The teenage daughter of a friend of mine recently returned from a 6-week trip to Israel. She went with a group of American and Israeli Jewish kids, of various backgrounds — secular, liberal, and orthodox. They traveled all over the country and met all kinds of people, including settlers, Israeli Arabs, and Palestinians.
Someone asked her “if there is one thing that you learned on this trip that you would like to tell us about, what was it?”
She said something like this: “Beforehand, I thought that all we had to do to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was to get the two sides to understand each other’s point of view. Now I see that it’s much harder than that — it goes very, very deep”.
Indeed. This young woman has been active in interfaith activities. I’m sure that the emphasis was on understanding, listening to the other side’s point of view, and getting to know each other as individuals, not as stereotypes.
And probably what she heard was that if it were possible to prevent “a few extremists on both sides” from stirring up hatred and violence, the conflict could be solved by reasonable people talking, listening, and compromising.
But, as she found out, it’s not that easy. There are several kinds of basic disagreements between Israelis and Palestinians that can’t be settled this way. Here are just a few of many that inform the conflict:
- Disagreements about what happened in the past. Did the Zionists dispossess Arabs? Did the Arabs commit pogroms against the pre-state yishuv? Did the Palestinians and the Arab Nations attack the Jewish State in 1947-48 or did the Jews try to drive the Palestinians out? Why did the Palestinian refugees flee? Why did the Jews flee from Arab countries at the same time? What was Nasser’s true intent in 1967? Why did Oslo fail? Were most of the Lebanese casualties of the 2006 war civilians or Hezbollah soldiers? How many were there, anyway? Who shot Mohammad Dura (if anyone)?
- Disagreements about what is happening now. Are Palestinians in Gaza suffering from the international boycott of Hamas, or is Hamas getting plenty of aid and using it for a military buildup? Does Fatah represent anyone other than the US? Is Palestinian terrorism justified resistance to illegal occupation, or aggressive warfare against a legitimate state?
- Disagreements about intentions. Is Israel building the security fence primarily to keep out terrorists or to steal land? Does Fatah (assuming that it represents anyone) really intend to abide by a two-state peace treaty, or would they consider a Palestinian state in the territories merely a stepping stone to the conquest of Israel?
And the most difficult kind of disagreement of all,
- Disagreements about principles and ideology. Can Muslims live in a Jewish state? Can a Jewish state also be democratic? Can there be a Jewish state in the Middle East at all? Do Jews have a historic right to live in Judea and Samaria? Should the 1929 Hebron pogrom or the 1948 ethnic cleansing of East Jerusalem be allowed to stand? Who must have authority over the Temple Mount? What should be the rights, if any, of descendants of refugees?
None of this is easy, and it is all connected, with the historical narratives serving as justification for today’s ideology. And there is one whole additional dimension of the conflict, which actually has little to do with Israelis and Palestinians:
- The meddling of outside interests. What are the goals of Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the US, the EU, Egypt, Syria, etc.? And what do they all expect to get out of the conflict?
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