Israel/Palestine: trying to find some balance

Israeli children visit Palestinian village of Tuwani and participate in bilingual activities together - Some rights reserved by delayed gratficationWriting about Israel and Palestine is a bit like that bit in Great Expectations when Pip asked whether it was a good idea to lend money to a friend. The cynical Mr Wemmick responds “choose your bridge and pitch your money into the Thames over the centre arch”. Or put another way, don’t waste your time.

I think that, at our best, Liberal Democrats are fair-minded people who try to accept that most arguments have two sides. So what follows is not my opinion on who is right, but five things that have helped me to frame my own views on the subject. I share them merely in the hope that they might help others.

Words matter: don’t assume that you can use “Jew” and “Israeli” interchangeably. Don’t use “Arab”, “Palestinian” and “Muslim” as if they all mean the same thing. You can be born in Jerusalem, you speak Arabic at home but you’re an Armenian Christian (and you’re Palestinian). You can be Jewish by some definitions and yet have no idea of that fact. Words matter and are an easy way of showing the limits of your knowledge.

Beware aggregations: don’t assume that Palestinians are bad people because of the high levels of support for Hamas. Don’t assume that Israelis are opposed to peace because of widespread settlement activity or support for Likud. Just as you don’t know the individual motivations of someone from Northern Ireland who supported Sinn Fein during the troubles, you can’t write off a people on the basis of which political movements are flourishing.

Don’t look for heroes: real life is far messier. Ariel Sharon may have been Israel’s greatest soldier, but he also “bears personal responsibility” for allowing the massacres at Sabra and Shatila. Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the moderate Palestinian Fatah movement, has published a book alleging close ties between Nazism and Zionism and has questioned estimates on the numbers of dead in the Holocaust.

Avoid mentioning the actions of just one side: Israel has carried out offensive operations that have killed civilians, including children. This is tragic. It is also tragic when Hamas, an overt organisation that runs for elections and takes public office, carries out offensive operations that have killed civilians, including children. The fact that there is total asymmetry in the military capability of the two sides doesn’t then make it OK for either side to kill civilians.

Deciding that someone has “no choice” but to take a certain action is to dismiss all those that had the same choice and decided to do something different. Only a tiny minority of Palestinians are suicide bombers. The average Israeli settler has not murdered Palestinians or taken part in bulldozing Palestinian olive groves. Even in extremis people have choices.

I am not saying you shouldn’t have an opinion on Israel-Palestine. Maybe, after careful analysis of the issues, you conclude that Israel bears the greater share of responsibility for what has gone wrong, or you conclude the exact opposite. But, if you do choose to take sides, ask yourself this: if it were somehow proven beyond question that one side was morally, legally or historically in the right and that the other was in the wrong, would that end the conflict?

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20 Comments

  • Raimo Kangasniemi 1st Feb '13 - 4:32pm

    The simple fact is that only side in the conflict, the occupier Israel, can end it. It continues because Israel wants it to continue. Israel also kills currently approximately 50 Palestinians per 1 Israeli killed by Palestinians. Israel has sent over 500 000 illegal settlers into the occupied Palestinian territories. Palestinians 0 illegal settlers into Israel. If one doesn’t side with the oppressed even silence benefits the oppressor and makes it easier for the oppression both to continue. and to deepen There is no option here to stay neutral: Either you support the oppressed or you support the oppressors, whether you wanted it or not.

  • Charles Beaumomt 1st Feb '13 - 8:25pm

    Thanks Raimo. I think you made my point for me.

  • Robert Hersh 1st Feb '13 - 10:40pm

    It’s not that simple. Israel may have settled 500,000 Israeli Jews on the West Bank, but there are also over a million Palestinian Arabs living in the State of Israel as full citizens. Abbas meanwhile has declared that not a single Jew would be permitted to live within a future State of Palestine.

  • Charles Beaumont 2nd Feb '13 - 12:23pm

    I’m not proposing fence sitting. But Raimo, if I’ve understood correctly, is of the view that all of the fault and injustice lies on one side. He accurately notes disproportionate Israeli military activity but doesn’t seem to be interested in Hamas’s stated policy that there are no Israeli civilians. Raimo suggests that the problem can be solved entirely by Israel taking the necessary steps, but that seems very simplistic: if Hamas is opposed to the existence of Israel (at the moment) we can’t simply say that Israel has the sole power to fix things; there needs to be movement from both sides. Yes, Israel needs to take major steps, but so do the Palestinians. Recognising that both sides have responsibilities is not fence-sitting. Some would call it realism.

  • Will the Palestine/Israel conflict be settled one day or will it go on for ever ? For an answer one might toss a coin but for a more reliable prediction the history of nations throughout millennia may have the answer; I would suggest that we are witnessing history repeat itself.
    Here in the UK the Engllish may think that Britain has always been the homeland, forgetting that the original inhabitants were pushed out by Anglo Saxons who in turn were conquered by Romans before being overrun by Normans in 1066. Check the bones from a grave 5000 years ago and the DNA will be very different to those in a 21st century grave. Across the Atlantic in America settlers from Europe pushed the indigenous Indians westward in two hundred years of bloody conflict until they had nowhere to go and became the tiny minority (almost a museum piece) that they are today. And perhaps Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution is relevant: the human race has evolved from animals and in nature the fittest survive and the weak go under .
    So what do we outsiders do about Palestine and Israel? Do we sit back, wring our hands in despair and let history take its course or do we intervene ? If we intervene in a situation in which no side has a moral highground, who do we back? Or do we take a n ambivalent position and become the hated enemy of both sides ? And if the West continues in its role of spectator, will another nation, e.g. Iran, move in and the West will become involved regardless of whether or not we want it ? I wish I knew the answer to these questions but one thing I do know for certain is that my conscience troubles me when I watch innocents being persecuted

  • Charles Beaumont 2nd Feb '13 - 12:52pm

    As ever, there’s only so much you can fit into a 400-word blog. I do not think that the tangled nature of the conflict means that we should sit back and wash our hands. But I do think that interventions should be extremely carefully thought through. I’m not sure that’s always been the case in the past.

  • Prof. Taheri 2nd Feb '13 - 3:19pm

    We all want peace, and yet, after more than a century of conflict, the struggle between these two related nations remains more intractable than ever. Why?

    Because each side is entrenched in its own narrative, to the exclusion of the other’s.

    Its faults notwithstanding, one must admit that Israel has taken some steps since the Oslo Accords toward acknowledging the Palestinian suffering. These steps are reflected in school books, in the media, and through other informational outlets. The Arabs of the West Bank and Gaza, for instance, are now referred to as “Palestinians,” and most Israelis would like to see a Palestinian state emerge. The fact that Israeli voters don’t reflect these wishes has to do with fears of surface-to-air missiles two miles from Ben-Gurion International Airport, and scarred memories of blown-up buses and pizzerias.

    The Palestinians, unfortunately, have done little to allay Israeli fears. While Palestinians clamor for the removal of onerous checkpoints and barriers, militant attempts to penetrate these barriers and attack Israeli civilians have not ceased at all since the second Intifada. Similarly, school books and speeches, in Arabic, have grown radical, to the point of portraying Israel’s very existence as a crime. Little has been done to acknowledge the Jewish roots in Palestine.

    The fact is that the Jewish presence in Palestine goes much farther back than most Palestinians, as well as Arabs and Muslims in general, would be willing to admit.

    Before 1948, Palestine was ruled by a series of empires. Before that Palestine was Judaea—a Jewish country. Jews have lived in Palestine continuously for more than 3,300 years. “Palestine” was the name given to the Jewish homeland in the second century by the Romans, in an attempt to break the Jewish adherence to the land. This was a century after the Jewish temple was destroyed and more than a million Jews were massacred.

    The Jews stopped fighting the Romans only after they had no more fighting men standing. As Evangelist William Eugene Blackstone put it in 1891, “The Jews never gave up their title to Palestine… They never abandoned the land. They made no treaty, they did not even surrender. They simply succumbed, after the most desperate conflict, to the overwhelming power of the Romans.”

    The Jews persisted through the centuries under the various empires, after the Arab invasion of 635AD (which they fought alongside the Byzantines), and after the Crusade massacres of the 11th Century, which decimated much of their population. They never stopped returning, and their numbers recovered. In the 19th century, before the Zionist immigration, Jews constituted the largest religious group in Jerusalem.

    Few Palestinians realize that Jewish customs, religion, prayers, poetry, holidays, and virtually every walk of life, documented for thousands of years—all revolve around Judaea/Palestine/Israel. For thousands of years Jews have been praying for Jerusalem in every prayer, after every meal, in every holiday, at every wedding, in every celebration. The whole Jewish religion is about Jerusalem and the Land of Israel. Western expressions such as “The Promised Land,” and “The Holy Land,” did not pop out of void. They have been part of Western knowledge and tradition dating back to the beginning of Christianity and earlier.

    After the Crusades, the Jews—including many who have returned over the centuries—lived peacefully with Arabs, often in the very same villages, as in Pki’in, in the Galilee, until the Zionist immigration of the 19th and 20th Centuries. Article 6 of the PLO Charter specifically calls for the acceptance of all Jews present in Palestine prior to the Zionist immigration. These Jews were simply another ethnic group in a region composed of Sunnis, Shiites, Jews, Druz, Greek Orthodox, Catholics, Circassians, Samarians, and more. Some of these groups, like the Druz, Circassians, Samarians, and an increasing number of Christians, are actually loyal to the Jewish State.

    Incidentally, genetic studies consistently show that Zionist immigrants (a.k.a., Ashkenazi Jews) are closely related to groups that predate the Arab conquest, like the Samarians, who have lived in Palestine for thousands of year.

    Palestinian denial of these facts may lead to events such as the ones brilliantly depicted in Jonathan Bloomfield’s award-winning book, “Palestine,” in which actual history and predicted events are thinly veiled as fiction.

    If, as the current Palestinian narrative goes, the Jews are not a people indigenous to Palestine but rather an invading foreign colonialist body, then they must be fought until they are removed from this land. Anything short of that, by any standard, would be injustice.

    Thus, war and bloodshed will continue until the Palestinians start acknowledging the Jewish narrative, and the fact that Jewish roots in Palestine date back thousands of years, long before the Arab invasion.

  • Tony Dawson 2nd Feb '13 - 9:13pm

    @Charles Beaumont

    “we can’t simply say that Israel has the sole power to fix things; there needs to be movement from both sides.”

    Israel will NEVER fix things. Israel is devised to The people living within it, hopefully , might.

  • Good piece, Charles.

    The recent Israeli elections have seen a falling away in support for Netanyahu’s rightwing electoral alliance, Likud-Beiteinu. However, as the leader of the biggest party, Netanyahu is first in line to assemble a coalition. Although Netanyahu’s natural partners are the smaller rightwing and religious parties, he is likely to be keen to include Yesh Atid and possibly Hatnua, which is led by former foreign minister Tzipi Livni and won seven seats. Livni’s inclusion in the coalition, notwithstanding her insistence on a return to meaningful negotiations with the Palestinians, could signal the direction of travel on peace negotiations for the next few years.

    As the conflict in Syria spills over it’s borders to Lebanon and Israel the new coalition government will come under increasing pressure, not least from Europe, to seek a broad based resolution to ongoing conflict in the region. I remain of the view that this should take the form outlined in an earlier article on the subject A comprehensive middle-east peace settlement.

  • Andrew Martin 3rd Feb '13 - 8:13pm

    @JoeBourke, please forgive my pedantry but I think that constitutionally it is not the fact that Likud-Beiteinu is the largest party/alliance which makes Netanyahu first in line to assemble a coalition. This is shown by his being chosen last time instead of Livni, whose party had more seats. Rather, Netanyahu is first in line based on the recommendations given to the President by MKs of the parties in the Knesset, which include those of Yesh Atid.

  • People can’t have it both ways. They can’t claim Israel is both an occupier and a victim – it’s one or the other. The other being the occupier – which the Lib Dem s have backed for years – while claiming to be in support of a Palestinian state.

  • Charles Beaumont 3rd Feb '13 - 10:25pm

    @Andi, The central point of my argument is that you need to have it both ways. Yes, Israel is an occupier but it is also a victim. Unless you take a very narrow view you have to accept that Israel has been victimised by the Arab states. It is the complexity of this argument which makes it so hard to solve but rejecting that complexity in my view makes it impossible to solve.

  • Richard Dean 3rd Feb '13 - 11:18pm

    And Palestine is a victim too, as well as a combatant.

  • Charles Beaumont 4th Feb '13 - 12:37am

    @Richard: exactly. Both sides in different ways have complexities we can’t just ignore.

  • Andrew Martin,

    thanks for the information on the constitutional position.

  • Charles Beaumomt 4th Feb '13 - 10:27pm

    I can’t see any references to “un friending” on this page. Not sure that bad grammar tells us too much about the MEPP, but he’ll, what do I know?

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