If there’s been a cease-fire by the time this article appears, none of the underlying issues will have been resolved. Here then is a brief attempt to analyse what this recent outbreak of fighting between Israel and Gaza has been about - with four clues which help me to make sense of the big picture.
1. Most Palestinians in Gaza today are the children or grandchildren of Palestinian Arabs who were expelled from their homes in the Nakba in 1948.
Benny Morris was one of the first of the new revisionist Israeli historians who documented the process by which around 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes in the months before and after the creation of the state of Israel in May 1948. In his book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 (1988) he debunked the myth that they had fled because their leaders encouraged them to do so, and described how some went to Gaza, while others moved to Egypt, the West Bank, Syria and Lebanon. Some years later he shocked many when he said in an interview with Haaretz that Israel would not have so many problems today if it had done the job more thoroughly and expelled far more Palestinians from the area of the new state of Israel. Another Israeli historian, Ilan Pappé, who is now a professor at the College of Social Sciences and International Studies at Exeter University, used similar material to describe in great detail how the expulsions were carried out all over the country with the aim of reducing as far as possible the number of Arabs who would remain within the state of Israel, and he wasn’t afraid to give his book the title The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (2006). Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians during this crucial period before and after the establishment of the state has been called ‘Israel’s original sin’. The relevant point in this context is that the rockets that Palestinians have been firing from Gaza have been landing on areas from which their parents and grandparents were driven out in 1948.
Rami Khoury, a Palestinian-Jordanian journalist, makes this point powerfully in an article which appeared in The Daily Star in Beirut on Saturday 26 July:
Grasping and resolving these root issues is very hard to do for Zionists and Israelis, who refuse to acknowledge their major role in making refugees of the Palestinians. They have also ignored that no peace will come to anyone unless the root causes of the 1947-49 conflict are resolved equitably. If Israelis do not see this in the eyes, tunnels, rockets and charred bodies of dead Palestinian infants, and continue, with the U.S., to insist on prioritizing Israeli security over a more balanced approach to ensuring rights for both peoples, then these savage rounds of violence will persist for years. That would only be adding stupidity to savagery.
2. ‘It’s the blockade and the occupation, stupid!’
No one can deny Israel’s right to self-defence, subject to the test of proportionality, and it’s understandable that Israel should want to force Hamas to stop firing rockets indiscriminatingly into Israel. Hamas could have stopped firing the rockets as soon as the casualties began to mount and the international community called for a cease-fire. But Gaza has been described as the largest open-air prison in the world, and the rockets (which have so far killed only three civilians in Israel) have been an expression of the desperation of the Palestinians over the eight-year economic blockade imposed by Israel after Hamas seized power in 2006. Israel is clearly determined to destroy Hamas’s arsenal of weapons and the network of tunnels penetrating into Israel. But the Hamas leadership believes that it can’t afford to agree to a cease-fire without securing concessions from Israel which relieve the humanitarian crisis developing inside Gaza. The appalling numbers of civilian casualties, therefore, and the destruction of so much property are seen as a price that must be paid in order to force Israel to bow to international pressure and end its crippling blockade. Palestinians in Gaza feel that if they don’t die under the rockets, they will be strangled to death by the blockade.
Before the blockade, of course, was the occupation. In June 1967 Israel occupied the West Bank, the Golan Heights, Sinai and the Gaza Strip, where they eventually built 20 settlements on 20% of the area. It was in this context of occupation around 1988 that Hamas came into existence as a resistance movement. Most of the world believes that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank since 1967 is illegal in international law and that every single settlement in the occupied territories is illegal. Under Ariel Sharon’s leadership Israel withdrew completely from Gaza in 2005, but in international law it still has all the responsibilities of the occupying power. The rationale for the withdrawal was explained in these terms by Dov Weissglass, one of Sharon’s advisers: ‘The significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process … And when you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, and you prevent a discussion on the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem.’ It now seems that even the American administration has concluded that the so-called peace-process pursued so vigorously by John Kerry for the past nine months has broken down largely because of Israel’s refusal to stop the building of new settlements on the West Bank. Hamas’s rockets, therefore, seem to be their only way of expressing the anger and desperation of Palestinians over the blockade and the occupation.
Avi Shlaim, emeritus professor of International Relations at Oxford University makes these points in an article entitled ‘What’s the use of “balance” in such an asymmetric war?’ in The Independent on Sunday of 27 July:
It is difficult to resist the conclusion that Israel’s real objective in unleashing this offensive is to bomb Hamas into a humiliating surrender. Israel’s ultimate aim seems to be not just a peace but the re-imposition of the status quo with a fragmented Palestine and with itself as an imperial overlord.
3. The Israel-Palestinian conflict is a conflict of two nationalisms, with two peoples claiming the same piece of land for different reasons.
Theodore Herzl spelled out his vision of political Zionism in his book The Jewish State in 1896, and the following year he convened the First Zionist Congress in Basel. Having concluded that the emancipation of Jews in Europe in the nineteenth century had failed, he believed that the only way for them to feel secure in the modern world was for them to return to their ancestral homeland in Palestine and create some new kind of Jewish polity there. At the time when he wrote the book, Jews were no more than 8% of the total population of Palestine. The remaining 92% of the population – Palestinian Arabs – were aware of nationalist movements in Europe and were beginning to develop their own dreams of Arab nationalism and independence from Ottoman rule. One of the ironies of history, therefore, is that Jewish nationalism (Zionism) had the effect of stimulating Arab nationalism. Jews have been basing their claim to the land and to sovereignty on their occupation of the land in biblical times. Palestinians base their claim on the fact their ancestors have been living in the land since – and even before - the Arab conquest in the 7th century. So one of the fundamental roots of the conflict is this clash of nationalisms.
Palestinians today need somehow to understand that European anti-semitism, which culminated in the Holocaust, created the longing for a homeland in which Jews could feel safe and secure. By the same token, Jews in Israel and elsewhere need to understand that Jewish nationalism and Arab (and especially Palestinian) nationalism have developed side by side during the last century, and that the biblical understanding of justice is that we should seek for our neighbours what we seek for ourselves. The relevance of this point to the present conflict is made by Rami Khoury:
The fundamental problem for Israel that it has never grasped is that the intensity of the individual and collective Palestinian will to resist permanent exile or oblivion, and to keep fighting for national reconstitution and justice, is just as strong as the will among Jews who fought Western Christian anti-Semitism for centuries and finally created their Zionist state in Palestine.
4. For all its failings and crimes, Hamas has been a consistent expression of Palestinian nationalism and anger.
I could never be an apologist for Hamas, because I’m only too aware of its hard-line Islamist ideology, its brutal suppression of opposition and its violent attacks on Israeli citizens. I doubt if it is as innocent as it claims over the location of its rocket launchers, and the tunnels under the northern border fence into Israel are intended for launching attacks on Israel. At the same time I believe that much of the criticism directed against it has been unfair and unjustified.
It came into existence as a resistance movement in the context of Israeli occupation. So if there had been no occupation beginning in 1967, there might be no Hamas – just as there might be no Hizbullah in Lebanon if Israel had not invaded in 1982 and stayed as occupiers for so many years in the south of the country. Hamas strongly asserted its Islamic identity over Fatah, which was felt to have become too secular; and it took a stronger stance against Israel because it believed that Fatah had already made too many concessions in negotiations with Israel. It is argued by some that in the early years Hamas was actually encouraged and supported by Israel as a way of dividing the Palestinian resistance. Hamas won in democratic elections in Gaza and the West Bank in 2006, and many believe that the US and the EU made a disastrous mistake in refusing to recognize this victory and to work with Hamas. Western governments are therefore accused of hypocrisy for saying that they support the spread of democracy in the region but then refusing to accept the results of democratic elections.
While Hamas has maintained its Islamist stance, it’s thoroughly misleading to say that Palestinian enmity towards Israel is motivated primarily by Islam. Palestinian Muslims are bound to turn to their religion to find motivation in their struggle. But the root cause of the conflict is dispossession rather than religion. Hamas has often showed that its ideology can be modified by its pragmatism, and has at many stages indicated its willingness to negotiate with Israel. If Israel continues to label Hamas a ‘terrorist organisation’, isn’t this a case of the pot calling the kettle black? There was plenty of terrorism directed against the British Mandate and Palestinians in the decades leading up to the establishment of the state of Israel, and how many of Israel’s previous prime ministers were engaged in terrorist activities in their earlier years? A state can engage in terrorism just as much as a resistance movement.
If some Palestinians have not been supporters of Hamas and blamed it for the escalation of the fighting in the last two weeks, the ferocity of Israeli attacks on Gaza has probably had the effect of rallying widespread support for Hamas and its demands. One of the lessons of the Northern Ireland peace process was that there was no significant breakthrough until all parties – including those regarded as being extreme – were brought into the political process.
It’s easy to criticize and condemn Hamas for the way it has engaged in its resistance. But don’t the Palestinians have good reason to be angry both about the blockade and the continuing occupation? And isn’t it time for the world to try to understand the roots of this conflict and try to resolve it in a more even-handed way?
As we watch this terrible tragedy unfold, therefore, we should be praying for all who, in the spirit of the Beatitudes, ‘hunger and thirst to see right prevail’ and seek to be peace-makers. At the same time, as well as lobbying our own government, there are things that we can do to support the people of Gaza through Christian organisations like the following that are working on the ground:
- The Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza, run by the Anglican Diocese of Jerusalem
- The Hope Christian Trust, supporting the Baptist School and the Baptist Church in Gaza
- Embrace the Middle East (formerly BibleLands), supporting many Christian institutions throughout the region and currently running an emergency appeal for Gaza
- Amos Trust, the Kairos Britain initiative and Friends of Sabeel UK, all of which support the Kairos Palestine initiative
- Bethlehem Bible College, which runs an extension programme in Gaza
- Musalaha (Reconciliation), bringing Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians together in face-to-face encounters.
Colin Chapman has worked with CMS in the Middle East for 18 years and in his last post he was teaching Islamic Studies at the Near East School of Theology. He has taught at Trinity College, Bristol, and was principal of Crowther Hall, the CMS training college in Selly Oak, Bristol. He is now enjoying semi-retirement in Cambridge. His books include Whose Promised Land?, Whose Holy City? Jerusalem and the Israel-Palestinian Conflict, Christianity on Trial (Lion), Cross and Crescent: responding to the challenges of Islam (IVP), and “Islamic Terrorism”: is there a Christian response? (Grove).