Gaza, Israel, history

Commentary on yet another savage war in a war weary land

Ken Sehested
10 October 2023

Psalm 135: Arabic Orthodox Chant,”
from St. George Church, Aleppo, Syria.

Above: “Mother’s Embrace,” painting by Palestinian artist Nabil Anoni

Only the most ruthless will applaud, or even rationalize, Hama’s attack on Israel. It is heinous. Saturday’s attack began with an massacre of concertgoers at a venue near the Gaza border. It’s estimated that at least 260 Israelis were killed and an unknown number taken hostage.

Before you begin culling the goats from the sheep, however, you need to take into account some important history—which most US citizens do not know—of the decades of humiliation dished out on the Palestinian population.

What follows is a very partial summary for use as a starting point in understanding this history. It is a complicated history, to be sure. But saying that does not mean no conclusions can be drawn.

1. The rise of British imperialism directly shapes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Near the end of World War I, British authorities literally drew lines in the sand to create what are now considered nation states of the Middle East. This was in anticipation of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. Prior to these new “nations,” the regions were ruled by an assortment of potentates of various tribes, clans, and families. Britain’s map-making (initially with French support) artificially divided large people groups. The fractious legacy of those fabricated boundaries linger still.

2. The nation of Israel was created as a refuge for Jews escaping Europe’s holocaust ovens (on top of millennia of persecution), an episode unparalleled in the history of human savagery—in its systematic intention and implementation if not in sheer magnitude. Indeed, the brutal legacy of anti-Semitism (in which the Christian community shares significant responsibility) in many parts of the world is well-documented, including in the US.

3. Israel’s declaration of independence on 14 May 1948 was preceded by a decade of underground Jewish terrorist organizations operating in Palestine in resistance to British rule (and sometimes with each other). Those attacks, including bombings and targeted assassinations, escalated considerably near the end of World War II.

4. The United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine was a proposal which recommended a partition at the end of the British Mandate. On 29 November 1947, the UN General Assembly adopted the Plan as Resolution 181, calling for two separate states, one Arab, one Jewish, with Jerusalem to be governed by a special international regime.

Hymn of petition
“There are people who want to live in peace / Don’t give up,
keep dreaming / Of peace and prosperity / When will the
walls of fear melt / When will I return from exile / And my
gates will open / To what is truly good.”
—English translation of Yael Deckelbaum &
Prayer of the Mothers, ensemble of Jewish, Arab
and Christian women “Prayer of the Mothers

5. Nevertheless, the Jewish safe-haven that is Israel was built on the backs of an indigenous population, one that is also Semitic, 726,000 of whom were displaced from their homes and ancestral lands when Israel declared its independence. Palestinians refer to it as al-Nakba (“The Catastrophe”). Those refugees, most living in camps—cauldrons of discontent—in Lebanon, the West Bank, Jordan, and the Gaza Strip, now total more than five million.

6. It’s true that Hamas, the political party governing Gaza, does not recognize Israel’s legitimacy as a nation state. It’s also true that the Likud Party now governing Israel is opposed in principle to the formation of a Palestinian state.

7. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed Hamas “will pay a price it has never known,” likely including a ground invasion of Gaza. To get a sense of what he means, consider the last time Israel’s army entered that enclave, from 8 July until 26 August 2014. During that period, 2,251 Palestinians were killed; 1,462 of them are believed to be civilians, including 551 children and 299 women. Sixty-six Israeli soldiers and five civilians, including one child, were also killed. A half million Gazans were left homeless.

8. This past January the Times of Israel reported that “Since 2015, the [United Nations] General Assembly has adopted 140 resolutions criticizing Israel, mainly over its treatment of the Palestinians, its relationships with neighboring countries and other alleged wrongdoings. Over the same period, it has passed 68 resolutions against all other countries.”

9. Israel’s policy of settling its civilians in occupied Palestinian territory and displacing the local population, which has escalated in recent years, violates fundamental rules of international law.

10. On the West Bank, Palestinians can be arrested and indefinitely detained based on undisclosed “secret evidence.” Two in every five Palestinian men have been arrested. Since 2000, more than 12,000 children have been detained. For the last 15 years Gaza has been in virtual lock down, an open air prison.

11. Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, two of the world’s most respected human rights organized, consider Israel an apartheid state in their dealings with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In his best-selling 2006 book, “Palestine: Not Apartheid,” former President Jimmy Carter said the same.

Hymn of intercession
“Erev Shel Shoshanim” (“Evening of Lilies [or Roses])” by
Yuval Ron Ensemble. This song, a love song well known
throughout the Middle East, is dedicated to the children of
Jerusalem, the vision of peace between Jews and Arabs,
and peace around the world.

12. Is Israel a democracy? Well, yeah, in the same way the US was a democracy when we nearly exterminated the indigenous population, endured a civil war whose body count was greater than all our other wars combined, lived with a century of Jim Crow laws and social norms, and are now threatened with massive racial and class divides along with the threat of Trumphoolery. Elections do not a democracy make. According to the Israeli 2018 “Nation-State” law, all citizens have human rights, but only Jews have “national rights.”

13. The so-called “Oslo Accords” (1993, 1995), which affirmed “the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination,” is utterly inadequate in its projected division of land. The proposed map of the Palestinian nation is more like a patchwork of reservations, each encircled by, and thus controlled by, Israel. Jewish human rights activist Jeff Halper has noted that 95% of the Occupied West Bank would be part of the new Palestinian nation is a grossly misleading statement. Inmates occupy some 95% of a prison. It’s what happens with the other 5% that matters

14. The violence of Palestinian terrorists doesn’t occur in a vacuum. “The first and worst violence,” according to Uri Avnery, former member of the Israeli Knesset, “is the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.” Virtually every major human rights organization (including B’tselem, the leading Israeli human rights body) insist that Israeli demands for Palestinians to “stop the violence” actually turns reality on its head. If both sides were to immediately cease all hostilities, the resulting “peace” would leave Israel in an overwhelmingly dominant position. Any peace agreement that refuses to acknowledge the imbalance of power is destined to harden the realities of injustice and thereby sow the seeds for the next war.

15. It is certainly true that Arab “terror networks” exist and must be opposed—just as there have been Ku Klux Klan and other terror networks in the US for much of our history. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the greatest terrorist threat to US national security is currently the homegrown variety.

Hymn of consolation
Nami, Nami” (Arabic Lullaby), by Azam Ali

16. Theological claims that the land of ancient Palestine was promised to the Jews by God may be emotionally satisfying but cannot be privileged in a world where gods of every stripe and contour are around every corner, each claiming birthright for the few and scorn for every other. Palestinians (Christian, Muslim, and Druze) and Jews each have legitimate claims to the land, which if not shared could become a perpetual killing field. We need reminding that God’s call on Abram to forsake his home and travel to an unknown destination included this promise: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3, emphasis added).

Israeli commentator Orly Noy, editor of the Hebrew-language news magazine “Local Call,” writes:

“It is important not to minimise or condone the heinous crimes committed by Hamas. But it is also important to remind ourselves that everything it is inflicting on us now, we have been inflicting on the Palestinians for years. . . .[V]iolence devoid of any context leads to only one possible response: revenge. And I don’t want revenge from anyone. Because revenge is the opposite of security. . . . [W]e have not only brought Gaza to the brink of starvation, we have brought it to a state of collapse. Always in the name of security. How much security did we get?”

Create In Me a Clean Heart (Psalm 51),”
Thingamakid children’s choir, Jacobs Jewish Summer Camp

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For more see “al-Nakba: Meditation on Israel, Palestine and the calculus of power” and “House to house, field to field: Reflections on a peace mission to the West Bank