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The pages of history show that the likelihood of compromise grows exponentially over time, as if the rhythm of the years going by has a small but cumulative mellowing effect on the feelings of men. Emotions run high at the onset of war, a deep-rooted sense of impending change and restlessness fills the air, suffocating dissenting opinions in a time of heightened jingoism. Uncertainty is never quite welcomed by the public, but it provides a kind of excitement which is missing from the mundane order of normal life. After long periods of peace, the arrival of war is popular precisely because it is irregular, and so it breaks the dullness of everyday banality. The suffering inflicted during the previous war has usually been, by this point, largely forgotten by the public consciousness.
This thrill does not last long; in most cases it evaporates almost as soon as the body-bags begin to pile up. The underlying restlessness, finally given a voice by the coming of conflict, stays for a while longer, but as years and decades pass, the initial feelings fade to a point where few remember the grievances and emotions of their fathers and grandfathers. It is best to win conventional wars quickly, for long wars between nations have a way of becoming irritating and blinding. The public tires of chauvinistic tropes once it becomes apparent – as it always does despite these patterns repeating themselves – that wars are rarely winnable, seldom respectable, and never economical. Eventually, the people begin to consider the price they must pay in blood to be too high. In most case, this is inevitable.
The conflict between Israel and Palestine is the great exception to this law of diminishing passion. The initial feelings of resentment and humiliation have been passed down through generations, nullifying the moderating influence of time. But even as the violence rages just as intensely as it always has, it is important to note that there was, at one point, an end in sight. It came about by the recognition, from the leadership of both nations, that this was an unwinnable war. The Jews were never going to be driven into the sea, the Arabs were never going to relinquish their claim to the West Bank and Gaza no matter how many settlements Israel built on those lands. There was, to put it bluntly, a stalemate. It seemed then, in 1994, that rationality would prevail after decades of futility. The PLO renounced terrorism, Israel recognised the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people (implicitly recognising the existence of a distinct Palestinian people), Jordan terminated its claim to the West Bank, and it became common to hear in the hallways of western power that the existence of two states was not just a possibility, but a realisable aspiration. At this time, it was not controversial to say that there is enough land in the Holy Land for two nations, coexisting peacefully, and that such an easily solvable and relatively minor land dispute was taking up far too much of the international community’s time. The world’s message to both sides was clear; the framework is there, now get on with it.
If only it were that simple. Within a few months of signing the Oslo Peace Accords, and with peace finally a distant, but very real, possibility, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was murdered by an Israeli nationalist. The reasons given for this act of unnecessary brutality are the same reasons peace is now seemingly unattainable. Jewish extremists, counting Rabin’s assassin among their number, believe that the Palestinian West Bank is theirs by biblical right. Religious dogma has everywhere a corrupting influence, and nowhere is this clearer than Israel. Messianic Jewish settlers, armed with the knowledge that Yahweh gave that land to them, and more importantly, to them alone, have earnestly begun the task of colonising Palestine. Few countries consider these settlements to be legal under international law, but the fact that this has changed nothing only shows the irrelevance of most countries. The United States is the only state which has the power to force Israel into restraining the eager successors of Europe’s colonial legacy, but the US has been hesitant to put such a policy into practice. Israeli society is divided between those who actively support the settlements, acting as apologists for the worst aspects of expansionism, and the opposition, who lack the political will to challenge such reactionary politics. As a result, Jewish fundamentalists hold a veto over the peace process, and it is a veto they will continue to use.
As for the Palestinians, what can be said that has not been said before? Political incompetence has given way to religious extremism, a broadly secular nationalist movement has been replaced by an ethno-religious one, while a legitimate, albeit problematic, resistance has been undermined by the nihilism and wastefulness of such tactics as suicide bombing. The blame for this shift lies almost entirely with the PLO, who for the longest time managed to establish themselves as the dictators of a non-existent state; an impressive, but downright depressing, feat of political cunning. The truth is that, after signing a peace treaty with Israel, the PLO failed almost completely to force its implementation. This, coupled with their notorious corruption, inevitably led to extremist parties gaining ground. After all, much like the rest of the world, Palestinians care about the provision of basic public services just as much as national liberation, and Hamas, like all tyrants, do not hesitate to promise that under their rule the trains will run on time. Hamas has the PLO in a stranglehold, but only because the PLO offered its neck.
The result is a stalemate, with (relative) moderates on both sides unable to hold back the tide of extremism. Instead, the Israeli moderates have been neutered and confined to the political abyss, while the PLO is too busy attempting to grab what it can while it still can to provide a meaningful alternative to Hamas. Primal bigotry has always been an active ingredient in the propaganda of both sides, but rarely before has it been so officially and violently endorsed. There was a time, not that long ago, when one could travel to Palestine and hear militants speak of how Jews and Arabs were brothers, and that the real enemy was the bourgeoisie of both nations. That kind of Marxist jargon might not have been entirely accurate, but the emphasising of commonality was respectable. Yet if one were to travel to Gaza today to hear the fighters of Hamas lecture on ideology, one is forced to imagine a scenario wherein notions of brotherhood and solidarity do not feature prominently, having been replaced by recycled conspiracy theories about world Jewry and world domination.
The bigoted denizens of ancient dogmas came to power because of severe ineffectiveness on the part of moderates, but the persistence of reactionary hatred is due to the dogma itself. Religion plants the seeds that negligence waters so religiously. Messianic settlers and Islamists have three things in common; both claim the entirety of the contested land as their own, and both base their claims, and how they view each other, on the ramblings of ancient texts. The third and most important similarity is perhaps the scariest; the gains of both sets of reactionaries have now reached a point of irreversibility, at least for some time. On both sides, the parties of God now run the show, and it is shaping up to be the most tragic of comedies. Sister faiths and twin nations fighting over a patch of land promised to both by a capricious, unknowable entity which each sect worships and regards as its own; a script worthy of the Bard himself.
History may tell us that time ripens the seeds of peace and burns the harvests of hate, but it also shows us that when religion intertwines with politics, especially the politics of nationalism, blood flows and mothers cry. Nothing but evil has ever come from the marriage of those two ideas, but in the Holy Land today the wedding bells are chiming.