Another round of lethal Palestinian-Israeli exchanges, this time involving Israeli attacks targeting the leadership and infrastructure of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the relentless launching of over 1,000 missiles and rockets on Israeli civilian centers, has once again wreaked havoc in the long-besieged Gaza Strip and throughout many parts of Israel. Despite the improved technological accuracy attributed to the foray, its human cost continues to rise in life, limb, livelihood and spirit – not only for Palestinians, but also for Israelis. As of last night, it appears to have subsided – like its predecessors – into an uneasy truce, until yet another stage in this seemingly endless cycle will reignite the violence. The realization that only a diplomatic settlement can break the escalating spiral is by now a truism.
For far too long, all involved have clung systematically to short-term military objectives in the hope of forcing a détente. This has not worked in the past and further iterations cannot be expected to yield dissimilar results. To achieve a long-lasting understanding, it is necessary to cast aside some key fallacies that continue to fuel the increasingly destructive conflict and replace them with principles that can set it on a different, constructive, course. Multiple historical and comparative examples provide significant instruction and practical guidance. The revision of three key working assumptions can go a long way to setting such a process in motion.
The first faulty presumption relates to the definition of the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For a century and more, both sides have cultivated the notion that the presence and prosperity of the other constitutes an existential threat to their survival and their being. This zero-sum perception has informed every explosive moment since the late 19th century – including the renewed Jewish settlement efforts on the land under Ottoman rule, the promulgation of the Balfour Declaration and the establishment of the British mandate, the 1929 and 1936 riots, World War II, the United Nations partition agreement, the subsequent War of Independence/Nakba, and then extending to a host of campaigns, skirmishes, wars and armed initiatives. With a few notable exceptions, this common thread has tied Palestinians and Israelis together in the grip of a humanly horrendous Gordian knot.
This narrow, militaristic, prism has progressively subsumed efforts at accommodation. Israelis and Palestinians can no longer afford to succumb to this mutually destructive mentality. It not only invites further acrimony, misery and frustration; it also misses the key point – that at root the conflict is about preserving the history, identity, culture and collective aspirations of each community. This is the embodiment of a national conflict, compounded over time by a growing power imbalance and institutionalized asymmetry, culminating in untold enmity.
The confusion between the manifestations and the causes of the Palestinian-Israeli conundrum has cast a long shadow on successive efforts to devise a way for both peoples to live alongside each other with dignity and mutual respect. Only by confronting this core issue and acknowledging the equality of all those residing on the land – individually and collectively – will it be possible to avert additional deterioration.
The second fallacy flowing from the pattern of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to date relates to its dynamics. The underlying assumption is that this confrontation is unique and must be treated as such. Movements of national liberation are, however, an integral part of modern history – dating back to the American Revolution and continuing unabated, especially after the world wars and cold wars of the 20th century and the struggles for self-determination that have punctuated the first decades of the present millennium. Each has its own specific characteristics; none can be considered sui generis. The Jewish and Palestinian struggles are no exception. Drawing concrete lessons from experiences of similar conflicts elsewhere is vital.
Three distinct periods characterize the Israeli-Palestinian dynamic. The first, from the turn of the 20th century until 1948, revolved around the rivalry between the indigenous Arab community and successive waves of Jewish migrants seeking to construct a national home in their historical homeland. The second, between 1948 and 1967, was marked by Palestinian displacement and dispersion on the one hand, and Israeli consolidation and construction on the other, as the conflict was largely externalized. The third, now in its 55th year, commenced with the Israeli takeover of Gaza and the West Bank in 1967 and has continued in various forms – directly and indirectly – to this very day.
The unequal internalization of the conflict has pitted the Palestinians against their Israeli rulers, who continue to exercise control over their lives and their being. From this point, the pattern of the Palestinian struggle against Israeli rule has progressed along a familiar trajectory common to all national liberation movements facing recalcitrant occupiers seeking to maintain their dominance and assert their right to equality both individually and collectively (including that of self-determination).
This process has proceeded in several well-known stages, commencing with a demand for self-rule which was not facilitated by the intransigence of the Arab world and largely dismissed by successive Israeli governments. It then went on to greater activism propelled by largely non-violent grassroots political action with the outbreak of the first intifada in the late 1980s. In most parts of Asia and Africa, decolonization ended at this stage with the political withdrawal of the colonial powers. In this case, however, the coercive Israeli response only produced further Palestinian resolve. The quest for a diplomatic solution and the signing of the Oslo accords hinted at the possibility of a durable peace, involving mutual recognition and the return of the PLO hierarchy to Gaza and portions of the West Bank. But the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin and rising Palestinian frustrations led to the eruption of further violence, accompanied in Israel and the Palestinian territories by internal fragmentation and mounting radicalization (a shift to the right in Israel; the rise of the Hamas, especially in Gaza). This escalating cycle was accompanied, here as in other places, by a process of international intervention that has added fuel to the fire.
At each juncture, it was possible to move to diplomacy. Every effort in this direction, from the Arab Peace Initiative, the Annapolis process, and up to the Kerry intervention, resulted in naught, further narrowing the available options. The latest rounds – most notably the euphemistically named “Operation Guardian of the Walls” just last year and now “Operation Breaking Dawn” – have further intensified the spiral of violence, magnifying internal radicalization (bringing Islamic Jihad and the ultra-right Jewish Kahanists directly into the mix). The relative calm of the past year has not been able to cover the fact that the situation on the ground is fast reverting to its pre-1948 mode with the contemporary addition of global fatigue and neglect that perpetuate the vicious stalemate.
Debates over the details and consequences of this dynamic tend to blind observers and participants alike. In this climate of obduracy and growing despondency it is easy to forget the main lesson of all national liberation struggles in the modern era: that they have all successfully ended in the termination of foreign overrule. Even the most asymmetrical confrontations (Vietnam, South Africa, Ukraine today, along with Israel itself) prove that eventually, no force can withstand the demand for freedom and self-determination forever. Israel, too, however much it attempts to do so, cannot defy this pattern.
The manner of the resolution of the conflict is therefore crucial. In recent rounds, including that of the past few days, attention has focused on the exit strategy, even though more often than not, it has been easier to identify the trigger for escalation than to foresee how it would end. Achieving a military hiatus, however, is clearly not enough.
The real test lies in translating the temporary calm into a diplomatic process that can yield a lasting accommodation. This is the key challenge facing Israelis and Palestinians. If they once again use the lull to plot how to improve their offensive capabilities, they will bring about even greater chaos and anarchy. But if, with regional backing and international support, they finally address the root causes of their conflict and come to grips with its consequences – as has been the case in many other places – then it may be possible to jumpstart a workable diplomatic process. Achieving an agreement – involving compromises uncomfortable to many – is the first step in commencing that rehabilitation necessary to make life livable again for everyone. The dawn can still lead to a bright new day if we make this happen.