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Jul 17 2006

Israel and the Palestinians

If there is one thing that lies close to the heart of the problems in the Middle East, it is the issue of Israel and the Palestinians. The status of the Palestinians has been a scandal for over a half-century, and resentment over their situation has created the breeding ground for the unrest that regularly and periodically spills over into outright violence. The current invasion by Israel into Gaza and Lebanon is just the latest direct manifestation of the consequences of leaving this long-standing problem unresolved, though the Iraq war and the attacks of 9/11 can also be seen as other less direct ones. After all, bin Laden and al Qaeda stated explicitly that one of the reasons for their actions was because they were opposed to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and America’s support for those policies.

Even since the state of Israel came into being, the Palestinians have been dispossessed of their land and homes and left stateless, many of their people shunted to refugee camps and denied any meaningful form of self-governance.

The fact that the world has allowed the wretched plight of the Palestinian people to continue for so long is unconscionable. There has to be a permanent and just solution to the problem of the statelessness of the Palestinian people. The lack of such a solution has resulted in spiral of violence and counter-violence that cannot be stopped by merely looking at the immediate causes of the current crisis.

In order to achieve such a long-range solution, it will help if we stop thinking so reflexively in terms of ethnicity and religion and nationality, as if these purely human constructs have any deep meaning.

I have long felt that dividing people and nations along the lines of ethnicity or religion is absurd, a relic of ancient tribal histories that should have long ago been rejected by modern people. My own personal philosophy and sense of identity is captured exactly by the philosopher Tom Paine, when he wrote in his Rights of Man: “My country is the world and my religion is to do good.” Or if we want more modern examples of famous people who were able to overcome parochial thinking, we have people like Albert Einstein who felt that he was a citizen of the world, and for whom allegiance to the fundamental principles of shared humanity were more important than sectarian thinking.

There is no biological basis for distinguishing between ‘races,’ and myths abound in the stories, such as those in the Bible, of people’s ancient origins, making them of little value as historical records. People’s religion, ethnicity, and nationality are almost entirely predictable based on the purely accidental factors associated with their birth. By virtue of being born and growing up in a particular community, people identify with and acquire the characteristics of that group, and there is no deeper significance to that affiliation, although people may like to think that there is.

This situation is not unlike the fact that most people born in the Cleveland area are fans of the city’s football team, the Browns, and the people who grow up in Pittsburgh are Steelers fans. To be ‘proud’ of belonging to a particular ethnicity or nationality or religion makes as much rational sense as being proud of being a Browns fan and to link one’s self-image with the rise and fall of that team’s fortunes. To go to war based on those identities is as ridiculous as the city of Cleveland going to war against the city of Pittsburgh because some of their fans taunted and beat up on some of our fans.

The only positive advantage to labeling people according to their ethnicity, religion, and nationality is as a tool for research, for statistical, demographic, and sociological purposes. But unfortunately ethnicity and religion and nationality have always been useful to those who seek and benefit from war, using those labels as a means of fomenting conflict between peoples who would otherwise have no real quarrel with one another. After all, let us not forget that war has been a source of enrichment and power and control for political leaders from time immemorial. Some people see a real benefit in keeping people fearful and tense and paranoid about others, and religious and ethnic and nationality differences have always been convenient for getting people to be suspicious of one another.

I tend to favor secular states and oppose identifying countries according to ethnicity and religion. This is also why I feel that there is no intrinsic reason why the people of Israel and the Palestinians could not have shared the same geographical region that is now labeled as Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. Or, for that matter, why the Sinhala and Tamil people in Sri Lanka could not continue to share one state.

But the realist in me sadly recognizes that thanks to religious and ethnic partisans who have been successful in pushing their divisive views and building hatred between groups by appealing to their tribal allegiances, that dream of peaceful coexistence, of people simply living their lives together according to common secular and human interests and principles maybe dead, and we may have no alternative, at least in the short run, but to go to two-state solutions based on ethnicity. (The situation in Sri Lanka is not yet as dire as in the Middle East but the way it is heading, that country too may have to result in partition.)

What we need are solutions that are just and equitable and provide long-term peace and security, so that the bitter past can fade into obscurity. In the case of the Middle East, the basis for a negotiated two-state solution has always been clear. It requires that Israel withdraw completely from the West Bank and Gaza (the areas occupied in the 1967 war) and a Palestinian state established there, with international pressure and monitoring and security guarantees to ensure that the two states leave each other alone and in peace until decades have passed and the bitter enmity that has been allowed to be generated dissipates. The optimist in me even hopes that after a long period of time, the two states may even form economic and political alliances, the way that the countries of Europe have overcome warring pasts and come together to form the European Union.

It also means that we have to get beyond the proximate causes of the immediate conflict, and shelve questions of who is responding to whose actions, and who is provoked and who is doing the provoking. The conflict has gone on for so long that looking for prime causes is futile. Each side can provide an antecedent cause to justify any action.

What we can be absolutely sure of is that the ultimate losers in this conflict, as in any conflict, are ordinary people, men, women, children, old and young, people who are just trying to live their lives. They are the ones who will pay the highest price. The bombardment by Israel of Lebanon and Gaza has already resulted in hundreds of deaths and displacements of civilians. The rockets being hurled by Hezbollah forces into Israeli cities are killing Israeli civilians. And it is going to get worse, since modern warfare has the creation of civilian terror as a key objective, and access to ever more powerful weaponry is getting easier. This is so obvious and drearily predictable that it amazes me that people still support war.

Why has the Palestinian statelessness issue been allowed to continue to fester for so long? Why is it that their legitimate right to a state where they can truly govern themselves and live in dignity been ignored? Why isn’t the granting of that basic need at the forefront of discussions?

For those in the Middle East (and Sri Lanka) who think that their national and ethnic identity is so important, and their own religion so noble, that their self-image is inexorably bound up in them, I recommend this Richard Dawkins quote (thanks to MachinesLikeUS.com), where he speaks with typical lucidity:

Out of all of the sects in the world, we notice an uncanny coincidence: the overwhelming majority just happen to choose the one that their parents belong to. Not the sect that has the best evidence in its favour, the best miracles, the best moral code, the best cathedral, the best stained glass, the best music: when it comes to choosing from the smorgasbord of available religions, their potential virtues seem to count for nothing, compared to the matter of heredity. This is an unmistakable fact; nobody could seriously deny it. Yet people with full knowledge of the arbitrary nature of this heredity, somehow manage to go on believing in their religion, often with such fanaticism that they are prepared to murder people who follow a different one.

Until people realize that their allegiance to their nationality or ethnicity or religion has the same superficial significance as support for their favorite sports team, we will continue to have wars, with people having this bizarre notion that it is actually noble to kill or die for their flag, their race, and their god.

Next: The balance of power in the Middle East.

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