I have been called out. I spent some time yesterday trying to compose an instagram post about the ongoing violence in Israel/Palestine that wouldn’t offend anyone. I was to say something that was, at the same time, profound and innocuous, and not result in a stream of abusive comments. I ended up doing the one thing that I so dislike in others - virtue-signalling. I got it wrong!
Thankfully, one of my friends from the region called me out on it. So I am writing what I really think here, in a piece long enough to capture the mixture of emotions I feel about the place, the peoples and the conflict.
Today is the anniversary of the creation of the modern state of Israel in 1948. It is the day Palestinians have come to regard as the Nakba, the disaster. The newly-created United Nations had recommended a two-state solution to the ‘problem’ of British-mandate Palestine, and proposed partition and international administration of the most contentious area. Like previous partition plans in the parts of the world - most notably in Ireland and India - it was welcomed by the minority community and rejected by the majority. And, as in Ireland and India, its imposition resulted in violence, displacement of civilians and ongoing tensions. Looking back, it is hard to credit the sheer level of hubris on the part of those who believed that drawing lines on a map of someone else’s country would magically result in peace and harmony.
This is not a piece about ‘what if’s’: what if the Palestinians and surrounding Arab nations had accepted the 1947 UN Partition Plan; what id Jordan and Egypt had created an independent Palestine in Gaza and the West Bank during their administration of the areas; what if the British had fulfilled their promises to the League of Nations when the took on the mandate for the region and created an independent nation in what is now Israel, Palestine and Jordan?
What is absolutely clear over the past century is that the Palestinians have very few friends, either in the region, or beyond. As surrounding Arab states get fed up with the decades-long stand off with Israel and move towards normalizing diplomatic relations, so the Palestinians are marginalised even more. The cause of the Palestinians is increasingly the preserve of the far Left in Western politics and those small nations whose voices are drowned out by superpower rivalries.
As the case for Palestinian statehood slips down the international agenda, so the rhetoric ramps up. The word of the moment is ‘apartheid’, designed to evoke bad memories and stir the consciences of those who battled to overthrow the racist government of South Africa in the 70s and 80s. For me, the trouble with the use of the term is not whether it is appropriate, but that it serves well those who wish to distract from what is really at issue. Instead of providing a laser focus on the increasingly desperate plight of Palestinians in Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank - and Jordan, Syria and Lebanon - it simply fuels an argument about semantics and anti-Semitism. In all this, the Palestinians get lost.
For what it’s worth. I’m not sure how helpful the analogy with South Africa is. In South African, the whites were always in the minority, and their grip on power was dependent on weak neighbours and the tacit support of Western government. In a time of global superpower politics, the anti-communist stance of the National Party served the interests of the United States and its allies. Once the Soviet Union collapsed and support for proxy wars on the African continent ended, it was only a matter of time before the racist government in Pretoria would be called to account. It was the realisation within the leadership of white South Africa that their days were numbered that really pushed them to the negotiating table.
I don’t see any of that in the current Middle Eastern situation. Israel remains the most powerful military in the region (and the only one with nuclear weapons) and international support has not wavered in the last three decades. There is little indication from the government of Israel that they believe the current situation to be unmanageable, and a good deal of evidence that it is economically sustainable. If anything, the recent roll out of the covid vaccines proves to the average Israeli citizen that they are part of a system that works in their best interests. Why change it?
The Palestinian people have been losing ground - literally and metaphorically - since the end of the first World War. What I fear we are witnessing a century on is the slow death of yet another indigenous people. Like Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians before them, Palestinians are being pushed out of the way.
A few years ago, I accompanied a friend on a visit to the West Bank, the place where a sovereign state of Palestine will be established. We drove around for the whole afternoon and, in that time, met exactly two Palestinians. We were travelling on roads built for the exclusive use of Israeli Jewish citizens, designed to connect settlements with one another and Israel proper. We only met any Palestinians because we turned off the Israeli-only roads and entered an area where Palestinians were permitted to live. I have been to the West Bank many times and this was the first where I felt I have never left Israel proper.
At one point, we approached a new settlement under construction. The security guard obviously thought we were supporters and waved us in to give us a tour. We were shown the mobile structures, moved from another part of the West Bank, that would become homes to new Jewish settlers. When we enquired about permission, we were told this was not a ‘new’ settlement but simply the expansion of an existing neighbourhood. We were surprised because we couldn’t see the rest of the existing settlement. Then we were pointed to one way across the valley, barely visible to the naked eye. Once the Palestinians who lived in the valley had been ‘swept away’, he said, would the neighbourhoods be joined.
We kid ourselves if we think that a two-state solution is either viable or will bring any peace or justice. Violence is not the cause of the problem, it is a symptom of a wound that time will never heal. Sadly, the calculation has already been done by political leaders that the cost of a peaceful settlement is higher than containing occasional outbreaks of violence. The rhetoric of a two-state solution is increasingly hollow as facts on the ground make it impossible.
Where does that leave the ordinary people of the region between the river and the sea? For Israelis, it means continuing to accept the security narrative that stops life being normal, but is bearable. With Arab neighbours seeking normal diplomatic relations, life can only get better. For Palestinians, they will continue to be faced with a choice - leave the region for a better life for their children in the West, or stay and see the opportunities for a stable and prosperous life diminish.
Meanwhile, the world looks on. For a long time the Palestinians have believed that international law would be their saviour and the international community would rescue them. Once they knew how bad it had become, intervention would quickly follow. The realisation has now downed that, however bad it gets, the world will do nothing but watch and pontificate from the sidelines. The cavalry is definitely not coming ….
Writing this blog has been a really depressing exercise for me and I apologise if it has had the same effect on you. Many years ago I went to a meeting of Jewish folk in London to discuss the Israel-Palestine situation. In that meeting, we were told an inconvenient truth we didn’t want to hear. The invited speaker reminded us that, each time we gathered, the situation had reached a new low. Each time we told ourselves it couldn’t get worse and this would be the moment for change. And each time we were wrong as a new low was plumbed.
I think of those Israelis and Palestinians I have the extraordinary privilege of counting friends. They are, without exception, incredibly gifted individuals making a real difference to their communities. Palestine and Israel are full of people like them: talented, creative, passionate and intelligent. I wish I had an answer for how to get out of this mess. In my own pathetic way, I continue to pray for an end to the violence, that the myth that violence achieves anything other than the suffering of the poorest and most vulnerable be exposed for the lie that it is. I pray for leaders to arise who are worthy to serve those exceptional nations. And I know my prayers are not enough ….