Israel-Palestinian conflict: Wrongs of history

The latest goings-on in the Israel-Palestine conflict, its implications for people on the ground and how foreign players have responded.

Published : Aug 15, 2008 00:00 IST

Israel faces challenges from three sources: its assertive Arab citizens, its peace lobby and the new generation in Arab countries.

The 60th birth anniversary of a state should be a moment of celebration. If little of it was evident on May 14, 2008, it was because increasingly large numbers of Israelis are beginning to ponder over the future of their state. It was established in the worst possible circumstances the forcible expulsion of the Arabs to whom Palestine belonged by foreign immigrants. It is a long time since they felt so unsure about the future, The Economist remarked (January 12, 2008). Few feel that the 60th Anniversary of the State whose birth marked their separation from other (sic.) Palestinians will be anything to celebrate. Uri Avnery, an Israeli writer, said that day: The nation is in no mood for celebrations. It is gloomy.

To the Arabs, what happened on May 14, 1948, was Al Nakba (the catastrophe). One fifth of the Israelis are Arabs of about 1.13 million. They fully sympathise with the 2.5 million in the West Bank and the 1.47 million in the Gaza Strip. Add to them 2.8 million in Jordan, 1.64 million in other Arab countries, 0.57 million in the rest of the world and you have a nation of 10.1 million dispossessed from its own lands. Their plight is tragic beyond words.

The Economist summed up the situation crisply (May 10, 2008): The world has a moral obligation to help the Palestinians. But self-interest is at stake as well. However tired people in the West may be of Palestine and its woes, this cause electrifies millions of Muslims and helps to stir the global jihad. If it is soluble at all, it can certainly never be solved without the full attention of America, the only country which Israel really trusts and that has the power to coax or coerce it into territorial compromise. That is why most of this decade has been wasted: a distracted or uninterested George Bush claimed to believe in Palestinian statehood but did nothing serious to bring it about, failing even to slow Israels colonisation of the West Bank. America’s next President must not repeat this mistake.

Also Read: Occupation and resistance

It is a vain counsel. Barack Obama rushed to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and declared that Jerusalem must be the capital of Israel. This is what H.D.S. Greenway wrote of it on June 11. AIPAC is the most formidable foreign policy lobbying group in the United States, as evidenced by the desire of all the presidential candidates to address its meeting. One can argue whether the lobby has too much influence over American foreign policy, but it is but one of many groups working hard to bend American foreign policy one way or another.

What AIPAC wants, Michael Massing once wrote in the New York Review of Books, is a powerful Israel free to occupy the territory it chooses, enfeebled Palestinians, and unquestioning support for Israel by the United States.

True to form, The Economist asks Palestinians to come to terms with the obvious. But the status quo keeps changing constantly. It, however, concedes that the Hamas leaders hint that if Israel gave up all the territory conquered in 1967 it would earn a long-term truce, which just might one day become permanent. It is of crucial importance to acknowledge that Hamas represents most of the Arabs and is alone competent to deliver. Israels intransigence is responsible for Hamas arrival on the stage.

The Nakba did not end in 1948. It continues, still. Virtually every day another Palestinian joins the ranks of the millions removed from their native land and denied the right to return, Prof. Saree Makdisi remarks and describes how in 2006 Israel stripped 1,363 Palestinians in Jerusalem of their right to live in the city in which they were born. They are denied permits to build homes. Over 300 homes in Jerusalem were demolished between 2004 and 2007 and 18,000 demolished since 1967 in the occupied territories. In the last decade, the number of settlers in the West Bank has increased from 150,000 to more than 250,000. In the heart of Hebron, one of its largest cities with 160,000 Palestinians, Israel maintains a Jewish settlement with 800 people, to protect whom a massive system of grand posts and checkpoints has been established. Several thousand Palestinians have been driven from their homes.

There are a few like Bernard Avishai who hold that Israel cannot be both a Jewish state and a democracy. It is almost impossible for non-Jews to buy land owned by the state. Israelis cannot be described as Israelis in the states population register. They must be registered according to their religion or ethnic origin. Unrecognised Arab villages have languished for decades without municipal services. Israel faces challenges from three sources its assertive Arab citizens, whose population increases alarmingly (to Israelis); its peace lobby; and the new generation in Arab countries.

A lot has happened since Guy Wint and Peter Calvocoressi wrote their incisive work Middle East Crisis (A Penguin Special) in 1957. Israel has become a nuclear power. It occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1967. It has become more repressive than ever before but it has won greater international acceptance. Iraq, militarily the strongest Arab state, is destroyed. The U.S. has abandoned all pretence to being an honest broker. It has acquired a huge military presence in the region and is negotiating with occupied Iraq for bases.

Yet, in some significant respects, nothing has changed. The Jews, for all their adjustment to their new land, remained a foreign body in the Middle East [West Asia]. They might have a military preponderance and such superiority in organisation that the Arabs were overawed. But the Jews, looking ahead, believed that in the long run the Arabs too must learn the art of organising modern military states. When that day came, how could Israel, with its population of less than a million, survive against the pressure of forty million Arabs? In the end the 40 million Arabs must prevail over the 1-11/2 million Israelis if the Arabs are determined and united and become just a little less inefficient.

They did not and Israel took full advantage of their disunity, incompetence, corruption, and contemptible dependence on the U.S. Hamas was born as a reaction to this state of affairs. In India, as in the West, there is colossal ignorance about it. Dr. Jeroen Gunnings interview to A. Rangarajan (The Hindu, July 4, 2008) helps to dispel some wrong notions: Hamas is not a monolith and to treat it so is a recipe for disaster. The tendency is to look at the more extreme elements and treat them as the sole identity of Hamas. Its leadership is open to political compromise if right conditions present themselves. What some Hamas leaders suggest is a Ludnah or a long-term ceasefire leading to a political settlement based on a return to the 1967 borders and an end to violence.

Jimmy Carter, former President of the U.S., formed a similar impression after a visit to Palestine last April (Talking to terrorists, International Herald Tribune, April 28, 2008). Hamas won the elections held on January 25, 2006. It offered to form a unity government with Mahmoud Abbas as President and to give key Ministries to Fatah, including Foreign Affairs and Finance.

But it was declared to be a terrorist organisation by the U.S. and Israel, and the elected Palestinian coalition was forced to dissolve. Eventually, Hamas gained control of Gaza, and Fatah is governing the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Opinion polls show Hamas steadily gaining in popularity. Carter listed the positive responses of Hamas leaders to his suggestions.

Also Read: Massacre at Gaza

One must read Zaki Chehabs work fully to understand Hamas. He is one of the Arab worlds leading journalists. Hamas won 74 of the 132 seats in the Palestine Legislative Council. Fatah won 45. Chehab describes how, having boycotted the elections earlier, Hamas began quietly to prepare for victory at the elections this time.

The first meeting to launch Hamas was held in the home of its founder Sheikh Yasin on December 9, 1987. It was to be a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. As his wheelchair moved towards a mosque, a paralysed Yasin was assassinated on March 22, 2004, on the personal orders of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. So was his successor Dr. Abdul Aziz al Rantisi on April 17, 2004. (The first Intifada began on December 14, 1987.)

Chehab traces the career of this remarkable organisation very ably and in detail. It has a complex set-up with its military and intelligence cells. Sheikh Yasin used to stress the need for coexistence between Jews, Christians and Muslims, claiming that he was not against Jews as people of a Jewish religion, but rather he was against those who have abused our lands.

Israels persecution strengthens the movement. The author traces the relationships it forged with the Arab states, particularly Jordan and Qatar and Syria, as also with Iran. The chapter on International Relations is one of the most instructive parts of the book. Hamas didnt register on Americas political radar until the series of suicide bomb attacks in Israel which brought Netanyahu, Israels youngest Prime Minister to power in 1996. Until then, none of the American officials or Secretaries of State or even U.S. President Bill Clinton had intimated that the Hamas issue was of major concern on them.

While President Clinton was trying to broker an elusive peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, the FBI was secretly funnelling money to suspected Hamas members in a sting operation to see whether the money would be used to fund terror attacks. The FBIs 1998-1999 counter-terrorism operation was run from its Phoenix, Arizona, Bureau in coordination with Israeli intelligence and, according to FBI officials, was approved by the Attorney General, Janet Reno. Several thousands of U.S. dollars were sent to suspected Hamas supporters during the operation as the FBI tried to track the flow of cash. It was a rare acknowledgement of an undercover sting that resulted in no prosecutions.

The book is based on research in the records as well as interviews with people in the know.

Al Qaedas No. 2, Ayman Al Zawahiri, criticised Hamas for accepting seats in the Palestinian Authority. Both Khalid Mishal, the exiled political bureau head of Hamas in Damascus, who was invited to Moscow to the dismay of many, and Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh distanced themselves from Osama bin Ladens comments on Palestine. Hamas did not need his guidance, they said.

The interests of both the mainstream Palestinian population and the more extreme groups including Hamas are very simple, the return of their land and the formation of their own state. Al Qaeda, on the other hand, has a more nebulous interest which includes the unlikely re-establishment of the Caliphate, the elimination of Western interests from all Muslim lands and a full-blown conflict of civilisation. Therefore, theoretically, Al Qaeda and the Palestinians should not make easy partners. But with the tension in the Middle East showing no sign of abating, Al Qaedas potential to recruit the most disaffected Palestinian elements has remained strong, as was the case with the three Hamas members arrested by Egyptian security services in the aftermath of the series of suicide bomb attacks on resorts in the Sinai over the last few years. Any future alliance between Palestinian militants and Al Qaeda is likely to harm the more focussed cause of the Palestinian nation by tainting it with wanton and random violence and hatred that the wider world has come to associate with Al Qaeda.

The decision to jail the Hamas government and destroy the movements infrastructure was taken at a Cabinet meeting, chaired by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Minister of Defence Amir Perez. A spate of bombing raids began on July 2, 2006, lasting days and pounding the Prime Ministers offices in Ramallah, Gaza and Neblus, and the Ministries of Interior and Foreign Affairs in Gaza. As part of the same offensive, bombs destroyed the empty offices of the Prime Minister in Gaza. Israel tried to assassinate Ismail Haniyeh. He was protected more than once by President Mahmoud Abbas, though he belonged to the rival Fatah.

Mishal called the shots from Damascus. The Hamas leadership was reconciled to the fact that it would be impossible for one party to manage the political crisis single-handedly and that only a coalition government would provide the way forward. In this instance, the Prime Minister would still be a representative from the Hamas movement as they held the majority in the Parliament. According to Hamas, such a government would be formed on the basis of the National Reconciliation. Document of the Prisoners, or the Prisoners Document as it became known, giving the Palestinian Authority overall power to negotiate on behalf of its people. The eighteen-point document, which was signed by a coalition of Palestinian prisoners on 26 May 2006, called for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem and the right of return for all refugees to their original homes. The document also laid down a framework to coordinate the different military factions under one umbrella. There was cautious mention of Israels right to exist the most sensitive topic. The Palestine Liberation Organisation had already accepted this point. Hamas found it politically expedient to go along with it. Hamas and Fatah formed a coalition, only to break up. The U.S. and Israel ensured that.

The author holds that the facts on the ground are that, whatever Hamas political fortunes, they are not just going to melt into the background, nor will any military action succeed in eradicating them. The idea that the Israeli army could destroy Hamas by rolling in the tanks and raining down the missiles brings to mind a chilling American comment during the Vietnam War. We destroyed that village in order to save it. This strategy did not work in Vietnam and it will not work with Hamas. Hamas is not some alien guerrilla force. It is someones brother, neighbour, or the guy who gives your son money for his education. For as long as these people represent the Palestinian people at the ballot box, the West and any future Palestinian Authority will have to accept it for what it is a leopard that is unlikely to change its spots and negotiate with Hamas.

Carter confirms this. He said on April 2, 2008, that Hamas leaders had told him they would accept a peace agreement negotiated by their rival, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, if Palestinians approved the deal in a vote. They said they would accept a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders if approved by Palestinians even though Hamas might disagree with some terms of the agreement.

Carter said, The problem is that Israel and the United States refuse to meet with these people, who must be involved. There is no doubt that both the Arab world and the Palestinians, including Hamas, will accept Israels right to live in peace within the 1967 borders.

Carters book is certain to rank as a classic. It created a stir because Americans are not prepared to hear any criticism of Israel. It is packed with the basic data essential to forming an informed opinion texts of documents, maps and brief history. Carter, architect of the Camp David Accords when he was President, sympathises with Israel but rejects its post-1967 expansionism and repression in the lands it occupied.

I have to admit that, at the time (1973), I equated the ejection of Palestinians from their previous homes within the State of Israel to the forcing of Lower Creek Indians from the Georgia land where our family farm was now located; they had been moved west to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears to make room for our white ancestors. In the most recent case, although equally harsh, the taking of land had been ordained by the international community through an official decision of the United Nations. The Palestinians had to comply and after all, they could return or be compensated in the future, and they were guaranteed undisputed ownership of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza.

Chehab is one of the many who can identify still their lost homes in Israel. All that was ordained by the international community (read: the West led by Britain (1919-48) and then by the U.S. since 1948). Israels former Foreign Minister Abba Eban told Carter that the detention centres and associated punitive and repressive procedures necessary to govern hundreds of thousands of Arabs against their will would torment Israel with a kind of quasi-colonial situation that was being abolished throughout the rest of the world.

The book created a furore in the U.S. and in Israel because it exposed the actual situation in Israel, the wreck of the Oslo Accords, and the fraudulent character of the proposals offered to the Palestinians by President Clinton. It envisaged 209 settlements on the West Bank. There is a zone with a radius of about four hundred metres around each settlement within which Palestinians cannot enter. In addition, there are other large areas that would have been taken or earmarked to be used exclusively by Israel, roadways that connect the settlements to another and to Jerusalem, and life arteries that provide the settlers with water, sewage, electricity, and communications.

These range in width from five hundred to four thousand metres, and Palestinians cannot use or cross many of these connecting links. This honeycomb of settlements and their interconnecting conduits effectively divide the West Bank into at least two non-contiguous areas and multiple fragments, often uninhabitable or even unreachable, and control of the Jordan River valley denies Palestinians any direct access eastward into Jordan. About one hundred military checkpoints completely surround Palestine and block routes going into or between Palestinian communities, combined with an uncountable number of other roads that are permanently closed with large concrete cubes or mounds of earth and rocks.

Carter remarks, There was no possibility that any Palestinian leader could accept such terms and survive, but official statements from Washington and Jerusalem were successful in placing the entire onus for the failure on Yasser Arafat. Violence in the Holy Land continued.

Israels withdrawal from Gaza was accompanied by building a huge wall in populated areas and an impassable fence in rural areas, entirely within the occupied territory. It cuts directly through Palestinian villages, divides families from their gardens and farmland, and includes 375,000 Palestinians on the Israeli side of the wall, 175,000 of whom are outside Jerusalem. A wide swath must be bulldozed through communities before the wall can be built. In addition to the concrete and electrified fencing materials used in the construction, the barrier includes two-metre-deep trenches, roads for patrol vehicles, electronic ground and fence sensors, thermal imaging and video cameras, sniper towers, and razor wire all on Palestinian land.

The area between the segregation barrier and the Israeli border has been designated a closed military region. Every Palestinian over the age of twelve living in the closed area has to obtain a permanent resident permit from the civil administration to enable him to continue to live in his own home. They are considered to be aliens, without the rights of Israeli citizens. This is apartheid. Two thousand Palestinian Christians lost their places of worship. Three convents were cut off from the people they served.

Israel carried this policy to Lebanon as Carter records. The Unity Government that was set up on July 11 reflects the reality that Hezbollah is a power. It has translated its military prowess into political achievement. How long can the precarious balance between the pro-Western forces and the rest, backed by Syria and Iran, last? Prime Minister Fouad Siniora is pro-U.S. One of his and the U.S. allies is Samir Geagea who was sentenced to death for crimes committed during the civil war and later pardoned. He runs the Lebanese Forces, a party with roots in the militia he headed. He was welcomed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Washington last March.

Sandra Mackeys book traces the background in a lively style. Lebanon reflects a deep cultural divide which Israel and the U.S. have widened. The authors lucid narrative ends with an Afterword that is most stimulating. The profile of Lebanon described in the preceding pages has provided Westerners a look inside the Arab world. Its purpose is not to make the reader a voyeur in the tangled lives of Arabs. Rather it is intended as a journey of insight into another people and another culture at a time when the tide of history is washing away aged sea walls, forcing the West and the Arab East into a lifeboat together. The interests of both demand keeping that boat afloat. And keeping it afloat means reaching cultural accommodation.

That can begin only when Israelis acknowledge the wrongs done to Palestinians. Benny Morris, one of their foremost historians, attempts to do that but is overcome by nationalism. He had no hesitation in asserting in 2004 that there are circumstances in history which justify ethnic cleansing.

His study of the 1948 war reflects, both, the industry of a scholar and the ardour of a nationalist. His remarks drew from Adib S. Kawar, an angry denunciation that Benny Morris, the so-called leftist, had unmasked himself, his left and Zionism.

The book draws on arch rival material. Predictably, it is one-sided. He is no peer of Ilan Pappe. His resume in the introductory chapter Staking Claims makes out a case for establishing a Jewish state on Arab territory. The war of 1948 was inevitable, given the Arabs opposition to the usurpation of their lands and their country.

Also Read: Woe to Jerusalem

Israels first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion was more honest. He told his colleagues against the backdrop of the Arab Revolt of 1936-1939: We must see the situation for what it is. On the security front, we are those attacked and who are on the defensive. But in the political field we are the attackers and the Arabs are those defending themselves. They are living in the country and own the land, the village. We live in the Diaspora and want only to immigrate (to Palestine) and gain possession of (lirkosh) the land from them.

Years later, after the establishment of Israel, he expatiated on the Arab perspective in a conversation with the Zionist leader Nahum Goldmann: I dont understand your optimism. Why should the Arabs make peace? If I was an Arab leader I would never make terms with Israel. That is natural. We have taken their country. Sure, God promised it to us, but what does that matter to them? Our God is not theirs. We come from Israel, Its true, but two thousand years ago, and what is that to them? There has been anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They only see one thing. We have come here and stolen their country. Why should they accept that? (Benny Morris; page 393.)

Benny Morris takes malicious pleasure in ridiculing Arab leaders of the times. They deserve it. They were corrupt and, in the case of Jordan, complicit. The war of 1948 was a humiliating experience. But where does Israels victory leave it today? The dimensions of the success had given birth to reflective Arab non-acceptance and powerful revanchist urges. The Jewish state had arisen at the heart of the Muslim Arab World and that world could not abide it. Peace treaties may eventually have been signed by Egypt and Jordan, but the Arab world the man in the street, the intellectual in his perch, the soldier in his dugout refused to recognise or accept what had come to pass. It was a cosmic injustice. And there would be plenty of Arabs, by habit accustomed to think in the long term and egged on by the ever-aggrieved Palestinians, who would never acquiesce in the new Middle Eastern order. Whether 1948 was a passing fancy or has permanently etched the region remains to be seen. Indeed six decades cannot legitimise a crime.

No American government can help, as James Carroll points out. How could the United States advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process if its government upholds, however implicitly, the Christian Zionist dream of a God-sponsored Jewish State from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean? Where is the two-state solution then? How, for that matter, is the traditional American commitment to the Jewishness of Israel advanced if the Christian Zionist vision of ultimate Jewish conversion to Jesus is achieved? (International Herald Tribune, January 22, 2008.)

Change can be brought about by one of the three forces at work Israels public opinion; Hamas resistance and that of the Hezbollah in Lebanon; and radical change in the major Arab states.

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