“Israel is not the biggest problem in the Middle East, by a long shot. But you wouldn’t know that from the disproportionate way in which the UN has treated the country.”
29 December 2016
The dispute between Israel and the Palestinians remains as contentious as ever, but other issues in the Middle East in 2016, principally the conflict in Syria, momentarily sidelined the Palestinian question from the front pages. However, the recent vote of the United Nations Security Council to declare Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories as illegal has again raised the conflict’s media profile. The UNSC decision was only made possible due to then US President, Barack Obama, making the controversial call that the US would not use its veto to counteract the motion. The Israel-Palestine question gained further traction when then President-elect, Donald Trump, said he would reverse Obama’s policy. If we are approaching anything resembling peace, if not order, in Syria, following the truce brokered by Russia and Turkey, it could be that the Middle East’s big story in 2017 will again be this long-running dispute between Israeli and Palestine.
The nation of Israel itself was created in 1948, when the United Kingdom ended its mandate of Palestine, which it had held since 1917 following the Balfour Declaration. The Declaration had installed Palestine as a home for Jews. The key rationale for Britain handing Palestine back to the United Nations was essentially to focus on domestic matters, the Empire having been ravaged by war. Britain could no longer hold on to Palestine; attacks on British soldiers by Zionist terrorists certainly helped foster a feeling that this was a territory no longer worth holding. Of course, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. I would have no hesitation in calling a Palestinian who blows himself to pieces on a crowded bus in Tel Aviv a terrorist, but I would also freely refer to the 1946 attack on the King David hotel by Irgun (The National Military Organization in the Land of Israel) as an act of terrorism. On July 22 1946, 91 people of various nationalities were killed, and 46 injured, following the bombing by this right-wing Zionist group.
This example is not given to be provocative, but to illustrate that perspective is everything. In both cases, I feel acts of terrorism were committed. Others may feel one of these examples to be completely justifiable (according to their religious, nationalist or political persuasions), whilst labelling the other example as unjust. To each their own.
Since the political existence of Israel as a nation state, it has been attacked on numerous occasions by its Arab neighbours, and has been the victim of countless terrorist attacks. Ironically, the results of these wars have generally been victories and additional territory acqusitions for Israel. You will often hear the term “1967 borders”, which refers to the Six Day War in which Israel captured the Gaza Strip, Sinai, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights, soundly defeating a coalition of Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq. You mess with the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) at your peril. Not only do you get a beating, but you leave with less than you started with.
The territory of Israel comprises some of the most holy lands in existence for Jews, Muslims and Christians alike. Depending on your interpretation of history and how far you wish to go back in time, there are numerous claims to the land, and most crucially, that of Jerusalem itself. Despite a long-term peace process and the general reconciliation of Israel with Egypt and Jordan, Israelis and Palestinians have failed to reach a final peace agreement. Indeed, it has been complicated from the very beginning of Israel’s statehood. There were factions within the Jewish faith that were opposed to Jews returning to what is now Israel at the time of the Balfour Declaration due to religious objections. Literalists believe that Jews should only return to the Holy Land once God has given a clear signal that it was time to do so.
Once again, religion, as with so many conflicts, plays the most significant part of this age-old struggle, as it does with Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, Muslims and Hindus in Kashmir, as it did with Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Muslims in the former Yugoslavia, to name but a few of many depressing examples. The primary issue dividing Israelis and Palestinians, from a non-secular perspective at least, is that of the Holy Land. There is no question that history will not judge such a petty dispute favourably, but it is a problem endemic within religious faith. It is quite clear that if faith were not an issue, there would not even be a territorial dispute to speak of, because the Zionist movement for a home in the holy lands would never have occurred. It all appears so obscene to this non-theist, but had I been born in Ramallah or Jerusalem, I accept that I may very well feel differently. However, this says far more about the mindless indoctrination of innoncent children than about my particular gullibility.
After 1993, with the ambitious Oslo peace process, Israel recognized the Palestinian Liberation Organisation as the representative of the Palestinian people, though, rather importantly, Israel does not recognize the State of Palestine. In return for the concession of recognising the PLO, it was agreed that Palestinians would promote peaceful co-existence, renounce violence and promote recognition of Israel among their own people. However, despite Yasser Arafat’s official renunciation of terrorism and the recognition of Israel, some Palestinian groups continue to practice and advocate violence against civilians and do not recognize Israel as a legitimate political entity. Two years after his efforts in Oslo, Israel’s Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, was assassinated by a domestic assailant as a curt thank you for his attempts to seek peace with the Palestinians.
Since 2006, the Palestinian side has been fractured by conflict between the two major factions: Fatah, the traditionally dominant party, and its later electoral challenger, Hamas. Indeed, in the important eyes of the West, much harm has been done to the Palestinian cause by the rise of Hamas. The latest round of peace negotiations began in July 2013 but were quickly suspended without a hint of progress. Many attempts have been made to broker a two-state solution, which would officially sanction the birth of an independent Palestinian state. In polls conducted around a decade ago, the majority of both Israelis and Palestinians preferred the two-state solution over any other as a means of resolving the conflict. Moreover, a majority of Jews saw the Palestinian demand for an independent state as just. Regardless, a lack of trust and no shortage of disagreements have prevented meaningful progress.
Counter-radicalisation expert, Maajid Nawaz, wrote a much shared article for the Daily Beast in December 2016. Nawaz, a former extremist, but now deeply involved in steering others from this deadly path, wrote a thought-provoking piece, which noted, correctly in my view, a degree of hypocrisy in the way in which Israel is handled by the wider world, and how the Palestinians are not given enough intellectual credit.
Nawaz wrote: “Israel is not the biggest problem in the Middle East, by a long shot. But you wouldn’t know that from the disproportionate way in which the UN has treated the country.”
Referring to the Jewish presence of 500,000 settlers in any future Palestinian state being deemed an obstacle to the two state solution, Nawaz asked a pointed question: are Palestinians not capable of building a multiethnic state just like Israelis? Nawaz reflected, “Is this how low the standard is to which Western leftists hold Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims?” Nawaz continued, “We who have been pro-Palestine have become our own worst enemies. When new thinking on any issue is instantly labeled treacherous, only inward looking violently inbred and dogmatic ideologies such as jihadism can thrive.”
Away from the political talks, humanitarian considerations or social challenges, only God knows how to solve this mess. After all, he created the problem. Or rather, mankind created God, and then man created the problem in his image. It is near impossible to reason with anyone, Jewish, Muslim… Scientologist; with anyone whose worldview is based on blind dogmatic faith. Mankind needs to wake-up to what is real and what is simply make-believe. We need to stop forcing this nonsense on children. As Christopher Hitchens said, “Religion poisons everything.”
If you enjoyed this podcast companion, please let me know and I will look at producing more of these.