The Power of Palestine: Making Peace with Reality

Property rights, human rights, and  national self-determination are but a few concepts that, on the surface, guide how people react to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Yet, upon closer scrutiny, it becomes apparent that the reactions in the anti-Israel camp are based on deeply-ingrained beliefs regarding the very nature of Israel. It is clear that those who virulently oppose Israel’s move against Hamas in Gaza have deeply internalized the normative Hamas–and, to a great extent, general Palestinian–narrative that Israel is built on stolen land and that the Gazans are justified in shooting rockets (and, if they succeeded in assassinating or kidnapping Israelis, that too) because they have been dispossessed (to use Edward Said’s favorite word), oppressed, imprisoned and have been treated badly in all sorts of cruel and even demonic ways.

And the pictures and youtube videos–even if they are from Syria, a Hollywood horror film, or five years ago in Lebanon–are there to illustrate the horror of Israel’s actions.

Clearly, nothing I could write here would serve to convince those who have given in to passionate hatred of anything Israeli. They operate from the assumption that Israel as a country does not have a right to exist–and if it does exist, we should all understand that it is built on stolen land and the blood of the “Palestinians” (not exactly a reassuring belief for long-term peace). Having said that, I feel frustrated because I would want these people to read all about how Israel came into existence, how many Jews had always been living in the Land of Israel (that was renamed multiple times as its sovereign rulers and populations changed throughout history, with Palestine as the last name before it was changed into Jordan and Israel).

History, though, is rejected by the committed anti-Zionist if it does not tell his story.

Let’s take a few of the guiding assumptions now and see where it takes us.

1. Property Rights: Zionists took the Arab land of Palestine by kicking out the owners of the house and moving in.

Has this happened? Jews have, indeed, moved into houses abandoned by Arabs in 1948 following the defeat of the Arab armies intent on destroying the nascent Jewish country. Most Arabs left as a result of propaganda regarding Israeli brutality (very much like the kind you see now on twitter and Facebook with the added horror of fabricated stories about Israelis raping Arab women). Many Arabs from the former British Mandate of Palestine and former Ottoman province of Palestine were forced to leave. As to the proportion of how many left voluntarily at the urging of their own leaders and how many were forced out, the debate is still on amongst Israeli historians. How many of the Arabs who left permanently were legal owners of property abandoned is yet another question. Why the neighboring countries did not absorb the Arab refugee population from Palestine who spoke the same language and shared their religious beliefs and Arab ethnicity is yet another question others have already addressed (even as Israel fully absorbed an equal number of dispossessed Jewish refugees who were pushed out of Arab countries at that time as well).

But how did things come to this?

How did the Jews manage to establish a presence in great numbers in Palestine prior to 1948? Did they show up and say to the Arabs living there, “get out. This is my house now”? Palestine’s total population was 350,000 in 1850 only to quadruple in less than a hundred years to 1,339,763 in 1946 (according to Justin MacCarthy). Jews acquired land not through violence and dispossession prior to 1948 but rather through valid purchases of land from the Turkish or Arab property owners. More often than not, Jews were sold the least fertile parcels of land. It was these lands that the “settlers” transformed with backbreaking hard work into fertile lands–often to the great irritation of the original owners. 

Property rights. Yes, we all believe in property rights. The question is whether or not these rights are absolute on an individual level or not. Doesn’t a war of aggression that the aggressor loses change our calculations or assumptions regarding property rights? Is it not clear to the anti-Zionist crowd that the element of violence was introduced not by the Zionists–who had accepted the U.N. plan of division and the amount of land thereby offered–but by the Arab countries who told the people living in Palestine that they would push the Jews out of their legitimately purchased and legally acquired lands? So, it’s only in the case of Israel that violence should never be answered with counter-violence, right?

Human rights.
There is something inexpressible hypocritical about people who espouse a system of values associated with Western countries imposing that system on Israel but not on any of its neighbors to claim that “human rights” are violated by Israel. Israel’s current population is almost 20% Arab. Just the fact that the Israeli-Arabs are the most vociferous opponents of the idea of land transfers in a possible peace deal should be enough to let an objective observer see the extent to which Israeli Arabs appreciate the rights afforded to them by virtue of being citizens of Israel (even as they wave Palestinian flags during demonstrations against the idea of becoming Palestinian citizens). Why would these Israeli Arabs not want to become Palestinian citizens? The answer is clear if you look at the human rights records in Gaza under Hamas and, to a lesser extent, the West Bank under Fatah. Gay rights are non-existent and women’s rights are severely curtailed  as they are in all Arab countries.

National Self-Determination.
Much has been written about the emergence of the Palestinian as a separate identity since 1967. Well, it’s a complex question that needs more attention than can be afforded by this present article, but clearly, it’s an identity with a strong political purpose. Why does it resonate so well with European and American intellectuals? Because the word “Palestinian” has become synonymous with “oppressed” and “downtrodden.” The David and the Goliath effect is inescapable. Israel has developed into a technological superpower while the  Palestinians have been left behind (subsisting on handouts from Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere). So, if you suspect that there will be fewer human rights in Palestine (i.e. no Israelis allowed even in the West Bank) than in Israel then why support a Palestinian state? Aren’t you for human rights and equality? You say you are because you want to see the Palestinians “liberated” even though the liberation would lead to fewer human rights then are afforded to Israelis.

And the tug of war between various values would continue if not for the overwhelming trump card that puts to rest these concerns: the occupation of Palestinian lands.

The question is this: when did Israel begin to occupy Palestine? In 1948 (following the War of Independence forced upon Israel) or 1967 (following the Six Day War)? Those who believe that Israel was wrong to occupy the abandoned villages settled by Arabs in 1948 would have to take the moral position that the very existence of Israel is morally unacceptable. Again, a tug of war breaks out between property rights, human rights, and national self-determination (in this case, the self-determination of the Jewish people in its national homeland). Of course, we are leaving God out of the equation altogether since the Western European and U.S. advocates of Palestinian rights tend not to believe in any narratives about God promising and giving the Land of Israel to the Jews. That argument, an overwhelmingly strong one for most religious Jews and a sizable portion of American Christians, is out the window.

And so, you see why peace is such an elusive goal in Israel? With Hamas totally against the very idea of a Jewish State and Fatah merely giving lip service to the idea, no real negotiations are possible at this juncture. Even Jimmy Carter agrees that no peace agreement can ever be implemented unless it is also accepted by Hamas.

What remains is a tug of war between those who accept Israel as a legitimate country on a deeply personal level, those who really believe in the two-state solution and those who say they want the two-state solution but are really hoping for a final solution for Israel (namely, its total demise).

In the meantime, Israelis will fight to preserve what they have achieved in the past 66 years and Palestinians won’t give up on trying to secure a state of their own (however viable or unviable it may become).

If you are virulently anti-Zionist, you want Israel to be gone with all its human rights and democratic values because for you, property rights and what you perceive as national self-determination wins over human rights. But you deny this because you are a champion of human rights, which you see Israel violates in the occupied territories (not wanting to realize that  most of the restrictions are in place because a sizable enough portion of the population had been engaged in violent acts against Israelis and would revert to violence in the West Bank if they had the chance). So, there’s nothing anyone can say to you to change your mind to see that another model is also possible–one that operates within Israel proper, with its Arab minority population enjoying the rights that Israeli citizenship affords.

If you are on the fence, all I ask of you is to be fair and try to make peace in your head between the competing values of property rights, human rights, and national self-determination.

I hope you will come to the right conclusion and leave the knee-jerk reactions to jerks with knees.