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.
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.