The Middle East is up in flames again. Middle East war, limited or expanded, has become a disturbing but regular recurrence for more than 75 years. The current war that pits Hamas against the Jewish state will not be the last in the volatile region, however hard the rest of the world might wish to pray for peace in the region that has known no peace for more than two generations. Palestinian children born in refugee camps grew up there and gave birth to children whose children gave birth to children who are now adults, all as refugees in what is supposed to be their own country. The solution to the Araba-Israeli conflict is the world’s most intractable political problem.
We are dealing here with a combustive and complicated mixture of religion and folklore in an area of the world that has incubated three great religions that claim Abraham as their respective faith fathers. The Arabs and Israelis assert their respective claims to the land by means of dubious divine fiat in the allocation of the land. The Jews base their claim on the fiction that Yahweh, their god, gave them the land in pre-biblical times when they were known as the Hebrew race.
They left the land for hundreds of years but when they wanted a new Jewish homeland, they turned to the Palestine they believe to be their original land. Britain and the United States supported their ambition and carved out a part of Palestine for them through the Balfour declaration of 1948. The Arabs had lived on the land for hundreds of years and are right to claim it is theirs courtesy of Father Abraham.
The rest of us must be confused by the fact that the descendants of the same biological and the same faith father, Abraham, refuse to recognise their brotherhood. Given their complicated national history, they choose to be enemies. I know this retelling is rather simplistic, nevertheless it still points to the basic fact that is the source of the expanded conflict.
The Israelis insist on their right to exist. But they refuse to accept that the Palestinians also have the right to exist. The irony is lost on them. Their right to exist is not predicated on the annihilation of the Palestinians. From its modern founding, the Jewish state, surrounded by Arab nations that still seethe over the Balfour declaration, feel threatened by their hostile Arab neighbours. It puts them in a permanent state of war and the inclination to swat every fly that flies across their nose with the bazooka and the bomb. They believe their safety and survival lie in overwhelming the Arab nations with military forces. They have been successful in their wars with the Arabs. Their successes have risen to the height of a myth embedded in their fictional history of puny David killing the giant Goliath with a single sling shot. They are the chosen children of Yahweh.
Through the force of arms, the Israelis have repeatedly redrawn the map of the Middle East and expanded their territory. In the Six-Day War of 1967, they demonstrated their superior military capability. Their surprise victory gave them more Arab land captured from Egypt, Jordan and Syria now known as the occupied territories. Gaza, the walled city that is the face of Israeli apartheid and which tweaked the whiskers of the lion that led to the current combustion, is one of them. The United Nations tried to persuade Israel to pull back and give those territories back to Egypt and Syria. In Security Council Resolution 242, the UN believed this would lead to “the establishment of a just and lasting peace in the Middle East (through) the withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.” Israel and its backers rejected the terms of that resolution.
At the end of each war the victorious Israelis redrew the map of Palestine and extended their territory. More than two generations of Palestinians have grown up either in refugee camps on their land or are being treated like unwanted third-class citizens of the land occupied by the powerful strangers on their land. This has become a turn-off for some rabid supporters of the Jewish state. The Arabs too deserve fair and just treatment as citizens in the Israeli occupied territories. There should be no room for apartheid.
The Arabs have been as adamant as the Israelis in acceding to world demands for peace. Their refusal heightens Israel fear and suspicion that nothing short of their annihilation will satisfy the Arabs. The most pragmatic among the Arab leaders was the late Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, who signed a separate peace agreement with Israel. It cost him his life. The Arabs cannot win on the battlefield and the victory on the battlefield will not stop Israel from sleeping with one eye closed. A laager mentality now rules the Middle East. The Arabs and the Israelis are victims of self-induced fear arising from their uncompromising respective positions. They must give and they must take. That is the unalterable rule of human co-existence.
Israel’s previous victories have led it to view its survival in purely military terms. This too is unrealistic. Might may be right with the strong asserting the right to crush the weak but might is also its own weakness. It has in it the seeds of its own destruction. World history has instances of empires that rose, flourished, and then collapsed into the pages of human history because each of them had in it the seeds of self-destruction that fuelled its internal weaknesses and contradictions. Military might is not everything. Justice may appear weak, but it has time and again demonstrated its capacity to put the strong in his place so the poor can breathe. The strong need justice as much as the weak.
The Americans should be kind enough to tell their Israeli cousins of their experience in Vietnam. Despite their sophisticated military arsenal, they left the place in a hurry with their tails between their legs. Poor people armed with primitive weapons fashioned from bamboos forced the mighty to fall and fall so disastrously. The Israeli prime minister, Netanyahu, does not seem to recognise that elementary fact of human history. His ambition to wipe out Gaza is childish. He must abandon it. Killing the innocent is not a mark of strong leadership.
The Middle East need not be in a permanent turmoil from generation to generation. Peace in the territory lies in concession on both sides. Both must recognise and respect the right of the other to exist. As the body count mounts in the current conflict, more than 4,000 most of them innocent Arab children, as of this writing, world leaders, must do better than lament as they watch the debacle on television. They must rise and with one voice, end the war and commit both sides to peace, permanent peace.