Like most people, I was horrified by the devastation of the recent Gaza war. But I cannot say I was surprised. I have been closely engaged with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, on both sides, for nigh on fifty years and feel a strong affinity towards both peoples. If I have learned anything, it is that peace is dependent on the imperatives of mutual acceptance and equality. As long as either of these fiercely proud peoples dominates the other, there will be conflict.
In a Jewish Quarterly article in the summer of 1977, following Likud’s first election victory in Israel, I proffered the following thought: “Once the remaining hope of Palestinian self-rule is finally extinguished, the West Bank is likely to embark on a permanent rebellion – mostly simmering and periodically erupting … When the fire starts to ignite, next month or next year, let no-one register astonishment ...”.
It took another ten years for the first intifada in the West Bank and Gaza to erupt (to the astonishment of myopic Israeli policy makers). Further eruptions have periodically marked the landscape ever since and doubtless will continue to do so until both peoples are finally free to exercise their self-determination in neighbouring, interlinked, states.
Occupation brutalizes the occupier as well as the occupied. It breeds enmity and produces other deleterious effects. Hamas, founded in 1987, is a product of the occupation. Like Israel, it stands accused of war crimes, but were it to be eradicated, something else—possibly a lot worse—would take its place.
For over 47 years, vibrantly democratic Israel has ruled most undemocratically—by military fiat—over millions of people. This and the intensive bombardment by a technologically advanced state of an impoverished, entrapped people would never be tolerated by the custodians of Jewish values if they were perpetrated by any other country. Israel’s misguided policies have been very damaging. Apart from the death and destruction delivered on Gaza, they have generated new waves of hatred against the Jewish state and global calls for its isolation. They have fanned anti-Jewish sentiment in other countries and fostered deep divisions within the Jewish world.
If the Israeli government is not prepared, of its own volition, to end its blockade of Gaza and suffocation of the West Bank, the international community would be entitled to challenge it to decide definitively by a firm date whether its rule over the Palestinians is or is not an occupation. Until now, it has argued both sides of the case, enabling it to cherry-pick the Geneva Convention. If it is an occupation, its—supposedly provisional—custodianship should be brought to a swift end. If it not an occupation, there is no justification for denying equal rights to everyone who is subject to Israeli rule. After nearly half a century, it is surely past time to end the ambiguity before it really is too late for a genuine two-state deal and to halt Israel’s suicidal slide towards a home-grown version of apartheid.
This article was originally published in the Autumn/Winter edition of the Jewish Quarterly, as one of 16 short reflective pieces on the Gaza war.