While you were twisting the night away with the brand new president Israel decided to stop blowing up people, places and things on the Gaza Strip.
Normally I would have written about the situation in Gaza sooner, but I couldn’t get past my own blind rage and exhaustion over the issue. Now that the violence has died down in a wash of purposelessness I’m left to wonder, what was the objective of Israel’s offensive?
Was it to get rid of Hamas, because they were democratically elected and they’re still entrenched in power?
Was it to win over the citizens of Gaza? Because more than a thousand of them are dead.
Or was it simple revenge?
(Warning: This is not a short blog posting. Perpare for the “short version” of why things are the way the are between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Read the entire monster essay after the jump.)
Ah, that sounds about right. Revenge. Everything in the Middle East is about revenge. It’s like the film “Death Wish,” only your opinion on who is Charles Bronson, the “hero” vigilante, and who are the criminal urban terrorists depends on your point of view.
The conflict in the Middle East between the Israelis and the Palestinians is a living example of the “Irresistible Force Paradox” which, oddly, popped up in the middle of last summer’s blockbuster (and post-9/11 treatise depending on how you interpret it) — “The Dark Knight.”
What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? In this case the unstoppable force is the determination of the Israeli people to forge a homeland on what used to be the property of other countries and other people. The immovable object –which they, in vain, keep trying to move — are the Palestinian people who used to live on that land. I often get frustrated with the American media, which seems uninterested in addressing this issue with any sort of historical perspective, preferring to make this very complex and nuanced and entrenched issue a matter of “Israel = good” and “the Middle East is a violent place.”
As if that even got to the heart of the matter.
To understand why this is a living Irresistible Force Paradox you have to understand how Israel came to be in the first place. And it did not start after World War II and the devastation that was Hitler’s Germany, but decades before, at the turn of the century, in the shadow of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
David Fromkin’s “A Peace to End All Peace,” required reading for anyone who feels like attempting to force a Western facelift on the Middle East, goes into detail about the commotion caused by the Zionist Movement of the early 1900s.
In 1917, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George ordered the military conquest of Palestine in an effort to seize the land from the slowly collapsing Ottoman Empire. Lloyd George had a vision of securing the land as part of the giant Middle East land grab Great Britain, France and other European nations were engaged in post-World War I.
Lloyd George wanted to encourage the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Many of his contemporaries did not realize how serious he was about this vision. A devout Christian Zionist, Lloyd George once stated it was not worth winning the Holy Land only to “hew it in pieces before the Lord,” and asserted that “Palestine, if recaptured, must be one and indivisible to renew its greatness as a living entity.” (Fromkin, pg. 270)
Over time, the movement to encourage European Jews to move to Palestine picked up, pushed by Christian Evangelical groups in Europe, preoccupied with returning Zion to the Jewish people. Their long-term goal was to convert these individuals to Christianity and prepare them for the second coming of Christ.
Naturally, the Palestinians who were already living in Palestine, then property of the Turks, weren’t exactly pleased when they were forced from their homes and wound up marching through the desert to their current, unhappy places of residence.
The people of the Middle East faced a lot of the same racism and ignorance from the British and French that had plagued nearly all of Asia and Africa in both countries efforts at Imperialism. Many European countries and the United States engaged in empire building, but British and the French were quite prolific, along with the Russians, who were primarily obsessed with taking the countries that would eventually become the Soviet satellites. The Americans were relatively late to the game and, at the time, divided on the issue politically as we were a former colony and didn’t particularly care for it. We still wound up at one point ruling the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, the Virgin Islands, Guam and most remnants of Spanish influence in the Americas.
In the Middle East, arbitrary lines were drawn in the sand. Fake countries were created out of what had been real territories. Iran wasn’t Iran’s first choice in a name, considering they used to be Persia. And Iraq may be more recognizable to Biblical scholars and ancient civilization historians as Mesopotamia. But this was all done out of ego, much as the Romans and Ottomans had tried before. To “tame” their weaker neighbors and become like Gods themselves, molding entire peoples and countries into their image.
Fast forward to the end of World War II, more than six million Jews dead from the war and Holocaust. The survivors scattered, emotionally scarred and homeless, and Hitler, dead, after committing suicide in his bunker rather than face the judgment of his enemies.
The movement to take Zion was still quite forceful, if not more so, with millions of European Jews moving to Israel in the belief that from now on they would be in charge of their own destiny — determined to no longer live in fear. The only thing terribly wrong with this picture was the raw deal the Palestinians received when the United Nations chose to recognize Israel as an independent state despite the fact it came to be under such duplicitous circumstances. In spite of the reports of Palestinians being moved from their homes by force and the questionable motives of the Evangelical Christians backing the whole enterprise.
America played a great role in solidifying this untenable situation when President Harry S. Truman, against the advisement of many (including his own anti-Semitic wife) decided to go out on a limb and recognize Israel as a state. This paved the way for UN approval. Since then our country has had a moral, financial and geo-political tie to Israel, born half out of guilt due to our initial non-response to reports of Hitler’s abuses, the other half out of our own self-interest in the region. We’ve been the no. 1 country, behind the British and the French in trying to “solve” this unsolvable problem we helped create.
For centuries Jewish people lived all over the former Ottoman Empire in relative peace. After Israel was recognized as a state, the people of the Middle East took out their anger on the innocent Jews who lived in their countries, including the former Mesopotamia. To this day there are Iraqis with Jewish bloodlines and heritage who dare not mention it for the violent, bloody scenario that unfolded after to Israel’s establishment.
Knowing this history, the actions of Hamas, while violent and counter-productive, reveal that this isn’t some random rage-based in anti-Semitism. This isn’t Hitler’s Germany. This is an angry, displaced minority who have always been treated as second-class citizens by the Westerners who moved in uninvited. Still seething from the British who promised them freedom from the Ottoman Turks, only to saddle them with some Messianic push to prepare Zion for the book of Revelations, mixed with the desperation of a devastated and determined Jewish people.
Sixty years later the problem remains the same. Israel insists it has a right to exist. Hamas says it does not. The bitterness has long since turned to a perversion with views forever discolored by victimization. Despite the motives of the Evangelicals who started the fight, the Jewish people who came to settle Palestine had no intention of being a) converted to Christianity or b) forced to do anything. They have amassed the most powerful military in the Middle East. They rule the skies. They have “the bomb.” Which is why it is odd that in the United States they are still cast in the mold of “victim.”
Israel has repeatedly proved it has the determination and fortitude to protect itself, to the last man, woman and child, if necessary. With the most powerful military machine in the Holy Land, they proved their prowess in The Six Day War. In 1967, the Israeli military defeated Egypt, Jordan and Syria with lightening precision all on their own, seizing the Golan Heights, West Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and even the Sinai Peninsula (which they were asked to give back as part of a peace deal with Egypt).
I don’t know if this has settled in for the minds of many Palestinians and others who are still angered from the religious zealotry of Lloyd George, but the people of Israel aren’t going anywhere anymore than we’re giving Texas back to Mexico. Anymore than we’re honoring the various broken treaties of the dispersed native tribes of North America. They have lived there for 60 years now. They’ve had children there. They have built their settlements, business and homes. They are armed to the teeth. And they’re perfectly fine with waging retaliation for indiscriminate Hamas crude rocket fire by coming down with brutal force. Stances have only hardened.
This is the world’s most frustrating game of chicken. Palestinians throw rocks. The Israelis fire bullets. Palestinians blow themselves and whoever is near them up. Israel blows up large chunks of Palestinian territory and takes political prisoners with no chance at ever getting out of prison. The Palestinians persist in engaging in suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks. The Israelis build a giant fence and obtain the ability to shut off power, supplies and water to the territories, even instituting a blockade. Hamas starts digging tunnels and building rockets.
Under the Bush Administration, in the aftermath of 9/11, our country took the stance that Israel should be able to respond to terrorist acts by Palestinians by any means they deemed necessary — even if the most forceful reaction from Israel simply resulted in more of the same.
What’s amazing is the degree of myopia possessed by the state of Israel in its efforts to protect itself and its citizenry.
In news reports, Israeli officials gave vague reasons (other than retaliation) as to why they were blowing up huge chunks of Gaza. Many believed foreign relation experts pondered if this was part of an effort to overthrow the Hamas government. Hamas, as many of you may recall, came to power after the United States pushed for Democratic elections, then acted stunned when the Palestinean people — who have also been living under a siege mentality since 1946 or longer — elected Hamas overwhelmingly.
Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel as a state, faced with international condemnation and isolation. With Israel holding all the cards with their fence and blockage, the siege quickly turned into an act of collective punishment.
And this is where the true hypocrisy lies.
Collective punishment, the act of making the lives of all miserable for the sake of a few, is what the Jewish people have dealt with since Biblical times, since the Roman Empire or longer. Since the Crusades and the Inquisition. Since the Holocaust. Routinely someone, some group, some country, some religion has decided the world would be better off if the Jews were marginalized, converted or slaughtered and all their murderous intent did not break the resolve of the Jewish people. They only became tougher. They only held on tighter to their faith. They only became more entrenched.
What do the Israelis think is happening in Gaza? Or do they even care?
Every act of war waged, every Palestinian death at the hands of the Israeli military is another chink in the armor of discontent. No matter how frustrated or disillusioned the Arab Street may become with their own leaders or meager, poverty-stricken situations, seeing your home reduced to rubble, your school reduced to rubble, your family and neighbors dead, does not make you want to give up. The acts of cruelty make you evermore hardened and evermore cruel, evermore determined to win at this game of chicken, realizing your mere existence and resistance is a giant affront to the opposition.
Now that I’ve depressed everyone with the details, all that is left to ponder is: What now?
What was the point of Israel’s offensive if they didn’t even succeed at their objectives? Will it stop the rockets? No. Will it force Hamas from power? Probably not. Or, even if Hamas was forced out, would a more Israel-friendly political party take its place? Also unlikely. Will these actions soften the hearts of Palestinians living in camps (for 60 years now) in places like Lebanon? No. Will it make Palestinians stop dreaming of the day they return to their old homes, farms and ancestral burial grounds inside of Israel? No.
But is Israel going anywhere, despite how it came to be? No.
I only see one way out of this and even it might not work. Much of the pain and angst in this conflict is over how the modern Middle East came to be and how Israel came to be. Maybe it is time for everyone who took part in the carving up of the Ottoman Empire carcass to acknowledge that Israel was created (though through “good intentions”) in the most devastating and demoralizing way possible for the Palestinian people. People died in that march through the desert after they were forced from their olive groves and homes in the aftermath of World War I. How can you move on if you can’t acknowledge that the wrongs of anti-Semitism and the wrongs of forcing people from their homes do not make the grounds on which Israel was founded of any more right?
Much like the United States still healing over the scars of slavery and post-war Germany healing over what Hitler wrought, one can’t gloss over the uncomfortable portions of their past and pretend they don’t exist. Especially when they still have the company of the wronged part in their presence. Much like television revealed the true face of “equality” in America during the Civil Rights Movement, the carnage in Gaza demonstrates that there is a gaping wound of pain where there are no longer any innocents and even the youngest members of society are ever more determined in their opposition on both sides. Israel, despite its weakness to terrorist attacks, is the more powerful entity. Their power will not diminish if they begin a reconciliation process by acknowledging the wrongs of the past, the mistakes made and forcing the point that they must learn to co-exist as or perish together as fools, because … they aren’t going anywhere.
In the end, Palestinians and Israelis will have to live together – in peace or in pieces. Hardliners, those who will never forgive the transgressions of the past, will always deny Israel’s right to exist, but the people of the Middle East are not beyond reason if the desire for reconciliation is real. Constant war and uncertainty is not a desirable situation for the average Palestinian who simply wants the same thing the Israelis have — a homeland and prosperity. But no one will ever see peace if they can’t reconcile the sins of the past. Just like many black Americans couldn’t believe in racial progress until they saw it sworn into office Tuesday.
The Palestinian people — not the radicals or their political leaders, but the average citizen — will not believe peace is obtainable until their feelings, fears and concerns are treated with equal seriousness.
Reconciliation through acknowledgement of past mistakes and wrongs, followed with faith-building and retribution for those who lost so much, is the first step to a “two-state” or even one state solution that doesn’t dissolve back into “tanks versus suicide bombers.”
But I don’t see that happening as long as everyone is wrong and everyone is right at the same time. As long as this is still seen in the prism of black and white. As long as there is an unmovable object and an unstoppable force. As long as the Irresistible Force is that of an irresistible fantasy of Holy Land utopia that is more science fiction than an actuality.