Staff Writer Charley Dennis muses on the Israeli claim to statehood, ultimately concluding that the intensification of conflict in Gaza serves no one.
In an unprecedented escalation of tensions, Israelis and Palestinians are running for cover as low-level conflict becomes an all-out war. Hamas militants surprised Israeli intelligence services with their newest campaign of terror, nicknamed ‘Al Aqsa Flood’, in the area surrounding the Gaza Strip– with an organised ground, air and coastal assault ripping apart the area on Saturday morning. The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) has responded with a sweeping air strike on the Gaza region with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announcing they are now ‘at war’.
Yet in many ways, this move to a total war footing is a new chapter of a very old story, one which can be traced back nearly two thousand years: to ancient Israel and the Jewish promised land.
A proper context behind this conflict requires an appreciation of Judaism’s historical roots. The Jewish people trace their cultural and religious lineage to the Kingdom of Israel, established around 1000 BCE. A central pillar of Judaism is their relationship to this land – the Promised Land in their Covenant with God. It is believed to have been promised to them by God in accordance with subservience to his law, better known as the Ten Commandments. Their Holy Temple in Jerusalem plays a significant role in this relationship too; first built by Solomon, until its destruction by the Babylonians and rebuilt in 516BCE where it acted as the centre of Jewish religious life for centuries. Adding to this valuable cultural heritage, modern-day Jews possess an undeniable genetic heritage linked to this ancient community.
Through a series of invasions and eventual destruction of the Second Temple in 70CE, the Jewish people lost control of their homeland. The last 2000 years should be understood as a gruelling time in exile. From persecution in Alexandria to subjugation under the Catholic Church, the history of Judaism is one of survival in hostile climates. From violence and expulsion in 13th century England, to mass murders in the lower Rhine, and pogroms in 19th century Russia, Judaism has been an endangered religion since its forced exile from the Levant. The birth of Zionism under the influence of Theodor Herzl came as a necessary response to centuries of oppression and victimhood: his ideas began to circle in the nineteenth century, but the process began under the British Palestinian Mandate. But it was the horror of the Holocaust that played the most significant role in the realization of a Jewish state. The decimation of the European Jewish population underlined that annihilation was a very serious possibility. A state was an urgent solution to the new threat to their very existence on European soil. Indeed, following WW2, a significant number of Jews managed to escape the Palestinian mandate, to the point where 46% of Jews worldwide have come to reside in Israel.
Israel has come to be accused of being settler-colonialist in nature. However, the conflict doesn’t fit this historical categorisation. As seen, Jewish people are native to the Levant and returned there to protect their imperilled cultural and religious practices. This is an entirely different proposition compared to European colonisation centred around the tropes of terra nullius and ‘virgin soil’, which positioned Europeans as the rightful owners of newly-acquired territory irrespective of historical ties to the land. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is better understood outside this paradigm – as a historically-rooted inter-ethnic rivalry over access to resources.
Therefore, Hamas’ actions cannot be justified as attempts at decolonisation. The slew of brutal attacks committed against civilians in the last week – reports of child victims and decapitation are among the crimes committed by Hamas militants– must not be romanticized or lauded. This is not a legitimate battle against injustice in the world, and Hamas’ targeting of innocents must be decried and combatted.
Nonetheless, even with an in-depth understanding of the Jewish need for a nation-state, the serious crimes committed by Israel mustn’t be taken lightly. Since its inception, Israel’s established borders have slowly advanced into Palestinian land, which has led to accusations of international law violations and human rights abuses. The plight of Palestinian civilians is a legitimate international issue which the UN is failing to solve. The Gaza Strip, the site of the ongoing conflict, has been subject to significant attention as it’s under a ground, air, and coastal blockade, which the UN has termed a form of ‘military occupation’.
A balanced understanding, free from histrionics and impulsive declarations, is thus priceless in understanding the rapidly unfolding events in the Middle East. Both Palestinians and Israelis have understandable grievances through this conflict, but the use of indiscriminate violence cannot represent an acceptable solution to these complaints. As the damaging repercussions have yet to be seen for global Jewish and Muslim communities, Hannah Arendt’s words, “[t]he practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is to a more violent world,” is a crucial sentiment for anybody watching.
(This article was written prior to the intensification of Israeli retaliation to the Al Aqsa Flood; the plight of Palestinians is of just as much importance as the need for a Jewish homeland – and the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip is a deplorable development in this conflict)