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It’s Not the Occupation

It is rarely the case that all of the blame for a conflict belongs on one side. But that does not mean blame should be equally divided.

· 7 min read
It’s Not the Occupation
Tel Aviv, Israel. 20th October, 2023. Israeli families of the hostages conduct a Kabbalat Shabbat, welcoming of the sabbath ceremony, next to a set table surrounded by 203 empty chairs waiting for the hostages and missing to return, near the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Nir Alon, Alamy

Victim-blaming is generally agreed to be unacceptable. But when the crime is a pogrom and the victims are Israelis, many educated people seem to think otherwise. Following the shattering events of October 7th, when Hamas jihadists from Gaza swept into southern Israel and conducted a pitiless campaign of torture and mass murder, many rushed to place responsibility for the mayhem squarely on the shoulders of Israel. Even when the horrors of mutilation, rape, and hostage-taking are acknowledged, we are told that these events must be understood in their proper “historical context.”

The problem with this argument is that the proposed historical context is selectively chosen. The Hamas attack claimed the lives of at least 1,400 Israelis, but its “root cause” was almost immediately attributed to “the occupation,” rather than to the doctrines of its participants. According to this narrative, Hamas is only reacting to life in the pressure-cooker of a besieged Gaza Strip. But placing the pogrom in the historical context of “the occupation” explains nothing unless “the occupation” is also explained in its historical context. Nor is the Israeli response to the pogrom properly contextualised in this explanation. No thought is given to the likely consequences of Israel not striking (or striking inadequately) at Hamas in response to the massacre.

In cycles of violence, any act of belligerence may be seen as a response to what preceded it. The problem is compounded because history and human behaviour are both complicated. There are often misunderstandings, misinformation, and disproportionate responses, combined with a human tendency not to see these. It is therefore rarely the case that all of the blame belongs on one side. But that does not mean the blame should be equally divided. Very often, one side is much worse than the other, even if the better side is far from perfect.

Pinpointing the origin of the Arab-Jewish conflict is not easy, but looking back nearly a century to the 1929 Palestine riots and their origins is instructive.

Jews flee the Old City of Jerusalem, August 1929. Wikimedia Commons

In those riots, 133 Jews were killed and a further 339 were injured by Arabs. As in 2023, victims were tortured and mutilated. As a result of the 1929 violence, Jews were evacuated from many areas, including the town of Hebron, where they had maintained a nearly uninterrupted presence since the destruction of the second Jewish Commonwealth in 70CE.

Of course, those riots themselves need to be explained. They arose from Arab fears of growing Jewish immigration to Mandatory Palestine, against the background of the 1917 Balfour Declaration, in which the British had declared their support for the creation of a Jewish state in (part of) Palestine. More immediately, Arabs were alarmed when Jews brought seats and benches (for the infirm) to the Western Wall, along with a divider to separate the sexes, in violation of a 1925 ruling. The Arabs saw this move as a part of the “Zionist project,” which is why it elicited Arab violence. This, in turn, prompted Jewish demonstrations at the Wall, and those demonstrations were among the precipitators of the 1929 riots.

Some Arabs did shelter Jews, and Arabs were also killed during the 1929 riots. Almost all of the latter were slain by British forces attempting to control the violence, but in a few instances, Jews murdered innocent Arabs in reprisal attacks. But none of this had anything to do with occupation, for the simple reason that there was no Jewish occupation of Palestine in 1929. Of course, there were Jews living there. Many had been born there. Others were refugees or immigrants. Whatever one’s feelings about immigration, this was certainly not a state of affairs to which massacres were a justifiable response.

Those who doubt this might consider the following case. Perhaps there are Americans today who fear that Arab immigration, and the changed political environment it may yet produce, will eventually lead the US to abandon its current support for Israel. Would those Americans therefore be justified in massacring the immigrants and refugees from Arab countries on the basis of those political fears? That would be xenophobic violence and its explanation would not be a justification.

The problem in 1929 was not “the occupation,” but a refusal to accept any Jewish state in Palestine. This refusal stands in contrast to repeated (if not always full-hearted) Jewish acceptance of a two-state solution, including the Jews’ acceptance of the Peel Commission in 1937 and the UN Partition Plan in 1947. The Arab rejection of partition then and the Hamas rejection of a Jewish state now are both rooted in the same claim that the Jewish state is a settler-colonial enterprise. But this characterization is simply false.

Jews praying at the Western Wall of Herod's Temple, 1870s. Wikimedia Commons

First, Israel is not a colony of any country, nor was it established as one. It is not like the British colonies in America and Australia, nor the Belgian or German colonies in what were the Congo and South West Africa. Jews were not sent by anyone, nor did they migrate from a single country or even a single region. In other words, they had no metropole. Moreover, they have ancestral ties to the land. It is the place from which they came, and from which they were exiled. This is not to deny that Palestinians have ties to the same land, but it is not colonization when those who are driven out of their land return to it. Those Palestinian exiles who deny this, might ask themselves whether their own claims to some part of Palestine will evaporate in time, and if so, when?

Second, a very large proportion of the Jewish Israeli population is descended from refugees. These include not only refugees from pogroms and the Shoah in Europe, but also around 650,000 Jews who fled persecution in Arab countries and Iran. Other Jewish Israelis are migrants who have moved to Israel because, for any number of reasons, that is where they prefer to be. Refugees and migrants are not colonialists. Those who reject this distinction will be forced to acknowledge that there is now a substantial Muslim colonization of Europe, America, and other Western countries. That is not a reasonable characterization, nor is it one that Palestinians’ Western supporters will be eager to defend.

So what about “the occupation” in 2023? The Gaza Strip is not occupied, and hasn’t been since Israel unilaterally withdrew from the territory in 2005. It is true that Israel—along with Egypt—controls Gaza’s borders, but that is not the same as occupation. It is also true that the partial blockade (converted to a full siege following the October 7th massacre) has brought hardship to Gazans, but it is not a gratuitous infliction. The blockade was imposed in an attempt to control the flow of arms into Gaza, which Israelis knew Hamas would then use to attack Israel.

Israel does continue to occupy the West Bank, but responsibility for that conundrum cannot be laid solely at Israel’s door either. It takes two sides to make peace. Anybody who suggests that Israel could resolve the conflict by simply withdrawing from the West Bank should try to understand that the results of the Gaza disengagement demonstrate this to be impossible. That experience has provided a painful lesson in the dangers of vacating disputed land in the absence of (and possibly even with) a peace agreement. Since the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, that area has regularly been used as a launching ground for thousands of rockets into Israel (despite the blockade), and now for the worst massacre of Jews since the Nazis.

None of this makes Israel blameless. There are outbreaks of Jewish vigilante violence and other instances of terror against Palestinians in the West Bank. This is inexcusable, and the State of Israel should ensure that the perpetrators feel the full force of the law. And even though the security wall and checkpoints around the West Bank are a necessary response to the terror that led to their construction, processing Palestinian people through the latter should be done with greater regard for their dignity. Such criticisms are reasonable.

The Gazan Gordian Knot
Following a litany of failures, Israel must now contemplate a menu of bad options.

But those who lay all (or almost all) of the blame for the ongoing conflict and the consequent statelessness of the Palestinians on Israel display either bad faith or naiveté. Lifting the blockade on Gaza and unilaterally withdrawing from the West Bank would amount to suicide for Israel’s Jews. The same is true of the suggestion that there could be a unified state of Jewish and Arab citizens from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Those who propose such a state need to explain which country in the region this state would most resemble. Not a single state in the Middle East rates even remotely as well as Israel still does in terms of liberal and democratic freedoms. What reason do we have for thinking that a unified Palestine would be any different, especially with antisemitic rejectionists like Hamas in the polity.

When we ask what each side of the Hamas-Israel conflict could do differently, it is much easier to say what Hamas could do. It could stop attacking Israel. If it stopped behaving like the fundamentalist, repressive, terroristic regime that it is, and used its resources for building a nascent Palestinian state, it would bring greater prosperity to its citizens, gradually ease restrictions on its borders, and demonstrate that Palestine could exist peacefully alongside Israel. But that, of course, is not what Hamas wants.

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