It is always time to step back and review the record whenever a discussion starts up on “what’s the deal with that crazy Israel/Palestine conflict?”. It is tiresome to be on the losing end of the political fight in shaping American policies regarding the Middle East- It is maddening to have to always be on the defense against the charges of anti-Semitism when one is highly critical of the policies of the State of Israel- especially when being anti-Semitic as in being anti-Arab is all the rage today, while being anti-Jewish is one of the worst things any American could be accused of. I am bold in my own words and deeds on this issue because I have nothing to hide, no shameful anti-Semitism, no axe to grind, no family connections- just a strong desire to see the Holy Land be a place that is humane and just, and to see to it that my own nation is a contributor to a positive outcome for the peoples of the Middle East. That’s it- that’s my storyline- that’s my truth.
I don’t hate America, I hate the sin but love the sinner. I love my nation but I hate when my nation does something in my name as an American citizen that I believe is really evil, really stupid, or both. It is a glaring fact that America has been the #1 ally and supporter of the State of Israel- both in economic and political terms. This fact of life is not missed by those who believe that the State of Israel has been the primary agent of violence and injustice in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Iagree with this perspective, and I want to change the reality because it is the right thing to do, and many lives all over the region, and even here in the U.S. are in present or potential harm’s way due to some really bad, one-sided, and misguided policies emanating from Tel Aviv and Washington D.C.
I am not going to run over my own story of the time I spent with Archbishop Elias Chacour of Ibillin, Galilee many years ago- and what I saw in Hebron at that time. And I am not going to run down the list of books I have read to get additional background to the Conflict which has shaped and emboldened my position on this important Catholic and American issue. I am not going to take the chance of being charged with any sort of anti-Semitism with this blog entry because I am going to use a source that is decidedly Jewish. I want an elevated discussion to get going and I don’t want my Catholicism to get into the way- one could (I suppose) make the charge that the organization Jewish Voice For Peace is full of self-loathing Jews, who hate Israel, hate themselves- whatever. But I think they can manage such charges for themselves- I met some of them when I used to visit San Francisco frequently- they seemed pretty secure in themselves. I think they are a good source of information and here they provide a primer on the Israel-Palestine Conflict 101 (from Jewishvoiceforpeace.org):
Israeli Palestinian Conflict 101
What exactly is “the occupation”?
Didn’t Ehud Barak offer the Palestinians almost everything they wanted at Camp David in 2000? And didn?t the Palestinians respond to that offer by launching this much more violent Intifada?
Don’t we have to support Israel because it is surrounded by countries that want to destroy it?
Isn’t Israel the only democracy in the Middle East, surrounded by dictatorships?
But didn’t Arab countries kick a million Jews out of their countries after the 1948 war?
I see people compare Israeli law to Apartheid, what’s the truth?
I only hear about Palestinian terrorist or nationalist groups. Where is the Palestinian “voice for peace”?
I also see people talk about Zionism being racism. But it’s also a liberation movement. I’m confused and uncomfortable.
But I have heard that the Palestinians and other Arabs sided with the Nazis in World War II.
I’ve heard that the Palestinians left Israel on their own or under order from Arab leaders in 1948. Is this so?
I keep hearing about the Palestinian Right of Return. What is this about?
Haven’t Jews and Arabs been fighting for thousands of years? Is there really an answer?
How can I get involved?
Q: What exactly is “the occupation”?
A: In 1967, Israel defeated the neighboring Arab countries in a war that lasted only six days. At the end of that war, Israel had captured the West Bank (which includes the Eastern half of Jerusalem), the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights. (It also captured the Sinai Peninsula, but this was later returned to Egypt as part of a peace accord that holds to this day). Some of this territory was annexed, specifically the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem. The rest of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip has been under a military occupation ever since. This means that the Israeli army has complete control over these areas. Palestinians in these regions have no guarantee of civil rights. They have no government of their own other than what Israel will allow. Israel can impose total curfews on any part or all of the territory. This prevents people from traveling to work, to market or to see family members. It can prevent medical care from reaching people, and people from reaching hospitals. Occupation means the Israeli military has total authority over every aspect of Palestinian life. return to top
Q: Didn’t Ehud Barak offer the Palestinians almost everything they wanted at Camp David in 2000? And didn’t the Palestinians respond to that offer by launching this much more violent Intifada?
A: Reports vary about what was actually offered at Camp David, but it is clear that the offer was a lot less generous than Barak has claimed. What we know is that the Palestinians were offered sovereignty over a very small part of Jerusalem, and that their capitol would have actually been in Abu Dis, a small suburb, and not in Jerusalem itself. The so-called 95% of the West Bank excluded all of the Greater Jerusalem area, which has grown considerably since 1967. Israel would also have maintained control of much of the Jordan Valley, for an indefinite security period. Thus, along with the proposed accommodations for certain key Israeli settlements, the offer was actually about 80% of the West Bank. Further, according to maps publicized by Gush Shalom and the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, the areas remaining under Israeli control would have effectively split the West bank in two and would have surrounded the Palestinian areas. For this, the Palestinians were to give up all claims resulting from the mass expulsion in 1948. Having already conceded 78% of what was once Mandatory Palestine, this did not strike the Palestinians as a ?generous offer?. It is true that Barak?s offer was much more than had ever been offered the Palestinians before. But this really says more about previous offers than it does about the Camp David offer. After seven years of the Oslo Process, which saw Palestinian standards of living decline markedly and the greatest period of Israeli settlement expansion by far, it was impossible for any Palestinian leader to compromise this far. For more on Camp David and the beginning of the current uprising, follow this link. return to top
Q: Don’t we have to support Israel because it is surrounded by countries that want to destroy it?
A: The ongoing occupation of Palestinian territories is the single most destabilizing factor in Israeli-Arab relations. The Arab League has offered full normalization of relations with Israel if the occupation ends. UN Security Council Resolution 242 calls for just such a settlement. Both Egypt and Jordan have long-standing peace treaties with Israel and both countries have honored those treaties. The best way to make Israelis more secure is to end the occupation, creating defensible borders and working relationships with their neighbors. This would allow for normalized relationships and create great incentives for everyone concerned to maintain peaceful relations with each other. return to top
Q: Isn’t Israel the only democracy in the Middle East, surrounded by dictatorships?
A: While it is certainly true that Israel?s democratic structures are considerably more advanced than those of its neighbors, Israel fails on many counts. Discriminatory laws and bureaucratic practices in Israel bar Arabs in Israel from many privileges, especially owning land. Other systems tie certain opportunities to service in the army, from which most Arab Israelis are barred. There is a huge gap in municipal services between Jewish and non-Jewish areas in Israel. So-called ?unrecognized villages?, which are Arab towns that are not recognized by Israel as organized municipalities, receive virtually no services and are often subject to demolition or confiscation. Arabs families are routinely denied building permits and have their homes demolished if they build or add on to them without such permits. And all of this only deals with the situation for Arabs within the pre-1967 borders. Palestinians under Israeli occupation enjoy no civil or human rights, except those that depend on the whim of the commanders or soldiers in charge. Israel has legalized practices that are considered abusive in its interrogation procedures, detains Palestinians without charge for extensive periods, imposes unilateral and deadly curfews, and denies freedom of travel. By international human rights standards, these are not the hallmarks of a highly functioning democracy. Problems of democracy, as Edward Said often pointed out, are quite severe in the Arab world, but that does not excuse the shortcomings Israel has in its own right. There is much to be proud of in Israeli democracy, but there is also much to be very concerned about. return to top
Q: But didn’t the Arab countries kick a million Jews out of their countries after the 1948 war?
A: In the wake of the 1948 war, the backlash against Jews in the Arab world was often severe. Anger over the growing Zionist movement had been building throughout the 1940s, and it was too often directed at Arab Jewish communities, regardless of those communities? views of the Zionist project in Palestine.
British and French colonialism had created great hostility toward those countries in the Arab world. This resulted in a higher level of antipathy toward Jews than was normal for the Muslim world historically, though as has generally been the case, such anti-Semitism was far less severe than what existed at the time in Europe.
Israel initiated airlift and other emigration programs to bring in as many Jews from Middle Eastern countries as possible. Sadly, the treatment these new ?migr?s received in Israel was far from what they had expected (for more information, see Tom Segev’s book, 1949: The First Israelis).
Still, there is no doubt that many Arabs simply reacted out of fear and anger toward their own Jewish neighbors after the war that saw Israel?s birth and the expulsion of some 750,000-1,000,000 Arabs from what had once been called Palestine. The Arab world itself was only just emerging from the era of European colonialism in the wake of World War II, and instability was the rule of the day throughout the Middle East. As is often the case, minorities, especially Jews, are all too typical victims of such upheaval. return to top
Q: I see people compare Israeli law to Apartheid, what’s the truth?
A: There are major differences between Apartheid in South Africa and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. But these are growing smaller all the time. Arab citizens of Israel face serious discrimination (see question above). But they are full citizens, and do participate in Israeli politics. They also have a relatively high standard of living, as compared to other Arab countries (though not as compared to Israeli Jews). But Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza enjoy no rights of citizenship, no real protection of law. This was not the case for Black South Africans. In the sense of there being two standards that are so different, the comparison to Apartheid is apt. And, as the occupation becomes more institutionalized, many Israelis believe that outright Apartheid is exactly what the future holds. return to top
Q: I only hear about Palestinian terrorist or nationalist groups. Where is the Palestinian “voice for peace”?
A: There are many different Palestinian peace groups, just as there are many different Israeli and Jewish peace groups. Unfortunately, we hear little about them in the media, even the Israeli and Arab media. But they are active, and, just like the Israeli peace camp, some part of them is also reflected in Palestinian leadership.
It was Israel that cut off negotiations with the Palestinian Authority in January 2001 at Taba, when, according to all parties involved, a deal had never been closer. Ehud Barak was about to be voted out, and he felt unable to present compromises to the Israeli public amid the violence that was occurring and being at the end of his tenure. From reports from both sides, this included being closer than ever to an agreement on the Palestinian refugees, final borders and Jerusalem. Surely this indicates some willingness, on both sides, to reach peace.
There are many Palestinian groups and individuals who are working for peace and justice for both sides. These include the Palestinian National Initiative led by Mustafa Barghouti; the Miftah human rights NGO led by Hanan Ashrawi; the Palestinian Center for Rapprochement in Bet Sahur; the Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem; the Palestinian Center for Human Rights led by Raji Sourani; Wi?am, the Palestinian Center for Conflict Resolution, headed by Zoughbi Zoughbi; the respected psychiatrist Iyad al-Sarraj in Gaza, who has been the head of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Citizens’ Rights; the joint Palestinian-Israeli women’s peace group, the Jerusalem Link, whose Palestinian half is called the Jerusalem Center for Women. Many of these groups are known throughout the Palestinians territories and are enormously respected. They are all quite active, and there are many similar groups.
Rema Hammami and Saleh Abdel Jawad ? both professors at Birzeit University -initiated in November, 2000 a public call for Palestinians not to use violence in the second intifada, and it was signed by over 120 fellow professors in Palestine. Many Palestinians and Israelis have been engaged in joint non-violent demonstrations against the wall in several different formations in recent months. The list of examples of Palestinian peace workers and peace groups could go on much longer. We can only wonder why the media on all sides continues to pay them so little attention.
Yet we must remain aware that the situation is not symmetrical. There is an occupier and an occupied. And the occupied have a right under international law to resist, and even to use armed force in resisting occupation (though this absolutely does not include attacks on civilians). It is crucial to appreciate that the situation is not simply one of “a cycle of violence,” but that the Israeli side has been conducting an occupation in violation of both international law and public opinion. That allows people to imagine that the solution is for both sides to compromise somewhere in between on the basis of simple non-violence. Oslo was an attempt to do that and it failed miserably. The violence of the Palestinians today is part of the price of that failure. Until an Israeli political leader clearly says that the occupation must end for the violence on both sides to stop, it will be difficult to come to a negotiated settlement. return to top
Q: I also see people talk about Zionism being racism. But it’s also a liberation movement. I’m confused and uncomfortable.
A: This is a very difficult question for many Jews. Zionism means Jewish nationalism, and any form of nationalism, by definition, puts the interests of its own group ahead of others. In the early days of Zionism, there were many different strains of thought, and many different ideologies. Some were much more progressive and humanistic than others. Zionism arose as a response to both the massive increase in Jewish assimilation after the Enlightenment, and to persistent and growing anti-Semitism throughout Europe. But many of the Jews who came to Palestine in the early 20th century were told that there were no people inhabiting that land, when in actuality over 700,000 Arabs were there. There were exceptions. The Cultural Zionism of Ahad Ha?am, for instance, recognized the rights of the Arabs already living on the land. Other early Zionist thinkers also had a variety of reasons for wanting to find a way to live in peace with their Arab neighbors, with respect to their rights. But it is fair to say that most strains of even early Zionism were at best disdainful of the Palestinian people.
Even though modern ideologies like Liberalism and Communism had diminished the influence of religion in most Western countries, anti-Semitism continued to flourish. The Holocaust was the ultimate expression of a new, largely secular form of anti-Semitism, and it seemed to confirm the most ominous warnings of many of the Zionists of the day. The Holocaust gave Zionism legitimacy in many people?s minds. After such a horrifying genocide and the experience of having the world close its eyes and borders to the atrocity, did the Jews not deserve a state of their own? Perhaps so, but the Palestinians, who had nothing to do with the Holocaust, were the people who were made to provide that state.
As Israel became more stable and strong, new waves of Zionism flourished. Today?s Likud Coalition was once a minority among Zionists, but today they head the most stable government Israel has seen in a quarter of a century. Religious Zionism grew stronger after the 1967 war and the capture of the Jewish holy sites in East Jerusalem (from which Jews had been barred by Jordan since 1948). Zionism remains a tangled web of various ideologies. Many aspects of it are certainly horribly hostile to Arabs. Other aspects remain dedicated to an idealism that leads its believers to work for peace and co-existence. Zionism has changed over the years as well. Where once there were more than a few Zionists who opposed the idea of a Jewish state, today the meaning of the term only encompasses those who are committed to a state that is Jewish in character, although differences still remain over such issues as laws that discriminate against non-Jews and the question of whether Israel should be the state of its citizens or the state of the entire Jewish people. return to top
Q: But I have heard that the Palestinians and other Arabs sided with the Nazis in World War II.
A: It is true that much of the Arab world did side with the Axis in World War II. As the British and French had been colonial powers in the Arab world since the end of World War I, this was not surprising. In most cases, the Nazi’s racist ideology had nothing to do with that calculation. In the case of the Palestinians, however, their most prominent leader, Hajj Amin al-Husayni, specifically aligned himself with the Nazis and their genocidal program against Jews. Husayni’s statements and acts of solidarity with the Nazis cast a pall over the Palestinian movement that continues to this day. But the fact is, Husayni’s acts, as contemptible as they were, had little effect on Jews either in Europe or in Palestine. Husayni’s actions and views regarding anti-Semitism were his own and there is little evidence that they represented any significant measure of the Palestinian people at the time. That Husayni was a severe Jew-hater is clear. But the evidence from the time suggests that this view had little traction among Palestinians and Arabs of the day. return to top
Q: I’ve heard that the Palestinians left Israel on their own or under order from Arab leaders in 1948. Is this so?
A: There were between 650,000 and 1.2 million Palestinians who left the area that was to become Israel in 1948. The circumstances of their departure varied. The records of the Hagana (the Jewish militia which later became the Israeli army) show that there were some official plans to empty Palestinian towns and villages. Records also clearly show that there were at least several instances of Palestinian towns suffering massacres at the hands of Israeli soldiers (both sides launched numerous attacks on civilians, especially in the early part of the war). Minutes from meetings of different Jewish leadership groups also indicate that there was definitely a desire to see as much of a Jewish majority in whatever territory would end up being Israel?s as possible. There is also clear evidence that some of the more radical Jewish militias attacked Palestinian towns with the goal of spreading fear in the Arab populace, in the hopes that this would make them flee.
It has often been claimed that the Arab Higher Committee broadcast a call for the Palestinians to flee so that the invading Arab armies could defeat the Zionists and then the Palestinians could return. No such call was ever issued. There were, of course, calls to move women and children out of the path of the fighting, but there was never a call for all civilians to leave. Many of the Palestinians fled in the very early stages of the war, long before any such call would have been issued in any case.
As the fighting intensified, and more villages came under attack, more and more Palestinians fled the war. Organized expulsions also continued. In some areas, especially cities like Haifa and Yaffo, where Arabs and Jews had lived together in relative stability, there were efforts made by Jews to get their neighbors to stay, and these met with some success at times. As today, there was a great variety of views among Jews in Palestine/Israel.
But whatever the circumstances, Israel went beyond its rights in passing laws to prevent the Palestinians from returning after the war. International law requires countries to allow people who flee a war back to their homes when the war ends. Israel was specifically enjoined to do so by the United Nations after the war, but did not comply. This was the beginning of the Palestinian refugee crisis, which remains the most vexing issue between the two peoples to this day. For more information about this, see Benny Morris’ book, “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited.” return to top
Q: I keep hearing about the Palestinian Right of Return. What is this about?
A: International law provides that refugees have the right to return to their homes after hostilities have ended and provided they are willing to live in peace. After Israel?s creation, it barred this return. The problem is now much more difficult because some 700,000 to one million refugees in 1948 (with another 200,000 or so created after the 1967 war) have now ballooned to over 4 million, with many other Palestinians scattered around the world, but not living as refugees. Many of these refugees live in camps in the West Bank, Gaza, Syria, Lebanon and within Israel itself. Others have drifted to various places in the Arab world, where they have generally not been welcomed. Still others have left the Middle east altogether. International law was not written with this situation in mind.
Israelis fear that acknowledging any responsibility for the refugees would lead to a massive return of the refugees and Jews then becoming a minority in Israel. For Palestinians, the right of return is viewed as both a right granted to each refugee individually and to the Palestinian people as a group. The former has a sound basis in international law, while the latter does not. Many Palestinian families still have the keys to their former homes.
In practical terms, many of the homes that Palestinians were driven from no longer exist. Indeed, many of their towns are gone today. The international community has generally favored some combination of a return of refugees to a Palestinian state, at least some number returning to Israel and all receiving compensation for their loss and for their years as refugees. A recent poll of Palestinians, while certainly controversial, indicated that only a small percentage would want to exercise a right to return to the area that is now Israel. But Palestinians all over have been very clear on their insistence that they be allowed a free choice in this matter. return to top
Q: Haven’t Jews and Arabs been fighting for thousands of years? Is there really an answer?
A: In fact, Jews and Arabs have been fighting for only about a century. While Jews were facing repeated expulsion and persecution in Europe, Jews in the Muslim world, though still facing some problems, were faring much better. Jews, as People of the Book under Islamic law, were entitled to legal protections and certain rights. To be sure, they were not the equals of Muslims, and there were incidents of anti-Semitism in many parts of the Muslim and Arab world through the centuries, some of them serious. But both the severity and the frequency of these were far lower than in Europe. There is no doubt that the ongoing and brutal conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as the neighboring Arab states, has created a great deal of hatred on both sides. But it is simply false to say that history shows that Jews and Arabs cannot live together. They have before, and, in a modern, secular state, may well be able to do so on a much more equal footing than existed in the past. return to top
Q: How can I get involved?
A: You can start by joining Jewish Voice for Peace. Becoming a member is easy. You can join by donating right here by credit or by sending a check to the address at the bottom of the page. The more you give, the more you can support the work we are doing. You can also subscribe to our monthly newsletter, our daily news service, Jewish Peace News, and our action alerts. Tell us where you are, and we can refer you to a JVP chapter in your area or to one of our many allies throughout the United States and the world who are engaged in the same work we are. Anything you can do will be greatly appreciated, and will go a long way toward helping the besieged people of the Middle East. return to top