Historical analogies are often misleading; but they are inevitable. How else can we understand the conflicts in which we are embroiled, the dilemmas we are facing, without resorting to comparisons with the history of other nations? But, in point of fact, Israelis and Palestinians can learn very little from historical precedents.
It is often said that the fierceness of the struggle between the two peoples stems from the fact that both Israelis and Palestinians claim the same territory as their historical homeland; but the roots of the conflict go much deeper. The heart of the matter is that for decades Israelis and Palestinians denied each other's right to exist as national entities. This mutual rejection is much more than a conflict over territory. Territories can be fought over, compromised on, carved up, eventually shared; but when each party claims exclusive ownership of the disputed land, and is profoundly convinced that the other has no right to exist, there is no way out of the quagmire: only a fight to the finish.
This is what has set the Israeli¬Palestinian conflict apart and moulded its unique features, unprecedented in history. Israelis often argue that, if Palestinian and Arab leaders had not repeatedly refused any compromise over the disputed land - especially if they had not rejected out of hand the 1947 U.N. resolution on the partition of mandatory Palestine into two states, one Arab, the other Jewish - a solution satisfactory to both sides could have been worked out in time; but history does not consist of "ifs". Moreover at that time the Palestinians could not even imagine sharing the land: they felt, they were sure that Palestine was theirs by right and theirs only. Thus the emergence of the State of Israel in 1948 descended on them as an individual and national tragedy.
I got an inkling of this tragedy at the end of the 1950s, when I listened to a dear friend of mine, the late Rashid Hussein, a noted Palestinian poet and teacher. "I knew that the British would one day leave," he said, "and that I would then live in a Palestinian state. Were we not the majority in this land, and had we not lived and toiled here for hundreds of years? Then one night I went to sleep, and the next day I woke up in a different world. From a majority in my country, I had become a minority. And it was not my country anymore, but a Jewish state called IsraeL".
Most Israelis today are familiar with the plight of the Palestinian refugees; but few are aware of the pain, the sense of loss, and the alienation experienced by those Palestinian Arabs who did not flee, but remained in their towns and villages under Israeli rule and became Israeli citizens. The failure of the Israelis to understand Palestinian national aspirations has its counterpart in the failure of Palestinians to understand Jewish national dreams and feelings. I remember a conversation with the late Anwar Nusseibeh (the father of Dr. Sar at the end of 1968.
lived peace- fully side by side in the Arab world,"* he said. "If not for the Zionist aberration, this would still be the situation today. The Jews are a religious community: why this sudden folly of wanting a state of your own?"
Twenty years after the birth of the State of Israel, one year after the 1967 war, this l
highly intelligent and educated man still did not understand the national dimension of the Jewish people, and could not corne to terms with the reality of the Jewish state. For many years, most Palestinians did not grasp - and many still do not - that the Jewish people's attachment to Zion, Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) and to Jerusalem is not only a religious one, but also has a national content. For the Bible, unlike the Quran and the New Testament, is not only a book of revelations, of religious teachings, but is also a history of the Hebrews, the forefathers of the Jewish people, who lived here for about 17 centuries, prior to their expulsion by the Roman Legions. This history which spans some 2,000 years, from the settlement of the 12 tribes to the crystallization of those tribes into one nation, beginning with King Saul, and reaching its apex under Kings David and Solomon, is what ties Zionism, the national movement of the Jewish people, to Zion, the Land of
Israel. The fact that, during Jewish life in the diaspora, another people, the Palestinian
Arabs, carne to inhabit this land, to cherish it, and eventually to clash with the Zionist settlers returning to the land of their ancestors, became a tragedy for both peoples. This tragic encounter between two national movements must be understood as such by both peoples, if we are to succeed in working out together a rational solution to the conflict.
The Palestinians' systematic rejection of Israel's national existence, and their dogged refusal to countenance any form of territorial compromise, year after year, decade after decade, played into the hands of Israel's leaders, from Ben-Gurion in 1948 to Golda Meir and yitzhak Rabin in the 1970s and 1980s. It enabled them to ignore and deny Palestinian national rights - and with a good conscience at that.
Following Israel's victory in 1948-49 over six invading Arab armies expecting to nip the new¬born state in the bud, Ben-Gurion expanded the U.N. partition plan borders, and divided the Palestinian territories between Israel and King Abdullah of Trans¬jordan. Abdullah annexed the VVest Bank, including East Jerusalem, and pro¬claimed himself (with Britain's bles¬sing) king of Jordan. Egypt occupied and took charge of the Gaza Strip.
In fact the Palestinians' intran¬sigent attitude of "all or nothing" proved to be their undoing. And in the subsequent years the mutual exclusion - the Palestinians' total rejection of Israel's right to exist and the parallel rejection of Palestinian national aspirations by Israel ¬would constantly feed upon each other. The two peoples were separated by a wall of fear and hatred, and a process of dehumanization started. To the Palestinians, who had lost a homeland, there was no State of Israel, but a devilish "Zionist Entity", the artificial creation of American imperialism. To the Israelis, subjected to terrorist attacks, there was no Palestinian nation, but a gang of bloodthirsty, irrational killers.
Then came the war of June 1967. The ensuing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, accompanied by the brutality of arbitrary military rule, had a curious by-product. From 1949 to 1967, Palestinians and Israelis spoke to each other only with guns. Now the daily contact through labor and business slowly started to alter the distorted almost demonic - image they had of each other and had cherished for so long.
The Israelis learned to their surprise that the Palestinians, while fiercely opposed to the occupation, to Jewish settlement in their midst, and to annexation, were not just a bunch of terrorists. The great majority of the Palestinian people - laborers, peasants, businessmen, teachers, professionals - simply wanted to be free and independent, just like the Israelis and other nations. Similarly the Palestinians carne face to face with Israel's complex reality, a reality of soldiers and security agents, of oppression and humiliation, but also of workers, farmers, businessmen, intellectuals, with whom one could talk, drink coffee, argue, disagree ... and meet again.
Meanwhile the leaders of both Israel and the Palestinians remained entrenched in their mutual denial of each other's national rights; but inside Israel a growing opposition to the occupation started to take root, an occupation viewed by many as harmful, not only to the Palestinians, but also to the Israelis themselves, and dangerous to the democratic fabric of Israeli society. Writers like Amos Oz, A.B.Yehoshua, and David Grossman, political figures such as Arieh (Lova) Eliav, Shulamit Aloni, and Yael Dayan, journalists like Nathan Yellin-Mor, Uri A vneri, Boaz Evron, Amos Kenan, and indefatigable peace campaigners like Abie Nathan, increasingly denounced the fiendishness and injustice of the rule of one people over another. They started seeking out Palestinian figures, and in due time PLO leaders. The Israeli "peaceniks" were derided as dreamers and denounced as traitors; their Palestinian counterparts, the Hammamis, the Sartawis, the Kallaks and others, often paid with their lives for their courageous search for peace and reconcilia tion. But these encounters brought about a better knowledge of each other's demands, grievences, hopes and fears. The necessity of reaching a compromise started to filter slowly into the psychological make-up of both Israelis and Palestinians.
Did all this result in the present dramatic change? Did the Israeli peaceniks succeed in convincing Rabin that negotiations and hand¬ shaking were wiser than bone¬ breaking? Did the Palestinian peaceniks convince Arafat that the endless battle against Israel's existence was not only futile, but tragically harmful for the Palestinian nation?
It would be nice to think so. Alas, history does not work that way. There is no doubt that efforts made by intellectuals of both sides to reach out to each other exerted a
definite influence on the psychological climate; but nations and their leaders do not easily decide to end a deep-sea ted conflict, spanning generations. Uncompromising struggles only end when national leaders corne to the conclusion that the cost of warring is too high, and - even more important - that the total defeat of the other side is not a realistic objective. In addition to this, combat fatigue, increasing national weariness, also plays a major role in the maturing of a process leading toward the search for a compromise solution.
It took four major military confrontations (1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973) to convince first Egypt's Sadat, and then other Arab leaders, that Israel was too hard a nut to be cracked by war. Conversely, Israeli leaders learned the hard way that peace, acceptance and recognition could not be imposed by force - not even by the most spectacular military victories.
One cannot overrate the influence of the Intifada in changing the approach of both Israel and the PLO to the conflict. In November 1988, one year after the start of the Intifada, the Palestine National Council (PNC) convened in Algiers and, prodded by
Arafat and his allies, took a revolutionary step toward Palestinian-Israeli compromise and conciliation. The Palestinian popular uprising, holding its ground inspite of Israel's harsh counter-measures, restored the pride of the Palestinian people and enhanced its stature all over the world.
Arafat knew how to capitalize on this new situa tion, and convinced the majority of the PNC to change course and accept U.N. Security Council Resolution 181 of 1947, which recommended the partition of mandatory Palestine into two states. True enough, the PLO chairman presented this acceptance as a necessary step, granting the Palestinians international legitimacy for their claim to an independent state, and Arafat was promptly elected president of an (as yet) nonexistent state; but accepting Resolution 181 was tantamount to the implicit recognition of the international legitimacy of the other side, the State of Israel. The scene was set for future Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations.
Meanwhile Rabin was still a long way from understanding the significance and impact of the new form of struggle by the Palestinians. While terrorism had only increased Israel's resolve to fight, and hardened its opposition to all Palestinian demands, the stubborn "war of stones" started to change the Israeli state of mind. In the first days and weeks of the Intifada, Rabin still thought that he could subdue the rebellious Palestinians with harsh military operations; but this was to change. Following several years of continuous confrontation, Rabin realized that Israel was faced not by mere acts of terror, but by what he himself termed a "popular uprising."
The road that led from bone'¬ breaking to hand-shaking has been soaked with the blood, pain and suffering of both peoples: mainly of the Palestinians, but also of the Israelis. When Israeli soldiers started asking again and again, "What the hell are we doing in Gaza?" or, "Why do we have to chase Palestinian kids because they raise a PLO flag?" Rabin, who is both a tough soldier and a pragmatic statesman, started to look for a way out of the mess.
The Rabin-Arafat hand-shake in Washington, under Clinton's benevolent smile, was hailed by many as a miracle. In fact the real "miracle", the most important feature of this historic event, was the mutual recognition of Israel and the PLO, written into the Declaration of Principles.
The Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are not - and cannot be - easy. Many objective difficulties, constant misunderstandings, and outbursts of mutual mistrust will have to be overcome before a settlement acceptable to both sides is worked out. However, the signatures affixed by Rabin and Arafat to their mutual recognition, which replaced half a century of mutual inability and unwillingness to recognize each others national aspirations, heralds the start of a new era in Israeli-Palestinian relations, an era where hope has replaced despair, where the determination to find a reasonable compromise between each other's vital interests is overcoming the wall of hatred separating the two peoples, and the endless spilling of their blood.