Virtually nothing about this conflict was changed with Israel’s military operation in Gaza. Nothing on the surface, nothing lurking in the shadows, nothing for the history books. Yet the fundamentals of this conflict that have existed since 1967 are somehow becoming more obvious and less accessible every day. As rhetoric bleeds into strategy, sobering arguments are polluted by perverse distortions and the only thing that makes sense is confusion. As a humble remedy, perhaps, the following conversation is a synthesis of hundreds of hours of candid discussions (and screaming matches) between Israeli and Palestinian colleagues and friends. It offers no solutions or common ground, but only pain. Until we get through the meat of this war, the bones will never heal. Here is how these enemies think and argue.
Avi: Because we believe that you would continue terrorizing us even if we give up the West Bank. If you were eager to kill Israelis long before any of us ever lived in the West Bank or East Jerusalem, how could we possibly believe that you would be satisfied by anything short of our expulsion from the region? You can talk about peace accords, but at the end of the day, which occupation do you want to end? The one in that started in 1967, or the one you say began in 1948 when the State of Israel was established?
Ahmed: Well, I’ll answer that question with another one: You always talk about how important it is for Palestinians to recognize Israel, but which Israel do you want us to recognize? The Israel with pre-1967 borders? Or an Israel that occupies the West Bank and controls our movement with nearly 500 checkpoints on any given day? Or maybe an Israel that has been “converged” behind the “security barrier” wall/fence, which would almost guarantee a permanent separation between a Palestinian homeland and our most sacred religious sites? But to answer your question honestly, yes, your suspicions are correct: it is the 1948 occupation that we want to end, just like the Jews would love to have the West Bank as well. But we know Israel is here to stay, and we can tolerate you as much as you can tolerate us. But what we cannot tolerate is your occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Avi: Look, we don’t enjoy occupying the West Bank any more than you enjoy being occupied; it puts our soldiers at risk, it’s a drain on our military and it hurts our image abroad. We continue the occupation because we want to be safe from terrorism.
Ahmed: But you are creating more resentment and terrorism with the occupation.
Avi: That’s definitely true, but we know that if we withdraw from the West Bank, the terrorism will not stop and is likely to get worse. After disengaging from Gaza nearly 4 years ago, the only thing we got in return was strengthened resistance in Gaza. And now, because of the continuous barrage of Qassam rockets, we are evacuating our homes inside of Israel itself, not just in the territories. Gaza was your test. You proved that when given the chance to function peacefully on your own, you failed miserably.
Ahmed: Of course we failed in Gaza. You still control our airspace, our coastline, our borders and our economy. You pretended to take the moral high road with your “test,” but you did it for strategic reasons and with no follow-through. And it has nothing to do with Hamas. Our economy was already dead before you made Gaza a giant outdoor prison. For years you have made Palestinians dependent on the Israeli economy so you could control us as much as possible. Even before Hamas took over Gaza, farmers were stuck at border crossings for days, watching their vegetables rot while your soldiers closed border crossings at random just to frustrate us.
Avi: So you take no responsibility for your inability to promote peace in Gaza? And what difference does it make if we evacuated Gaza for strategic reasons? You should want to prove to the world that you can function peacefully. Granted, we set the terms for the pullout, and you can only do so much with severe sanctions and closed borders, but we gave you Gaza—we gave you something—and you failed to take advantage of it.
Ahmed: You did not “give” us anything. You returned it.
Avi: Fine, we returned it. It was a public relations coup for us. We should have negotiated Gaza back to you, but we didn’t; we evacuated it, and we ruined the credibility of the moderate Palestinians. But it was still something. Why aren’t you openly furious with the Gazans who confirmed everyone’s suspicions when their first response to our evacuation was a whole-sale pillaging of every building in sight and an increase in rocket/mortar attacks against southern Israel? Don’t you want to persuade us (and the rest of the world) that you are not just another group of thugs and terrorists?
Ahmed: Why should we? Palestinians have gotten almost nothing from negotiating with Israelis, and we cannot imagine why it is we who have to prove anything to anyone. The real question is: How can you persuade us that you are serious about peace when you took those uprooted settlers from Gaza and gave them new homes in the West Bank? Is that what you call a “confidence-building measure”? No, of course not—your unilateral evacuation was a public relations stunt. Gaza is not strategically important to Israel, and Sharon knew that abandoning it could ensure an even tighter grasp of the West Bank, which is really what you wanted all along.
Avi: Look, I think it was a terrible decision to transfer any of the Gaza settlers to the West Bank, and I think the settlers should not be in the West Bank or Gaza at all. But occupying the West Bank militarily is strategically important because it protects Israel’s dense population centers. Heavily occupying East Jerusalem (and a few other parts of the West Bank) provides a crucial buffer zone protecting our vulnerable spots from terrorists. So even if we stopped being hypocritical in every way you claim we are, then, as the more powerful party, we still have to be convinced that a free and shared Jerusalem will actually be a city of peace, and that the fighting will stop. If we had any sense that you would actually stop resisting once we ended the occupation of the West Bank or even East Jerusalem, most Israelis would gladly hand it over everything except the Old City. Read the rest of this entry »