IT WAS A WEEKEND of horror in Palestine, with a death toll now standing at 192, including 58 children and 34 women; Israel, meanwhile, has suffered ten casualties. Sadly, there is nothing new in this grim asymmetry. According to B’Tselem, Israel’s leading human rights group, a total of 1,398 Palestinians perished at Israeli hands during Operation Cast Lead (2008-9); by contrast, just ten Israelis died at Palestinian hands.
Of course, all war-related deaths are tragic. But the discrepancy highlights the problem of media discourses which present the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as “complex”. So complex, indeed, that you require a PhD in Middle Eastern Studies to even talk about the topic. The implication is that ordinary people’s solidarity – visible this weekend in demonstrations in Edinburgh, Glasgow and across the country – must be founded in ignorance.
Anyone waving a Palestine banner must reckon with the calumny that solidarity is a cover for anti-Semitic prejudice. Euphemistic talk of “complexity” thus adds to a chilling effect on public debate about our own culpability in enforcing what Israeli human rights groups have called “apartheid”.
In truth, while resolving this matter will involve a complex bundle of emotions and identities, as a question of justice it’s as simple as any conflict could be. Yes, there are regimes more brutal than Israel; there are wars with greater casualties and governments who engage in more egregious abuses. But for sheer disproportionate force nothing else compares.
This is an advanced and heavily armed regional behemoth bearing down on proverbial slingshots. To compound it all, the behemoth can depend on an annual $3 billion+ of American military aid. You don’t need a doctorate in conflict studies to appreciate that disparity of raw, violent power.
For those who speak of complexity, Palestinian rights must be balanced against “Israeli security”. The trouble is, there is a strain of Israeli ideology (thoroughly embedded in Netanyahu’s government) that will only feel “secure” when the Arab presence has been reduced to penury and abject subjection.
Many will doubtless call for a “two state solution”. From the standpoint of abstract justice that’s a dubious formulation, which likely involves abandoning the rights of Palestine’s 7.2 million refugees. Still, most Palestinians would theoretically accept some settlement based on internationally-recognised 1967 borders. Faced with an enemy that holds endless reservoirs of violent force at its disposal, you have to reckon with “complexity” – in our complex world, justice must surrender to pragmatism. Most will thus accept a big slice of injustice for the sake of peace.
But Palestinian truculence isn’t the problem. The problem is the Israeli state’s longstanding settlement policy, which has effectively torpedoed any prospect of Palestinian sovereignty over the 22 percent of historic Palestine theoretically allotted to them by a “two state solution”.
Settler colonialists, the most extreme of all Israeli nationalists, will never surrender what they consider as a “birth right”. They will never recognise the jurisdiction of an Arab-dominated government or accept Arabs as their neighbours. Their ideology is one of religious and racial domination: they will never accept underdog status; indeed, they will never accept anything but being the over-dog who reduces everyone else to cowering obedience. And it’s only getting worse, because the more settlers inflict brutality on Palestinians, the more they fear their revenge.
Sometimes this conflict is wrongly reduced to age-old religious quarrels; in truth, the original Israeli settlers were largely secular. Others reduce it to the ethno-nationalist ideology of the Israeli state, and the vexed question of “Zionism”. But even that doesn’t get to the heart of the problem.
Historically, “Zionism” has only been the problem insofar as it proved useful to superpower interests, ranging from British imperialists like Scotland’s own Arthur Balfour to Cold War planners and latter-day American Christian fundamentalists. If this is a David versus Goliath conflict, Goliath was an experiment in regional control, manufactured in our own laboratories. US-UK complicity is thus hard to ignore: it turned an already skewed conflict not the most ill-matched ethnic “war” imaginable.