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Finding a Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

August 7, 2017

Over the years I have read a number of books about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and have listened to numerous Palestinian and Israeli speakers. In May I made my second visit to Israel and Palestine to see the situation for myself and to speak with local people and peace activists. I’m not an expert. The people who live with the conflict on a daily basis are the experts. But as an outsider who has sought to be fair and informed, here are my observations about how to resolve the conflict.

Both sides bring a tragic history to this conflict and both sides have committed atrocities. I am not going to play the game of who is more at fault, nor am I claiming moral equivalence between the two sides. The history is complicated and important to understand, but in the interest of space I am going to bypass most of the history and focus on where they need to go from here.

Let me begin with Israel. For 50 years Israel has controlled–directly or indirectly–the lives of the Palestinians living in Gaza, East Jerusalem and the West Bank. These four million people are stateless. Except for some born in East Jerusalem, they have no rights of citizenship. As a result, Israel has used its military and political power–for the sake of security–to confiscate Palestinian land, imprison Palestinians without charges, restrict Palestinian travel, forbid Palestinian building and infrastructure, and take advantage of Palestinians in a variety of ways. This situation is morally wrong and must come to an end. Israel must either give Palestinians citizenship and equal rights, or it must let Palestinians form their own independent and viable state.

Israel claims to have made generous offers to Palestinian leaders for forming a Palestinian state. But Israel has vastly complicated the possibility of a Palestinian state by building numerous Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and throughout the West Bank. These settlements are connected by security roads that only Israelis may use. As a result, the West Bank has become a complicated patchwork of expanding Israeli areas and shrinking Palestinian areas. Every Israeli settlement makes a Palestinian state less possible or viable. The United Nations has repeatedly condemned the settlements as illegal.

I can see no moral basis for Israel continuing to expand settlements in the Palestinian territories. Peace between Israelis and Palestinians requires that Israel stop building or expanding settlements. This should be done unconditionally and unilaterally–not as a bargaining chip. The longer Israel persists in the policy of expanding settlements, the less possibility there is for either a two-state solution or for one integrated nation of equal rights. Either way, the expansion of settlements is wrong and undermines peace.

Now for the Palestinians. Because their lives are so powerless and their condition so impoverished and miserable, many Palestinians condone the use of violence against Israeli forces (or even against Israeli civilians). This is understandable. Americans celebrate the War of Independence from Britain–a brutal guerrilla war in which American colonists felt their rights were being violated. In recent decades white Americans have become more sympathetic toward the plight of Native Americans and African Americans who suffered great injustices from those same colonists and their descendants.

But resorting to violence will not resolve this conflict; it will only make it worse. A resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will require a widespread campaign of protest and resistance that is consistently nonviolent. There are three reasons why the Palestinian leadership must be committed to nonviolent processes.

First, the Israelis can easily out-violence the Palestinians. In an armed struggle, Israel will win. Some Palestinians, aware that they can’t win a conventional war against Israel, have resorted to terrorism. Terrorism seeks to address the military power imbalance through a kind of psychological warfare that targets random civilians. But terrorism, contrary to what some people think, does not make Israeli leaders more open to making concessions; rather, terrorism makes Israeli society more determined to take a hard line.

Second, the use of violence undermines sympathy and support from Israelis and the world community (and from some Palestinians). The strength of a nonviolent campaign is that it shames the oppressor and it generates support from a wide swath of people. The pressure it uses is economic and moral. Extensive studies of nonviolent campaigns over the past century show that nonviolent campaigns have been much more successful than violent campaigns in winning freedom and rights for people. Also, nonviolent campaigns have a much better track record of producing stable governments and democracies. Nonviolence gets everyone on the same page, working together.

Third, the use of violence is immoral. Nonviolence is not only the most practical tool for winning freedom, it is the most moral.

During my recent tour I learned that the religious leaders of the Christian Palestinians have made a commitment to nonviolence. I do not know whether the religious leadership of the Muslim Palestinians is also committed to nonviolence. But the political party of Hamas continues to support violence and terrorism, and the Palestinian Authority does not seem to be clear in its commitment to nonviolence. Without a widespread commitment to nonviolent means, and a consistent repudiation of all acts of violence, the Palestinians will not be able to build enough trust and sympathy with Israelis (and the world community) to achieve either a separate state or an integrated society of equal rights.

Both Israelis and Palestinians need to do one more thing. Each side needs to stop demonizing the other. Each side needs to stop teaching its children to hate and distrust the other. Each side needs to take proactive steps to change its media depictions and to get Israeli Jews and Palestinians together–especially young ones–for building understanding and hope. The “separation barrier” is not helping; it’s making the work of peacemaking harder. If Israelis and Palestinians demand perfect justice, there will never be peace. Peace requires a generous measure of forgiveness, so both sides need to cultivate this possibility.

So will the political solution be two states or one–or something else? When I was in Israel-Palestine I was surprised how many Jewish Israelis as well as Palestinians told me they were favoring one nation of equal rights instead of creating two separate ones. Frankly I don’t see how either solution is possible at this time. Neither side has the trust or consensus to make it work.

Israel demands to be both a Jewish state that privileges Jews and keeps Jews in control, and be a democracy of equal rights. These are in tension with each other. Israel needs to decide what it will be; and Palestinians, in a nonviolent way, need to decide what they will accept.

When I look at the history of this conflict, I can’t help but think my proposed solutions are terribly naive. But I see no other way.

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