Further Thoughts On The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
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.