Slouching towards the abyss Saturday, 22 November 2014
Hisham Melhem /Al Arabiya
Let’s begin with some basic truths. The Palestinian and Israeli peoples are condemned to live together; even though the fundamental question was, is and will continue to be, the nature of the cohabitation. To be sure, there are Palestinians and Israelis who believe that the historic land they call home is not big enough for the two peoples and they wish the other away. The maximalists among them still believe that their century-old existential conflict will end with a bang and not a whimper, resulting in a victor and a vanquished. The recent killing of worshipers at a Jerusalem synagogue, the latest in an ugly series of attacks on civilians of both sides, is particularly ominous because it portends a deeper descent to the basest and nastiest of human conflicts; religious wars, where combatants are driven by absolutist convictions, hatreds and fears that cannot be reconciled, like conventional conflicts by political solutions or alternative horizons.
Sanctum, sanctity and sanctuary
In this context, another basic truth presents itself – after a century of struggle- and that is deliberate, cold-blooded violence against civilians, regardless of whom they are, should be condemned and rejected categorically, and in the absolutist of terms. Violence against civilians is morally repugnant and politically counterproductive particularly in a place like Jerusalem where Palestinians and Israelis lead complex and strangely intimate and interlocking lives. My first reaction to the news was expressed briefly in a tweet: “Whatever happened to the concepts of sanctum, sanctity and sanctuary? Killing people while worshipping is especially repugnant. #Jerusalem”. The synagogue attack was reminiscent of the 2008 killing of eight Jewish students at a Jerusalem Yeshiva. But the worst killing of worshippers since the occupation of the West bank was the massacre committed by the religious extremist Baruch Goldstein who killed 29 Palestinian worshipers at a mosque in Hebron in 1994. Jewish settlers regularly violate and vandalize Mosques, as part of their relentless attacks on Palestinians and their property in the West Bank.
The occupier/occupied dichotomy
Another stubborn truth is that, unless the symbiotic relationship between the Israelis and Palestinians which is based on the dichotomy of the occupier/occupied is radically altered they will continue to bleed each other inconclusively. Israeli politicians can talk endlessly and revoltingly about “transferring” The Palestinians elsewhere – a not so subtle euphemism for ethnic cleansing- or about the “demographic threat,” but the Palestinians who lived on the contested land for centuries, are not going anywhere. Radical Palestinians, of the Islamist or the leftist varieties can deny any Jewish claim to the land where the Israelites had roots and sacred places and call incessantly for the restoration of all of mandated Palestine – a not so subtle euphemism for the dismantlement of Israel- but the Israelis too are not going anywhere.
To survive and to prosper, countries and societies develop national narratives that are usually infused with myths, manufactured realities, legends, heroes and demons. Palestinians and Israelis are not strangers to this tradition. Their encounter in mandated Palestine under British rule, and because of it, was destined to be tragic and bloody. Traumatized by long years of pernicious anti-Semitism, violent pogroms and the ultimate crime that sought their total destruction, the Holocaust; the waves of European Jews who came to Palestine under British control to establish a Jewish homeland could not or would not realize that establishing such a homeland will lead eventually to the dismantlement of Palestinian polity and society, and producing “a new category of refugees, the Arabs “, as the great Hannah Arendt observed. The Palestinians who were threatened by the newcomers and their national ambitions would not or could not, for a variety of reasons, adopt alone or with other Arab states effective and creative strategies and tactics that would have allowed them to protect their rights, but at the same time propose different political outcomes based on compromises to thwart the revisionist Zionists.
“Both sides have built an array of stereotypes, myths and manufactured realities including an ugly legacy of demonization and dehumanization”
For decades, but specifically since the 1967 war and the occupation of what was left of mandated Palestine; the West Bank including East Jerusalem and Gaza, both sides have built an array of stereotypes, myths and manufactured realities including an ugly legacy of demonization and dehumanization that comes in handy following the atrocities the extremists commit. That explains in part the despicable display of support for the synagogue killings by some extremist Palestinians and its justification by Hamas. Goldstein was celebrated as a hero by his supporters at his funeral, and his gravesite became a pilgrimage site for extremist settlers.
From secular nationalism to religious fury
For most of the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the dominant narratives on both sides were overwhelmingly secular and nationalist in nature, with an occasional dose of religious seasonings sprinkled on the discourse for the purpose of mobilization and the exploitation of religion to serve political ends. The founder of Zionism, Theodore Herzel and most of his companions were secularists and had a jaundiced view of religion. Many of the early Jewish settlers in Palestine were decidedly leftists not religious. The theoreticians of Pan-Arabism and later Palestinian nationalism were mostly secularists not Islamists, and a considerable number of them were Christians. To be sure, religious figures were involved on both sides, and at times very loud, but certainly were not dominant.
The eventual failure of Arab secularists and nationalists in building viable economies, good governance, and their 1967 defeat led to the rise of political Islam – from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to Hamas in Palestine. Political Islam presented itself as the alternative of the defunct Arab Nationalism. The ineptitudes of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and later the Palestinian Authority, and the corruption of its aging leadership, ushered in a more assertive Palestinian Islamism. The weakening of the Labor party which dominated Political life in Israel until the 1970’s, and the proliferation of small religious parties reflecting the demographic changes in Israel, marked the ascendency of the religious discourse and the societal turn towards a more conservative-religious polity. The narratives of the religious right in Israel and Palestinian Islamists (Hamas and Islamic Jihad) mirror each other in their maximalist demands and absolutist posturing.
In the past the conflict was framed in political categories: self-determination, national patrimony, natural resources and borders, and as such political compromises can be, theoretically at least, proposed. In this context the Jewish settler’s movement and the creeping annexation of the West Bank has strengthened the theocratic tendencies in Israel in recent years, just as the rise of political Islam in the Arab world (and Iran) has influenced and strengthened Hamas and the other smaller Palestinian Islamist groups. Israel’s wars against Gaza in recent years, Israeli settlement activities in occupied East Jerusalem, coupled with rising demands from the religious right for control of the al-Aqsa Mosque have sharpened the religious discourse. The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emphasized the religious overtones of the recent attack, describing the victims as “four innocent and pure Jews” who were “slaughtered” while wearing prayer shawls. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was unnecessarily provocative when he warned that a “holy war” would erupt if al-Aqsa was “contaminated.” Finally, it is naïve for the Israelis, and the Palestinians to think that their contested land can escape being infected by the malignant virus of sectarianism and religious hatreds sweeping the Middle East from the Gulf to the Mediterranean. If the status quo continues for the next few years, the conflict will become more communal and religious, with the Arab identity of the Palestinians receding to be replaced by Islamist identity. This will be also true of Israel’s Palestinian citizens who will increasingly fall back on their bedrock Islamist identity.
If I Forget Thee, O Jerusalem
Yet, for all the religious overtones and fury exhibited by both sides, the fundamentals of the struggle in Jerusalem ( and the rest of the occupied territories) are in essence political and economic. The more than 300 thousand Palestinians in the city lead lives of quiet – and at times not so quiet- desperation, with almost 80 percent of them below the poverty line and many live in squalor. They live in legal limbo, they are cut off from the rest of Palestine, but they are not Israeli citizens, although they live in the supposedly undivided “eternal” capital of Israel. They are discriminated against politically and economically, they don’t have leaders who represent them, they watch with justifiable anger their land being pulled from under their feet to build Jewish settlements on it and they live in constant fear of losing their residency status. These Jerusalemites don’t need President Abbas to incite them to cross the territory of Henry Thoreau’s “quiet desperation” to commit individual desperate acts of random and nihilistic violence as we have seen at the Jerusalem synagogue.
In recent weeks and days, following the spate of violence committed by young Palestinians acting unilaterally, and without any central planning, people have begun to ask whether what we are witnessing now is a third Intifada. The Palestinian Authority of President Abbas seems to be more irrelevant than ever before when it comes to providing meaningful leadership to the Palestinian people; it is aging, corrupt, terrified of change and obsessed with maintaining its privileges. The Palestinian people today are bereft of real leaders. It is one thing to have a well-organized, peaceful uprising and a campaign of civil disobedience against the structures of occupation by making it costly to maintain and that would lead eventually to a negotiated end to occupation and peace. It is another, to see random acts of meaningless violence that will ultimately devour its perpetrators in the absence of a political strategy that would appeal to those forces in Israeli society who truly believe in the two-state solution, and are willing to help end the occupation in the context of a final peace. Even then, the obstacles to peace will remain formidable unless the U.S. plays a decisive role, something cannot be expected in the next few years.
Slouching towards the abyss
There are many other basic truths that need to be recognized for the full picture to be fully and tragically clear. There will be no more serious talk of a peace agreement or a two state solution as long as Netanyahu is in power. To a lesser extent the same can be said about President Abbas, although, since Israel is the powerful party and holds most of the levers of powers it is mainly responsible – because of its settlement activities, and discriminatory policies- for the current impasse. The American sponsored “peace process” the way we have known it for years, is no more. President Obama tried intermittently, hesitantly and half-heartedly to revive the peace talks, but he does not have what it takes to stand up to Mr. Netanyahu’s powerful American enablers, particularly in Congress. In the absence of American leadership there is only void and vacuum. Israel’s friends in the U.S. will prevent President Obama from leaving Netanyahu exposed at the Security Council of the United Nations without the warm blanket of Washington’s veto power. The European Union cannot lead and there are no other viable candidates to mediate. The Palestinians and Israelis are on their own, slouching slowly but surely towards the abyss of a religious war with passionate intensity and intense pain.