It goes without saying that we should all lament the recent violence in Palestine and Israel. The loss of life, the destruction of homes, the inability for children to sleep through the night without hearing the crashing of bombs and blasting of war sirens — are all human tragedies of horrifying magnitude.
The question of how us liberals — those who care about democracy, dignity, and freedom — should respond to the conflict is a complex one, something I don’t have the knowledge or word count to even attempt. Rather, I want to expose a handful of myths which I’ve seen pervade discourse over the past week. In doing so, I hope to set the grounds for a reasonable and compassionate liberal view of the conflict and its possible (though likely far-off) resolution.
Israel is solely responsible for the status quo.
There’s no doubt the status quo is grim. The quality of life in Gaza is appalling, and Palestinian autonomy in the Occupied Territories is greatly inhibited by the actions of the Israeli government. That said, to suppose that Israel holds sole responsibility is as simplistic as it is misguided.
Firstly, the Palestinian government has rejected countless offers for the establishment of their own state and an end to Israeli occupation. The most recent offer, from leftist Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert in 2008, included 95 percent of the West Bank, all of Gaza, and East Jerusalem as the future state’s capital. A few years before then, in 2000, another leftist prime minister Ehud Barak offered Palestinian National Authority President Yasser Arafat a similar deal, which Arafat promptly rejected (to which Bill Clinton responded, “You are leading your people and the region to a catastrophe”). These deals would have fully ended the occupation and allowed for Palestinian self-governance.
To view the status quo without regard to the counterfactual (“What if these deals were accepted?”) is a grave mistake.
Further, let’s not absolve Hamas of blame, here. Hamas sneaks rockets from Iran into the Gaza Strip (Why do you think there’s a blockade at all?). The organization routinely uses Palestinian aid money to fund rocket firing and terrorist infrastructure (including payments to the families of suicide bombers). In fact, the Palestinian National Authority receives one of the highest levels of foreign aid per capita in the world, and yet much of it is wasted on wars, terrorist infrastructure, and political corruption.
And, worse, Hamas knows full well that storing arms in schools and firing rockets from dense civilian neighborhoods will lead to civilian casualties when Israel retaliates, but its leaders don’t care. Mind you, they encourage their civilians to ignore Israeli warnings because of the good PR it generates. This recent bout of fighting, which Hamas knew would cost countless Palestinian lives, merely served to boost their political clout. They sacrificed the lives of their own citizens so that they could appear to be the “saviors” of Jerusalem.
The creation of Israel was uniquely bad and that fact undermines its legitimacy as a state going forward.
Now, it is true that Israel’s founding sin was the displacement and, at times, expulsion of seven-hundred thousand poor Palestinians from their homes during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. There is no denying the weight of that tragedy.
However, the creation of many (I dare say most) countries involved human tragedies of comparable (and often exceeding) horror. Turkey’s founding sin was the murder of over one million Armenians and Greeks. Japan’s founding sin was World War II and the Nanjing Massacre. Many countries in the Arab world’s founding sin was the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Jews (many of whom, in fact, fled to Israel).
This isn’t just a case of whataboutism. Rather, if a country’s past crimes somehow undermine its legitimacy going forward, we seem to have undermined the legitimacy of many countries. I find it deeply troubling that only in the case of Israel is a country’s founding sin, which pales in comparison to those sins of other nations, used to undermine the legitimacy of its continued existence.
It is true that the creation of Israel involved the displacement of many Palestinians already living on the land — which is what I think is generally meant by the oversimplified phrase “Israel is a settler colonial state.” That reduction, of the immigration of thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing persecution in Europe in the hopes of finding safety to “settler colonialism,” entirely misses the historical context of and justification for Zionism. But worse, it applies an absurd double standard which, if applied universally, would undermine the legitimacy of most countries in the world.
This is not to say that Israel’s occupation and settler movement are not in some sense “colonial.” The crucial distinction here is between anti-occupationism and anti-Zionism. The former is the very legitimate critique of the illegal Israeli settlement movement in the West Bank and the occupation more broadly of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. The latter simply says that Israel on any borders shouldn’t exist because of the historical wrong involved in its creation. It’s anti-Zionism that I think falls apart under scrutiny.
Israel could simply end the occupation now and bring about a thriving Palestinian state, no strings attached.
Revisiting Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in 2005 might shed some light on the difficulties with quick unilateral disengagement from the Occupied Territories.
In 2005, the Israeli government unilaterally withdrew from Gaza, removing any military presence and uprooting thousands of Israeli settlers. Soon after, Hamas democratically gained control of the Palestinian legislature, staged a full undemocratic coup, and destroyed any political dissidence in Gaza. As a result of the Hamas takeover, Israel placed a strict blockade on the enclave, restricting the movement of people and goods.
Hamas, mind you, really is a scary bunch. Its charter calls for the murder of all Jews. It has no respect for the rights of women or LGBTQ+ people. It has no respect for democracy, freedom of speech, or freedom of religion. This is an organization which, just fifteen years ago, thought it good and noble for a teenage boy to don a backpack full of explosives and glass shards, board a Tel Aviv bus packed with women and children, and detonate. The abandonment of that repugnant tactic wasn’t due to any moral qualms but rather the harm it did to Hamas’s international reputation.
This might explain the Israeli hesitancy to unilaterally withdraw from the West Bank and end the blockade of Gaza. Hamas enjoys great popularity in the West Bank, and Israel knows withdrawal could lead to another Hamas stronghold just miles from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. But that’s not all. Israel also faces enemies to the north (in the form of Iran-backed Hezbollah and an unstable Syria), to the south (in the form of ISIS activities in the Sinai), and the east (in the form of a potentially nuclear, and explicitly hostile, Iran).
This fact is important. When we look at Israel and Hamas, it seems odd to obsess over Israel’s security predicament: Israel is an advanced nation with a complex military, whereas Hamas is just an Iran-backed Jihadist group. And yet, this framing ignores Israel’s broader security situation, as a nation surrounded by groups uncomfortable with its existence (at best) or committed to its destruction (at worst).
Now, of course Israel should nonetheless try to end the occupation, but let’s not ignore their reasons for hesitancy. For those of us living thousands of miles away, it’s easy to say, “Just end the occupation!” But, the actual situation is far from “easy.”
It’s not complicated.
No, it really is. Reading an Instagram slideshow or Twitter thread is grossly insufficient to even begin to understand this decades-long conflict, which probably explains how lacking social media discourse has been. Israel–Palestine really does belie simple narratives and gross generalizations. As such, we should treat it with the nuance and complexity it requires and, in doing so, help bring about its peaceful and just resolution.
Jonah Garnick ’23 is a philosophy and economics major from Brookline, Mass.