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A personal view of the Israel / Palestine conflict

This issue polarises views like few other conflicts. I believe there are significant rights and wrongs on both sides. Making peace will require both parties to make painful sacrifices which neither presently seems prepared to do.


Posted 25 May 2012. Updated 24 April 2017.

The Israel / Palestine conflict has been a constant thread running through the news for virtually the whole of my life.

This is not intended to be a comprehensive list but merely some highlights. Israel and Palestine have almost never been out of the news, either due to conflict or due to speculation about the peace process.

Why do people care so much about Israel and Palestine?

Ardent Zionists sometimes complain about the level of attention given to the Middle East and to the plight of the Palestinian people. They point out, quite correctly, that there are far greater injustices elsewhere in the world. To cite just one example, during the last decade or so, over 5 million people have died in conflicts in central Africa near the borders of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi.

However the sad reality is that all human beings are selective about their concerns. Our concern is greatest for those we know best, our immediate family, our friends and our townspeople and our concern gradually attenuates as people become further away or become more different from us.

The Israel / Palestine conflict matters to around 2.2 billion Christians, around 1.6 billion Muslims around 13 million Jews for a number of reasons:

  1. Jerusalem is the holiest city in Judaism and Jews face it to pray three times a day.
  2. Jerusalem is the holiest location in Christianity, the place where Jesus was crucified.
  3. Most Christians believe that the second coming of Jesus will take place in the Holy Land after a major conflict which the Book of Revelation locates in northern Israel.
  4. Jerusalem was the first qibla (direction to face when praying) for Muslims, and is the location from which Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) ascended to Heaven.
  5. The Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem is the third holiest mosque in Islam.

Muslims and Jews living outside the Middle East understandably identify with the concerns of their coreligionists who live in Israel and Palestine. Many Christians, particularly American evangelicals, identify strongly with Israel as part of their understanding of God's plan for the end of time. Religious extremists on both sides who see Islam and Christianity as being in conflict focus upon the Middle East as the most important location for this conflict.

While the contested territory is of relatively little economic importance by itself, much of the world's oil supply derives from adjacent countries which have deep concerns about the Israel / Palestine conflict.

Accordingly it should be no surprise that the world takes a far greater interest in what happens in the Middle East than it does in other geographical areas which are less significant.

Where I stand

As a Muslim, my instinctive starting point, for example when the Six Day War broke out, was to be pro-Palestinian.

Over the intervening years, I have learned more about the complex history and watched developments unfold over several decades. My understanding was greatly advanced by my only visit to Israel so far, at the end of 2009 / beginning of 2010. Consequently I have moved to a much more neutral position.

I would describe myself now as both pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian and see no contradiction in that position. I believe that a two-state solution is the only viable way forward for both Jews and Palestinians.

What makes the dispute so difficult is that there are clear wrongs, and also clear rights, on both sides.

With hindsight it is easy to see how the conduct of both sides has contributed to making the dispute worse and more intractable.

One of the things I find dispiriting is the unwillingness of supporters of each side to listen to the narratives of the other, as discussed in the section "Achieving reconciliation" lower down on the page.

The history of the Israel / Palestine conflict

History matters because, in a fundamental sense, we are our history. Accordingly, despite the contentious nature of the subject, I believe that everyone should study the history of the conflict.

However, we cannot change the past. Equally we must not allow the past to determine our future. Many Jews and Arabs have died fighting over pieces of territory. While such sacrifices need to be remembered and honoured, they cannot be allowed to preclude territorial concessions which may be in the best interests of Jews and Arabs today.

Elsewhere on this website, I have written that when I spoke about advocating Israel to Muslims at “The Big Tent for Israel” I advised Jews who wish to discuss the Israel / Palestine conflict with Muslims not to start from the history. However that does not preclude studying the history, as long as one remembers that agreement about the history is not necessary for agreeing a way forward.

The present facts

Any attempt to chart the way forward must start from where we are today. Again without seeking to be comprehensive, I have listed what I regard as some of the key facts below.

There is no military solution

Israel has prevailed in every war that it has fought against the Arab states. However this has not resulted in peace and when I visited Israel at the end of 2009/beginning of 2010 I found people very pessimistic about the future. Few if any Israelis, even those who are most hawkish, believes that a permanent peace can be achieved by the additional exercise of Israeli military power.

Despite Israel being the military superpower of the region, there are undoubtedly some amongst the Palestinian armed factions who believe that Israel can ultimately be defeated by military means. Quite apart from being an unrealistic assessment of the balance of forces, this belief fails to take into account the implication of nuclear weapons. It is inconceivable that an Israel facing destruction would not use nuclear weapons either as part of a military defence or as a form of retaliation. That is the meaning of the phrase "Mutually Assured Destruction". It means that even a very powerful nuclear weapons state cannot defeat a weaker one if that weaker one has an assured second strike capability.

What would peace look like?

It is inevitable that any peace agreement will leave many Jews and Arabs dissatisfied.

Maximalist positions

It is quite easy to find amongst both Jews and Arabs maximalist positions which are utterly unacceptable to the other party.

The maximalist Jewish position

God gave the whole of Judea and Samaria to the Jewish people as part of a perpetual covenant. Accordingly it would be a sin for Israel to hand back any part of it to Arabs.

It was sentiments like these which motivated the assassin who murdered Yitzhak Rabin. Furthermore some Jews wish to expel Arabs from within their midst and commit terrorism against Arabs; the most notable recent example being the killings carried out by Baruch Goldstein. Almost as reprehensible as his killings is the fact that some Jews regard him as a hero.

The maximalist Arab position

Any land that has once been governed by Muslims must always be governed by Muslims. The Jews in Israel are European settlers who should return from whence they came.

In every war between the Arab states and Israel there have been some Arabs shooting off their mouths about "Driving the Jews into the sea."

The one state solution

This is the preferred model of many Muslims. It would involve a single state comprising the territory of Israel, Gaza and the West Bank with single citizenship for all of the people living there. Even without considering the possible return of Palestinian refugees from Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, the demographics would mean an Arab majority in the forseeable future.

Why a one state solution is unacceptable to Israeli Jews

From a Jewish perspective, fundamentally Israel is about one thing – survival.

The early Zionists were acutely conscious of discrimination in Western Europe but even more importantly of pogroms in Russia. Then came the Holocaust. Once you think about people seeking to exterminate you while no other country will let you in, you understand why having one country with a Jewish majority that will always take you in is so fundamentally important to Jewish people.

As a concrete illustration, one should look at the history of the SS St Louis in 1939. The ship sailed from Hamburg carrying Jewish refugees. It called at Cuba, the USA and the UK, but each country would take only a few refugees, such as children or doctors. Eventually the ship returned to continental Europe and some of those on board perished in the Holocaust.

Israel's Law of Return sets the criterion at what seems like a very low threshold; having one Jewish grandparent is enough to qualify under the Law of Return. The criterion becomes understandable once you remember that this criterion was sufficient for persecution by the Nazis under the Nuremberg Laws.

The two state solution

The essence of a two state solution is very straightforward:

  1. A state with a boundary drawn so that it has a majority Jewish population.
  2. A state with a boundary drawn so that it has a majority Palestinian population.
  3. Special arrangements for Jerusalem given the importance of its holy places.
  4. Some arrangement for the Palestinian refugees that involves either the return of those who became refugees in 1948 and their descendants to Israel, or financial compensation. In practice this is likely to mean financial compensation in almost all cases since the movement of large numbers of descendants of refugees into Israel would radically alter that country's demographic profile.

Where you draw the boundary line and the precise nature of the arrangements for Jerusalem and the refugees are matter that needs to be negotiated by the parties. However the essence of negotiation is that the deal must be acceptable to both parties; otherwise there will be no agreement.

The Jordan solution

Supporters of Israel sometimes suggest that the West Bank should be annexed by Jordan, normally without specifying how much West Bank territory Israel would wish to annex for itself. I have never encountered this proposed solution being put forward by supporters of the Palestinians.

In my opinion it is unrealistic for the following reasons:

Does Israel need a peace agreement?

One regularly hears voices amongst Israeli Jews that there is no point in seeking peace with Arabs who cannot be trusted. Israel has military control over the whole of the West Bank (while allowing some Arab self-government under the Oslo Accords), and can defend itself. The status quo allows the gradual settlement of more Jews on the West Bank and eventually it will be sufficiently well-settled by Jews that a Palestinian state becomes impossible.

It is superficially attractive to put off the difficult decisions regarding territorial concessions that would be needed for a two state solution. However in my view a strategy of continued occupation of the West Bank combined with increased settlement activity would be dangerous and self-defeating for Israel. I was struck by Tony Klug's 3 January 2013 article "Israel will pay the price for intransigence" in the Jewish Chronicle which makes the same point.

It will not be possible to keep the Palestinian residents of the West Bank in their present limbo status permanently, and ultimately Israel would face demands for their absorption as citizens. Such absorption would fundamentally change the demographics of Israel in a way that most Israeli Jews would find unacceptable. Conversely I believe that it will be impossible to resist the demand for absorption once a two state solution can no longer be achieved.

Accordingly time is not on Israel's side, as a continuation of current policies will make a two state solution impossible.

Achieving reconciliation

A peace agreement and reconciliation are two different things. The peace agreement will be about issues such as borders, military arrangements, sharing of water resources etc. Reconciliation is about mutual understanding, of the kind achieved in South Africa with the work of its Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

At present, both Israelis and Palestinians in general refuse to accept that the other side's historical narrative has any merit whatsoever. That is a fundamental bar to reconciliation in my view.

Abridged versions of both narratives are set out below.

The Israeli narrative

In the words of the theme song from the film Exodus, "This land is mine, God gave this land to me,". For two thousand years the Jews suffered expulsion from their country, and suffered persecution in the countries where they lived, culminating in the Holocaust. From the early part of the 20'th century Jews purchased land in Palestine to live peaceably, but were attacked regularly by their Arab neighbours. Perhaps the worst such incident was the Hebron massacre of 1929.

During the Nazi years, the rest of the world failed to give enough sanctuary to Jews. That is Israel's fundamental purpose - to ensure that the Jewish people can survive. "Never again" [will the survival of the Jewish people depend upon others.]

After the UN Partition Resolution of 1947, the armies of five Arab states tried to destroy Israel and wipe out or expel the Jews. Israel defeated them, and survives only because it is able to defend itself. The Holocaust has taught Jews that their survival must never depend upon others. Palestinian Arabs left Israel voluntarily in 1948 because the invading Arab countries encouraged them to do so, to make it easier for the Arab armies to deal with the Jews. Since then, Israel has made innumerable peace offers which have been rejected.

The Palestinian narrative

Arabs lived peace in Palestine alongside the Jewish minority until the British conquered the country and then promised part of it to the Jewish immigrants from Europe. Neither Britain (in charge by military force) nor the League of Nations (a collection consisting mostly of European imperial powers) had any right to give part of Palestine away to European immigrants to set up their own state. After the 1947 UN partition resolution, the Jews, aided by foreign military equipment, used their military power to deliberately expel large numbers of Palestinians in order to seize their land; the Nakba. Since then Israel has continued to expand using its greater military power.

Is reconciliation possible?

Reconciliation is always possible, no matter how great the grievance, provided there is the will to reconcile. Witness the reconciliation between France and Germany or America and Japan after World War 2. An even more striking example is post-apartheid South Africa.

I see no reason why Palestinians and Jews should not be reconciled, but they must come to understand and have some level of sympathy with the other party's historical narrative, while recognising that there is no way that all of the injustices of the past committed by both sides can be undone. What matters is to collaborate to build a positive future for both peoples.

Teaching the conflicting historical narratives

I believe it is essential for Jews and Arabs to understand each other's historical narratives. Accordingly I hope that an initiative by a history teacher, Michael Davies, to develop tools for teaching the conflicting narratives is successful. He has produced some videos using the tool TouchCast which can be watched below.

Michael is making more videos on the Israel / Palestine conflict so that the history is covered up to the present. He has some help from Columbia University in New York, but he is looking out for more researchers.

So if you are a history graduate and knowledgeable about the Middle East, or if you would like to sponsor a researcher, then please email Michael on [email protected]

Is the other side evil?

There are Palestinian Arabs who regard Israeli Jews as evil and motivated entirely by malevolence. Equally there are Israeli Jews who believe that Palestinian Arabs would like to perpetrate a new holocaust.

While there are undoubtedly malevolent people on both sides, it is entirely wrong to see either Israeli Jews or Palestinian Arabs as primarily driven by evil motivations. With such an attitude, peace becomes impossible. It would help people on both sides of the conflict to try harder to see the world through the eyes of the other side, and to understand how the situation today is the result of bad decisions take by both sides in the past.

The past cannot be rewritten; the goal should be to build a better shared future by taking better decisions today.

The conflict between seeking justice and achieving peace / reconciliation

I meet many who emphasise the wrongs that the Palestinians have suffered at the hands of Jewish Israelis, especially the massacres and expulsions in 1948. They stress that the Palestinians must receive justice.

When supporters of Israel are confronted with demands for the rectification of such historic injustices, a common response is to point out the injustices committed by Arabs, such as the 1929 Hebron massacre, or the expulsions of Jews from Arab states.

One is then left with an argument about who has suffered greater injustices.

The problem with such an approach is that, in practice, it makes achieving peace and reconciliation impossible.

I wrote about this in a different context in 2015 in my piece "When justice and reconciliation conflict." I recommend reading the full piece, but have quoted a short extract below:

When something unjust has happened, justice requires it to be rectified, if possible, and the perpetrator judged and punished appropriately, if possible. By its nature, the rectification of justice is backward looking; an injustice occurs and then it is rectified.

Reconciliation is different. It is inherently forward looking, seeking to address how we are going to live together harmoniously in the future.

Sometimes there is a conflict between justice and reconciliation. Because both are valued so highly, there is a strong temptation to ignore this conflict or attempt to fudge it by woolly thinking. That temptation is particularly strong when the injustice in question arises not from the actions of individuals but the actions of organised groups.

My piece was directed towards certain aspects of the Northern Ireland peace agreement, but first illustrated the issues by looking at different approaches to the aftermath of the Holocaust and in South Africa after the end of apartheid.

Israel's Law of Return

Shortly after the establishment of the state, on 5 July 1950, Israel enacted the Law of Return. This has been amended on a couple of occasions. To qualify under it as it stands today, a person must fall within either (1) or (2) below:

  1. Have at least one Jewish grandparent, and must not have adopted any religion other than Judaism.(i.e. One can be a believer in Judaism, or an atheist or agnostic, but not have any other religion.)
  2. Have converted to Judaism.

The Wikipedia article "Law of Return" gives more detail and background.

The existence of the Law of Return is often used to contend that Israel is a racist state, since it applies to all Jews by descent, while not applying to other racial groups.

In my view the Law of Return is an understandable part of the history of how the state of Israel came about and its role as the ultimate sanctuary for Jews fleeing persecution. The rule about "one Jewish grandparent" reflects the Nazis' Nuremberg racial laws, which enabled discrimination against Germans for having just one German grandparent. There may come a time in the future, as the Holocaust recedes long into history, when the Law of Return is no longer necessary. At present, as explained above, for Jews Israel is about survival.


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