For this territorial dispute between Jews and Arab in their shared imagined homelands, each collective needs to achieve their end goals. But how can the Conflict end when the Israelis and Palestinians today have different ideas of what it means for the Conflict to be over?
The Palestinians want justice and the Israelis want peace & security. Let’s figure out why.
Palestinian Narrative of Injustice
If the emerging story of the modern nationalist Palestinian movement is one of tragedy, injustice and catastrophe, then the liberation of this movement must mean justice in the way that Palestinians define justice. As the Arabs of Palestine before the 1948 war were concentrated in coastal cities or villages in the highlands, their modern nationalist identity was pan-Arab at the time. But the 1948 war brought the Arabs of the same homeland to experience something together – an event which still permeates through the lives of millions of Palestinians today. The Nakba of 1948. The displacement of 750,000 Palestinians from their homes, being put in refugee camps by the Arab states that supposedly fought the war in their interest, and not being able to return to their homes as the newly formed state of Israel closed its borders. For those Arabs that ended up in the modern state of Israel, they were given citizenship, but put under military law until 1966.
No matter if one was rich or poor, urban or farmer, living under Israel or the Arab states, the Arabs of Palestine all experienced the injustice of 1948, losing the war that would determine who would control their homeland, and experiencing the establishment of a sovereign, internationally recognized, United Nations recognized state of Israel, a national home for the Jewish people on 78% of what the Palestinians believe to be their exclusive homeland.
The narrative of injustice that began in 1948, has continued until today for the Palestinians. Nineteen years after the Nakba, the Naksa occurs, the setback, where Israel occupies the remainder of historic Palestine, the 22% that had been ruled by Jordan in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and by Egypt in Gaza up until the 1967 War.
If the original injustice for the Palestinians was being displaced and losing over three quarters of their homeland in 1948, then losing the rest of their homeland to Israel made that injustice so much worse. And now, instead of living under Arab rule, they lived under Israeli occupation, with all the humiliation, shame and injustice that entails. Even if Thomas Friedman in his book From Beirut to Jerusalem, characterized the first two decades of Israeli control of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank as a “Golden Occupation,” with increasing literacy rates, a developing economy and the establishment of Palestinian universities, it was still an occupation, and even if one could call it benevolent, Palestinians saw Israelis build more and more communities on what they believe to be their historic homeland. This, coupled with the shame of losing what little land that was still ruled by Arabs up until 1967 and having to live under the rule of “the Jews,” eventually led the Palestinian street to rise up against their Israeli rulers twenty years later in 1987 with the First Intifada. Even if one wants to label the Israelis as “better” occupiers than the Egyptians or the Jordanians, the Palestinian nationalist sentiment was tired of living under occupation by a people it did not recognize to have the legitimacy to rule over Palestinian people on Palestinian land.
As the First Intifada ends, and Israelis elect Yitzhack Rabin in 1992, backchannel negotiations transform into an official peace process, with that famous handshake between Rabin and Arafat on the White House lawn on September 13th, 1993. The foundational understanding of this handshake is that the two sides will negotiate to seek out their ends goals of the Conflict.
But for the Palestinians, would peace bring them the justice they seek and deserve? During the on-again off-again peace negotiations, what have the Palestinians been offered by the Israelis and the International Community? Israeli Prime Ministers have offered up, at the most, almost 22% of historic Palestine for the Palestinians to establish their own state. While there are Israeli maps for the end of the Conflict, there are no maps in the public space offered by a Palestinian leader to the Israelis of their vision for what the end of the Conflict looks like.
While classic Pro-Israel activists can criticize the Palestinians’ unwillingness to acquiesce to Israeli peace proposals and their absolute rejection of the Zionist story and legitimacy of the Jewish people to have their own state in their historic homeland, we have to understand that at the very root of the Palestinian story is the injustice they all experienced in 1948 (which many call the foundational movement of the Palestinian National Movement), and the continued injustice that has been the central organizing factor of their story until today. The original tragedy was the loss of 78% of their homeland; the nightmare continued with losing the rest of it in 1967; then complete Israeli occupation for nearly three decades; followed by partial autonomy beginning in the mid 1990’s; and then international support for a two state solution as the way to end the Conflict, with Israel being a state in 78% of historic Palestine and the Palestinians being offered a state, at the very most, in just 22% of what they believe to be exclusively theirs – cementing the results of the 1948 Nakba forever.
Is that the version of justice the Palestinians have been seeking since the original injustice of their displacement over seventy years ago?
Polling of Palestinians over the last few decades shows that about half of the society supports a Two-State Solution. However, for most Palestinians, this doesn’t mean the end of the Conflict, as most Palestinians today, according to polling, see the conflict ending only once all of the Palestinian refugees have the right to return to their original homes, which would be over 5.5 million people flooding what today is the State of Israel. For the Palestinians, the Conflict ends when they get justice for the injustice that began in 1948, and has continued to this very day. And today, the Palestinian version of justice does not mean a state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital.
So how can the Palestinian version of justice equal the Israel conclusion to the Conflict, which is peace and security for a Jewish and Democratic state?.
First, let’s understand the Israeli version for the end of the Conflict.
Israelis want peace and security
The emblem of the IDF is a Star of David, with an olive branch wrapped around a sword. This symbolizes Israel’s desire for peace and security, and how it will use all the tools it has at its disposal to achieve its collective aims. When the olive branch is available, Israel will accept international proposals for partition – such as the Peel Commision of 1937 and the UN Partition Plan of 1947 — or will offer up “land for peace” deals with its Arab neighbors and the Palestinians since 1967 and the beginning of the Olslo Process in the early 1990’s — and additionally will attempt unilateral withdrawal, such as its 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip, as another effort of implementing the vision of the olive branch, solving the conflict through non-military and diplomatic means.
However, when the olive branch seems to be unavailable, Israel will utilize the sword to defend the Zionist vision of a Jewish and Democratic state for the Jewish nation in the Jewish homeland. And it will be unapologetic for defending itself and its desire for Jewish national sef determination. This is first seen during the pre-state years of the Yishuv (Jewish community in the land of Israel before the State of Israel) and with Israel’s emergence as an independent state in 1948. From the Zionist perspective, Israel does not owe its newfound statehood to the international recognition given with the UN’s Partition Plan of 1947, but because the Jewish militias, eventually joining together to form the IDF in 1948, were able to defend themselves and win a civil war against the local Arab Palestinians and an interstate war with neighboring Arab States from 1947-1949 following Arab rejection of Partition.
And since the 1948 War, the sword has been relied upon and heavily invested in as a vital tool to ensure the survival of the State. Why Israel is viewed as one of the most powerful countries in the World is because of its investment in the military, anti-missile systems, the Air Force, “not having nuclear weapons” and being an OECD member, one of the top 30 economies in the world. Since day one of the Zionist project power has been essential to the survival of Jewish statehood.
When Israelis are polled about the Two State Solution, they support the notion of two states for two peoples at about a 55-70% range typically, depending on political circumstances. Israelis view the Two State Solution as a vehicle to end the territorial dispute with the Palestinian Arabs over their shared homeland. But most Israelis today, even if they philosophically support the notion of partition, are not interested in a Two State Solution because they see this potential diplomatic achievement as a threat to their very existence. For Israelis, a Two State Solution must result in an end to the Conflict. But if Israeli voters feel there is no partner for peace, then the olive branch is simply not an available tool to use to ensure peace and security and they unfortunately rely on the sword.
Can one people’s justice equal another people’s peace?
In the dynamic where Israel is the power and the Palestinians are far behind, can such a dynamic facilitate an end to their territorial dispute? Furthermore, the two sides have two completely different end goals and their political environments have absolutely different understandings of the past and what it means for the present.
For the Palestinians, the 1948 Nakba has not ended. The civil war is still happening, and the majority of Palestinian society does not recognize the sovereignty of the state that emerged at the end of that civil war in 1948. The fact that Israel’s sovereignty is internationally recognized in 78% of its historic homeland, and that state is one of the most powerful countries in the world, does not dissuade the majority of Palestinians to believe in the sacrosanctness of their just right to return to their imagined homeland and to right the wrongs of the last century. Can statehood in just 22% of their homeland and a denial of their right of return equal the justice they have been told by everyone, from their communities, schools, leaders, Arab states and the United Nations, that they are destined to receive?
But for Israelis, the 1948 Independence War ended with its independence. It was miraculous, redemptive, liberating — 1948 is the epitome of historical justice for a people that experienced so much tragedy for centuries. It’s not just that Israel does not think it is still fighting a civil war over a shared territory anymore – it’s also that its current situation is a continued embodiment of the results of the 1948 War – justice. Jewish self determination, the very existence of a modern nation state for the Jewish people, Jewish universities, a Jewish culture, a Jewish language, a Jewish army, Jewish civil society, all on the Jewish homeland, is the vision of Jewish justice, even with all the challenges of statehood and governance that accompany modern nationhood.
In 1948, one people experiences injustice and catastrophe, and the other experiences national liberation and redemption. The many injustices and tragedies for the Jewish people in diaspora, a thousands year struggle, finally ends with justice. The Arabs of Palestine, who had been home for well over a millennia in their towns and villages, experiences its first collective injustice in 1948. And since that moment of 1948, justice for one and injustice for another, the reality of the two collectives has been one where Israelis live out their justice everyday simply by existing and relish this redemptive moment in their history, while Palestinians continue to live out the injustice of 1948 and do not see a way out unless it means a return to where they were before the Nakba happened to them.
Palestinians didn’t know collective injustice before Israel so why shouldn’t they expect to return to that state of being?
For the Israelis, it’s the first time in 2000 years the Jewish people have collectively experience justice and together righted the wrong of the injustice of national destruction that happened in the First Century of the Common Era, and continued to be experience by them in the Muslim Middle East or Christian Europe, with modern Anti-Semitism catalyzing the political beginnings of the Zionist movement in Europe in the 19th century and emphasizing the existential need for Jewish statehood with the genocide of a third of world Jewry with the Nazi Holocaust.
So how do the Israelis get peace and the Palestinians receive justice?
Palestinians need to understand their version of justice will never include the erasure of the Jewish state from their landscape, from their desired homeland. Only when Palestinian society can reconcile with and accept the results of the Nakba, that they lost the Civil War of 1948 and Israel will always exist at the very minimum, in 78% of its historic homeland, that they can begin to get justice. Palestinian justice must not erase Jewish justice. The challenge though is Jewish justice, in the Palestinian eye, is what caused the great tragedy of the Palestinian people; but there is no alternative unfortunately for the Palestinians. They must accept that they will receive justice only once they accept the legitimacy of Jewish justice.
On the other hand, Israelis must understand that they will only get peace and security once they understand that their most redemptive and liberating moment caused the greatest pain and tragedy for the Palestinians. Israeli must somehow gain a level of empathy for the Palestinian desire to upend the Nakba and return to a homeland that now only exists in their imaginations. But how can Israelis be expected to do this when they see massive societal support for payments to terrorists, the demand for a release of murderous Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails just to earn the right to negotiate, tens of thousands protesting the Gaza Border in a March of Return, and constant terror threats emanating from their neighbors? Can a people be expected to reconcile that their greatest joy legitimately caused another people their greatest pain, and that they still live out this pain every day by simply existing?
That is the challenge of how the Conflict ends, when Palestinian justice can make space for Israel’s version of peace and security, and when Israel’s version for the conclusion of the conflict can somehow make room to right the wrong of Palestinian injustice.