Some questions and remarks about that hell of a conflict

So here we are again. July 2014 is going to become, like so many other dates, one of the “points” in the timeline of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Like so many times before, the European and American debate has managed to settle on quite interesting bases: on the one hand, one can only deplore the massive deaths of civilian populations, but will feel they have to recall that these populations brought all this upon themselves by voting for the wrong party ten years ago, and that it is in fact the fault of the enemy if civilians get shot by an army. On the other hand, one will recall that “terrorism” is just a word made up to discredit resistance, will probably quote Chomsky about it, and will probably dress up in their nicest keffieh before going to protest against big bad Zionism. Some will go as far as thinking they are making a big act of resistance by booing or attacking every Jew that is unlucky enough to cross their road. Like always, it has already become extremely difficult to acknowledge the other as a human: from Israelis sitting on their couch watching missiles destroying other peoples’ lives, to European “radicals” refusing to even think that, maybe, some Israelis can be genuinely afraid of Hamas, or the very brave French representative who had the courage of calling a Gazawi boy “halal meat” or the American buses calling good democrats to support “the civilized” against “the barbarian”, the debate has once again settled on very constructive, interesting, and efficient bases.

All that turmoil could easily make people forget that we are not exactly talking about a football game or a mass of random Arabs waking up some day deciding that rockets could be a good way to stop loitering, but about a war. It is not about “team Israel” defending against “team Hamas”. What is at stake is slightly graver than knowing who will get the cup this time. And the debate should not be a discussion between Europeans and Americans versus other Europeans and Americans. Nor should it be about Israelis debating with other Israelis. Ouri Avneri wrote it in an illuminating article, “L’arrogance de la gauche israélienne”, published in a collective book that I encourage every French-speaking person interested about this situation to read, Palestine mon pays, a book by, with and about Mahmoud Darwich. Avneri’s argument was straightforward and clear: through developing a debate within “Western” (and, in his case, the Israeli) societies, we have led to forgetting that the conflict (because it is one) concerns Palestinians in the first place (as well as Israelis), and will never be settled between us, but with them: “I sometimes feel”, he wrote, “that a part of the Israeli ‘peace camp’ doesn’t care at all about the other. They prefer admiring themselves in a mirror: ‘I’m so beautiful, honest, and peaceful!’ These Narcissus do not need to struggle, to consent to sacrifices, or to rise up again scandals”. I have read no article by any Palestinian intellectuals since the beginning of the conflict. Not that there are no Palestinian intellectuals: Elias Sanbar, for instance, is one of the clearest minds on this topic. Maybe he has written, I would expect him to do so. But he hasn’t been diffused, between two definitive statements about who is a horrible inhuman monster and who is a wonderful and innocent little lamb, written by guys who probably never even set foot at less than a thousand kilometers from Israel (and Palestine).

So the debate is not a debate between “pro-Palestinians” and “pro-Israelis”, as some dare to call themselves, as if they were supporting the Denver Broncos or the new cool dude in Who, or who will be the next master plumber on JerkTV. It is not even a debate. It is a conflict. And it would be a good idea to start treating it as such, which passes by keeping in mind that, as the over-quoted sentence by Clausewitz according which “war is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse carried on with other means”. It is not about good guys and bad guys, but about settling a problem. Therefore, debating about who started first and who has been the meanest is approximately the same situation as that episode in South Park when, facing a massive flood, the entire community decided that, before trying to even rescue anyone, the best thing to do was to know if they should blame George Bush or Al Qaeda: it probably makes you feel good and knowledgeable, but it has absolutely no use.

Which leads me to yet another question: why the fuck would I write this paper, then? It so happens that I am starting to feel fed up with people quoting absurd news and information about the conflict, and I wanted to take an opportunity to open a platform for genuine questions about it. I would ideally like to give an opportunity to ask even dumb questions about the situation, the history, and what have you on this conflict and try to answer them as best can. Of course, I am not omniscient, and can only rely on my readings and testimonies from friends. There is a long list of textbooks and studies about the region, and the debate is vivid within the scientific community. I encourage anyone who cares about the conflict to go read them, as they will never find a complete overview of the topic on a blog (and certainly not on a Youtube videp). So there is no definitive answer about everything. I just thought it would be worth giving it a shot. I insist that these questions have genuinely been asked, and selected on the basis that I was able or knew someone who was able to answer them. Of course, most of the answers will be debatable: I am after all biased by my reading, by my political opinions, by the people I eat and work with, but yet again, so are you and all the people who will talk about about anything, from the taste of spinach to the future of a non-oil-based energy system or of nuclear physics. It is a good thing, as long as it doesn’t go back to the rotten debate I was grumping about at the beginning of the article.

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Question 1: So, how did it all start again?

The question of how the whole conflict started is an inevitable one, and is actually quite hard to answer, due to the fact that many justifications in the conflict have gone back to Biblical (and therefore a-temporal) times. Some will go as far as to argue that the conflict lasted forever (read How I ate my father for a good, humoristic view on that topic). Others pretend that it is in fact a continuation of the crusades, the so-called “eternal clash” between the Western and Eastern civilisations (since it did not prevent these “civilisations” to be based on the same juridical corpus, inherited from the Roman Empire, the same mythical elements, extracted from the Jewish Bible, or Ancient Testimony, to exchange, trade, ally, fight and dialogue for hundreds of years, that is indeed quite the clash we are talking about). Another trend pretends that the Israeli colonisation is but a mere retaliation for the bloody conquest and domination organised by the Arabs and Muslims in the 7th century.

These are justifications, not answers, that seek for a culprit to blame: if indeed the Arabs or Crusaders started all this, then they are guilty, and the other is innocent. Another reason why it is so difficult to pinpoint a date is that it makes little sense to search for actual points of beginning in history, since history is a process and not a series of periods. According to Samir Kassir and Farouk Mardam-Bey (Itinéraires de Paris à Jérusalem, vol. 1), the moment in history that could be approached to a starting of the conflict is the end of the 19th century and what has been called the “Eastern question”, a sudden interest for the Middle East. This interest was partly linked to the fact that colonial expansion was over in most of the remaining world: Africa and China has been shared, America was either independent or colonised, yet the Middle East was still under the power of what had been a mighty colonial empire itself, the Ottoman Empire, which was slowly losing ground to Europe since the 17th century. When the Ottoman Empire started showing actual signs of decrepitude that were going to lead to its eventual downfall in the early 1920s, the debate between the big colonial empires of the time (and of course, Great Britain and France were at the heart of the debate) was to know to whom the spoils would go. And diverse nationalisms were pushed, or on the contrary held, to promote the pretentions over the Ottoman dominions in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine.

At the same time, in Europe, another phenomenon was happening, after an essential event that took place in France: the conviction of Cpt. Alfred Dreyfus for treason in 1894, which was a setup. The setup itself was quickly discovered and the actual traitor court-martialed, but in secret: the point was, one of the arguments why Dreyfus did not, in the first place, obtain reparation (and freedom) was that the army could never be wrong, but also that, being that he was a Jew, he was a “perfect culprit” for the French society, that had started developing a strong anti-Semitism after its defeat to Germany in 1871. One Austro-Hungarian journalist, Theodor Herzl that followed the scandal was shocked by this rejection of Jews in the so-called country of Enlightenment and got convinced that the sole solution was to promote the idea of Jewish nationalism. Despite the widespread tradition of integration in the European Jewish communities, especially in France (and Herzl’s book, The Jewish State or The State of the Jews, depending on translation, got due to that tradition terrible reviews in Jewish newspapers in France when it was published), Herzl was convinced that Jews would never be accepted by the European as their own. Unfortunately, the growing anti-Semitism of the 1920s and 1930s, followed by the massacre of the European Jewish communities by the Nazi regime, was to prove him somehow right.

The famous declaration made by Lord Balfour to Lord Rotschild, offering the support of Great Britain to the Zionist Federation for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, is therefore the combination of these two phenomena. As for the choice of Palestine, I will go back on it in another question. Now, what this means is not that Great Britain did organise Zionism for pure political interests, but rather that at the time, it was absolutely logical to do so, even without any form of machiavellism. The problem was, that with the development of nationalism in the region (the declaration for the independence of Lebanon in 1922, per instance), the Arab population of Palestine also started to have some nationalist ideologies developing, which eventually led to the clashes we know in 1947, as well as slightly before. The thing is, the war of 1947-1948 has not appeared in a vacuum: it had already been coming for quite a while. On that account many recall that there was no Palestinian nation before 1947, which is true. But this is the case of most colonial states, Palestine having been colonised by the Ottomans, and then the Europeans, had not developed a nationalism yet. There was no US-ian nationalism before the American Revolution, that is a non-argument to state that nations cannot be born: they all are. Clashes between the Yishouv -the proto-Israeli state – and the Palestinian Arabs, had occurred already in the 1920s, we see riots in Jerusalem in 1920 for instance. What we have in that period is violence sparkled between two nationalisms struggling for the same land, and what has occured since then is pretty much a continuation of this.

Question 2: Do you think it is right or legitimate for there to be a Jewish state in the holy land?

First, what I think personally is of little importance, for the reasons told earlier: I am nobody to answer that question for myself. Second, we should begin the question with its second term: “Is Israel a Jewish state?”, before trying to present the arguments and counter-arguments on the legitimacy of its existence.

Because, precisely, the answer to that first question, “Is Israel a Jewish state?” is indeed a complicated one. The first reason being that it is very much possible to both be Israeli and not Jew at all. It is the case of one citizen on five, who are natives from Israel and can be Muslim, Christians, or Druze (this having little to do with faith, of course, many people don’t give a damn about faith and still are of one community). It is also possible to become an Israeli citizen without being Jewish, by being a permanent resident who has lived in Israel for more than three of the five years previous to the demand (except for people coming from some countries, mostly Arab ones). Yet, Israel is still self-defined as the state of the Jewish people, and applies jus sanguinis. It means that any person who is a Jew, “a child and a grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew and the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew, except for a person who has been a Jew and has voluntarily changed his religion” (Law of Return, second amendment) can demand, and obtain, Israeli citizenship as a right. Another point that includes religion in the law in Israel is the law for marriage and “personal status”, which is communitarian (exactly like in Lebanon). Hence, a Jew will be married according to the Jewish religious law, a Muslim under the Muslim religious law, and so forth. Yet, exactly like in Lebanon, getting married in a country that applies civil marriage (like Cyprus) entitles Israeli to marry under a secular law. Thus, so far, Israel is the state of the Jewish people, but is not a Jewish state: its law is not Jewish, one can participate in its political system without being Jewish, and no citizen is forced to practice Judaism as a religion. Is has to be noted that some people want that situation to change, either in the direction of making Israel a secular country (either in its current borders or through a one-state solution) or in the direction of making Israel a Jewish state. The latter proposal has recently been mediatized by the current PM Bejamin Nethanyahu who proposed submitting a fundamental law that would define Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people and, more importantly, of that people only. Nevertheless, no precise project has been presented, so what this implies for the concrete life of non-Jewish citizens of Israel is very unclear.

Concerning the legitimacy of the existence of Israel, the answer can be much more straightforward, and demands to make the same effort as the one of understanding that British – and later French – support to Zionism was not a Machiavellian plan: two years before Israel was created, people were still being arrested, put in cattle wagons, imprisoned in camps, underfed, slaved, and finally massively assassinated simply for being Jew. In such a context, the basic idea of Zionism (there is no freedom or security for the Jewish people except in having their own state) was difficult to reject. It does not mean that Zionists were using or manipulating the fact of the Holocaust for the sake of getting their mischievous plans realized, just that history had proven them right at the time, and that people had not realized – or, rather, didn’t really care -what it implied for the Arab inhabitants of Palestine. Also not because of their hatred toward Arabs and colonised populations, which were still perceived as an unimportant mass. Yes, this was racism: the entire colonisation process was racist. We must criticise it, and not look for excuses, but this doesn’t mean we cannot suspend judgement temporarily and acknowledge what world our ancestors lived in, and how they perceived it, even though they were wrong by today’s standards. Finally, we are more than 60 years after the creation of Israel: what should be done? Expropriating all the Israeli inhabitants to reinstitute the original ones? In what way is this better then expropriating the Palestinians in the first place? This is an actual question, because, if simply denying the injustice that has been made to the Palestinian refugees is unrealistic, proposing to expatriate people who have had no other lives than on this land is as well.

Question 3: Is it true that Jews eat children? / Is it true that Palestinians poison their kids so that Jews will die eating them?

Thank you for asking that very essential question, which is an occasion for me to promote the virtues of Mediterranean cuisine, which is one of the best of the world. Based on very serious reading (Olga Messas, La cuisine israélienne, des origines à nos jours and Janna Gur, The book of Israeli food: a culinary journey), it appears that no source relates any form of customary cannibalism in the Israeli society. Lamb and occasionally calf seem to be the only young animal knowing widespread success in the Israeli (as well as Palestinian) plates. In the same fashion, poisoning your kid to feed it to the enemy is not a reported practice among the Palestinian society. However these people do cook very tasty hummus, which I can myself guarantee contains neither poison nor kids, let alone poisonous kids. More seriously, that such clichés still exist, which they do, is extremely worrying. That some keep seeing Israelis or Palestinians as just basically mean bastards is worrying, especially in Europe. I cannot stress it again, this conflict is not about good guys and bad guys. Whoever conveys an explanation based on this idea and pretends it to be honest (I’m not talking about situations of activism, when framing things in terms of injustice or violence is essential and you can’t afford to weight pros and cons) should be quickly silenced as they are shaming their own name.

Question 4: Is it true that the Arabs never inhabited the current Israeli territory?

As far as I know, and despite the “Land without people for a people without land” slogan, not even the most radical revisionist extreme-right “pro-Israeli” person actually believes that the territory of historical Palestine (currently, Israel and the Palestinian Territories) was actually uninhabited. Even for these people, unfortunately, the period has been documented enough for us to know that even prior to 1947 Palestine was indeed inhabited by people, and that these people were not living in – as some like to believe – hut made out of dirt and holes in the ground, but in actual villages and cities. For the most radicals, instead, the argument that is put forward consists in saying that, expecting the creation of the Jewish state, the Arab countries vastly expatriated people in Palestine in the first half of the 20th century so that they could pretend this land was their own. Knowing that Zionism didn’t know a strong political support before the Second World War, this theory is much closer to that of a big plot than to historical accuracy.

A much more interesting theory states that Palestinians exist because of Zionism: drawn to the Holy Land by their new nationalism, the first Israeli would have started a vivid economy, therefore encouraging inhabitants of former Ottoman provinces to settle in Palestine. This thesis seems to be partly right, and partly wrong: as has been explained earlier, the development of Zionism was parallel to that of the European colonization, and thus construction of infrastructures, such as railways, the development of trade, and other amenities, especially in a period when colonization was not anymore a synonymous of “taking every possible resource and getting the hell out of here”. It is much more probable that this is what happened demographically. Nevertheless there are signs of an active political life even before the arrival of Arab immigrants. Yet this nationalism, exactly like all Arab nationalisms of the region, including the Lebanese one, at the time, was still very blur on the question of its border, which explains how it remains strongly linked to other movements in what was going to be other countries. Another argument which can be heard is that Palestinians are “less deserving” of the land because “Jews did all the development heavy lifting”. To this truism there are two answers: at first, yes there was a considerable influx of capital and resources put into what was then European immigrants settling in a region, which is what usually happens in settling situations at that time, but what we can notice is that this happened only as soon as settlers cared to live in the region, they didn’t do that because they were nice, and similarly, the Palestinian society knew developed areas created from themselves, having been basically a HUB for the Mediterranean region for centuries; second, if you want to live in a world in which people are evaluated according to their economic value and those deemed worthless put down like cattle, good for you, but that does not resemble a very desireable society to me.

Allenby's_proclamation_being_read_in_Jerusalem,_mat08010sr

I have myself read only a few documents on the topic. Of course, reading Benny Morris, The birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem is an essential beginning for who wants a real text on the topic. The history of the birth of national communities is extremely complex and I couldn’t dare approaching this one here without falling into over-simplification. What I can assert is double: first, the “land without a people” supposed to welcome a “people without a land” is mostly a myth; second, it is incorrect to talk of a “Palestinian people” before the 1920s, or even the 1950s and the experience of the exile. In other words, there was people, but these people were on their way to becoming a people.

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