Following the debacle of the Freedom Flotilla, the bombardment of Gaza eighteen months ago and the Lebanon war of 2006, it seems that Israel, while possessing enormous capacity to destroy any threat that assails it, repeatedly loses its case in the court of international opinion.
Israel believes it is defending itself, yet its defensive responses are so ferocious and disproportionate, wreaked so often on innocent, helpless people or on forces much weaker than they, and over questionable issues or threats, that it looks like it’s attacking.
In doing so, each time, it generates a wave of disbelief and opposition growing larger in magnitude than the benefit it gains – incredulity not only from its perceived enemies but also increasingly from friends, even amongst its own population. Doubt, questioning or anger seems to reinforce its sense of justification – the rest of the world is just plain misinformed, wrong. Voices in Israel raise the ghosts of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust to validate its actions, and assertiveness is ramped up another notch internationally, in the settler movement and the military camp at home. International investigations and legal judgements are just biased. At great expense the country builds a concrete wall around itself, investing ever more in armed preparedness, believing that, if anything, it has just an image problem, not a reality problem. Yet all the time it undermines its own position, credibility and future.
In the aftermath of WW2 and up to the 1967 Six Day War when Israel occupied the Palestinian territories, it had a defensive case and many people sympathised. Palestinians and Arabic countries vowed and fought to destroy Israel. But the balance then shifted. The ‘iron wall’ philosophy set in motion by early 20th Century Zionists, by the founding prime minister David Ben Gurion and by interests which became more and more powerful in Israel and, supporting it, in USA, has gradually become a poison.
“Every act of violence begins with an unhealed wound”. Thus spake Hussein Issa, the founder of a Palestinian peace-and-democracy school I work with in the West Bank. Up to the 1970s, unhealed wounds, derived from a long history of persecution and suffering, drove Israelis to fight to establish their country and defend it. But war itself creates more wounds, compounded to the extent that younger Israelis have gained wounds since the founding of Israel, caused in part by its own decisions and behaviour. By the late 1970s it became clear to many Palestinians and Arabs that they could not beat Israel. Resignation set in. By the late 1980s, the original fighters, the PLO, led by Yasser Arafat, began negotiating – though a younger generation of Palestinians rose up in the first intifada, themselves wounded and frustrated by violence meted on them, by unfulfilled need and rampant injustice.
A second intifada broke out in 2000 over the failure of the 1990s peace process, and a third is possible as another new generation grows up. They don’t specifically seek to destroy Israel – they seek but a future, justice, a place in the modern world. When despair escalates it can become an uprising. The majority of Palestinians just want a normal life, reasonable opportunities and self-determination, like people in other countries. They have strong work and community ethics, and Israeli occupation, siege and foreign aid demean them.
Mostly they accept their lot, and their capacity to live with adversity is admirable, something the rest of the world could learn much from. Even in Palestine life has its compensations – mainly in the form of a rich family and community life where children, women and old people are far more included and cared for than in many countries, where a positive attitude and sense of sharing keeps a society going despite everything.
Yet this has its down side. Beneath acceptance and fortitude ferments a bottled up frustration, a feeling that the other side will never relent and budge, whatever Palestinians themselves do to play their part in resolving things. One factor affecting Israeli intransigence is an addiction to a deep-seated belief that the world is against them, never to be trusted.
Conflict always takes two to tango but, as Palestinian conflict-weariness has shifted from resignation to a semblance of acceptance, from resistance toward negotiation, Israeli distrust has failed to relax, step back and match this shift. Instead, it seems to push harder, almost seeking confrontation, as if to maintain the mutual defensive aggression of former decades.
Today this enmity has shifted by degrees from Palestinians to Hezbollah, Iran and Hamas, and it risks taking on the world. It has lost a friend in Turkey, pushed at the tolerance of Egypt, Jordan and Syria, nudged European public opinion from acquiescence to questioning, embarrassed USA and furrowed foreheads worldwide. Most Palestinians, though trying to be patient, are still walled in, with Gazans literally under siege. Thus Israel creates enemies, as if to justify its distrust by unconsciously creating opposition.
The dominant mindset and interest-group in Israel hereby maintains its position – many Israelis, like Palestinians, keep their heads down, quietly wishing things were otherwise. The big question is how long this will last. There’s a risk of conflict between Israelis themselves because conflict is the only show in town, or of an Israeli retreat into a self-justified pariah status, as if to prove the world’s prejudice.
But it always takes two to tango, and Palestinians have two major weaknesses too. First, they too see themselves as victims – which they are, though this belief reinforces the pattern. It makes them disorganised, unstrategic, reactive, always waiting for the Israelis to take the initiative – though at present a shift is occurring. While Gazan militants, true to pattern, fire off rockets with little more than irritant effect on Israelis, Salam Fayyad’s Ramallah government is quietly engineering a kind of de facto independence for the West Bank – which might or might not work, depending mainly on international support or the lack of it.
The second is that Palestinians have regularly been divided, despite or perhaps because of their community strength. In earlier articles I have traced this historically and, today, such division is institutionalised in the separation of Gaza under Hamas and the West Bank under Fateh. This sunders the spectrum of Palestinian consensus, which habitually swings between negotiation, flexibility and engagement – some would say self-betrayal – and dogged, principled, if necessary violent resistance – some would say self-punishment.
As a result, the Israelis frequently say they have no one Palestinian leadership to talk to – even though endemic Israeli public disenchantment with its own government, together with the power of minority interests and sectoral exceptionalism, often means the same applies to them. This bipolar behaviour is reflected too in the international community, divided between increasingly pro-Palestinian public opinion and increasingly questionable government acquiescence in Israel’s multifarious excesses.
Yet in recent years, a Palestinian strategy has been emerging in the background, rooted in the steadfastness, sumud, of the Palestinian people. It is noticeable to outside observers who visit the region that, beyond politics, Palestinians on the street do seem to be happier and more forgiving than Israelis on their own street. This was summed up in an observation made to me by a Palestinian Christian in Bethlehem, who noted that the Israeli majority originates from Europe, America and Russia, where individualism, isolation, materialism and tragedy have left a long shadow clouding their lives today, while Palestinians have each other, a social togetherness enabling them to survive against amazing odds.
Remarkable compassion from a man whose family had lost half their lands to Israeli settlers in the last fifteen years. For roughly thirty years Palestinians survived without effective government, yet domestic crime, violence, injustice and alienation, by comparison to many other countries, have been relatively absent. So who is winning this conflict, in true, real, abiding, human terms?
The unstated strategy of Palestinians is to survive, endure and wait – to wait for the Israelis to exhaust themselves and for the international community to get off the fence. The predominant strategy of Israel meanwhile seems to be to acquire, punish, stonewall and assault – and in this, since the Lebanon war of 2006, it has increasingly been failing. No matter how much force and firepower it applies, no matter how much land is colonised, Palestinians just don’t go away. Every time Israel fights off a threat, it damages its case and widens the cracks in its own society. So Israelis stand in a bizarrely parallel position to Palestinians, strangely helpless to do much to advance their cause.
It seems like an endless loop. Negotiation gets nowhere, neither does armed attack. Time goes on, generations grow up. Bertrand Russell’s 1950s statement holds true: war is not about who is right, but who is left. In this cruel calculus, Palestinians are marginally stronger – they simply hold firm, suffer and wait. Israel meanwhile alienates its friends and its domestic social relations seem to harden.
It might be that a third intifada breaks out, especially if the aid-fuelled economy of the West Bank tanks due to global recession, but such would likely be just another expression of frustration more than an effective strategy for Palestinian liberation – and it’s just as likely it would turn against the Palestine Authority in Ramallah as it would against the Israelis in West Jerusalem. It would represent more of the same, not a fundamentally new development, and most Palestinians know this. They’re very used to more of the same.
There are two main remaining questions. One is the strange, unpredictable defining power of events, and the other is the position of the international community. Both were potently symbolised in what happened with the Freedom Flotilla. Compared to a war or intifada, it was a small event, with the sad loss of nine lives and some aid materials. But as a defining moment, it was a substantial event, sharply highlighting the issues at stake, in full global view.
It was a poignant expression of non-governmental voices from the international community, a statement that some people are prepared to do something to break the logjam, for once. For international governments, guilty of complicity in the world’s longest conflict, this was a warning. For Israel it was a sign that soft power can overwhelm hard power in the longterm – air-time can overpower helicopters. For Palestinians it hinted that they should stand firm.
This is an exercise in conflict-transformation with geopolitical repercussions. Israel needs to start transforming strident suspicion into trust and geniality, changing an historic, ultimately self-destructive mindset over the coming years. Palestine and the Arab world need to disengage from the antibiotic morphine drips of foreign aid and dependency given to keep them quiet in recent decades. The international community needs to rehumanise its politics and shift the balance from business toward principles, cut the arms trade and oil-dependency, re-examine its vested interests and get on with real life in the 21st Century.
This sump of human darkness seeks redemption. It didn’t look like it, but the Freedom Flotilla demonstrated that an historic healing process is starting. We’ve crossed a tipping-point, whatever official statements might say. This is a symptom of healing crisis. But history also takes time to unfold.
- Palden Jenkins
- Hayle, Cornwall, United Kingdom
- I'm a veteran campaigner who has trodden a spiritual-political path since the 1960s. Grew up in 1960s Liverpool, then became an LSE student and political activist, starting with Vietnam and Ulster. During the 1970s I worked withself-discovery, Tibetan Lamas, ecological and childbirth issues. I've stayed quite consistent since then, playing an active part in positive social and global change and the creation of new ideas and ventures. Until 2008 I lived in Glastonbury, SW England, a pilgrimage town with a big history and lots of interesting people. Now I live in Cornwall in the far SW of Britain and, when I can, in Bethlehem, Palestine. Written five books, authored loads of websites and started three educational projects. I'm dedicated to conflict-transformation and social change. The rest you can find out by visiting my website!