Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw American soldiers from Afghanistan before Sept. 11 is not an end to the war in Afghanistan itself, a 40-year conflict that began with the Soviet occupation of the country and will continue, much like the present war in Syria, as a civil war with foreign proxies. But there is one seemingly forever war that, well over a century old, shows no sign of abating: that between Jews and Palestinians for control of what both sides claim as both homeland and Holy Land.
Jewish emigration to Palestine began in the late 19th century as a movement for a return to Jewish ancestral homeland, spurred by the growth of an increasingly hostile European nationalism. As Jews settled, Arab Palestinians increasingly viewed them as a threat to their own culture and livelihood. By the 1920s and 1930s, both sides were in violent confrontation.
World War II brought this strife to a head. The Holocaust, which wiped out a third of world Jewry, left millions of survivors displaced and destitute. Many fled to Palestine, where the Jewish community welcomed them. At the same, Britain (which had controlled Palestine under the aegis of the former League of Nations) abruptly abandoned its responsibilities and withdrew its forces. The question of Palestine fell into the hands of the newly-formed United Nations.
The UN swiftly concluded that Jews and Palestinians could not coexist peacefully in a now-ungoverned territory, where both sides had already taken up arms. The UN solution was that both sides govern their respective communities. But most communities had a mixed population. Separation, by agreement or by sword, seemed inevitable.
Managed population transfers had precedent. In 1923, the Greek population of Turkey and the Turkish one of Greece were exchanged following a bitter war. At the end of World War II, Germans were expelled from Poland and Czechoslovakia. In both cases, great powers oversaw exchanges between existing states. There was no governing authority, however, to conduct such measures in Palestine. The Jewish community, facing assault, declared itself the State of Israel. The 12-member Arab league rejected this and intervened on behalf of the Palestinians. A succession of wars resulted in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973.
The 1967 war gave Israel control of the West Bank of the Jordan River, to which most Palestinians had fled and where they lived as refugees under the de facto control of Arab Jordan. Israel also took control of the Gaza Strip, a small, tightly-packed Palestinian enclave on its southern border. Other Palestinians remained in Israel, where they lived uneasily but gained limited citizenship. A good number of them resided in East Jerusalem, a city divided in 1948 but united under Israeli control in 1967. None of these arrangements were ratified by treaty, and it was not until 1993 that, under American aegis, negotiations for a two-state political settlement between Israelis and Palestinians were undertaken.
These negotiations failed to achieve peace. A Palestinian authority was set up on the West Bank, internally self-governing but subject to Israeli control. Hamas, a militant organization rejecting the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority and the recognition of Israel, took power in the Gaza Strip. Its stated goal was the establishment of a unified Palestinian state and the destruction of the Jewish one.
The intransigence of Hamas was matched by that of the Orthodox Jewish population of Israel, the Haredim, whose own goal was to annex the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as part of the sanctified territory of Israel. Hamas, a self-described liberationist organization, is generally considered a terrorist one because of its commitment to violent struggle. The Haredim, who enjoy influence far in excess of their numbers, are a crucial part of the Benjamin Netanyahu’s embattled governing coalition. The collision of these two groups has now produced war.
At issue was the eviction of six Palestinian families from homes, ceded to them in East Jerusalem by Jordan during its occupation of the West Bank but claimed by the Haredim after Israel’s victory in the 1967 war. The matter slept until recently, when the Haredim pressed their claim, creating a flashpoint in the long-running controversy over Israel’s piecemeal annexation of Palestinian holdings. The issue was compounded by a dispute over the religious observances that conclude Ramadan and the conflicting Israeli celebration of its unification of Jerusalem.
Ordinarily, a few eviction notices and an argument about a call to prayer is not a cause for war. Between Israel and the Palestinians, it can be more than enough, especially when extremists on both sides position themselves. The Haredim provoked Palestinians on a point particularly critical to them. Hamas took the opportunity to assert itself in the struggle against Israel with a barrage of rockets. Israel, inevitably, responded in kind. The consequences, this time, may be far-reaching.
To understand why this is so, one must look at the regional politics since the last confrontation between Israel and Hamas, the 50-day war of 2014. Hamas found itself isolated in that conflict as Arab powers, rhetorical support aside, stood by to let it run its course.
A more significant concern had materialized by then: Iran’s aggressive bid for dominance in the Middle East and the coalition mobilized by Saudi Arabia to oppose it. Israel, to whose destruction Iran has long committed itself (and of which it is, unlike Hamas, fully capable), offered its military and intelligence capabilities to the Saudis. On the eternal principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, this vital-if-unspoken collaboration had begun to yield something once all but unthinkable: a degree of economic, cultural and finally diplomatic rapprochement between Israel and much of the Muslim world. Correspondingly, the Palestinian cause was sidelined as an impediment to wider interests. In the Israeli view, too, an at least pragmatic acceptance of it by long-antagonistic neighbors was a key to its own security.
This has plainly been the policy of the Netanyahu government. Its success to date has enabled it to put the Palestinian question on a back burner, a strategy pursued with the tacit support of the United States. This has left the Palestinian Authority with little ability to resist settler pressure and Hamas as largely a nuisance to all sides. The Haredim have now offered them an opportunity to grab some bloody headlines again.
Thus far, the Arab response has been a muted one. The real damage, however, has been done between Israeli Jews and Palestinians, where violence has erupted to such an extent that Netanyahu has been forced to call upon both sides to cease “lynching.” The only successful political experiment in living between Jews and Palestinians since the establishment of Israel has been between these two groups. Whatever tensions, grievances and worse lie beneath the surface, they have been part of a functional society, perhaps not as a model for a political solution but surely a precondition for it: neighbors working side by side, accommodating each other and, however grudgingly, recognizing one another’s humanity. If this too is to be a casualty of war, there may indeed be no end to the conflict but tragedy.