[NOTE: this article was published before the last stand of ISIS]
Having been raised a catholic (now lapsed), I’ve always wanted to visit the land of the Bible. I wanted to see the famous sites whose names were drummed – abstracted from context – into my childish consciousness by well-meaning nuns and not-so-well-meaning Christian Brothers. Places like Galilee, Judea, Bethlehem and the Garden of Gethsemane were simultaneously ubiquitous and surreal.
I’ve also been interested in the 1,400-year influence of Islam on these lands and, more recently, the conflict that has defined historic Palestine since the birth of the state of Israel.
After visiting Israel and Palestine for the first time, I was asked several times whose ‘side’ I was on. My experience of the subject is dwarfed by many academics, journalists and people with connections to the region. But we all have a right to draw conclusions about the conflict as its influence touches all of our lives.
My view is that if you want to divide the various players into ‘right and wrong’ then you should distinguish between moderates and extremists, not Arabs and Israelis, both of whom fall into each category.
So, I want to make some statements on land, politics and religion and invite disagreement on any or all of them. I want to do this so I can be challenged, corrected, where appropriate, and educated. I hope not to disrespect the thousands in the UK alone whose views are more informed than mine. Before we begin, please note that my linking and attribution policy appears at the bottom of this post.
A home for Jews
Israelis have both a legal and moral right of the continued existence of Israel.
I do not believe in a Jewish state – nor a Christian, Hindu or Muslim state. The idea of organising a nation around the worship of a specific deity is doomed to fail. It is guaranteed to undermine citizens who deny the existence of the state-approved deity. States should be secular, simultaneously facilitating religious freedom and the choice to be free from religion.
However, I do believe in the idea of a state for Jews and I believe the creation of Israel in 1948 was justified by the need for a home in which Jews could protect themselves from anti-Semitic violence. The extent to which Jews have been persecuted throughout millennia all over the globe is unparalleled among the peoples of the world. This included – but was certainly not confined to – persecution under early Muslim caliphs, pogroms throughout the 19th century across the Middle East, North Africa and Tsarist Russia and, of course, the Nazi Holocaust.
The location of Israel can be justified, though much less so, by the historical ties of Jews to the Middle East. By that, I mean that if you have to have a Jewish state, then the land of the original Jews seems appropriate. Anyhow, there was no other serious offer of land elsewhere at the time, as far as I know. It should also be noted that the 1947 United Nations plan to create two states in the so-called Holy Land – one for Jews and the other for Arabs – was accepted by Jews but rejected by the Arab side, which wanted sovereignty over the whole area. One cannot help wonder whether the failure of this plan permanently destroyed hopes of peace between the two.
Israel is now an internationally-recognised nation state and Israelis have both a legal and moral right of the continued existence of Israel. They have a right of self-determination. They have a right to defend their territorial integrity and to defend themselves from external and internal aggression.
Bogus claims on Middle Eastern real estate
The idea that either modern Jews or Muslims have an uncomplicated and ancient or divine right to the land is simply ludicrous.
There is no credible evidence at all that the god of Abraham and of modern Christians, Jews and Muslims is anything more than a myth and, therefore, there is no evidence of the existence of a ‘Promised Land’ in the Middle East, nor of any recipients of any divine promise.
On the question of who stole the land from whom, the Old City in Jerusalem was under Jewish rule centuries before Islam was founded. But it was under Canaanite rule before that. During its history spanning perhaps 4,000 years, the city has also been ruled by Egyptians, the early Abrahamic monotheists, Arab polytheists, Assyrian emperors, Persians, Greeks, Roman polytheists and Byzantines, along with numerous other tribes, sects, cults, kingdoms and empires.
It has formed part of early Muslim caliphates, been ruled by Christian crusaders and been taken by Mongols. In modern times it has passed from the Ottoman Turks to the British to the Jordanians and, finally, to the Israelis. To walk the enchanting, stone alleyways of the city’s Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Armenian quarters is to revel in a glorious history of the cultures and faiths that have called Jerusalem home throughout the ages. The idea that either modern Jews or Muslims have an uncomplicated and ancient or divine right to the land is simply ludicrous.
The messianic settlers squatting in Palestine
On the hilltops, the settlements form rings around Palestinian towns, growing all the time, encroaching on farmland.
A large minority of the settlers in the West Bank today are religious extremists who believe their presence fulfills a divine commandment to resettle the land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They believe in the Biblical prophesy that by building these communities, settlers will bring about the coming of the messiah. This is obvious nonsense.
Palestinians suffer terribly under occupation. Life is tough. Their water is diverted to Israel and Palestinians will tell you how common it is to turn on the taps only for nothing to emerge but air. Walls and fences divide communities and prevent economic activity and travel. The euphemistically named ‘security fence’ – which is, in fact, a massive concrete wall in places – separates Israel from Palestine. It was built to stop wave after wave of Palestinian suicide bombers detonating devices in populated areas of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and elsewhere during the second intifada.
As a result of the security measures, there are large no-go areas in towns such as Hebron and roads are throttled with checkpoints. On the hilltops, the settlements form rings around Palestinian towns, growing all the time, encroaching on farmland. The Palestinians claim their crops are poisoned, their buildings vandalised and their trees uprooted. Dirty water and rubbish flow from the settlements onto Palestinian land and the Palestinian people are sometimes physically attacked by Jewish settlers (the settlers also claim to be victims of violence). All of this has to stop.
A difficult problem
Only a tenth of the 8 million Israelis subscribe to messianic ideology.
Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territory are wrong and almost certainly illegal. There can be no peace unless a way is found, peacefully if possible, to remove Jewish settlers from the West Bank. Evictions, at least in small doses, are possible and necessary if you believe there should at some point be a Palestinian state. In 2005, Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered the removal of settlers from Gaza – though this was not a peaceful operation. They were compensated and rehoused.
The big problem is this: the deeper into the West Bank you travel, the more extreme are the local Israeli settlers – and the less likely are they to agree to move. These settlers are less likely to be there for ‘the good life’ and more likely to be there because they believe they are fulfilling a divine will. Yet the further the settlements are from the Green Line, the more obstructive their presence is to the peace process.
It would, perhaps, be easy to persuade settlers in East Jerusalem to relocate but they are, arguably, a much smaller problem. Attempts by the Israeli Defence Force to evict small numbers of ‘unauthorised’ settlers, have often led to riots and violence. There are 360,000 settlers, in total. Let’s imagine a minority of 100,000 would refuse to move, if asked (the number is probably much greater). How do you forcibly evict 100,000 people from their homes? I fear it’s not possible.
One problem the Israeli government would not face if it attempted mass evictions would be mass sympathy for the settlers in ‘mainland’ Israel, where Jews are mostly secular. Only a tenth of the 8 million Israelis subscribe to messianic ideology (source). Accordingly, many believe the continued building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank hurts their nation’s security – 42% according to this research by Pew.
The border problem
Israel no longer occupies Gaza and it needs to find a way to pull out of the West Bank.
Even if you could solve the settler problem, the idea of a natural border between Israel and Palestine is extremely problematic because both sides would want free access to areas throughout the opposite side for religious reasons. When Jordan illegally occupied the Old City in Jerusalem after the original 1947 Arab-Israeli war, it banned Jews from visiting its holy sites, like the Western Wall. It desecrated gravestones on the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem and used those gravestones to make public toilets.
Equivalent religious abuses were simultaneously meted out by the Israelis at Muslim holy sites in Israel. In 1967, in the Six Day War, Jewish paratroopers took the Old City and allowed access to Jews after evicting Arabs and bulldozing their homes. It occupied Egyptian Gaza, the Syrian Golan Heights and the Jordanian West Bank for security reasons, having begged Jordan not to get involved in the Egyptian-Syrian aggression.
Israel no longer occupies Gaza and it needs to find a way to pull out of the West Bank. This is difficult for two reasons. Firstly, it’s argued that Israel is indefensible without the West Bank. At its narrowest there would be only nine miles between its border with a hostile Arab world and the Mediterranean Sea.
There are also hills in the West Bank that overlook large swathes of Israel, including Tel Aviv, that would be a gift for a modern Arab army. It would be like shooting fish in a barrel, the argument goes. The second difficulty is the threat of terrorism. Even if you solve the settler problem, then solve the border problem, you would still have to solve the terrorism problem. Which brings us onto Hamas.
Hamas, Fatah and Netanyahu – a recipe for unending war
When Hamas effectively says it wants to commit genocide, by destroying a nation, we should trust its sincerity.
There can be no peace between Israel and Palestine while there is Hamas, which leads the government in Gaza. It is a racist, fundamentalist, terrorist movement that seeks to fulfill its chilling aim – of imposing Islam on ‘every inch’ of the Holy Land and destroying Israel – with violence.
Make no mistake, this is an imperialist, not an anti-imperialist, agenda and it is borne of a yearning for the lost Islamic empire. Hamas has bought popularity in Gaza by providing social services to its broken people when no one else would.
This is a well-used strategy and was employed in 1960 by Che Guevara as part of his theory of guerilla warfare and also by Viet Cong guerillas. There is good evidence Hamas uses women and children as human shields and has deployed child combatants. When Hamas effectively says it wants to commit genocide, by destroying a nation, we should trust its sincerity. This stuff happens.
It was not long ago that Hutus were trying to murder every Tutsi in Rwanda or that the Nazis were slaughtering European Jews. As a result of Hamas terrorism, Israel has implemented a land, sea and air blockade on the Gaza Strip to prevent it acquiring weapons. Egypt has also closed its border with Gaza and destroyed hundreds of tunnels underneath the crossing.
Arab nationalism and the genocidal threats facing Israel
The genocidal rhetoric forces you to question whether the hatred of Arab nationalist leaders for Israel is driven by racist ideology.
Hamas is one of many existential threats to Israel. Others include Hezbollah and ISIS to the north, the Ansar Bait al-Maqdis militant group in the Sinai Peninsula, which has sworn allegiance to ISIS, Palestinian terror groups like Islamic Jihad and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades – and the nation of Iran. There are no equivalent Israeli threats to other nations or peoples – at least, not on anything like the same scale.
Genocidal threats are not new in the region. In the 1950s, following his putsch, the charismatic Egyptian nationalist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser disseminated the central text of Nazi propaganda, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, in the Arab world.
In 1966 in the months leading up to the Six Day War, Syrian Prime Minister Yusuf Zu’ayyin spoke of a “final grave” for Israel. In a 1967 interview (at 47 mins in this news reel clip), King Faisal of Saudi Arabia said he wanted to see “the extermination of Israel”.
In the spring of 1990, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein spoke publicly of “scorching half of Israel”, which he had also called “an evil entity”, with chemical weapons. In 2005, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad suggested Israel should be “wiped off the map”. Fatah, which controls the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, describes Israel’s existence as “a Zionist invasion” in its constitution and its high command repeatedly rejects Israel’s right to exist – not only in the West Bank but anywhere. If you doubt the extent of the recent genocidal aggression of Israel’s neighbours, I can highly recommend the critically-acclaimed Six Days of War by Michael Oren.
This genocidal rhetoric forces you to question whether the hatred of Arab nationalist leaders for Israel has always been politically-motivated, as many in the British Left would claim, or whether it was, in fact, driven by racist ideology.
There is no moral equivalence between the genocidal intentions of Palestinian extremists versus the Israeli intention to preserve its own existence. The former is aggressive, the latter defensive. Nor is there a moral equivalence between the military conduct of the two sides. Yes, Israel commits war crimes during defensive operations in Palestine.
But it never seeks, as a primary objective, to kill innocent men, women or children. Hamas, on the other hand, along with the many Palestinian terrorist organisations, does intend to kill non-combatants. This is why, as the public intellectual Sam Harris memorably pointed out, human shields are a tactic available to – and used by – Palestinian terrorists but not the Israelis. Human shields deter Israeli attacks – here is an example. On the other hand, the idea that a Hamas fighter would refuse to shoot through an Israeli child – or even a Palestinian child, for that matter – to kill an Israeli soldier is laughable.
The state of Israel is not particularly concerned with the way in which Muslims or Arab states conduct their governments, laws, private lives, media, religions or other national affairs. It is primarily concerned with the rights of its own citizens and the goal of its foreign policy always comes back to protecting its people from aggression. It is a defensive policy.
Note that its primary objective is security, not peace. Besides, the latter looks unlikely while the current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in power. Netanyahu pays lip service to the so-called peace process by claiming he wants a two state solution while openly supporting and facilitating the expansion of Jewish settlements by religious fanatics in occupied Palestine. He’s urinating on the backs of our legs, while telling us it’s raining.
The hate-peddling, Iron Age desert god of war
The Hebrew Bible mandates ethnic cleansing, genocide, slavery, rape, child sacrifice, animal cruelty, misogyny, witch-burnings and death for blasphemy, adultery and homosexuality.
There are two important points to make about role of scripture when comparing the conduct of Arabs and Israelis. The first is that the foundational texts of both Islam and of Judaism are morally repugnant throughout.
The Hebrew Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – mandates ethnic cleansing, genocide, slavery, rape, child sacrifice, animal cruelty, misogyny, witch-burnings and death for blasphemy, adultery and homosexuality. In turn, the Quran and Hadiths, both foundational texts of Islam, de-humanise and mandate oppression of non-Muslims and, specifically, Jews. They promote anti-gay bigotry and the subjugation of women.
The second point is that Jews, and for that matter Christians, do not – by and large – take these texts literally. The vast majority of Muslims, on the other hand, believe the Quran to be of divine origin and believe in its literal interpretation. This is a hugely important difference because it explains – at least in part – the gulf between Israel and Arab countries in terms of their respect for human rights.
Muslims enjoy better human rights in Israel than anywhere else in the Middle East. Arab women are free to wear bikinis on Tel Aviv beach, if the men in their families will let them. Gay Arabs are free to express their sexuality openly. In Gaza, on the other hand, male homosexuality is illegal. Gay people are persecuted and shunned across the Palestinian territories. In Muslim countries (I say Muslim because this applies to non-Arab countries, like Iran), Jews are often treated as second class citizens.
Again, one is forced to question whether the hatred of Arabs for Israelis is political or, in fact, ideological. Quranic literalism is undoubtedly a driver of anti-Semitism throughout the Middle East and until Arab countries accept that the Quran was written by men, Jews will not be safe in the Middle East.
Any ‘Two State Solution’, creating a Palestinian State, alongside Israel, must include at the very least:
- The withdrawal of Israeli forces from the West Bank and East Jerusalem;
- The removal of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem;
- An end to Palestinian terrorism;
- The removal of Hamas from Gaza;
- The removal of the walls and fences dividing Israel and Palestine;
- Free movement of Palestinians and Israelis throughout Palestine and Israel;
- A declaration by the new Palestinian state of the right of Israel to exist.
So, what did I get wrong?
This is not supposed to be an academic article; it’s just a blog post. I haven’t provided links or attribution where I felt I was regurgitating accepted historical facts. However, I’ve provided links where:
- An idea was specific and the product of an individual’s brain power;
- An idea is interesting enough to merit further reading;
- The veracity of an idea might be deemed controversial – so you can see what I’m basing it on and make up your own mind.