Two years ago, I struggled to write an article describing the horrors of Israel’s unsuccessful invasion of Lebanon which resulted in a thousand people dead, mostly civilians. How, I wondered naively, could the world sit back and allow this to occur? Two years previously, I had asked the same question when Israel invaded Jenin and then Rafah. The UN Human Rights Commission had condemned Israel for the “mass killings” of Palestinians and for “gross violations” of humanitarian law in Jenin. Amnesty International declared that Israel’s actions in Rafah constituted “a form of collective punishment.” Condemnation by human rights organisations is not something new to Israel. In 2000, the UN Human Rights Commission found Israel guilty of “systematic killing of civilians and children”, “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity”. With a bitter twist of irony, a “crime against humanity” is what Hitler and the Nazis did to the Jewish people and from where the concept originates.
Then came Groundhog day and, yet again, I struggled to comprehend the unfolding events. Even in the face of unequivocal condemnation by the UN and a plethora of humanitarian organisations, Israel continued to inflict massive punishment upon a civilian population, killing innocent men, women and children in the name of defending its citizens. Despite the fact there is no other country in the world that has been condemned so frequently by the UN we are routinely reminded that Israel is a democracy, and the only one in the Middle East at that: supposed enlightenment versus darkness, apparent civility amidst a “jungle” of barbarity.
In trying to understand the causes of turmoil in this conflict most believe that it is about a border dispute but few are aware that Israel is occupying Palestinian land. Arthur Koestler, the Jewish polymath, summed up what was accomplished by the Balfour Declaration of 1917 which gave birth to the modern state of Israel. It was nothing less, he described, than one nation (Britain) solemnly promising to a second nation (Israel) the country of a third nation (Palestine). In 1917, the Arabs of Palestine owned 97.5% of the land, of which Israel now occupies over 80%. In 1966, Israel’s representative at the United Nations, Michael Comay, announced that “Israel covets no territory of any of its neighbors,” then in 1967, the Israeli forces occupied a territory three times as big as that which had been assigned to them in 1947. Between 1993 and 2000, the size of illegal Israeli settlements actually doubled. Since then, Israel has continued its policy of expansion, construction and growing its population of illegal settlements on what is still Palestinian land. While the last one thousand settlers left Gaza in 2005, the number of settlers in the West Bank increased by 9,000. There were 1.5 million people, mostly refugees, who fled or were exiled from that land that was to become Israel, hemmed into the Gaza strip which is 40 km long and 10 km wide, making it one of the most densely populated areas in the world. Palestinians are refugees in their own land and are denied the most basic of human rights. Ever since the Israeli occupation, young Palestinians have grown up with images and memories of subjugation and humiliation—witnessing family members being beaten (and tortured), with closures and curfews controlling where they can and cannot go. Israeli policies have made the Palestinians so crushed and so desperate that in the words of one political commentator, they have “created their own unconquerable enemy.”
For sure, Israel has an inalienable right to security, but this should not be at the expense of the Palestinians who have been waiting for over sixty years for justice. Atrocities such as suicide-bombings and the lobbying of rockets that target citizens must be unequivocally condemned. Yet by killing innocent civilians, Israel has made Hamas not only more popular among Palestinians, but also across the Muslim world, and even here in the UK (“We are Hamas”). It has also potentially guaranteed a new generation of suicide-bombers, ready to enact revenge against unsuspecting Israelis. The other inherent danger within Israel’s strategy of destruction is that it also impacts upon Jews living outside of Israel, sewing the seeds of anti-Semitism, as we have recently seen in Britain and elsewhere. While peace has been elusive we have to question why the Arab Peace Plan (2002) did not receive the attention that it should have merited, why the agreement between the late Yassir Arafat and Hamas to ban suicide-bombing was never enacted, and why Israel did not capitalise on Hamas’s offer of securing a long-term ceasefire of up to 50 years with Israel. The world cannot allow such fragile opportunities for peace to be usurped by senseless acts of killing.
Despite political failure to stop the killing, a long term initiative is required from both Muslims and Jews. There is a dire need to align ourselves to a moral and ethical framework from which unfolding events in Israel/Palestine can be filtered. Muslims believe that the Qur’an is unambiguous and self-evident in its recognition of dignity for all of humankind, and especially now, we must scrupulously adhere to this basic principle. God declares: “We have bestowed dignity on the progeny of Adam.” The early Qur’anic commentators concur from this that dignity is not earned; it is an absolute right to every human, regardless of ‘race’, religion or creed. Likewise, the Jewish tradition speaks about Kavod habriyot, or “human honour,” which should also form the basis for Jewish-Muslim dialogue. We cannot allow destructive elements in Israel and Palestine to undermine efforts of peace and unity among Muslim and Jews elsewhere.
At the same time, both communities need to step up to the challenge of looking introspectively. The offensive into Gaza by Israel was morally repugnant, ethically baseless and shows that Israelis place scant value on Palestinian life. Likewise, support for the Palestinian cause should not entail support for “martyrdom operations.” Muslims must not allow expediency to win over principle: all life must be considered sacred and a crime called for what it is, no matter in what name or for what reason it is being taken. Both Jewish and Muslim communities therefore need to make a principled stand against the indiscriminate use of violence and hold leaders and decision makers, whether in Palestine or Israel, accountable for breaches of the most basic laws that guard the right to life, property and dignity.
By creating a moral compass, both communities should be able to transcend uncritical, emotional support and navigate through a moral vacuum that until now has been occupied by those driven by an ideology that regards the other as sub-human. Once a moral voice emerges, these zealots and ideologues will be exposed for what they are: the real enemies of peace.
(Photo: Zoriah, under a Creative Commons license)
Aftab Ahmad Malik is Visiting Fellow at the Centre of Ethnicity and Culture, University of Birmingham and editor of The State We Are In: Identity, Terror and the Law of Jihad (Bristol: Amal Press, 2006)