‘The whole mess makes a Gordian knot look simple to untangle’
The anger and pain continue to spread out from the air attacks on Gaza and the rockets fired into Israel. The danger of further conflict spreading grows and there seems no immediate way out of this mess.
More than a decade ago, I was sitting on a hillside in Palestine/Judea/the West Bank/Syria Palestine under a cerulean blue, cloudless winter sky. Together with my travel companions for the day, a team of actors from an Arab children’s theatre company, we had stopped for a modest lunch, and I was surveying the rugged landscape while I had my sandwich and cool drink.
They had just performed their play to a large gathering of pre-teens in the school hall of a madrassa, a Muslim religious school. The play was about a father, desperate to protect his handicapped daughter from the slights of a cruel world, who had built a sturdy wall around their house and garden. But the wall caused his fruit trees to shrivel and die, causing the child to mourn their loss.
Of course, on one level, the drama was a simple tale about community and humanity. But, at another level, the meaning was about as subtle as a rock crashing through a windscreen, given the great bitterness about the ongoing construction of the wall that was designed to protect Israel from incursions from the West Bank.
We sat on the benches of the rest stop with an almost 360º view of the surrounding landscape. My companions pointed out one of the Israeli government’s official settlements on a nearby hill; then an unauthorised settlement; then an Arab village; next, the ruins of what was probably a Crusader or Byzantine military strong point — and maybe it had also been a Roman one.
Things have been built on top of yet earlier things in that part of the world for a very long time. And down below the detritus, the weeds and soil, and the rocks of the sites I was looking at, there would probably be faint traces from Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian and Davidic times, perhaps a Canaanite worship site, and, just maybe, even traces of things more ancient still. History stretches back a long way in that region. There are many historical ghosts. And they never go away.
The landscape’s current agonies are just adding to the quarrelling ghosts. Perhaps the present reality is becoming a version of the Greek legends swirling around the mythical hero Perseus, stories that gave rise to various cinematic versions of that story in Clash of the Titans. In that saga, Zeus, Poseidon and Hades divided the universe and then proceeded to squabble endlessly, drawing a cast of humans into the resulting chaos.
Of course, when we say “myths”, we are not talking now about made-up tales to placate the young or explain the constellations. Instead, as the late social anthropologist and religious scholar Joseph Campbell would have explained, myth provides the framework for a society or people to educate their young, and to provide them with a means of coping with their passage through the different stages of life from birth to death. People live their lives through the power of these myths.
In addition to the current Israeli bombing campaign against Hamas in Gaza (and those retaliatory rockets by Hamas into Israel), unexpected outbreaks of increasingly bitter inter-communal violence in Israeli towns inhabited by populations of both Jews and Arabs, and now a vast general strike by Arabs in Gaza, the West Bank and Israel proper, all point to new ways in which the troubles may evolve. It is entirely possible things may spiral into wider conflict or still more devastating warfare.
So far, the disproportionality in damage and non-combatant casualties between the two sides means the largest share of opprobrium is flowing towards Israel. This is something it has generally been unfamiliar with in places where the country has historically been able to draw on deep reserves of sympathy and support. This includes a growing share of the US Democratic Party’s elected leaders, although not yet the Biden administration itself.
Most recently, though, the Biden administration has begun to inch away from that position. As The Washington Post’s Daily 202 newsletter reported on Tuesday afternoon, “After days of unwavering support for Israeli air strikes and demands Hamas stop firing rockets at America’s closest Middle East ally, President Biden edged closer yesterday to publicly calling for a cease-fire after resisting growing calls to do so.
“ ‘The president expressed his support for a ceasefire’ during a conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, their third publicly disclosed discussion in less than a week, according to an official White House summary known as a ‘readout.’
“The rhetorical shift came after a weekend of mounting pressure on Biden — notably allies in Congress jointly demanding an ‘immediate cease-fire,’ echoing demands from international allies the new administration says it respects.
“It also followed an Israeli air strike over the weekend that razed a building housing the Associated Press and other news media, drawing widespread international criticism and expressions of concern from top U.S. officials. Israel has said Hamas operatives also used the edifice.”
The visibility of those Israeli jet attacks on targets in Gaza, most especially the one on the building where international news agencies have long been based, is reinforcing international anger that — this time — the Israelis have gone beyond the pale, by destroying civilian targets for clearly non-military reasons.
Israel’s reply that targets like the cited building were also disguised Hamas command and control centres, rocket assembly and even rocket launch spots may well be true. But, in the absence of public disclosure of proof, beyond urging that others must take their word for it, the global public makes do with indelible images of children pulled from the rubble of buildings, or of multi-storey structures in Gaza’s urban tangle collapsing in giant fireballs. (Sadly, perhaps, images of Syrian, Yazidi and Kurdish children and other innocents caught in appalling circumstances failed to ignite nearly as much global anger. Perhaps those vast catastrophes in Syria/northern Iraq were just too complex a storyline for some.)
By contrast, back in the here and now, videos of 3,000 Hamas rockets, flying towards towns and cities in Israel, but, so far, largely intercepted in mid-flight by the Iron Dome anti-missile system, have actually reinforced that pervasive sense of disproportionality. It is probably true that even if, as an Israeli defence spokesperson has said, they have destroyed between 80-90% of Hamas tunnels and other infrastructure that supports their missile efforts, and that the Israelis are about to gain clear success in their operations and will continue operations until that is done, Israelis have lost a PR war about those larger goals and their methods.
Internationally, the rhetoric has become a portrayal of Palestinians that seems to owe something to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s noble innocents, now being assailed by an implacable, technologically superior enemy, and, so far, they are buoyed only by their just cause. The reality on the ground is obviously more complex.
It is without question that Gaza inhabitants have been the recipients of a very harsh deal. They are stuck in a piece of land, around the size of Manhattan, that was originally supposed to be a portion of the Arab half of the UN-drafted partition plan of 1947. But as a consequence of Israel’s unexpected defeat of a combined attack by Egypt, Jordan, Syria and other Arab nations, Gaza became territory poorly governed by Egypt until 1967, when Israel conquered it, along with the Sinai. Throughout, there has been little investment there and much of the population depends on foreign assistance and food aid, at least in part, because it was assumed its political circumstances would change.
The Israelis withdrew from the Sinai as a consequence of the Camp David Accords and then, subsequently, from Gaza in 2005. They subsequently transferred authority for the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority (PA). In elections in 2006, Hamas gained political control over Gaza, even as Fatah gained political control over the West Bank.
But, of course, the PA’s writ does not run unfettered across much of the West Bank. Rather, that territory, also a part of what would have been a post-partition Palestinian state, has effectively been divided by a variety of Israeli-controlled security zones, in addition to areas where legally mandated Israeli settlements have been established, as well as the more problematic illegal settlements. (Any peace agreement that involved Israelis relinquishing those settlements to an eventual Palestinian state would be political suicide for an Israeli government trying to carry out that step, in the absence of a much broader, well-enforced political settlement.)
None of the above, however, fully describes the circumstances of what has been generally referred to as East or Old Jerusalem. While the Israelis managed to hold on to West Jerusalem during their war for independence, Jordan’s British-trained Arab Legion kept them out of the Old City, and so it, and the West Bank, were governed essentially as part of Jordan until 1967.
Unlike a number of places held by Israel post-1948 where many thousands of Arabs either chose to flee or were forced to do so, the initial Israeli response to the Old City was to avoid disturbing the demographics of the city, even as Israel brought it, and then surrounding districts, into the administrative architecture of a united Jerusalem within the country. In contrast to generally full citizenship rights held by most Arab Israelis in pre-1967 Israel, Arab residents in this new Jerusalem were not automatically citizens of their “new” country, and thus their legal rights remain significantly constrained.
The first mayors of the unified city said they wanted to build a broader social consensus there, especially given the welter of significant historical landscapes and religious holy sites important to many millions beyond the city, and woven deeply into the city’s fabric. (Religious control has remained with Jordanian and Saudi authorities for the Muslim sites and with various Christian sects for the Christian sites.) However, growing security imperatives, from the perspective of the Israelis, have made that hoped-for peaceable kingdom in Jerusalem extraordinarily difficult to achieve in reality. Instead, over the years, there have been repeated clashes between groups of Palestinians from Jerusalem and Israeli security forces in and around Muslim holy sites, the results of which have not resolved anything, but have built growing, mutual resentments and animosities after police actions.
Most recently, a dispute over the planned displacement of a small group of Arab residents in the Sheikh Jarrah district in Jerusalem to expropriate the land to make way for homes for Jewish Israelis has been the trigger point for the newest wave of protests, in addition to a number of police/demonstrator clashes at the Temple Mount. (The Sheikh Jarrah land in question was, prior to the partition plan, occupied by Jews before they fled in the middle of the war, but, in the current circumstances, the real imbalance in the ability of Arabs to use legal mechanisms to protect or gain land for homes continues to trigger animosities.)
Where to apportion blame for the current hostilities?
Columnist Tom Friedman, an observer who has been following the many threads of this conflict for decades both on the ground and from New York City, recently wrote a column that helps draw the many separate pieces into sharp focus, and so is well worth quoting at some length. As Friedman asks:
“But what sparked it all? The tinder was a collision of ‘sacred times’ and ‘sacred territories,’ Hebrew University religious philosopher Moshe Halbertal told me, and then different actors threw matches to start a raging fire.
“Specifically, this year’s Jerusalem Day — a national holiday commemorating the establishment of Israel’s control over East Jerusalem, the Old City and the Temple Mount in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, thereby unifying East and West Jerusalem — was celebrated with prayer services at the Western Wall beginning Sunday night.
“This Israeli sacred date roughly coincided with Muslims’ Laylat al-Qadr, or Night of Power, which fell this year on Saturday. It is considered not only the most sacred night of Ramadan but of the whole Islamic calendar. It commemorates the night when the first verses of the Quran were revealed to the Prophet Muhammad by the Angel Gabriel and is marked by thousands of Muslims gathering at the Aqsa Mosque, near the Western Wall on the Temple Mount.
“These overlapping sacred dates led to inevitable clashes in the alleyways of East Jerusalem and culminated Monday with the Israeli police raiding the Aqsa Mosque, where Palestinians had stockpiled stones. Hundreds of Palestinians were wounded while more than 20 Israeli police officers suffered injuries.
“That situation was exacerbated by a long-simmering fight over what Halbertal called ‘sacred territory.’ In brief, right-wing Israeli Jews had gotten a court order to evict six Palestinian families who are living in homes on land that was owned by Jews in East Jerusalem before the city was divided in the 1948 war. Palestinian families are fighting their eviction in court. Indeed, Israel’s Supreme Court was slated to rule Monday on whether the Palestinians could be expelled but delayed the decision because of the violence.
“Palestinians argue that it is unfair that Jews can reclaim land or homes they owned in East Jerusalem before 1948 but Palestinians have no legal means to reclaim land they owned in West Jerusalem or anywhere else in Israel before 1948.
“Clashes over these sacred dates and sacred spaces would be incendiary enough, but they were also fueled, as I said, by scenes on TikTok. In April, some Palestinian youths uploaded a short video of themselves assaulting an Orthodox Jew on public transportation, as a way of inspiring copycat attacks. In response, a far-right Jewish group named Lehava led a march through Jerusalem to the Damascus Gate of the Old City, chanting ‘Arabs, get out.’
“The whole mess makes a Gordian knot look simple to untangle. But what is it all telling us? The most obvious and important point is that a dangerously naïve consensus has emerged in Israel in recent years suggesting that Israel basically has the Palestinian conflict suppressed and those Palestinians living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem are basically resigned to living under permanent Israeli control. This consensus was so powerful that in all four of Israel’s recent elections, the question of peace with the Palestinians — how to achieve it and what happens if it is ignored — was not on the agenda.
“The Abraham Accords engineered by the Trump administration, normalizing relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco — while valuable in helping to stabilize the region — also reinforced the notion that the Palestinian cause is basically yesterday’s news. Today’s headlines prove the fallacy of that thinking.
“By the way, the Biden administration has no interest right now in being forced to react to those headlines. It does not believe the conditions are right for any real progress on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and the last thing it wants — when its primary focus in the region is trying to revive the nuclear deal with Iran, which is already causing huge tensions with Israel — is to get distracted by having to mediate a cease-fire between Israelis and Palestinians or blunt Iranian attempts to inflame the situation in Jerusalem.
“But where do we go from here?
“In part that depends on Bibi Netanyahu. Of all the crazy coincidences of this moment, maybe the craziest is that it comes in what could be Bibi’s final days as Israel’s prime minister — after more than 12 years in office. Netanyahu has an interest in seeing his rivals fail to form a new coalition to unseat him. He would like Israel to go to a fifth election — giving him a chance to hang on and maybe avoid jail if he is convicted in his current corruption trial. One way Bibi could do that is by inflaming the situation so much that his right-wing rivals have to abandon trying to topple him and declare instead that this is no time for a change in leadership. [His actions may have also forestalled the possibility of the Israeli political group, the Joint List from joining a coalition spanning the left and the centre from forming a new government as well.]
“Much also depends on what Hamas chooses to do. Hamas has failed to produce either significant economic growth in the Gaza Strip that it rules or political progress with Israel. And the fact that the Palestinian Authority just postponed planned elections, which Hamas probably would have dominated, means it is stuck.
“What does Hamas tend to do when it is stuck? Fire rockets at Israel. But on Monday it did something really unusual. It fired rockets at Jerusalem to try to assume leadership of the brewing uprising there. Israel retaliated by bombing Gaza and reportedly killing at least 20 Palestinians.
“Bottom line: This could all calm down in three or four days as Hamas, Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority all find it in their interests to impose their will on the street. Or not. And if it turns into another Intifada, with the street imposing its will on their leaderships, this earthquake will shake Israel, Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Egypt and the Abraham Accords….”
Friedman and so many others’ bottom lines, now, are: what happens next, and where does everyone go to exit from the deadly, roiling violence? In addition, down the road, there will be the question of who has to give up what in exchange for some part of a loaf that offers the chances of a more permanent peace.
But some of the more outlier options being shouted about will not happen. For example, far-right Israelis’ insistence on somehow gaining full sovereignty over the entire biblical landscape, from Jordan to the Mediterranean is, by definition, really off the negotiation table. There are far too many impediments to make this a real proposition (not the least of which is all those millions of people who would be driven out of their current homes), even if a vocal minority of Israelis — and especially some living in West Bank settlements — hope for such an apocalyptic plan.
Similarly, extremist advocates of a Palestine that spans the entire space from the river to the sea, after having driven the Israeli Jews into the sea or further exile, stands no chance. (A stray thought here. Are such advocates — many of them safely abroad — also proposing that the majority of Israelis, whose families came from North Africa, the Middle East and Africa, would be able to retrieve their expropriated possessions and businesses from their former homes as well? And, just maybe, such advocates could lay off with the colonialist occupier regime rhetoric for a while. Such comments are not what we in the international relations trade would term a “heuristic contribution”.)
What about that sometimes mooted “one-state solution” and the repatriation of all former Arab residents back into what is now Israel, such that the new nation no longer has its pre-eminently Jewish character?
Aside from the fact there are few Israelis who would go along with this, given their historical legacies of persecution or much worse, and given the costs that would be put upon them by nearly any version of this idea, what kinds of real protections of communities would be able to be put into place to ensure such a plan remains in effect and in force?
Who would actually provide the serious international security muscle in full strength, for as long as it takes, to ensure such a drastic change in circumstances would not mean disaster for its constituents?
Further, is there any realistic sense that such a dramatic change in the geopolitical landscape would actually mean a sudden rush of investment into the deeply economically distressed areas of Gaza and significant parts of the West Bank? If not, what would prevent communal resentments and anger from rising again? None of these extreme plans offers realistic help.
In the meantime, though, there needs to be a truly urgent effort to bring the current hostilities to heel before the humanitarian crisis overwhelms Gaza’s already fragile, failing infrastructure. Participation by other Arab nations will be important and the symbolic weight of the UN in backing a stand-down should be helpful. But, almost inevitably, it will fall to the US to insist on a prompt end to air strikes, the resumption of electricity and fuel supplies to Gaza, and then levering the weight of the Arab nations to bring Hamas along to cease firing rockets. This move will be crucial, even if actually enforcing a halt on any construction of rockets is unlikely. There are too many places to do that kind of work in congested Gaza.
But the real hard nut to crack will be to find a way to gain some momentum for an Israeli movement away from nibbling extensions of actual control over West Bank land. Whoever is prime minister in the coming months and years must be a leader who understands — and believes — that peaceful outcomes depend on taking risks. Right now, at least, the momentum is going the other way, with too many in politics and elsewhere believing they can continue to kick that particular can down that particular road well into the future, by virtue of their military edge.
So, here are some further suggestions. What about a broad international accord that specifies — in deep detail and with some real stick in the arrangement — the management and control of all religious sites, superseding most earlier and current ad hoc arrangements? With such an effort firmly in place, what about bringing all Jerusalem residents, regardless of community, into circumstances where they all hold full civic rights and legal protections in their city of residence? Then movement towards real processes to bring efficient, honest, effective governance over the entirety of the West Bank land can commence, even if the Palestinian Authority’s mandarins would be unhappy with the result.
That leaves us with the surely vexed questions of that Palestinian “right of return”, the final status of the entirety of Jerusalem in all its manifestations, and full freedom of movement for all residents, over all of which so much ink has been spilt.
Perhaps those should be left to the next round of negotiations, along with some way to compensate people with money rather than land itself, rather than a physical return in all cases. But all — or any — of this will require leaders who truly understand that a momentary tactical advantage looks nothing at all like actual strategic success. Sadly, that quality is currently in very short supply around those parts. DM