Student Opinion: The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: There Will Be No Winners

(AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

By Jacob Derin

This week, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict boiled over again, escalating into the familiar pattern of tit-for-tat retaliation between Hamas rocket fire and Israeli airstrikes. The spark was lit by a real estate dispute between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians in East Jerusalem, subsequent protests at the al-Aqsa Mosque in the Old City and the Israeli response.

Aside from these basic facts, there is almost nothing else the two sides can agree on. As powerful political forces clash once again in the Middle East’s most intractable conflict, the only winners will be those in power.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been feeling the pressure levied by a series of close elections. His ruling coalition grows ever more unstable as a criminal trial against him is underway on charges of corruption and abusing his position. At the same time, Netanyahu represents a hawkish, right-wing coalition in Israeli politics fueled by any sign of Palestinian aggression. This latest flare-up may well represent a reversal of his political fortunes.

So, it should come as no surprise that Netanyahu is less than eager to calm the situation down, promising to use an “iron fist” to crush protests raging across Israel. The phrase recalls Itzhak Rabin’s infamous “Iron Fist Policy” during the First Intifada, a fact of which Netanyahu is almost certainly not ignorant.

But, to really understand Israel’s response to thousands of Hamas rockets launched indiscriminately against heavily populated areas, it’s imperative to understand some basic history of the IDF.

For the first few decades of its existence, it fought near-constant wars of annihilation against a series of avowedly genocidal neighbors. The cultural memory of that runs deep in Israel, a nation founded in the ashes of the Holocaust. Much of the so-called “occupied territory” was captured during these self-defensive wars of annihilation.

But the political and military situation is very different now. Israel has reconciled with some of its neighbors. It enjoys the support of the United States. The IDF has become one of the most technologically sophisticated and battle-hardened militaries on the planet.

In short, Hamas can’t win a conventional war with Israel. But it doesn’t have to. Hamas has a vested interest in maximizing civilian casualties because every photograph of a destroyed apartment building and dead, unarmed people are a propaganda victory for them. This explains their well-documented strategy of launching rockets from densely populated areas to provoke an Israeli military response that kills civilians.

What are the ethics of retaliating against an enemy that uses civilians as human shields?

It’s easy enough to say that Israel could simply do nothing, that its advanced missile defense systems are sufficient protection without defensive aggression. But Hamas’ firepower, even while severely outmatched by its Israeli counterpart, is far from impotent. Five Israeli civilians and one soldier have been killed so far by Hamas rocket fire, and at least 100 have been injured. That’s to say nothing of the terror inspired by constant air raid sirens and calls to take shelter.

How much restraint is a country supposed to exercise when its people are being killed, wounded and menaced en masse by a hostile foreign force? 

Suppose the United States were in a similar position and were facing a government that had no qualms about shooting rockets at New York, Los Angeles and Chicago from hospitals and schools. Would we expect the federal government to do nothing?

Of course, the exchange of fire is just the ugliest symptom of the world’s hardest diplomatic question: the two-state solution.

As an American Jew, I have always had a series of conflicting moral intuitions about Israel and its relationship to Palestine. On the one hand, I’m acutely aware of the history of violence against and efforts to destroy the Jewish people. When I read the section of the Hamas Charter which states, “The Prophet, Allah bless him and grant him salvation, has said: ‘The Day of Judgement will not come about until Moslems fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Moslems, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him,’” I take it at its word.

Yet, the political system in the West Bank is clearly untenable. The Israeli military conducts operations there which in peacetime directly run counter to the principles of liberal democracy: indefinite detention, searches without probable cause, etc. The strict control of the area leads to the impoverishment of its population and could hardly do otherwise.

The most obvious answer is a two-state solution, but Gaza was not exactly a good case study on that front.

As this week has made clear, Israel is still contending with the consequences of allowing Gaza to become a sovereign territory. The West Bank would almost certainly follow suit, making these flare-ups of the conflict that much deadlier and now along two fronts.

Even though a sovereign West Bank may well constitute an existential threat to Israel, Israel can’t continue to operate this way. A two-state solution is the morally necessary outcome.

However, as leaders on both sides, empowered by this most recent outbreak of violence, become more and more hawkish and aggressive, the prospects of such a solution become even bleaker.

And in the end, it will be the millions caught between them who will suffer the consequences.

Jacob Derin is a third-year English and Philosophy major at UC Davis.


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6 Comments

  1. Chris Griffith

    There’s a lady walking down the beach who finds a bottle, rubs it, and out pops a genie. “I know how this goes,” she exclaims, “I get three wishes.”
    “I’m afraid not, young lady. Due to inflationary constraints, you will only be afforded a single wish.”
    Without hesitation, the woman pulls out a map of the Middle East to show the previously incarcerated genie. “I would like for there to be peace in this part of the World.”
    The Genie pauses to scratch his chin. “These people have been at war for a very long time. I’m a highly skilled genie, but I’m not sure even I could pull that off. Is there something else I could do for you?”
    “Okay then,” replies the young maiden, “I would like you to find me the man of my dreams. He must be sweet, honorable, enjoy shopping with me, never lie or cheat, be a perfect father for our beautiful children, and rather spend time with me than do anything else. He should be brave and sensitive, love my cat…”
    “Hold it right there,” says the genie, “Let me see that map again.”

  2. Bill Marshall

    Jacob…

    You need to study more history… the history of Jewish Israelis and Palestinians (be they Muslim, Christian, Druze) is not that simple… you need to go back to the Ottoman Empire, WWI, European colonialism, not just WWII and the establishment of the “state of Israel”… it involves politics, conquest, definitions associated with, and “spin”…

    There is no one group that does not have “bloody hands”… I say that not just as a history nerd, but as someone who visited Israel, Bethlehem (Palestinian Authority), and Jordan a couple of years back…

    Ottoman Empire – Wikipedia

    The Ottoman empire aligned with the Axis nations in WWI… after the war, the Allies split it up…

    Before WWI, within the Ottoman Empire, including Syria, Lebanon, Jordan (called Trans-Jordan until 1948, and includes Israel), Jews, Christians, Muslim, Druze, Bedouin lived pretty much in peace with each other… the French and British, in particular messed that up big time, and complicated it with (after WWII) splitting up Jerusalem in 4 parts… a City with strong ties with Jewish, Christian, Muslim history and faith… Jews founded Jerusalem, but other faiths claimed pieces of it… not surprising… Judaism was the oldest faith… Christians (actually started as “reform Jews”) came next… ~ 800 years later, Islam came about, drawing heavily from the Abrahamic tradition of Judaism, and Christianity… there are books in the Qu-ran that acknowledge Jesus as a revered prophet (not ‘Son of God’, not divine), and deeply respect his mother, Mary (whole ‘book’ on that!)

    The current situation is not essentially about religion, nor ‘race’… those are excuses, “smoke-screens”… it’s about raw political power, control, egos, “nation-building”, etc.  Until the world recognizes it, we’ll be doomed to “Chamberlain solutions”… that did not go well for the world…

    1. Jacob Derin

      I’m not really sure what your point is. You can trace the history of Palestine/Israel back pretty much forever. I brought up the history of the Holocaust because it has an enormous cultural impact on Israelis and on the attitudes of the Israeli government. In particular, Israeli Jews know that they’re pretty much not welcome in any part of the Muslim world and that when people say that they intend to wipe them out, particularly a more numerous enemy, they believe them.

      Some other relevant history is the fact that the UN partition plan was pretty soundly rejected by the Arab League after it decided to attack Israel en masse rather than accept a Jewish state in the Middle East. Should Israel be blamed for winning the war and all the subsequent wars fought against it by its neighbors?

      1. Bill Marshall

        I gave you serious clues as to where the problem lies… you ignore, minimize them.

        Your final question is a sign that you have one, and only one view, of a very complex situation… reminds me of “yes or no, have you stopped beating your spouse yet?”… not worthy of a response… you appear to have a very dogmatic view.

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