The writer is a poet and author based in Islamabad.
Perhaps those fighting the long-drawn cold war from the western hemisphere thought that with the demise of the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc, other people of the world will start falling in line before the end of the twentieth century. That did not happen and doesn’t seem to be taking place in the coming years either. Regrettably, there has been an escalation of conflicts in the Muslim-dominated regions since.
There was a war in Iraq much before the unfortunate 9/11 happened. There was another war in Iraq to find the weapons of mass destruction, which were never to be found. There is a war going on in Afghanistan since 2001.
All along, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has continued, only attracting significant news coverage when there is an upsurge in violence. It has the Israeli state aided by the Americans and encouraged by the calculated timidity of some rich Arab countries, on the one hand, and the fragmented and oppressed Palestinians with limited independent support from citizens across the world, on the other.
But the Palestinians are predominantly Muslim and therefore, after the weakening of the global progressive movements, the Palestinian rights movement has increasingly become Muslim in nature. Israel has contributed to making it such as well. For years now, this conflict has captured the imagination of the Muslim world like no other conflict has. What the Americans need to understand is that their support to development projects and humanitarian response across developing Muslim countries in times of crises get washed away by their overt support to Israeli aggression.
The Jews, Christians and Muslims shared the land and its resources for centuries. But the current conflict crystallised in 1948 with the creation of the state of Israel, when the UN sided with the Zionist claim on Palestinian land and resolved in favour of creating two states when the British mandate over the area was to be over.
The ideology that David Ben-Gurion, the head of the World Zionist Movement subscribed to triumphed. A state was born on the basis of a faith-based community’s claim over a piece of land, which their ancestors inhabited more than two millennia ago. Ridiculous as it may sound, because Europeans themselves were aspiring for secularism around the same time, they and their trans-Atlantic allies supported the Zionoist claim. They may have also suffered from a huge guilty conscience for treating European Jews with contempt for centuries and the resultant holocaust.
As soon as Israel was created, Arab forces resisted its formation but couldn’t succeed. Subsequently, in Arab-Israeli wars, Israel occupied the West Bank, the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza strip and Golan Heights. Some land, in modern terms, would be regarded as Syrian, Lebanese or Egyptian. Egypt got Sinai back and Jordan also signed a pact with Israel. The Palestinians were beleaguered and continued to lose their land which they had got in 1948. Hundreds of thousands were turned into refugees. Parts of East Jerusalem were annexed by Israel. Settlements remained undeveloped for decades on the land which was marked for Palestinians even by the UN.
In 1964, the Palestine Liberation Organisation, a united front of several organisations like Al-Asifa, PFLP, Al-Fatah and about eight others, was created for Palestinian’s right to self-determination and the right to return to their land. They opted for armed struggle. There were two wars in 1967 and 1973. Palestinians and those Arab countries that came to their support could not overpower the Israelis due to the unrelenting US support and technological superiority.
The skirmishes, attacks, militant operations and perpetual state of war between the two grossly unequal parties continued until 1991, when the PLO was recognised by the UN and Israel as the sole representative of Palestinians. This came about after the PLO denounced its armed struggle and started working towards a two-state solution. But in the meanwhile, Intifada caught everybody by surprise. The first Intifada, widespread civil disobedience and resistance movement, broke out in 1987 and continued until 1993. Israel had experienced battles and attacks, this citizen’s movement introduced different challenges, both in terms of management of crisis and international image.
In 1993, the Oslo Peace Accords were signed between Israel and the PLO. The two parties agreed on the withdrawal of Israel from Gaza Strip and the West Bank. They agreed to a Palestinian self-government and also resolved that within five years, negotiations would commence on a permanent status for Palestine. Also, during these negotiations, pending issues like East Jerusalem, the Palestinian refugees and expansion of Israeli settlements were to be taken up and resolved.
While the accords were projected and propagated as a signal turn in the conflict, sagacious people like Edward Said, the Palestinian-American public intellectual, had a different view. Time tells us that Said was on the spot when he said, “The Israeli calculation seems to be that by agreeing to police Gaza – a job which Begin tried to give Sadat 15 years ago – the PLO would soon fall afoul of local competitors, of whom Hamas is only one.
“Moreover, rather than becoming stronger during the interim period, the Palestinians may grow weaker, come more under the Israeli thumb, and therefore be less able to dispute the Israeli claim when the last set of negotiations begins.” But on the matter of how, by what specific mechanism, to get from an interim status to a later one, the document is purposefully silent. Does this mean, ominously, that the interim stage may be the final one?
Israel did as Said had predicted. While flirting with the PLO and bagging Nobel peace prizes, what the Israelis were doing on the side is worth-mentioning here. Israeli intelligence continued to weaken the inclusive and pluralistic PLO. Intifada had taught them a lesson. It is easier to deal with a militant outfit and impossible to deal with citizens at large rising in fury. You can fire hundred missiles in response to a rocket. But how do you fire a volley of bullets in response to stones hurled at you? Therefore, the right-wing Hamas leadership was tacitly supported and encouraged to take on the PLO and make full benefit of its internal tensions.
Rich Arabs also found the PLO a nuisance and so did their mercenaries elsewhere in the Muslim world. Our own Gen Ziaul Haq, apparently when he was a brigadier, was sent to aid Jordanians to clear up their areas from Palestinians by commanding a military operation there. Remember the decorated belt he wore around his chest?
Israel has now helped to create a perfect enemy after the weakening of the PLO. The enemy is a right-wing Islamic outfit. Easier to be branded as terrorists and have your way with in the post 9/11 global political climate. But the perfect enemy is weak and surrounded in military, strategic and technological terms. However, it does get more and more popular support among its constituents and Muslims worldwide as it gets hits and mercilessly bashed. It will be an unending war even if a ceasefire is achieved soon.
Israel wants this war to continue until the time when the 1993 Accords can be rolled back and the Palestinians are completely isolated, to the extent that they are no longer capable of making any claim for any piece of land.
History cannot be reengineered. The only solution perhaps is going back to what Edward Said proposes – once it is established that the Palestinians and Israelis are here to stay, the only decent solution is the need for peaceful coexistence and genuine reconciliation, a bi-national state where all citizens are equal.
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