Although a cease fire in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the Gaza Strip may be in effect by the time this note is published, the one thing all observers agree upon is that, from the larger perspective, the conflict seems endless and “intractable.” I would pose that at this point there are no winners, only losers; and that Israel is the only party in a position to break the cycle.
(To set a context here: in a view not universally shared, I consider Israel strictly a sovereign nation, and not a manifestation or fulfillment of religious faith. I am an Irish Catholic, but if either Ireland or the Vatican – sovereign nations like Israel — implement a policy which I perceived as contrary to American interests, I would not feel divided loyalty. I would submit that the only meaningful religious element of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is this: the Almighty is not in favor of His [please excuse the male pronoun ;)] people killing or harming each other, no matter by what faith path they have chosen to reach Him. Let’s keep God out of this; all human beings deserve the opportunity to live in freedom, peace and security.)
(To set further context: accompanying my reaction that criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinian civilians is warranted is the countervailing memory of a learned American foreign policy figure intoning years ago that Israel was the only nation in the volatile Middle East where America knew it could safely land a plane at any time under any conditions. I would suggest that such remains true to this day. Additionally, Israel is, and for the foreseeable future will be, our most effective and reliable regional ally in combatting Iranian terrorism and aggression. No matter its faults, America needs a strong and secure Israel. I would venture that President Biden, if not all members of his party, is acutely aware of our need to balance these competing realities.)
I don’t think that it is much disputed in the international community that the settlements Israel has established in the Palestinian territories that it has occupied since the 1967 Middle East war are contrary to international law. Any comparison of maps of Israel, Palestine and the surrounding environs respectively depicting the region as it existed before 1949, after the establishment of Israel in 1949 through 1967, after the 1967 Middle East War, and evolving to the present day demonstrates Israel’s expansion into land intended by the international community to be inhabited and controlled by the Palestinians when Israel was founded. While it must be noted that Israel gained a foothold in the occupied territories not because it attacked, but because it was attacked, the increased settlement activity in occupied territories by Israel in recent years seems gratuitous usurpation. I have seen reports that the most recent conflict was precipitated in part by Israel’s eviction of Palestinians from an East Jerusalem neighborhood (subject to correction by more informed eyes, I am not aware whether this neighborhood was originally part of Israel under the United Nations charter, or an area since claimed by Israel as part its sovereign territory). Ignoring Palestinians’ frustration serves no purpose.
Given the Holocaust, Israel is and throughout our lifetimes will understandably always be anxious given its close proximity to states and peoples that have for the most part hated it and the Jewish people, have denied its right to exist, and have literally sought to expunge it. [As the old saying goes, if they really are out to get you, you’re not paranoid ;)]. The Palestinian terrorist organization, Hamas, allegedly aided by Iran, has launched over 3000 missiles into Israel in the last ten days; this, too, cannot be ignored. My general concern with Israel’s posture today: through its own diligence and hard work, and its longstanding relationship with and aid from the United States, it is arguably the strongest military power and maintains the most sophisticated intelligence network in the Middle East. Its security has been further enhanced by the split in the Arab world that has caused Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni Gulf Coast nations to currently have greater concerns about Iran than they do about Israel. Its “Iron Dome” defense system has performed extraordinarily well and for the most part shielded Israeli citizens from harm. While it is not hard to imagine what we would do if either Canada or Mexico launched over 3000 missiles into the United States, the fact remains that Israel faces no existential threat from the rag-tag Palestinians.
More than one former Israeli soldier has publicly criticized Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory (do an internet search, “Project Outreach – Avner Gvaryahu”). I have heard at least one former Israeli soldier actually compare Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to apartheid. One American journalist visiting Gaza has described Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as “unconscionable” – “effectively imprison[ing] … people.” I would offer that Israel has pushed its advantage in East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank because it can – and because such favors the political prospects of its Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. It seems inevitable that such provocations will trigger a response.
Although Israeli leadership says it “targeted” Hamas leadership and tunnels with its recent strikes into Gaza, there appears to be disproportionate collateral damage among Palestinian civilians, including children. What unfolded seems akin in kind if not in scale to the inhumanities currently being visited on Yemeni in the Yemen civil war; both conflicts are being pursued by interests that have no regard for the devastation being suffered by innocents caught in the middle. In the Yemen conflict, the Biden Administration discontinued equipping the Saudis’ military operations. In Gaza, the situation is more complex, but I would submit that the Administration needs to maintain meaningful pressure on Mr. Netanyahu to halt not only the recent hostilities but to roll back Israel’s aggressive efforts in the occupied territories. I would argue to Mr. Netanyahu that adoption of a softer policy is in Israel’s long term best interests. Perhaps counter-intuitively, undue aggression weakens his nation’s stability. Israel’s perceived disregard for Palestinian civilians: reduces sympathy for Israel in the international community; threatens its existing relationships with Arab nations (Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, Morocco and, informally, Saudi Arabia), and thus, Israel’s security; antagonizes American progressives and liberals, and thus weakens Israel’s alliance with the United States – the linchpin upon which its security rests; exacerbates unrest within Israel between Jewish and Arab Israelis, weakening Israel as a state; and, perhaps most vitally, seems an affront to the principle that justified Israel’s founding — that persecuted and downtrodden innocents deserve respite.
At least since the time of the Obama Administration, Mr. Netanyahu has seemed to take solace from his support among Republicans, and may believe that such will sustain America’s relationship with Israel despite progressives’ increasing criticism. If he has made such a calculation, it seems to me that his confidence is misplaced. I would point out to him that some of those now expressing fealty to Israel count among their ranks those that have sought to whitewash Trump insurgents’ attack on America’s democracy, are attempting to rewrite history by denying that former President Donald Trump lost the 2020 presidential election, and provided at best lukewarm condemnation of the white supremacists who marched through Charlottesville, VA, in August, 2017, chanting, “Jews will not replace us.” Indeed, this group includes past Holocaust deniers. Can Israel really have confidence that its long-term security will be protected by the likes of these?
There is no question that Israel has the right to defend itself. While it cannot afford to slacken its military and intelligence readiness, its defense in the coming decades may well rest at least as heavily upon its efforts to lower the Palestinian region’s tribal temperature. It should extend the carrot while retaining the stick. It should sincerely embrace the effort to find a viable Israel/Palestine two state solution – for its own sake as well as that of the Palestinians.