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Israel-Palestine Conflict

October 19, 2015

A new Palestinian uprising appears to be emerging in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.  Following an attack by Jewish settlers in which they burned to death a Palestinian family in their home, several Palestinians, as well as Arab-Israeli citizens, have recently attacked Israeli police and Jewish civilians with knives–and have been shot down.  To the Jewish population these are terrorists; to the Arab population they are frequently viewed as martyr-heroes.  When will this madness end?

Israel and the Palestinians are locked in a struggle of mutual injustice and destruction that neither side is capable of escaping.  It is a tragedy of historic proportions.  Here is the basic dynamic of that tragedy as I understand it:

In light of centuries of abuse, and the Holocaust of World War II, it is clear to most Jewish people that they need to have their own nation where they know their rights and safety will always be protected.  Israel, founded in 1948, and recognized by the United Nations, is that nation.  But that nation, from its inception, has often been opposed by its Arab neighbors who have tried to wipe it out several times.  In 1967 Israel fought a six-day war with its neighbors in which Israel won a stunning victory.  Israel took control of Jerusalem as well as many territories that had belonged to other countries–most notably, the West Bank, which includes many sites sacred to Jewish (and Arab) history.

Now Israel faced a dilemma–a dilemma it is still facing:  what to do with the territories it took over in 1967.  The United Nations does not recognize Israel’s right to those lands.  Israel was willing to give the Sinai peninsula back to Egypt in exchange for a peace agreement in 1979; and it also pulled out of the Gaza strip (though it still controls most of its borders, making it a sort of giant prison), but Israel has been very reluctant to let go of the West Bank.  Instead, Israel has built extensive Jewish settlements throughout the West Bank–and is still expanding them.  This infuriates the Palestinians living in the West Bank who want the West Bank to become an independent Palestinian state.  But every settlement makes a future Palestinian state less possible.

So here is the insolvable dilemma:  The Palestinians refuse to make peace with Israel unless Israel returns its borders to what they were in 1967 (or to make equivalent land exchanges), and it also demands that Arabs who were forced to leave Israel as war refugees in 1948 (and later) have a right to return to their homes and lands in Israel.  Israel will not agree to these terms.  First, if all the Arabs (and their descendants) who left Israel in 1948 were to return to Israel, Israel would no longer be a Jewish-majority country, and thus Jewish rights would perhaps no longer be secure.  Second, Israel has built such extensive settlements in the West Bank, and has so many Jews living there, it is politically impossible to remove them; and there probably are no feasible land-swaps that can be made.  On top of this, Israel simply does not have confidence that Palestinian leaders can deliver a secure peace.

The dilemma for Israel is deepened by the fact that it cannot annex the West Bank into Israel without making Israel an Arab-majority country.  In other words, if Israel wants to be a democracy, giving equal rights to all within its borders, it will cease to be a Jewish state.  If it wants to be a Jewish state, then it cannot be a democracy.  And so Israel is forced into the role of occupier:  it controls the lives of the Palestinians in the West Bank, but it cannot give them equal rights.

As a result, the daily lives of many Palestinians are quite miserable.  The more they protest their conditions, the more their movements and services are restricted.  The more they turn to violence, the more violence Israel imposes.  The former prime minister of Israel, Ehud Barak, conceded that if he were a Palestinian youth, he’d be tempted to become a terrorist as well.  I heard him say to a Jewish audience (over 15 years ago in Indianapolis) that if Israel did not get out of the West Bank, the situation would become “a kind of apartheid.”

Many Israelis favor exchanging land for peace, and want a Palestinian state created.  It is the only way for Israel to get out of the role of unjust occupier and to maintain its status as a Jewish democracy.  But many other Israelis (especially the settlers) dream of a “Greater Israel” which includes all or most of the West Bank.  They purposely want to make life as miserable as possible for the Palestinians in order to drive them out of the country.

The Palestinians are also divided.  Though the terrorists get the publicity, the fact is that most Palestinians are nonviolent and want to find a nonviolent solution.  But they have not been well-served by their leaders who have sometimes made politically impossible demands and passed up peace opportunities.  It also does not help that many Palestinians refuse to recognize Israel’s right to exist, and that Palestinian children are often taught hatred for Jews and a false history that the Holocaust did not happen and that the land never belonged to the Jews.

A two-state solution may be the only solution that can save Israel and save the Palestinians; and yet, a two-state solution appears to be both physically and politically impossible.  Thus we have a tragedy:  two “nations” destined to continue hurting one another; each hurt making more permanent and more violent their perpetual struggle.

Is there no way out?  I can see only one feasible route:  a large-scale nonviolent civil rights movement, as occurred in the US in the 1960s, combined with strong international pressure as was used against South Africa to end apartheid.  But for this to happen, the Palestinians will need to choose strong, nonviolent leadership, and the US will need to put strong pressure on Israel to negotiate a workable and just two-state solution.

Many Americans are reluctant to pressure Israel.  Israel is often viewed as the innocent victim, unfairly criticized by others.  This perception is not wholly wrong (Israel is indeed a victim of its circumstances as well as of terrorism), but it is not the whole truth.  Israel committed and is perpetuating a gross injustice.  Many Christians think they are biblically obligated to support Israel no matter what.  They are selectively misreading their Bibles.  Even ancient Israel’s own prophets frequently criticized Israel and demanded what God demands of all nations:  do justice.  For Christians to turn a blind eye to injustice and give Israel a free pass is to undermine the integrity of their faith.


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