For more than a week our TV news bulletins have focussed on the shooting down of the  airliner in eastern Ukraine and the continuing fight in and near Gaza. The images of both are horrific, but I’ll concentrate here on the Middle East. My wife, a former nurse, becomes distressed at the awful images , especially those of dead and wounded children, and exclaims at them. (One set of my grandchildren does not watch television news at all, for this reason among others.) Perhaps I am inured to such pictures — I have seen so many over  the past half-century. There are times when I wish a plague on both the Israeli and Palestinian houses. But that isn’t much help to my lady, or to me. So here is my attempt to come to grips with what is a recurring nightmare.

Israel and Palestine are very old names. There was a relatively long-lived United Kingdom of Israel more than three thousand years ago, while Herodotus in the fifth century BC referred to a place called Palestine in his history of how the Greeks came into conflict with the barbarians. That word has the same origin as the word ‘Philistine’, and there were Philistines who ran a set of city states in the region at the time Herodotus was writing. Their most southern city was called Gaza.

There is little doubt that the Jews are the most persecuted people in human history. They were persecuted well before the birth of Jesus Christ, and regularly so thereafter. The reasons are mixed: they hold to a strong and somewhat exclusive monotheism, they are industrious, learned and active (and often wealthy), marriage outside the faith is strongly discouraged, and they look ‘different’. I have been to Israel, and one of my brothers had a chair at the University of Tel Aviv for a while; what the modern Israelis have done is deeply impressive.

We in the West have a strong guilt feeling about it all, partly because of the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which looked forward to the return of Jewish people to Israel, from which they had been excluded for the best part of two millennia. Much of the persecution of Jewish people took place in Europe, and culminated in Hitler’s Holocaust, the extermination, as though they were pests, of six million Jewish people, about 40 per cent of whom were children. At the same time, I am old enough to remember the Stern Gang and the bombing of the Hotel David in Jerusalem in 1946, which killed nearly a hundred people. Modern Israel began in conflict, and continues in conflict.

Israel grows in population (nearly 8 million now) and GDP, and now contains just short of half of all the world’s Jews, due to long-term Jewish immigration from every part of the world. To repeat, what they have done there is incredibly impressive, and a lesson to anyone who thinks that deserts are not for human beings. It has survived too many border conflicts, wars and shootings for me to count accurately — but on average, one every few years. We are observing the most recent shooting period.

And what of the other side? The formation of the modern state of Israel prompted the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Arabs who had lived there. Many decided to leave, in much the same fashion as occurred through Partition in the Indian sub-continent in 1947. A lot of Palestinian Arabs moved to Jordan, and those who remained, and their descendants, now number about three and a half million. About a fifth of the population of Israel is of Arab ethnicity and Muslim faith.

Israel is a member of the UN, though it is not accepted as a state by the Islamic world. Palestine used to have observer status, and now has the status of a non-member state. Why isn’t it also a member? Well, this is complicated, but that would require a unanimous vote of the Security Council, while the USA has indicated that it would veto such a proposal anyway. Israel controls a lot of the land that would be part of a Palestinian State, and has no intention of giving it up.

Palestine is run, so to speak, by the Palestinian Authority, an interim body that was originally to last for five years, but has now been in existence for 18. It does its  best to manage the West Bank, but Gaza  (the ‘Gaza Strip’) is controlled by Hamas, and there the Authority has little credibility. Hamas is an off-shoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, a radical Islamic entity that among other things seeks the destruction of Israel. The Gaza strip is the bit on the bottom left-hand corner of the map; the West Bank is the large blob. Israel itself is much larger, as you can see in the second map.

250px-Zones_A_and_B_in_the_occupied_palestinian_territories.svg

 

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This is about as neutral as I can be. I too hate the continuing warfare and the killing of children. But I can imagine the feelings of Israelis who look back at the last two thousand years, if not more, and say, ‘Never again!’ I do not have much sympathy for people who place rocket bases in housing areas, though I recognise that Hamas sees its own cause as just. Since the visuals we see are overwhelmingly about the destruction in Gaza, there is a temptation to tell the Israelis that they are overdoing it. The UN’s Commissioner for Human Right is doing just that, without any reference to the firing of rockets indiscriminately into Israel.

There are problems that cannot be solved today, and this is one of them. The Middle East is probably the most contested area of the globe in terms of human conflict, and we are talking of thousands of years, not just the last fifty. I do not have horse in this race, and offer no advice to either side. I return to my domestic anxiety that Australians take their easy and relatively free existence far too much for granted, and do not see that the Israelis, and the Arabs, are just people like us, caught in a difficult and apparently insolvable fight over their collective existences.

  • Walter Starck

    There are about 1.6 billion Muslims or 23.45% of world population.
    There are about 13.3 million Jews or a bit less than 0.2% of world population,
    There are 120 times more Muslims than Jews.

    10 Muslims have been awarded a Nobel prize, 6 for trying to stop fighting (i.e.
    Peace prizes), 2 for story telling (i.e. Literature) and 2 for science.

    12 Israelis have been awarded a Nobel. 2 for peace, 1 for literature and the
    remaining 9 for science and economics.

    On a per capita basis there has been 1 Nobel award per 160,000,000 Muslims vs.
    1 Nobel per 525,000 Israelis. This a rate of 305 times greater for Israelis than for the Muslims.

    Globally Jews have won almost 40% of all Nobel prizes or about 1 Nobel per
    40,000 jews. This is a rate of some 4,000 times greater for Jews than for Muslims.

  • margaret

    In 2001 I was fortunate to see this play Via Dolorosa at the Tuggeranong Arts Centre. It was brilliant and perplexing.

    http://www.pbs.org/viadolorosa/synopsis.html
    Epilogue:
    “As his taxi drives past Buckingham Palace, Hare weaves together brilliant
    memories from the trip with the London landscape. He contrasts the passion
    and vitality of Israel and Palestine with the comatose familiarity of
    Britain, as he turns down “Leafy street after leafy street, with
    sleeping houses, sleeping bodies, sleeping hearts.”” – the London landscape could be substituted with Canberra or any peaceful city or hamlet in Australia.

    • Don Aitkin

      Yes. And all the folk terrified of the next blast or the next rocket would love to be in such a peaceful environment, even if, as the play suggests, having achieved it they forget about the troubles of others.

    • Gus

      If we are to trust Agatha Christie, and I don’t see why we shouldn’t, after all, didn’t she write from experience, there is a sinister murderer lurking in every English village, if not in every English heart! And nothing can be more frightening than an elderly lady visiting the neighborhood. This always ends up in a tragedy, sometimes two or three in a week. I often wondered, why that horrible woman, Miss Marple, was allowed to travel freely around the country, leaving the dreadful harvest of dead bodies behind.

      • margaret

        You’re funny.

  • DaveW

    You may not have a horse in this race, but the ABC does. Yet another example of where the ABC is unable or unwilling to provide objective or even balanced coverage of current events. The ABC, like the rest of our mass media, feeds on death, destruction, scandal, sex and sports, and serves it up to the rest of us on the assumption that is what we want too. The ABC also assumes we hate Israel and love terrorists. How did we get stuck with this tabloid travesty of a national broadcaster?

    I agree with your wife, but I also wonder why we are now being fed images of dead children from Gaza? Exactly why has Hamas chosen this time to start rocketing Israel again?

    Attacking Israel is a great way to distract western media from other headlines, especially if Israel can be induced to blow up a hospital or school. Since the two competitors for media carnage at the moment are the Islamic State in northern Iraq and Syria and the missile-downing of MH17, I think I would look for immediate causes there. It would not surprise me if Putin were behind this latest attack.

    • dlb

      I thought the the recent violence was triggered by the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers by Palestinians and the revenge burning and murder of a Palestinian youth by Israeli extremists.

      After many deaths, mainly on the Palestinian side things will settle back to another uneasy truce for a few years until another incident triggers a wave of bloodshed.

      I doubt the motive of the Palestinians was media attention, more like simmering tensions.

      • DaveW

        I suppose you are right db. This timeline supports your hypothesis:
        http://www.ibtimes.com/timeline-events-gaza-israel-shows-sudden-rapid- escalation-1636264

        I’m tempted to make an ad hoc adjustment to my hypothesis and claim the escalation started on 17 July (the lesson from Climate ‘Science’ is never give up your hypothesis, so why should I?), but I think I’ll just discard it and start over, like you are supposed to.

        • dlb

          You are a man of principle Dave W, climate scientists take note :)

  • Gus

    “Political power grows out of a barrel of a gun.” Although it was Mao who said this in 1927, every thinking man and woman knows this, or should. The reason the English have Australia to themselves is because the Aborigines’ sticks and arrows (they never even invented a bow) were no match for English rifles. The reason why Jews managed their historic return to Israel is because they have better weapons, better universities, better industry, better agriculture, better educated people, better economy and better political system than their neighbors. If Australians ever neglect this simple equation and let themselves become less educated, less industrialized and of lesser military strength than their neighbors, the country that’s currently theirs may well change hands: again.

    Nothing in politics and in human history is forever. If you want the status quo to last, you have to work on it, because all in the world of human affairs is based on a dynamic, not static, equilibrium that’s derived from the strength of competing nations. What we are seeing on TV when watching news from the Middle East is how this equilibrium is attained and maintained.

    The Israelis cannot tolerate Hamas rockets being launched against their country. Even one is one too many. They have to wipe Hamas out of Gaza, confiscate all their rockets and rocket launchers, identify and destroy all tunnels dug under the borders, nothing else will do. It’s about their, the Israelis’, national survival. If Arab children are being killed, because Hamas hides their rocket launchers in heavily populated areas… so be it. In the time of war, your first and only responsibility is the safety of your own citizens, not of your enemy’s children.

    American bombs incinerated Dresden and Tokyo. Then they nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki. German and Japanese children were killed in hundreds of thousands in these operations. But people who lived through the nightmare of German and Japanese occupations and whose own children were murdered by the occupiers, did not shed tears over their enemies’ plight. That plight was well deserved.

    Do not attempt to sanitize your children from the realities of life. They will only become weak and cowardly when they are challenged as adults. And challenged they will be. Weakness is an invitation to mayhem, it is an invitation to war.

    Si vis pacem, para bellum.

    • DaveW

      It was my impression that media exploitation of dead bodies, especially of children, was a rather recent phenomenon, another legacy of Vietnam when activist journalists discovered they could influence public opinion with gore. Exceptions like the Dalton Gang tended to be criminals and showing the bodies a method of convincing the public they were dead. Even during wars when images of dead soldiers were were shown, they tended to be unsensational and often covered. That’s my impression anyway. I haven’t been able to find any studies to back that up – just navel-gazing by journalists about when they might get in trouble for showing something too disturbing.

      I think constant exposure to dead bodies and gore desensitizes people: I don’t think it makes children stronger or braver. Hamas and its ilk have a long history of exploiting their dead for media coverage, even fabricating events. I don’t think it is sanitizing to stop using their propaganda, just common sense.

      • Gus

        Sure, media loves gore and mayhem. That’s what you find on the first page, even in WSJ and The Australian.

        About children, there are two schools of thought on this. Of course, they’ll get plenty of gore and mayhem in the movies and in computer games as they grow up, but the thing is, children know that it’s not real. They know it’s all ketchup and plastic.

        To know that things like this *do* happen for real and to their peers, and to understand why, is a sobering experience. American kids get plenty of it, actually, since there’s a major shootout at American schools just about every year with tens killed at a time. And Australia’s not free of this menace either. I remember, just before I left for the US, there was a massacre at Port Arthur. 35 people got killed, 24 injured. There were three arson attacks since then that killed 36 people and injured 20.

        So, at the very least, children should be vigilant and alert.

        • DaveW

          We should all be vigilant and alert and not just to the danger of violence, but its use to threaten, shame or misinform us. To paraphrase John Philpot Curran, ‘[the price] of liberty to man is constant vigilance’.

  • Stav Bartel

    Palastina = Philistines = Ancient Nation, Not arab.
    Palastine = the name given by the UK in 1922.

    • Don Aitkin

      Agreed. But my point is that etymologically there is a connection, just as Gaza as an urban settlement has been there for a very long time.