The Four Wars of Israel/Palestine

The Four Wars of Israel/Palestine

The great simplifiers are hard at work, but Israel/Palestine has never been a friendly environment for them, and it is especially unfriendly today. They are bound to get it wrong, morally and politically, and that is a very bad thing to do, for the stakes are high. There isn’t one war going on in the Middle East, and there isn’t a single opposition of right and wrong, just and unjust. Four Israeli-Palestinian wars are now in progress.

  • The first is a Palestinian war to destroy the state of Israel.
  • The second is a Palestinian war to create an independent state alongside Israel, ending the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
  • The third is an Israeli war for the security of Israel within the 1967 borders.
  • The fourth is an Israeli war for Greater Israel, for the settlements and the occupied territories.

It isn’t easy to say which war is being fought at any given moment; in a sense, the four are simultaneous. They are also continuous; the wars go on even when the fighting stops, as if in confirmation of Thomas Hobbes’s definition: “For war consisteth not in battle only, or the act of fighting, but in a tract of time wherein the will to contend by battle is sufficiently known . . . ” Throughout the course of the Oslo peace process, some Palestinians and some Israelis were fighting the first and fourth of these wars-or, at least, were committed to fighting them (and their will to contend was sufficiently known so that it could have been dealt with). The actual decision to restart the battles was taken by the Palestinians in September 2000; since then, all four wars have been actively in progress.

Different people are fighting each of the four wars at the same time, side by side, though the overall emphasis falls differently at different times. Our moral and political judgments have to reflect this complexity. Taken separately, two of the wars are just and two are unjust. But they don’t appear separately in the “real world.” For analytic purposes, we can begin by looking at them one by one, but we won’t be able to stop there.

1. The war against Israel: this is the war that is “declared” every time a terrorist attacks Israeli civilians. I believe that terrorism always announces a radical devaluation of the people who are targeted for random murder: Northern Irish Protestants in the heyday of the IRA, Europeans in Algeria during the National Liberation Front’s (FLN) campaign for independence, Americans on September 11. Whatever individual terrorists say about their activities, the intention that they signal to the world, and above all to their victims, is radical and frightening: a politics of massacre or removal or of overthrow and subjugation. Terrorism isn’t best understood as a negotiating strategy; it aims instead at total victory, unconditional surrender. The flight of a million and a half E...

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