I don’t make a point of listening to BBC’s The Today Podcast as I don’t need extra things to listen to. But I caught some it on the radio last night while brushing my teeth. In it Nick Robinson and Amol Rajan talked about the Gaza war – and Nick (as the BBC like to refer to him) explained how there were three incompatible narratives to the history of the Israel-Palestine troubles. It is a very good way of making sense of what is going one here, even if it offers no hope of how it might eventually resolve.
I have had a special interest in Israel since I volunteered on a kibbutz in the summer of 1979 between graduating (it was organised through the university) and starting my training as a Chartered Accountant. It was at Kibbutz Be’eri on the Gaza border. I was there for about six weeks. The kibbutz organisers soon decided that I had limited value as a worker and had me doing duties in the communal kitchen, cleaning floors, etc. – after starting off in agricultural work. Our stay included a tour of Israel organised by the kibbutz. I and one one of the other volunteers then did our own bit of tourism, based in Jerusalem, but including an organised trip to Sinai, then under Israel control. In the course of this I met a wide variety of people: our Israeli hosts, Palestinians both in Gaza and elsewhere, and American Jewish tourists. This was inevitably light on the Palestinian side of things, but a group of us volunteers did walk into Gaza one day, and all the way to the beach, before getting a taxi back. Back in 1979 the Gaza’s were quite open an friendly – they simply wanted the rest of the world to know how things were. To the kibbutzim, though, Gaza was just Other, and they feared to go over the border. Security was ever present. 44 years later Be’eri was overrun by Hamas terrorists, and over 100 people were murdered, with others, I presume, kidnapped. Things had moved on in the intervening period after my stay, but not in a good way.
The first of Mr Robinson’s three narratives is that of Israelis. The establishment of the Israeli homeland in the original land of Zion was a response to many centuries of persecution, where a pattern was repeated. After their dispersal by the Romans in the first century AD, Jewish communities became minority communities spread across the world (reaching as far as China), maintaining their faith and distinctive customs. A pattern was generally repeated: the community would try to fit with their host community, with a greater or lesser level of commercial interaction and with a generally passive approach. This would work fine for a while, but sooner or later the hosts would turn on them, expelling them or massacring them. In the 18th and 19th Century in Europe many Jews integrated with the newly liberal middle class in Europe, even taking up the Christian religion. And yet this simply provoked an even more violent backlash, culminating in the Holocaust. Even outside the Nazi empire, prejudice was rife. In Britain, France and America Jews were still Other. Many were appalled at Nazi policy towards Jews, but in a rather detached sense and they lifted hardly a finger to help. Few refugees were accepted, even as the persecution became more extreme. Zionists decided that they could only be secure in their own community, and so Zionism took off, leading eventually to the foundation of Israel.
How does this narrative deal with the Palestinians? They were a problem because they violently tried to stop the establishment of the Israeli state, leading to the war of independence in 1948. It is central to the idea of Zionism that the Jewish people be able to match violence with force, and they must not compromise on the idea of controlling their own fate. If that meant establishing their state using terrorist tactics against the British, or deleting Arab villages, then so be it. What struck me back in 1979 when visiting Yad Vashem (and also meeting those American Jews) was how much Israelis were treating non-Jews as Other. Gentiles were divided into friends of the Jews and Enemies. You cheered on your friends, and fought your enemies. Since 1948, according to this narrative, Palestinians have been given every opportunity to peacefully coexist with Israeli, but instead have used those opportunities to attack. The Hamas assault on 7 October is only the latest example of using freedoms allowed by Israeli to plot against it.
Next comes the Palestinian narrative. After the dispersal of the Jews the land of Palestine was populated by tribes that were local to the area and shared it with them. We refer to Palestinians as “Arabs” but this is a misnomer – they, or only a few of them, did not originate from Arabia. The Bible provides us with a series of names – notably Canaanites and, of course, Philistines, after whom Palestine is named. They adopted Arabic language following the Muslim invasions, and the Islamic religion, a faith which draws heavily on Jewish traditions, and has adopted Jerusalem as holy site. These peoples have a strong historical right to this land. More so, perhaps, than the Saxon and Norse English have to England. While some Jewish people living in Palestine have deep historical roots there, the influx over the last last century amounts to an alien invasion. Palestinians were violently displaced from their land in 1948, with further displacement taking place ever since. This is a historic wrong that can only be righted through active resistance. Israeli occupation and rule increasingly resembles Apartheid South Africa, with the natives forced to occupy depleted homelands with only nominal sovereignty, if that.
And third there is the Western liberal narrative. If only the Israelis and Palestinians could sit down to talk, and learn to live together peacefully, in two states, or even one! Various opportunities have been presented to do this, but repeatedly thwarted by weak leadership and the influence of hotheads.
Each of these narratives has more than an element of truth to it. The Western liberal one may look very weak, but it is the only one that looks towards a resolution.
When looking at the terrible mess, most commentators respond along the lines of “I wouldn’t start from here”. Various people are blamed for moving the parties to this wrong place, but in the end blaming people doesn’t offer any kind of solution. Each of the two principal narratives has its own strong, grinding logic. History offers no encouraging precedents. India went for partition, which led to mass murder and ethnic cleansing. The German diaspora in east Europe was likewise settled with population transfer, only thinkable after a devastating war. Yugoslavia collapsed in a vicious civil war. It is hard to see Switzerland offering much of an example to follow.
I would like to offer hope in this gloom. I won’t take sides. Israel has suffered an appalling atrocity whose scale it is hard to take on. But the Palestinians have suffered more.