Matthew B. Hallinan
November 22, 2023
Without a higher moral vision, the left is just another player in an endless saga of bloodshed and suffering.
The Israeli/Palestinian conflict is perhaps, the most complex political dispute on the planet. What makes it so complicated is that both sides see themselves as victims, and each depicts the other as an aggressor. And on one level, both are right.
Israel was born of antisemitism. This is an important starting point for understanding the conflict. There is a tendency of many on the left to see Israel as simply an instrument of Western Colonialism. While certain Western Powers did play an important role in the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, seeing Israel from this perspective fails to take into account the impulse that drove millions of Jews to seek refuge there.
Zionism, the idea that Jews should return to their ancient homeland in Palestine, was initiated by Theodor Herzl in response to the Dreyfuss Affair. Dreyfuss was a French Army officer who in 1896, was wrongfully accused of spying for the Germans. His trial and conviction revealed a shocking level of antisemitism, not only in the French military, but also, in the larger society. Herzl, an assimilated Austrian Jew, was devastated by this revelation. Doubting that Jews would ever be accepted as full citizens in European society, he issued a call for a First Zionist Congress to meet in Basel in 1897.
Zionism played an important role in the birth of Israel. But it actually came on the scene quite late. It did not have a major demographic impact in Palestine until the rise of Hitler and the Nazis during the 1930s. In 1922, even with support from the controlling colonial power, Great Britain, Jews constituted only 11% of Palestine’s population. By 1931 that number had grown to 16%. After 1934 (when Hitler was appointed chancellor) immigration gained momentum, and by 1945, Jews constituted 31% of the population of Palestine–Muslims 60%, Christians 8%.
The end of WWII left millions of European Jews without homes or a homeland. Most did not want to return to countries that either could not protect them, or actively collaborated with the Nazis. This added a new dimension to Zionism. More than simply a safe place to practice their religion, the creation of a Jewish state was increasingly seen as fundamental to their survival. The Holocaust had convinced most that they must acquire a capacity to defend themselves. They needed a state of their own. “Never again” would they allow themselves to be led like lambs to the slaughter.
That’s pretty much where the founders of Israel were coming from. A people traumatized by an organized, methodical effort of a major industrial power to physically exterminate them. I do not see Zionism, as such, as the driving force in the creation of Israel. The main impulse was survival. Zionism provided a religious and mythological framework that connected a vast array of different nationalities to a cultural core and to a land from which they had been separated from for 2000 years. Religion in Israel is more than a belief system: it is a “deed” to the land.
My involvement with this issue began in 1987 when a Palestinian friend invited me to travel to Jerusalem to spend a few weeks in their home. From what little I knew about this conflict, I was sympathetic to the Palestinians–but more sympathetic to the Israelis. I held a view that I believe was widespread in the American left at that time. I thought the Jews did what they had to do to secure their survival—what any people in their place would have done. At the same time, I understood that the creation of Israel inflicted a wound on the Palestinians. However, I saw the on-going conflict as due to the stubbornness of the Palestinian: their refusal to come to terms with the existence of Israel and their unwillingness to accept a solution that could be mutually acceptable.
My friend knew my thinking on the situation and organized a trip that would allow me to see things from a different perspective. We visited every major city and refugee camp in the West Bank and Gaza, and talked with a wide variety of different Palestinian activists and groups. I didn’t take long for me to recognize what was wrong with my previous point of view. I had not understood what the Palestinian realty was all about.
The debate over relative victim-hood disappears when you are over there. One people have all the rights and the power to enforce them—the other have no rights. They are essentially powerless. That doesn’t mean that Israelis are always abusing and mistreating Palestinians. It means that whenever there is a conflict between an Israeli and a Palestinian, it is ultimately up to some Israeli (police, judge, administrator, military officer, etc.) to decide how to settle it. That’s the bottom line to living under military occupation.
If military power, the ability to defend themselves and control their own fate, is the central motif of Israeli culture, powerlessness, the subjugation by outsiders, has been defining feature of Palestinian history. It began when their homeland, without their consultation or consent, was divided in two to provide the territory for the new Jewish state. They rejected the decision of a UN, which at that point in time, was dominated by a few major Western Powers. They attempted to resist militarily, but were overwhelmed in a short, one-sided war. By the end of that war, somewhere between 700,000 and 900,000 thousand Palestinians lost their homes and ended up in refugee camps–many in Gaza. Indeed, the current population of Gaza consists largely of the descendants of those refugees.
The 1948 war—the “Nakba,” or catastrophe for the Palestinians–was only the beginning of their tragic saga. A critical turning point came in 1967 when another war resulted in the Israeli conquest of what was left of the land granted to the Palestinians by the UN resolution–the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. For the past 56 years, Israel has controlled these territories and has prevented the Palestinians from consolidating them into a nation. Instead, they have subjected them to one form or another of military rule.
Unless you are living and travelling with Palestinians, walking in their shoes so to speak, it is difficult to get a true picture of what a military occupation is all about. It is a life of constant harassment, humiliation, and insecurity.
Military checkpoints are everywhere, making any trip to see friends or relatives an unpredictable and complicated hassle. Everything the Palestinians want to do—buying a new car, remodeling a kitchen or putting a new bathroom in one’s house, requires written permission: interminable paperwork. Decisions are arbitrary, and denials cannot be appealed.
And then there is the relentless encroachments of the settlers—bullying and threatening their way onto the land, seizing farmsteads and homes that lack “proper documentation” or are on “sacred” soil—mentioned in the Bible. Their threats are backed up with automatic weapons and the certainty that in stealing other’s lands, they are doing God’s work.
Many of the settlers are Americans. I talked with a number of them—one who had spent the summer of 1967 in San Francisco (the Summer of Love –“come to San Francisco with flowers in your hair”). They see immigration to Israel as “returning” to their real home–a place they have been disconnected from for over 2000 years. Apparently there is no statute of limitations when it comes to abandoned real estate in Palestine. They see the Palestinians who live in the villages and cities, the people whose parents, grandparents and distant ancestors built the houses, erected the fences and planted the olive trees, as “squatters:” illegitimate interlopers who need to find some other place to live.
Young Palestinian men are rounded up on the word of informants they cannot confront or cross-examine. 40% of Palestinian men have been arrested and held under one or another of the 1600 military orders that control every aspect of Palestinian life. When charged with a crime, Palestinians are tried in Israeli courts and can only be represented by Israeli lawyers. Because they are not citizens of Israel, they cannot vote in Israeli elections and thus, have no political or peaceful means to influence the laws and policies they have to live under.
Israelis like to talk about their generosity in granting Gaza self-rule. One only has to go to Gaza to see what a poor gift that was. Gaza is a little strip of desert surrounded by Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea. It has no natural resources and 96% of its water is undrinkable. It is one of the most densely populated places on earth, made up of impoverished war-refugees and their descendants. 80% of its residents live below the poverty line. It has been accurately described as an “open-air prison.” Israel did not give it—it dumped it.
A slow-burning fuse
Palestinians are not fools—they know what is going on. They have been haggling and negotiating with Israel since 1967 to get control over the lands taken in the war. Negotiating with Israel, according to a joke going around, is like this. Two men decide to have lunch together. They order a number of different plates, and at some point, they begin to argue over how to divide up the bill. While the argument is proceeding, one of the men begins eating off the plate of the other. That’s a pretty apt description of the Palestinian’s experience in negotiating with Israel.
Because I don’t want to write a book on this subject, I would like to end this blog with a few final thoughts. I will write more later.
1) For a historical overview, I would recommend reading Simha Flapan’s book—“The Birth of Israel: myths and realities.” He uses historical documents, dairies and personal papers to establish that Israel’s Zionist leadership –all of them, from Ben Gurion on– did not accept the boundaries laid down by the UN, but intended to eventually bring the whole of Palestine under Jewish control. That was, and still is, the Zionist vision of Israel. That is why Israel never published a map of its boundaries—leaving expansion open– and that is why it did everything in its power to prevent the formation of a Palestinian state—which would have set limits to its growth.
2) The establishment of settlements, which began under Begin, was aimed at creating “facts on the ground.” The goal was (and is) to establish an irreversible process of Israeli takeover of the West Bank and Jerusalem. Israel has short-circuited the negotiation process—and has made creating a Palestinian state extremely difficult.
3) The new right-wing Israeli government is giving the green-light to settlement expansion.
4) The formation of an alliance between the USA, Saudi Arabia, and Israel threatens the one leverage the Palestinians have had in their struggle with Israel—the ability to deny Israel peace and normal relations with the Arab World until the Israelis come to terms with the Palestinians. This new alliance promises to side-line the Palestinian issue, reorganizing power relations in the Middle East without solving the Palestinian issue.
How to Look at Hamas
All of the above was well known to Hamas. They acted to derail the process towards a new political arrangement in the Middle East. I believe they knew exactly what they were doing. They consciously and deliberately designed a horrific crime against unarmed Israeli civilians. They knew that this went to the core of Israel’s very purpose for being—a state to protect its people from slaughter. They knew that Israel would not be able to control its rage and desire for revenge, and that in order to destroy Hamas, who was ensconced in the population centers of Gaza, it would have to deal a devastating blow to innocent Palestinians. This would enrage the Arab and Muslim world, and bring an end to any efforts for a reconciliation with Israel.
So far, it looks like Hamas has achieved what it set out to accomplish. Indeed, it may even have succeeded in giving life to the moribund goal of Two-state solution.
Is Hamas to be congratulated? Do the ends justify the means? It appears that many on the left are prepared to accept Hamas’ slaughter of innocents, and to see their brutality as merely payback for past wrongs done by Israelis to Palestinians.
This thinking will spell the death of the left. The ends do not justify the means—the means determine the ends. Wanton brutality and inhumanity only begets more of the same. Many of us have lived long enough to see how movements that sought to embrace the highest human ideals were undermined by brutal methods—the purges of Stalin, the Cultural Revolution of Mao, and the killing fields of Pol Pot. In 1948, over 100 Palestinian villagers—men, women, and children were slaughtered at Deir Yassin by the Irgun. And the Palestinians have never forgot it. Just as the Israelis will never forget October 7. Reconciliation between these two peoples can never be built on acts of cruelty and brutality. Hamas is an outlaw movement. It must be held responsible for its crimes. I believe that it will end up doing more harm to the Palestinians than to the Israelis
Without a higher moral vision, the left is just another player in an endless saga of bloodshed and suffering.
Published on Portside.
Matthew B. Hallinan received his PhD in Anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley. In Beyond Biology, he brings together his years of study and independent research to answer a question that has long fascinated him: How could humans have gone through the same kind of evolutionary process as every other animal and yet have come out so different? This question has been central to Hallinan’s intellectual life. His passion for the subject is not driven simply by curiosity, but rather by a sense that time is growing short for us to come to terms with our place in the natural world. More
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