Friday, January 23, 2009

Reporting from Israel

By Rachel Ring

These past three weeks I have been involved in a short session intensive study abroad program to Israel. As an American leaving right when the Gaza fight erupted, I was a bit apprehensive to continue with the trip, but excited too, because this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Because of my experience there, I can now say with a solid background and knowledge my opinions, and am not just some idiot in a political science wearing a Che Guevera t-shirt in class pontificating on what the Israel Palestine problem should look like and how it should be solved.

With that being said, having been to areas all over Israel, including the West Bank, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Umm al Fahm, the settlements, seeing the security wall, Beersheba, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and the Golan Heights, I can say that I completely get why both sides fight as hard as they do. (Which, I think some people miss the point on this issue). There’s an intertwined history, there’s a religiosity on both sides, there’s a victimhood syndrome that paralyzes both sides into not negotiating and cooperating. And let’s face it; to keep the status quo in Israel and the territories is easier for everyone, because then no real changes have to be made. Settlements won’t have to be uprooted, lines won’t be drawn, and there will not be a huge social upheaval when both sides don’t get their way 100%.

Besides the places I saw, I also had the privilege of meeting with Israeli and Palestinian officials (on levels that I could never dream of meeting as a college student in a conflict resolution course in the USA, such as the equivalent of the secretary of state for the Palestinians and an Israeli foreign minister taking time off during wartime to speak to students). I saw two common themes in these meetings, one is that Israel’s prime concern is its security, and it is achieved both through police force and by land acquisition, and on the other side I saw that Palestinians just want their own state and economy. However, how they want to achieve it, and how the Palestinians manage their own people and affairs is a huge deterrent to ever getting the borders finally drawn and being free of “occupation”.

Furthermore, Palestinian leaders (and this is a trend throughout the Arab world) tend to have a bit of a revisionist history when it comes to the past and present. There’s a constant blame the “big bad Zionist Israel” theme, with no sense of responsibility for the way that the Palestinians have been dealt with in the peace process. Fatah (or the PLO remnants) is not some nice, moderate group. Sure, they act like it now, because they realized that Israel would crush them if they didn’t, but this is not the core attitude or belief of the group. Hence, why Israel doesn’t trust them, and Fatah’s dual identity problem is one of the reasons why Hamas has flourished.

Lastly, Israel is not some golden angel in this argument either. While I do believe Israel has the right to exist, is a viable state and will continue to prosper, the settlements are a travesty and need to go. Settlement building needs to be stopped immediately, and the settlers need to be relocated. While I understand the religious fervor for the land, there could be negotiated ways to set up Jewish sites to visit or worship at, but the religious settlers are a small part of the settlement population (Just like the Muslims want in Jerusalem). The rest of the settlers are “quality of life” settlers, and receive tax breaks and benefits from the government to populate in the less expensive West Bank settlements. This is clearly a flawed policy and not a plan for peace, which should be Israel’s ultimate goal, especially to get the borders drawn before the demographics get out of hand against Israel, when they will face a huge problem in trying to keep the Jewish democratic state a viable option.


DSKohn said...

As someone who is very well connected in Israel at all levels, I agree with most of your assessment.

The one thing I disagree on is that the settlers can be removed by force as they were in Gaza. There were several factors that allowed the Israelis to pull their settlers from the Gaza strip that do not exist in the West Bank.

First of all the religious extremists must be dealt with differently. Gaza was not historically a part of the Biblical Kingdom of Israel and is much less sacred to Jews than the West Bank is. The Philistines (where the name Palestine comes from) historically had control of this territory.

The West Bank on the other hand has a number of different circumstances. It has many Jewish Holy Sites including the Cave of the Patriarchs and is the area where Abraham settled with his family. Religious fanatics are not going to give up this land so easily.

The second reason is it more difficult is because of enduring security concerns. As an American general said, from a purely military standpoint Israel has many advantages by controlling around 5% of the West Bank to make its border more defensible.

The third reason is that there are many more settlers in the West Bank than in Gaza. Around 8,000 Jews had settled in Gaza vs. well over 200,000 for the West Bank.

Lastly, Israel withdrew from Gaza under the leadership of Ariel Sharon, formerly their biggest proponent. Sharon's removal of those settlements was the Israeli equivalent of Nixon going to China. This was in ideological about face for one of the most popular Prime Ministers in Israeli history. This about face made withdrawal more palatable to a wider spectrum of Israelis.

This leaves really one option for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. The Israeli government is going to have to offer compensation to settlers who leave willingly and tell the fanatics that remain that the army will no longer provide for their security. Israel is going to have to 'Wash its hands' of its citizens who stay in the West Bank against the wishes of the government.

This is not to say that the Israeli army does not have the right to intervene in security threats from the West Bank.

Phil said...

I will be the first to admit the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Foreign Policy in general is not my strong point. With that said, I feel like two issues in the conflict have always been ignored.

Issue 1: Israel is not the aggressor in the situation. When Israel declared its independence with the help of the UN, the situation should have ended. The land was divided nearly evenly and the plan had come about in diplomatic fashion. The Arab world, however, refused all attempts at a compromise and launched an offensive on Israel. That is why I to this day view Israel as being on the defensive and believe that should be factored into this situation.

Issue 2: The people of Palestine have democratically given power to a terrorist organization. Hamas is a deadly terrorist organization and yet the people of Palestine democratically elected them to power. To me, this shows hostility on the part of the Palestinian people towards the Israeli people. Once again we see the Palestinians as the aggressors.

To sum it all up, Israel has gotten a bad rep internationally despite the fact they have simply acted in defense. The disturbing truth to the situation (and one that I frankly feel many people are simply afraid to admit) is that the Palestinian people have been a violent people. While it is certainly true that very few Palestinians are involved in terrorism, it is inexcusable that the people of Palestine would elect Hamas into political power.

For these reasons I (maybe blindly) cannot condemn any of the behavior taken by Israel and place full responsibility on the Palestinians.

CharlesH said...

Phil, finger-pointing is hardly an effective path when discussing this particular conflict. This is a war that doesn't fit neatly into the protagonist/antagonist narrative. It's perhaps best to look at the situation from the human perspective and put aside petty land and religious grievances in the face of justice and compassion.

Rachel, your article was very interesting and informative, besides the straw man liberal character you conjured up out of left field at the beginning. Besides being a mark of poor rhetoric, that kind of childish posturing is exactly what would make people turn a deaf ear to such an informed and interesting perspective such as your own.