I’ve been troubled by your question: What do I feel about the current Gaza War? Thanks for asking my opinion on the 2014 version of the Gaza war, though it compels me to confront my feelings once more. This time I felt at a loss, though I was born and lived in Israel, served in its army, refused to serve in the Occupied Territories, and wrote quite extensively on the conflict. I have, as you said, “much experience thinking about it.”
The basic ingredients of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians are quite steady and will remain so for a long time to come. The conflict’s fundamental points are not going to disappear. Whether the current violence is defined as “an operation,” “a war,” “a massacre,” or “a slaughter;” whether the “heroes” of one are the “villains” of the other; whether they are “freedom fighters” or “brave soldiers,” we (Israelis, Palestinians and people of the world) will have to take a moral stand in order to understand the conflict. And we will have to accept these facts: Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews are fully human beings and they are in Israel and Palestine to stay.
Furthermore, the “solutions” suggested by zealots lead only into cycles of violence. “Radical” advocates of the Pro-Israel or the Pro-Palestine side deny the “mutual humanity” and palpable fact of cohabitation precisely so as to prolong the violent conflict. Guns and rockets are being fired in Gaza, but the war is being waged wherever the subject is discussed in exclusive terms that ignore the humanity and fortitude of both Israelis and Palestinians.
I was born into the conflict, lived part of my life in Israel, and still live the conflict every moment of my adult life. I will not speak as an advocate of either cause. I am an Israeli Jew, born to a family who immigrated to Israel from Morocco in 1955. My only audacity is to express a humane concern for the plight of people like myself who live in the Gaza Strip.
The “pro-Palestine” side is expressed in the most ideologically extreme version by the Hamas movement in Gaza. Hamas—also known as the Islamic Resistance movement—is a right wing, fundamentalist, religious movement. At the center of its uncompromising program is the destruction of the “Zionist and Jewish” state of Israel. This, they claim, is in accordance with an Islamic interpretation of the Palestinian people’s national aspirations.
There is no room for Israeli society or state in Hamas’s future plans for the region. It sees the situation as a zero sum game: either Hamas or Israel. It neither sees Israeli Jews as human beings nor considers their existence as an enduring social fact, but would daydream Israeli Jews out of existence. This is their ideology, though their actual politics vary with their moods or male bravado.
Binyamin Netanyahu’s government likewise pursues no peaceful solution. Indeed, all Israeli governments in the last quarter-century have manufactured the appearance of peace negotiations while actually avoiding real compromise. This can be proved by the outcomes: continued, premeditated, measured, and cruelly violent occupation, with uncompromising responses to Palestinians’ claims for national sovereignty.
Nor is there room in Israeli Jews’ right wing ideology and in Netanyahu’s current government policies for an independent Palestinian society and state. Israel’s leaders neither treat Palestinian Arabs as human beings nor consider their existence an enduring reality. They do not openly declare these ideologies, yet the violence that has continued throughout 47 years of military occupation and settlement can lead to no other conclusion.
The basic issues of the conflict actually are simple to grasp. Yet this fact runs counter to the widespread notion that the Israeli Palestinian quagmire is insurmountably difficult. This notion is usually expressed as an exasperated outburst of despair and hopelessness over the impossibility of peacefully resolving the conflict.
Essentially there are two paths to a “resolution” of the conflict. One is an unending war of extermination of either side in which one side is called “Zionists” or “the Jews” and on the other side “Palestinian Arabs” or “the Arabs.” Indeed, one possible option is genocide perpetrated by the warring sides. Voices advocating this sort of resolution were always there, but grow louder in times of war. Since Israel is the stronger party in this conflict, and can impose its own definition of the situation, the possibility of a repeated Nakba (“Day of the Catastrophe”) or even a genocide cannot be ruled out and should be acknowledged, despite protestations by Israeli apologists. And numerous Palestinian voices advocate the destruction of the state of Israel, either through eliminating its Zionist nature or eradicating it completely. Many radical Islamists advocate genocide openly. But a solution by “fire” is not a resolution.
To illustrate the hollowness of an exclusively “pro-Palestine” or “pro-Israel” stand let me address one issue that is fundamental to the conflict: the right of return of the Arab refugees of 1948. This issue can make or break any Israeli Palestinian peace talks, yet the two polarized sides, “pro-Palestine” and “pro-Israel,” are diametrically opposed. To the “pro-Israel” side, the return of Palestinian refugees means the destruction of Israel, whereas for the “pro-Palestine” side, there can be no satisfactory solution without the return of the 1948 refugees to Palestine. But I will argue that serious engagement with the refugee problem may serve as a way out of the conflict by attending to the complexities of both groups of refugees —Jewish and Palestinian.
The “pro-Palestine” rhetoric asserts that Zionism, being an example of European colonialist project in its aspiration and method, preyed on peaceful Palestinians, expelled them and expropriated their land.
If one accepts these claims, one attributes culpability to Israel and Israelis as the sole agents of Palestinians’ tragedy. This view may cater to the emotional needs of the pro-Palestinian advocates, but it does not convince most Israelis. Rather, it alienates them and solidifies their conviction that “there is nobody to talk to on the other side.” Such one-sided support of the pro-Palestinian side does not facilitate a political atmosphere conducive to peace politics. To focus on “crimes,” “culprits,” and “victims” results in political stalemate. And in truth, history has been created by both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs.
Jews and Arabs lived in pre 1948 Palestine. If we remember history accurately, we recall that the 1948 war (and the Nakba) were the results of failed political efforts—notably the UN Partition Plan for Palestine into two states (Resolution 181).
We hear such simplistic slogans as “Zionism is racism,” and “Israel is an apartheid state,” but there are facts that weaken such categorical statements—such as the fact that over 1.2 million Palestinians are living as citizens in contemporary Israel. Also, it is a fact that not all Palestinians are living under occupation; some are living in Gaza under Hamas dominance and control, and some are refugees living in other Middle Eastern countries and around the world. Palestinians have various voices and they too played a role in creating Middle Eastern history.
Furthermore, the Middle East as a whole, including its Jewish inhabitants, was transformed by the Israel War of Independence and the Palestinian’ Nakba. In quite a short period of time, Jews of Arab countries became refugees as a result of this 1948 war.
I do not intend here to advocate Zionism or to be an apologist for Israel. Rather, I want to demand a more responsible engagement with the intractable nature of the modern refugee problem as it emerged historically.
Both Hannah Arendt and Edward Said described the refugee problem as a reality created by European and world politics. Indeed, the solution of the post WWII European “Jewish problem” was forced on Palestinian Arabs and at their expense. By solving the post WWII Jewish refugee problem in Europe, Zionism (and later on, Israel) created the Palestinian refugee problem in Palestine and in the Middle East. As far as Palestinians are concerned, this is no solution. We are living through a one-sided, violent “solution” called the Israeli Palestinian conflict.
Palestinians say they cannot, and should not be charged with, solving a European-made Jewish refugee problem. This would have been a valid claim if they had accepted the UN Partition plan, which they did not. The 1948 Israeli War of Independence and the Nakba are the results of the rejection of the two-states solution offered by the United Nations 66 years ago.
To conclude this part, let me reiterate that a single-minded “pro-Palestine” conception ignores at least two important facts. First, European Jews were made into refugees by European nation-states, which created an irresolvable refugee problem and forcibly and murderously placed European Jews at its center. This was a Western-made tragedy in which two out of every three European Jews were murdered by Europeans. The Nazi “Final Solution” was, as everybody knows, no solution. However, the gravity of the Jewish refugee problem emerged only after the end of World War II, when two-thirds of European Jewry had been killed.
The second fact ignored is that 50 to 60 percent of the Jewish population of Israel is indigenous to North Africa and the Middle East. Israel’s War of Independence and the Palestinian Nakba displaced them. Rupture is an existential experience of many Jews who were native to the Middle East before the state of Israel was created. They were displaced as much as any Palestinian. In fact, the social origin of most Israeli Jews is rarely mentioned by die-hard Palestinian argumentation or the Israeli government. Indeed, the mutual silence is an interesting point of agreement between Palestinian exclusivists and Israeli Ashkenazi elite. It does not fit the single-minded ideological narrative of persecution espoused by so many neglectful and forgetful Palestinians.
One account by Palestinians portrays themselves as the victims of colonialism—an indigenous population subjugated to Jewish colonial rulers from Europe. But this is a distortion, for half or more of the Jewish population is indigenous too—having been displaced from other nearby Arab states and also subjugated, to a considerable extent, by European Jews. Palestinian Arabs, as well as European Jews in Israel, tend to ignore the persecution of such Middle Eastern and North African Jews. The consequences of such neglect are far reaching both for understanding the conflict’s history, envisioning its future and imagining its end.
Palestinians ignore this fact by ideologically stretching the concept of “the Jews.” Many Palestinian spokespersons claim that distinctions between Jews are an “internal” issue for Jews (not themselves) to address.
Historically, the exodus of Jews of Arab countries was facilitated by Arab regimes in North African and Middle Eastern countries (Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia, Yemen, Algeria and Palestine/Israel). Most of the Jews of Arab countries arrived in Israel after 1948, the year in which the state of Israel was created and the Nakba was perpetrated. It was not Nazi Germany but Arab leaders (like the Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al Said, Imam Yahya and his son Ahmad bin Yahya of Yemen, King Farouk and the Young Egyptian Republic and Morocco’s king, Mohammad V) who expelled Jews from their Arab homes to Israel.
The Zionist project was assisted by no other than Arab leaders forcing their Jews into refugee status, where they were absorbed by Israel. Nevertheless, they were Jewish refugees from Arab countries. Their assets were confiscated; their homes seized; their civil rights abrogated; and their human rights trampled by Arab leaders for “national” reasons. Comprehending these events is necessary for an accurate understanding of the Israeli Palestinian dynamics. This is true, not only because Jews from Arab countries comprise half of the Jewish population of Israel, but also because such an approach transcends the “either/or” exclusivist approach constituting war politics.
The Israeli fate of Jews from Arab countries was shaped by Israeli needs and priorities. The European Jews—_Ashkenazim__—established a social hierarchy that was shaped by demography, economic necessities and military requirements— according to Ashkenazi perceptions. At the centre of the Ashkenazi social order is the Israeli Palestinian conflict.
Constant conflict created an Israeli war culture adapted to the internal power distribution of the Israeli Jewish population. Jews hailing from Arab lands and countries were transformed into “hewers of wood and drawers water” or in short—into Mizrachim (people of the Orient). In the society that emerged Ashkenazim lead and guide while Mizrachim are led and controlled. Jewish immigration from Arab countries brought them to working class positions and second-class citizenship. Mizrachim were required to sacrifice their history, culture and future for the sake of a state and society that relegated them to its margin. Moreover, they found themselves confronted economically and culturally with Palestinian Arabs. Confrontation led to competition in the labor market as well as in the status and cultural markets. Jews of Arabic culture were too closely associated with their Arabized identity and culture. This fact was best forgotten or buried, for they sought to integrate into Israeli Ashkenazi society.
Acrimonious relations between Palestinians and Mizrachim were framed within a wartime social structure, controlled by a war-oriented political elite, and conditioned within a war-culture. Palestinians and Mizrachim found themselves as opponents, occupying the bottom of the Israeli power structure. My claim is that disregarding these histories constitutes tremendous political shortsightedness.
Here are some of the reasons for that shortsightedness. In Israel, the pursuit of “security” is presented as external politics whereas the pursuit of “social issues” is presented as “internal” politics. Moreover, external “security” demands were deemed as fundamental and therefore received priority over “internal” social issues. Security demands and militarism are privileged over “social” needs, which are marginalized. Clearly, these policies have adversely affected the Jews who were the “hewers of wood and drawers of water”—_Mizrachi_ Arab Jews.
Working class Jews are residentially segregated, economically marginalized, poorly educated, politically disenfranchised, and often religious and intolerant of others. They tend to vote for right wing parties, having been taught to vote against their interests. Hence, Mizrachim tend to be the less compromising toward Israeli Palestinian Arabs and Palestinians under occupation. Jews of Arab countries—transformed into Mizrachim_—were positioned in diametrically opposed stands to Palestinian Arabs despite their status, residential and cultural proximities. _Mizrachim and Palestinian Arabs are “objectively” positioned as enemies, though both groups suffer from the unjust structure of resource allocation, and human rights.
These social conditions, sociological and political consequences are obvious in Israel and are known to Palestinian leaders. Nevertheless, many Palestinians consider these matters as irrelevant to their position vis-à-vis Israeli Jewish society. These are “internal” Jewish matters, they say. Mizrachim reciprocate the disregard. Palestinian shortsightedness refuses to connect “external security issues” and “internal social problems” in their strategies, just as they refuse to connect “external” and “internal” Jewish affairs. It is one more example of “either/or” logic constituting war politics foundations.
To counter this one-sidedness one must declare that being Pro-Palestine means being pro-Israeli and vice versa. But such humane sophistication is glaringly missing in the current relations between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs.
Now I’ll turn to the 2014 version of the Gaza war. At the outset, two crucial political and sociological aspects need to be acknowledged. In the political aspect I should address the immediate as well as medium range reasons for the war. The Israeli government opened its aerial bombardment of the Gaza strip arguing that it is a retaliation to Hamas for launching rockets into Israel and murdering three young boys in the West Bank. It claimed that the murder was committed by Hamas operatives. Prior to the recent hostilities rocket launching had been in decline. Moreover, the murderers’ identity had not then been established as a fact.
As to the medium range reasons, it seems that the Israeli government has done everything possible to destroy the alliance that emerged between the Palestinian Authority and the Hamas movement. Not only was there a relative lull in rocket launching before July 2014 but Hamas had lost most of its external support when the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt lost power. This development was combined with the weakening of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria and the withdrawal of the Iranian regime’s heavy support. Its power and support being in a nadir, Hamas was seeking alliances with the Palestinian authority as a way back into Palestinian politics.
However, Netanyahu’s right wing government saw Palestinian unity as a threat, not an opportunity. A Palestinian unity government could have forced a return to serious peace talks. It could have demanded a long lasting agreement that could have forced Israel to make up its mind about the occupation. Meaningful peace talks on Gaza and the West Bank could have led to a historical compromise and a way to the two nation-states solution (the option accepted today by the Palestinian Authority). But the Gaza hostilities made this necessary compromise superfluous.
The Gaza war has been fought on the backs of the peoples it claims to defend. This is true for both the Israeli government and the Hamas militants. These sides present their effort as a “national security” or “liberation” projects, respectively. The revolution devours the people it intends to emancipate. It is not worth the effort for Hamas. As far as Israeli society is concerned, neither in times of war nor in times of peace has any Israeli government acted to minimize the class injustice and social alienation that so many Israeli Jews (mainly lower and working class Mizrachim) experience in their everyday lives.
The nationalistic narrative of both sides is an ideology of self-righteousness. It neither has the nation’s good, nor the people’s wellbeing as a goal. Both political elites are self-serving and use nationalistic language as a shield to disguise their moral bankruptcies. Hamas and the current Israeli government represent strategic failures in addressing the needs of their respective peoples.
What has every side in this conflict known all along? Hamas knew that Israel has a well-equipped and sophisticated army that is overwhelmingly more powerful than their own. The Israeli defence forces, its intelligence branches and the Israeli government knew very well that Hamas uses Palestinians as human shields to achieve its own political purposes. Hamas leadership knows that using Palestinians as human shield and attacking Israeli non-combatant citizens by firing rockets into Israel cities would force Israel to react with its overwhelming military might. They were obviously aware that innocent people will die. The Israeli government knows that too. Despite this common knowledge on both sides, Hamas fires rockets from within its defenseless population and Israel retaliates and activates its military might; it inflicts huge destruction and human disasters. Each side knows the other side’s motives, yet they proceed as if heedless. Clearly, their goals are different from their declared aims.
Why do they do that? Hamas is trying to take over the leadership of the Palestinian people, destroy the state of Israel and establish an Islamic republic in Palestine. The Israeli government is avoiding being forced to choose between two options. Instead of making a historical compromise over the fundamental issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it continues in existing situation: managing low intensity warfare and increasing the settlements in the Occupied Territories, in effect annexing the territories to create a larger Israel.
What did the Gaza War version 2014 achieve? It solidifies the latent logic of both sides. Right wing Israel wins the “continuation of the existing situation” and de facto annexation. Hamas gets to present itself as the champion of the Palestinian liberation who stands up to Israeli might without surrender. In this way, Hamas deepens its control and enlarges its political influence among the Palestinian people. Israeli citizens and Palestinian residents are paying the price for romantic violence that prizes tragedy and suffering as social virtue.
However, much more is achieved. Palestinian poverty and dependence is deepening. Helplessness is inculcated; hope is uprooted. The future is sterilized; fathers and mothers are either dead or become bereaved. Children become orphans, poor and uneducated. Palestinians remain homeless and stateless. The world closes on them. Economic opportunities vanish, life with mundane expectation of childhood, adulthood, work, career and family die out. No end is in sight.
On the political level, the Palestinian Authority is degraded. Its leaders are presented as people who cannot deliver the national aspiration; a bleak present justifies the terrible past and promises a despairing future. Conservatism and reaction are glorified and are presented as the only existing option.
In Israel, the government’s right wing policies are entrenched and strengthened; these policies are becoming the only relevant options. Occupation of the Palestinians becomes a necessity of life. War becomes “our fate” or “our destiny” or “we are destined to live on and by our sword.” But there are people whose social position is solidified. The “security” caste is becoming indispensable; military men become Israel’s spokesmen. No social policies are advanced. Class disparities increase between the Ashkenazi elite and the workers.
War, after all, is also a business. Misery is transformed from a human-made condition into a fate-determined reality. Hope is killed; future prospects are murdered. Now we can go back to preparation for the next Gaza War—the 2016 version of the Gaza War. The only rule is either “we” or “they.” Apparently, peace culture is too much for us. This is what I feel about the Gaza War of 2014.
A peace slogan in Israel today reads:
“There is no peace without security, there is no security without just and equal peace, there is no security that does not secure both peoples.”
Meir Amor is a sociology professor at Concordia University.