War or peace in the land of two peoples?

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War or peace in the land of two peoples?

Israel and Gaza: a history of conflict (Image created in Shutterstock)

“A land without a people for a people without a land”. This trope was probably first coined by 19th century Christian Zionists inspired by visits to the Holy Land. Known as restorationists, they advocated a return to the historic land of Israel of the Jewish people.

Men like American evangelist William Eugene Blackstone and Anthony Ashley-Cooper, the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury who wrote in 1854 that Greater Syria (the pre-1914 name for Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan) was “wasted without an inhabitant.”

It was a powerful idea that played into the romance of the wandering Jew fulfilling ‘the dreams of poets and patriarchs’ by returning to the land of Abraham. It was also a literal half-truth. One half of the statement was true. The other was a lie.

The Arabs of Palestine, for many, simply did not exist beyond the exotic idea of primitive Bedouins brought to life by Scottish artist David Roberts’ stunning 19th century lithographs.

Arabs were airbrushed out of existence. This made them politically inconsequential at a time when the Arab world was a pawn under Ottoman or British rule waiting to be parcelled out. Oil with which to hook the West had yet to be discovered.

Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir famously told a British newspaper in a 1969 interview to mark the second anniversary of the 1967 Six Day war: “There was no such thing as Palestinians.” She was denying their identity, not their existence.

The past 50 years have witnessed uninterrupted Palestinian resistance in and beyond the occupied territories, international support for a two-state solution and considerable sympathy among Jews within Israel for a fair settlement.

Yet the idea that Palestinians exist as individuals – but not as a people with legitimate national aspirations – still holds sway and remains a thorn in the side of peacemakers.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s beleaguered Prime Minister, has anchored his entire strategy to keep the country safe on dividing, marginalising, confining and silencing Palestinian nationalism.

In this, his alliance with religious Jewish fundamentalists, who believe (in common with Palestinian extremists) that the historic land of Israel from the river to the sea belongs to them and them alone, has been pivotal.

Israel’s religious parties may have been marginal in the early days of a secular Israel. Now they are a power in the land with effective control of swathes of occupied territory through an expansionist, and sometimes violent, settler movement which would almost certainly resist any attempts to reverse the process.

Netanyahu’s strategy has backfired spectacularly with tragic consequences. The October 7 massacre and the subsequent pulverising of Gaza has demolished the idea that the Palestinian identity can be repressed or that the world will look the other way again —  at least not for a long time.

Palestinian flags have become as familiar as national ones in western capitals. Antisemitism has spiked alarmingly. Shipping is under threat in the Red Sea. Joe Biden’s razor-thin chances of re-election in November could conceivably be tipped either way by his Gaza policy.

The risk of a wider regional war, which would inevitably suck in the US escalated by several notches at the weekend. Iran attacked Israeli territory for the first time with 350 drones and cruise missiles, in retaliation for the Israeli strike on IRGC officers at its consulate in Damascus, the Syrian capital. This was the first direct attack by Iran on Israel. It was only repelled with the help of US and UK warplanes. Jordan opened its airspace in what would have been a carefully co-ordinated operation and may have also shot down some drones.

Earlier Iranian Revolutionary Guards boarded a cargo vessel linked to an Israeli company in the Straits of Hormuz, taking it to Iranian waters and seizing its crew. This is a moment of great peril but also of considerable complexity. Israel is being urged to show restraint in Gaza. But it is also being protected against the greater threat posed by Iran. New lines are being drawn in the Middle East.

Rarely have chickens come home to roost with such terrible ferocity. The war in Gaza is far from over and could still, without too much difficulty, spread much further. Hamas is still standing after six months and holds perhaps 100 surviving hostages. This may yet turn out to be one of the most consequential conflicts in modern history.

The question of identity is the beating heart of this saga. The notion of “cancelling” Palestine/Israel’s Arabs has persisted among Jewish fundamentalists, with varying degrees of tenacity, at least since the creation of the Jewish state in 1948. It fuses Orthodox beliefs with aggressive nationalism. In its intransigence it mirrors Arab extremism.

The Six-Day War of 1967 gave a fillip to religious Zionism. Jerusalem and Judea (the West Bank) – the very heart of ancient Israel — were once again under Jewish control. The settlement movement, spurred by the messianic idea of the return to sacred land, took off. To give any of it back would defy the will of God.

The idea that Palestinian land was an empty desert waiting for the Jews to come and make it bloom was, of course, a fiction. At the time of the Balfour Declaration in 1917, announcing the British government’s support of a national home for the Jewish people, in Palestine Jews numbered fewer than 100,000, Muslims more than 500,000. Right up to 1948 Jews were greatly outnumbered by Muslims.

Nor was it all inter-communal conflict. In his compelling biography of Jerusalem, Simon Sebag-Montefiore paints a vivid picture of a peaceful, richly diverse community of inter-faith cultures in the city and its hinterland. Jews and Arabs have not, as the popular myth suggests, always been at each other’s throats.

But in the year following the establishment of the state of Israel the numbers flipped: Israel’s Jewish population soared to over 700,000, mostly refugees from war-torn Europe after the Holocaust. The number of Arabs fell to around 150,000.

Five Arab nations refused to accept the UN mandate. They attacked the new state. Over half a million Palestinians left or were forcibly driven from their land. The Nakba, or “catastrophe” in Arabic, remains fundamental to the Palestinian experience.

Today there are around six million Palestinian refugees scattered across three countries, including 1.9 million forced to flee their homes in Gaza. The Palestinian movement itself has, of course, been partly responsible for the repeated failure to find a way of co-existing with Israel. It has flip-flopped between conciliation and armed resistance, common sense and hubris, olive branches and terrorism.

Manipulated by Arab regimes for their own ends, kept at arms length by the great powers, artfully divided and brutally suppressed by Israel, they have never found the voice (or the leadership) to shape a path to self-determination.

Israel, for its part, has been moving steadily to the right ever since the Likud party won the 1977 election. Likud has remained in control for most of the next 47 years, including more than 16 under Netanyahu. Power, not peace, has been the priority.

The present Israeli government includes several politicians committed to realising a Greater (Biblical) Israel: annex the territories conquered in 1967 and, where possible, expel their populations. Daniella Weiss, leader of the Nachala Israeli settlement movement recently called for Palestinians to be cleared from Gaza. This was, she said, so Israeli settlers “can see the sea … There will be no homes, there will be no Arabs.” Gaza City had always been “one of the cities of Israel. We’re just going back.”

It’s a sentiment some Israeli ministers applaud. They are, wisely, excluded from the present War Cabinet of Netanyahu although the Israeli Prime Minister is as hawkish as they come on the issue.

The road to October 7, reaching as far back as 1948, is littered with appalling failures of judgement, abuse of power and bad faith. On all sides. The use of force won’t settle what is essentially a political problem. Both Hamas and Netanyahu know that. Each has their own reasons for pursuing the war.

Beyond the pain of October 7, beyond suffering in Gaza, beyond even the efforts of the international community to find a tiny opening that might end the killing, there lies the seminal issue of identity.

Which Israel will shape the future once this war ends? Expansionism disguised as religious puritanism? Or what Noah Feldman, Harvard law professor, a Jew and author of To be a Jew today, calls “progressive Judaism” — liberal Zionists, deeply attached to Israel, who wish to live in peace with their neighbours and are uncomfortable with Netanyahu’s approach?

The question applies equally to Palestinians. Once the killing stops, will they choose eternal retribution, or will they finally recognise the reality of the Jewish state and learn to live with it?



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Member ratings
  • Well argued: 72%
  • Interesting points: 76%
  • Agree with arguments: 63%
36 ratings - view all

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