Masked militants from the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, a military wing of Hamas, march along the streets of Nusseirat refugee camp, Central Gaza Strip (AP/Adel Hana)

Is peaceful coexistence in Gaza and the West Bank possible?

50 years after Gaza and the West Bank fell under Israeli rule, solutions and reconciliation still feel out of reach


Ori Z. Soltes
September 4, 2017 1:30PM (UTC)
Excerpted with permission from "Untangling the Middle East" by Ori Z. Soltes. Copyright 2017, Skyhorse Publishing. Available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and IndieBound.

After the June 1967 war, the areas where Palestinians had been resident outside Israel but not assimilated into Arab countries—Gaza and the West Bank—fell under Israeli rule. In military terms, Israel became the occupying authority, echoing the British and Ottoman Turks that came before them as an outsider presence.

So from the perspective of the Palestinians, the nearly fifty years since have mostly been years of humiliation and frustration. Particularly in the last few years this has become intensified by the post-peace-talks collapse and with it the Second Intifada on the one hand and the Sharonist and post-Sharonist mood of Israel on the other. It is certainly true that suicide bombing targeting children on school buses and teenagers in discos or celebrants of Passover Seders fall outside the lines of behavior that might fill Israelis with trust in the humanity of the Palestinians. But so are the events precipitated by an occupying authority that people fear that every flower contains an explosive within its pistil, thus undermining Israeli humanity as it affects Palestinians. From crowded border checkpoints, to the construction of a security fence and sometimes wall that slices and dices the West Bank, to the overwhelming attack on Gaza, many—perhaps most—Palestinians despair of the willingness of the Israelis to really live side by side in peace with them.

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What choice do the occupied have in this state? Most Israeli Jews think that because the Palestinians refused to accept the “generous offer” they wished to impose on them, they should have waited patiently and continued talking indefinitely. But since February 2001, if not earlier, the Palestinians have not had anyone to talk to or anything to talk about, apart from cosmetic changes in the way they are being dominated or an agreement to turn the occupation state back from temporary to permanent. . . And the occupation continues, the violence continues, the dispossession continues. What choice do the Palestinians have?

I can imagine what it was like in Ram’Allah when an F-16 bombed the police station there. I am not talking about civilians who were killed there—cooks from Gaza, not troops. I am talking about bombing a densely populated city. I am talking about liquidating people on the main street, from a helicopter, with three passersby also killed. It’s impossible today to say that this was “collateral damage,” that we didn’t intend to kill civilians, because when a plane bombs a populated city, you take into account that civilians could get killed. . . I read this week what the head of the Civil Administration, Brigadier General Dov Tzadka, said about the authorizations he gives to demolish houses and groves, and how the army then goes hyperactive and levels the area he authorized twice . . . I am constantly dumb-founded at how these people get up every morning and go to work. . .

The PA [Palestinian Authority, empowered with responsibility for civic affairs in the Territories after the Oslo Accords] was given responsibility for civic affairs, like sewage, education, and road-building, for three million Palestinians. . .

But. . . it was administrative control over people without authority over most of the area in which they lived, and without any room for development, a requirement for every government... Nearly every administrative function by the PA required approval by the Israeli authorities. . .
Israel controlled—and continues to control—all external borders, the passages inside the West Bank and from it to Gaza and back, the water sources, the economy, the movement of population into the Territories, and the registration of the Palestinian population.

The authors of the three passages quoted above are neither Palestinian nor Arab, neither European nor American. They are Israelis who are part of the small but significant voice that persistently speaks out regarding how impossible conditions have been for nearly fifty years and have become increasingly so for at least fifteen years for the Palestinians under the Israeli occupation, as well as the deleterious effect of occupation on the Israeli soul. The point is: if patriotic Israelis feel this way, how must the Palestinians themselves feel? How can they be expected to trust Israel when, with the shift from one regime to another, the mood of reconciliation seems to alter so dramatically? How can they overcome their distrust and distaste honed through decades of this experience and come back to the table of negotiation?

And if we step back beyond 1967 to 1948, we may see this condition as exponentially multiplied: the Palestinian view is that of having largely been pushed from lands that then became Israel in that year, into land much of which was occupied by Israel in 1967. Rashid Khalidi puts it simply that “most of the population of the Strip is not originally from there, but rather from a swath of villages in the southern regions of Israel, whose inhabitants were driven or fled there during the fighting of 1948–49, and were never allowed to return from there to their homes.”Put otherwise, the rocket attacks into southern Israel from a Gaza Strip are viewed—at least by some Palestinians—as attacks into territory from which they had been forcibly ejected in 1948 and therefore still as attacks against occupiers, not legitimate inhabitants.

The question then becomes: is there a solution to a problem in which fundamentally the two antagonists both feel legitimately entitled to the same piece of property? This is particularly vexed when we have no way of gauging in an objective manner who was precisely where sixty years ago, who did or did not try to return to where when it was possible, and how possible it was at that time. We might then further ask to what extent violence is justified if the one committing the violence feels fundamentally dispossessed and that there is no other way to reverse the dispossession? And we might ask how to weigh the levels of violence from the two sides of the conflict: is there a different weight to be given to the two sides, Israeli and Palestinian, given who dwells where and who possesses the more substantial military power?

Moreover, if we are to grasp the layers of this issue within the larger context of the Middle East, it is important to keep in mind that during the nearly fifty years since 1967, the complications of functioning as a people have not been limited to those imposed on the Palestinians by Israeli governance. The most obvious example is the massacre achieved by the Jordanians under King Hussein between September 1970 and July 1971—known in Palestinian historiography as Black September—in which more Palestinians died than in all of the combined confrontations with Israel between 1948 and 2000. And when the Israelis invaded Lebanon in 1982, because that is where militant factions of Palestinians had established themselves in the aftermath of the Black September debacle, they were initially hailed as liberators by the local population, which had been brutalized and oppressed by the Palestinian militants among them for several years. Nonetheless, just as Israel both overstayed its welcome in Lebanon and facilitated actions against Muslim Palestinians by Christian Lebanese allies of the Israelis in the 1980s, so the mainstream population of Palestinians found themselves in increasingly straitened conditions as the Israeli occupation plowed on through the 1970s and 1980s and into the early 1990s.

More fundamentally, Palestinians became increasingly aware that their future would not be guaranteed by external forces: the various Arab states that made noises or even supplied guns or money for their cause would, in the end, not be able to pressure Israel sufficiently to provoke consideration of a Palestinian State. With that in mind, the willingness to escalate antagonistic efforts toward an intifada of the Israelis grew. There is a further ironic twist in this. The Israeli incursion into and continued presence in Lebanon after 1982 had, as one of its unanticipated consequences, the creation of a new Palestinian organization. In the aftermath of the hornets’ nest of interrelationships that had been stirred up, there emerged Hizb’Allah—the “Party of God”—a radical Shi’i movement that had, in part, drawn its inspiration from the religious revolution in Iran that had replaced the Shah with the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979. The tactic that they adopted—of suicide car bombings—which first manifested itself in the attack that left 241 US Marines and 30 Israeli soldiers in Tyre dead in late 1983, would eventually redirect itself, after the Israelis finally pulled out of Lebanon, into Israel itself.

By then, a complication and a breakthrough for Palestinian life arrived at the center of the historical stage. This was the eight-year-long war between Iraq and Iran in 1980–88 and in the aftermath of that war, the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq and the attack on Iraqi forces by an American-led coalition that shaped the period 1990–92. What this complication meant for the Palestinians was twofold. First, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians making very good salaries in Kuwait, whose labors supported the economic infrastructure back home, were suddenly out of jobs and forced out of Kuwait and back to Palestine. Second, Yassir Arafat’s ill-fated attempt to act as a go-between in the period leading up to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and from the invasion to the time of the American-led coalition’s arrival on the scene, ironically, worsened the Palestinian leader’s image and the Palestinian position in the West, as well as among the Arab leadership that joined the coalition. It was difficult to distinguish Arafat as a go-between from Arafat as a supporter of Saddam—­coupled with the cheering by some Palestinians for the Scud missiles that Iraq sent toward Israel, the image was created of Palestinians as supporters of Saddam Hussein. All of this undercut the Palestinian cause by creating a perception throughout much of the world that they were not interested in peace.

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Nonetheless, a breakthrough came shortly after the complication of these events with the Madrid negotiations of late 1991 and Oslo Accords of 1993 that suddenly seemed to open new possibilities in Israel-Palestine relations. The Israeli Lebanon venture had something to do with this breakthrough, as well. Increasing numbers of Israelis were beginning to doubt the inviolable sanctity of their army as a consequence of that debacle, and from that doubt they questioned where occupation was leading them. The internal debate had many extraordinary side moments, as when Yael Dayan, a new member of Parliament and daughter of Moshe Dayan, icon of the 1967 June War, met with Arafat in Tunis (to which he moved his headquarters after the dual removals by the Jordanians from Jordan in the early 1970s and by the Israelis from Lebanon in the early 1980s) and referred to him as a “symbol of peace and compromise,” rather than with the virulent descriptive language typically aimed at him by Israelis.

After the handshake on the White House lawn in September 1993 between Yitzhak Rabin and Yassir Arafat, there was a period of heady hopes on both sides of the Israel-Palestine fence. Those hopes were nurtured by several factors. The first of these was Rabin’s capacity to think outside the box of historical fear, to focus less on history and more on future possibility, and to convince a majority of Israelis to follow his lead. There was also the willingness on the other side for Arafat to believe in and convince Palestinians that the path on which they were now moving would ultimately lead, finally, to the end of their frustrations and humiliations and to the realization of their dream of an independent state. These hopes were further stoked by the skillful diplomacy of Bill Clinton, commanding the trust of both sides, and mediating between them to facilitate their coming closer together as negotiations moved forward.

In the aftermath of that moment on the White House lawn, a flurry of events pushed the peace process forward . . . and then backward. King Hussein of Jordan signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1994, at the same time renouncing any further interest in the West Bank territory that had been under his control between 1948 and 1967. This arrangement, together with Egypt’s abandonment of Gaza, accomplished several ends simultaneously. The peace between Israel and two of its most significant Arab neighbors, which had evolved between the end of the 1970s and the early 1990s, paired with the peace negotiations with the Palestinians, seemed to presage a broader and fuller peace in that corner of the region.

Hope evolved in spite of the unresolved relationship between Israel and Syria and in spite of the question of Lebanon, vis-à-vis Syria, the Palestinians, Israel, and itself. At the same time, the precise answer to the question of how to shape a Palestinian future, placed simply into Israeli or Israeli and Palestinian hands, now presented itself as a potential time bomb should certain things go awry. The question had arrived after more than twenty-five years not only of Israeli military occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, but of expanding settlements of Jews in both those territories.

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Things did go awry but in the unexpected form of the assassination of Rabin by a Jewish Israeli right-wing extremist. Encouraged by his rabbi both to believe that Rabin’s movement toward denouement was leading to the giving up of lands divinely designated for the Jews and to imagine that murdering the prime minister would be justified, indeed praised by God, a man named Yigal Amir shot Rabin down at an enormous peace rally in Tel Aviv on the evening of November 4, 1995. In retrospect, what the madman murdered was the hope for peace for both Israel and the Palestinians—at least until such time as another leader capable of thinking outside the box of fear would arise. However, initially this may not have seemed to be the consequence of Rabin’s death; negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians continued, some progress continued to be made with regard to Israel’s relinquishing authority to the Palestinians over some areas within the Territories, limitations with regard to new settlements remained, and a moratorium continued on terrorist attacks against Israelis by Palestinians.

As the Clinton administration slid deeper into its second term, discussions moved to the lush setting of the Wye Plantation outside Washington, DC, and complicated arrangements shifted forward. The Wye River Memorandum signed by Prime Minister Binyamin (Benjamin) Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Yassir Arafat, witnessed by President Clinton on October 23, 1998, provided an interim agreement in which “The Israeli side’s implementation of the first and second Further Re-Deployment will consist of the transfer to the Palestinian side of 13% from Area C as follows: 1% to Area A and 12% to Area B. The Palestinian side has informed that it will allocate an area/areas amounting to 3% from Area B to be designated as Green Areas and/or Nature Reserves. The Israeli side will retain in these Green Areas/Nature Reserves the overriding security responsibility for the purpose of protecting Israelis and confronting the threat of terrorism. . . .”

The memorandum put into place both more detailed redispositions of territory than had been articulated in the Oslo Accords and further delineations of cooperation not only between the Israelis and Palestinians but, under prescribed conditions, trilateral activity that involved the United States as well. It encompassed security issues and matters such as the opening of an International Airport in the Gaza Strip and broader cooperative economic issues. It laid out an intricate and precise timeline for events and meetings, to culminate with a meeting scheduled for May 4, 1999, by which time the matters encompassed were to have been dealt with and plans for the next phase of negotiations would take place.

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Those familiar with Israel’s political scene and hopeful of progress toward a final peace with the Palestinians, that would ultimately include a viable independent Palestinian state and an agreeable handling of Jerusalem from both Israeli and Palestinian perspectives, breathed a collective sigh of relief when Ehud Barak became prime minister in 1999. Whereas Netanyahu had been a reluctant partner, pushed hard by Clinton toward the negotiation table, Barak seemed very much to be cut in the Rabin image: a soldier with leftist sympathies who was eager to make peace.

With optimism, the last round of Clinton-mediated talks moved forward, reconvening at Camp David, the historic site where Jimmy Carter had successfully brokered a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt that marked the first crack in the wall of hopelessness of Arab-Israeli relations two decades earlier. There Prime Minister Barak offered to withdraw from between 86 and 91 percent of the West Bank—but then suddenly everything collapsed. Ostensibly, the reason for the collapse is that, although Chairman Arafat was presented with terms that eventually offered 97 percent of what he sought and, rather than either accepting or suggesting that he would need to consider and counterpropose, he argued that what he had been offered was not enough, that it would be suicidal for him to accept it—and he stormed out of the negotiations. There is little question in most analysts’ minds that Arafat was an important part of the problem; that he was ultimately much more comfortable as an embattled revolutionary than as a paper-pushing diplomat seeking to engender a stable state in peaceful coexistence with the erstwhile object of his revolution.149 As Salah Ta’mari, one of Arafat’s strong supporters, observed in 1998, “When it comes down to it, it’s not so romantic dealing with sewage, taxation, salaries, and unemployment.”

But a closer look at what he was offered helps explain his response, although responding with a counterproposal would unquestionably have been more fruitful than merely storming out of the negotiations. The precise structuring of territories—in which barrier settlements and roads that divide the territory were to stay in place—would have deprived a newly independent Palestine of most of what it needed to function. This includes, to give one salient example, control of water supplies through access to the aquifer below the surface of the area under discussion. It may well have also made it very difficult for the Palestinians to believe that Israel would ever accept a genuine Palestinian state without Israeli barriers imbedded within it.

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What the world saw was Arafat’s tantrum, but what it failed to perceive was the precise nature of what he rejected. What it also heard little about was the continuation, in spite of the tantrum, of discussions between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators determined to arrive at a solution to their joint problem. After Camp David, these discussions took place back in the Middle East, in Taba, Egypt. It was there and then, in January, 2001—during the very last days of the Clinton administration—that the next impediment to peace emerged. The Israeli elections approached and Barak’s apparent failure to assure a stable and solid peace had pushed the Israeli electorate toward the unabashedly hawk-like stance espoused by Ariel Sharon, who had led the brutal incursion into Lebanon in 1982 and made a personal fortune as the housing minister. Amidst this, Barak suddenly pulled his negotiating team out of the discussions that had been inching forward.

Barak presumably imagined that in so doing, and thus in presenting himself as more hard-line than his earlier stance had suggested, he might not lose the election. But more fundamentally—perhaps when push came to shove—he could not step outside the box of distrust and fear that would have moved the discussions forward, instead of abandoning them to the violence that has ensued in the seventeen years since. It is certainly true that Arafat did nothing to help assuage this distrust and fear, but Barak’s fear cannot be discounted when trying to understand what ultimately drove the situation toward failure.153 Sharon was elected, the “Second Intifada” was duly begun, the brutal attempts to suppress it blossomed, and the circle of fear, mistrust, and violence spiraled upward.

If Barak and Arafat, each in his own way, contributed to the collapse, Sharon was doubly at its heart. Not only did he cast his corpulent shadow across Barak’s consciousness but he also personally blew on the very sort of embers that could and did become the flames of the intifada. I refer to his notorious visit to the Temple Mount/Haram al’Sharif area on September 28, 2000. It was certainly his right as a Jew, as an Israeli, as a human being—as a private individual—to make that visit. But to do so accompanied by a retinue of one thousand policemen, as the head of the Likud party, both gave to the visit an official air and offered an obvious provocation to the Palestinians. In the context of still-­delicate questions regarding the ultimate status of Jerusalem in a future two-state reality, it smelled of a political statement, an assertion that Jerusalem would remain nonnegotiable, all-Jewish property. Confrontation with Palestinian demonstrators followed; these led to the deaths of four Palestinians, the injuring of some two hundred, and the wounding of fourteen Israeli policemen.

While it is true that a subsequent investigation by an American-led commission concluded that the visit by Sharon ultimately seemed to be “no more than an internal political act; neither were we provided with persuasive evidence that the Palestinian Authority planned the uprising,” nonetheless the Palestinians would continue to see the event as provoked by Sharon and the Israelis would continue to see the demonstrations and subsequent rioting as part of an Arafat-initiated intifada designed to help scuttle the peace talks. Thus the beginning of the “Second Intifada”—also known as the al’Aqsa Intifada—actually preceded the collapse of the final-attempt talks at Taba, and no doubt added fuel to Barak’s inability to think outside the box of fear and distrust.

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Before moving forward to pick up the thread of what has transpired between the disaster of 2000–2001 and the present, it is important to step back for a moment and to readdress the matter of selective memory and the recurrent theme of fear and distrust. It has become too common in the last few years to assert two things that confound all efforts to resolve tensions in the Middle East. The first is to speak or write as if the sole complication for the region is the Israeli-Palestinian issue; that to solve that problem would be to lead us out of the overall regional morass—although, arguably, ISIS/ISIL has recently helped mold an awareness on the part of a growing number of people that there are, indeed, other issues within the region’s morass that have little to do with the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The second is to speak or write as if the Israel-Palestine problem emerged in 1967 with the Israeli conquest of the West Bank, Sinai, and the Golan Heights, and therefore that the root of the problem is Israel’s intransigence regarding matters such as Palestinian statehood and the status of Jerusalem.

It is certainly true that Israel has gradually come to hold most of the cards in this matter. It is also true that a key to the failure to resolve this particular problem is the inability of a majority of Israelis and their leaders—particularly now that we have arrived full circle from Sharon back to Netanyahu—to think outside of fear and distrust. That has led to unilateral actions such as the highly charged decision to build a barrier to separate Israel and protect it from Palestinians, every one of whom seems to be assumed by Israel’s leadership to be a potential or even likely suicide bomber. It must be noted that, on the one hand, this “security fence” has cut down the number of suicide bombings within Israel by more than 90 percent. However, on the other hand, the decision of precisely where the barrier goes and what it encloses and excludes was not only arrived at unilaterally, but seems to maximize both the discomfort level of the Palestinians and the comfort level of particular Israelis, namely those inhabiting the “settlements.”

More fundamentally, as occupiers, the Israelis have grown into the ugly role they too often now play, unfamiliar to the principles that undergird Judaism but all too familiar to history at large. In other words, they have not been able to escape normalizing—a desideratum when it was articulated by Herzl over a century ago, and perhaps a desideratum where hamburgers and shiny cars are concerned, but not where oppressing and humiliating another people is concerned. This development can be seen in scores of incidents, small and large, involving Palestinians at checkpoints and elsewhere. It is also true that the consequences of nearly fifty years of Israeli occupation, culminating with a post-failed-peace-effort-era of unprecedented cruelty, has imbued the Palestinians with profound distaste for Israelis and, more important, profound distrust of them. They are as certain that the Israelis will never yield to peaceful coexistence as the Israelis are that the Palestinians never will.

And just as every frustrated radical who becomes a suicide bomber is construed by Israel to be a component of a monolithic Palestinian bloodlust, every God-clinging Jewish radical who pitches a tent in the Territories and every Israeli soldier who is abusive in his interrogation of a Palestinian youth—or old man or pregnant woman—is construed by Palestinians as a component of a monolithic arrogant Israel, lusting for more territory. As every Jewish settler in Hebron thinks of every Arab in the city as a blood relative of those Arabs who massacred sixty Jews in the riots of 1929 and don’t even acknowledge that there were Arabs who hid whole Jewish families to protect them at that time, every Arab in Hebron believes that every settler is another Baruch Goldstein, who gunned down twenty-nine worshippers in the Ibrahimi Mosque in February 25, 1994.154 Fear and frustration feed frustration and fear from both ends of an endless line.

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To untangle the tangled web of issues defining the Israel-Palestine conflict, we must not only step out of received patterns of explanation but take into account the threads that began their interweave before 1967. We might step back as far as the period between World War I and 1948, during which no proposal, however modest as far as allotting territory to the Jews, was acceptable either to the Palestinians or to their Arab brethren. If we have seen that the British and the French certainly helped sow discord between the Jewish and Arab communities, nonetheless during those decades it appears at least that the Palestinians and their brethren were the intransigent ones.

We might jump from that era to the next, between 1948 and 1967, in which many Palestinians neither stayed nor returned to Israel after its independence; it was an admittedly small window of opportunity to return, and it is fair to say that Israel was not encouraging it, but then neither were Arab leaders at that time. Nonetheless, the result was that these individuals found themselves in territories controlled by Jordan and Egypt. It was the Jordanians and the Egyptians who created the refugee camps in which for two decades enormous frustration built up; that frustration was already firmly in place when the camps and the territories where they were located fell into Israeli hands after the Six-Day War. I might add that at that time, Israel seems from most accounts not to have intended to maintain control over those territories, but hoped to use them as bargaining chips in the peace negotiations for which the Jewish State was at that time so desperate, and in which the Arab states, for their part, seem to have had no interest.

Nor, it must be further added, did the Arabs as a whole exhibit much concern for their Palestinian brothers and sisters after 1967 either. It was only in the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when the military option regarding Israel’s survival or destruction seemed clearly to have failed, that the larger Arab world began to use the Palestinians and concern for their welfare as a chip with which to generate anti-Israel sentiment on a world scale. If we continue forward toward the Oslo Accords and their aftermath in the mid-1990s—recalling that the darkest moment for Palestinians between 1967 and 1992 was Black September—we find the following situation. That apart from the Israeli failure to be more aggressive with regard to dismantling recent Jewish settlements in the Territories, and in thinking seriously toward the shaping of a Palestinian state with a capital, possibly in Jerusalem, there were other issues militating against success, including that neither the Arab nor the Western powers, who promised funds to help develop a Palestinian infrastructure, came forth with the volume of support that had been promised. Moreover, of the funds that were poured into Palestine, there is good evidence that a disproportionate amount ended up in Yassir Arafat’s Swiss bank accounts. There seem, then, to have been failures on all sides, the repercussions of which were furthered exponentially by the assassination of Rabin.

All of which must be kept in mind, if meaningful efforts to end the conflict are to be pursued. Since 1973, to repeat, Israel has been largely in charge of the situation. Arafat was placed by Israel under house arrest; settlements continued to be built in the Territories; suicide bombings were rising and falling in number without a rational reason; both the Israelis and the Palestinians were in the grips of terror regarding each other; and the United States, under the Bush administration, rather than assuming a role of leadership and intermediation, had reduced itself to a blind backer of Israeli policy and a source of both Palestinian and Arab distrust, not only because of its unqualified support of Israel but because the president refused even to speak with Arafat who, regardless of what one might think of him, was the duly appointed and elected leader and spokesperson of the Palestinians.

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At the same time, interestingly enough, President Bush pushed for a conclusive plan—“a detailed blueprint for an Israeli-Palestinian permanent status peace agreement . . . based on the Clinton parameters of December 2000,” and building “on former permanent status negotiations, including those held in Camp David and Taba.” The two sides continued to hammer out details for two years, until October 2003, at which time the Swiss government stepped in to offer Geneva as a site in which to finalize the remaining details—for example, regarding water. The “Geneva Accord offer[ed] a real and mutually agreed upon possibility for ending the conflict between the two sides . . . ” Alas, despite the efforts of fifty-two Israeli and Palestinian discussants and signatories—from politicians to poets—the positive energy that held sway during the discussions never translated to a new reality outside them.

In recent years, two important changes have come about, which require further comment. The first is the change in the American presidency from Bush to Obama, and with that change, new possibilities that seemed to be taking shape with respect to the overall discussion of the Middle East morass and the specifics of the Israel-Palestine issue. The second matter within the matrix is that in the aftermath of the 2005 Israeli pullout from Gaza and the arrival to political hegemony there by Hamas, there followed a fairly continuous rain of small-scale rockets onto Israeli towns and villages within striking distance of the Gaza border. The eventual Israeli response was, as has been noted, a massive assault on Gaza, which some have seen as justified and others as excessive.

There are several angles from which to view the Israeli counterassault. The Israeli perspective—that there was no choice—I considered toward the end of the previous chapter. The regional and international perspective I shall consider in the chapter that follows. For the issues being addressed in this chapter, we must pay further attention to the Palestinian perspective, which sees the strike as confirmation that Israel cannot be trusted not to resort to extreme violence when conditions become uncomfortable: they see themselves as always looking at the Israelis from the receiving end of a gun barrel and never being quite sure when it will go off.

More than that, there is what Rashid Khalidi refers to as:

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the obstinate refusal of both the Bush administration and the Israeli government to accept the results of the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections, and their international campaign to try to force the Palestinians to go back on their democratic choice, [which] is also crucially important in understanding why Palestinians were fighting over the ruins of their refugee camps in 2007. This campaign has included Israel’s withholding of Palestinian taxes, and an American-led international financial and diplomatic boycott of the [Hamas-led] PA. . . . [I]t involves the Israeli refusal to ease its choking restrictions on movement and goods . . . and most ominously, the Palestinian slide into the abyss involves United States government arming, training, funding and encouragement of Fatah in order to bring it to attack its rivals.

A reader of the above passage should recognize that Khalidi writes without attempting to minimize the responsibility of the Palestinian leadership in general or Hamas in particular in shaping the conditions to which the Gazans were relegated by 2007. He was writing before the major escalation toward the incessant rocket attacks into Israel orchestrated by Hamas, which in turn culminated with the 2009 Israeli attack into the Gaza Strip. But that time-blip matter underscores the issue of perspective: the Israelis felt provoked by the rockets; the Palestinians felt provoked to support Hamas whether or not most of them supported the rockets. The desperation leading to that support is a function of conditions since 1967, but also since 1948—and perhaps ultimately even a good deal further than that: even beyond 1920 and beyond 1517 to what starting point?

This brings us to a final issue with regard to the paradoxes of Israel-Palestine history, memory, and perspective. For Jews in the second half of the twentieth century there are, as we have seen, two major events that have defined that century, the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel. Jewish Israelis have come to commemorate the one event and celebrate the other in back-to-back proximity among the annual cycle of celebrations and commemorations that mark their calendar. Both of those types of events coincide as one, as it were, on the Palestinian calendar. The process of establishing the Jewish state was a process that included among its details the destruction of more than four hundred Arab villages during the exodus of their inhabitants. The moment is referred to in the historiography of those refugees as al-Nakba—“The Catastrophe.”

My intention here is not to weigh the comparative responsibility of Arab and Israeli leadership in provoking that exodus and its attendant destruction or in creating the refugee community, because each side will argue its case until it is blue in the face without convincing the other, and I have yet to read an outsider’s account that failed to exhibit strong prejudice in one direction or the other. The issue is also not to argue the objective legitimacy of comparing the Palestinian Nakba of exile and destruction to the mass murder of Jews accomplished by the Nazis. If this were a matter of sheer numbers, that would be absurd. As Anton La Guardia observes, “the extermination of the Shoah belongs to a different universe of evil to the dispossession of Palestinians in the Nakba.”

Nonetheless, as Israel has remained the governing authority in the Territories for nearly five decades now—particularly during the last sixteen years, in the context of the Second Intifada—the security methodology of occupation has increasingly morphed in ways that to some historians echoes the method enacted toward Jews in Nazi Germany in 1933–39. But that does not justify the injudicious and angry labeling of the Israelis as Nazis. The Final Solution evolved by the Nazis for their Jewish victims has no counterpart at all in the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians.

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One of the starting points on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must be to acknowledge and respect both the suffering and the sense of suffering that each side has endured. Jews, some of whom still retain the house keys taken by their ancestors from Spain after the expulsion of 1492, must recognize at least equal legitimacy of emotion pertaining to Palestinians who retain the house keys taken by their grandparents or great-grandparents after fleeing the nascent state of Israel in 1948. Palestinians need to recognize the differences between the Jews who arrived into Palestine and have shaped a state and the Turks, British, and French who arrived into the region with very different goals in generations and centuries past. Such rethinking can be the crux of reconciliation in its deepest sense.


Ori Z. Soltes

MORE FROM Ori Z. Soltes

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