Despite the grim YouTube clips and JPEGs streaming into our smartphones from Gaza, most people still don't understand the basics of the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians. Few understand the geography of the region (I am often asked when I give talks on Israel/Palestine where the West Bank is located) and even fewer get to grips with its complex history and competing narratives. Was 1948 a war of independence for the brave Jewish people, desperate for safety and security after the obscenity of the Holocaust, or was it a catastrophe (nakba in Arabic) for those 750,000 Palestinians, parents and grandparents of the five million Palestinian refugees of today, who were forcibly ejected from their homes by the new Jewish state?
Another area of confusion is: what do the various sides in the Gaza actually want? Israel insists that Hamas is a jihadist terrorist organisation that wants to destroy Israel, murder every single Jew in the Holy Land and turn the whole region into an Islamist caliphate. This kind of rhetoric is fine for whipping the Israeli nation up into an anti-Palestinian frenzy, but it has only a passing resemblance to the truth. The main stated objective of Hamas is to end Israel's 47-year occupation of Palestinian land, and it has even hinted at a willingness to recognise Israel within its pre-1967 borders. Such willingness is ignored by Israel, since it would demand an honest commitment from Israel to the notion of a viable two-state solution. This is something which the present Israeli government simply cannot countenance, given its financial and moral support for the colonial endeavours of at least 700,000 Israeli settlers who have built their homes on Palestinian land in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
There is also much fog surrounding Israeli objectives in this latest Gaza war. First it was to stop Hamas rockets; then it was to destroy Hamas tunnels. Now we hear from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that it is the 'demilitarization' of Gaza (by which he presumably means Gaza's complete subjection to Israel's will). Netanyahu does not explain how he proposes to 'demilitarize' Gaza without addressing the main concern of Hamas, which is to end the occupation since 1967 of Palestinian territory.
But one cannot separate Israel's specific objectives in Gaza from its broader objectives in its long-standing territorial dispute with the Palestinians. At the risk of over-simplification, Israeli objectives can be summarised under the following four headings:
1. Israel wants security. This is perhaps the easiest to understand and accept. Whatever view one may take about the circumstances of its creation in 1948, the State of Israel exists and has been admitted into the community of nations. Its very existence has given to the Jewish people a sense of security and empowerment, after years of antisemitic persecution, culminating in the Holocaust. We should admire the resilience of the Jewish people as they have fought for their own right of self-determination, while lamenting that this has come at a very heavy price, namely the cost of another nation's equivalent right. And as a legally-recognised state, albeit one that has never actually defined its borders (one of the reasons why Hamas has so far refused to recognise it), Israel has the right to use proportionate measures to protect itself and its citizens from external threats, including terrorist violence.
2. Israel wants to be a Jewish state. Israel has always defined itself, constitutionally, emotionally and politically, as the state of the Jewish people. Indeed, Netanyahu has recently added a new demand in his negotiations with the Palestinians, which is not only that they recognise Israel's right to exist (itself a legal solecism, as no state has an inalienable right to exist under international law, as we may well soon see with the dismantlement of the United Kingdom), but also that they recognise Israel as 'the nation state of one people only – the Jewish people – and of no other people'. Not even the most liberal-minded Zionist has ever been able to explain convincingly how a state can both be an ethnocracy (that is a country like Israel where state institutions and the law favour one ethnic group over another) and protect and uphold the democratic and human rights of all its citizens. Even the US State Department has recognised that Israel's Palestinian minority, some 20 per cent of the population, faces "institutional and societal discrimination", a situation which arises largely as a result of Israel's identity as a Jewish state. Hence Palestinian reluctance to recognise it as such.
3. Israel wants to be a democracy. One of the most striking aspects of Israel's creation in 1948 was that its earliest proponents and architects were not religious Jews at all but democrat idealists who wanted to create a socialist utopia. Israel's founder, David Ben Gurion, was a left-wing atheist. Hence the framing of a parliamentary system that is, on the face of it, one of the purest democracies in the world with an unqualified system of proportional representation. This system survives today and is a major reason for the belligerent and rejectionist stance of successive Israeli governments, which often have to bow to the pressure of minority extremist parties in order to stay in power. But the resilience and vibrancy of Israeli democracy is to be admired, even if it has come under increasing pressure in recent years from Zionist extremists.
4. Israel wants more Palestinian land. Whether driven by security considerations or a messianic (and, in Christian terms, theologically-flawed) belief that the land of "Judea and Samaria" was given by God as the eternal inheritance of the Jewish people, this can be the only explanation for the effective annexation by Israel since 1967 of East Jerusalem and large swathes of the West Bank. The ill-fated Oslo Accords of 1993-95 gave Israel interim control of 60% of the West Bank ("Area C") with the intention that this should eventually pass back to Palestinian control as part of a two-state settlement. Instead Israel has continued to build illegal settlements in the areas under its control, with around 350,000 Jewish settlers in each of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The infamous separation barrier, despite its ostensible security rationale, has also been a tool for the annexation of Palestinian land. As a result, the non-contiguous and Bantustan-like areas left to the Palestinians (Areas A and B) constitute about 8% of what was mandatory Palestine, compared to the 43% which was awarded to the Palestinians under the 1947 UN Partition Plan (this despite the Palestinians making up two-thirds of the population in 1947). Even the US Administration has recognised that this seemingly insatiable Israeli appetite for Palestinian land has been the biggest obstacle to a sustainable and just peace in the Middle East.
What is striking about these objectives is that Israel can probably achieve two or three of them at the same time, but it will be utterly impossible to achieve all four. Like a child reaching into the cookie jar and grabbing too many biscuits, it needs to let go of something. Otherwise it risks not achieving any of its objectives, whether legitimate (like security and democracy), problematic (being a Jewish state, however ill-defined this notion may be) or illegitimate (wanting Palestinian land).
For example, if Israel continues indefinitely its occupation of Palestinian land, which is the stated policy of most of the members of the current Israeli government, while at the same time being a state for the Jewish people and denying basic rights to the Palestinians under its control, then it what sense can it truly be a democracy? And with Palestinian national identity and self-determination being denied in such an egregious way, then will Israel ever have the security that its people crave and deserve?
Ironically, an increasing number of people argue that the one combination of objectives which offers the hope of a durable peace in the Middle East is to combine security, democracy and the inclusion of Palestinian territory into a single multi-ethnic or bi-national democratic state, perhaps using some kind of federal system. This is the so-called 'one-state solution' which many outside observers are saying is the only way forward for Israel and Palestine. I say 'outside' because there is little evidence that Israeli Jews and Palestinians themselves want to live together in a single state; there has been too much violence and pain on both sides for that to happen. But if 700,000 Israeli settlers have killed off the two state solution, then what are the realistic alternatives?
But note which of the four objectives would have to be sacrificed in this scenario: Israel as a Jewish state. Because under the 'one-state solution' Israel would have to be a nation for all its peoples, not just Jewish citizens. But then Israel's defenders say: if you deny us the right to be a Jewish state, you are denying us the right of self-determination because we are Jews, and that is antisemitic.
It cannot of course be antisemitic to want a peaceful settlement in the Middle East that delivers justice and security to both Israel and the Palestinians. The irony is that the real antisemitism is the fatalistic view that Israel is forever destined to face existential threats to its existence because of its refusal to give up its sense of entitlement to another nation's land. But until Israel leaves at least one cookie in the jar, the bloodshed and suffering will surely continue.