Opinionista Simon Allison 14 July 2014

In Israel and Palestine, history is irrelevant

Israel and Palestine are at it again. As if the Middle East didn’t have enough going on already, Israel is now pounding the Gaza Strip with ‘precision strikes’ that are never quite as precise as advertised, if the growing civilian death toll is anything to go by; while Palestinian militant group Hamas is sending waves of home-made rockets in Israel’s direction, ultimately ineffectual but scary nonetheless.

While the real war is waged thousands of miles away, the propaganda war is much closer to home. All over the world, and South Africa is no exception, the Israel-Palestine issue is debated to death in the rarefied corridors of academia; on the late-night airwaves of talk radio stations; and in the unfailingly vitriolic virtual reality of Facebook posts and Twitter wars, where knowledge is so often subsumed in a maze of prejudice and misconception.

The pro-Palestine brigade points to the decades-long occupation of their territories. They mention the blockade of Gaza, the restrictions imposed on Palestinian citizens, and ever-expanding settlements in the West Bank. They talk about the Nakba, the Catastrophe; the moment in 1948 when Palestinians were unceremoniously booted out of the place now known as Israel. They talk about the keys that so many Palestinian families have kept, keys to the homes they were evicted from, homes that no longer exist except in their longing reminiscences. They talk about decades of oppression, of frustrated ambition, of being treated as second-class citizens in a land they consider their own.

Israel’s cheerleaders, meanwhile, have their own account, and it can be just as compelling. The Jews have been suffering for centuries, victims of racism and discrimination for almost their entire existence. Then, the Holocaust; the moment in history which underlined the need for Jews to have their own space – just one place in the world where they could be safe, that they could call their own. This place is Israel. But even here, and despite the fact that there are Israeli Arabs and Israeli Muslims, they face more hate and violence from extremists hell-bent on denying their birthright. Israel wants peace, it wants to negotiate – if only it could find a partner for peace from the other side. In the meantime, it is Israel’s duty to protect its citizens from the scourge of Islamist extremism.

Into this mix both sides will throw in little bits of history to support their arguments: the Sykes-Picot treaty, the 1968 borders, UN Security Council Resolution 242.

As a neutral, as a person without a cultural connection to or a vested interest in either side, how does one begin to pick through this maze of competing, and often contradictory, claims and counter-claims? Where does one begin to understand an issue that has its roots in decades of conflict, in a shared history so convoluted, so tangled in tragedy and despair?

It’s tempting to throw your hands up in despair, to equate and dismiss the arguments of both sides as a kind of morally-bankrupt relativism, and to conclude that they deserve each other.

It’s tempting, but it’s wrong.

Here’s the thing: all this history, as compelling as it might sound, is irrelevant. It is a crutch, an excuse used to justify actions on both sides that cannot otherwise be justified. History, in this context, is little more than a window-dressing for acts of violence committed in the present day. The violence of the past should not legitimise the violence of the present.

I have seen this phenomenon, not always as extreme, time and time again in other countries, in other contexts. Just think of the African dictator, in power for decades, who tells his people that they don’t have education or health-services or a functional civil service because of the evils of the long-departed colonialists (Comrade Bob, we’re looking at you).

It is as Friedrich Nietzsche observed: “While life needs the services of history, it must just as clearly be comprehended that an excess measure of history will do harm to the living.”

So let’s ignore the history. Let’s throw out the treaties and the resolutions, the bombardments and the suicide bombings. Let’s forget, for now, about who did what to whom so many years ago – and let’s look at who is doing what to whom now.

Stripped of its historical baggage, the picture becomes a little clearer for me. In Israel’s restrictions on Palestinian political activity, in its refusal to countenance even peaceful protests on Palestinian territory, I see repression. In Israel’s restrictions on the movement of Palestinians, in their detention without due process of law of thousands of Palestinian men and women, I see a systemic violation of human rights. In the Israeli settlements that gobble up more and more of Palestinian territory every year, I see a blatant disregard for international law. And in the ongoing aerial and ground assault on Gaza, I see an almost absurd imbalance of power. Those Hamas rockets, not much more sophisticated than a home-made science project, pose a minimal threat to Israeli civilians – a fact surely appreciated by the Palestinians who make them, and the Israelis who shoot them down with such ease. Israel’s fighter jets and state-of-the-art missiles, on the other hand, are exponentially more lethal to both combatants and civilians alike.

It is this stark imbalance of power, which is not just military but financial and diplomatic too, that lies at the crux of the Israel-Palestine issue today. Both sides have blood on their hands, both sides have done and said – and continue to do and say – things that shame them. But right now, the ordinary Palestinian suffers far more than the ordinary Israeli, and only Israel has the power to alleviate that suffering.

Whatever Israel’s justifications for its heavy-handed policies – and it has plenty – all I see is one people being oppressed, and one people doing the oppressing. Regardless of what came before, it really is as simple as that. DM


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