Truth and Reconciliation

Searching for Mid-East Peace

In an August interview with Larry King, Queen Noor of Jordan said that until the question of Israel and the Palestinians is dealt with, lasting peace in the Middle East was unattainable.  As she was speaking, Israeli warplanes were zooming over the Lebanese border, responding to attacks by the Islamist Hezbollah with what many consider disproportionate force.

At the time, the Israeli government described its response to the Hezbollah attacks were designed to establish a lasting peace in the region.  This justification has proved short sighted.

In the Middle East, current anger against Israel stems largely from atrocities committed by immigrants over the 50 years that lead up to the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

In 1946 alone there were about 200,000 illegal immigrants, a Hagganah spokesperson said at the time.  Some of them committed acts such as a string of bombings in November of that year which killed 19 people.  By 1947, the United Nations Special Committe on Palestine found that “there are now in Palestine some 650,000 Jews and some 1,200,000 Arabs who are dissimilar in their way of living.”

In those years, Israel was not yet a state and the future of Arab/Jewish relations still hung in the balance. Questions of statehood, and the division of land plagued not only the United Nations (which, though only three years old in 1948, was the final arbiter) but also the United States and Britain, who had been administering the territory of Palestine and oversaw the vast Jewish migration that had taken place during the years following World War I.

Lead by many of Israel’s future Prime Ministers, political forces in Palenstine insisted on their own state, free of non-Jews, and lobbied the powerful decision makers in the UN. Eventually they got a nation and territory in which to create their homeland, despite much disagreement within the United Nations as well as high-ranking members of the British Government.

However, since only half of the population of Palestinian lands were Jewish, with a vast majority of them having only arrived in the last 50 years, much of the land allocated for “Israel” by the UN in 1947 was lived on by Arabs.

In an effort to make the lands entirely Jewish, leaders such as Menachim Begin and David Ben-Gurion, then heading proto-Israeli Defense Force militias, went on campaigns to forcibly remove Palestinian Arabs from their home towns. Yitzhak Rabin described an order given by Begin, that they were to “drive them out.”

What resulted was best illustrated at Deir Yassin, but happened in Israeli territory all over then-Palestinian land. On April 9, 1948, Militias lead by Menachim Begin attacked the town, rounding up men, women, and children, took them to a nearby quarry and executed them.

“The conquest of the village was carried out with great cruelty,” wrote a Jewish observer. “Whole families—women, old people, children—were killed.” There were also reports of rape at the hands of several members of the Irgun, a militia with a reputation for extremism.

These acts, though denied for many years, were perpetrated all across what is now Israel. Israeli historian Benny Morris, in The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, presents evidence that 24 massacres took place in 1948, with Deir Yassin only the most famous.

Morris himself defends the massacres, saying in an interview that “when the choice is between ethnic cleansing and genocide – the annihilation of your people – I prefer ethnic cleansing.”

These 24 massacres, and several other sporadic killings of Arabs, resulted in a mass exodus of Palestinians fearing for their lives. Many of these people, uprooted after centuries of traceable family history, still live in refugee camps today. Some, as Thomas Friedman says, retain the title deeds and keys to their old homes.  This fact has, in recent years, disproved the idea that Israel was “a land without people…”

It is often argued that the Arabs were not totally victimized, and also did their share of terrorizing in the pre-1948 years.

“This is rather like saying that man who is beaten up by robbers is partly to blame for his injuries if he resists,” says journalist and historian Karl Sabbagh. “If he had handed over his wallet after a punch in the face, they wouldn’t have had to break his arms and legs.”

It is clear however, that after 60 years Israel is not going anywhere and plans for Mid-East peace must therefore include a solution that both Jewish and Arab populations can accept.

Attitudes of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, who say that Israel is a criminal state and does not have the right to exist stand in the way of a peace process.  Two things need to happen, however, to remove the ideological forces of Hamas and Hezbollah from power.

First, moderate and liberal groups need to be able to find a voice in the Middle East. So far, Arab governments have largely been repressive, do-little regimes that seem more concerned with doing away with their opposition (the same moderate voices that are now needed) than in helping their own people.

Vienna-based political activist Aziz Al-Arfag, for example, was stripped of his passport by Saudi authorities and cannot go home.

In the places that have democracy, leaders have often been seen as corrupt, such as Yasser Arafat’s Fatah party.

The result is that no real policy for dealing with Palestinian issues, let alone domestic ones, has come from current Arab leaders. Bahrain is an Oil-rich gulf state that has an unemployment rate of 16%. According to Index Mundi, the rate in Jordan is almost double.

On the other side and in stark contrast stand Hezbollah and Hamas. They don’t ‘speak in tongues,’ they help the poor, support Islam and fight for “freedom” – of the Palestinians, Lebanese, and (allegedly) all Arabs. In short, they do what they say, an honesty that is appreciated amongst even those Arabs who are not for the formation of Islamic states.

With no moderate voices to turn to, Arab citizens are stuck between a rock and a hard place, choosing between the status quo and Islamic resistance movements. And all the while, Israel continues to bomb innocent civilians. Whether this is accidental or not, it certainly adds more fuel to the fire, cannon fodder for the Islamist propaganda machine.

The second thing that needs to happen before the peace process can really begin is infinitely simpler, and yet just as unlikely as the first: Israel needs to apologize for its program of ethnic cleansing and start an honest dialogue seeking reconciliation.

In other words, Israel needs to make amends. Just as the Europeans in South Africa. Just as the Germans have been doing for half a century.

The latest action in Lebanon by Israel is seen amongst Arabs merely as a continuation of 60 years of violence. If Israel were to begin atoning for its sins, admitting its fault for driving the Palestinians from their land, it could take the wind out of Hezbollah’s and Hamas’ sails, and open the path for honest dialogue.

These two steps — and not military action, which only serves to further enrage all sides — are essential for finally opening a true path toward lasting peace in the Middle East.

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