Israel & Palestine: Punch & Judy writ large

January 6, 2009

I originally posted this on Lib Dem Voice, but I had so much fun writing it I thought I’d put it here too. Disclaimer: The following post does not represent my own views, but rather a question I’ve always wanted answered.

Geoffrey Payne wrote:
I do not want to be misunderstood in this sense. I think there are people of good will on both sides of the divide who are voting for extremists, and that is the real tragedy. Democracy is not working. The main reason is that both sides have a very different understanding of the history of the conflict, much of which is no longer in living memory.

Whoa there. If democracy doesn’t produce the result we would like, it doesn’t mean it’s not working. If it produces a result that the majority of the demos do not like, then it’s not working. And this is a crucial point, which seems to have been missed in all this talk of ‘historical understanding’ and ‘justifiable body counts’ and whatever.

Both the Israelis and Palestinians have voted for governments that actively want to kill the other side in the conflict. Wouldn’t this seem to indicate that this is something they want to do? And so, this is my question: why not just let them do it?

There are two extremes in the ways in which we can view the participants in this conflict: as two societies of deranged madmen who glorify killing, or as two societies of people who’ve formed a rational response to living with violence and death in day to day life. I always find expressions like ‘historical understanding’ rather snooty; they seem to indicate that we as westerners have some sort of enlightened perspective on such things unavailable to these poor violent barbarians. Isn’t it rather the case that if your family was threatened (or you believed them to be) by an outside force, it is reasonable to want that outside force to be eliminated? Isn’t that preferable to the sort of self-effacing peace deal advocated by the West, where one side stops killing the other (in any number of ways, witness the economic-collapse-inducing Israeli blockade) for an indeterminate amount of time until the other stops too? During the period where the other side is still committing violent acts, your family is still at risk.

So why not let them do it, if they want to? Certainly, all death is a bad thing, but we and France were happily killing each other for hundreds of years before we decided to band together to kill Germans instead. To shift the rational position from the one mentioned above to a position where one side can unilaterally stop requires an exhaustion with war, and a recognition that war itself cannot achieve the goal of eliminating the other side. We haven’t reached that point yet, and we will not for some time.

I begin to worry that Western discourse on this subject has forgotten that the Israelis and Palestinians are people too, and has rather turned them into moral puppets onto which we project our particular worldview.


6 Responses to “Israel & Palestine: Punch & Judy writ large”

  1. What an absurd post. The toddlers being carried into a hospital on the news last night didn’t want to kill the Israelis and I would reckon they didn’t want to be killed either. Of course we should try to stop this disproportionate massacre by Israel – and the pointless rocket attacks on Israel by Hamas.

    Remember Bosnia, which Douglas Hurd said should be fenced in to allow them to slug it out, conveniently forgetting that the Serbs had all the weapons. Fantastic.

    All we are saying is give war a chance, eh?

    Get a life.

  2. declineofthelogos said

    I should perhaps once again point out the second sentence in this post which indicates this is a discussion point rather than a point of view. This being said, I am loathe to take your response seriously, given that you’ve used the rather silly insult ‘get a life’ while undoubtedly having no clue as to what you mean by it.

    Regardless of your poor insulting skills, you do raise a valid point with your reference to innocents suffering as a consequence of the decisions of others – in this case, their parents. However, if we consider this for a second, given that you’re accusing the parents of these children (who voted for the governments involved, and thus are to a degree complicit in their actions) of recklessly endangering their lives and thus being tantamount to child abusers, we arrive at a situation where it becomes appropriate to describe two entire nations as unfit parents. Are we then to take the children of entire nations away from them until they learn how to behave? This seems rather more interventionist than perhaps was your first intention.

  3. Wow, I have just finished reading the Wizard of Oz to my son but you are entering fantasy worlds L Frank Baum could scarely have dreamt of.

    The parents of the slaughtered children might have voted for any party. Palestinians do not all think the same and they did not all vote for Hamas. They had a free election and when Hamas won the rest of the world told them they couldn’t have power. Like the irish on Europe, they voted the wrong way and were naughty.

    Hamas is not a very nice party/terrorist group. They have called for the destruction of Israel and they fire missiles into Israel. These missiles occasionally hit someone and kill them. In response Israel – a proper state and therefore an outfit we might reasonably expect slightly better behaviour from – bombs Palestinians indiscriminately, killing Hamas supporters, Fatah supporters and even non-voters – plus, of course, their children.

    Your argument gets a little weaker if this is accepted, doesn’t it?

    Equally, there are thousands of intelligent, brave Israels who do not want their country to be in a permanent state of war with its neighbours and who struggle for peace and reconciliation in often very difficult circumstances, since they are then branded as cowards and traitors to their country. I have no doubt that some of these worthy people live near Gaza and no doubt some of their number have been killed by Palestinian terrorism. Similar to our non-voting Palestinians, these Israelis did not choose war but they suffered the consequences.

    What is obvious is that the Palestinians, faced with living in poverty behind barbed wire, with regular attacks on them and their families and with no prospect of anything getting better anytime soon, are ever more likely to side with the Hamas terrorists because at least they offer them hope and a chnce to fight back at the army which is killing their families and their neighbours.

    If your question is a ‘discussion point’, it is in the worst traditions of the troubled middle classes who might once have spent a pleasant afternoon visiting Bedlam so that they could empathise with the poor tortured souls there before going home for dinner. What’s the point?

    The answer to your ‘discussion point’ is that we definitely, absolutely, comprehensively have a duty to try to stop innocent civilians suffering, especially at the hands of a professional army which hails from what is ostensibly a ‘liberal (in the loosest sense) democracy and which seems to regard the people it is killing as ‘untermenschen’. Now there’s a controversial word to use in this context but it seems appropriate.

  4. declineofthelogos said

    I appreciate that you went for a more sophisticated insult this time, including the name of an author, indeed!

    It appears you may have slightly missed the point of the post again, which is not about ‘Why the Israel-Palestine conflict is not a bad thing’ but rather the strange tendency amongst Westerners to not attribute moral agency to both the Israelis and Palestinians. You’ve managed to do it again in the above post, by dividing Palestine into ‘good’ Palestinians (who voted for Fatah) and ‘bad’ Palestinians (who voted for Hamas). You do it again by excusing the moral choices of Palestinians to kill people on the grounds that they’re poor and have no prospects for the future.

    And you finish the performance in your final paragraph by revealing yourself with the words ‘professional’, and ‘liberal’. What in essence you’re saying is that, “Because this group of people are more like me, they’re more morally culpable for their actions than this group of people who are badly off and not really like me at all.” In doing so you in effect claim that since the Palestinians are less morally culpable, they’re less human than you are. I find that disgusting.

    It is ironic that you accuse the rest of the world of not respecting the wishes of the Palestinian people when you don’t yourself. Your second-to-last paragraph is even more ironic given the above, seeing as you appear to be saying ‘Aw, poor Palestinians, they just can’t help themselves’. If two societies (or subsections of those societies) want to kill each other, why should we stop them? I’m not saying we shouldn’t, I instinctively feel that we should, but feeling that we should isn’t good enough. We can’t just continue saying, “Stop all that fighting now, listen to your betters,” which is all I’ve read in the papers lately.

    The suffering of anyone is terrible. And innocent people should not suffer, it is clear. But how do we save the innocent who could die in the next few days without massive intervention? And should we then leave the guilty to the outcome of their choices? The situation is not as simple as your caricature of ‘Israelis bad, Palestinians less bad’ would make it seem.

  5. I am not caricaturing anyone and I am not making out that Israelis or Palestinians are good, bad or more or less of these. What I am saying is that you are generalising in this way by assuming that they should be left to slug it out because of the choices they made.

    I am also pretty much agreeing with the unfairly maligned Jenny Tonge, who said that she could understand why someone whoudl turn to violence if they had to suffer the discrimination, privations and violence which the Palestinians have. I am not excusing violence, simply understanding where it comes from.

    On my own blog I have often made the point that giving someone a job, a nice place to live and general nonsense which we all enjoy having will do more to reduce violence than any amount of ‘bombing for security’ or suicide bombing.

    And yes, I do think the Israelis are more culpabl;e. They have a functioning state. They have politicial parties. They have a free press and they have far more freedom to find out exactly what is going on. Their citizens therefore bear more responsibility for the actions of their democratic government. When 1m British people marched against the Iraq war, that was a massive message of defiance for Tony Blair. He souight to ignore it through a misguided fervour but I believe that a similar demopnstration of disgust among Israelis woul;d be far more powerful. Sadly, I see little prospect of it happening.

    We won’t be able to save innocent people in this fight – and intervention is never going to work, as the man on the Baghdad Omnibus could attest – but we can try to stop the next debacle precisely by taking a moral position and telling Israel it is wrong and it must negotiate.

    That’s not bad: it’s practical and even principled.

  6. Francis said

    A question I’ve always wanted answered (good game) is- why does EVERYONE have an opinion, in most cases a suddent, desperate, visceral opinion, about this particular piece of foreign desert?

    Israel and Palestine are really just two groups of crazy Orientals fighting over a pretty worthless bit of land.

    It’s not an unusual situation. Foreigners all over the world are going at each other with machetes, AK-47s, and rockets. Yet caring about most of them is a pretty niche activity.

    Western Palestine is the only one that’s really become mainstream- a mass participation sport. The mutual butchery of Orientals in Western Palestine is the topic of conversation over pretty much every dinner table in the Occident.

    Your conclusion, though, that “Western discourse… has rather turned them into moral puppets onto which we project our particular worldview” is one way of explaining it, but I’m not sure it’s the whole story.

    Not only have the Israelis and Palestinians consistently voted in favour of protracted war, but they have both managed to pull a singularly successful PR campaign to make the world watch them at it. They both have good reasons – US support, European aid. But the fact that we are even discussing them might be one of the reasons they keep doing it. If we ignore it, might it not go away entirely?

    Are these fights being conducted purely for TV – for the caring BBC and the militaristic FOX News respectively?

    The quickest way to peace in the region might be for all of us to stop caring about it.

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