When the borders bleed we watch with dread / The lines of ink across the map turn red

[The title of this post comes from a 1959 poem by Marya Mannes about the consequences of ad hoc frontiers established by British imperialism. In thinking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today, these lines sadly come to mind.]

Image source: Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images

“The general trends of the last century provide a certain degree of confidence that sooner or later, majorities on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will prevail in bringing forth a peaceful resolution.” In trying to wrap my head around the most recent conflict in Gaza, I have found myself turning to my notes from a course I took three years ago on Israeli politics. The quote is from an essay I wrote following a lecture by the seminal scholar Alan Dowty, author of The Jewish State: A Century Later (recommended reading for trying to understand what’s going on today).

In this lecture, Dowty opened by presenting two statements – the first being that recent developments in the conflict have widened the gap between the two sides and have made peaceful resolution more difficult, and the other being that in the course of the conflict, the gap between the two sides has gradually narrowed and in recent years reached its narrowest point. He outlined why these two statements are not contradictory, claiming that an interruption in a long-term historical process is being experienced, while stressing the importance of perspective.

Dowty framed the conflict as one between two peoples over one land – Palestine. It was not caused by ethnic hatreds or rooted in religious differences; these issues have emerged over time. It is necessary to consider the clashing perspectives of the parties, the historical claims and rights of both sides.

Jews can claim a unique 3,200 year historic tie with a continuing physical presence in the area; such a bond is almost unmatched in history. It is recognised by the League of Nations, many other states, and even the Koran. Jews were exiled from their homeland and now able to return; there is a very strong case considered in isolation from other cases.

On the other hand, Palestinians were indigenous to Palestine before Jews started arriving in the 1880s. The norms that prevail in today’s world would forbid demographic change – Palestine has been predominantly Muslim and Arab for over a millennium.

It is worth looking at the historical evolution of the conflict, which has been marked by four distinct stages. The first is from the origins to 1948, the collision between two communities in Palestine. At the start, neither side recognised the legitimacy of the other, hardly acknowledging the other side existed. Arab inhabitants and Turkish rulers regarded Jews as a religion, not as a people. They viewed Jewish settlers as European imperialists. Jews saw Palestinians as benefitting from Jewish settlement. Only towards the end of this period, under the British mandate of 1937 did Palestinians accept portioning Palestine.

The second stage of the conflict lasted until the early 1980s, consisting of the interstate conflict between the new Israel and neighbouring Arab states. Palestinians were temporarily equipped as a major independent actor. During this time, four major wars were fought and there was gradual disengagement as Arab states withdrew from the frontline of conflict. By 1967, UN Resolution 242 was finally accepted. By the end of this period, peace treaties were signed between Israel and Jordan.

The third stage was from the 1980s-1990s, when Palestinians re-emerged as major actors opposite Israel. In 1993, for the first time there was mutual recognition between credible representatives between two core parties who agreed on a framework for solving conflict. At this point, what had been an Arab-Israeli conflict became an Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It appeared as though they were headed towards a solution. In 2000-01, Israeli and Palestinian leadership tried, but failed to close the gap between the two sides.

It becomes evident that nationalism, not religion, is the dominant force propelling both sides. There have been some examples of religious militancy, but these actors have generally been marginal on both sides and quickly defeated. The collapse of the Oslo peace process and the Second Intifada makes it clear that in retrospect, the two sides had fundamentally different understandings of this process – the Israelis saw it as a negotiation, each side trading off its assets. In this view, the continuing violence against Israeli targets was proof that Palestinians didn’t accept the basic process. However, Palestinians saw it as an implementation of resolutions to be carried out. The doubling of the Jewish population settlement was proof that Israel didn’t accept the basic framework.

The current stage of the conflict and the most recent war in Gaza is marked by an ideological rejectionism that goes back to the first stage of the conflict, where neither side recognises the legitimacy of the other. However, these changes haven’t taken place in a vacuum; they are rooted in global tectonic changes: the decline of state authority and the rise of non-state actors (political movements); developments in the nature of warfare – the end of classic wars and the rise of insurgency, hybrid wars, and asymmetric wars (war amongst the people), and the rise of radical religiously based movements that have redefined norms. These developments reinforce one another, and have thus created new realities in the Middle East and elsewhere.

When it comes to the formation of Hezbollah and Hamas, the rise of these militant forces led to a historical turning point in 2006. In January of that year, Hamas won a majority of seats in the Palestinian National Council as a reaction to the widespread perception of corruption within the Palestinian Authority (PA), leaving executive powers in the hands of a movement that rejected permanent agreements with Israel. A new kind of war was triggered, in response to the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers. Israel started a campaign, though despite its military superiority, the army had no solution to the missiles that were being fired from Palestine.

In June 2007, Hamas seized control of Gaza, causing the president of the PA to respond by dissolving the unity government that had been formed after the 2006 election and ultimately leaving the West Bank and Gaza divided. The Gaza War of December 2008 and January 2009 raised many of the same questions and left the definition of victory or defeat disputed. Parties on both sides claimed victory according to their own dispositions, leaving confusion on both sides. It is interesting to note the similarities to the current war in Gaza.

At the time, it produced a quick emergence and even quicker demise of the shortest lived school of thought in Israeli strategy – the move to unilateral disengagement from Palestinian territories. During the Second Intifada, there was a growing realisation that demography worked against Israel. In order to remain Jewish and democratic, it stood to reason that Israel would have to get out of the West Bank and Gaza.

However, support in Israel for unilateral disengagement from Palestinian territories evaporated as a significant shift to the right had taken place in reaction to all of these events. It is also worth pointing out that as Palestinian unilateralism moved into its critical phase, the Middle Eastern context changed with the Arab Spring. The uprisings across the Middle East, although initially centred on domestic issues, eventually led to more radical anti-Israeli policies. Arab public opinion has generally been more sympathetic to Palestinians, giving the PA further encouragement to proceed with their unilateral initiative. It is also clear that Egypt is one of the most critical states where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is concerned. Traditionally assumed to align with Palestinians, recent actions such as bolstering Israel’s blockade on Gaza by destroying over 1,600 tunnels to end the tunnel trade of goods and weapons, and closing Egypt’s formal border at Rafah indicate that its interests are perhaps more aligned with Israel’s. However, Qatar and Turkey are also angling to broker a ceasefire.

Dowty concluded that it is premature to pronounce the Oslo peace process as dead. He argued that it has produced mutual recognition between Israeli and Palestinian leadership, introduced the first Palestinian self-governance, ensured the first peace treaty with Jordan, stabilising the longest international frontier in conflict, and it led to Lebanon’s withdrawal.

He furthered his argument in saying that ideological commitments tend to lose their intensity over time, raising the question of whether the responsibility of governing would serve to moderate Hamas.

In the current context, it is interesting to reflect on these points from a mere three years ago. At the time, the leader of Hamas declared that an opportunity to achieve Palestinian national consensus on the premise of the 1967 Israeli border exists, implying that they were indeed open to seeking a political rather than military solution. In June 2009, Benjamin Netanyahu expressed a highly qualified acceptance of the Palestinian state alongside Israel. In that election, only two small parties that won seats actually opposed a Palestinian state unambiguously. In the last Israeli election in January 2013, a new party founded in 2010 by a former journalist, Yesh Atid, came second on a platform of representing the secular middle class and calling for peace – “two states for two peoples.

It is clear now that the responsibility of governing has not moderated Hamas. Instead of investing in infrastructure, education, or trade, it focused its efforts on constructing an extensive network of tunnels, used to house thousands of rockets and weapons. Hamas didn’t build bomb shelters for its people; instead, it built a few houses to hide their leaders during airstrikes. It has been using civilian deaths for its “incredibly effective PR war.”

On the other side, Israel has moved itself to a point of international isolation on two fronts – the occupation and the settlement expansion. The latter is particularly incomprehensible, as it has been opposed by virtually every foreign leader, even in the US. The sole justification behind it is Biblical, making it harder to view the country’s motives as purely secular and democratic.

As we saw with Gaza in 2005, unilateral disengagement is likely easier to discuss than to implement in reality. However, if Israel does not work harder to make a two-state solution work, it will remain as a Jewish-majority state in perpetual conflict with its minority. In re-reading an essay by Christopher Hitchens on ‘The Perils of Partition,’ I came across an apt quote by George Bernard Shaw in the preface to his 1904 play John Bull’s Other Island, which draws a vivid metaphor between nationalism and fracture:

A healthy nation is as unconscious of its nationality as a healthy man of his bones. But if you break a nation’s nationality it will think of nothing else but getting it set again. It will listen to no reformer, to no philosopher, to no preacher, until the demand of the Nationalist is granted. It will attend to no business, however vital, except the business of unification and liberation.

At its core, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is tribally nationalistic; it will not be resolved until people stop choosing sides. As Ali A. Rizvi recently wrote, “you really don’t have to choose between being ‘pro-Israel’ or ‘pro-Palestine.’ If you support secularism, democracy, and a two-state solution – and you oppose Hamas, settlement expansion, and the occupation – you can have both.”

To end, another quote stolen from the Hitchens article, this time a poem by W.H. Auden:

Unbiased at least he was when he arrived on his mission,

Having never set eyes on this land he was called to partition

Between two peoples fanatically at odds,

With their different diets and incompatible gods.

“Time,” they had briefed in him in London, “is short, It’s too late

For mutual reconciliation or rational debate:

The only solution now lies in separation…”

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