Thursday, February 28, 2013

Understanding the Israel - Palestine Conundrum

Recently I viewed a DVD about the struggles of West Bank Palestinian villagers against the encroachment on their land and olive groves by both the nearby Israeli settlement ... a city, really ... as well as the “wall.”  It's a depressing reminder of what Israel has become mired in as a result of its decades-long occupation of the West Bank.  The Israel Defense Forces came off, not surprisingly, as cold and heartless, and the Palestinian villagers as only wanting peace and their land.

I should say at the start of this post that I have always been of a different mind about Israel than my family and most Jews that I know.  While I am a strong supporter of the State of Israel and its right to exist, I have always been critical of actions taken by the Israeli government almost from the beginning that made and continue to make 2nd class citizens of Israeli Arabs (those Arabs who chose to stay in Israel at the time of independence were granted citizenship but lived under martial law until 1966 and continue to be discriminated against in areas such as village infrastructure, education, and social funding).  By its own actions, the State of Israel is not an example of how these two people can live in peace and harmony to their mutual benefit.

But things here are never so black and white.  The Palestinians are not the equivalent of the American Indians or blacks during Apartheid nor are the Israelis the land-grabbing fascists that many have come to believe they are in more recent decades.  There is ample blame to be placed on both sides for the ongoing conflict.  To understand the dynamics and make any effort at being a helpful broker one must understand the history of the conflict.

Prior to WWI, the land that is now Israel and the West Bank, as well as most of the modern states in the Mideast, were part of the Caliphate of Turkey.  There was no Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, or Palestine.  These countries were created by the Allied powers after winning WWI (Turkey was allied with Germany and so was on the losing side).  They basically drew lines on a map and created these countries and then proceeded to install monarchies in most.

This was not the case with Palestine, however.  Here a British Mandate was created, meaning that the British were responsible for governing this territory.  It was not a colony in the normal sense of the word, but in effect it was.

Around this same time a movement was growing among European Jews called Zionism.  It’s aim was to create a Jewish homeland in what had been biblical Israel and was now part of the Palestine mandate.  If one asks why Jews wanted this, one only has to look at the centuries of persecution that Jews have suffered in almost every country they lived in at the hand of the Christian, and especially the Catholic, rulers and people of those countries.  And I’m not talking about mere discrimination.  There are ample examples, from the Spanish Inquisition to the progroms of Czarist Russia, where the persecution took on a very violent, bloody, government-instigated form as well as the normal day to day beatings that Jews were often subjected to at the hands of Christian thugs.

During the interwar period, Zionists began immigrating to the Palestine mandate and buying land.  As their numbers increased, periodic violence erupted between the Jews and the Palestinians, the longest such incident lasting from 1936-1939. 

Then of course came WWII and the Holocaust.  And the dynamics of the Zionist’s search changed.  In November 1947, the General Assembly of the United Nations recommended the partition of the Palestine mandate into two separate states ... one for the Jews and one for the Arabs.  The Zionists accepted the proposed partition but all the surrounding Arab states rejected the partition plan, as did the Palestinians.  Note: the Palestinians could have had their own state right then, but because their Arab sponsors would not agree to a Jewish state and the Palestinians rejected partition for a variety of reasons but basically an inability to compromise, they lost it.

When Zionist leaders proclaimed the independent state of Israel in 1948, all the surrounding Arab countries attacked the new state of Israel, a war which they quickly lost.  At the same time, some 700,000 Palestinians left, fled or were driven from their homes and took refuge in surrounding Arab countries where they remain today, still refugees, not citizens of the host country.  Jordan took control over the West Bank, Egypt over Gaza.  Control of Jerusalem was split between Israel and Jordan. The Palestinians were a people left with nothing. 

Later that year, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution stating that those Palestinians who wished to return to their homes should be permitted to do so and those who do not should be compensated by Israel.  That resolution has never been implemented.

The Palestinians became an official entity in 1964 for the first time when leaders gathered with the support of the Arab League and created the Palestine Liberation Organization.  It’s charter clearly states that the creation of the State of Israel is null and void.  

In 1967, aware that the Arab countries were again preparing to attack it, Israel conducted a pre-emptive war against Egypt, Syria, and Jordan.  At the end Israel gained control of the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, as well as the Golan Heights from Syria, and the entire Sinai Peninsula and Gaza from Egypt.  That was the beginning of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.,

In response to the war, the UN Security Council passed a resolution calling for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the occupied conquered lands and the acknowledgment of the sovereignty of all states in the region and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized borders.  This resolution, with its land for peace strategy, would form the basis for all future negotiations.

In 1973, Egypt and Syria mounted a surprise attack against Israel on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.  After 3 weeks, Israel had rebuffed those forces and regained control of the Sinai and the Golan Heights.

The first major movement towards peace in the area came with the Camp David accords between Israel’s Menachem Begin and Eqypt’s Anwar Sadat.   Israel agreed to hand back the Sinai to Egypt in return for peace and normalization.  As a result of making peace, Egypt was expelled from the Arab League and Sadat was assassinated.  

At the same time, Begin began a policy of greatly expanding the number and size of Israeli “settlements” on the West Bank in order to frustrate any future attempts to hand the West Bank back to the Palestinians.  Note:  No country other than Israel considers the settlements legal, since they are built on occupied territory and violate the Fourth Geneva Convention.

In 1993, the PLO and Israel signed the Oslo agreements in which Israel recognized the PLO and gave them limited autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza in exchange for peace.  The PLO in turn gave up its claim to the territory of Israel as defined by its borders before the 1967 war and agreed to end the Intifada.  Both sides agreed that they would make gradual steps towards a final settlement and that they would do nothing to change the status of West Bank and Gaza pending the outcome of negotiations.  

Note that while the PLO (as its leader Yasser Arafat had previously done) tacitly recognized Israel’s right to exist, it did not and has not changed the language in its charter calling the State of Israel “null and void.”  A public vote was finally taken in 1998 which supposedly nullified the pertinent clauses, but a new amended charter has never been produced, raising the inevitable questions.

Fast forward to July 2000.  At Camp David, President Clinton shuttled back and forth between Ehud Barak of Israel and Yasser Arafat.  Barak agreed to most of what the Palestinians had wanted.  The major holdback was the right of return. The other problem was that because of the number of Jewish “settlements”  on the West Bank that Israel wanted to keep control of for a variety of reasons, the proposed Palestinian state would have been divided into disconnected regions and the Israel army would have been in their face constantly.  The talked ended without agreement.

In the Israeli election that followed, the right wing of Israeli politics took the helm once again.  In the intervening years, the parties have never come as close to peace again.  The peace process is moribund.  Israel has drifted into an increasingly insular and right wing perspective, continuing the process of building new and expanding old “settlements” and erecting the “wall” separating Palestinian towns from the Jewish settlements and Israel proper.  Hamas, the more militant Palestinian group in control of Gaza, has been resurgent.  The PLO has been weakened.

At this point, it is hard even for the most positive and peace-seeking individuals to imagine what the shape of a two-state solution would look like on the ground or how the two sides with a history of decades of hate and distrust could find the trust necessary to make compromises and feel secure in peace.  The goal of Menachem Begin of increasing and expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank in order to make it impossible for a future Israeli government to arrive at a viable peace agreement with the Palestinians succeeded.  

There are no winners here, only losers.  There is no real security for Israel without peace, but peace in and of itself does not bring about security for Israel.  And so long as the Palestinians do not view Israel as a legitimate state, they will never reach their dream of having their own country at last. 

So you see why I say that neither party, Israel nor the Palestinians, come to this matter with “clean hands.”  Both parties, as well as the larger Arab community, have their share of blame.  Pointing one's finger at one or the other party thus is not realistic nor does it move the matter forward.  Peace, and a two-state solution, will only come to be when both the Israeli and Palestinian leadership really want peace and are willing to make the hard compromises that will be necessary and sell them to their people.