I’m not interested in providing yet another history lesson on the Palestinian-Israeli issue. I will not engage in the Möbius strip of who-started-what-when, particularly concerning the current conflict. Instead, I want to address the logic—or the fundamental lack thereof—when it comes to the current Israeli assault on Gaza.
Four critical problems of reasoning underpin much of the discourse on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and constantly reappear as rhetorical frames for the current violence: 1) the meaning of “civilian” life; 2) definitions of “legitimate violence;” 3) prioritizing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; and 4) the racism of many ethnic and religious groups in speaking about the conflict.
Redefining Civilian Lives as Legitimate Targets
In a recent op-ed Gilad Sharon, the son of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, wrote that “[h]umanitarian fears of killing Gazan non-combatants ‘ultimately lead to harming the truly innocent: the residents of southern Israel.’” Sharon goes on to definitively state “Gazans aren’t hostages; they chose this freely, and must live with the consequences.”
In stating that the people of Gaza “chose this freely,” Sharon assigns blame to the Palestinian population in Gaza—in its entirety—for electing Hamas in the 2006 parliamentary elections. An uncomfortable but well known fact: the results of that election, which were held at the behest of the international community, were judged as free and fair.
Sharon’s statements amount to a call for collective punishment against the Palestinians for exercising their right to democratic elections. Although the so-called “Arab Spring” of 2011 highlighted disregard for democratic processes on the part of many Arab leaders (including Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad), Sharon’s logic—followed to its logical conclusion—proves far more insidious.
Let us compare Sharon’s reasoning on questions of democracy, violence, and the collective guilt of “civilian” populations with the notorious (and rightfully condemned) ideology of Osama bin Laden.
In June 1999, Bin Laden clearly articulated his definition of combatant versus civilian: “A man is considered a fighter whether he carries a gun or pays taxes to help kill us.” The now-deceased head of Al-Qaeda considered material support and participation in a democratic state—by virtue of submitting to its systems of taxation—as tantamount to active acceptance of combatant status.
Similarly, in a 2004, pre-election statement designed for an American audience, Bin Laden concluded, “I tell you in truth, that your security is not in the hands of Kerry, nor Bush, nor al-Qaida. No. Your security is in your own hands.”
The parallels with Sharon’s recent statements are clear. Here, Gilad Sharon and Bin Laden unwittingly engage in a surreal agreement—participation in a democratic system obliterates the category commonly known as “civilian.” Provided—of course—that elections return a sufficiently distasteful (subjectively speaking) result.
The Nation-State’s Monopoly on Legitimate Violence & Palestine’s Bid for Recognition
For Bin Laden and Sharon, permissible violence against “formerly” civilian populations can only occur within a nation-state paradigm. What, then, are we to make of the fact that the Palestinians have no state?
Sharon argues “The Gaza Strip functions as a state – it has a government and conducts foreign relations, there are schools, medical facilities, there are armed forces and all the other trappings of statehood.”
Allow us, Mr. Sharon, to demystify the operative phrase: “functions as.” Palestinians cannot claim an autonomous “State” in any sense of the term. It is precisely because they lack a nation-state that the Palestinians have made a bid to the UN for recognition of Palestinian statehood.
As Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, explains “The challenges of governing for the Palestine authority are extraordinarily complex. This is an authority that has very little authority. It has virtually no power. Its power is derivative. It has the power that is given to it by Israel and at any moment, any of those powers can be taken away.”
Columbia University Professor Rashid Khalidi elaborates, “Instead of having a real national authority, you had this corrupt institution whose main task as far as Israel is concerned was to police the Palestinians and prevent them from resisting the continuing occupation.”
The farce of an autonomously functioning Palestinian government cannot be ignored. A recent legal case ten-years in the making demonstrates that even the Palestinian Authority which rules the West Bank sans Hamas (and hence is more “politically palatable”), remains subject to the legal jurisdiction of the Israeli state.
In the absence of an autonomous governing authority for the Palestinians—one which does not rely on Israel for provisional power—how then is the Palestinian right to “self-defense” or “legitimate violence” constructed—if at all? Lacking an internationally recognized state structure, the Palestinians are effectively precluded from the possibility of civilian life, even when they attempt to create and participate in the structures of a (as of yet fictional) nation-state. Put more bluntly, without a “legitimate” state, the nation-state paradigm leaves the Palestinians with no right to self-defense and with the line between civilians and combatants blurred.
This presents a fatal Catch 22. The questions “does Palestine have a right to exist? Does Israel have a right to exist?” are simply irrelevant. In the absence of a Palestinian state and from the grim perspective of (enforceable) international law, the question becomes: “Do the Palestinians exist at all?”
Weapons of Mass Distraction & the Stakes at Play in Palestine
Many have responded to the current conflict in Gaza with the now tired refrain: “but what about the tragedies and brutality in Syria [insert your choice of any other hideous and violent conflict]?” This common diversionary rebuttal is made not only by the pro-Israeli contingent, but also by reformist and revolutionary factions engaged in other international conflicts. The historic visibility of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in international media and realpolitik do, however, render the case unique and urgent. The question is why.
In the preface to Stephen Zunes and Jacob Mundy’s Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution, George McGovern draws an explicit connection between the “Holy Land” conflict, and the territorial dispute over the Western Sahara between Morocco and the Algerian-supported Polisario nationalist movement: “Only the Arab territories still occupied by Israel since 1967 remain under such belligerent foreign control.”
Zunes and Mundy explicitly articulate the stakes involved in resolving the Saharan conflict by reference to international legal frameworks defining sovereignty: “Neither France or the United States officially recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, yet the majority of their actions in relations to the conflict have betrayed their juridical neutrality…it has allowed and strengthened the Moroccan occupation; on the other hand, it has convinced Morocco that the occupation will never be legally and forcefully challenged by the only legal body allowed to do so, the UN Security Council”. International powers, such as the United States, do not “technically” recognize Israel’s jurisdiction over the West Bank and Gaza, and yet—here as well—actions belie supposed neutrality.
Like the Western Sahara, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict turns upon issues of self-determination and reflects international support for an occupying force. For many reasons, including strategic geo-political alliances and simple demography, the Western Sahara is far less visible on the global stage than Palestine and Israel. The stakes at play in the two conflicts are, however, similar. For this reason, approaches to the more-high profile Palestinian-Israeli conflict have important repercussions for other similar disputes, like those in the Western Sahara – the legalities concerning the rights of Israel—and/or Gaza—to self-defense have wide ranging implications. At stake are not merely the lives of Palestinians and Israelis, but the very existence and coherence of a global legal framework which purports to enforce sovereignty, human rights, and international law post-World War II.
On Speaking for Others & The Problem of Communitarian Groupings
It is unethical and irresponsible to equate all Palestinians with Hamas or the Israeli Defense Forces with all Jews. It is racist, counterproductive, and betrays the fundamental weakness of reactionary logic—on both sides of the conflict.
In response to my criticism of those who elide the term “Jew” with “Israeli” or “Zionist,” an acquaintance recently commented: “I don’t really blame the Palestinians. I mean you can’t blame them.”
It would be lovely if we could excuse reductionist language on the basis of the brutal violence experienced by its makers. Such reasoning, however, proves fundamentally dishonest. It completely ignores the fact that so-called advocates of Palestinian rights outside the Occupied Territories replicate the same language (anyone who closely follows the conflict is well acquainted with the evidence of this both online and at many rallies).
Just as pro-Israel advocates must not be allowed to conflate “Palestinians/Gazans” with “Hamas,” a similar standard must be applied to claims (whether from inside or outside Israel) that Jewishness and Zionism are somehow also inseparable. For this reason, Judith Butler’s Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism (2012), which makes a brilliant case for resisting occupation in the name of—rather than despite—Judaism, is both compelling and necessary reading for all those interested in the conflict’s resolution.
Equally blameworthy are those who spew hollow rhetoric in the name of their group—be they Evangelical Christians, “Islamists,” “Zionists,” or, most critically, the fundamentally impotent Arab League. For members of the latter group, “support” for Palestine has historically been little more than a rhetorical tool used to distract citizens of the Arab world from the situations inside their own countries and to undermine domestic dissent. Such supposedly “pro-Palestinian” regimes often claim moral superiority on behalf of oppressed Palestinian groups, yet simultaneously discriminate against and oppress minority ethnic and religious populations within their own countries.
One of the most pressing and troubling communitarian political platforms for racist linguistic reductionism is that of Christian Evangelicals and their advocacy for the Israeli State at all costs.
Let us examine the fundamentally disingenuous language of Pat Robertson – champion of Christian Evangelical support for Israel. Robertson tells us, “Ladies and gentlemen, make no mistake — the entire world is being convulsed by a religious struggle. The fight is not about money or territory; it is not about poverty versus wealth; it is not about ancient customs versus modernity. No. The struggle is whether Hubal, the Moon God of Mecca, known as Allah, is supreme, or whether the Judeo-Christian Jehovah God of the Bible is Supreme.” Such a statement needs no interpretation.
Robertson continues—in the voice of a “Muslim” Palestinian (he is presumably unaware of the many Christian Palestinians who live in the Occupied Territories): “We can now, in the name of Allah, move to crush the Jews and drive them out of the land that belongs to Allah.”
It is this statement that places in stark relief the ideology of Robertson and Evangelical Christian supporters of Israel. The “Christian Zionist Movement,” known in an earlier guise as “Restorationism,” champions the Israeli people and advocates the return of Jews to the Holy Land. Why? Because this is viewed as a prerequisite for the return of Jesus Christ. Once Christ returns to Israel, and ushers in the Final Battle, the Jewish people will convert to Christianity, or face destruction. Tell me, Mr. Robertson: is it lost on you that—by your own cynical championing of Israel at all costs—you advocate the complete destruction of the Jewish religion? It isn’t lost on me.
As a holder of U.S. citizenship weighing in on the contentious Palestinian-Israeli “issue,” I am obligated to recognize my own position and direct implication in the history of settler colonialism and occupation.
Of Indigenous and European ancestry, I myself am the product of nation that has never—and will never—obtain “post-colonial” status. Manifest Destiny, a homeland for those fleeing religious persecution…I ask you, does any of this sound familiar? I know my history—do you know yours?
Israelis are not going anywhere. Palestinians are not going anywhere. I would like to state, clearly, definitively, and on record: sustained infrastructural encroachments by the Israeli government have long since precluded a viable two-state resolution to this conflict.
I support a one-state solution for Palestine-Israel–one in which citizenship rights are granted without regard to ethnicity or religion. I believe this is the governmental system commonly known by the term “democracy.”
For Further Reading:
Asad, Talal. 2007. On Suicide Bombing.
Butler, Judith. 2009. Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?
_____. 2012. Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism.
Makdisi, Saree.2008. Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation.
Mamdani, Mahmood. 2002. When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, nativism and the genocide in Rwanda.
_____. 2005. Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War and the roots of terror.
Roy, Sara. 2011. Hamas and Civil Society in Gaza: Engaging the Islamist Social Sector.
Weizman, Eval. 2012. Hollow Land: Israel’s architecture of occupation.
White, Ben and Haneen Zoabi. 2011. Palestinians in Israel: Segregation, discrimination and democracy.