Thursday, March 13, 2008

Thoughts on the West Bank

A week and a half ago, I spent two days in the West Bank, visiting Bethlehem, Jericho and Hebron. After some hesitation, I've decided to write up some of my thoughts and observations about what I observed. It's a complex situation, and after having done a fair bit of reading on the topic, I'm well aware that any attempt to make sense of the more than 60 years of bloodshed between the Israelis and the Palestinians – the Jews and the Arabs – will fail to do the situation justice. But I thought I'd add some opinions to the mix. Please take them as my limited attempt to understand a complex situation, not as the final word on any of the issues I touch on.

My Starting Point

I'm a friend of Israel. I get chills down my spine when I think about how Israel has managed to survive in the face of so many well-armed enemies. Its struggle for independence, and its war against the six Arab armies which attacked on the first day of its existence; and its stunning victory in the Six Day War; and the astonishing way in which it snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in the Yom Kippur War; in each of these stories, my emotional loyalties lie entirely on the side of Israel. My visits to Israel over the last two years have given me a great deal of respect for what Israel has managed to create, and to become.

The Settlements

I'm convinced that Israel's decision to build settlements in the West Bank is the single worst strategic blunder that Israel has made since 1948.

In the wake of the Six Day War in 1967, like a dog who couldn't figure out what to do with the car it had finally caught, Israel was at a loss with the territories it had just captured. Israel eventually annexed the culturally significant East Jerusalem and the strategically significant Golan Heights, but it couldn't do so for the West Bank or the Gaza strip, as it would have required granting civil rights to their populace. Nor could it find an acceptable formula by which to return them, respectively, to Jordon and Egypt; or alternatively to grant them independence and self-rule. (Some, though not all of this, was the Palestinians' fault, who "never lost an opportunity to lose an opportunity.") Lacking a long-term strategy, Israel at first reluctantly allowed, and eventually encouraged, the construction of settlements in the territory it had captured. In the face of numerous UN Security Council resolutions, both Labor and Likud governments adopted this policy. It kept the far right reasonably happy, and it solved numerous short-term political problems for the succession of prime ministers.

Unfortunately, this policy has also created a long-term strategic nightmare for Israel. Now that hundreds of thousands of Israelis live in territory that is (quite reasonably) claimed by the Palestinians, Israel has no good alternatives available. It can't annex the territories, as the influx of Arab voters would quickly turn Israeli Jews into a minority. It can't give the Palestinians all the territory they rightly deserve, as there are now Israelis living on much of it. And it can't adopt a peaceful, two-state solution, as the Palestinians won't sign a peace deal until they get their land back.

Yes, yes, it's more complicated than this, I know. In 2000, Ehud Barak courageously offered to give the Palestinians nearly all of their land back – with some significant caveats – and Arafat stupidly turned him down. But Arafat was an idiot, and while Mahmoud Abbas is a weak leader of a corrupt government, I don't think he's an idiot. There's a small chance that Israel could reach a peace deal with him. And so long as Israel continues to build more settlements, they're making any conceivable peace deal more complicated, painful and unlikely. I understand why the Palestinians stew each time they see another hilltop settlement erected. What I don't understand is why the Israeli government keeps allowing it. Even from the perspective of Israel's own self-interest, it's an astonishingly bone-headed move.

The Occupation

As a result of two Intifadas, and more than a hundred suicide bombings, Israel has cracked down hard on life in the West Bank. Having visited there even briefly, I can understand the frustration that the Palestinians feel with the Israeli occupation. They have little control over their destinies, their livelihoods, their travel, indeed, even when and where they can find gasoline for their cars. Israeli roadblocks and checkpoints are everywhere, and a trip that should take minutes can turn into an hours-long lesson in patience and submission if an 18-year old Israeli soldier is in a bad mood. (And what soldier, or indeed, what 18-year old isn't?)

The IDF is a highly disciplined and effective force, but they are rarely gentle or subtle. Less than a month ago, my guide's home was taken over by a squad of Israeli soldiers intent on capturing a militant living in a nearby house. My guide and his terrified family were locked into a cold room for seven hours while a firefight raged on their roof. The Israeli soldiers caused several thousand dollars of unreimbursed damage to my guide's home. And after the militant had been captured, Israeli bulldozers destroyed the small apartment building where his family (and three others) had lived.

Last Thursday, the IDF captured another militant nearby, and destroyed another four-family dwelling. Destroying property, even a family home, is of course at a different moral level than intentionally killing innocent civilians. But as G. K. Chesterton said long ago, "To have the right to do something is not the same as to be right in doing it."

The Wall

As most folks know, Israel is building a wall (sometimes termed a "fence") between the West Bank and the vast bulk of Israeli citizens. I phrased that sentence carefully: the Wall (it deserves the capital letter) is not so much between Palestine and Israel, but rather, between Palestinians and Israelis, wherever they're located.

Having now visited the West Bank, I have a slightly different perspective on the Wall than I used to. I fully support Israel's right to protect itself from suicide bombers, and a wall is a reasonable, if not an entirely gentle way of accomplishing that goal. But the way that the Wall is actually being built is unnecessarily and foolishly harsh – and indeed, gives some real degree of credence to Palestinian claims that the purpose of the Wall is less to protect Israeli citizens and more to establish a de facto, unilateral border.

And like most decisions made unilaterally, it seems to be entirely one-sided, in Israel's favor. I saw numerous examples of Palestinian farmers clearly cut off from their land, and for no purpose. The Wall could easily have followed a route which allowed the farmers to continue accessing their territory, while fully providing for Israeli security. When you look at situations like that, the Palestinian side becomes a bit more believable. In nearly every instance I saw, the Wall established maximalist Israeli claims, far exceeding Israel's 1967 borders, and dramatically impeding daily life for Palestinians.

The Palestinian People

I confess that I find the Palestinians to be a mystery. Every Arab I met in my visit, whether on the Israeli or the Palestinian side of the line, was unfailingly kind, generous, and friendly. Arabs are famous for their hospitality, and I saw much to confirm and nothing to contradict this.

At the same time, I believe that the Palestinian public has badly failed the difficult moral test to which they have been subjected. One of the many ways that the Palestinians have contributed to the untenable situation in which they now find themselves is by allowing, encouraging, and even celebrating the intentional murder of innocent Israeli citizens. Their cities are filled with posters celebrating suicide bombers. I was astonished to hear even Christian Palestinians refer to suicide bombers as "martyrs". I was unable to discern any sympathy for Israeli citizens killed in terrorist attacks. Conversely, nearly all of my Israeli friends express remorse for Palestinian casualties, even if they're unable to understand the Palestinians' frustration.

In particular it was sad to me how even the Palestinian Christians I met were unable to see any part of the Israeli side. Over my two days there, I had some reasonably frank conversations with my guide about the situation. Some of his opinions surprised me: for instance, he has no desire for a two-state solution, detests both Fatah and Hamas, and really wants to go back to being occupied by Israel (in the way the occupation was conducted prior to the first Intifada). But some of his opinions surprised me in the other direction. He had no recognition that the reason life was so difficult for the Palestinians was because of the suicide bombings. His perception of the situation was entirely on the other side. During my visit, we heard that 35 Gazans (about half of them civilians) had been killed in an Israeli air strike. My guide was furious, and said, "Can you blame them for launching rockets?" The fact that Israel wouldn't have been launching these attacks against Hamas militants if Hamas hadn't been firing rockets into civilians' homes entirely failed to register with him. You can argue that Israel's response was disproportionate – but you can't argue that Israel wasn't sorely provoked. (If Mexico had been launching rockets into San Diego, you can bet that we'd respond, and with fairly good justification.) And whether Israel's air strikes fall into the category of "just war" or not (I think you can make a reasonable case either way), there's clearly a moral distinction between trying to kill civilians, on the one hand; and trying to kill militants, and accidentally killing civilians, on the other.

The Rockets

Along these lines, it's hard to miss the recent escalation in violence between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Most of it is in the Gaza strip, along the Mediterranean, where, the historically minded might note, the Philistines used to live. The radical groups in Gaza have been launching homemade Qassam rockets at small Israeli towns near the Gaza border for several years now; but they've recently managed to acquire some Iranian-made Katyusha rockets that have a longer range, and they've been launching these at Ashkelon (one of the old Philistine cities, but now a major Israeli urban center).

One of many interesting things about this is that I have several Israeli friends who live in Ashkelon and commute to work in Tel Aviv, and I know many others who have family and relatives there. I met one friend on her way into work, and she said, "Well, a Katyusha rocket landed next to my house this morning as I was leaving." Nobody was hurt (in that particular attack), but it's still odd having friends who can only get to work through a hail of rockets. It certainly makes the traffic on my commute from Woodinville to Bellevue a bit less distressing.

Two Wars

The best explanation I've heard about what's going on there is what an Israeli friend mentioned the other day. He said, "There are two wars that are being fought here, not one. The first is a war for Palestinian independence, which the Palestinians deserve to win. The second is a war to kill all the Jews, which Israel deserves to win." The problem, of course, and what keeps defeating all attempts to make peace, is that the two wars are easily confused, even by folks who think they're only fighting one of them. Most Palestinians – not all – think they're fighting the first war; most Israelis – not all – believe they're fighting the second. When Israel cracks down on security in the West Bank, they're doing it (in theory) because of War #2. But the Palestinians see it as a clear attempt to win War #1, which makes even good Palestinians sympathetic to the evil people fighting War #2; and in turn, that makes Israelis believe that all Palestinians are really fighting War #2; and so they take even harsher security measures – and it turns into a slippery slope, a vicious cycle of violence.

Blessed are the Peacemakers

On my one visit to the Mount of Beatitudes, several years ago, my friend and I stepped out of our car, and began walking through the beautiful, relaxing grounds of the church built on the site where Jesus is believed to have delivered the Sermon on the Mount. We were barely onto the grounds when we were chased off by an angry nun waving a broom. She may or may not have believed that the meek would inherit the earth, but she certainly believed they needed to defend their piece of it.

I've been reminded recently of that poor nun's ham-handed attempt to live out the third beatitude. I doubt my attempt to live out the seventh ("Blessed are the peacemakers") was much more successful. My attempts at dialog seemed much more likely to spark arguments than to resolve them. I realized just how little I actually know about the situation, or what life is like for people who have had to live with it all their lives. Any gesture or position that went much beyond, "I sympathize with your situation, and would like to help, if I can" is bound to be clumsy at best.

And this blog posting is no exception. I'm aware I've over-simplified exceedingly complex issues, and have ignored strong arguments from both sides. But I wanted to get something of my opinion out there, if only because not enough Americans ever get the chance to see both sides, on the ground.

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