To quote Wikipedia, ‘tragedy’ is “a genre of drama based on human suffering and, mainly, the terrible or sorrowful events that befall a main character”.
The conflict between Israel on one side and the Palestinians and the Arab-Muslim world is of course no theatre play. And there is more than just one “main character”. It is a global conflict, now almost a hundred years old, involving large parts of the Middle East, Europe, Russia and America. The Israeli citizens killed or abducted by Hamas and the Palestinian civilians in the Gaza strip falling victim to Israel’s army’s revenge attacks are only the most recent victims of a seemingly endless ‘tragedy’.
The Failed ‘Peace Process’
Having myself repeatedly visited Israel and the occupied territories and having lectured at Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem and Bir Zeit universities between 1981 and 2003, I must confess that I returned home every time more and more disillusioned. A small ‘window of opportunity’ had opened up in 1990, when the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and PLO leader Yasser Arafat met at Camp David to promote the ‘Oslo peace process’ and finally reach a ‘two-state-solution’, dividing ‘Palestine’ between Israelis and Palestinians. The failed negotiations, however, led to the second ‘Intifada’ (Palestinian uprising), Barak’s resignation and the rise to power of Ariel Sharon. Perhaps the last chance for a peaceful settlement was lost, when Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin had been murdered by an Israeli right-wing religious fanatic student on 4 November 1995. Thereafter Benjamin Netanyahu from the Likud Party has dominated Israeli politics, supporting the building of more settlements in the occupied territories and thus further diminishing any chance for a settlement.
The ‘peace process’ has always focused on a ‘two state solution’ – dividing the territory of ‘Palestine’ between Israelis and Palestinians. However, the status of Jerusalem – a ‘holy place’ for Jews, Muslims and Christians – could never be agreed upon. Also, since Israel’s continued occupation of the ‘West Bank’ from 1967, Israeli settlers have taken over more and more land.
The Actors in the Conflict
What makes this conflict so difficult is the fact that the actors cannot be clearly defined.
Today Israel comprises a little more than 9 million inhabitants. Almost 7 million are Jews and approximately 2 million Arabs (including Palestinians). There are almost 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank and 2 million in Gaza. Palestinians live as residents or refugees in Middle Eastern countries as well as the Americas and Europe. Many Palestinians support Hamas which denies Israel’s right of existence. Others have tolerated the existence of Israel.
The ‘Arab-Muslim world’ is also clearly divided concerning their relations with the Jewish state. Some of them – Egypt and Jordan – are now living in peace with their immediate neighbour, while Iraq and particularly Iran continue to be extremely hostile.
Israelis and the Jews living in other countries are not unified either. For example, the Jewish population in the United States, has always supported Israel. At the same time, many of them have strongly engaged in bringing Israelis and Palestinians together in a peaceful settlement, while criticizing Netanyahu’s governments and radical Palestinian activities. I have vivid personal memories of those Jewish groups from my stays in New York City and California.
When we look back in history, we have to recognize that not all Jews were or are Zionists. To give just one example: The father of the famous violinist Yehudi Menuhin, Moshe Menuhin, was born in Gomel in what is now Belarus, emigrated to Palestine but then left for the United States, arguing that the idea of an exclusive Jewish state in Palestine was not compatible with the rights of the indigenous population. His son, Yehudi, carried this argument further. For this he faced severe criticism when visiting Israel.
Another facet of this tragedy concerns Europe. It was the journalist Theodor Herzl from Vienna who wrote his pamphlet ‘Der Judenstaat’ (1895), which proposed a Jewish State in Palestine (or even in Argentina!). This was after having witnessed the fierce antisemitism when reporting on the ‘Dreyfuss affair’ in Paris. The Jewish emancipation during the 19th century, after centuries of suppression in various European ‘Christian’ states, resulted in an increased antisemitism, fanned by writers like Arthur de Gobineau, Houston Chamberlain, and Richard Wagner. Finally, after the ‘Holocaust’ (the genocide of European Jews) by Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler, many Jewish survivors decided that only a state for the Jews could protect them. The UN Partition Plan for Palestine in 1947 laid the foundation for the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.
The Problem of Statehood in ‘Palestine’
The idea of statehood, however, was rather alien to the Arab world in general and Palestine in particular. For centuries ruled by the Ottoman empire, the Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities in Jerusalem and other parts of the ‘Holy Land’ coexisted rather peacefully. The sad truth is that the aims of Zionism and the traditions and mentalities of the Palestinian Arabs could never be reconciled.
A lot has changed since the early Jewish settlements and the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. The European model of statehood, introduced by the British and French after World War I, is now an established fact of life. However, the – rather artificial – borders drawn by these European colonial powers in the Middle East have divided tribes and religious communities, thereby creating new sources of conflict. Examples are the two Gulf Wars between Iraq and Iran.
The question remains whether a Palestinian State is still a viable option. The territory between the Mediterranean coast and the Jordan ‘river’ (today hardly carrying any water) is rather tiny. As already explained, the will to find a territorial compromise has very much diminished. And how could a ‘peaceful co-existence’ be achieved between the two peoples – after decades of conflict, with continual bloodshed, humiliation and expulsion?
In my opinion, the idea of an ‘exclusive statehood’ will only serve to perpetuate this conflict endlessly. Today most European states are increasingly confronted with immigration, leading to different religious-ethnic minorities within their borders. This undoubtedly will further change their identities as ‘homogenous nation states’ – which, in reality, they never have been in history. Perhaps, this could also change the Israeli-Palestinian conflict one day. Until then, sad to say, we will continue to witness the tragedies of new rounds of conflict and bloodshed.
Postscript 25 October 2023:
Every reader of my article should watch and think about the truly impressive interview with the Israeli columnist of ‘Haaretz’, Gideon Levy, in India Today Video Desk (updated 19 October 2023):
“This crazy bloodbath must end”.
Levy argues that Hamas should be punished for its atrocious attack, but not at the price of killing thousands of innocent civilians in the Gaza strip, which for 17 years has been a “cage, built by Israel”. He also states that because of more than 700,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank, the ‘Two-State-Solution’ is no longer feasible. Instead, he says that in the long run there should be “one vote for each person living in the area between the Mediterranean coast and the Jordan River” – which is the concept of a binational state. This was Moshe Menuhin’s argument from almost one hundred years ago, which I referred to in my article!
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