israeli wallThings are usually the way they are for a reason. But there are few situations in the world that appear, from a distance, as unreasonable as the war between Israel and Palestine, a war that has been going on, in essence, without let-up for more than half a century. At one point the efforts to reach a peace settlement got so close to success that the negotiators on each side received Nobel Peace prizes for their efforts. But the dream didn’t last, and for reasons we couldn’t fathom, the cycle of bloodshed, escalation and retaliation cranked up again and is now at firestorm levels, threatening to push the entire Mideast into even more cataclysmic violence.

The reason we couldn’t fathom this, is because we’ve never lived there, never walked a mile in their shoes. In The New Yorker this week, Jeffrey Goldberg provides us with an excellent proxy for such an experience, as he crisscrosses the area, from Israel’s “ideologues of aggressive settlement” to Palestinian mothers teaching their children the honour of death in the holy war against the Jews, describing what he sees and what he hears from those in power, and from those who have nothing. It is a gut-wrenching, depressing journey. You’ll need to buy the May 31 edition to read it, and I would recommend it highly. Alternatively, you can listen to Goldberg summarize his findings, along with a slide show of photos by Gilles Peress, here. One of those photos, of a Palestinian woman peering through a temporary gap in the new Israeli Separation Wall, is reproduced above.

Goldberg makes no secret of his personal view of all this:

The leaders of the Jewish national-religious camp do not adhere to observable reality, They exist in the glorious Jewish past and in the messianic future but not in the reality of today, in which Jewish soldiers give their lives to protect settlements; in which Palestinians live and die at checkpoints; in which Israel is becoming a pariah among the nations; and in which Israel may one day cease to exist as a democratic Jewish state.

[Michael Tarazi, legal advisor to the Palestinian negotiating team says] “Settlements are the vanguard of binationalism” — a single state that would soon have an Arab majority. “I don’t care if they build more. The longer they stay out there, the more Israel will appear to the world to be essentially an apartheid state.”… “We have to look at the way the South Africans did it. The world is increasingly intolerant of the Zionist idea. We have to capture the imagination of the world. We have to make this an argument about apartheid.”

The view of the moderate majority on both sides is that the best of a sorry lot of options is to have Israel dismantle the settlements and withdraw from the pathetic Gaza Strip and the volatile West Bank, to the so-called Green Line, the UN-brokered treaty line after the last “official” war. But that majority view is very fragile, and violently opposed by a significant minority on both sides. The settlements in the occupied territories are the flash-point, where hugely outnumbered Jews, many of them vehemently anti-Arab, provocative, and uncompromising, are surrounded by largely militant Palestinians ready to lay down their lives to reclaim “their homeland”, and protected by an Israeli army that has ceased being protectors and become an army of occupation, many of whom are all too willing to demonstrate violently which side they support, as Goldberg reports.

There are no good guys and bad guys in this war, and every confrontation, of which there are thousands, at every checkpoint, every attack by Arab militants (many of them children), every razing of Palestinian homes to make way for more Iraqi settlements, every suicide bombing, radicalizes both sides and renders the position of the moderate majority untenable. The extremists on both sides, outnumbered though they may be, are firmly in control of the political agenda, and their every provocative act strengthens their position rather than ostracizing them. The “ideologues of aggressive settlement” on the Israeli side, and especially in the settlements, largely believe that all of the occupied territories are theirs by divine right, and that it is the will of God that all Arabs be expelled from their holy land in its entirety — that, as their website says, “There is no Palestine”. And the militants and zealots on the Palestinian side, among the poorest and most destitute people on the face of the Earth, and with one of the highest birth rates, state categorically that they would not stop fighting if Israel withdrew from Gaza and the West Bank, but would merely be encouraged to continue the war until all Jews were extinguished from their holy land. The rabidly intolerant have the will and the ready means to scuttle every attempt at compromise, to embarrass moderates, to incite violence and then say “I told you so.”

There is nothing particularly unique in this, of course. Many of the tribal wars in Africa, the ethnic wars in the Balkan states, and the insane religious war in Northern Ireland, exhibit the same shameful, and shameless, pattern of violence and intransigence. The next, inevitable attack by Islamic fundamentalists on US soil will surely produce the same knee-jerk result in the US, and launch another war to treat the symptoms and exacerbate the disease.

Ariel Sharon, less moderate than most but less extreme than the extremists, has taken an impossible ‘middle’ course sure to satisfy no one: Withdraw from Gaza, kind of (there are a host of conditions that render the withdrawal largely a joke to Palestinians), and bulldoze Palestinian homes to build a mammoth wall, not along the Green Line but deep inside the West Bank to “protect” the Jewish settlements, which are everywhere, not just in the border areas. The partisan, bipartisan support he has received in the US shows how little America’s leaders understand the realities of the area’s politics.

As I’ve said before, the only answer, and it will take decades, perhaps centuries to achieve, is to deal with the underlying humanitarian issues, to give Palestinians a reason to value peace, “something to lose”, and help them build infrastructure and educational institutions, and a future to believe in. Poverty, ignorance and inequality, not religious and ethnic hatred, are the real enemies of peace. It doesn’t matter whether the area is partitioned into two states, fairly or unfairly, or made into a single apartheid state. Things are the way they are for a reason, and in Israel-Palestine the reason is entrenched, and there is no short-term answer. No matter who represents the two sides, there will be decades of violence, war, and bloodshed to come, and it is inexcusable and ignorant of those of us who don’t live there to take sides for cynical political gain. Let us instead — as we should be doing in Afghanistan, Iraq, and all the other areas we have recklessly meddled in, in the absurd and arrogant belief that we understand the problems and have all the answers — let us instead invest in infrastructure, in education, in building a better world even as the zealous minorities try to tear it apart. The founders of the religions we all claim to believe in would surely understand, and nod in assent.

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  1. Raging Bee says:

    How can you spend so many paragraphs discussing the conflict between a peaceful majority and the intransigent, unscrupulous, violent minority, and then undercut your whole argument by saying “There are no good guys and bad guys in this war?” Your stated unwillingness to judge right from wrong only helps those in the wrong.Call me a fascist if you want, but here’s my judgement on the matter…GOOD GUYS: people on both sides who want a just and lasting peace, and are willing to make reasonable sacrifices in order to get it.BAD GUYS: 1) Undisciplined terrorists who appoint themselves “representatives” of their “people” and who knowingly and deliberately flout law, subvert majority rule, attack compromise, destroy the mutual trust necessary for any negotiated peace or even civil society, drain resources, hobble trade and economic growth, impoverish EVERYONE, and provoke draconian repression by the governments of those whom they victimize.2) Governments who overtly or covertly support terrorism, rather than choose honestly between peace and war, and who refuse to do what governments exist to do, which is control their own people.3) Governments who proclaim sympathy for people displaced by Israeli occupation, but who do NOTHING to offer them decent permanent housing on their own soil.4) Idiots in the West who routinely and mindlessly make excuses for terrorism against (other) innocent people, wholly oblibious to the fact that such violence goes against every core value that can possibly be called “liberal” or “humane.”Any questions?

  2. Raging Bee says:

    Oops, that phrase in #4 should have been “wholly oblivious.” Sorry…

  3. Raging Bee says:

    Here’s a blog from Saudi Arabia that offers a little insight on the origin of some of the suffering in the Middle East: this guy before the Saudi cops do.

  4. Kepos says:

    Hi!Great weblog! But could you please help our Brazilian NGO to save the world? What about a post on our work? Thanks!!!

  5. Adrian says:

    Much of this discussion hinges on the distinction between “moderates” and “extremists”, but I wonder if it’s that easy to separate the two. In many conflict-ridden societies, the more militant and agressive voices enjoy passive support from the majority. It seems to be a universal human instinct: people tend to rally around the guy whose fighting for us (whoever “we” are), rather than just talking or peacefully negotiating. My point is that the voice of the reasonable moderate is often a lonely one. The idea of peaceful majorities being sabotaged by groups of reckless bandits is a spin job — it’s rarely that simple. Humans are a volatile lot.Also, established powers of every stripe like to describe insurgents as unscrupulous, undisciplined bandits and play up their savagery (often with a basis in fact). Such language was used by the Ottoman Empire as well as by Soviet Russia, and now it’s being used by us in our role as “global hegemon.”

  6. Adrian says:

    Damn — there’s always a typo. Always!!!

  7. Yenayer says:

    Dave,– Palestinians ready to lay down their lives to reclaim “their homeland” –I don’t understand why you put “their homeland” between quotation marks ? IT IS THEIR HOMELAND !! I agree with Raging Bee so i’m not gonna repeat what he ( she ) wrote. You ( everybody does ) call the palestinian land ” occupied territories”; so their is a country occupiying another one. We call this colonialism. Even isreli historians and military heroes say that Israel has an aparheid policy and that the west bank and gaza strip are like concentration camps !!The Bad Guys are those whose don’t comply with the UN resolutions running since the late 60′ wich ask Israel to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. These bad guys are backed by the US administration since then.But there are good guys in each side. The one that signed the Geneva Agreement last fall for example!!

  8. Raging Bee says:

    “In many conflict-ridden societies, the more militant and agressive voices enjoy passive support from the majority.”Also, it’s hard to say “no” to a hardened criminal who knows where your mother lives.”Even isreli historians and military heroes say that Israel has an aparheid policy and that the west bank and gaza strip are like concentration camps !!”Perhaps if the Palestinians would abandon their decades-old tradition of uncontrollable random violence, the Israelis might feel a little less need for such apartheid policies. (Just think, if African Americans used such violence to protest racial inequality, we’d be an apartheid state too.)

  9. Charles2 says:

    I’d go one step further in the chain that Dave explores; perhaps the ultimate step. What is it about these two peoples that can make it seem okay for mothers to teach their children the glory of death in a fight against another people? What is it that makes it alright to occupy another country/territory without regret and often without mercy?Religion.Both sides claim deep religious connections to a patch of land most rational people would dismiss as wasteland. Both sides cling to ancient religions that de-value the here-and-now for some posited hereafter; making life, especially the life of others who don’t believe as they do, a cheap commodity.The real answer, Dave, and one which you can never talk about in polite company is the eventual abolition of superstition. You can dice it whichever way you like, but unless you can break the cycle of biogted, clannish religions being passed from generation to generation, there is no hope. Especially not in the Levant.

  10. Raging Bee says:

    No, it’s not about “religion.” (Of course, if you tried to specify WHICH religion is to blame, which you didn’t, you’d be rightly labelled a bigot.)This conflict is about two things: first, two peoples of two distinct cultures fighting over the same bit of land, which prevents them from respecting each other’s religions. (Note that Catholics and Protestants get along fine outside of Northern Ireland.) And second, a backward POLITICAL culture in the Muslim Middle East in which all problems are blamed on outsiders and “solved” by unrelenting violence, rather than responsible debate and compromise; and in which this sort of scapegoating is routinely used to distract attention and effort away from the difficult choices and changes they will have to make to solve their peoples’ problems. Read the blog I cited earlier if you have any doubts of this.

  11. Dave Pollard says:

    Lots of heat and very little light in the above comments, I’m afraid. Adrian, you’re right about human nature and the power of ‘spin’, as I’ve discussed elsewhere. And Charles, religion is certainly part of the problem, though it needs deprivation, ignorance and ancient ethnic hatred to fuel it.Guess I should have known better than to blog on this issue. A meaningful dialogue about it appears to be quite impossible.

  12. Charles2 says:

    Dave, I disagree – we seem to be having a very meaningful dialogue here. Not rancorous, no name calling – much better than the actual parties involved seem to be able to manage.I think that because religion’s invovled – and Bee, you’re right that naming which one is to blame would be bigoted – there is a tendency to step back in fear of offending. But while deprivation, ignorance and ethnic hatred is indeed needed, I believe that those things stem from adherence to the ancient superstitions. No need to strive to better the here and now when nirvana or heaven or whatever comes “after” is so much better. But because religion and superstition are “off the table” so often when the root causes of ancient conflicts are discussed, there will never be truly meaningful advances in the cause of peace. You can’t speak logically and rationally to an irrational person.

  13. Yenayer says:

    Bee : There was ( IS ) a liberation war by palestinians against an illegal occupation. What did the americans to get their independance ? For more then 30 years, Israel is asked by international law, to withdraw from the palestinian land. Not only, nothing of this happens, but there is a continuous building of settlements in the arab lands. And last, you don’t mean to compare the Israeli army with their F16 Fighters, their Apache helicopters, their tanks, and all hi-tech weapons ( not to forget the nuclear bomb ) with the stones thrown by kids or even with the suicide bombers. I am algerian. During the algerian liberation war against the french occupation, a famous hero of this war was arrested by the french army in what is known as the famous ” Bataille d’Alger”. This hero , Larbi Ben M’Hidi was told by a french general : ” You are not fair in fighting us. You put bombs in bags and leave them in bars”. Larbi Ben M’Hidi replyed : ” Give us airplanes and we will give you bags”.

  14. Raging Bee says:

    “What did the Americans [do] to get their independence?”They organized a government and an army, which fought a proper war against their enemy’s army, without deliberately and indiscriminately killing noncombattants. Thus they gained respect and support, both at home and abroad.Your attempt to link the indiscriminate ongoing murder of innocent civilians by Palestinian militants to the American revolution (which actually produced a viable, well-organized republic) is as insulting as it is amoral and stupid.Furthermore, Israel’s superior armed force is no excuse for murdering whoever you can reach and calling it “asymetrical warfare.” This is no better than saying that if a woman can’t beat up her abusive husband, that makes it perfectly okay to beat up her kids instead.Here’s a radical concept that’s bound to get me pegged as an obsolete fascist fuddy-duddy: if you can’t win your struggle by fighting…STOP FIGHTING! Try another tactic, like, you know, nonviolent civil disobedience. Remember that? It worked for Black Americans, the Phillipinos, and the peoples of the former Warsaw Pact nations. Has anyone ever TRIED to see if it might work for the Palestinians?

  15. Language, by naming things, lends meaning to them. We act according to what things mean. We must change our culture/language if we would change our collective behavior. The sounds that make up words are each meaningful in that they each affect us and their effect IS their meaning. The things refered-to with symbols assume the meanings of the symbols, not vice-versa.

  16. Dave Pollard says:

    Michael: I read it. Totally one-sided, badly researched, and poorly argued. And insulting to Arabs. As much as some writers might want them to be, political realities are rarely so simple.

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