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How (not) to talk about Israel-Palestine

As I am sure many of you have too, I have been closely following the escalating conflict in Gaza these last few weeks. The increasing measures of horror I have experienced over the immense loss of life since the start of the war have so far only been matched by the feelings of shock and disgust at the barbarity of the initial assault by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad that started this next, unwanted chapter in the story of two peoples seemingly condemned to one another. Since then we’ve had a brief ceasefire, but sadly this did not result in any visible end to the conflict. In many ways, the humanitarian crisis has only deepened.


But talking about it in any meaningful way can be a struggle. If you feel that the topic of Palestine and Israel seems almost uniquely suited to inflaming the passions of everyone and their mother, you’re not alone. This Gordian knot of a history touches on so many different sensitivities that you’d be hard-pressed to find a person who does not have an opinion on the matter; usually a strong one at that.


But should you find such a rarity, what would you tell them? What lies at the heart of this unending struggle; who do you fault for repeated failures at the negotiating table going back decades; Is a two-state solution still viable? And what about settlers in the West Bank?

Sadly, you won’t find the answers here. I don’t have them and anyone who does would be in high demand indeed.


What this post will, however, try to do is address some of the more problematic arguments you might encounter when discussing the conflict with friends or (if you’re feeling bold) with strangers online. The internet is rife with misinformation from both sides. It is often difficult to verify facts due to the quickly developing situation on the ground or because the exact details are lost below piles upon piles of historical commentary obfuscating the finer details. Therefore it might be helpful to discuss some of the tropes of these conversations.



#1 “Israel has no partner for peace”


Instinctively, this sounds like an excuse from those politically opposed to a negotiated settlement to not have to compromise on what would be a politically unpopular deal to their supporters. But after reflecting on it, it’s a statement that at least deserves to be examined seriously. Fatah, the largest political force in the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), is a ‘busted flush’ in Gaza and it is doubtful that its current president, Mahmoud Abbas, would be seen as a credible representative for the interest of Gazans. Hamas is also out, for obvious reasons. It would seem that there is a real lack of interlocutors for Israel to approach.


Why then is this controversial? Well, the current division among Palestinians has had more than a little help from the likes of Israel’s PM Netanyahu, who himself was never all that keen on a peace agreement either. They cynically boosted Hamas, thereby confining the Palestinian Authority to the West Bank in an effort to render a two-state solution less likely. This was not born out of some deep ideological opposition against peace or Palestinians. This policy reflected mostly a wish to stay in power for another term; a reflection of the short-termism seen in politics everywhere, but with ultimately deadly consequences for Israelis and Palestinians alike. One recent poll (Gallup World Poll) hints at the legacy of this policy: Since 2012, Palestinian support for a two-state solution has more than halved from 59% to 24% right before the 7 October attacks. In conclusion, neither side at the time of writing is much of a partner for peace and both had a part to play in creating that situation, largely in order to strengthen their internal positions.



#2 “Palestinian/Israeli isn’t a real identity”


This one is a two-hander, written for both sides. Questioning the existence of the opposing side’s national identity is rife in online discussions on the conflict. For the pro-Israeli side, this sentiment is maybe most familiarly captured in the disputed phrase “a land without a people for a people without a land” (a slogan created by Christian restorationists and only later adopted by certain Zionist circles). Though the meaning of the phrase itself is debated, denial of a Palestinian identity has had a long history, not just in Zionist circles, but among western supporters too. Newt Gingrich, a Republican former US Speaker, once referred to Palestinians as “an invented people”.


Indeed, it is a matter of scholarly debate when such an identity first formed, with claims ranging from as early as the 18th century to the early decades of the 20th century. Generally, however, it is considered that much like other people within what was then the Ottoman empire, some embryonic notion of Palestinian identity (covering all religions and people in the region including the old Yishuv; the Jewish inhabitants of the region of Palestine) emerged in the decades right before 1900, immediately preceding the first migration waves of Jewish migrants. By the time of the first World War, terms such as “Palestinian people” were used in local Arab-language papers. Though there undoubtedly was a reactionary element to the emergence of Palestinian nationalism, this does not make it any less legitimate now.


The opposite viewpoint, questioning the existence of Israeli identity, often overlaps with accusations of colonialism and the forceful creation of the modern state of Israel out of some sense of guilt by Western powers. It describes Israelis as Jewish Europeans taking over the area. Undoubtedly there are some overtones of this in how arrangements were made with little input from the people already inhabiting the land. But all the same, prior to the Balfour Declaration, the Jewish population of Palestine already made up about 10% of the population, with the first and second Aliyah (migration of Jewish diaspora back to geographical Palestine) not yet having been influenced all that much by the ideas of the Zionist movement. This contradicts the false notion of some foreign intervention implanting an equally foreign Jewish population in someone else’s backyard.


#3 If only party [A] had accepted proposal [B] then there’d be peace already

If, if, if… Unsurprisingly, for a conflict so uniquely capable of stirring up anger between everyone involved (or indeed not even remotely involved), each camp has strong opinions on what the opposing side should or should not have accepted to bring the fighting to a close. From the relatively recent Clinton Parameters and the Oslo Accords to the 1976 Camp David Accords (among a whole host of attempted agreements of lesser fame), there are plenty of champions in this particular fight.

Camping out somewhere between the whataboutism and the Gish gallop (worth looking up) as a rhetorical device, whenever this trope crops up, it usually assumes two things: First, that the opposing side should have taken what is perceived as a fair deal. And secondly, that the opposing side is a monolithic whole that can easily get everyone on-side with this generous deal being proffered to them.

While it is exceedingly obvious to most that neither Hamas or the PLO can command the full support of their people, this has been equally true for Israelis and especially so in recent times. The Likud-party, the political home of both current embattled PM Netanyahu as well as the (in)famous Ariel Sharon for most of his political career, had a position on Palestinian statehood that could be cynically described as grumbling ambiguously in diplomatic speak. This has now evolved (or rather, returned) to a flat-out refusal to countenance any such agreement.

The truth is that there are always factions on both sides opposed to any peace deal and even the smallest provocation from either side could and has served as an excuse for talks to break down. To confidently assert that but for the obstinacy of one side, all this would have long been resolved does a disservice to the efforts of previous generations who recognised that any deal, whatever its content, will require some measure of sacrifice of long-held dreams and desires.

#4 “The IDF is the most moral army on earth”

Applying such a phrase to any army seems almost laughingly naive, yet it crops ups with surprising frequency. While not remotely claiming to be an expert on how this belief came to be, it seems to be rooted in the values that were attached to the Israeli Defence Force upon its creation under the concept of “purity of arms” (standards broadly in line with general international humanitarian law) and the extraordinary levels of civilian participation in times of need.

However, the numbers of transgressions against civilians belie this claim of morality. Which shouldn’t be surprising really. The same people who vote for politicians encouraging illegal settlements are equally required to serve. Those feelings don’t disappear upon entering active service, even in stable political times. We are not living in such times.

The IDF is neither uniquely benign nor uniquely evil. It is an army with the unenviable task of protecting a nation in one of the most historically contested regions, but it also disproportionately outguns most of its immediate adversaries. Even the USA, one of its staunchest allies, is getting more and more uncomfortable with the use of heavy-weight ‘unguided’ bombs; a guarantee for civilian deaths in the densely packed Gaza-strip. A sure sign that even the “most moral” army on earth is not immune to indifference.

Ultimately, these four are but a few examples of the tropes thrown about with abandon. Inevitably, the ones I have selected will also reflect somewhat both my personal bias as well as that of my surroundings that have exposed me to these discussions. I might have even sinned against my own goal of avoiding unhelpful tropes. Know that they are not meant to reflect support for one side over the other.

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