Opinion

Lessons on the Levant: Voices on Palestine

This is the third of three articles in “Lessons on the Levant: history & voices in the Israel-Palestine crisis”, unpacking individual Palestinian perspectives on the bigger picture behind current events. The author rejects in the strongest possible terms all causes of humanitarian suffering and remains firmly neutral in the greater political backdrop for the reasons outlined in his foreword. Before continuing with the present article, the reader is strongly advised to read the short introduction to the series to better understand its aims and format.

Unless otherwise stated, the author claims no direct ownership over the political stances relative to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis which are expressed in this piece. The content has been informed by a mixture of primary sources including interviews of self-identifying Israeli, Jewish, Arab, and Palestinian students, as well as extensive secondary research. Unless otherwise stated, opinions expressed in cited works are not the author’s own.

Ben explicitly condemns antisemitism, Islamophobia, racism, and intolerance in all their forms, and hopes for a lasting peaceful resolution to the Israel-Palestine crisis.

Even in the best researched of political pieces, the point at which fact begins to fuse with opinion can be hard to define. Human history is messy, and it is always tempting to supplant objective chronology with subjective narratives in an attempt to make sense of it.

In the story of Palestine and its people, this same fluidity means almost all viewpoints come with a caveat. Palestinians will and can speak of personal anecdotes, of family memories, of anguish, and of suffering, however finding undisputed facts to substantiate this is a complex process. Israel, they point out, has the economic strength and the diplomatic means to document its history, and they invoke the age-old maxim that “history is written by the victors.”

In the interest of neutral journalism, I must therefore start this third and final article by qualifying the following: for every voice that I have heard in interviews or secondary sources, Israel’s official position insists upon a plausible ulterior interpretation of the same events. To settle this point in advance, I have therefore chosen to apply the same treatment of the second article to this one. Where it helps the reader’s understanding of the Israel-Palestine crisis, I will choose to place the two perspectives side by side, however the reader must read this knowing that one person’s indisputable fact is another’s fallacy.

Before Palestine can be understood today, its people will say that we must look at the country’s genesis. At the turn of the 20th Century, the Italian-Israeli demographer Sergio DellaPergola estimated this Ottoman-administered slice of the Levant had a population of five hundred and thirty two thousand, of which 80% were Muslims, 8% Jews, and 10% Christians: an authentic melting pot of cultures. This is hardly a surprising phenomenon: Israelis point out that the Jewish population of Israel is, like other Arabic peoples, of Mizrahi origin, and all three religions see the area as their respective spiritual homeland.

Yet, as with most modern-day conflicts, the absolutes of European colonialism put an abrupt end towards centuries of peaceful coexistence. In a secret treaty signed by diplomats with little sensitivity to the needs of local communities, the demise of the Ottoman Empire after World War I saw Britain and other powers carve up communities along ruler-straight lines of ‘us’ and ‘them’. De jure, the land that suddenly appeared in documents under the name ‘Mandatory Palestine’ was destined to become a protectorate of the League of Nations (the UN’s precursor); de facto, this translated into administration by the British government.

The colonial lead continued throughout the entirety of their time in power. In 1917, the Conservative statesman Arthur Balfour released a declaration stating that “[The British] Government view with favour the establishment of Palestine as a national home for the Jewish people”. This effectively equated to aligning with the policy of Zionism, an oft-misused term which in its proper sense involves a return of Jewish communities from diaspora to their spiritual homeland of Israel (“Aliyah), eventually with the aim of establishing a territory free from antisemitic persecution.

Some Palestinians will at this point say that Zionism and Judaism are not identical, and that many Jewish communities established in the Levant at the time were anti-Zionist in the proper sense of the term. Nowadays, some Jewish voices would contextualise that anti-Zionism goes hand-in-hand with antisemitic hate speech, and that any narrative suggesting the Jewish people were “coming in from abroad to settle in the Levant” is a contradiction, given their diasporic nature.

The policies of the British did little to quell the outrage certain groups felt about the Balfour Declaration. Native Palestinians believed they had been betrayed by a power whose style of government made diasporic Jewish communities appear a foreign ‘Other’. Predominantly Jewish and predominantly Palestinian communities engaged in violent clashes over the course of the 1920s and ’30s , leading to thousands of deaths and the destruction of villages. Neighbouring Transjordan expressed its opposition to “the establishment of a Jewish state in the Levant”, even when no such state had come into existence yet. ‘Us’ and ‘them’ entered into daily discourse.

The seeds of discontent had well and truly been sown. The British stood back and let it all happen.

The situation came to a head in the aftermath of World War II, when the United Kingdom had all but lost control of the violence in Mandatory Palestine. Handing the protectorate to the United Nations out of desperation, a special committee convened in 1947 and proposed to carve the territory into two autonomous Jewish and Arab states. This was voted on via GA Resolution 181 in the same year. The British would continue to manage the country awaiting implementation in 1948, when Israel and Palestine were to be formed.

Yet the news in the UN caused the situation on the ground to worsen: the protectorate descended into a Civil War immediately after the resolution’s passing. It is at this point, between the UN resolution of November 1947 and the Israeli declaration of statehood in May 1948, that Palestinians assert how organised Israeli extremists like the Haganah attacked Palestinian villages and slaughtered their innocent civilians in an attempts to “gain territory” through Plan Dalet. This had all the hallmarks, they warn, of a form of systematic ethnic cleansing. Political infrastructure was attacked, families displaced, civilian buses ambushed, and victims chosen at random.

Notwithstanding the presence of extremist elements within it, Israelis add that Haganah action was, for the most part, legitimate. In 1947, the forces were intended to prevent the ethnocide of Jews in Mandatory Palestine, and in 1948, the same group was officially incorporated as part of the Israeli Defence Forces: the state apparatus formed to serve the same function during the 1948-9 War of Israeli Independence

This same war that began between Israel and its Arab neighbouring countries on the day of the former’s accession to statehood (14 May 1948) is the day before the event lamented by Palestinians around the world: al-Nakba, or the catastrophe. On top of all those who had already fled the Civil War, they tell of how hundreds of thousands of refugees were now forced to leave their homelands, with villages destroyed, and thousands killed in the fighting. A country that had been theirs for generation after generation, scorched before their eyes.

Virtually all would be left stateless, as my anonymous Palestinian contact explains. “I only realised I was stateless when the British Home Office told me so,” they relate with the faintest of trembles in their voice. “But I’m Palestinian. I had always thought I was – that I am – Palestinian.”

As my interviewee’s confidence begins to grow, they strike a tone somewhere between defiance and dismay. “I can trace my family back several generations to the same village. My grandparents told me of the olive trees they used to grow – olive trees ripped up by extremist groups [like the Haganah] during Plan Dalet in the Civil War [April-May 1948]. When they came, I am sure they killed almost everyone there. My grandfather only survived because he had already been shot: all of his friends who took him to the hospital died. Nowadays, and like my grandparents before me, my parents and I have no country left that we can call home. But of course, the Palestinian story I am telling is one of words: Israel only makes 1% of its state archives public. Go to these places, and I am sure there will be nothing left of what once was.”

My contact does highlight that there is one exception to this rule. Much of the Palestinian diaspora carry the keys to their homes in the Levant, which they pass from generation to generation in the hope that one day, once more, either themselves or their distant descendants will be able to return to the country. It is to this spark and the memories of a life well lived before al-Nakba that they cling with all their might, wherever it is they now find themselves. “For my grandparents who passed away recently, however, their life dream of returning outlived their time on this planet.”

The state of Israel’s position on the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to Gaza or the West Bank is clear:

[…] neither under the international conventions, nor under the major UN resolutions, nor under the relevant agreements between the parties, do the Palestinian refugees have a right to return to Israel. According to Palestinian sources, there are about 3.5 million Palestinian refugees nowadays registered with UNRWA [the UN refugee agency]. If Israel were to allow all of them to return to her territory, this would be an act of suicide on her part, and no state can be expected to destroy itself.

After one foreign occupation and two further wars fought between Israel and its international neighbours which would go on to displace hundreds of thousands more Palestinian refugees, we arrive at the present day.

As I outline in my previous article, many Israelis will stress that they have shown good intentions towards Palestine and its people at every step of the way, citing the 1990s Oslo Accords, their territorial concessions in Gaza in 2005, and, most relevant of all in recent times, what they deem their continuing efforts to protect Palestinian civilians during the ongoing fight against terrorist groups like Hamas. I put this to my contact, and ask whether they see the point being made.

“Yes, I do understand this, and let me be clear: I condemn Hamas’s beliefs in their entirety. Their talk of ‘Muslims killing Jews’… it’s disgusting. In the same way Hamas does not represent the opinion of most Palestinians, nor do I equate the state of Israel with the beliefs of every single Israeli – let alone Jewish – person in the world. But the Israeli military’s approach to terrorism in Gaza is one of collective punishment. I get that Hamas want to destroy Israel and its people; I get that the IDF will sometimes give warnings of impending attacks; I get that Israel claims it has intelligence of high-profile Hamas terrorists using civilians as ‘human shields’ to protect themselves from airstrikes. But does that give the Israeli military the right to build border walls, bomb international reporters’ offices, and kill schoolchildren too young even to pick up a rifle – let alone have an opinion on Hamas? It’s never been about Muslims versus Jews or Palestinians versus Israelis. Like Israelis and like any other human being, Palestinians also deserve to live without fear.”

Many readers will recall news suggesting the International Criminal Court is now looking into alleged war crimes conducted by Israel’s military in 2014. Israel officially joins the US in not recognising the court’s jurisdiction on the grounds of corruption and antisemitism; Palestinians hope the international pressure will urge the IDF to reconsider its rules of engagement. They might also add that despite Israel’s allegations of systematic antisemitism in the organisation, the country is condemned with the most frequency of any UN member by the body’s resolutions, often citing the IDF’s failure to protect civilians during its armed engagement in Palestine.

But even when there are no major hostilities like the ones which unfolded recently, Palestinians lament that there is no such thing as true, lasting peace. If it is not living with the anxiety of being violently displaced by settlers in the homes that are legally and historically Palestinian, they point to the fear of reprisals by extremist elements in Israeli society, the inability to leave neighbourhoods they describe as inhumane, or the lack of basic healthcare and other public services in their area. “I would compare it to an Apartheid state. By 2020 and even without the current conflict, the UN expected the Gaza strip to become uninhabitable: it’s 2021 now. In many cases, the only humanitarian support the people of Gaza do get are handouts from Hamas’s political wing. 56% of them live in poverty – what can you do when Israel doesn’t help?”

For context, this figure makes a citizen in Gaza almost twice as likely to be affected by poverty than their Israeli counterpart. Last year, Israel ranked 19th in the world on the UN Human Development Index. Palestine came in at 115th.

The Israelis I have spoken with have all joined Palestinians in their condemnation of the same settlements and reprisals and proceed to dispel accusations of apartheid with a gesture towards figures like Raleb Majadele and Abel Rahman Zuabi. Both are Arab-Israelis who not too long ago held senior positions in the Israeli executive and judiciary respectively. “But let us be clear”, one Jewish student adds, “in Gaza, Hamas have grossly mismanaged the apparatus of state. Palestinians have the terrorists alone to blame for their plight.”

From the turn of the century to the present day, neither side would dispute the fact that the story of Palestine has been a humanitarian catastrophe. The human lives that hide behind this abstract statement would read a narrative of colonialism by the British, the UN, and the right-wing elements of Israeli state apparatus; of relentless intergenerational oppression of which they are the victims; and of egregious violations to the same basic human rights which Israel’s founding set to uphold. Some are despairing, others bitter; all are desperate to feel the ground of a place they call home beneath their feet.

For all the tensions, Palestinians still insist there is a small, narrow path towards peace in the Levant. But before more lasting de-escalation can be reached, with negotiations towards the greater goal of disarmament, the first, most basic step along this path is an immediate and total ceasefire.

Peace is a real possibility, and diplomatic talks are the means to it. It is merely difficult for anybody to speak up when one’s voice is muffled by explosions.

Ben would like to thank A.M; N.R., and all other anonymous voices from the Israeli, Jewish, Arab, and Palestinian communities for their extensive contributions to this series’ content and inception.

Ben also thanks George Beglan for his input as an undergraduate reading for Law, and Sabrina Fernandez for her illustrations.

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A contributor to The Oxford Blue since its inception, Ben’s pieces explore topics as diverse as travel, literature, politics, and wine. His translation work has also helped foreign journalists share their ideas in the English language.