PALESTINE AND ISRAEL:
A PORTRAIT OF TWO PEOPLES
At this very difficult time in the Middle East and for the world, you will see that what I have written about below is consciousness, the collective awareness of two peoples. It is not a proscription for action and it is not a judgment concerning the acts of violence that have taken place on both sides in this latest Arab-Israeli engagement. Instead, it is an attempt to see to the heart of what motivates people to act in the ways that they do, and especially to understand the heart of a nation.
At times of distress, it is only natural to want to 'do something' about a situation so that more people do not suffer and so that more lives are not lost, and of course this is critically important. But where does the decision come from concerning what 'to do'? And from what level of awareness can we, as a collective humanity, make that decision so that peace is a real peace and so that the underlying causes of conflict are truly addressed?
You will also see, in what I have written, that there are deeper causes at issue in the present Arab-Israeli conflict than the immediate precipitants. These are long-standing causes which carry deeply felt attitudes and beliefs in the hearts of people on both sides in this conflict - attitudes which need to be replaced by a new willingness for each to recognize the essential humanity and right to exist of the other. This 'right to exist' is the most basic of human rights and its violation the most basic kind of human deprivation. With this deeper perspective in mind, I share with you a focus on consciousness that has some bearing on what is presently emerging on the world stage as a tragedy of large proportions – not only for Israel, Palestine, and Lebanon, but for the rest of the world as well. My hope is that it will help liberate thinking from the confines of judgment to see more as God sees, with a heart of compassion for all.
With love, Julie
PALESTINE: THE LOSS OF DIGNITY
Fundamental to an understanding of the conflict between Israel and Palestine that has blazed for the past sixty years as a fire that will not go out, is the awareness of what human degradation and the deprivation of basic human rights can do to a people and to a nation. Such degradation occurs when populations that have an inherent dignity and self-awareness based on a historical identity are suddenly relegated to a position of being 'less-than' and are suddenly moved to a different place in the world due to the greater power of an occupying force. This scenario applies to large groups of displaced persons, worldwide, who have been forced to leave their homes. It is still actively practiced in large portions of Africa, in Asia, and in the Middle East, and it is based on the willingness of those with greater power to treat masses of people as if they no longer had the same claims to humanity as others. This is the root cause of the sense of degradation and of the feeling of humiliation that results from it.
Inevitably, treatment of this kind, both of enforced relocation and of the necessity of tolerating an occupying force on one's own land, creates a tension of unbridled helplessness and frustration that causes an uprising to occur in those who have been rendered powerless. It is inevitable, because the inherent dignity of human beings will always be pursued to the extent that it is possible to pursue it, and therefore wherever there is room for movement to eradicate the conditions of degradation, groups of people that have been placed in this position will rebel and will seek redress for their sense of oppression and dispossession.
In relation to the situation in Palestine, what was once a land occupied by both Arabs and Jews is now a territory largely governed by an occupying force. This has been the case for six decades now, and the factors of oppression and dispossession continue to weigh heavily on those Palestinians who remain within that land and on the many who have been forced into exile. The presence of degradation is something that Palestinians have had to live with as exiles within permanent refugee camps abroad as well as within their own land. Within this land, the situation is one of ongoing poverty, high unemployment, and the absence of a viable national center of authority that could coalesce the resources of a people and build an economic and political structure that could stand in the world as an independent entity.
Palestinians have been deprived of all these things and the world has allowed this to continue, primarily because of the economic and security benefits to nations who ally themselves with Israel and with the U.S. in its firm support of Israel. The formation of global alliances based on economic benefit has created an isolation around Palestine and its ongoing situation which only the support of the Arab world has continued to mitigate through both peaceful and violent means of trying to address the wrongs it feels have been done to the Palestinian people. This is not to justify acts of terrorism that have been committed in service to changing these conditions, only to explain the perspective that is held by those in the Arab world sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.
There is no hope for an end to the conflict between Israel and Palestine unless the issue about violation of land rights and about degradation on a human level can be addressed as the basic cause fueling each of the particular conditions that establishes every new conflict and every new act of violence. (See: No Mideast Peace without a Palestinian State - May 15, 2005). The desire to rise up (intifada) is strong within the Palestinian people, most of whom do not subscribe to terrorist tactics but who also do not wholeheartedly condemn them either, since in a situation of desperation, they seem to provide, for many, the only hope of a way out. The possibility of a way out is why the Hamas party was voted into power in January of 2006. Such an election was thought to be impossible and is still held to be an aberration by Western governments who refuse to recognize its legitimacy. But it is not an aberration. It is based on the desperation of a people to reclaim its land and dignity 'by any means necessary' on the one hand, even while deploring terrorism on the other. This division of consciousness is one that many dispossessed people carry who have felt oppressed for a long time. Most would not engage in violence but understand it and may silently support it in others who are willing to take action that has a chance of changing the balance of power.
The fact that the West has not recognized the legitimacy of the Hamas government with all the economic consequences that have accrued as a result of that, is part of what will cause the situation of violence to continue within Palestine and between Israel and its neighbors. The other and more significant part is the unbridled power of Israel to maintain its supremacy economically, militarily, and in terms of the daily regulation of the lives of Palestinians, which continues to give new cause for new rounds of violence and a new justification of action against the 'aggressor'. The underlying and everpresent sense of oppression and dispossession among Palestinians has given rise, within the present situation, to a demand for the exchange of Palestinian detainees within Israeli prisons - a symbol and reality of what is perceived as Israeli oppression. This demand has become a central focus in the present conflict, not only in terms of negotiating with Hamas, but also, now, in terms of negotiating with Lebanon's Hezbollah.
Within Israeli prisons are 8000 Palestinian political prisoners. According to one Palestinian rights organization, 344 are juveniles, 119 are women, and 750 are ‘administrative detainees’, which means no charge has been leveled against them. Addameer, a Palestinian non-governmental organization founded in 1992 puts it this way: (My paraphrase) "Detention of prisoners in Israel is not a practice but a policy. Whenever the Israeli government wants to get rid of political leaders, it finds a pretext to do so, rounds them up, and they are taken to prison for an indeterminate period of time." The absence of rights of Palestinian and other Arab nationals within Israeli prisons as well as the method of abduction that has gotten them there has remained within the Arab world as a burning thorn whose pain never goes away.
While it is also true that Israel has a right to defend herself and must do so in the presence of hostile neighbors who seek her destruction, the right to do so cannot at the same time violate the rights of other peoples to exist. This is the basic source of the conflict that lies at the root of all others – the right to exist which must be accorded to all, equally. The violation of this right has been seen by the Arab world as one that is greatly enhanced by U.S. military and economic aid to Israel. For many in the Arab world, the problem of Israeli occupation of Palestinian land is not single but twofold, namely, that of Israel's desire to retain control of the land it presently occupies and that of U.S. support for Israel. For without the vast military and economic resources that Israel receives from the U.S., much less would be possible militarily.
For the West to recognize the legitimacy of the Hamas government would be a place to start in effecting change in this situation, but in order to do so, there would need to be a further basis for negotiation around the issue of land, since land represents the fundamental source and body of nationhood for the Palestinian people as well as the resource which will return to them a sense of dignity as a people. Without both sides being willing to come to a different place in relation to the issue of occupied territory and refugee return, there would be no point in recognizing Hamas since the justification for its desire to remove Israel from the picture would continue unabated. It is only negotiation around the question of how two peoples can coexist within the land that has historically been shared by them both that will allow for a change to the situation that is presently so inflamed in the Middle East.
Israel has claimed the land that she presently occupies as her own. It is time now, in service to the need for peace and in service to the calling for the greater humanity of all peoples, that both Israel and Palestine each consider the welfare and existence of the other as an essential part of what will bring an end to conflict and a resolution to the hatred and violence that has plagued Israeli-Palestinian relations for almost six decades.
ISRAEL: THE SOUL OF A PEOPLE
The consciousness of a people is shaped both by recent events that affect the lives of its population in an immediate way, and also by the history of its passage through time which forms part of its soul's history and national identity. Thus, the national identity of Israel is not simply defined by its existence as a state since it won independence in 1948, but also by the long history of dispersion and persecution of the Jewish people which culminated in the Holocaust of the nineteen-forties. The legacy of the Holocaust lives today within the background awareness of Jews everywhere, even if they have had no part in it and even if they were not immediately touched by it. It is part of the Jewish heritage and collective consciousness. This must be understood in order to understand Israel today, for her posture is one that is influenced by her soul's history. This history reflects a characteristic pattern of separation and persecution for Jews, even while they assimilated into the center of life in cities and towns throughout Europe and the Middle East. Such treatment continued in many locations over many centuries, bringing with it an absence of the capacity for self-protection that has been a significant feature of Jewish history till now. Today, we see in Israel's policies and practices, an effort to reverse this karmic picture and to prevent the kinds of losses and vulnerabilities that have plagued it throughout time.
The tensions that we see in the Middle East today did not just begin with the creation of the state of Israel in l947. They began long before this in the tension and difficulty that erupted from time to time between two cultural communities, the Jewish and the Arab, who lived side by side, often in the same towns and villages within many nations, yet who could not fully trust or identify with each other. The difference in backgrounds, practices, and beliefs, culturally, religiously, and historically, created an invisible barrier around both groups, separating them and causing ongoing suspiciousness and mistrust which, during certain historical periods, could be surmounted with a semblance of peace prevailing, while during others, it allowed for the expression of open hostilities..(1) For the more numerous Arabs, the problem of coexisting with a Jewish community that often played a major role in the economic and cultural life of a town or city was one that was possible until yet another incident took place which caused the age-old suspiciousness to resurface. Then, the effect was one that later came to be called 'pogroms' or efforts at 'ethnic cleansing'. This periodic outbreak of violence and of dispossession of property often required the Jewish population to move to a new location in order to protect itself. For this reason, communities of Jews within Arab land were never really safe, nor were they really understood. At best they were tolerated, at worst they were persecuted. This situation persisted for a very long time. It continues into the present.
The state of Israel was founded against this background at a time when Arab-Jewish tensions ran high, causing the British who governed the Palestinian Mandate to seek a UN solution to the question of peaceful settlement of the two groups and the division of land. This request for UN mediation also took place at a time when great need existed to find a solution to the problem of displaced persons created by the Second World War - a problem that created a breed of persons who no longer had a home or an identity, who were wanderers with no family roots and nowhere to go. They were largely Jewish, but also included other ethnic minorities who had suffered greatly at the hands of the Nazis. An obvious place for relocation was the territory of Palestine, held as sacred land in a biblical sense by many immigrants who felt themselves to be returning 'home'. When the British, under pressure to resolve the internal Arab-Jewish tensions turned the matter over to the UN in 1947(2), it was UN resolution 181 which divided up the territory into two independent states, one of which became present-day Israel.
The birth of a Jewish nation was a pivotal event in the soul-consciousnes of a people. It had implications far beyond the obvious one of having a permanent place of residence which would be a place of freedom for Jews and in which they would no longer be persecuted. This national birth gave rise to a new consciousness of hope for a people and the realization of a return, for many, to the 'promised land' that had been given to their forefathers. On a practical level, it allowed for the immigration of several hundred thousand refugees(3) who wanted to come to the new land while at the same time seeming to offer a way of creating a more peaceful relationship between Arabs and Jews within the former British territory. The state of Israel was founded on the basis of this dual necessity - that of providing for those who had survived the dislocation, death, and loss of identity due to the horrors of war, and that of creating a geographically defined situation in which Jews and Arabs could live in close proximity yet separately within their own states. Out of this dispensation, it was hoped that a new beginning could be made, one in which Jews could live in peace and freedom - something that had only been possible before based on the variable goodwill of others, not as an inherent right.
Of course this was not what occurred. For immediately upon receiving sanction for developing the structure of nationhood, conflict with the Arab world began anew and materialized in the 1948 War for Independence. The resentment and antagonism that was part of the history of Arab-Jewish relations flared up once again, this time because of the resentment of an Arab population that did not agree with the UN division of land and felt that the Jews had acquired what did not belong to them. Now, Palestinians began to suffer as a result. It was the beginning of Israel's fight to exist, and also of Palestine's fight to exist.
During the War for Independence in 1948 and following it, the problem of Palestinian refugees became extreme. Millions of people were on the move(4), fleeing, displaced, or expelled by the Israelis as they claimed what was 'rightfully' theirs. These displaced persons fled to other countries or to other locations within their own land for safety's sake and because their homes and land no longer belonged to them any more. For those who remained, many promised themselves that they would find a way of regaining what they had lost and a way of providing for the return of those who had been driven out. In many ways, the situation with Palestinian refugees echoed the situation that had existed previously with the Jews who lived within the Arab world. Now, however, the conditions were reversed.
This background concerns the current situation that has emerged in Arab-Israeli relations and it concerns not only Israel-Palestine, but also Israel in relation to the rest of the Arab world. It is the backdrop for what is taking place today as Israel seeks to defend its right to exist against all who would seek to undermine that existence, and as Israel fights on with a determination shaped by the Holocaust and also by its earlier history that says "never again" – never again shall we be victimized by those who would threaten our lives or harm our people. This determination in many ways shapes the consciousness of a nation.
(1) For a somewhat simplified version of the history of Jews in Arab countries see: History of Jews in Arab Countries: Before and After 1948 by the Historical Society of Jews from Egypt. This includes a summary of events concerning Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Algeria, Yemen, Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya.
(2) Wikipedia. 1947 UN Partition Plan. Arab-Israeli Conflict. Mandate for Palestine.
(3) Israel Ministry of Finance. Immigration to Israel (Graph: 1949-2000)
(4) Palestine Media Center. Palestinian Refugees: Facts and Figures. Nov., 2004.
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Please send any comments or questions concerning the above article to JR@lightomega.org. I welcome hearing from you. With love, Julie