The Mess in the Middle East

I find myself in the weird position of having both sympathy and condemnation for the Palestinians in Gaza. I don’t know whether to criticize the Israelis for all the civilian casualties or to criticize the Palestinian civilians for bringing it on themselves.

As to my sympathy for the Palestinians, it’s simple. I believe that the Balfour Declaration and subsequent British mandates are travesties of British colonialism. The Palestinians were robbed of lands that had been theirs for 1300 years. I don’t think most Americans know this.

There is some sense in American politics that the Israelis and the Palestinians both have equal claims to the land and that both have been locked in a struggle for it for hundreds of years. I don’t think that most Americans realize that the last Jewish “state” was the Kingdom of Judea in 600 AD. Between then and 1948, with the exception of a hundred years or so of Crusader-rule, the land of modern Israel had been under Muslim rule of one flavor or another. Whether being “under Muslim rule” constitutes a formal Palestinian state or not, I think, is irrelevant. What’s clear is that there was no formal Jewish state in the area for 1300 years. It can be argued that the land should belong to the Egyptians or to Turkey or to Arabic tribesmen, but going back to 600 AD to establish provenance seems like a stretch.

Israel’s claim to their land is based on the religious argument of Zionism – that God had granted them these “Promised Lands.” Historians suggest that the British drafted the Balfour declaration in order to secure Jewish support to finance the war against Germany in WWI (the Ottoman Turks, who ruled Palestine, had sided with Germany). Without getting too much into personal religious beliefs, let me say that, at the very least, accepting Zionism as an argument for carving out a Jewish state from the lands of Palestine is, at best, biased towards Judeo-Christian dogma. The Muslims/Palestinians have their religious claim to the same lands that the British chose to overlook when proposing the partitioning of Palestine/Transjordan. Should the Scientologists lay claim to West Hollywood or the Zoroastrians to Kashmir, I doubt the UN would pay much attention to either.

I emphasize “partitioning” because it was not the British intent to completely disenfranchise the Palestinians; they intended there to be both Jewish and Palestinian states as per their mandates.

Given this, it seems eminently reasonable that there be some pissed off Palestinians.

On the other hand, regardless of whether the Palestinians are justified in their anger, the fact remains that Israel is there and it’s unreasonable to expect that it go away. The fact also remains that lobbying missiles and rockets at random civilian targets is the action of terrorist thugs and not that of indignant freedom fighters.

Regardless of what maneuverings might have led to the creation of the Jewish state, the state exists. The founding of Israel was accomplished through quasi-legitimate means (the League of Nations and UN were involved somewhere along the way) and Israelis have a valid claim that they followed the necessary protocols. We are not going to give Manhattan back to the Native Americans and the Israelis are not going to walk away from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

So, taking into account the righteousness of their anger, we need to consider what is the appropriate Palestinian response.

I can accept the Arab rejection of partioning in 1948. At that point, they had some reasonable hope that Israel be later defeated and driven out. By 1967, however, it should have been clear that the elimination of Israel was not a likely option. I’m convinced that the Palestinians would have been much better off if they’d accepted the proposals resulting from the Oslo accords in the 90’s during the Clinton administration. I think it was Arafat who admitted that the Palestinians are “Never ones to miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”

Hamas’ failure to recognize Israel and its pledge to keep working towards its destruction are understandable and “fundamental” (as in “Fundamentalism”). The group refuses to accept the injustice of 1948 and all the history that followed. Understandable or not, however, it is unrealistic, nihilistic and bad for the Palestinian people. Would the majority of Palestinians fight to the death rather than accepting the partitioning of Palestinian land? Hamas would have this be so, but they’re wrong. Most Palestinians are ready for a negotiated peace even if it means accepting the injust confiscation of Palestinian land.

And yet, in 2006, Hamas won a majority of seats in the Palestinian Parliamentary elections.

The accepted explanation for this is that the populace was sick of the corruption of the Palestinian Authority/Fatah and voted for Hamas in spite of their more militant stance against Israel. Regardless, Hamas did not hide its political stance nor mislead the Palestinian voters. At best, they voted for Hamas in the hope that it would be less corrupt while also hoping that they wouldn’t cause too much trouble with Israel.  At worst, they voted for Hamas because they were more militant.

How could Israel be expected to handle an overt enemy within its borders? Clearly, they could expect that Iran would supply weapons to Hamas through its porous Egyptian border. Israel could not stand by idly letting this happen and, as such, moved to secure the Gaza borders. They sought, too, to destabilize Hamas by laying a virtual siege on Gaza. Hamas responded by sending rockets into Israel. At the conclusion of the ceasefire agreement last year, with no end in sight to border restrictions, Hamas significantly increased rocket fire into Israel, prompting the latest assault.

I believe that Hamas is posturing when it blames the rocket attacks on Israeli border restrictions and on political assasinations. I would expect that, even if without these provocations, Hamas would be lobbing rockets and missiles into Israel. They would cite a different motive, perhaps, but would attack nonetheless. The group is open regarding its hostile position regarding Israel. It is only being true to its rhetoric when it fires rockets and missiles.

Ultimately, the residents of Gaza need to understand that they are complicit in establishing the situation that led to the Israeli military operations. They cannot elect leaders overtly hostile to Israel and expect Israel to not defend itself against these leaders. I hate to see children and other civilians dying in any war but they Palestinians should accept their own roles in these deaths.

Beyond the basis for their state, there is plenty of blame to be meted to Israel, too. The lack of political will to stop settlement activity is unacceptable. Israelis must understand that the concept of “Greater Israel” is no more realistic than the Palestinian notions of driving the Israelis into the sea. So, too, must Israelis accept that, at best, Jerusalem will be a divided city. So, too, must Israelis stop the unscrupulous taking of Palestinian lands through illegal or merely “unethical” means.

Both sides must understand that, at best, they will achieve a tenous peace that will last long enough for all the current hotheads to die off and leave the pragmatists behind.

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