Whatever Happened to Peace?



(Jacob Greenwald)– So, Gaza happened, and the dust has now settled. The Israelis are no longer targeting persons and buildings associated with groups hostile to Israel, and the groups targeted have stopped firing rockets into population centers in Israel. Hillary Clinton has spent innumerable hours trying to broker another ceasefire, maybe even one that will hold longer than the 4 year average. And now, we again have a chance to reflect on the downward spiral of Arab-Israeli peace negotiations since the famed handshake between Yasir Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin. For me, it’s another opportunity to squirm a little, as I try to reconcile my love for the state of Israel with the humanitarian nightmare going on in Gaza, and the general failure of peace, for which both sides are responsible.

I was raised in a Zionist household. My family, for a variety of reasons, is secular in orientation, and the one way that we all connect to our Judaism is through an intimate familiarity with the State of Israel. I went to a Zionist summer camp growing up, and I have had the good fortune to make many trips to Israel, my most recent ended last June. In short, I love Israel. I love the geography, with it’s variation from snow-capped mountains to arid desert in an area the size of New Jersey. I love the history, with many sites that go back millenia, and are mentioned in all litany of records. And I love the people, who, Jewish or Arab, have proven to be warm and welcoming.

But from an early age, I was aware that there were controversial things about the state of Israel. I remember being a toddler, and hearing my grandparents discuss the sorry state of negotiations in the late 1990’s (along with the failure of those negotiations being blamed on the Palestinians), so I knew that there were people who didn’t seem as thrilled as I was that the wonderful Land of Israel existed. But my first memory of seeing anything outside of the sunny portrayal offered at home, or at camp, came from a Hebrew-school textbook. I must have been about ten, and while doing some reading about the Northern part of Israel, there was short a section on Israel’s involvement in southern Lebanon. A blurb in the corner (uttered by some sort of cartoon animal) mentioned something to the effect of  “the Israelis had let members of the Phalange into Palestinian refugee camps, leading to the deaths of 800-1000 persons over 3 days. There is still controversy over who is responsible for those deaths.” Now, being ten, I didn’t really think anything of it, and I would not for a long time. I wouldn’t until I was 16, just back from an academic program in Israel that moments like that would come back to haunt me.

The trip to Israel that I took the summer of 2010 on the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program is still one of my favorite memories. I went with ten camp friends, got to see the country from tip to tail, and ate a lot of good food. It was also the most blatant piece of propaganda that I have ever seen. The materials we were taught with were school-supplied, and in no way neutral. In particular, I remember watching a film in class on Islam that I now realize is probably hate speech. And our teachers were fairly set in their views, on the right end of the spectrum. Of the five teachers, two were Orthodox Jews, one lived in the settlement of Shiloh, and one was a former member of the Beitar youth movement and had built settlements in the West Bank during his military service in the Nahal (double points!). After a couple of years and a lot of thought, I am comfortable in saying that I spent six weeks being indoctrinated with a very narrow view of the State of Israel, its policies, and it’s history. SOnce I returned home, things were fine, until I did the wrong internet search.

After a couple of weeks back in-country, I was on the wikipedia article about the Arab-Israeli War of 1948 (at the time, I was definitely calling it “The Israeli War of Independence”), and little clicking brought up this, a list of villages that had been depopulated and/or destroyed by the Israelis during the war. Now, I had been informed on my trip that something like this had happened. A village (singular), called Deir Yassin, had been massacred in 1948. But that was by members of two Jewish paramilitary organizations, and that was the exception. Clearly not. In 6 weeks, they had forgotten to mention approximately 499 other villages whose residents had been kicked out of their homes, which were then either destroyed, or re-settled by new Jewish immigrants. That just hadn’t apparently made the final cut.

At that moment, I had a choice. I could’ve accused Wikipedia of lying, or I could accept that I had been lied to. And, in the face of overwhelming evidence, I picked the latter. I was seething mad as a result. All of the maxims that I had ever heard about the value of truth suddenly seemed particularly poignant. The main thing that bothered me about it was the fact that they had felt the need to lie. There had clearly been a reason to remove the people living there, so why not just tell us that, instead of, you know, fabricating an untrue story to cover up some inconvenient facts. I did a lot more clicking, and after a couple of hours, I had come to a conclusion: I still loved the state of Israel. That hadn’t changed. But the Palestinian People had been screwed over in 1948. And, while there had been a lot of nasty episodes within the last 60 years between Arabs and Jews, that didn’t automatically disqualify the Palestinian people from getting their own land with their own government.

The conclusion has held pretty well. Even after the crucible that was my stay in Jerusalem, where I ended up in the uneviable position of being a Jew with Arab friends, while it a constant test of my patience, wasn’t really a huge paradigm-shift in my thoughts on the region. I met the best and worst of every population demographic within Israel: Palestinian-Arabs, Druze, Circassians, Orthodox Jews, I met them all at one point or another. I realized that the Arab world may be run on more half-baked ideas and pipe dreams than I am comfortable detailing (Nasserism, really?), and that the Israelis may be a little more racist than they tell you in Hebrew School. But whenever I debated someone we could always crack a smile, and wish each other a good night at the end of the evening.

And so it’s episodes like Gaza that remind me that the Arab-Israeli conflict still exists as a violent, nasty, dirty, real conflict. And I can feel the fault lines of argument like they are carved into my skull. On a base human level, I am horrified by the state of affairs in Gaza. After being under blockade for more than half-decade, a formerly-prosperous strip is now a penal colony, an area just adjacent to the State of Israel with one of the highest population densities on the planet, where unspeakable poverty and urban decay is allowed to exist. A place that becomes a living hell whenever the Israelis decide to bring the conflict there.

At the same time, I feel the exasperation that the Israeli people feel to the years of rocket and mortar strikes that have come in past decades. We can discuss the relative power of rockets versus Israeli jets, comparative death tolls, etc., but rockets that fly over the border and bombs that target public transportation have their desired effect; the Israelis living in areas within rocket-range live in constant, low-grade terror. Every time those sirens go off, parents immediately have every bad scenario play in front of their eyes, and then begin the wait for the end of the bombardment to go and look for children who weren’t home when the sirens went off. And from the Israeli perspective, there were good, whole-hearted deals in the past, not one of which was taken, and the ones that were pursued still end in violence. So why not keep the West Bank? The way they see it, it’s a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t proposition. As one particularly astute Israeli once pointed out to me “if Indian tribes were launching armed raids out of reservations, and then retreated back to them, I don’t care how you feel about Wounded Knee, you would support a military response.”

Obviously, it’s a lot more complicated than all of that, and both arguments leave out so much illuminating detail that it’s fair to label them mischaracterizations. Flesh it out in the comments. But if I can recommend a starting point: the Israelis and the Palestinians deserve each other. The two sides have pursued a multi-generational conflict that has killed more civilians than anyone else. Both sides have made it a trademark to then shamelessly evade all responsibility for the bloodshed by claiming that they are the real victim, either of Arab violence or Zionist oppression, take your pick.

And so the two sides remain locked in struggle, the player rosters changing from year-to-year, the political rhetoric varying between groups, but with no real end in sight. We are now almost two decades away from that sunny day on the White-house lawn, a moment where two elder statesmen locked hands, and hoped for a future better than the one their generation had created. It had been Arafat, the guerilla figurehead, who, with a combination of audacity, diplomacy, and terrorism, had elevated the Palestinian people to the international stage. His counterpart was well-known too, a veteran politician and aging soldier. It was he, after all, who had been responsible for the removal of Palestinians under Plan Dalet in 1948. But they came together, and swore an end to conflict.

And then, Rabin was assassinated in a square that now bears his name, killed by a Jewish radical. And then, a couple of years later, another Prime minister came to power. A man that would later be caught, on video, priding himself for torpedoing the peace process. That man is Bibi Netanyahu, who was elected again to the Prime Ministership in 2009.

In those twenty years, the Israelis left the West Bank, then reinvaded, then built a wall and left again. Organizations the Al-Aqsa Matyrs brigade and Al-Qassam brigades brought the violence to Israel with waves of suicide bombings. The Israelis left Gaza, only to see it overtaken by Hamas, and turned the area into a fief separate from the Palestinian National Authority in the West Bank. And through it all, a series of ever-changing agreements have governed affairs. From this vantage point, the situation never seemed farther from a final settlement. Maybe it was never meant to be, but even if it was, the sum of all of these actions definitely knocked negotiations far off course. And so, while that brilliant little photo-op makes me smile, and maybe even stirs a little hope in me, really, it just makes me contemplate that over-arching question “Whatever happened to peace?”