Discover more from Arc Digital
Israel-Palestine is About Israelis and Palestinians
How distorted frames make an already difficult situation even harder to solve
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is first and foremost about Israelis and Palestinians, and what their lives are like today. It’s about the past too, but primarily because of how previous events led here, not because adjudicating the past will lead to peace. It’s about outsiders as well, since various regional and global players are involved, but when outside observers cast it as about themselves, their pet issues or worldviews, they misunderstand the conflict, making a complex situation even harder to understand.
A strong argument for sympathizing with the Palestinians focuses on conditions today. Five million people live under occupation, controlled by a government they have no say in, subjected to regular humiliations. West Bank Palestinians live in Apartheid-like Bantustans, amidst nearly half a million Israeli settlers spread across a hundred communities, appropriating good land, and dividing the rest of the territory with exclusive roads and checkpoints. Palestinians in Gaza live under an Israel-Egypt blockade and Hamas authoritarian rule, with very few allowed in or out.
Everyone deserves basic rights, and Palestinians don’t have them. One can sympathize with Israel, acknowledge serious threats to Israeli security, and still easily recognize that this state of affairs is bad. And since the United Nations and United States have been actively involved since the creation of Israel in 1948, they bear responsibility to help solve it.
A different approach to Israel-Palestine sets out to prove one side a villain, and the other an innocent victim. One version of this goes looking through the past in search of an unprovoked wrong (by the side they oppose) that justifies all subsequent action (by the side they prefer).
But if anyone claims they’ve identified the original wrong, one can always roll back the clock to find another wrong supposedly justifying it. Israel’s campaign in Gaza is a response to the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks; the Hamas attacks were a response to the Gaza blockade; the blockade is a response to Hamas rocket fire; Hamas rocket fire is a response to an Israeli raid; or it’s in response to the occupation more broadly, which is a response to ongoing terrorism, which is a response to ongoing occupation, which is a response to Arab-Israeli wars, and so on. I bet many who read that list thought “no, that doesn’t justify” about some things on it, but not all picked the same ones. My point is not that these things all justify violent retaliation, just that anyone who wants to claim something their preferred side does is merely a response can find a way to do so.
Follow this approach and pretty soon the discussion will reach back to events before nearly anyone there today was alive. So much has happened, so many hands are dirty, that the hunt for historical justification rarely persuades anyone, certainly not enough to alter the overall dynamic.
Good v. Evil
A related approach doesn’t try to pinpoint a bad action that justifies retaliation, but instead tries to identify one side as inherently wrong. Some Israel supporters falsely equate all Palestinians to Hamas, as if the group winning a plurality (not majority) in Palestinian legislative elections (not executive) in 2006 (when much of Gaza’s current adult population were children) then taking power by force in 2007 (and not allowing another election since) is somehow a popular mandate. But more Palestinians live in the West Bank, and many of those in Gaza are Hamas victims, not supporters.
Meanwhile, some Palestinian sympathizers cast Israelis as “white” and Palestinians as “brown,” with Israel-Palestine representing a piece of a worldwide two-sided struggle. In that formulation, Israel is an outpost of the United States, Europe, the West, white people, and the Global North, while everyone else is with Palestine.
For example, American activist Bree Newsome explained to her 458,000 followers on the website formerly known as Twitter that the current war in Gaza is “not a response to Oct. 7,” but the “final stage” of a decades-old “plan.” The situation, she argues, is not “about Judaism, Islam, or Jews & Arabs,” but “about the ruling white elite needing a colony where Israel is located.”
Similarly, Washington Post columnist Karen Attiah cast “what Israel and the US are doing in real time to Palestinians” as more “Western violence against Africans, Black Americans, Native Americans, Muslims, and pretty much the entire Global South.”
But calling Israelis "white" and Palestinians "brown" is absurd if you've been there or know any of them. One of best pop culture portrayals of this is the silly Adam Sandler movie You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, with its running joke about how other New Yorkers can’t tell the Israeli and Palestinian characters apart.
And calling Israel “European” is absurd. About half the Israeli population are descendents of Middle Eastern Jews, with family in the region as far back as anyone can trace; some in what is now Israel-Palestine, others from countries such as Iraq from which they were ethnically cleansed.
The European Jews who migrated there were fleeing repression and violence. Referring to them as “invaders” sounds awfully close to the way today’s European bigots talk about Muslim migrants fleeing repression and violence in Syria, Libya, and elsewhere. Except when it comes to Israeli Jews, these critics are claiming multiple locally-born generations descended from migrants are illegitimate foreigners, not just the migrants themselves.
But perhaps the biggest misnomer is “colony.” Israel is its own country, not a bastion of another. Their government is elected by Israeli citizens, not imposed by a foreign capital.
Anti-colonial struggles for independence aren’t a model for Palestine. The British could give up India. The French could give up Algeria. But the Israelis can’t give up Israel. The last foreign power to control the territory was the United Kingdom 75 years ago. The British got it after World War I from the collapsing Ottoman Empire, who had conquered it 400 years earlier.
Israel-Palestine is one of the least appropriate places in the world to divide people into descendants of rightful owners and illegitimate occupiers. Unlike the 16th and 17th century Spanish, English, and French in the Americas, or the late 19th century European “Scramble for Africa,” there’s no big moment when foreign forces arrived. The region has seen one conquest after another for thousands of years.
The reason people in Algeria speak Arabic today is basically the same reason people in Peru speak Spanish.
Expanding Israeli settlements in the West Bank arguably constitutes colonialism (or whatever word you’d prefer for a decades-long, state-backed, sometimes violent, land-appropriating, locals-repressing expansionist effort). But the one doing that is Israel, not white people or the West. American and other Western support for Israel is in spite of the settlements, not because of them.
Indigenous Claims and the Right of Return
As indigenous people living under occupation, Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank have a clear claim to the land. So do Palestinians displaced elsewhere by the Nakba (the catastrophe that befell them with Israel’s founding), or subsequent Arab-Israeli wars, along with their descendants. They claim a right of return, and international law is with them. A similar right exists today for people displaced by conflict in Syria, Ukraine, and elsewhere.
But Jews also are indigenous to Israel, and also claim a right of return. Evidence of their roots abound, starting with the 2000-year old Western Wall.
International law probably isn’t with them, though. A formal right of return requires a “genuine and effective link” to one’s “own country.” Any displaced individual has that unless they choose otherwise, anyone in a refugee camp clearly does too, as do many exiles and their descendants. But the links inherently fade with time, especially across generations.
Jews have maintained a genuine and effective link to Jerusalem since the Romans conquered it in 63 BCE, and Christians later expelled Jews, especially in the fourth century. But not, across the centuries, as their “own country.” At least until Zionism revived the idea in the late 1800s.
However, Jews’ claim is not as displaced people under international law, but ultimately cultural, as an indigenous people. Israel’s legal claim as a Jewish state comes from its declaration of independence and formal international recognition. And that state grants Jews around the world a right to become Israelis. Similarly, a future Palestinian state would presumably grant the Palestinian diaspora a right to return regardless of international legal claims, including descendants who maintain “genuine links” but now have a different “own country.”
The unavoidable fact is that Israelis and Palestinians are both there now, both have legitimate claims to be there, neither wants to go anywhere, and there isn’t anywhere for them to go.
Denying that by reframing the conflict as evil foreign invaders vs. noble indigenous locals provides a simple story, an easy way for observers to feel righteous, as if the main reason the Israeli-Palestinian conflict persists is because outside powers, in particular the United States, don’t want peace badly enough. But the main reason is because some of those directly involved—Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and his far-right coalition, the state-backed West Bank settler movement, Hamas and other Palestinian militants—don’t want it, and each have the power to prevent it. At least for now.