I have always found it difficult to understand why the unending debate surrounding Israel and Palestine is one of the most heated and controversial of our time. No other on-going conflict anywhere in the world seems to generate such a huge amount of debate in the public square, with various countries in the West as well as their citizens taking a firm stance on one side or the other. It is certainly good to bring situations like this into the public eye, to debate them, and to bring to light any war crimes and other injustices that may have been committed. But I find that the extremely divisive debate on this issue serves only to polarise opinion, painting a black and white picture where a more nuanced one is required. Moreover, Western countries and organisations choosing sides only risks prolonging the conflict rather than resolving it.
In the last issue of TN, Oisín Coulter wrote an article calling for TCDSU to join the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel. He raises many fair points with which I have to agree, especially regarding the role academics, both in Trinity and elsewhere in Ireland, have had working on projects listed as ‘security’ and ‘aerospace’ with Israeli companies and institutes. If our student fees are going towards developing equipment for a foreign military engaged in dubious activities, we have a right to know about it and to have a say in it. He is also right to draw attention to the huge number of Palestinian civilians killed by the IDF during various military operations, as well as the discrimination they face in the West Bank and Israel itself.
The problem I have with Coulter’s article is the same problem I have with most articles taking up the cause of either Israel or Palestine: namely, the strong tendency to depict this conflict in a one-sided manner by downplaying, glossing over or even denying the reprehensible actions committed by one side or the other. Furthermore, most such articles don’t attempt to understand where the other side is coming from, and propose confrontational solutions that are unlikely to help the situation. Most articles defending Israel would have us believe that the country is a beacon of justice, democracy and freedom in the Middle East with an unblemished record. Most of those defending Palestine take the view that all Palestinians are innocent lambs, helpless and alone against a powerful aggressor. The former ignore the Israeli government’s discrimination against Palestinians in areas such as water distribution, building permits and forcible relocations to make way for illegal settlements, not to mention large numbers of civilian casualties during military actions such as Operation Cast Lead and more recently Operation Pillar of Defense. The latter casually gloss over the huge number of rockets and mortar shells fired at Israeli civilian centres by Hamas and their allies Hezbollah in Lebanon (over 15,000 altogether between 2002 and 2013 according to CBS News) and suicide bombings carried out by groups such as Hamas and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, again often in civilian areas.
“Singling out one side or another for boycotts, sanctions and other punitive measures without even acknowledging that that side might also have legitimate concerns, grievances and difficulties is not a good way to earn their trust and secure cooperation for a genuine peace process.”
Granted, the number of Israeli casualties is much lower. But the Amnesty International report on Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009 found that both sides in the conflict were guilty of war crimes, stating that “both the Israeli and the Palestinian sides have failed to investigate the violations of international law, including war crimes, committed by their forces. The responsibility now lies with the international community to take concrete steps to ensure justice and redress for the victims and accountability for the perpetrators on all sides.” It concluded by stating that peace would only come about if justice was achieved for all victims. If we genuinely want peace and an end to injustice in Israel and Palestine, a new approach is required, one that is less confrontational and adversarial and more committed to honesty. Singling out one side or another for boycotts, sanctions and other punitive measures without even acknowledging that that side might also have legitimate concerns, grievances and difficulties is not a good way to earn their trust and secure cooperation for a genuine peace process. Turning a blind eye to the wrongs of one side or another sends out a signal that we tacitly approve of such actions, whether they be drone bombings or rocket attacks. Most important of all, we need to see where each side is coming from and try to understand their concerns.
Israel, for example, is a country surrounded on all sides by hostile nations such as Egypt, Syria and Jordan amongst others, which have all tried to invade several times in the past, as in the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War, amongst others. The people of Israel live under constant threat of rocket attack, and even if the new Iron Dome defense system means that casualties are now few and far between, there is nonetheless an atmosphere of fear in the country. Is it so hard to understand then that the people of Israel have an extremely defensive attitude and are unlikely to cooperate with foreign measures intended to coerce them into an agreement without acknowledging their own losses, or their fears and concerns?
On the other side of things, supporters of Israel need to develop a genuine concern for the plight of ordinary Palestinians who are living under a discriminatory regime, many of whom have lost loved ones, including children, to indiscriminate bombing during IDF military operations. If there is no willingness amongst Israel and its supporters to reach out and seek an end to injustice and a peaceful resolution, more Palestinians will be driven to join military groups and take part in violent reprisals, perpetuating the cycle of violence.
So what should be done on our part? The wrongdoings of both Israel and Palestine should still be brought to light, and justice sought for their respective victims. But instead of engaging in a polarising debate where the only goal is the defeat of a chosen opponent, those advocating for Israel or Palestine in the public square should stop demonising their opponents and try to understand one another, acknowledge that neither side is perfect and try to move on. Perhaps together, groups fighting for Palestinian rights or security for Israel can influence the Israeli and Palestinian governments by showing that there can be mutual understanding and agreement. Partisan debate, on the other hand, will only serve to further polarise the two sides and make peace and justice more distant prospects.