Who is responsible for the killing and suffering in Gaza?
The war in Gaza—the war in Gaza and Israel, we should say, so as not to lose sight of the fact that hostilities began with an armed incursion into Israeli territory—is as complex a historical event as one can possibly imagine, with deep and tangled historical roots, a large and very complicated set of relevant actors (Israel, Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, the US, Hezbollah, Iran, Qatar, the Saudis, …), and potentially profound implications for the future relationships among all the parties and for the world as a whole. Not to mention the unimaginably terrible suffering on all sides. It is, to put it mildly, too complex for a blog post, too difficult to find one small piece of the issue to address that is not connected to all the other pieces.
But I find one small corner of this complicated tableau particularly disturbing. Why is it, I ask myself, that Israeli conduct always seems to be judged by different standards than those applied to any other country in the world in similar circumstances; and, similarly, why is it that the grievances of Israel’s enemies are viewed more sympathetically than the grievances of any other group in the world?
For instance, you would think that people concerned with ending the terrible violence in Gaza and the awful suffering of the Palestinians would advocate for the most direct and straightforward path to that end: Hamas should surrender, thereby sparing its people further misery. They chose to wage war against a neighboring state; they are at a grave disadvantage in the conflict that has ensued, in terms of military firepower; they are losing, and appear to have no prospects of winning, that war. They are in a position to bring the killing and the destruction to a close; they should release the hostages they are holding and surrender, at which point the Israelis, having achieved their objective, would surely cease their attacks.
Why aren’t there any demonstrators in the street, or on our college campuses, calling for that? Where are the petitions? The indignant op-eds? [Though see Charles Lane’s WaPo op-ed, here]. Where’s the pressure being brought to bear on Hamas from “public opinion,” and from the “international community” and the U.N. Security Council, advocating for that option? Why is it always Israeli conduct that is the target of those demonstrators, those petitions, and that pressure?
And, similarly, why does most of the world seem to get agitated only about Palestinian grievances, when the list of racial/ethnic/religious/national groups who have been sorely ill-treated is so long (the Kurds, the Tibetans, the Uighurs, the Chechnians, the Quechua, the Roma, the Kosovars, the Ibo, the Eritreans, the indigenous people all over the globe, Muslims in India and Hindus in Pakistan, … along with, of course, the Jews)? A million Muslims were murdered, and upwards of 10 million more were driven from their homes and forced into exile, in India at Partition in 1947; a million Jews, over the past 50 years, have had their property appropriated and were driven from their homes in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and the other Arab states; a hundred thousand Tamils were killed by rampaging Sinhalese troops in Sri Lanka in the early 2000s…. On and on it goes, a sad litany of communities destroyed, property appropriated, and innocent people murdered. Where is all the anger directed at the perpetrators of those misdeeds? The demonstrations, the petitions, the righteous indignation, the demands for reparations and compromise, on behalf of those ill-treated people?
Some of this one-sidedness, to be sure, is just naked anti-Semitism: Jews are bad, therefore their enemies are good. The enemy of my enemy is my friend.
But much of it is not. Much of it, I believe, stems from the widespread view, held conscientiously and in good faith by many reasonable people against whom the charge of anti-Semitism cannot fairly be made, that there is something unique in the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians, something that requires the Israelis to behave in a manner that no other country under attack from a neighbor would be expected to behave. That because Israel is itself responsible—at least to a significant degree—for the plight of the Palestinians, having kicked the Palestinians off of their land, taking control over and occupying territory that should, by rights, be under Palestinian control as part of a Palestinian state, that peace in the region can only be achieved if and when Israel gives all, or at least a substantial portion, of that land back to the Palestinians for incorporation into that Palestinian state.
One doesn’t have to go as far as the Harvard student organizations, who declared that Israel was “entirely responsible” for the violence unleashed on Oct. 7—i.e., that Hamas bore no responsibility for the cold-blooded slaughter of 1200 people—to believe this narrative. It can, I think, fairly be called the “conventional wisdom.”
What strikes me as odd about it is the way that it ignores—and seems to be erasing completely from our collective memory—the actual historical record of Palestine itself.
To begin with*: There was, for a brief period, a Palestinian state, but it was destroyed—not by Israel, but by the neighboring Arab States (Jordan, Egypt, and Syria). The 1947 UN Resolution that created the new state of Israel also created the new state of Palestine; the two were carved out of what had been the British-controlled “Mandate,” itself a creation of the League of Nations as part of the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire in the wake of WW I.
*The Wikipedia entry for the 1947 Partition Plan has an especially thorough and balanced treatment of these events.
Approximately 44% of the total land area of the Mandate, including both Gaza and the West Bank (and a narrow land corridor connecting them), was included in the new state of Palestine; the greater share (56%)was incorporated into the new State of Israel (though a large chunk of that was the Negev Desert, largely uninhabited and uninhabitable).
The State of Palestine was strangled in its infancy, not by the Israelis, who accepted the U.N. partition plan, but by the neighboring Arab States—Egypt, Syria, and Jordan—who did not. The day after the British pulled their forces out, the Arab armies marched in, and the first Arab-Israeli War began.
2, For almost two decades, beginning in 1949, the Arab states controlled most of the land that was to have been incorporated into the state of Palestine, and, during that period, they did absolutely nothing to hand control over to the Palestinians so as to re-constitute the Palestinian state envisaged by the UN Resolution.
The first Arab-Israeli war ended when an Armistice was signed—actually, three different bilateral armistices between Israel and each of the three Arab nations—in early 1949. The boundaries fixed in those agreements gave to each of the four countries involved more-or-less the territory that their armies had managed to control as of the date that ceasefires had been declared. The West Bank became part of Jordan; Gaza became part of Egypt; the Golan Heights became part of Syria. Israel got—or kept—the rest. The Palestinians, who had no army of their own, got nothing.
You would never know, listening to the current debates about the war and discussions of the “two-state solution,” that it was Egypt, Jordan, and Syria that had control of Palestinian lands for nearly two decades, and who refused, when they had a chance, to give one square inch of it back to the Palestinians. Somehow, nobody seems to think that they’re responsible for Palestinian rage and Palestinian grievances; I doubt that even Harvard students, benighted though they surely are, would have rallied so enthusiastically to Hamas’ defense had its forces slaughtered civilians in Cairo, Damascus, or Amman.
3. And it is, of course, the Arab states who are “entirely responsible” for Israel’s gaining control over most of this territory in 1967, when they made another decision that proved catastrophic for the Palestinians: Launching their attack on Israel in what became the 2d Arab-Israeli War, the so-called Six-Day War in which the Egyptians were driven out of Gaza, the Jordanians from the West Bank, and the Syrians from the Golan Heights.
Why is it that only starting then, now that Israel was in control of these areas, did the world rouse itself to Palestinian grievances, and demand that “Palestinian lands” be given back to the Palestinians?
And, come to think of it, what is one to make of the fact that it is Israel that is the only country in this entire history that actually has given Palestinian lands back to the Palestinians? Via the Oslo Accords, which gave the Palestinian Authority a substantial degree of autonomy over affairs in the West Bank and Gaza—not, in the minds of many, substantial enough, but a hell of a lot more than the Jordanians or the Egyptians ever gave them.
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Don’t get me wrong; none of this is meant to suggest that Palestinian grievances are not real, that Palestinian suffering in Gaza is not heart-breaking, that Israel is somehow absolved of its responsibility to treat Palestinians humanely, or that Israel has always chosen the best and wisest course of action with respect to Palestinian claims.
But if we’re apportioning responsibility for Palestinian misery, giving Hamas and the Arab States a free pass strikes me as inexplicable.