Both And

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Is it possible to recognize and express different opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while maintaining reasoned debate?

This is going to be a long post – and I enter it feeling nervous. Is this going to simply further and entrench existing arguments, or does it open, just a little bit, a door to constructive debate? Can I hold honestly to my own conclusions while doing this? It’s all been prompted by a conversation with my colleague and very well informed friend, Mike Arkus.

If you do read part of this, or even all of this, of course I’d be interested in hearing your views – in the spirit of reasoned debate in which we can look at our differing opinions through a fair lens.

Firstly, where do I come from and why am I interested in this conflict?

As a British student I volunteered to teach English to Palestinians, and ended up teaching Palestinian trainee-teachers in Bethlehem on the West Bank one summer in the early 80s. Yes, I’m that old.

I knew little about the conflict before going (some might argue I haven’t learned much in the meantime) but I enjoyed my stay there, was intrigued by the conversations I had, and felt a connection to the Palestinians I met. Since then I’ve returned a couple of times with the UN filming stories on the West Bank and Gaza, and I’ve made multiple visits to Middle Eastern countries, and have followed the debate closely wherever I’ve been.

So do I feel a closer connection with the Palestinians? Yes, I plead guilty. I have spoken and listened to Israelis fairly frequently too, but I have more of an emotional connection to Palestinians, since I’ve simply spent more time with them.

Broadly and crudely speaking, I think my views on the conflict are probably similar to a Haaretz-reading Israeli liberal, probably a supporter of Peace Now or similar (even though these strands have been under attack in Israel and are certainly less popular and widespread recently, as far as I understand.)

Israeli 2Does that disqualify me from stating a public opinion on the conflict? I don’t think so. Firstly, I try to read carefully and to inform myself on the subject, while clearly recognizing that many are better informed, and that to be either Israeli or Palestinian will give a different dimension and perspective.

But that raises a question: are you disqualified from having a public opinion on this subject if you feel more affinity for one of the peoples involved? If so, then, presumably, the overwhelming majority of both the Israeli and Palestinian populations would be disqualified, and anyone who has family or ethnic ties to either of the groups. Yes, sure, there probably are some people who have a perfect equilibrium of emotional empathy and sympathy, but my guess is that they are in the minority.

Palestinian 1(By the way, please don’t misread this: in reality I think it’s quite right that we should give more weight to the opinions of Israelis and Palestinians, than to mine for example – since it’s their lives that are on the line.)

So I would submit that we can have a reasoned debate while being upfront about where we are coming from and what ties and affinities we feel for the people involved in the conflict.

“BOTH AND” NOT “EITHER OR” – COMPLEX NOT SIMPLE.

I see the conflict as a “both and” conflict. In many debates – not just the Israeli-Palestinian one, which I’ll name IP for convenience – I observe that it’s hard for many of us to hold two simultaneous but contrasting thoughts at the same time – or to admit to doing so.

Just to pluck one example: I believe that Obamacare has created a great improvement in American lives. At the same time I believe that a single-payer health system would be better. One thought does not, in fact, contradict the other.

Of all the conflicts I know of around the world, to me IP is the exemplar of a “both and” conflict. For every pro-Palestinian point, there is a pro-Israeli point. For every Israeli perspective (and of course there are many more than one Israeli perspective – my second theme) there is a Palestinian perspective (Palestinian perspectives).

If significant perspectives are left out or rejected, I believe the hope for forward progress is minimised.

It’s probable – inevitable, that I miss some Israeli perspectives – and very likely Palestinian ones two. But what drives me frankly nuts, and what finds me involved in vociferous debates about IP, is that I often see only one view being expressed. That’s a big, big problem in this debate. (And yes, I’m sometimes guilty of this myself: one example: it was pointed out to me that an early draft of a piece on the West Bank I did for the UN had excluded lines referring to Israeli perspectives. I duly inserted them).

Secondly – to the BOTH AND point: for every bald, simple statement on IP, there’s a more complex and far more accurate (in my view) statement.

Two examples:

  • Hamas is a terrorist organization.
  • Israelis support right-wing politicians like Benjamin Netanyahu.

While there’s some truth to both statements, I argue that both statements are misleading and incomplete and don’t lead (in isolation) to constructive debate.

I’ll refer more to this later.

OK – some “BOTH ANDS” – starting with some basic, and for me, essential ones.

Without grounding an approach on these, we are not going to have reasoned debate:

Israeli 1

BOTH

Israelis have the right to live securely, autonomously, independently with full political freedoms, without being subject to threat and attack. They are human beings. They have all the rights bestowed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

palestinian 3

AND

Palestinians have the right to live securely, autonomously, independently with full political freedoms, without being subject to threat and attack. They are human beings. They have all the rights bestowed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

I often see instances in public debate that contradict this: enormous discussion of Israelis’ legitimate security needs, with virtually no mention of the Palestinians’ own need for security, for example. OR enormous discussion of military aggression against the Palestinians without mentioning that Israelis are also under attack and feel afraid and have a legitimate right of self-defense.

The problem is that personally I find myself arguing vociferously for the Palestinian case, when I’m confronted by a version of events that excludes the Palestinian side entirely.

BOTH

Hamas and other militant groups commit war crimes by indiscriminately firing thousands of missiles at civilian targets. This of course must be condemned, and I do. The evidence for this is overwhelming and I don’t think I need document it.

AND

Israel stands accused of committing war crimes by legitimate human rights groups such as the Israeli organization B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch (I will refer to accusations against HRW later) for breaching international law with unlawful and disproportionate attacks:

See for example HRW’s report on Israeli attacks on three schools during the 2014 Gaza conflict: https://www.hrw.org/news/2014/09/11/israel-depth-look-gaza-school-attacks

B’Tselem on the 2014 conflict generally: they conclude that international humanitarian law was violated by both sides: http://www.btselem.org/publications/summaries/201501_black_flag

By saying “both and” I’m not saying there is direct equivalence on both sides. Clearly there are differences.

On one side, for example, Hamas and other groups openly target civilians in a very obvious way.

On the Israeli side, I quote David Shulman, (David Shulman is the Renee Lang Professor of Humanistic Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and an activist in Ta’ayush, Arab-Jewish Partnership): “anyone who knows the Israeli army knows that, for all its faults and failings, it does not have a policy of deliberately targeting innocent civilians.”

However, Shulman is extremely critical of Israel’s military actions in Gaza, and describes the adoption in recent years of a “zero risk” strategy – “My claim, on the basis of direct testimonies from soldiers who took part in the Cast Lead campaign, is that previously accepted rules of engagement were changed and that a “zero-risk” policy was adopted—for the first time in Israel’s history. In effect, this can only mean greater civilian casualties.” He later writes: “Moreover, the absence of a policy to kill civilians deliberately is not enough; actions that inevitably result in high civilian casualties, and that follow from premeditated decisions on the part of the army command, remain crimes of war.” (Source: NY Review of Books).

So of course, we are in the weeds of the dispute here.

BOTH

It’s a war crime for Hamas to use civilians as human shields, and to fire from densely civilian areas – and it poses a very difficult dilemma for the Israeli military.

AND

It’s a war crime to kill civilians disproportionately to the military advantage gained. And there are choices, as Shulman posits above, about a military’s actions and policies. Also, it’s been pointed out that some weapons are more notoriously inaccurate than others: for example artillery shells tend to be less accurate than air-dropped smart bombs. So, say, for example, a small group of militants fires a mortar from near a school and quickly departs. Is it legitimate for the military to fire an artillery shell at that location, knowing there’s a high possibility of killing dozens of people in the school (and there’s no doubt whatsoever about the location of the school or that there are children and families sheltering there, since the school has repeatedly informed the IDF of both these things)?

BOTH

The Israeli military has probably done more than most and perhaps all other militaries in sending warnings via leaflets, or warning missiles to people in Gaza.

AND

Frequently the warnings came too late, or were not seen. And in Gaza there is, almost literally, no single safe space a Gazan can go to when under attack. Quite a few were unable to move anyway – elderly, infirm, small children.

BOTH

The IDF is arguably morally superior to the majority of other armies, and certainly to Hamas in issuing warnings in advance.

AND

The fact that a warning has been given doesn’t absolve the military in question from observing international law. If you give a warning, and then kill a disproportionate number of civilians compared to the military advantage gained, it’s still a war crime. The civilians don’t become fair game. It’s also a war crime to deliberately destroy civilian infrastructure like electricity plants.

Back to equivalence issues. Yes, Hamas more brazenly and more clearly violates human rights law. On the other hand the Israeli military kill far more Palestinians. Over recent years scores of Palestinians have been killed to every one Israeli killed. So the practical impact of the two sides’ military actions and decisions are vastly unequal. Of the more than 2000 Palestinians killed in Gaza in the 2014 conflict, around 500 were minors. According to UNICEF 70% of the minors who died were under the age of twelve. 66 Israeli soldiers and 5 Israeli civilians were killed.

BOTH

Israelis have every right to live without fear of being rocketed, or blown up by suicide bombers.

AND

Palestinians have every right to live without fear of being shelled, bombed or shot, in large numbers.

BOTH

Israelis are surrounded by large hostile countries that have either attacked the country or supported terror attacks over the years. Given history and the holocaust it is completely understandable if many suffer from existential terror.

AND

If you are a Palestinian you face a regional military superpower, which has overwhelming military superiority over any entity in the region and a proven willingness to use it on a large scale. Israel is also backed to the hilt by the largest military power in the world – the US. It is also the only nuclear-armed state in the region, possessing up to 200 weapons. If you are a Palestinian, or a citizen from Lebanon or Iran for example, you have reason to feel terror as well.

BOTH AND SIMPLE COMPLEX

Hamas is a terrorist organization. Its charter calls for the destruction of Israel. It has supported rocket attacks fired indiscriminately against Israeli citizens.

AND

Hamas provides a broad array of municipal services to the population of Gaza, and it was initially elected in a democratic election. By participating in the elections, and in its more recent rapprochement with the Palestinian Authority, it implicitly endorsed the PA’s agreement with Israel, which involves recognition of Israel.

Hamas has frequently restrained militant groups from firing rockets at Israel, and has upheld ceasefires, arguably at times more reliably than the IDF.

Should the Israelis and others talk to Hamas? Some prominent Israelis have argued that they should. For example, former Labour Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben Ami who argued that Hamas took a decision to “enter politics” and that you therefore need to talk with them. Others, such as Amos Oz, one of the founders of Peace Now, have long been in favour of negotiations. He has frequently argued something to the effect that you don’t have to love your enemies, in fact you might hate their guts, but it’s better to come to practical agreements with them.

Oz_BlackBox(Just as an aside I’m a huge admirer of Amos Oz, partly because he’s an absolutely excellent novelist, but also for his insight and knowledge. I interviewed him once when I was at the BBC.)

Ehud Olmert, the ex-PM, also argued something similar.

So do Israelis uniformly support the policies of PM Benjamin Netanyahu?

Of course not. Many disagree with him strongly on the Palestinian issue – or, for that matter, on Iran (including senior former intelligence officials). It’s probably under-reported that many of the human rights activists that protest evictions and settler activity in the occupied territories are Israeli.

Have Palestinians often been let down by their leaders? Yes, quite a few have been corrupt, undemocratic and removed from the needs of ordinary Palestinians. But I also think personally that Israelis are not served by leaders like Benjamin Netanyahu who seems to put all of his considerable cunning into blocking any real chance of peaceful negotiation.

AND

Should Hamas officially and publicly drop its call for the destruction of Israel? Of course it should.

AND

The Palestinians (the PA, not Hamas) have officially recognized Israel’s right to exist as a state. The Israelis have never officially recognized the Palestinians’ right to exist as a state.

BOTH

I’ve been told by people who live in Israel that the threat of missiles and the fear of missiles (and of suicide attacks) makes an enormous impact – especially since it’s not a large country and doesn’t have a massive population. I’m sure that’s absolutely true.

AND

Palestinians don’t live in a large area and they aren’t a vast population either. Many more Palestinians have died in the conflict than Israelis. The impact is enormous on both sides.

HRWNote on Human Rights Watch.

I’m aware that there are those who argue that it’s biased against Israel and I’ve seen what looks like a campaign against HRW on line. I don’t agree. Human Rights Watch (and Amnesty along with it) are generally respected as being thorough and impartial organizations reporting on human rights violations the world over. There was a kerfuffle after the last Israel-Lebanon war, after HRW criticized the IDF’s wide use of cluster bombs among other things. A study based on the previous two years of HRW’s work showed that it had issued 60 reports on the Middle East. Three of them were on Israel – the rest on other countries. That doesn’t suggest bias to me.

I have anecdotal experience. I read that HRW is cosy with Saudi Arabia and doesn’t criticize it. False. I interviewed HRW Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson about Saudi Arabia’s rehab programme for terrorists. She was highly critical of the Saudi justice system. I included her interview in my piece for the UN.

B’Tselem is excoriated by the Israeli right, but I’m afraid I don’t think that disqualifies it. In fact, more widely, it has a reputation for stringent accuracy. Their figures and those issued by the UN on the conflict are probably some of the most rigorously vetted statistics on any conflict on the planet. Both organizations carry out their own investigations and take into account the figures issued by the IDF and Hamas, by organizations on the ground, and by the media. All of these sources are checked against each other.

OTHER CONTENTIOUS ISSUES

One argument or at least question I’ve seen often is: why does IP get so much attention, when there are so many other conflicts around the world?

BOTH

Some people have suggested that this is because of anti-semitism. There is undoubtedly a massive amount of anti-semitism in the world and it’s a very serious problem. It’s quite probably got worse in recent years – and there’s certainly anti-semitism in the US and Europe, and in the Middle East – it’s common in Arab-speaking countries – and Asia, and undoubtedly elsewhere.

There has been some stringent questioning of some figures on the left in the UK. One MP from Bradford definitely did pass along anti-semitic remarks and was suspended. Another high profile Labour person (Ken Livingstone) defended her and was also suspended. So there is an issue at least with some on the left. (I don’t however, think it’s fair to say that anti-semitism has become institutionalized on the British left. It’s something that’s hard to bring out figures or statistics on, but I’m quite sure that there are millions upon millions of people on the left in the UK who are not anti-semitic – from my brother and sister who voted for Labour’s current left-leaning leader to, for example, the previous (also) left-leaning Labour Party leader, Ed Miliband, elected democratically by the party and who led the party in last year’s election campaign, who happens to be Jewish, and his brother David the former Foreign Secretary.)

But anyway, back to the attention given to IP. Yes, there are anti-semites who love to bring up the dispute

AND

There are other reasons why IP is so prominent, among them: a large Jewish population in the US and especially in the major media centre, New York; strong historic UK ties to IP (the UK was given the mandate to govern Palestine from World War 1 to 1948); IP is an issue that can divide people – either on the left or right – who would agree about 99% of other subjects: so because there are differences on this issue, unlike others, it leads to greater debate and contention.

In an ideal world would other conflicts receive the same amount of attention and produce the same amount of debate? Ideally yes. But human beings are not like that – they give attention to things they feel connected to – either kith and kin, historical connections, or physical proximity. It’s the same law that leads to a small incident in the West being covered very extensively, while a much bigger, similar incident in Asia gets much less coverage – in the Western media. Terrorist attacks in Paris get massively more coverage than a terrorist attack in Lebanon that shortly preceded it.

IP is part of that phenomenon – but to repeat – yes, some of the attention comes because there’s anti-semitism, but not all of it. And I don’t think it’s illegitimate in any way to debate IP.

AND

Something I feel is left out, often, in this discussion. There’s also a massive amount of anti-Arab feeling – certainly in the US, certainly in Europe and in countries like Israel. This also contributes to the debate – and also possibly exacerbates the violence – just as anti-semitism might well fan violence – but the fanning of violence comes from both directions. (And this is not even to mention the massive amount of anti-Muslim feeling).

Anti-Arab sentiment is strong, dangerous and virulent as well. There are plentiful attacks on Arabs and much discrimination. On a more superficial level in the US I’ve heard people make anti-Arab comments in my presence, which indicates to me that making an anti-Arab comment isn’t always considered beyond the pale in ‘polite’ society. Not only that, I’m pretty sure they were expecting me to agree with it.

BOTH anti-semitism AND anti-Arab racism are serious problems – why can’t we mention them both – rather than – as so often happens – only mention one of them? Can’t we be conscious of – and committed to eliminating – both?

QUESTIONS

I’m only scratching the surface here. The danger – which I might well be contributing to – is that we now get enmeshed in arguments over each point for either side. (I haven’t even mentioned for example the 50-year occupation of Palestinian territories, the Lebanon wars, and the 70 years of threats against Israelis and terror attacks.)

The arguments are probably important in themselves, but maybe what’s even more important is to try to step back to the big picture.

The most essential thing of all from my perspective is the statement of rights that I stated early on. If people focused only on that, perhaps there would be more chance of a breakthrough. So I’ll repeat them:

BOTH

Israelis have the right to live securely, autonomously, independently with full political freedoms, without being subject to threat and attack. They are human beings. They have all the rights bestowed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

AND

Palestinians have the right to live securely, autonomously, independently with full political freedoms, without being subject to threat and attack. They are human beings. They have all the rights bestowed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

What would be the fairest solution to the conflict? Presumably a solution that would respect and fulfil the full range of human rights of both sides. There’s an enormous amount of scepticism at the moment about the two-state solution.

But is there a better solution than that? I ask genuinely.

I’d be particularly interested in people’s different views on ways forward.

What is the best or most promising way to achieve a just peace?

More deaths, conflict and destruction lie ahead if there isn’t reasonable debate and a sensible discussion of practical solutions.

Is there a better way forward other than continuing with the same depressing and destructive cycle of uneasy stasis, interrupted again and again by upsurges of violence?

or…

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1 Comment

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One response to “Both And

  1. Andy pearce

    Francis,
    For me, there are 26 core words in the article that summarise the issue. Of these, the last six are the call to action that you illustrate with many great examples. The quote is:
    ” I observe that it’s hard for many of us to hold two simultaneous but contrasting thoughts at the same time – or to admit to doing so.”

    It is the last six words that sum up the human challenge..to rise above our trained beliefs and to admit that we don’t know everything…and at the same time are required to make choices about how to act.
    Well done for bringing this out.
    Andy

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