After eleven days, a fragile peace has broken out in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people in Gaza. Thank God, whichever God you thank. But how often have we said that to ourselves, as the weaponry is put back in its secure places and the fighters go home for a while? “For a while”, because that is always what it turns out to be. Time to bury the bodies, stitch and bandage the wounded, comfort the old and the children, bulldoze the wreckage and start building anew.
My colleague Dr Jehad Al-Omari wrote very movingly in the last issue of Only Connect of the dreadful ordeal for the civilian population, especially the children, of Gaza. To be pounded with missiles and artillery is unpleasant whether you be poor, rich, or comfortably middle class. But the after-effects for the poor are worse: no decent housing, no good medical treatment: schools and basic amenities such as power and water supply all destroyed. The pictures this time have come mainly from Gaza, but Israel has suffered too, with Israeli children also killed and maimed, and homes and workplaces destroyed. It is little comfort that Israel will be much quicker and more efficient at repairs. The truth is that nothing repairs loss of life, the destruction of children’s innocence and the reinforcement of the fear of renewed fighting in the area.
So, thank God for the ceasefire. But cannot there be, this time, a real attempt to find a way of finally ending the conflict, of bringing a permanent peace?
There is no doubt that the Israeli military and government were taken aback in this latest round of mutual destruction, both by the weaponry which Hamas wielded, and their skill in using it. Israel has a sophisticated military protection shield, but this time it was found deficient. The response of the Israeli army was to fire rockets onto civilian areas. As they claimed, some of this was undoubtedly because Hamas had embedded itself in areas where people live and work, both to protect itself but also to make its attackers look bad in the eyes of the world; as it did. That is a wicked thing to do, of course, but war – and especially, repeated wars – are wicked in themselves.
In the mid 1970’s two extraordinarily brave men started to make contact with each other to talk about ending the fighting and bringing about a peace that would hold. They were Prime Minister Begin of Israel, a former freedom fighter (terrorist some say, freedom fighter to Israelis) and President Sadat of Egypt, a former freedom fighter (terrorist some say, freedom fighter to the Egyptians). Both were fairly elderly men, both were sick of the violence, both had big egos that craved remembrance. These factors led them to make efforts to talk peace when most around them wanted hostility, if not fighting. Into this mix came President Jimmy Carter, a one-term and little-remembered president of the USA. He invited them to talks in the USA, out of the public eye, and made them talk and talk; and made it clear the US would back peacemakers and reject warmongers. In 1978 they signed the Camp David Agreement and finally the Middle East began to move into a sort of calm. Apart from one thing, which we will come back to.
I was in Israel in 1979, living on a kibbutz, as many of my generation from Europe did. Disliking the kibbutz, I moved to Jerusalem for four months. It was the best possible time to be there. Both Palestinians and Israelis were basking in the post-Camp David glow, and the Arab population were benefiting from economic growth and a nervous but growing friendship between Arabs and Israelis. That was limited, it should be said; the two peoples lived in separate enclaves and the main beneficiaries of the Israeli economic miracle were the Jewish population. But for outsiders such as me it meant we could talk to both sets of peoples, feel safe (as safe as you can feel where buses carry armed guards), accept that generous hospitality which many Middle Eastern people of all backgrounds offer to strangers, and move freely around the country. Except, it should be said, into Gaza. What Begin and Sadat had not been able to do was to solve the issue of the Palestinian people. This issue was for Begin to deal with. The evidence, such as it is, suggests he could contemplate a solution based on two states but that he knew that it was, at that time, impossible politically. So the matter was left, in the hope perhaps that a peace dividend might bring urges to make further advances.
But, as we know, that has not happened. Modern generations of Israeli politicians have not had Begin’s subtle boldness and little progress has been made in further moves to permanent peace. Oddly, steps have been made in the last couple of years where the unlikely figure of Donald Trump brought a rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia, together with some of the Gulf states. What this will come to is hard to say; it is partly happening because of the USA’s economic and military interests in Saudi Arabia and its neighbours, and perhaps even more, because of the growing hostility between Saudi Arabia and Iran. But no steps have been risked in resolving the Palestinian issue, which to ordinary folk, to children and families and pensioners, would make the most difference.
Sometimes it seems that hatred and distrust is growing so deep that peace will never become possible; that a solution would be rejected by the hotter heads on both sides simply because it is a solution. Yet until the early twentieth century Jews and Palestinians lived mostly peacefully alongside each other, albeit under the suzerainty of other and distant rulers. But in what is now Israel, and the dispersed lands of Palestine (which are more than Gaza), there were always Jews, and there were always Muslim Arabs. It was the inflow of Jewish settlers from eastern Europe between the two world wars, and then from Germany and wider afield after 1945 that brought pressure on land and concern about resources and overcrowding.
Yet, these are two peoples with so much in common. They have that shared history and a commonality of oppression, violent oppression, from time to time. They are God-fearing and devout, often immensely so. Both follow religions of the Book (the Old Testament). They love their families and keep their relatives close. They value education and learning. They are mostly hard-working and determined. They enjoy disputes and arguments and discussions of life, and hopes of betterment through that. This is so like Northern Ireland, where two peoples so similar have been also divided, and now slowly and painfully are feeling their way to a new way of living together.
If there is a solution, where might it lie? Simplistically, I know from good friends who are Jewish the internal insecurity that comes with holding fast to their Jewish faith, even in Europe and the USA, even more so in Israel. They are surrounded by people who if not active enemies certainly wish them ill, with, as one Israeli friend put it, “our backs to the sea”. The Jews have often hidden or fled but Israel is their last stand and those that went there, and their descendants, will not surrender that land. But to the Palestinians it is their land, seized by others, constantly nibbled away into the maw of Israel, whilst the Palestinian economy is circumscribed by the controls of their neighbour. Land may not matter so much to modern Europeans (though often it does) but to people living on the edge of a desert, the sea behind, it matters a great deal.
There is a solution. It is for a new Jimmy Carter (the original is still alive but is 96) to persuade leaders from each side to start talking; to become friends if they can; to acknowledge their faults and those of their peoples; to be prepared to compromise; more than anything else to recognise that the lives of their children would be saved by a willingness to put Life before History and before grudges and before anger. The Palestinians have to cast aside false friends who come with weapons to progress a violent agenda all of their own, to control their young men to cease violence, even when angered. And the Israelis have to be prepared to give back land in order to create a viable home for the Palestinians, to open their borders to their neighbours, to assist in financing the reconstruction of homes, factories, offices and shops of a good people who must become a valued neighbour. There has to be an acceptance of a Palestinian state, coherent, democratic, economically viable. That is a big ask of Israel and probably will need a change of leadership, but also of the Palestinian people who will have to learn peaceful ways of resolving differences, and to elect leaders of a non-confrontational nature.
Is there somebody who could start to bring these great peoples towards each other? Not Joe Biden, not Donald Trump. But maybe somewhere there is. Tony Blair might be up for it; he might pull it off. But there are others, not so well known, but with the patience and the vision and the toughness to spend a long period doing nothing but trying to start a conversation that will develop its own momentum.
This topic we at Only Connect know has already stirred great debate amongst our readership. For an Englishman it may seem an infernal cheek to have anything to say on the topic; my excuse is that peace should always be given a chance. I lived in Israel for a brief time many years ago and had many Jewish clients in my business life. More recently I spent fourteen years of my life with a wonderful Muslim woman and learned much of Islam. Both sides have so much good in common. Enough conflict; let us have peace.