Several friends, from different groups and backgrounds and with different points of view regarding the current war in Israel (and regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict in general) have asked me for an explanation on what is happening there, what is (my view of) the real conflict, its causes... and any possible answers. And yet I am quite far from being an authority, I do want to write something about it. Be prepared, as this post is quite long.
And yet, after writing frankly a lot more than what I expected... It is by far not enough. I have still much more to add, but I have to say "stop" at some point. So, here you have it: My points of view, as well as some explanation on why are we standing where we currently are.
I am writing this based just on my personal experiencie and, of course, my personal point of view. Furthermore, I wrote a good part of this text while riding a bus, with no network access, so I am offering very few references - In any case, it will allow me to make much more progress. References always take as much time as the text itself!
Why am I writing this? Why do people ask for my opinion? I must start by explaining who I am, so the rest of this makes sense. I am a Mexican Jew. That means, I was born in a Jewish (albeit secular) family, and grew up in an environment with general Jewish culture. My direct family (say, my parents and brother, and to a lesser degree my closest cousins) are not at all religious, I'd even venture to say most of us are complete atheists. Yet, besides the cultural belonging (which is a mixture of a Eastern European culture with lots of Idish words and dishes and general humor), my family has a strong national identification - In other words, I grew up in a fully Zionist environment, which traces back to Poland.
My grandmother was member of Hashomer Hatzair in Poland, since the early years of its existence, late 1910s and early 1920s. What is it? To make it short, a Zionist Socialist, Kibbutzian youth movement. It has many similarities (and somewhat stems indirectly from) the Scouts many of you will be familiar with, but -obviously- has a way lengthier agenda. And, yes, nowadays I feel it is somewhat out of reach with the current state of the world - It was founded in 1913, and only slightly adjusted its principles since then.
I will talk more about Hashomer later on.
My grandmother arrived in the late 1920s to Mexico, for familiar and economic reasons, but still dreamt about living in Israel for a long time. As they grew up, first my uncle joined Hashomer in Mexico in the late 1940s, when it still pursued a very much Soviet-style ideals for Israel (one of the core points that changed during the 1950s); both my father and my mother joined in the late 1950s (in fact, that's where they met). My cousins and myself were very active in the 1980s and 1990s.
The Iszaevich family has something very unusual, I'd say, engraved in our genes. We live very deeply our ideologies. That's the only explanation I can find to the way we all have led our lives. I won't go into the other family members' details, but just into mine: I was fully convinced of all we taught to our younger members and what we discussed among ourselves. I am among the very few people who really learnt Hebrew at my school, and that was only because I really cared - I know some people that just after 12 years of pseudo-learning could maybe utter a few phrases.
After finishing high school I went with my Hashomer group, together with people my age from other similar-minded Mexican Zionist youth groups, to live and learn for a year in Israel, on what is usually known as shnat hajshará - A year to get ready. To get ready to what? But of course, to come and give back go the younger groups of the movement, and finally go back to Israel and settle there definitively. I came back to Mexico, and after one year I did the only thing that was logical: I became an Israeli and went to live to a kibutz - Zikim, a beautiful place just between Ashkelon and Gaza, very near the sea shore. It was a beautiful period in my life, and I really enjoyed it - But it didn't last for very long - I quickly grew to hate the Israeli society at large. A society full of rage, of hatred. Not just between Arabs and Israelis, as many would think from the outside, but between religious and seculars. And between immigrants and locals. And between leftists and rightists (in several dimensions, as it is one of the countries where you can most easily be a economic leftist while being a political rightist - a complex society it is). A society full of disrespect and intolerance. A very hypocritical society. And one of the things that most shocked me: I wanted to live in a society of proud of its existence, that's what I had learnt Israel was - But Israelis aspire and dream of being anything else (and mostly US-Americans) in a way that made me sick, more than anything I had previously seen in Mexico.
I loved the life at the Kibutz, and I loved being an agricultor, doing hard work every day and literally getting the fruit of it. However, I cannot live isolated to a 300-people universe - At least once a week you have to go to the city if you don't want to become insane. And I could not stand the sick Israeli society.
Anyway, to make things short: After six months as an Israeli, I came back to Mexico. I went through a long period of finding myself, as I could not uphold anymore my Hashomer ideology (if I am not going to live by it, how can I continue teaching it?). Many people do anyway, but for the first months, where my Hashomer work was basically all of my life, I felt really uncomfortable. So, in short, I severed all of my relations to the Jewish community, and even denied for a long time my Jewishness until I found a (I think) better balance.
Today I am at peace. But anyway, I wanted to talk about myself in the critical period that marked me in this regard: The 1990s. Enough, lets get down to business.
Many people argue that the Jews invaded the Palestinians homeland - And yes, nowadays I cannot counter this. But we cannot judge what happened then based on what we see now.
Modern Zionism started around the 1870s. The Jewish history is full of pogroms and persecution, in different countries all over Europe - And a group of young people decided the only solution was to build a place to call their own. And yes, this was full of idealism and in no small part the foolishness of youth. For several centuries and up to 1920, all of current Middle East were provinces of the Ottoman Empire. Before Zionism began, the population of today-Israel was very sparse, not more than 400,000 people - up to 5% of them Jewish, around 10% Christian Arabs, and the remainder, Muslim Arabs. Of course, the low population was mostly because the country was mostly hostile - A desert in the South, mostly swamps in the North, and some minor towns mostly in the hills. It was a mostly forgotten province, away from the central Turkish rule, and there had been no frictions with the local population. It was a nice place to go, thinking -again- as a fool youngster, or as an idealist. They said, lets take a folk without a land to a land without a folk.
The number of accomplishing Zionists (this is, people who actually went to Israel instead of just talking about doing so) was not high during the first decades. But towards the 1890s, it gained critical mass. The political Zionist movement was born, with Theodor Herzl as a leader, and they started pushing -politically- for different governments to concede a territory to Jews. They went to the Turks, and didn't really get much echo. Went to other colonial powers of the time, and got unfeasible promises with no real backing (i.e. Birobidjan in Eastern Russia, Uganda in Africa)... And, as it happens in strongly ideologized movements, the movement started splitting into different groups with slightly different positions.
And no, I am not talking about the People Front for the Liberation of Judea and the People Judean Liberation Front, but I very well could. Sometimes the differences are as ridiculous as that. But hey, I take that most of my readers are acquinted with the Free Software issues, right? Think BSD vs. GPL vs. OpenSource. To give a broad idea - Only in Mexico City, with a very small Jewish community (~30,000 people), in the mid-1990s we had over 10 such movements, with 50-150 youngsters attending each. And even though some were local, and even though some very important ideologies are not represented in this country, they are all different enough to exist as separate entities.
The Ottoman empire was divided after the first World War. Its possesions in Europe became independent states, while in Asia (and Africa, if you take the semi-independent Egypt and part of Sudan into account) they were taken over as colonies or protectorates by France and the UK - Evidently, attempting to secure a long-term dominion over the area. In some aspects, they failed. In some aspects, they were (and still are) tremendously successful. The division of people by setting arbitrary boundaries has led to countries sustainable only by force and a harsh rule (such as Iraq, Lebanon and Syria), or doomed to poverty (and thus submission) due to lack of natural resources (as Jordan). Focusing on Israel/Palestine, the UK entered the area by making mutually incompatible promises to arabs and Jews - i.e. the Hussein-McMahon letters and the Balfour declaration, both ambiguous enough to lead to... Well, today. The UK rule was disastrous to the region, both in giving (and taking away) power from all sorts of puppet regimes, and swiftly going away as soon as things started looking too complicated. Yes, typical colonialism.
So, while up to the 1920s there was no real animosity between Arabs and Jews (as i.e. the Faisal-Weizmann agreement shows), during the next decades the seeds of hatred started growing, from both sides.
Many people still quote the 1947 partition plan as the direct antecedent towards Israel's real existence - That was not the first partition plan that existed. Ten years earlier, the Peel commision suggested a similar partition involving forceful population transfer. And many people see the separation of Transjordan (now Jordan) from Palestine in 1922 as a first partition. It is understandable that both partition plans (much more the 1947 than the 1937 one) were accepted by Zionists: Going from having nothing to having something (and against all odds in the environment they lived) is acceptable.
From the Zionist side, two main groups rejected the partitions: The right-wing and religious groups, insisting that the whole of the Mandate should become Israel, and the left-wing groups, which advocated for a single, bi-national state, with equal rights for all of its population. Go over and read this last link, as it was quite interesting (to me at least) to see how this solution has kept existing and regarded by (relatively) many people, and has many interesting links.
1948 onwards: Where did the refugees come from?
The November 1947 partition didn't exactly translate to a planned, smooth Israeli independence - It led to six months of revolts (basically, a civil war). By mid May, the UK government and troops abandoned the territory, and one day later, Israel declared its independence. And, of course, all neighbouring countries (and Iraq) sent their troops to invade Israel. The war lasted for over six months (cease-fire was signed in January 1949). There was an intense Arab campaign indicating the armies would enter Israel and devastate it, leaving no stone in place, indicating Arab population to temporarily leave the Jewish-destined areas. The war, they said, would not take more than a couple of months, and they would be able to go back home.
Only that... When the war ended, the results were far from what the Arab governments expected. Not only Israel continued to exist, but it conquered important territories.
Of course, the Israelis were not innocent from said exodus: During the 1947-1948 civil war, and the independence war, some of the existing so-called self-defense forces (some of them were really defensive, while some were quite aggressive, even terrorist) attacked Arab villages in strategic or predominantly Jewish areas to prompt them to leave - yes, what we today call ethnic cleansing.
I had (in my head) the number of 650,000 Arabs (from a total of slightly over a million) fleeing to neighbouring countries. Wikipedia states that it is somewhere between 367,000 and 950,000. A similar number of Jews were expelled from Arab countries, many of which arrived to settle at Israel (and many others went elsewhere - For instance, a good part of the Mexican Jewish community is from Syrian origins - Many of them fleed in those years). Israel didn't accept back the (relatively few) Arabs that requested to resettle, as they were seen as hostile population - but neither did the countries that "temporarily" accepted the Palestinians accepted them as citizens. The Palestinian refugee camps today, mainly in in Lebanon, Syria, and the occupied territories held by Israel have terrible living conditions, and its population -despite living there for over 60 years- have no civil rights at all. Note that I'm omitting Jordan here, although it has several camps as well, as their situation is way better.
The Arab population that didn't leave did receive full Israeli citizenship. No, their living standards are not up to level with the average Israeli. The country and the society do have a sensible degree of racism and segregation. But the situation is nowhere as terrible as it is in the camps.
The areas which were originally to become Palestinian and were not conquered by Israel -this is, current-day West Bank and Gaza- bacame respectively Jordan and Egyptian territory. While Jordan did fully extend its soverignty covering the West Bank, Egypt didn't - Gaza is, since 1949, occupied military territory. Gaza, among the most densely populated areas in the world, has had their inhabitants under military rule ever since. When Israel returned the Sinai after signing the peace treaty with President Sadat, Egypt didn't accept Gaza back - And that's where today's greatest problem is born.
Now, Israel conquered those territories in 1967, along with the very sparsely populated Sinai and Golan. For the first ten years, the territories were basically only administered (yes, under a military rule). In 1977, with the first right-wing Israeli government, an extensive settlement policy began (and led partly to today's seemingly unsolvable situation). In 1980-1982, Israel withdrew from the Sinai. In 1981, Israel claimed full soverignty over the whole of Jerusalem and the Golan. In 1993, the "Oslo Agreement" was signed between Israel and the PLO, and it seemed we were heading towards a bright future. I lived in Israel between 1994 and 1996 - Yes, the most hope-filled period in the country's life.
Since 1996, I have tried to keep up to date with the country's evolution. All in all, even if I won't live there again, it is a country I learnt to love, a society I have long studied (even if in the end I did include many references, I wrote most of this text just off the top of my head, with the data I remember - so it might have several big errata). And yes, I keep the political stand I had 12 years ago: The only solution is to dialogue, to treat the current enemies -and not only their governments- with respect, recognizing their dignity and right to life, to self-determination. Only then we will change the status quo.
How not to fight hatred
Since 1993, the dream of peaceful coexistence seems to have faded. What we saw during the past three weeks, along to what we saw in Lebanon in 2006, is plainly a gross mistake if the goal is to achieve good, lasting peace.
Try to imagine how could life in Gaza be, even in the total absence of Israeli attacks. Just to set some numbers first: The Gaza strip hosts almost 1.5 million people on 360 km². When I lived in Israel, I was constantly surprised at how small a country it is - Israel tops at 550Km North to South, 150Km east to West (it is amazing, almost wherever you stand, except in the middle of the Negev, you can see the country's borders. Yes, I recognize as the border the so-called Green Line); over half of the territory is a desert, and it hosts seven million inhabitants. And it is hard to imagine how that country can be economically viable.
I do not find it feasible to imagine Gaza and the West Bank integrating a single country, and not only because they are separated by ~40Km, but because they are so sociologically different. People in the West Bank, yes, live opressed under military rule and subject to a much more constant, more visible apartheid-like state (as the territory is truly sprinkled with Jewish outposts which many Israelis refuse to recognize as their own, but still, which have incredibly higher living standards). The best land has been taken away from them, yes, but they have some space between cities to have some farming, to communicate, to... Breathe. Besides, West Bank inhabitants -even those in refugee camps- have much better living standards than anybody in Gaza. It is still an overpopulated area, but not nearly as much as Gaza.
Gazan population have been driven towards extremism. And yes, there was a civil war between Palestinian factions, as the world views between both populations are completely different - However hostile a Jenin inhabitant can be towards Israel, he does not lead the life -if it can so be called- you see at Khan Yunis.
But back to Gaza... What Israel is doing (and not only during this
military operation terror campaign is wrong, from any rational point of view. Israel wants Hamas to become weaker? Then don't drive the population into supporting them!
Palestinians started giving over 50% of their support to Fatah (ex-PLO), and under 20% to Hamas. That was less than 15 years ago. However, Fatah has shown to be corrupt and inefficient at building infrastructure and improving life conditions, ineffective at negotiating a permanent agreement which secures dignity and sustainability to their people. Hamas stands as a religious, righteous organization. There are no serious corruption charges against any Hamas leaders. Hamas is clearly still at war - They didn't subscribe any peace agreement so far, and their stated #1 goal is to build a Muslim State in the whole of Israel. And the Hamas movement -like Hizbollah in Lebanon- has built quite a bit of infrastructure in the areas they control - Mainly housing. Yes, housing where they mix their own offices, many will accuse, getting human shields for free. But still, they are benefactors to a dehumanized, pauperized population.
I find it obvious that, if living conditions were at a basic level in the region, support of Hamas would decrease. Even more, of course, if they improved due to Israeli support. Israel controls this territory, so it is responsible for the well-being of its population, like it or not. And Gaza is simply too small and low on resources to survive by itself.
I was a bit surprised to find mention -although very brief- of a three state solution - And yes, this is close to what I would expect as a viable outcome. It is clear that Israel will not ever grant full citizenship to the Palestinians, as they would -euphemistically speaking- challenge the Jewish character of the State. Dropping the euphemism, Israel relies on apartheid in order not to become an Arab majority country. I might have some numbers wrong, but AFAIK, there are ~7 million Israelis, 20% of which are Arab citizens (which means, 1.4 million Arabs and probably 5 million Jews, with many other minor denominations for the difference), and ~4 million Palestinians live in the territories. Today, the country is already predominantly Arab, or at least is close to being so. So, Israel should permanently, formally disengage from all of the occupied territories. And in order to ensure violence stops, start a comprehensive, unconditional, long-term aid program. Start with giving them autonomy to regain their sea, as the Gaza port has long been closed. Allow the airport to operate again. Instead of bombing tunnels in the Egypt-Gaza borders, allow Gaza to trade with Egypt - Perhaps even to integrate territorialy, if the conditions are met. Treat their people with respect, and help them ease the terrible situation they have lived for so many decades - and then, undoubtely, terror will stop.
The West Bank? Possibly it could become a Palestinian state by itself. Possibly, it could integrate back to Jordan. That would be up to Jordans and Palestinians to decide. Of course, Jordan has already a large segment of its population defining itself as Palestinians, which counts both for and against. So, I won't venture into this supposition.
But anyway - Back to what prompted me to write this text -yes, a very or maybe even too long text - I hope somebody even takes the time to read it!- is to explain what is my point of view on the current situation, and why.
Today, a cease-fire was announced, after 23 days of murder and destruction. I sadly do not hold very high hopes for it to be lasting, much the less to be enough, to lead to what they call a de-escalation of the conflict. The most I can currently do is to voice my opinion, and hope that mine is just one more voice pointing to a sane solution, to a permanent, dignifying way out, for all people involved. Every people has the right for survival and for safety. We cannot deny this to any others. And certainly, we cannot expect anybody not to fight for their right to live.