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No end in sight to the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict

pal-and-jew.jpgIn 1968, Israel was warned that if it were to lose its self-control and ability to keep its position in the tumultuous Middle East would weaken significantly. In 2008 and on into 2009, it waged a devastating three-week long war against an enemy interspersed within a civilian population. Discover how Israel has gradually turned into a quick-tempered military machine, and what the concessions that the country must make in order to achieve true peace are.

(From Tel Aviv) DURING THESE FIRST FEW DAYS after the ceasefire that has ended Israel’s ugly confrontation with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, one might have hoped to hear at least one leader in the region-Jew or Palestinian-urgently proclaim that now is the time to make peace, and proceed to offer some suggestions regarding how to go about attaining it.

Unfortunately there has been no such voice, and it is no less disappointing that no one seems to be surprised. It appears that the general consensus is that we are merely witnessing a temporary hiatus from fighting, and that violence is expected to break out again in the region in the near future.

A CENTURY OLD CONFLICT

“Hamas believes in its right to resist and is committed to keeping its rage red-hot, praying that in time it will bring about the destruction of Israel and recover the whole of Palestine” Since its establishment in mid-May 1948, the State of Israel has experienced extended periods of ceasefire, but not a single day of true peace. Yet the founding of the Jewish State does not mark the beginning of the hostility between the Arabs and the Jews; rather, it began decades beforehand. Indeed, at this point in 2009, the Arab-Jewish conflict could be defined as being a century old – and there is no end in sight. Over the years, as Israel has ventured into what have proven to be well-prepared wars, the country’s leadership has never had a clear political vision concerning how to ensure that upon termination of warfare it will move towards an equitable settlement to hopefully bring about a lasting peace.

Regardless of how many casualties there have been, neither party has conceded defeat, and certainly not the Palestinians. Both the PLO [1] and (more recently) Hamas have made it quite clear that they will not be silenced by whatever horrendous force they might encounter. Furthermore, ignoring the dictum that it is with one’s enemy that one must negotiate peace, the Israeli leaders have not made matters any easier with their repeated declarations that they will not negotiate with terrorist organizations. This actually seems to suit Hamas, which clearly believes in its right to resist and is committed to keeping its rage red-hot, praying that in time it will bring about the destruction of Israel and recover the whole of Palestine.

More urgently, through use of force –mortars and rocketry– it would like to bring about an end to the siege against Gaza that its hapless citizens have been subject to for many years. Accordingly, the organization repeatedly fires Kassam rockets from along the Gaza border into Israeli towns and villages, lending credence to the idea that a two state solution is in fact untenable.

A NEW KIND OF WAR

“The nature of Israel’s conflicts has also changed substantially over the years” In a world in which Israel has signed peace treaties with both Egypt and Jordan, and is holding indirect peace talks with Syria [2], the tension responsible for the eruptions of violence in the past generation has generally stemmed from the country’s relations with parts of the Palestinian population, which is increasingly getting caught in the deadly crossfire.

Indeed, the forms of warfare utilized in the recent confrontation in Gaza contrast with those used in the earlier ones, in which the Arab countries’ armies were involved. Unlike the stunning performance of the Israeli Defense Forces [3] in the 1967 Six Day War [4] and the Yom Kippur War [5] in the autumn of 1973, the recent campaign waged against Hamas in the Gaza Strip –like the war against Hezbollah [6] in Southern Lebanon in the Summer of 2006 [7] that preceded it– lingered on for weeks. What’s more, there is no sign that the people of Israel will be any safer in its aftermath.

The nature of Israel’s conflicts has also changed substantially over the years. During the battles conducted in 1956, 1967 and 1973, Israel’s mobile forces fought the Egyptian and Syrian armies out in the open plains and hills. “There is another powerful factor that influences Israel’s politics: it regards all Arabs with deep suspicion, as potential or real enemies” The advantages of waging this type of combat were lost in the wars of 1982, 2006 and 2009, in which the country fought a nearly-static war with the mainly Palestinian and Lebanese guerrilla forces positioned among vast civilian populations in built-up urban villages and towns.

Fighting guerrilla forces generally positioned within a civilian population is different from facing opposing armies out in open spaces. The Israeli army first learned this when it encountered Palestinian PLO guerrillas upon reaching Beirut in 1982, and the fact has remained relevant in its recent clashes with Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon [8] and Hamas in Gaza.

The senior IDF officers –who had once impressed enemies and admirers alike with the prowess and swift mobility displayed in the earlier wars– have not found a way to speedily overcome the enemy when confronted with much smaller opposition forces stationed, for the most part, at fixed locations in mainly civilian areas.

In the years following the War of Independence [9], it was taken for granted that, should hostilities break out, the fighting would take place outside of Israel’s borders. And indeed, except for a number of rockets fired by Iraq in early 1991, the civilian population in Israel was not exposed to attacks from Arab forces until the 2006 Lebanon War, when Haifa [10] and the cities and villages in the Galilee [11] were subject to shelling from Hezbollah. And prior to the war with the Gaza Strip, Hamas had begun shelling Israeli cities in the south, from Beersheba [12] to Ashdod [13] and Ashkelon [14].

MILITARY MIGHT WITHOUT POLITICAL PRUDENCE

One thing has remained constant during all of these confrontations (with the possible exception of the war in 2006): whereas the Israeli comThere is another powerful factor that influences Israel’s politics: it regards all Arabs with deep suspicion, as potential or real enemiesmand has planned the early military maneuvers diligently – which has certainly led to impressive results – the political leaders have never clearly defined the political goals they wish to achieve in the aftermath of the war, or even how they might define victory.

There is another powerful factor that influences Israel’s politics: it regards all Arabs with deep suspicion, as potential or real enemies. And if they do indeed pose a threat, Israel asserts its right to take the necessary precautions to ensure its security. Such safeguards are a national priority and do not usually take into account the discomfort and degrading effects that the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank [15] or the besieged Gaza Strip suffer. Israel is so hung up on its security that it only considers the use of force, and does not seem to comprehend that to resolve the seemingly endless dispute, avoid another outbreak of hostilities and achieve civil equality and security for all, a healthy respect for human rights must be part of the solution, which in turn must be agreed upon by both the Israelis and the Palestinians.

CONCESSIONS NEEDED FOR A STRATEGIC PEACE PLAN

Another, probably more basic, explanation of this absence of a strategic peace plan could be explained by the fact that all of Israel’s heads of state have been –and continue to be– aware that a real settlement with the Palestinians would call for concessions that Israelis have so far not been willing to support. In order to learn what such a program would entail, we must address the main issues to which they would have to agree in order to end the conflict. These include:

– The future of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank. In the 40 years since the Six Day War, more than 400,000 Jews have built their homes on lands in East Jerusalem [16] and the West Bank that have been occupied by Israel since 1967. “The living conditions and legal status of the Arab population in the West Bank are often humiliating” In order to achieve a lasting peace and the establishment of a Palestinian State to the east of the 1949 armistice lines, it can be assumed that these settlers would have to be uprooted and would have to move back into Israel’s pre-1967 territory. Hardly an Israeli believes that any leader would dare undertake such a project.

– An alternative possibility that might be considered is a one state solution, which would establish a country of both Jews and Arabs living in all of the land to the west of the Jordan [17]. It is not clear who among the Palestinian leadership would support and be assertive enough to implement such a plan, but it is crystal clear that there is no Jewish politician or party ready to embrace the concept of a bi-national democracy home to both Jews and Arabs.

– The idea that Israel must be a Jewish State is deeply rooted in the minds of many Israelis, but it is in fact a misconception. Even today, Israel is a state with a large number of minorities: more than twenty percent of the population living in the pre-1967 borders is composed of Arabs, Muslims, Christians and Druze [18]. To these, we must add a significant number of gentiles who migrated from the erstwhile USSR, and the many foreign laborers building their homes in the country. The percentage of the country’s population composed of non-Jews is expected to rise substantially in the coming generation. Although the Israeli Declaration of Independence [19] made on May 14, 1948 emphasizes that all of the country’s citizens – Jews and gentiles alike – are to enjoy equal rights, in some basic matters this is simply not so. Many laws and rules of the country, especially those concerning land purchasing and home ownership, bestow benefits to the Jewish population only. Moreover, gentiles do not enjoy the automatic right to citizenship provided to Jews under the Law of Return [20]. What’s more, Arabs are barred from being employed in many governmental departments.

“It took two decades –until the 1980s– for some to realize that Israel did not adhere to this advice” The living conditions and legal status of the Arab population in the West Bank are often humiliating. The indigenous Palestinian population is not ensured the same medical or education services as the Israelis, nor do they have freedom of movement within the West Bank or permits to travel overseas. Imports and exports come under intense scrutiny, and the bureaucracy that they encounter is degrading and often corrupt. If Israel is to be a true democracy, it should function as a Jewish homeland, but must also be recognized as a country of all of its people.

There are other unresolved issues regarding the differences between the Jewish and Palestinian populations, such as what the rights of the Palestinian refugees and their offspring should be.

So far, the Israeli leadership and most political parties have preferred to ignore these issues, not recognizing that without agreeing to some sort of acceptable solution to these issues, the tension between the two peoples will not be resolved, and periodic wars will thus be ensured.

UNABLE TO KEEP ITS COOL

In the spring of 1968, a couple of days after the Israeli army suffered some 30 casualties while raiding the PLO training camp in Karameh [21], Jordan, I had lunch in Jerusalem with a senior editorial writer of the Washington Post. The halo that the IDF had earned nine months earlier in the Six Day War had not yet been squandered, and we exchanged thoughts regarding how Arab-Israeli relations might evolve.

“It will take time for Israel to realize that it can set much higher human and civil standards for itself, and coexist in peace with its Palestinian and other Arab neighbours” At the time, the man was certainly a friend of Israel and an admirer of its recent feats, yet he was also puzzled by the unimpressive ramshackle manner in which the army had just behaved. Before parting, he asked me to relay his advice to all those concerned: In this mad, hyper-tense Middle East, Israel’s dominant presence is strengthened by it being the only factor that has self-control and knows how to keep its cool. If you lose that, he cautioned, your position in the confrontation will weaken significantly.

It took two decades –until the 1980s– for some to realize that Israel did not adhere to this advice. Instead, it has lost its cool and gradually begun to overreact to aggravation and provocation from neighboring guerrilla organizations. This, accompanied by the increased political presence of the radical orthodox Haredim [22] and the immigrants from the erstwhile Soviet Union who settled down in the country some two decades ago, has to a large extent caused that cool climate to dissipate, turning Israel into a weaker, rather than stronger, democracy. Today, this is expressed through an ongoing fear and indeed hate propaganda that has increased the hostility of most Israelis towards their neighboring Arabs. It calls for the use of force to minimize any Palestinian expression of independence, and discourages the voicing of opinions that dare to even consider a peaceful solution to help bring about an independent Palestinian state.

There are numerous Israelis, Palestinians and friends of both living overseas who believe in the need for, and are dedicated to finding, a way for a settlement and a peace that will provide safety, security and mutual respect for both peoples. But unfortunately, there still appears to be no awareness on the part of the Israeli media that in order to finally resolve the tension that repeatedly escalates into war, it is essential that Israel come up with an enticing proposal for peace. Steps in this direction have so far not been taken.

It is sad that it will take time for Israel to regain its self-confidence and realize that it can set much higher human and civil standards for itself, and coexist in peace with its Palestinian and other Arab neighbors.