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The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is increasingly becoming a stumbling block in the road toward promoting universal human rights regime. It has the potential to engender cynicism and undermine the march toward more equitable human society.
In the following essay, Dr. Louay Safi, CBD director, examines the Palestinian suffering and the Israeli predicament resulting from the tragic encounter of the two peoples.
In a report filed from Jerusalem last week, Barbara Plett, a BBC correspondent, described the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as thus: “Palestinians refuse to acknowledge the past suffering of the Jewish nation. Israelis no matter how left-wing, cannot take Palestinian demands on par with their own because to accept Palestinian rights is to deny Israel’s right to exist.”
While the above statement does not even begin to capture the scope and complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it gives us an insight into the attitude of many Israelis. For centuries, European Jewry dreamed a homeland where they could experience self-governance and escape oppression and persecution. So desperately did they desire freedom and wanted to break out of their European ghettos that many of them contemplated the establishment of a Jewish state away from the Promised Land. Eventually, consensus was built around Palestine, and the Zionist movement led by Herzl worked in earnest toward achieving that goal.
The desire for a Jewish state in Palestine was so strong and so intense that Zionist leaders never considered the fate of the Palestinians. Instead, they built their dream around an illusion, adopting the slogan: “land without people for a people without land.” Today after 80 years of continuous Jewish immigration, there are as many Palestinians as Israelis in Israel and the occupied territories (one million Palestinians in the former and 3 million in the latter). The number of Palestinians in the “Palestinian Diaspora” is equivalent to the number of Jews remained outside Israel. The salvation of one community has been achieved at the expense of another.
A series of military conflicts have forced hundreds of thousands out of their homes, thereby creating a Palestinian Diaspora. Half of the Palestinian people, amounting to over five million, live away from what they proudly call “our homeland.” Palestinians have developed a strong attachment to Palestine, as strong as the one that inspired the Jewish return. For them, Palestine is a promised land. Those who doubt the attachment of Palestinians to their homeland need only listen to Palestinian children in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila talk about Palestine and dream of their return, or watch how Palestinian boys are willing to pay the ultimate price to challenge the Israeli occupation.
Everywhere But Israel
The irony of modern Israel is not easy to miss: a nation created to liberate European Jewry from discrimination, oppression, and genocide is increasingly guilty of the very practices it sought to escape. This striking fact was brought to the fore in a recent UN Human Rights Commission’s resolution that condemned the Jewish State.
The resolution denounced Israel for the "widespread, systematic and gross violations of human rights perpetrated by the Israeli occupying power, in particular mass killings, collective punishments, such as demolition of houses and closure of the Palestinian territories, measures which constitute war crimes and flagrant violation of international humanitarian law and crimes against humanity."
The resolution passed by small margin. Nineteen states, mainly Arab and Islamic, as well as Cuba and China, voted in favor, while European and American States voted against it. Seventeen states abstained. The vote patterns reveal another irony of modern international politics: states who voted to uphold the human rights of the Palestinians are those who are often guilty of violating the human rights of their citizens, while the foremost advocates of international human rights stood in defense of the Israeli occupation.
Israel’s ambassador Yaakov Levy denounced the resolution as "partisan, one sided, and inflammatory." This is because, he explained, there was "no call on the Palestinian side to stop the violence and rioting." Levy’s indignation was echoed by the American and European envoys. Nancy Rubin, the US envoy, rejected the resolution’s language as "one-sided and vituperative." Rubin’s argument is not that the state of Israel is innocent of the "war crimes" and the "crimes against humanity" attributed to it, but that the language is blunt and direct, and hence disturbing. In a sense Rubin is right: the description of Israel common practices against the Palestinians are at odd with its image in international media. Yet neither Levy nor Rubin could deny that Israel is guilty of the practices attributed to it in the Human Rights Commission’s resolution, practices which international law classifies as "crimes against humanity."
French envoy Philippe Petit who negotiated hard on behalf of the European Union to tone down the resolution’s language explained the European bloc vote against it: "the commission’s duty," he stressed, "was to defend human rights worldwide, not make ‘political denunciation’." Put more precisely, the Commission should pay attention to violation of human rights everywhere in the world except in the state of Israel.
A Roman Peace
The term "one-sidedness" that has been used by the Israeli government and its defenders is crucial to understanding the peace process as it has been envisioned by Israel. It is a peace in which the conquered and oppressed is called upon to succumb to the reality of occupation and give up the most peaceful expression of moral indignation. It is clear that the peace desired by Israel resembles the Roman peace, eloquently described by the Roman poet Virgil: "You, O Roman, remember to rule the nations with might. This will be your genius–to impose the way of peace, to spare the conquered and crush the proud."
The Israeli leadership has been particularly angry that Yassir Arafat failed to use his police force to control Palestinian protests against Israeli occupation. Unlike the Israeli army whose main responsibility is to protect armed Jewish settlers even when they are the aggressors, and even if this means the use of lethal force against Palestinian children who fight back aggression with stones, Palestinian police is required to control its own and suppress any attempt to return fire with stones.
It is by now commonplace knowledge that the protest started when the Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon visited a site holy to both Jews and Muslims, known to the former as the Mount Temple and to the latter as al-Haram al-Sharif. The Mount Temple was built by Solomon about three millennia ago, and was partially destroyed by the Babylonians, only to be later completely leveled down by the Romans. Muslims built al-Aqsa Mosque over the ruins and continue to use it as a place of worship for the last 1000 years. But Sharon, along with many others in Israel, wants to undo the Palestinian history and revive the Hebrew old glory. So he went ahead with his planned visit under the protection of over one thousand police and military officers. And when Palestinians protested with anger against the intrusion of the Israeli soldiers into their place of worship, the response was lethal. Tens of unarmed civilians were hunted down in cold blood by Israeli forces. It seems that the loss of Palestinian lives and the humiliation of an entire population is an acceptable price for the glory of Israel.
Respite to Create New Reality
Barak complained that Arafat was not a serious peace partner. The evidence of Arafat’s insincerity lied, Barak insisted, in his failure to control Palestinian rioters, that is, in his failure to order the Palestinian police to join hands with the Israelis in suppressing the Palestinian uprising.
But were Barak and the Israeli leadership serious about building a real and lasting peace? It appears that Barak wanted to build peace, but, along with it, he wanted to build new settlements in the occupied territories. The peace Barak worked for aimed at ending the Intifada and creating a Palestinian municipal administration for policing Palestinian towns and villages, and providing public services to Palestinian areas. The Israelis were willing to cede actual control of parts of the West Bank and Gaza without doing away with their ability to have potential control over the same. They have therefore insisted on controlling international borders, and maintaining military check points and military presence throughout the occupied territories. And they have made it clear that they do not intend to dismantle Jewish settlements that were built during the thirty years of occupation. Indeed, the nineties have witnessed a surge in Jewish settlements.
The Israeli government continued to confiscate land (over 50,000 acres between 1993-1999), demolish Palestinian houses, and permit new settlements. At the height of its peace negotiation with the Palestinian National Authority in 1997, Israel doubled the number of construction permits it gave to Jewish settlers from 494 to 743 (50% increase). Evidence shows that the Israeli government has accelerated, under the dovish Barak, the building of Jewish settlements. The Associated Press reported on March 1, 1998, that “[a] confidential Housing Ministry report says there are more than 700 empty mobile homes in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, yet the government has allocated 300 more.”
Prophecy And Pseudo Prophets
Who gave the Israelis the right to establish an exclusively Jewish state, to drive the Palestinians out of their homes so that new waves of Jewish immigrants can take over their homeland, to kill their kids and young ones, to confiscate their lands, to demolish their houses, to deny them their right to self-determination, to imprison and torture those who resist occupation, and to build fences around their towns and cities? Who gave the Israelis the right to do all that?
God, Israel’s spokesmen and its ardent defenders have all along insisted, has given the Jewish state this right. God has promised Palestine, the Promised Land, to Jews. The promise was made, one should recall, to Moses, as he was commanded to lead the Hebrew tribes from their life of servitude in Egypt to a life of freedom in the Holy Land. The freedom the ancient Hebrew were promised was not based on arrogance and self-indulgence, but on a just law. Thus Moses received the Ten Commandments which were to guide the action of the Jews in their newly founded freedom. First and foremost among them is the divine command: "Thou shall not kill." Although the rule is a universal one, the Israeli army and Jewish settlers seem to give this ancient principle of humanity and justice a modern twist. For them it reads: "Thou shall not kill a Jew." It has even been given the most bizarre interpretation, as it is often taken to mean: "You shall not kill a Jew, but you may kill countless Palestinians to ensure that no Jewish settler is challenged or threatened."
The Zionist movement set out in the nineteenth century to replicate the Mosaic mission. To liberate the European Jewry from the oppression of anti-Semitic Europe, and to deliver them into the Promised Land. But here where the semblance between the Mosaic and Zionist prophesies ends. While the prophets of ancient Israel struggled to liberate not only their communities but also all those who they came in contact with, pseudo prophets of modern Israel are busy in suppressing another community as they work toward the fulfillment of their dream.
Here then lies the difference between authentic and pseudo prophecies. In liberating the Israelites, the Mosaic prophecy asserted human liberty as such, rejecting as arbitrary and contrary to the divine will the enslavement of one community by another. Modern Israel, on the other hand, justifies a cynical conception of liberty in which the liberty of one community is attained through the enslavement of another. This recalls Nietzche’s cynical conception of freedom. “One desires freedom,” Nietzche once wrote, “so long as one does not possess power. Once one does possess it one desires to overpower; if one cannot do that (if one is still too weak to do so), one desires “justice,” i.e., equal power.”
A State Above The Law
For decades, Israel has consistently violated International Law and UN resolutions, and has never been required to account for its excesses. Indeed Israel has been able to get away with the most hyenas of crimes, including torture, illegal confiscation of Palestinian land, bombardment of civilians, kidnapping, occupation, etc., thanks to the countless sympathizers and apologists, most of whom are well positioned in the United States.
This state of affairs has encouraged Israeli leaders to act with impunity against their adversaries. In the 1980s, international pressure mounted on the apartheid regime of South Africa, forcing it to eventually share power with the indigenous population. Israel, on the other hand, has forged an apartheid regime in which one million Palestinians are reduced to second class citizens, and three millions in the West Bank and Gaza are treated as an outcast with no rights whatever. Israel has at will refused to provide Palestinians with housing permits, confiscated their land, imprisoned their young men and women, killed and exiled their activists, and imposed curfew for days and weeks on their towns and villages.
Now, Israeli leaders are contemplating the unthinkable: fencing Palestinian towns and villages to ensure the safety of Jewish settlements. The so-called “Separation Plan” announced of late by Barak’s government as its final solution to the Palestinian question calls for building fences and concrete walls, along with an extensive network of bypasses, to isolate Palestinians within their concentration areas. Although details of the Separation Plan are still vague, and the Israeli’s desire to execute the Plan still uncertain, the isolation of Palestinians is already evident on the ground. The building of Jewish settlements, the construction of bypass highways around Palestinian areas, and the erection of concrete walls and fences, have already started.
The pattern of settlements building is clearly meant to break up Palestinian areas into fragmented enclaves, so as to make it impossible for Palestinians to achieve an independent state.
The increased repression of Palestinians goes against both the spirit of liberty and the spirit of the age. History bears witness to the fact that no people has ever been able to achieve long lasting peace and freedom by enslaving another. True freedom requires that one should embrace the principle of freedom consistently and whole-heartedly, and should act out of courage rather than out of fear. In the age of multi-culturalism and globalization, the efforts to ensure the ethnic and/or religious purity of a political society is completely out of place, and run contrary to the momentum of modern history and the spirit of enlightened humanity.