”, like us, democratic and the like. Notice that, while claiming no “bias” and dissing those who are too “sure” she goes on to list what she reads about whats going on. And what do we get. A list of all jewish writers and sources from Haaretz (a great paper), to Amos Oz and Michael Lerner. Not one Palestinian writer or paper or blog. They are made invisible even in progressive, liberal discourse something Palestinian exile writer Edward Said discussed passionately in “Orientalism” and the rest of his work

    • corsullivan permalink*
      March 21, 2010 11:24 am

      Foreign policy realists, Middle Eastern reporters and heck even recently Joe Biden have all argued that one sided western support for Israel has radicalised the middle east, contributed to increased religious fundementalism in the region and provided impetus for anti western forms of populism.

      I’d count myself as a foreign policy realist, and I agree with all this. I’m suggesting something closer to friendly neutrality than one-sided support for either party. You may or may not have seen the earlier post in which I described Canada’s recent fawning attitude towards Israel as “unhinged”, now apparently trending towards “deranged”.

      Renee list of what she reads is interesting and in fact underlines, in myh opinion, the ethnocentric way in which even liberals or leftists look at this issue.

      Not that Renee needs me to defend her, but in the past she’s recommended Said’s “Orientalism” to me in discussions on this blog (I haven’t yet found the time, but it’s on my list). The scope of her reading is a bit wider than you seem to think.

      As long as we’re talking about different perspectives and narratives, might I recommend a speech on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the former Prime Minister of Malaysia (I can’t seem to link to it directly, but use the “monthly archives” in the sidebar to go back to January 21, 2010)? He said plenty of things that I disagree with, but I do appreciate the way he used a tough-minded, realistic tone to make his case for the Palestinian side. I tend to find East Asian pragmatism more convincing, and certainly more worthy of respect, than the soppy moralising that is so disagreeably common in public debate in the West. Note, of course, the lack of any reference to apartheid.

  6. reneethewriter permalink
    March 20, 2010 3:38 pm

    Again, an admirable thing: to think and write on “this issue.” I continue to embrace silence, the great healer, but rejoice in your energy and in the clarity of your essay.

    For better or worse, I also continue to harbour, to in fact,cultivate, an uneasiness with too “linear,” an analysis (not even sure I know what I mean when I say this, sorry), a shying away from “boiling anything down.”

    With the greatest respect to all bloggers and commentators on “this issue,” especially those of us who don’t live in the region, who don’t face systemic terror, systemic injustice, I get uncomfortable with too much “sureness.” Hence, my decision to become more of a bystander in the debate/discussion. This is in opposition to my younger self – oh to feel that sureness again.

    From time to time I read Haaretz (sp?) and recently, an interview with Amos Oz, one of my favorite writers, and always, when “this issue” is in the “news” (such as today with more shootings), I visit the website of the American rabbi and commentator, Michael Learner. I dunno. Perhaps it is just an inexcusable laziness not to “boil down” the essence of any of the many issues that face us in world affairs?

    The last statement in the piece, “[b]ut above all, let’s remember that this conflict belongs to other people, not to us” interests me and suggests a third essay.

    In this day and age (sorry, cliche), is any “world conflict” about “other people” or perhaps I am reading this too literally? Is a country like Canada, increasingly fluid in the scope of its citizenship (e.g. dual citizens abound, and for example, Canadians serve in the army’s of other countries – which always startles me)is our country able to distance itself by placing a complex, bloody, terrible conflict “over there,” there, and not here? On one level, yes, “of course.” And yet.

    I look forward to your comments. And then, to the comments on your comments.

    • corsullivan permalink*
      March 21, 2010 11:01 am

      I agree entirely about the dangers of “boiling down”. I suppose it’s necessary to try to strike a balance between trying to capture only the essential facts of a situation – hopefully achieving clarity, but with a risk of oversimplification – and patiently exploring all the potentially confusing nuances and ramifications. I may have leaned too far towards the “essential facts” end of the spectrum, but then again there’s only so much space in a blog post. Also, the tone of my post was partly a reaction to the way so much coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict postulates vast moral and strategic implications that usually strike me as rather overblown.

      Fluid citizenship and global interconnectedness do make the concept of “over there” a bit less meaningful than it used to be, but these trends have only gone so far. The Middle East is still more or less on the other side of the world; only a small percentage of Canadian citizens are either Jews or Arabs. Although we live in an interdependent global village, events that take place on our own village street – or that affect our close friends and relatives – are still more subjectively important to Canada than ones that happen to other people living several streets away.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: