The sheer barbarity of Israel’s assault on Gaza, provoked by the fury of Israelis threatened by massive rocket launches from Gaza and a vast tunnel complex designed to slip gangs of murderers into Israeli civilian communities, has now reaped its final consequence: the end of the Oslo process, with its premise that two nations can separately but peacefully inhabit the old and storied land of Palestine. Begun under the aegis of the Bush I administration and continued into the Clinton era, the Oslo process laid out a series of steps whereby Palestinians and Israelis would negotiate their common borders, while Israelis would withdraw in gradual stages from its military occupation of regions where Palestinians were the dominant population, and Palestinians established their own state and recognized Israel’s “right to exist.”
This purported “two state solution” was intended to end the long bloody conflict between Israel and the remnants of the Palestinian refugee population created as a result of Arab/Israeli wars, particularly the 1947-49 war, which led to the establishment of the Jewish state, and the 1967 Six Day War, where Israel for the first time took control of Gaza and the West Bank and established control over a majority Arab Palestinian population. The 1947-49 war resulted in a defeated Palestinian refugee population consisting of some 700,000 people, which fled into the Gazan and West Bank territories that Israel would take over in 1967, as well as Jordan, where they are now over half of the population, or into Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.
Today, Gaza is no longer under direct Israeli occupation but tries to survive as an isolated prison camp where Israel controls all borders, confining the inhabitants in one of the most densely populated places on earth, as well as access to any trade, water, electricity, and most of the tax revenues. Most Gazans lack jobs, depend on handouts from UN refugee centers and aid from outsiders. The failure to achieve the minimal dignity of self-rule and economic opportunity has made them bitter and depressed, and subject to the fantasies promoted by religious ideology. The West Bank continues to be saddled with expanding Jewish settlements, which is intended by religiously inspired settlement promoters to insure that largely secular Israel retains control over all of Palestine west of the Jordan river, despite the promise in the Oslo agreements to negotiate “final status” borders where Palestinians and Israelis could live in separate territories, each under their respective sovereign states. These settlements are contrary to international law and United Nations mandates as well as official U. S. policy, under the logic that says that no conquering power can send its own populations into conquered territory because that will destroy the ability of the conquered population to control their own destiny and be treated with basic human dignity. This argument received special attention because of the fierce rejection of the pre-World War II claims of European imperialists that they had a right to control those they considered their inferiors.
Israel’s creation in 1947, marking the advent of Jewish settlers originally from Europe taking control of an Arab land, was considered a violation of postcolonial norms and a threat to the right of all nations to self-determination–something originally cited as a war justification by Woodrow Wilson in the First World War. Of course, Americans surely know of the pattern of establishing outsider populations in lands populated by existing and long-established ethnic groups, whether it be in the original thirteen colonies or other territories inhabited by “Indian” groups further West in North America, such as the settler population into Texas that led to its separation from Mexico or the Mexican American war which provided the United States with one third of its national territory, resulting in a massive infusion of “Anglos” into areas predominantly inhabited by Hispanics and “Indians.”
It is highly probable that most Americans still don’t have any meaningful knowledge of modern Israeli/Arab history, despite the deep affection that many citizens have had for Israel over several decades–an affection promoted through many films and novels in the 1950s and 1960s depicting Israeli heroism when confronting the large Arab populations surrounding them, occurring at the same time as multiple movies and TV shows depicted the frontier battle in the American West against Indian tribes. As often happens, the victor writes the history of such conflicts, creating a mythos based on their own heroism and righteousness, while the losers, with few economic or military resources, turn to terrorism. In such cases, it becomes increasingly difficult to know who is the true terrorist when taking an objective view, and it is always possible that when the technologically superior power wins and the losers are no longer seen as a threat that the losers will be seen as the ultimate victims. In European and American imperial history, there were moments when domination by outsiders claimed justification for their rule over others by championing a noble religious or political ideology or what they considered a superior political and social order. Israel indeed had a powerful argument: the original European settlers in Palestine while that land were the survivors of the most horrific mass extermination of modern times, and indeed while threatened by this extermination were denied entry into Great Britain and the United States because of their anti-Semitic immigration policies. Given the horror they had experienced, and the desire to escape the centuries long anti-Semitism that purportedly Christian states had imposed upon them, Jewish settlers could make a strong claim to a homeland of their own. The difficulty, of course, ignored by Israelis as well as its admirers, was the existence of a settled population of Arab Christians and Muslims with family roots spread over several centuries long before Israel was superimposed within their midst.
The arguments that Israelis and Palestinians make about each other long ago have obtained a formulaic quality and what I have just written would not be well received by many Israelis and no doubt some Palestinians. However, it needs to be noted that Israeli scholarship, free to operate in an open democracy, has laid bare many false assertions common in Israeli arguments. As Israeli scholars have argued in a series of historical excavations, Palestine was never–as original Jewish settlers claimed–” a land without people,” nor was the massive Palestinian Arab refugee population created in the Arab/Israeli wars merely a result of Arabs being encouraged to flee their homeland in order to aid invading Arab states like Egypt or Jordan–thousands of Arabs were pushed out by Israeli forces and, whether pushed out or not, were not allowed to return. Hundreds of Arab villages were destroyed and replaced with Jewish homes. In America today, there are thousands of place names deriving from the original inhabitants, some of them even becoming brand names for products, while in Israel the old Arab names have been replaced by Hebrew names with linkages to an ancient Judea and Samaria that long preceded centuries of occupation by Arab Palestinians.
After the Arab Uprising of 1987-1990 in the West Bank and Gaza (the First Intifada or “shrugging off”), as well as the bloody Israeli repression of this revolt leading to widespread criticism of Israel and the dramatic lowering of its reputation, the Oslo Accords were negotiated with the U. S. acting as mediator between Palestinians and Israelis to provide a way out of the occupation of the remnants of Palestinian territory not earlier annexed by Israel (some 29% of the original Palestine west of the Jordan river, represented by Gaza and the West Bank). As already explained, the assumption was that through a series of carefully negotiated withdrawals by Israel in Gaza and the West Bank that a fully independent state of Palestine could by established in these territories. This would provide a Two State Solution for Palestine which would end the enmity between the occupied and the occupier and maintain the right of each nation to independence and sovereignty over its own affairs. This predicted outcome was widely celebrated until relatively recently. However, it is now increasingly evident that the Oslo agreement will not succeed, and an increasing number of Israelis and Palestinians have come to expect its failure.
The reasons for the failure are many, and you might take your pick from those offered on either side. There is little doubt that the ability of Hamas, a radical version of the Islamic Brotherhood, to wrest control over Gaza after Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from that territory in 2005 and to proceed to lob missiles into Israeli civilian areas and send off suicide bombers has made Israeli faith in a peaceful withdrawal from the West Bank very unlikely. Hamas came into power for many reasons, including the embedded corruption of the Palestinian Authority set up with the Oslo Accords, and the failure to achieve a successful negotiation in 2000, leading to a Second Intifada, much bloodier than the first, and a widespread loss of faith in any negotiated outcome. There is also little doubt that the expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank has undermined faith in a “final status” general negotiation of territorial borders. Here we see the inevitable result of the inability of the Israeli state to maintain control over a settlement process pushed by a radical Jewish minority which never had support from a majority of the Israeli population but could always appeal to Israeli sentiments whenever they were threatened with dislodgment or denial of the heavy subsidies that enabled their growth.
One can add one final obstacle to any two state solution: the desire to maintain a Jewish democracy as opposed to a democracy that maintains a commitment to equal rights for everyone regardless of religion or ethnicity. Every state that has sought to build a national base tied to a specific religious identity has run into the old problem of how to treat those who do not share this faith, or the ethnic or historic connections to that faith. Clearly, states that have long been considered enemies of Israel have shown what horrors result from religiously exclusive nationalism, whether it be Egypt, Iraq, Syria, or other Middle Eastern cauldrons. The Thirty Years War and its aftermath cured Europe of religious exclusiveness leading to the championing of the Enlightenment secularism which influenced the founders of America’s secular state. The irony for Israel runs very deep. It was founded by strong secularists who wished to establish a democracy for Jews as an ethnic group threatened with rabid discrimination and possible extinction Today, there are more secular Jews in Israel than in the United States. Yet Jewishness still defines what is meant by Israeli nationhood. Can Israel still survive as a democratic state if it continues to fail to see those they occupy as deserving of the same universal human rights that they take for granted because they fear for their own security or are unable to control the radicals amongst themselves that never wanted to allow their “Holy Land” to be inhabited by anyone else?