Please let me preface this with a personal note: This is my current perspective on the matter. I may be biased, but I am always willing to learn. I have known people from both sides, and I know that the truth always lies somewhere in the middle. The clearest bias that I am willing to defend, though, is a bias towards peace, cooperation, and shared humanity. Maybe we need to think more in the now than in interpretations of the past.
Israel has been the undeniable homeland of the Jewish people for millennia. Throughout its existence it has been the target of outside imperial aggressors. Over the centuries, the land has been occupied by a succession of forces, some more than others obsessed with the eradication of every last trace of Jewish life. The Persian, Macedonian, Roman and Byzantine empires, various Islamic caliphates and Crusader states, the Ottoman and finally the British Empire all laid claim to the territory. With the continued presence of antisemitic pogroms in Europe, and the weakening of the Ottoman occupation force, a return of the Jewish diaspora to the homeland became possible and led to the movement known as Zionism. Its mission became even more urgent during the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust. The United Nations finally resolved in 1947 to create the state of Israel, and partition the area known as Palestine accordingly.
Since the re-establishment of the state of Israel as the Jewish homeland, the new (and old) state has faced constant aggression by other factions newly released from Ottoman rule. The Jerusalem Riots initiated by the Arab Higher Committee of 1947 led to a Civil War. Israel was finally officially founded in 1948. Immediately, against UN intentions, Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq launched the Arab-Israeli War, with other states joining in. That effort failed. Jordan and Egypt annexed Palestinian and Israeli territories. As the result of the riots and the war, the majority of Palestinians who had remained in Israel left the land or were forced to leave, but some remained and became Israeli citizens. The circumstances of the escape or expulsion of the Palestinians are of some debate, but in the end, the non-Jewish population lost their home due to a mixture of voluntary relocation, pressure or outright force. Several Israeli leaders have always criticized this expulsion or, as it is also known, catastrophe, or naqba.
After years of anti-Israel terrorist attacks, in 1967, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq attacked Israel, but after Six Days, Israel won and captured the West Bank, Gaza, Sinai and the Golan Heights. The so-called “Occupied Territories” were lost due to this attack. Terrorism continued, and in 1973, Egypt and Syria again attacked during Yom Kippur, and lost again.
Since then, the peace process has seen a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1979, and an uneasy peace between Israel and the Palestinians in the territories administered by Israel. The Jordan peace treaty followed in 1994. In 2000, Israel offered the return of Gaza and over 90% of the West Bank. Jerusalem was supposed to be the joint capital of both Israel and the Palestinian State. The offer was rejected by the Palestinian leadership. Nevertheless, in 2005, Israel granted independence to Gaza, hoping for the peaceful establishment of the core of a Palestinian state, and yet, Hamas has continued its campaign of terror to this day. The Palestinian people are not occupied primarily by Israel but by a leadership controlled by or allied with terrorist organizations whose solitary aim is the destruction of the Jewish homeland and its people.
Every other state on the planet has the right to exist. Yet somehow, it is seen as acceptable to problematize the very existence of Israel. “Zionism” means nothing else but the legitimate claim to the land of Israel as the Jewish homeland, and yet, it is seen as acceptable by an odd alliance of extremists on the far right and far left to approve of the label “antizionist.” When any other state in the world defends itself against aggressors and holds control over their territories, won after the attacker loses, this is seen as an acceptable victory, and yet with regards to Israel, it is called “occupation” and “settler colonialism.”
Nevertheless, the land is also home to the Palestinian populations. These dual claims are both legitimate, which complicates the fact. Who was where and when at which time in history is a question for the history books, but who is where now is a question for politics.
Certainly, Israel needs to find a way to work together with Palestinians who have lost their home, and who suffer daily from the terrorism unleashed or tolerated by their leadership. This terrorism is the cause for the Israeli security state and the deprivations imposed on innocent Palestinian civilians. If the terror stopped, peace would be possible, and what is called “occupation” could be shaped differently.
Criticism of specific policies of the State of Israel, and specific forms of settlement is always legitimate. But if the criticism is mounted at Israel in a way that treats it as essentially different from any other nation on the planet, then this is clearly anti-Semitic. Just as Anti-Zionism is just another code for Anti-Semitism, “criticism of Israel” is code for the denial of the legitimacy of the Jewish homeland.
Debates about territory are not helpful. Historically, every single state sits on the territory of someone else. Relitigating history typically leads to nothing but newer pain. We do need to put every conflict in perspective, and how we talk about it. For instance, do we call Turkey’s possession of territories gained after the genocide of Greeks and Armenians “occupied territories”? Do we call Tibet and Xinjiang province “occupied territories”? How about Crimea, South Tyrol, Northern Cyprus, Kashmir (by all sides), Northern Ireland, and the entirety of the Americas? Examples abound. What does that mean for the future of Israel and Palestine?
Consider the continent of Europe: Centuries, if not millennia of warfare have left no stone untouched. Every single border is drawn in blood. Yet the brilliant idea of European integration has brought peace: Focus on the economy, focus on the people, make borders matter less, and conflicts that were centuries or longer in the making will matter less and less.
Maybe the idea of a two-state solution has not been the right answer. Maybe a federal model with some form of shared leadership would work. I could dream of two states with a joint government, joint Israeli-Palestinian government departments, a collegialism enforced throughout institutions. But the solution has to be developed in Israel and Palestine itself.
Both belong together. Both represent the indigenous heritage of the area. They are intertwined, and both cannot tolerate much more pain.
One thing above all though: The solution has to be negotiated by the people on the ground. This is about how to make people see each other again as neighbors, as possible friends, as colleagues, as partners by fate and circumstance. Take the pressure out. Let foreign interests cede. Let truth speak, and let us hear both sides, but let us speak peace, salam, shalom.