Smoke rises after Israeli airstrikes in eastern Rafah, Gaza on May 07, 2024. Picture Credit: Abed Rahim Khatib/Anadolu via Getty Images

Neither “side” can offer peace to the holy land

The logic of partisanship turns lethal when it comes to Gaza

Artillery Row

On Sunday, Israel bombed the city of Rafah, where thousands of refugees had fled to what had been promised to be a “safe zone”. It was a sharp reminder of the ongoing cost of the conflict, but, inevitably, it will only heighten the inwards-looking partisanship that grips the Western debate on this issue.

As bombs continue to rain down on Gaza, our commentariat is focused on what’s really important — student protestors. In all fairness, the views of younger generations, especially at elite universities, are newsworthy, given they will one day be running the show. But it’s hard to avoid the feeling that it’s a great deal more comfortable territory than the conflict itself, with all its complexity and intractability. The horrific acceleration of discourse created by social media meant that even as the horrors of October 7th were still unfolding, the partisan screaming had already begun. There was no time, no pause, no rethinking on either side in the wake of this atrocity.

Both narratives, in their most intransigent form, are subtly genocidal

Both “sides” have powerful arguments. On the one hand the thousands of dead civilians slaughtered by Israeli bombs speak for themselves, as do decades of Palestinian statelessness. The simple injustice of daily life in bombed out Gaza and the occupied West Bank is glaringly obvious once sophistry and whataboutism are set aside.

Yet Israel’s situation is just as dire and embattled as her supporters claim — the unrelenting hostility of neighbouring states has been revealed across multiple wars over the decades, and there is little sign they are open to pursuing any solution to the conflict that would leave Israel intact. Hamas is an incredibly extreme organisation, as October 7th revealed, that cannot be allowed to govern Gaza under any circumstances. The PLO is only “moderate” in comparison — and has a long history of genocidal rhetoric and aims. Who, exactly, are the Israelis supposed to be negotiating with? Would an independent Palestine forswear violence and revanchist aims against Israel?

The problem with these two narratives is that they offer no hope of resolution. They are both intentionally vague about what, exactly, is supposed to happen in the long term. Supporters of Israel demand that Palestinians moderate before anyone could consider a two state solution — but it is Palestinian statelessness that is driving Palestinian extremism. Supporters of Palestine say that Israel must cease its occupation and military campaign, but have little to say about the fate of hostages, the launching of missiles against Israeli civilians, or the removal of Hamas.

Both narratives, in their most intransigent form, are subtly genocidal. If, as supporters of Israel say, Palestinians are simply unreasonable, unnegotiable with, terrorist supporters, then what is to be done with them? At best perpetual occupation and siege, at worst displacement and ethnic cleansing. The pro-Palestine perspective is no better — if Israel, despite its 76 year existence, is not a “legitimate” state, if it is, in fact a Western “colony”, then what does that say about its Jewish inhabitants? Are they, like the pieds-noirs, to be evacuated to their homeland? But Israel is the only Jewish state in the world. And we now know exactly what Hamas would do with Israeli civilians.

It is unsurprising that those directly involved in the conflict have intractable viewpoints, hardened by the experience of violence and the failure of diplomacy. But what is truly catastrophic is the way that those outside the struggle have taken on these partisan perspectives. If those with the power to mediate instead choose to pick sides, there will be nothing left other than perpetual war — or the “peace” of the graveyard.

Israelis and Palestinians will have to find a way to live with each other

Calls to force Israel to moderate its policy by threatening to withdraw economic and military support are not necessarily wrong, but there must be an alternative path offered, and most crucially, a distinction has to be made between Israel’s illegitimate means in Gaza (the intentional bombing of civilians) and its entirely legitimate ends (the elimination of Hamas).

If the West entirely conceded to the demands of activists and unilaterally withdrew all support with Israel, the result would not be peace, but war. Perhaps the only reason Israel has not invaded Gaza until now, or got into a shooting war with Lebanon or Iran, is the effectiveness of its “Iron Dome” missile defence system, which is heavily subsidised by the US. Only extraordinary regional cooperation, which involved Britain, America and Jordan, as well as the Iron Dome system, prevented a recent Iranian missile and drone attack from escalating into a more serious exchange. A less militarily secure and sophisticated Israel would be engaged in considerably more bloody and widespread fights (with many more civilians dead in the process), and Arab neighbours would have little incentive to negotiate with it.

America’s essentially unconditional support of Israel is, however, scarcely more helpful in the long term, as occupation, isolation and statelessness is precisely the context that has fueled the extremism behind attacks like October 7th.

Both “sides” in this debate need a hefty dose of realism and idealism in equal measure. On the one hand it is profoundly wrong to discard the humanity and legitimate grievances of your opponent, and to think only of your own side’s interests. But, in a context where neither side can simply eliminate the other, it is also profoundly stupid.

Both Israelis and Palestinians will have to find a way to live with each other. Supporters of Palestine will have to start taking Israeli security seriously, condemn attacks on civilians by both sides, and jettison its worst extremists. In the same way, those who advocate for Israel must attend just as seriously to the task of justice for Palestinians. They must stop complaining, as a democratic and militarily powerful state, at being held to a higher standard than a terrorist group. And still more, they must stop complaining that their opponents are unreasonable — if they want a more moderate Palestine, they must start helping to build one.

Defining a resolution to this conflict that takes account of both sides is not the same as defining the means to get there — but we can’t even begin to do the latter until we know where we want to end up.

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