I am not a reflexive supporter of Israel. I do support the concept of Israel; I think it was important to establish a homeland for a people who have historically been mistreated, to understate it, in the societies where they live. I am very uncertain that it needed to be established in what had been British-controlled territory, just because of historical claims that the Jews had on that land.
For what ought by now to be obvious reasons, I emphatically deny the validity of the concept of the "Promised Land"--land that was supposedly promised by God to the Jews. But historically speaking, there was once a Jewish state there, and that's not an entirely wrongful basis for establishing Israel, the modern state, where it is established. (I note that very few people who think that's a reasonable basis for deciding such things think that we ought to return the land taken from Native Americans by white Europeans in past centuries. Foolish consistency, I know.)
The Holocaust is the prime, but hardly the only, historical fact justifying the establishment and continuation of a Jewish state. Many people are unaware that there was a tremendous groundswell of support for the establishment of a Jewish state in the 1910s and 1920s, even before Hitler came to power. One of its greatest proponents during that time, Louis Brandeis, is one of my personal heroes, as regular readers are aware. Even before the rise of the Nazis to power, Jews were treated as second-class citizens in Europe particularly. But the slaughter of six million Jews at the hands of a maniac, fresh in the world's memory at the end of the second world war, provided the push the world needed to get behind Israel.
I have tremendous respect and admiration for the Jewish people and their culture. It is a culture of scholarship and achievement that values knowledge, honor, and peace.
That history and my personal feelings make what I am about to say...difficult.
For all of my adult life, Israel has acted in ways that--to my eyes--appear to be no better than the actions of the historical anti-Semites whose hatred and treatment of Jews was used to justify the creation of Israel. Reasonable minds can disagree as to whether those acts are necessary to the survival of Israel.* But the essential truth is that the Arabs who were living in Palestine and who were displaced when Israel was created are treated as less than fully human by Israel's official acts and policies.
* - I point out, ever so gingerly, that Hitler's treatment of Jews in the lands he controlled was justified, in his mind, by the belief that those actions were necessary to the survival of Germany. My point is only that the survival argument does not necessarily justify evil action.
That mistreatment has been brought into sharp relief in recent days. Israel is in the process of wiping out the Palestinean population of Gaza. Despite the availability of "smart" technology, and despite the declaration of temporary cease fires, Israel has repeatedly bombed schools and hospitals. In many respects, this is no different from what has happened in war for centuries. Civilians have always been caught in the crossfire of war. But if this is a war of election on Israel's part--and I am not sure it is, for reasons that I will discuss below--then Israel's government is chargeable with the knowledge that their actions will have far-reaching, deadly impacts upon genuinely innocent civilians.
That is a horrible thing.
Without question, Hamas is guilty of provoking this attack. Hamas is a terrorist organization, but it is also in some respects a humanitarian organization. That might seem contradictory, but one feeds the other. Hamas has but one real goal: the destruction of Israel as a state. It seeks to achieve that goal through terrorist attacks. But it also purports to act in the name of the Palestineans. It has gained the broad support of Palestineans by providing services to a suffering people. After all, when you are hungry, when your children are hungry, then you will accept help from wherever it comes.
Earlier this week, I watched part of an interview by Charlie Rose,** perhaps the finest interviewer in American television today, with the exiled leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal. Rose asked Meshaal, point-blank, about whether Hamas would recognize the right of Israel to exist. After initially dodging the question, he gave a clear answer: No.
** - If you watch a morning news program, and it's not CBS This Morning, which Rose co-hosts with Norah O'Donnell and Gayle King, do yourself a favor and switch. The quality difference between their program and their competitors--particularly Today--is tremendous.
The failure of the world's efforts at diplomacy in Israel are rooted in a misunderstanding of the parties' (Israel's and the Palestineans') conceptions of the problem. A little history is in order: At the conclusion of World War I, the Ottoman Empire collapsed, and the League of Nations partitioned the lands under former Ottoman control, including Palestine. The British were awarded the mandate over Palestine. As the area was under the order of British control, Jews began to immigrate there and pressure built for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in the area around Jerusalem, also known as the Land of Zion after a mountain near the city. Advocates of that establishment were referred to as "Zionists." After World War II, the United Nations was established, and Britain announced shortly thereafter its desire to end its control over the area.
The UN developed a plan for partition that included lands allocated to a proposed Arab state, a proposed Jewish state, and an international area around Jerusalem that would belong to neither--it would be designated as an international area. That plan was passed by the General Assembly in 1947 and came partially into force on May 15, 1948. The Jews in Palestine accepted the plan and immediately, upon the withdrawal of British forces, declared the existence of the State of Israel. The Arabs, however, did not accept the plan, and with the support of surrounding Arab states, began a military action to destroy the new Jewish state. That action was unsuccessful.
In 1967, Egypt mobilized forces on its border with Israel, and Israel launched a pre-emptive strike. Six days later (the action became known as the "Six-Day War"), Israel held the Sinai peninsula (formerly belonging to Egypt), occupied the Golan Heights near the northern end of Israel (formerly belonging to Syria), and occupied those areas of the UN partition that had been assigned to the proposed Arab state--the West Bank of the Jordan River and the Gaza Strip. The latter two territories came to be known as the "Occupied Territories."
(The military history of Israel is considerably more complex than these broad strokes, and deserves more study than I can reasonably give it in even a dozen blog entries.)
A substantial portion of the diplomacy of the world outside Israel--including efforts most prominently by the United States and Norway, as well as the United Nations--has been premised on the idea that the solution to the strife between Israel and Arabs in those territories has been arranging for Israel to disengage from the Occupied Territories. Various plans have been proposed and implemented that would allow Israel to do so. However, particularly when the right-wing Likud Party is in power in Israel, as a matter of official policy, Jews who wish to "settle" in the Occupied Territories have been openly supported by Israel's government, and efforts to induce Israel to stand down from those areas--known as "Land for Peace"--have repeatedly fallen aside.
Despite Likud's willingness to continue to promote settlement of Arab areas by Jews, I do sincerely believe that if Hamas, or some other organization that held the hearts of Palestinean Arabs, were to agree in a trustworthy manner to confine Arab claims to the partitioned Arab areas, even the Netanyahu government would accept that and resolve the problem.
It has become clear to me over the last couple of weeks, however, that this premise, Land for Peace, is fatally flawed. Hamas is indeed interested in Land for Peace. The problem is that the land it wants is the whole of the former Palestine.
When an Israeli or an American refers to the occupation, he is generally referring to Israel's control over areas designated for Arabs in the UN partition plan.
When a Palestinean refers to the occupation, he is referring to the State of Israel as a whole.
So, when Khaled Meshaal says this:
We in Hamas believe in moderation of Islam. We are not fanatics. We do not fight the Jews because they are Jews per se. We fight the occupiers. I’m ready to coexist with the Jews, with the Christians, with the Arabs, with the non-Arabs. I do coexist with other religions.as he did in the interview with Charlie Rose, it is important to remember that "the occupiers" are the government and military of the State of Israel.
I am more than willing to take Meshaal at his word. After all, that word is no different from the words spoken by the leaders of Iran and Syria and Saudi Arabia. To varying degrees, those countries--which support Hamas--are more than willing for Jews and other non-Muslims to live in Palestine. They might even be willing to afford non-Muslims equal status in the law and government of Palestine. But they will not accept a Jewish state in Palestine.
That, by itself, would seem to make resolution impossible. But it does not explain the present action. For that, blame has to be laid at the feet of Hamas. Hamas has fired rockets into Israel, repeatedly. Those rockets lack precision guidance; they are therefore indiscriminate attacks on civilians, not unlike the suicide bomber who blows up a bus or cafe, except with less precision and effectiveness. Israel also has the technology to shoot down these rockets with some reliability, but that is hardly a justification for firing them in the first place.
Israel has to have the right to defend itself with military action.
Hamas has also constructed tunnels under the border between Gaza and Israel, ostensibly for the purpose of getting Palestineans into Israel to work without the continual holdups at border crossings, but more likely for the purpose of getting Palestineans and others into Israel for the purpose of conducting terrorist operations.
Hamas has also placed its military hardware in places where civilians are most likely to be found--schools, mosques, hospitals, community relief centers--in an effort either to avoid their being targeted or to gain the sympathy of the world as video of children, dead or maimed at Israel's hand, streams to desktops and televisions. Human shields are powerful protectors or fodder for sympathy.
So, once more, there are no easy answers, and neither party is entirely virtuous. It may well be that neither side deserves victory. But we can weep for all of those who are affected--Arab and Jew alike--and for all who want to live in peace and who cannot because of the egos of those in power, whichever side they are on.