Looking in From the Outside: The Arab-Israeli Conflict
For a sensible person, aware of history’s complexities, it should not be difficult to feel sympathy for the plight of the Jewish people; aside from the well-known atrocities committed against them during WWII, the more “obscure” cruelties, such as those perpetrated by the Russian Empire, for example, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, are mostly topics for academics; in other words, everyone knows places like Auschwitz or even Dachau, but rarely do you ever hear about the Odessa pogroms, which, starting in 1821, occurred on average every twenty years or so until 1905.
In addition, the historical persecution of Jews, which, according to some scholars can not only be traced back to a place in antiquity, the Roman Empire, but also be given a specific date, 38 CE—the advent of the Alexandrian riots, which began under Emperor Caligula when he sent the King of Judea, Herod Agrippa, unannounced to Alexandria, something that angered the Greeks, causing riots to break out. Subsequently, the more brutal 66 CE riots of Alexandria reveal a continuation of tensions between Jewish inhabitants and their neighbors. A primary account by the historian Josephus describes the following: “The Romans showed no mercy to the infants, had no regard for the aged, and went on in the slaughter of persons of every age, until all the place was overflowed with blood, and 50,000 Jews lay dead. And the remainder would have perished as well, had they not put themselves at the mercy of city’s governor, Tiberius Julius Alexander. He felt pity and gave orders to the legionaries to retire.” A gruesome picture and it only gets worse four years later, when Emperor Titus together with that very same governor, Alexander, at his command, go on to capture the city of Jerusalem, totally razing both the city and its Temple (indeed, this is that destruction which many Jews to this day view as the ultimate catastrophe for their people because, for one, unlike the first time under Nebuchadnezzar II, it was never rebuilt, and secondly, in many ways, the Jews once again became an “exiled” people).
Throughout the Middle Ages, things don’t change much for the better. Jewish communities are blamed for the Black Death, accused of witchcraft or poisoning wells, and many innocent people are killed as a result in massacres such as those which occurred in the German city of Erfurt in 1349.
Indeed, right down from antiquity, the Jews have not had the most pleasant historical legacy, and this by any stretch of the imagination. Consequently, the curious question we must ask ourselves, hence, is the following: Why do Jewish authorities in Israel now subject Palestinians to experiences which aren’t radically different from the ones they themselves suffered living under the Roman Empire, and later all across Europe? With poverty rates as high as eighty-five percent in some Palestinian areas, the conditions depicted below not only rival but exceed those of the historical Jewish ghettos.
After the 2007 Battle of Gaza, the narrow stretch of territory with access to the sea, bordering Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, fell under the control of Hamas, which can be considered the more “militant” wing seeking Palestine’s liberation, and things have not improved one way or another; the problem is that, precisely, in some ways, it may not really matter who ultimately governs Gaza—saints or sinners, for lack of better words; the area, although under de facto Palestinian control, remains utterly dependent on Israel. According to a recent article in Al Jazeera, Gaza “relies on Israel for most of its energy needs. Its population of two million currently receives about six hours of electricity followed by a 10-hour power cut.” In addition to this, Israel has exacerbated the situation by closing “its lone commercial crossing with Gaza and banned sea access, shutting down commercial fishing.” Routine actions like this are naturally a response to Hamas’s occasional escalations of violence; these phenomena, however, can likewise be interpreted as a reaction to the frustration of living under Israeli occupation, and it would be rather hard to believe that the only thing Hamas really wants to do is harm innocent Jewish civilians.
Aside from electricity, water sanitation is another major problem. As with electricity, Palestinian water resources are largely controlled by Israel, and, according to a report published in 2017 by the Rand Corporation, “a five-year-old boy died in the Gaza Strip after swimming in seawater polluted with sewage.” Further, the report states that incidents like this, unfortunately, are more common than we want to believe. While the West Bank certainly fares much better in terms of the aforementioned issue, “less than 11 percent of Gaza’s population had access to safe drinking water through the public network,” according to the same report. In addition, the highly-prized Area C of the West Bank, where, according to the UN, Israel retains near exclusive control,” is precisely the place in which most of the “West Bank’s natural resources and open spaces, including the sparsely populated Jordan Valley, are located,” according to a National News article. And yet, according to a 2013 World Bank report, less than “one percent of Area C, which is already built up, is designated by the Israeli authorities for Palestinian use; the remainder is heavily restricted or off-limits to Palestinians, with 68 percent reserved for Israeli settlements, 21 percent for closed military zones, and 9 percent for nature reserves.” Having access to Area C, hence, would perhaps not cure all of Palestine’s economic woes, but it could “expand their struggling economy by a third and halve their budget deficit if Israel allowed them to use the 61 per cent of West Bank territory that is now largely off-limits.” The image below from Gaza summarizes the entire situation quite well.
It can thus be said that the majority of Palestinians living in Gaza and some of those in the West Bank as well have nothing but poisonous water to draw from their wells, literally and metaphorically speaking; this is unacceptable and regardless of which position we may choose to take in this conflict, the dignity of people must be protected, but this is merely the humble opinion of a human rights student.
Being Armenian, I sympathize greatly with Palestine, mainly because of Jerusalem, which, as many know, is divided into four quarters: Jewish, Christian, Armenian, and Muslim (listed in no particular order of preference); appropriately, then, we can say that the city is neither Jewish, nor Christian, nor Armenian, nor Muslim, but it’s all of those things at the same time. In this respect, the easiest way for Christians, let’s say, to best feel the plight of Palestinian people is to be told that Jerusalem is entirely Jewish in character and has no connection to Christianity whatsoever. Just for a second, take a look at this photo—it depicts the Church of Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and it has stood there since approximately 335 CE; this, however, isn’t the most fascinating part. In the most unexpected fashion, the main caretakers and guardians of this church, for over a thousand years, have been the Nusseibehs—an aristocratic family of neither Christian, nor Jewish origin, but, followers of Islam, capable of tracing their roots back to Jerusalem more than 1,300 years, all the way to the prophet Muhammad, that is. As you may have noticed by now, Jerusalem is complex, and it belongs to everyone who has a genuine claim.
It’s infuriating, hence, to hear Israel tell not only Palestinians but also the entire world exactly the opposite—indirectly for years and now overtly with the 2018 Nation State Law, that Israel is a country “that is different from all others in one way, that it is the nation-state of the Jewish people.” And yet, even the most ignorant simpleton strolling through Jerusalem’s Armenian or Muslim quarter will somehow sense that Israel isn’t just the nation-state of the Jewish people. For thousands of years, different people have inhabited the Holy Land—some are still there while others are gone—and telling Palestinians that Israel is a Jewish state is precisely like telling me, an Armenian, for example, that I have absolutely no connection to Jerusalem, even though there’s a quarter there. A well-written Reuters article from ten or so years ago describes how with gradual measures such as refusal of identity cards and withdrawal of residence rights, Israel is slowly trying to edge out its Armenian presence as well.
The 1980 Jerusalem Law, which is nothing but a covert guise for East Jerusalem’s annexation—utterly and totally unrecognized by the UN—is an ideology that not just politicians hold in high regard. Initially-innocent-looking, well-meaning, but really rather ridiculous articles such as this one from 1975, by what must’ve been, and probably still is (if alive) a disgruntled rabbi by the name of Yakov Goldman have attempted to use words instead of missiles or rather a missile of words to achieve their political objectives.
Ah, fascinating! Indeed, quite fascinating, Rabbi Goldman. So, you’re telling me that if other people live in the Armenian Quarter and we call it the Armenian Quarter that, somehow, is a travesty? Well, if that’s the case, why don’t we go ahead and stop calling Jerusalem a Jewish city, and, while we’re at it, let’s also stop pretending that Israel is a Jewish state, because, clearly, the Palestinians have and continue to live there, and if, by God Almighty, it has to have a name, as you’ve so correctly pointed out, let’s find a different moniker for your state—isn’t that a more wonderful suggestion? I think so.
Both the American historian David Howard-Pitney and US President Barack Obama (two figures whose level of fame is diametrically opposed—nothing we should hold against one or the other) believe that history is a burden. “For both of them,” according to Jennifer Mercieca and Justin S. Vaughn, authors of The Rhetoric of Heroic Expectations, “it was as much a burden foisted upon them by tradition as one taken up by choice. And for both of them, this burden inspired action. Whether it is the divine history of the Exodus or the divinized history of the Founders, the memory of the past functions as a goad to social action, a profound investment of political agency.” History, in this sense, has been precisely that burden for both the Israelis and Palestinians; for the former, the Holocaust was and continues to be viewed as a great tragedy and yet it was exactly this event which at once and finally convinced later Zionists of the key tenet in Herzl’s philosophy—that anti-Semitism will always exist and, thus, the only resolution is a Jewish state, which was eventually formed.
For Palestinians—a people fortunate enough never to have experienced the horrors equivalent to such destruction—the burden of history has paradoxically been far less kind than it has to the Jewish people; as of today, they’re individuals of a nation without a state living under the occupation of a nation who for the longest time didn’t have a state themselves, but were forced to create one precisely on those territories which the current people without a state had historically inhabited, and the reason for the creation of this state had to do with the persistent historical persecution of those people who had lacked statehood before but are now inhabiting precisely those territories on which the current people without a state feel they have a right to establish their own.
It’s all very complex and the history isn’t something that will be dealt with here, but what isn’t complicated at all is something I’ve not only hinted at but have said directly: Human beings deserve to be treated with dignity and respect and Israel, being the occupying power, has largely not lived up to those ideals. Problems largely stem from Israel’s aggressive expansionist and annexation policies, most of which, if not all, are considered illegal under international law. To be fair, as part of the peace plan with Egypt in 1979, along with agreements in the 1993 Oslo Accords, Israel did dismantle many of the settlements in Palestinian territories, but since then, it has largely continued its previous modus operandi of encroaching on lands which aren’t meant for them. When Israel annexed the Golan Heights (territory internationally recognized as part of Syria) only two years later, along with Trump’s subsequent recognition of that annexation in 2019, it was under the guise of providing a safety buffer for its actual borders, but, in reality, such encroachments are merely strategies to give Israel a more Jewish character; tactics like this may seem appealing in the short-run, but given that no nation state is really composed of one homogenous population, the subjugation and repression of minority voices is always bound to backfire, and, indeed it has.
Not only have the decisions of Israel and Trump led to an escalation in the conflict, but they have also seriously crippled whatever diplomatic channels may have existed in helping to foster dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in 2017 has formally brought an end to what was achieved during the Oslo Accords in 1993—the PLO’s recognition of Israel and its right to exist, along with Israel’s recognition of the PLO as the sole voice of the Palestinian people. Since those most recent events two and four years ago, respectively, the PLO has withdrawn its recognition of Israel and cut ties with the US; in addition, Palestine threatens to sever relations with all those nations which move their embassies to Jerusalem, a move which could potentially further isolate Palestine, as some US allies will invariably choose to go ahead anyways.
Most news outlets, naturally, portray the conflict with broad brushstrokes—Palestinian “terrorists” launch rockets from Gaza and Israeli “forces” defend against this “aggression.” No subtlety, little historical awareness, and even less understanding, in many ways, also of current events—strangely. For some odd reason or other, no one is really quick to point out that Netanyahu’s constant, and, more unfortunately, blatant disregard of international law is a type of terrorism—indeed, there are no guns or rockets fired, but people’s lives are uprooted and metaphorically disfigured forever. Why should Palestinian residents freely give up their homes to illegal Jewish settlers in Sheikh Jarrah, for example? In addition, the (not) good PM’s pledge to annex all Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territories have led a major Jewish newspaper to label him the “undertaker of the two-state solution.”
It’s no secret that this so-called funeral director for all non-Israeli ambitions has repeatedly stated, according to The Guardian, that no Palestinian state will ever come into existence so long as he’s in power; this, ladies and gentlemen, is terrorism in its most white-collar form, and yet the only thing that most major credible news outlets besides Al Jazeera choose to focus on are the horrible actions of perhaps some frustrated Palestinian “terrorists” in Gaza who’ve somehow managed to get a rocket past Israel’s incredibly sophisticated air defense system (the notorious Iron Dome in service since 2011); when the rockets, however, start flying the other way—to a place which cannot shoot down 90 percent of trajectories coming their way, it’s all for the sake of defending the state, all because Palestinians simply don’t have one, and, thus, have nothing worth defending.
In response to a friend’s despair that General Burgoyne had been defeated at Saratoga, which effectively brought about the end of British ambitions in Colonial America, Adam Smith said the following: “Be assured, young friend, that there is a great deal of ruin in a nation.” The quote has been interpreted in a number of ways—from strong countries can cope with poor policies to it takes a whole lot of work (in this case bungling) for political leaders to bring down a country which is prosperous and powerful. Despite what Smith may or may not have meant, I prefer the following interpretation: For a new nation to rise, it must first be ruined in order to be truly born anew. It’s hard to deny that Israel has done anything but bring Palestine to that brink. If Palestinians can hang on long enough, I truly believe that like all people who’ve ever wanted to be free, they may not get everything they wanted, but they will eventually find their freedom.
About David Garyan
David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with (DISS)INFORMATION, a full collection with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He is currently studying International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage at the University of Bologna. He lives in Ravenna.