Ignorance and Sympathy in the Israel-Palestine debate

I have been discussing the Israel-Palestine question with a group of conservatives today and it is quite interesting to see how misguided conservatives are in their basic understanding of the situation. 

But what is truly astonishing is how blind they are to how they themselves would respond to the situation if they were Palestinian. Some people really believe that a people who are made to suffer the way Palestinians are have no right to resist. They seem, moreover, incapable of grasping the essential truth that one of the inevitable consequence of aggression is that some oppressed people will respond to oppressive violence by resort to violence themselves.

Trying to generate sympathy for the Palestinian resistance I asked them, “Have you had your land taken from you, your house bulldozed, your route to a hospital blocked so that your husband died, your ambulances shot at, your sons taken into police custody and tortured, your apartment building bombed into rubble?” Of course they cannot answer this question. They have never had these experiences. They don’t know that the cost of Israel’s occupation of Palestine has been far greater for Palestinians than it has been for Israelis. 

Between 9.29.2000 and 10.31.2007, 4345 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli security forces and Israeli settlers, the vast majority at the hands of security forces. In contrast, 707 Israeli civilians and 317 Israeli security forces have been killed by Palestinians. Of course, Israeli civilians are not legitimate targets of violent resistance. Neither are Palestinian civilians, the number of their dead standing at more than six times the number of Israeli civilian dead. Source: B’Tselem Statistics

Does oppression justify resistance? Of course. It requires it. Does oppression justify terrorism? I imagine from the perspective of some Palestinians living in Gaza it does. Of course, I don’t agree with harming civilians (which the statistics above show that Israel does far more than Palestinians). But you don’t have to agree with the character of a response to understand why that response is occurring. 

However, basic sympathy is a concept apparently alien to this group of conservatives. They continually justify Israeli brutality towards Palestinians on the grounds that Palestinians in Gaza lob rockets into Israel. I asked them this simple moral question: “If you believe that Israel is justified in bombing civilian apartment buildings in Gaza in retaliation for rockets being launched into Israel, then why don’t you believe that Palestinians are justified in launching rockets into Israel in retaliation for Israel bombing apartment buildings in Gaza.” I await an answer. But, really, it is a rhetorical question, one that speaks to the reality that violence begets violence, and to the moral truth that it is the occupier that has the burden to stop the vicious cycle.

The question most supporters of Israel should be concerned with is this, “How do Israelis make themselves safe consistent with basic human decency and morality?” (I hope conservatives will at least give lip service to human decency and morality). The answer to that question is clear: follow international law, end the occupation, and recognize a Palestinian state. If Palestinians still routinely lob rockets into Israel after a just settlement, get back to me and I will entertain arguments for why this is still happening.

The Americas weren’t empty when Europeans got here. There were tens of millions of people already living there. So Europeans took their land, reduced their numbers by over 90 percent, and herded the remnants onto reservations. If international law had been in effect back then, then the United States would be an outlaw state. The same dynamic holds for for Palestine and Palestinians, except in this case there is international law. Yet the law has not resulted in the judgment that Israel is an outlaw state.

There are those who still believe that because Israel defeated Arab armies in Palestine that they now rightly claim Palestine. This is an argument in favor of lawlessness. It is illegal under international law to acquire territory by force. Occupation, whether legal or illegal, is temporary and can never lead to sovereignty over the occupied territory. The land belongs to the people living there. Territory by conquest asserts the “principle” of “might makes right,” a thoroughly immoral and lawless standard of right.

However, given the failure of the international community to compel Israel to follow the law, and given the reasons for that failure, it would seem that “might makes right” is the prevailing principle in world affairs today.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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