The dispute is complicated in ways that extend far beyond political and legal solutions.
About a year ago, I was subscribed to an email list and blog that is a clearinghouse of sorts for articles, videos, and statements in support of Palestine. The American who runs it lives in Europe and is a longtime advocate for Palestinian rights; he added me to his list because of a piece I wrote called “How to End the Special Relationship with Israel.” In an email, he explained that he appreciated the subtlety of my argument among my pro-Israel tropes. I could almost hear him sneering from across the ocean.
I have never unsubscribed. The work that he posts is not in the mainstream and sometimes tough to take, but it’s always a welcome perspective, if only to challenge my own thinking. Over the last year, the administrator and I have struck up a snarky email repartee over some of the commentary he posts. During the latest exchange of airstrikes and rockets between the Israel Defense Forces and Hamas, I asked him what he thought should be done. Not about the fighting, but about the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. He responded with an article he had written over a decade ago advocating for a binational, democratic Palestine. Those Israelis who did not want to accept this solution would be offered immigration to the United States. It was the mirror image of a conversation I once had with a leader of the settler movement who thought the best solution was a single Jewish state from which Palestinians could move to any of the 21 surrounding Arab countries.
These responses were interesting on many levels, and not just because they are unrealistic, but because they don’t reckon with hard questions that have been and remain central to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians: nationalism, religion, resistance and the use of violence, and identity.
We have gotten to the point where complexity is not just lost in the screaming match between pro-Israel and pro-Palestine partisans, but activists have tried to proscribe it. In the current environment, to say that the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is “complicated” is a marker of intellectual laziness, of impurity, and of complicity (mostly with Israel). I guess it is far easier to engage in mutual dehumanization than wrestle with difficult questions.
The main effect of people on both sides flattening the conflict into binary choices and simplistic categories is that it has become even tougher to imagine positive change in the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. Consider, for example, the following questions: Do Jews constitute a nation? What about Palestinians? Setting aside the fact that nations are imagined, the way one answers these questions suggests something about the past and the future trajectory of the conflict. If, for example, the answer to the first question is yes and the answer to second question is no, the answer may be emotionally satisfying for Zionists, but the real-world implications are terrible. This is essentially the world in which we now live.
To flip it and answer that no, Jews are not a nation and Palestinians are a nation would be emotionally satisfying for supporters of Palestine, but the implications in the real world are equally awful. These are the answers of people who disdain complexity, righteous in their absolute views of the conflict. But what if the answer is yes to both questions––that both groups constitute distinct nations? This is how American officials have implicitly treated the conflict and have thus found themselves frustrated by their inability to resolve it.
Closely connected to nationalism is the question of religion, especially in the case of Zionism. For Palestinians and their supporters, Israel is a “settler-colonial state,” a framing that essentially rejects the Jewish and religious connection to the land. In fact, Zionism or proto-Zionism is deeply intertwined in the Jewish faith as it developed and evolved in the diaspora, presaging the intellectual work of even the people who laid the groundwork for Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism. But does the messianic attachment to Zion—Palestine—in the faith mean that Zionists and Jews have exclusive claim to the land? Israelis and their supporters say yes, thereby rejecting the claims of Palestinians.
To add an additional twist: does any of this even matter any longer? After all, there is an Israel with a distinct nationalism defined by a connection between Judaism and the land, but it is separate from Jews who are not Israeli, even the ones who support Israel. It’s harder than ever to tell where the boundaries of these nations lie. Still folks prefer their absolutes and self-righteousness.
Then there is the thorny question of the use of violence. In the first few days of the current round of fighting, the Biden administration was straightforward in its support for Israel’s right to defend itself. At the State Department’s daily briefing on May 10, a journalist asked the spokesperson, Ned Price, if Palestinians enjoy the same right. Price was unable to answer the question. The existence of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the terrorist groups that lob rockets at Israeli civilians, makes it easy for American officials to support Israel’s right to self-defense, but it is more complicated for Palestinians. Israeli officials like to tell everyone who will listen that Palestinians in Gaza are victims of Hamas. That is true, but I suspect that first and foremost they feel victimized by Israel. And thus, even for those Palestinians who do not support Hamas and Islamic Jihad, what they are doing amounts to legitimate resistance.
Let’s look at it another way. The current round of fighting began because of the anticipated evictions of Palestinian families from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah. Protests and violence ensued. At the time, Hamas was not firing rockets. Given the way in which Israel’s courts have dealt with these matters in the past, the decades-long Israeli effort to push Palestinians out of Jerusalem, and the brutality of the police in these situations, it was not a surprise that Palestinians picked up rocks and Molotov cocktails and hurled them at Israelis to defend their homes and rights. From the Palestinian perspective, this is legitimate self-defense. It is an issue that many in Washington would prefer to ignore, because it is intertwined with politics in a variety of complicated ways.
Since the cease-fire on May 21, American commentators have offered ideas for providing humanitarian assistance, rebuilding Gaza, and initiating constructive talks between Israelis and Palestinians. It should be clear that aid and reconstruction are relatively easier than diplomacy. This is especially true when one starts digging into the hard questions that are at the heart of this conflict—because once you do, you quickly realize that neither party is willing to give up. To offer simple solutions to this complicated problem is equivalent to simply giving up in turn.