Israel & Palestine: It's Good To Talk
2 July 2006
When it comes to discussing the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, for most of us there are two basic approaches:
- Talk utterly ill-informed rubbish, preferably using the terms 'Jew'', 'Zionist' and 'Israeli' interchangeably, e.g. 'If the Jews would just take their tanks out of the Left Bank and stop killing children maybe Abu Hamas would leave them alone!'
- Don't bother in the first place.
And it's usually the latter. Israel/Palestine is a subject that doesn't tend to get discussed much, even amongst those of us who, while hardly being international politics buffs, do at least Take An Interest. Sometimes the reasons are valid - with Israel/Palestine it's easy to get out of your depth and weigh into a discussion in a way that is actually quite offensive, especially if there happen to be any Jews sitting round the table, or, as is less likely, any Palestinians. (We're not suggesting all Jews are supporters of Israel, but they tend to be a bit better informed about the whole issue, or sometimes have friends or relatives in Israel.)
Of course, you could argue that Israel/Palestine doesn't get discussed because of general political apathy, but it's not quite that. With the Israel/Palestine problem, it's rather a grim fatalism about the whole issue, not dissimilar to the weariness with which most Brits viewed Northern Ireland in the 1990s, i.e. 'It's nothing but trouble over there. They're all as bad as each other.'
Which is a bit pathetic, because not only is this week's Israeli incursion into Gaza actually quite important (of which more later), but there isn't really much excuse for not having a basic understanding of the conflict. A potted history goes something like this:
1250 BC: Israelites show up in the land of Canaan. They conquer it and settle down.
961-922 BC: King Solomon builds temple in Jerusalem. Babylonians conquer it, kick out Jews, who come back a bit later.
333 BC: Alexander the Great takes over for the Greeks.
165 BC: Revolt in Judea establishes independent Jewish state.
63 BC: Romans think independent Jewish state not such a good idea and incorporate it into province of Palestine. Romans put down a revolt and Jewish diaspora begins. Eventually Byzantines (successors to Romans in the east) take over, until...
638 AD: Conquest by Arab Muslims ends Byzantine rule. Region remains under Muslim rule (apart from a brief blip during the Crusades) and becomes part of Turkish Ottoman empire until...
1914-18: Turks booted out by Brits and Arabs, meanwhile...
1917: British foreign minister Balfour commits to 'the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people'.
1920s and 30s: Lots of Jews emigrate to 'British Mandate Palestine', mainly because of persecution and not just the sunny weather (which actually turns out to be oppressively hot for European Jews). Arabs are not happy. (By 1922, Jews make up 11 per cent of Palestine's 750,000 inhabitants. More than 300,000 more arrive in the next 15 years.)
1929: Violent clashes between Zionists, Arabs and Brits.
1947: Britain sensibly hands over the problem to the UN.
1948: State of Israel born, after lots more bloodletting, not least a massacre at the village of Deir Yassin, which causes panic and leads hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to flee to Lebanon, Egypt and what is now the West Bank. Five Arab armies from Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq invade Israel but are repulsed, in what will become something of a habit.
1964: Palestine Liberation Organisation set up.
1967. Six Day War. Israel wins.
1972: Israeli athletes massacred at Munich Olympics.
1973: Yom Kippur War. Predictably, Israel wins again, but is left more dependent on the US after Saudi Arabia leads a petrol embargo against states that supported Israel.
1982: Israel invades Lebanon with intention of destroying Palestinian guerrilla bases. Israel's allies the Phalangists kill hundreds of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.
1987: Palestinian intifada (mass uprising) begins in Gaza and spreads to the West Bank.
1993: The Oslo Peace Process begins. Palestinians agree to recognise Israel in return for a beginning to the end of the occupation.
1996: Series of suicide bombings in Israel carried out by militant Islamicist group Hamas. Israel bombards Lebanon, long home to groups like Hamas.
2001: Ariel Sharon comes to power promising a tougher approach to the 'Palestinian problem'.
2002: George Bush calls for Palestinians to replace their leader with one not 'compromised by terror' and outlines the 'roadmap' to peace - plans for a series of negotiations. In the same year Israel begins building a barrier in the West Bank. Suicide bombings continue despite the 'Peace' wall.
Of course, there's a bit more to it than that, and it's mostly people getting killed in an endless series of territorial disputes and reprisals from the 1930s onwards. The most recent incidents have been the shelling of a beach by an Israeli warship and Corporal Gilad Shalit being taken prisoner in a raid on an Israeli guard post, leading to the Israeli invasion of Palestinian territory, although the motivation is obviously as much a retaliation for suicide bombings as an attempt to find Adrian Mole lookalike Shalit. (Responsibility for the raid was claimed by three different organisations, including the armed wing of governing party Hamas.)
On first glance, the latest events look like just part of an endless cycle of violence and retaliation, sometimes interspersed with negotiations and occasional détente which inevitably break down, with the violence immediately starting all over again. But things are a bit different in 2006. The Arab/Israeli conflict has always been one of the sources of tension in the Middle East - although it has suited some Arab states that that should be the case. But the latest violence takes place at a time when Islamic fundamentalism is gaining momentum around the world, something that is as much a problem for moderate Muslim countries as the West.
With the Middle East in turmoil already, with Iraq and Afghanistan rapidly turning into twin Vietnams as far as the US and its allies are concerned, and with the West as a whole asking *when*, not *if* more terrorist attacks are going to occur, it could hardly come at a worse time. Which means that viewing the Israel/Palestine problem with bored indifference looks less like weariness or apathy, and more like actual naivety about the impact that events elsewhere in the world can have on us. Which is precisely why we've decided to spend the whole weekend reading up on the issue and entering into healthy if at times heated debate.
Actually no, fuck it, there's nice weather forecast. We'll probably just go to the park instead, and nod off in the sun dreaming of future harmony in a brave new Israelestine. Or Palerael. We'll toss for it.