Some Comments on the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict
Editor’s Note: The following comments by Professor Yehuda Bauer were initially posted on the Listserv of IAGS several days ago. Professor Bauer was contributing to debates among IAGS members in regard to the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict. We thank Professor Bauer for allowing IAGS Blog Editors to post his reflections as the first Blog entry on the official Blog of the IAGS. We hope that other IAGS members will share their knowledge with our audiences across the globe. We particularly encourage Emerging Scholars of IAGS to actively use this platform to share with the world their insights about the prevention of genocide and mass violence.
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Some Comments on the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict
Please excuse this long paper. I may want to use it for other purposes, not only for my very esteemed and learned colleagues of the IAGS.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is basically a fight between two national movements over a small piece of real estate. There was no Palestinian people or nationality before the early 20th century – the first mention of “Falastin” was in a publication in Haifa in 1912. Before that, the area, in Arab eyes, was Southern Syria (Sooriyah djanoubiyah), Jerusalem was a small provincial town with a lot of history, and the majority of its inhabitants were Jews, but Jews were a small percentage of the population throughout what became Palestine. Palestinians are a nation, a people, because that is what they want to be and how they define themselves. They certainly have the right to national self-determination, on the territory they inhabit. Interestingly, they are in large part descendants of Jews who converted to Islam, either voluntarily or by force (see relevant DNA findings), though there has also been a distinct Jewish presence there since Roman times. Jews outside of Palestine are in part descendants of converts to Judaism who accepted not only the religion but also the ethnicity that came along with it. As Judaism, just like the other monotheistic religions, is basically patriarchal and misogynic, only males were considered, and converts were called ‘Abraham the son of Abraham’, indicating their acceptance of an ethnic tradition with which their ancestors had had no contact. The same applies to the Palestinians. A rather large core of Jews did come from Palestine, as – again – DNA probes clearly show. In fact, DNA probes have shown that Ramallah Palestinians’ closest relatives are Polish Jews. All this is in order to show that both ethnicities/nationalities have a legitimate claim to that small country.
Modern Israel is not, repeat not, the result of the Holocaust. The Holocaust nearly destroyed the chance of establishing a Jewish State because it killed off the vast majority of those who wanted to get to Palestine. The remnant, some 350.000 Jewish survivors in DP camps in Germany, Austria, and Italy, put immense pressure on the US and the UK to find a solution, and by that time most of them wanted to go only to Palestine. Had there been more survivors, i.e. less Holocaust, the pressure would have been greater. Had there been less survivors, i.e. more Holocaust, the chances of establishing Israel would have vanished. The UN resolution of November 29, 1947, did not establish a Jewish State, but provided an opportunity to do so. The Israeli War of Independence, a.k.a. Palestinian ‘Nakbah’ (=catastrophe) was the result of the refusal of the nationalistic Palestinian leadership (which had cooperated with the Nazis) to establish an Arab State of Palestine alongside a Jewish one. By March, 1948, the Jews were in trouble and it looked as though they would be defeated, because they were inferior in both numbers and military hardware to the Palestinian Arabs and the non-Palestinians who were getting involved. The Jews did not win the war because of immigration from Europe, which came, very largely, after the declaration of independence on May 14, 1948, but because of the fight put up by Palestinian Jews on the one hand, and small, but essential help from communist Czechoslovakia on the other hand. The Arabs were led in part by local leaders, basically the Husseini clan (whose leader, Amin el-Husseini, had returned from Nazi Germany, and lived in Egypt), and by Syrian and Iraqi military men (e.g. Fawzi el-Kawukji); later, the invasion of other Arab States and their defeat resulted in ‘temporary’ armistice borders, now known as the 1967 line. Arab Palestine was occupied by Jordan, under British influence, and by Egypt - Gaza (then also under British influence). However, if you want to understand the current politics of Palestinian nationalism, you have to remember that much of the West Bank is still a largely agricultural society in which clans and descendants of feudal lords predominate. The opposition to the Husseinis and their allies were and to a degree still are the feudal families of the Nashashibis, the Nusseibahs, the Dajanis, and so on, people who were traditionally moderate, extremely well educated, and basically anti-radical. Palestinian society was always very religiously Moslem, though with a large Christian minority, most of whom have left Palestine in the last decades. Modern Palestinian nationalism is a fusion of this traditional society (Arafat was a Husseini) with radical Islamic concepts on the one hand, and with modern national ideas emerging from a radicalized middle class on the other hand.
The problem of the Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war has its basis in four different ways the Palestinian population reacted to the war. A part of that population was driven away by Israeli forces; another part – the largest – fled, just like most civilians flee when war approaches them, hoping to return (which often does not happen); another part was asked by the Jews to stay, but refused (Tiberias, Haifa, Jaffa); and part of them stayed, and became the origin of the present Arab/Palestinian minority in Israel. There were no mass massacres on either side: in Dir Yassin Palestinians were murdered by dissident Jewish military groups, and the total number of victims were somewhere between 107 (a Palestinian estimate) and 250 (a Jewish estimate). There were no other similar massacres. 47 Jewish doctors and nurses were massacred in a convoy in Jerusalem by Arab groups, and a similar number of civilians south of Jerusalem. Both sides aimed at ethnic cleansing of the other, and the Jews won (wherever Arabs had the upper hand, Jews were ethnically cleansed: Jerusalem Old City, Etzion Bloc, etc.). It was ethnic cleansing, bad enough, but not genocide. In the comments by some IAGS members there is the demand that the 1948 refugees – actually, their descendants - be allowed to return to the area of present-day Israel. This is so especially since in the Lebanon and in Syria, but also on the West Bank and even in Jordan, they were and are being kept apart from the locals. In the Lebanon and in Syria they were denied full citizenship – for well over sixty years – by their fellow Arabs/Moslems. The ‘right of return’ means the dismantlement of Israel, something that would be opposed by the six million Israeli Jews, and would result in uncontrollable violence. Whoever proposes a return of the refugees, in fact proposes a genocidal/politicidal solution. It is hard to understand why people claiming to be genocide scholars should propose a genocide. Mahmoud Abbas suggested some kind of compromise. Some genocide scholars are not satisfied with that. Also, no one seems to realize that well over half a million Jews were forced to abandon their homes in Arab countries, and were absorbed in Israel, and few genocide scholars argue that they should get a recompense for the property they lost. Only few genocide scholars will argue for some sort of recompense to Greek, Armenian and Assyrian refugees whose parents and grandparents were evicted or fled from Turkey after WWI. The conclusion is that these problems cannot be solved by force, but (hopefully) by compromise.
Jewish nationalism, to return to the major issue, is a product of an ancient ethnic consciousness that developed into a modern movement as a reaction to the rise of European nationalism in the 19th century. This stands in contradiction to the theories developed by Benedict Anderson (and Karl Marx before him), that sees modern nationalism as a product of modern capitalism, largely in the 19th century. This is, in my humble view, a Eurocentric and historically mistaken interpretation: collective ethnic/national consciousness can be shown to have developed in many places from so-called ancient times until modernity. Jewish nationalism, based on a well-developed ethno-religious culture since antiquity, had a number of variants, not only Zionism, but the Zionist movement won out. Zionism argues that the Jews are a people/ethnicity/nationality seeking political self-determination in Palestine/Israel; in the past it has argued for a Jewish political unit/State with a solid Jewish majority and equal rights for a non-Jewish minority. Clearly, the present Israeli government which seeks direct or indirect dominance over the whole area of Israel/Palestine in which Jews and Arabs are present in roughly similar numbers (and where, in Israel, minority rights are recognized only purely formally) is, paradoxically, radically anti-Zionist, because it wants a situation in which Jews will not be in anything like a solid majority. In fact, again paradoxically, the Netanyahu/Lieberman clique has given up on a Jewish State. It really does not matter whether the Jews constitute 55% or 45% of the population between the Mediterranean and the Jordan – the Zionist aspirations have been left behind. A Zionist solution, from a Jewish perspective, would demand an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, with appropriate territorial swaps. As far as Gaza is concerned, such an approach would demand a removal of the remnants of the blockade, and a willingness to negotiate a long-term armistice. This would run up against the Hamas aim to destroy the Jewish State and expel/exterminate its Jewish inhabitants, something one can hear almost daily in sermons and statements coming out of Gaza. Ideally, Israel should say – alright, you want to annihilate us, but you cannot do that. Your clearly genocidal and antisemitic stance is your problem, not ours. We will treat the Gaza/Israel border just as any state deals with its borders – we have the right to accept or reject any persons who want to enter into our territory, but we don’t object to normal trade. If you attack us, we will do what any state will do: we will respond by force. If you don’t attack us, we will adopt a live-and-let-live policy. At the moment, the right-wing nationalist leadership in Israel, supported by a majority of people because of fear of the neighbors will not adopt such a policy. Paradoxically, a large majority of Israeli Jews support both the nationalist-oppressive rule over the West Bank and, at the same time, favors a compromise. Paradoxically again, a very similar majority of Palestinians support both a compromise, and a struggle against the Jews, hoping to get rid of them.
Direct negotiations between the two sides cannot possibly succeed, because any compromise will inevitably be rejected by radicals on both sides. Or, to put it differently: the maximal offer of one side will not satisfy the minimum conditions of the other side. And yet, the solution is obvious: the borders of 1967 (actually, of 1948/9), territorial swaps, no right of return, a partly demilitarized Palestinian State, re-division of Jerusalem, Moslem/Arab control of the Temple Mount with free access for all, free Palestinian access to and from Gaza, and a major international loan to finance settlement of Palestinian refugees; free trade and a customs union between the two States. Jewish settlers to be able to choose Palestinian citizenship; the Arab/Palestinian minority in Israel to have cultural/ethnic autonomy within a Jewish State with a Jewish majority. This solution is not achievable today, as just stated, also because Israeli settlements, which are clearly illegal by international law, are intended by the right-wing government to prevent the creation of a Palestinian State.
None of the five veto Powers is interested in the perpetuation of the conflict. The surrounding states are undergoing radical Islamization, and Islamism is very radically antisemitic, not just anti-Israeli (Morsi declared in 2010 that there is no place for any negotiations with the descendants of apes and pigs – as Jews are defined in the Hadith and even, three times, in the Qur’an). I am therefore not a pacifist, and believe Israel must be able to defend itself. That does not mean that it should attack anyone, whether Iran or anyone else. That also means that if rockets are fired by Hamas, Jihad and El Qaida from Gaza, Israel has the duty to protect the million or so of its citizens who are targets by force of arms. It also means that Israel should totally end the blockade on Gaza, and be willing to negotiate a long-term truce, as a temporary arrangement. As an historian I know that there is nothing more permanent than temporary arrangements. If Hamas rejects that – well, that is their problem. They, and mainly the population they control by dictatorial means (despite the recent permission for Fatah to come out into the open), are paying for that refusal based on a genocidal ideology. Israel should not only support a Palestinian State, but also a rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas, so that there will be someone representing all Palestinian factions, if any negotiations will take place.
Is there a hope? Because of the interest of all major powers to end the conflict, a pragmatic alliance between the US, the EU, and Russia, to force the two sides into negotiations is possible, though difficult to achieve. Such an alliance would not dictate the solution, which in its outline is obvious in any case, but would force the two sides into serious negotiations, in the presence of representatives of the three Powers. This can very easily be achieved by economic pressure: the Palestinian Authority’s bureaucracy is paid by European money; it would be quite enough to indicate to Ramallah that there are problems with liquidity of such funds, to get them to sit down seriously. The Pentagon could for instance, find that there are technical problems in supplying the Israeli Air Force with spare parts, which would result in the IAF becoming an interesting collection of old metal within about six to eight months. But if the Israeli government sits down to negotiate seriously, then the spare parts would resume getting to the IAF.
Is this mere moonshine? I don’t think so. This in fact is what Shlomo Ben-Ami, foreign minister in the last Labor Government, proposed. Of course, the US government has to listen, mainly to the fundamentalist evangelical Right in America; less so, by the way, to AIPAC, because everyone now knows that most American Jews vote their pockets, like everyone else, and Israel is just one, and not the main, worry, for American Jews. But if that is overcome, an alliance with Britain, France, and Germany, all of whom are fed up with both Netanyahu and the Hamas, is possible. The Russians, being now defeated in Syria, may possibly be willing allies.
The IAGS discussion I am reading in e-mails is, frankly, not very enlightening. There is considerably more heat than light there. And, Israel/Palestine is a conflict, not a genocidal situation. Conflicts can escalate into genocides, true; I don’t think that is a real danger here, not because the two sides would be averse to killing off their ‘enemies’, but because it is practically out of the question. Instead of arguing, it might be useful for academics to exercise whatever influence they have in their countries to rescue both Jews and Arabs from further suffering by influencing their governments to help establish an international alliance to end the conflict.