Open Zion

11.22.12

Old Problems and New Realities

Political problems require political solutions. Old political problems sometimes require new political solutions.

The latest Israeli attacks on the besieged Gaza Strip represents the most recent eruption in a long, abusive relationship characterized mainly by violence. One of the earliest Israeli military engagements in the Gaza Strip took place in 1956, an event ably chronicled by the journalist Joe Sacco in his book Footnotes in Gaza. Then as now, the operation was undertaken on the pretext of providing security in the Jewish-majority state. It entailed deploying the Israeli army into Palestinian refugee camps to “mow the grass.” The lawn was duly clipped—more than 250 men and boys were massacred—but it was also unwittingly fertilized.

My father was a five-year-old refugee in 1956. The slaughter marked his mind indelibly. It contributed to the tableau of grievances inherited by every refugee. After all, his parents had been expelled from their homes by early Zionists in their dogged pursuit of a Jewish-majority state. Now his people were wantonly punished for resisting the expulsion; for seeking to reverse it. Observers sometimes insist that the question of how things get started rarely matters. Instead, the useful and humane question is about how to end the violence. But in the case of the Palestinians and Israelis, a failure to properly account for history is to do both peoples a disservice. 

140 Palestinians and 4 Israelis died, as negotiators brokered a deal to end the fighting. A ceasefire was announced yesterday—and it may even be enforced for a time. But the macabre tango will continue before long. Civilians on both sides will invariably provide the score. Most people know that the cycle will continue if a just outcome isn’t arrived at. But any permanent solution to the conflict must address the pulsing cyst at its heart. Palestine was ethnically cleansed. The nakba has never been accounted for.

For decades, the Palestinians have seen their lives and potential frustrated by the realities of the refugee camps. In the Gaza Strip, the degree of impoverishment and human suffering is dispiriting. It is also remediable. Lifting the Israeli siege is a necessary first step towards arriving at a permanent solution. There is no moral justification for preventing Palestinian students in Gaza from studying in the West Bank or abroad, a current Israeli policy.

But ending the siege is only a palliative measure. Political problems require political solutions. And a political solution means acknowledging a few facts. 

Hamas represents a significant portion of the Palestinian people. That fact became manifestly clear after President George W. Bush called for Palestinian elections in 2006. Members of Hamas were empowered by the electorate, and President Jimmy Carter certified that the poll was free and fair. Yet the United States and most of Europe refused to recognize Hamas’s win at ballot box. For exercising their right to free representation, the Palestinians were punished. They were abandoned by the Europeans, isolated by the Americans, and besieged by Israel—literally. Eventually, in June 2007, Hamas violently seized control of the strip in a pre-emptive counter-coup against a U.S.-backed effort to unseat its democratic hold on Palestinian self-government.

Six years have passed, have been wasted, since the Palestinians went to the polls. The suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza has failed to produce an uprising against Hamas, as hopeful analysts in the West predicted it would. It is now time to try something different: now is the time to end the siege and engage the Islamic party.

Another unacknowledged fact may perhaps be painful to bear for some on both sides: The two-state outcome is dead. That is true just as surely as there are six-hundred thousand Israeli settlers living on Palestinian land in the West Bank. Today, an impenetrable ring of settlements isolates East Jerusalem from its Palestinian hinterlands. Immovable Israeli colonies sit atop Palestinian freshwater reserves in the West Bank. The infrastructure of apartheid has wended its way across the land for forty-six years now and the Israeli-only roads in the West Bank cannot be retracted. 

No amount of tardigrade presidential movement on the issue will revive the two-state formula. Instead, well-intentioned people must begin to think about ways to live together in the land of Palestine/Israel. They have to think about how to finally address the events of 1948, and to consider how to provide justice and security to both Palestinians and Israelis. They have to consider life in a binational state. 

The notion of a one-state solution may seem whimsical or even dangerous at this dark time. But it is precisely when conditions are bleakest that people on both sides require a positive vision for the future. Liberal democracy—the idea that everyone, Jew and non-Jew, is equal before the law—has served us well here in the United States. Could it serve Palestinians and Israelis equally well?