Nathaniel Helfgot

On Historical Context

Historical Context, Absolute Justice and Our Current Moment

In the immediate aftermath of the brutal Hamas attacks on Israeli towns and kibbutzim near the Gaza Strip and the last two months, many Palestinian writers, pundits and their supporters have expressed the view that the attacks have to be understood in the context of the 56 year Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip or in the eyes of Hamas and its supporters, the 75 year occupation, as they see all of Israel as “occupied territory” that needs to be dismantled. Moreover, in addition to the occupation of Palestinian territories, these writers note that the 16 year blockade of Gaza (in tandem with Egypt), the violence Israel has rained upon Gaza civilians in the last decade and a half of wars and skirmishes with Hamas, together with the absence of any political horizon for a Palestinian state, must be remembered to appreciate the context that led to the October 7th massacres:

There is no doubt that historical context is critical to understanding the brutal events of October 7th and the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that the military occupation of the Palestinian is surely important to incorporate into any discussion, though here too, the line between understanding and justification must not be crossed:

The question of historical context, however, needs to be discussed with a broader lens than articulated by these writers as it touches on the core issues of what could have been an alternative course of history, responsibility for the current situation, and a vision for the way forward. Questions of “absolute justice”, historical choices and practical solutions have to be addressed and confronted if there will ever be any peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum. It is this wider historical context and not just the last 16 or 56 years of occupation (selectively remembered and cherry picked) that must be part of the discussion.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at its core a clash of competing national liberation movements of two peoples who each have deep historical and religious ties to the Land of Israel/Palestine. It is also a conflict between two competing narratives, held by members of distinct ethnic/national groups who each see their own people as being indigenous to this land with a historical and moral right to control and settle it. In the case of the Palestinians, many of their family roots stretch back one to two hundred years in their native towns and villages. For others, their immigration to Palestine reaches back to the early twentieth century long before there was a State of Israel. The Jewish people, from their side, have deep roots in the Land of Israel stretching back millennia and even when they were exiled or left the Holy Land, small groups of Jews remained in the land in parts of the Galilee, Hebron, Jerusalem, Safed and even in Gaza throughout the two millennia of exile and persecution. Most Jews, however, lived during those centuries in the Diaspora, far from their homeland. During those long centuries of exile, they experienced deep antisemitism in European lands and second-class status in many Arab countries, even as they produced and created a rich cultural, religious and literary heritage. Their connection to the land, however, never wavered and was transmitted to their progeny in the dreams, prayers and hopes of one day returning to their native homeland. This yearning was transformed into a real political program in the wake of the virulent anti-Jewish pogroms and violence Jews experienced in Eastern Europe in the late 19th century and the emerging nationalism and calls for national independence that swept the world at that time. This national awakening was actualized in the 20th century by the national movement of Zionism and the establishment of the State of Israel and the ingathering of the exiles. For most Jews, the process was and is seen as returning to their homeland, not colonizing a new territory that they had no ties to like the British in India or the Spanish in the Americas.

In the aftermath of the collapse of the Ottoman empire which had controlled the Middle East and the Balfour Declaration in 1918, Britain was given a mandate by the League of Nations in 1920 with the purpose of establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Since that point the two national liberation movements of the Arab and Jewish communities have been in tension and conflict in moral and political terms. In the early 1920’s Western powers such as England and France, who controlled the Middle East divided the territories and allotted them to various Arab family clans to create countries that we know today as Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. In 1921, Britain reneged on its original promise to the Jewish people and allotted the entire territory east of the Jordan river to the Hashemite Kingdom to establish an Arab State. Thus, 77% of mandatory Palestine was taken away by England from the Jewish people to create the country of Jordan, in the first of many promises broken to Jews and Arabs in the Middle East by Western powers. For many Jews, “absolute justice” demanded that the entire area of the biblical Land of Israel including both the West bank and East banks of the Jordan, and parts of what later would be Lebanon and Syria be incorporated into any Jewish home in the Land of Israel. In the end, however, as the 1920’s and 1930’s passed, the majority of Zionist leaders and their followers gave up on this desire for “absolute justice” and recognized that establishing any Jewish homeland in any part of the Land of Israel for their homeless people was the more important need of the hour.

The Palestinian national movement which coalesced during this same period saw the entire process of giving part of the land on which they lived and worked on for decades as profoundly unjust. It was, in their view a colonial power play that was illegitimate and fought bitterly against any attempt to accommodate an autonomous Jewish homeland in any part of Palestine. The overwhelming majority of Palestinian leaders of the time maintained the view that no quarter should be given to acceptance of a Jewish homeland on any part of historic Palestine. While a small percentage of intellectuals and thinkers of the growing Jewish Yishuv in the 1920’s and 1930’s such as Martin Buber and Ernst Simon, advocated for a bi-national Jewish-Arab state, this proposal had little traction in the mainstream of Jewish leadership and residents of the blossoming pre-state Jewish society, known as the Yishuv. Scholarship of that era suggest that no more than 10 percent of the Yishuv believed in the notion of a bi-national state. Openness to bi-nationalism amongst the Palestinian leadership of the time was even smaller than that, and those who did advocate it, such as Fawiz Al-Husseini, were ostracized and even murdered by agents of the hardline Palestinian leadership such as the Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajamin Al-Husseni.

As the conflict and tensions between Arabs and Jews grew throughout the 1930’s and 1940’s, manifest in the Arab Riots and general strike of 1936-1937, the successful Palestinian pressure on British mandate authorities to curb Jewish immigration to Palestine (which consigned many Jewish families to oblivion in Europe and hardened Jewish attitudes towards the local Arab populace) the growing agitation of the underground Jewish para-military groups against British rule and the growing support for Zionism in the Jewish world, led the Western powers to search for a solution to this simmering issue. The proposal of partitioning Palestine, west of the Jordan river, into a Jewish and Arab state, with no one group getting all of its demands came to the fore in the Peel Commission of the mid 1930’s. In the aftermath of the unfathomable calamity of the Holocaust, the refugee crisis of Jews in the DP camps and the growing desire of Britain to extricate itself from Palestine, the United Nations proposed adopted the partition plan to divide the land into two states, one Jewish and one Arab, with Jerusalem an internationalized entity.

Many Jews were opposed to this partition proposal in the name of the absolute right of the Jewish people to control of its full historic territory, but the majority of Jews accepted that absolute justice was not possible in the real world of the demographics and political realities that they confronted. Thus, despite not having control of its historic religious and political heart: Jerusalem, nor of the historic Biblical cities at the heart of Jewish history such as Hebron, where the prophets preached and the Hasmoneans reigned, they recognized the need of the hour for a truncated Jewish homeland. Absolute justice and recompense would have to wait as the needs of the people were too great.

The Palestinian national movement in consort with the Arab countries of the world made a historic gambit and rejected the offer of partition as unjust and unfair and joined forces with seven Arab nations. First, they waged a civil war against their Jewish neighbors from December 1947 through April 1948 and then joined in battle with the invading Arab armies after the creation of the State of Israel in May 1948 in order to snuff out the young state. The victory of the Israeli forces and the destruction of many Arab villages during the fighting, the dispossession of parts of the Palestinian community during the fighting, the exodus of whole communities fleeing from the crossfire of war, and the targeted expulsions of some Arab communities, and the limited number of, yet immoral massacres of Palestinians during the hostilities by para-military and military units was a massive disaster for the Palestinian people that created a wave of refugees and a deep hostility to the victorious Jewish state. The Jewish population of the state, just recovering from the trauma of the Holocaust saw the Arab onslaught as reflective of its intransigence and lack of desire to live in peace in or alongside a Jewish state. It viewed the populace, especially those who fought against it and those who fled and joined up to live among their foes as enemies that should not be allowed back into the state. They were viewed as both a demographic and security threat to the still born Jewish state that was poor, struggling to absorb new Jewish immigrants and refugees, and surrounded by armed enemies seeking its destruction.

Palestinians who left the land never gave up hope of returning and liberating all of Palestine and continued to reject any attempt to settle them as permanent citizens in the land to which they fled. During the twenty-year rule of the West Bank by Jordan and Gaza by Egypt from 1948-1967, no attempt, however, was made to establish a Palestinian state on these lands. In 1964, a full three years before the outbreak of the Six Day War, the PLO was established to liberate Palestine and eliminate the State of Israel from existence by any means necessary.

After the capture of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, Israel formally offered to enter into negotiations with its Arab neighbors about returning territories conquered in that war. The response was resounding no, in fact the famous three no’s of the Arab Summit in Khartoum of no to recognition of Israel, no to compromise and no to negotiations. Eventually, Israel made peace with Egypt, its largest Arab enemy, and with the outbreak of the First Lebanon War in 1982 and the First Intifada in 1987, the focus of discussion turned more and more to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

During the two and half decades after the Six Day War, Palestinian rejectionism and terrorism as well as the growth of the new Israeli settlement movement hardened attitude and in the hindered any potential for a negotiated solution that could bridge the gaps between Israel and the Palestinians. The secret breakthrough of the Oslo Accords in 1993 opened up the hope and possibility that a negotiated solution to this long running conflict could be reached which would bring Israelis security from terrorism and the Palestinians a viable political entity. These hopes often clashed with the rise of the growing brutal terrorist waves of bus bombings and hostage taking that emerged from the Islamist groups of Hamas and Islamic Jihad who were bitterly opposed to any negotiated settlement with the Jewish state.

Indeed, despite the overwhelming support of the majority of Israelis for continuing the peace process after the despicable murder of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin by an ultra-nationalist Jew, the incumbent dovish candidate at the time, Shimon Peres, lost to Benjamin Netanyahu due to a series of horrific and devastating bus and suicide attacks by Hamas throughout the winter of 1995-1996. The sustained terrorism at the time eroded the average Israeli’s hopes and played to their deepest fears.

In 2000, the Israeli populace once again voted in a dovish government and Ehud Barak pushed for a resolution of the conflict, urging President Clinton to convene the Camp David Summit. Many today believe that the summit was premature, not enough pre-work to narrow differences had been achieved and that the parties were not ready for that step and the high expectations it created. At the same time, it is clear from all the reporting at the time and the recent review of some of those events that while imperfect from a Palestinian perspective, the proposals made by Barak were far reaching and further than anything that had ever been brought to the table by an Israeli government. Palestinians also were ready to make concessions such as acceptance of Israeli control of Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, but did not express them publicly.  It is also clear, from all the reporting and memoirs, both by Israelis, Americans and Palestinians that the Palestinian leadership was not ready to offer a full substantive counterproposal that could have moved the ball forward and maybe led to a continuation of talks that yielded better results.

The outbreak of the Second Intifada and its sanction and in some cases material support by Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority after the failure of the Camp David summit, with its shocking level of violence and bus bombings, dealt a death blow to much of the Israeli peace camp and the inclinations of many mainstream Israelis to further concessions. The traumas of the Second Intifada would have long lasting impact on the desire of many Israelis for compromises and support of left-wing policies.

In the midst of the second intifada, Saudi Arabia proposed a peace initiative, later adopted by the Arab League, that offered Israel full recognition from all Arab states and an end to the conflict, in return for full withdrawal to the pre 1967 lines in all areas, the establishment of a Palestinian state on the West bank and Gaza with East Jerusalem as its capital. The very night after the proposal was announced Hamas carried out the bloody attack in Netanya at a Passover Seder that murdered 30 Israelis. Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, leader of Hamas declared that the bombing was:

A message to the Arab summit to confirm that the Palestinian people continue to struggle for the land and to defend themselves no matter what measures the enemy takes. 

The Sharon government now in power rejected the Saudi initiative and regrettably did not offer and counter proposal taking the view that they would negotiate under fire. 

After crushing the Intifada with a decisive military campaign, the Sharon administration decided to unilaterally withdraw all Israeli civilians and soldiers from Gaza and two cities in the West Bank. This unilateral disengagement from Gaza while bitterly contested in Israeli society, was ultimately accepted and implemented. It is clear now in hindsight that while the intent may have been positive it was a mistake by Sharon to do this unilaterally and not coordinate it with the Palestinian Authority. If it had been done that way, the Palestinian Authority would have been able to show its people that the path of negotiations yields results and would have given it grater credibility and stature to govern and administer Gaza and create momentum for more positive relationships. This was a lost opportunity that was one factor that allowed Hamas to step into the breach of the vacuum left when Israel left Gaza. The second mistake that is widely acknowledged today is the push by President Bush to hold elections in Gaza in 2006 which led to Hamas winning full control of the Palestinian territories. The world community, including Russia, the European Union and the United States demanded that Hamas renounce violence and accept the existence of the State of Israel in order to participate in the political process. This, unfortunately did not happen. Moreover, Hamas, instead of taking advantage of the absence of Israeli troops and settlers in Gaza and pivot to developing Gaza and moving to the creation of a thriving Palestinian state. Instead, it began, with Iranian funds to develop more and more missile capability, shooting over 1200 rockets at Israeli civilians in 2006 alone before any sanctions or blockades were in force. In the aftermath of the Palestinian Authority civil war in 2007 and the subsequent Hamas takeover and ouster of the Palestinian Authority officials from Gaza, both Egypt and Israel imposed a blockade of many goods to the Gazan territory in order to weaken Hamas Rule and prevent it from using goods to build tunnels and weapons capabilities.

Despite last minute efforts at the Taba summit with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel and Abu Mazen of the PA, including far reaching proposals and concessions by Olmert, including giving up sovereignty over the holiest site in Judaism, the Temple Mount, the Palestinian officials were never able to sign off on the maps that Olmert presented. The pursuit of a form of “absolute justice” when none could be achieved kept the coveted goal from being achieved. To this reality, the ongoing Israeli expansion of settlements undercut Palestinian trust and made it even more difficult for any movement forward to occur. Layered on top of that, the continuing terrorist attacks from Hamas and Islamic Jihad continued to chip away at Israeli public support for more concessions on the ground.

According to the reportage over the last sixteen years, Hamas rejected a number of offers of a long-term truce, a hudna, on six different occasions in exchange for the lifting of the blockade, see for example: This too is part of the historical context to bring calm and peace to the region. In place of that during those sixteen years, Hamas has continued to fire thousands of missiles at Israeli towns, carried out numerous fatal terrorist attacks both in Israel and the Palestinian territories and kidnapped Israeli soldiers and civilians triggering major Israeli retaliation and a number of full-scale wars. This has culminated in the atrocities committed by Hamas on October 7, 2023, and the subsequent kidnapping of 240 hostages which has led to Israel’s harsh response to eradicate Hamas as a threat to Israel in the future.

In addition to all this background, it is also important to note that during the last few years, a number of Israeli governments including those headed by Benjamin Netanyahu made a strategic decision to allow Qatar to funnel large amounts of cash to prop up the Hamas government in the hope that this would “buy” some quiet and sustain a strategic equilibrium of power between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas the advantage of Israel. This was a calculated risk that is now widely seen as a mistake that lulled Israel into complacency and a misguided belief that Hamas would not jeopardize its rule by a massive attack.

Looking back, then, the long history of this conflict and its causes, the choices and decisions that were made, the various attempts at peace and resolution of this ongoing dispute, the missed opportunities and lack of compromise are also indelibly part of any “historical context” that needs to be appreciated and understood. Together with this, a recognition that the two sides have legitimate claims, narratives and dreams, that will never be able to be fulfilled in an absolute way that gives everyone “absolute justice” as they see it, is the key to helping bring this painful, and blood-soaked conflict to some sort of conclusion.

About the Author
Nathaniel Helfgot is rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, NJ and a faculty member at the SAR High School in NYC.
Related Topics
Related Posts