A Fucking Muddle
I haven’t written about the latest Israeli attack on Palestinians because the conflict is so deep and so intractable, it seems beyond resolution. It goes without saying, for me at least, that violence in any form is never justified. At the same time, I don’t expect any human being to simply stand and be destroyed by another’s violence. My moral compass points in different directions depending on how I look at it. Both the Palestinians and the Israelis see violence as their primary (only?) defense against the other, I can safely predict that their conflict will end only when one side or the other is willing to take a chance to break the cycle. Each side can claim self-defense by pointing to the actions of the other. But somewhere, someone struck the first blow and it is there that any hope of resolution must lie.
Israel’s attack on Gaza is the latest round in a cycle of violence stretching back to the beginnings of the last century, with roots deep into the history of the Jewish Diaspora . And it all comes down to the forcible dispossession of Palestinians to make way for the creation of Israel in 1948. Far too many in a culture with a strong attachment to place and long memories were wronged by that act to allow for easy settlement. In No god But God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam, Reza Aslan describes the law of retribution in Arabic cultures, much like the Old Testament’s “eye for an eye”. The law evolved from actual retribution to a symbolic and often substantial payment to the victim by the perpetrator. In either case, wrongs were acknowledged and actions taken to restore or compensate for the loss. I look at Palestine and wonder if the injustice of Palestinian dispossession can ever be set right.
The years since Israel’s founding have brought no peace to the region. Jews wanted a homeland where they would be safe from centuries of oppression and discrimination. What they got was an embattled fortress propped up with American weapons, money and political support. But Israeli technological and military supremacy does not guarantee security as long as implacable adversaries are willing to resist, even to the point of death. American’s blithely ascribe Arab hostility toward Israel as hatred within cultures that we dismiss as “fighting with each other for centuries”. We conveniently forget that their wars, conquests and disputes mirror and parallel an equally long list of conflicts among the “enlightened West”. No doubt, a long array of Arab leaders have used Israel as an external “threat” as a way to ignore their own domestic failings and impotence but the long term causes lie in Palestinian claims for redress of a grievous loss.
In its simplest and most personal terms, the Palestinian claim is this. “I was forced out of my house by these people who said they once lived there. They killed my parents and pushed my family into the yard where we have lived in tents ever since. Then they invited their families to join them here, built extra rooms on the house and squeezed my family into this tiny corner. We come and go at their will and have little say in matters that affect us most. They live well. We do not.” I cannot tell these people to that they have no right to take up arms against those who not only dispossessed them but continue to oppress them.
Nor can I tell Israelis to sit by and let their neighbors threaten and attack them. If I were an Israeli at risk from enemy missiles, I would demand that my government do something about it. That’s a fundamental purpose of government. So we are at a fundamental impasse that means only more bloodshed and violence unless both sides come to terms with the original sin of Israel’s creation: the Palestinian dispossession.
Americans largely support Israel as an embattled democracy in a region of religious and cultural hostility. We still carry the image of the doughty little nation that in 1967 completely destroyed and overcame much larger military forces threatening its very existence. The image may be tarnished but few Americans will look beyond Palestinian suicide bombers and terrorists to the terrorists of the Irgun who dispossessed Palestinians to make way for the new Jewish state after World War II. Our pundits describe the “painful choices” that Palestinians must make if they are ever to live in peace with their Jerwish neighbors.
Painful choices are indeed required, as is courage but the choices are hardly limited to one side. Israelis and their American supporters have never come to terms with the violence of Israel’s birth. At some level Arab leaders have (however grudgingly and minimally) accepted Israel’s creation and continued existence but they cannot ignore the injustices suffered by their Palestinian brethren, even if they are unwilling to do anything about it. But Israel has continued to expand its boundaries with settlements and further dispossession and disruption of Palestinian life. And the inevitable resistance and hatred engendered among the dispossessed.
In 1967 Israel faced a serious threat to its very existence and a less serious but very real threat six years later. Since then those threats have diminished completely, replaced with threats to individuals and communities from hostile actions born of violence and oppression. While it has a right to defend and prevent those attacks, Israel also has an opportunity to break (or at least slow) the cycle by taking the risk of stopping further expansion and dispossession. Israel is now the unchallenged military power in its region. As always, the strong have the greatest opportunity to step out of the cycle of violence.
I keep thinking of Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural when he spoke of the civil war as karma:
until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword
Americans were "fortunate" that the war of which he spoke soon ended even as the nation continued to suffer its consequences long after. The Israeli-Palestinian wars are still ongoing with no Lincoln anywhere in sight.
It's taken me a week to write even this wandering muddle, which says plenty about the difficulty of ever resolving this conflict. A better reference is Henry Siegman's article in The Nation