The Israel/Palestine debate

Last Friday, Students for Palestinian Human Rights Chair Dana Olwan wrote about how Palestinians commemorate Al-Nakba in the face of Israel’s 60th anniversary.

On March 20, Queen’s Hillel Co-chair Alex Goldberg wrote about how the Israeli state’s 60th anniversary is a cause for celebration and the culmination of the Zionist dream.

Here, professors and students discuss the situation in Israel and Palestine.

To add your own comment or question, e-mail .

To what degree is Zionism a factor in West Bank settlements? What’s the ideological underpinning of the settlements and conceptions of a “Greater Israel”?

Are settlements the main obstacle to peace between Israel and Palestine? Why/why not, and what role do they play?

Politics professor Oded Haklai:

Thank you for your very important questions. As you know, debates about settlements, Zionism, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict stir passionate debates. In order to overcome the emotional investment that so many observers have in the conflict, I always urge my students to use a comparative lens when dealing with questions pertaining to Israel and the conflict. A comparative lens helps to place the conflict in perspective.

The relationship between Zionist ideology and settlements is probably as complex as the relationship between Islamic ideology and violence or the relationship between any other ideological framework and political behaviour. It is important not treat ideology and politics as uni-dimensional and to avoid reductions. Zionism, like many other ideologies, is a differentiated category. In principle and practice, there are many “Zionisms”, so to speak. There is a liberal Zionism, socialist Zionism, religious Zionism, and so on and so forth. Zionists generally agree that Jews are a nation with a right of self-determination and a right for self governance in what the Zionists believe is the Jews’ ancient homeland. The term “Zionism” derives from reference to the land of Zion. Beyond that, Zionists disagree on a wide range of questions. Some Zionists believe in settling the territories Israel conquered in the 1967 War, many Zionists do not; most Zionists believe that Jewish national ideals can only be reflected in a democratic regime (just as many analysts believe Islam and democracy are not incompatible), but a minority believes that religious law should apply to Israel; Some Zionists prioritize territorial maximalization over democracy, others value democracy over territorial expansion.

In general, the Zionist stream that is sometimes referred to as “Religious Zionism” is the strongest advocate of settlements. This group, which is also internally differentiated and which represents no more than 10 percent of Israel’s population, believes that Jews have an inherent right to the territory granted to them by the Divine Authority and that settling this land is a religious and moral mission. Some of the more extremists within this group also believe that religious law is supreme to state law. It is religious Zionists who have been the driving force behind the settlement growth of the last 15 years. Over the years, even Israeli governments that have seen the settlements as a nuisance, have been reluctant to confront the settlers because the political costs of confrontation are high and there is no guarantee that the removal of settlements will bring about peace. Many who are not sympathetic to the settlers worry that Israeli evacuation of settlements will be interpreted by Israel’s foes as a sign of weakness and will bring about more violence and attacks on Israel rather than peace. Whether this perspective is justified or not is of course a debateable question. Nevertheless, that’s how most Israelis interpret their experience over the last 8 years. Israel withdrew from Lebanon to the international border in 2000, but as we know, this did not prevent Hezbollah from attacking Israel. Israel evacuated all its settlements from Gaza and 4 settlements from the northern part of the West Bank, but the launching of Qassam rockets has only intensified since the Israeli withdrawal. Most Israelis believe – and again, one can debate whether this belief is justified or not – that their withdrawals have emboldened militants. Therefore, they are reluctant to take any steps, including the removal of settlements, that they think might encourage militants to intensify violence. What this tells us is that security anxieties are no less responsible for Israeli settlements than any ideology.

As a side note, I should add here that this is a part of a larger cycle. Palestinians interpret Israeli settlements as a sign that Israel is not sincere about the peace process. As a result, Palestinians grow disillusioned with diplomacy and turn to more militant movements like Hamas. Hamas’ rise to power, however, only reinforces Israelis’ security anxieties, something that leads to Israeli behaviour that yet again reinforces Palestinian suspicions of Israel, and so the vicious cycle is prolonged.

What’s Israel’s response to claims its treatment of Palestinians directly violates international law?

Haklai: From an intellectual and comparative perspective, this is one of the most intriguing questions because scholars of international politics have long been interested in understanding when states in general comply with international law, why, and how they justify their compliance/ non compliance. Some scholars argue that state interests determine whether and when they will adhere to international law. Others point to the image that states want to project as the determining factor (i.e. the state in question wants to look good in the eyes of other states). Others still argue that domestic pressures influence compliance with international law.

Israel has not had a coherent strategy or tactic in response to claims about international law. At various points, multiple spokespersons adopted multiple approaches that depended on who Israel was responding to. The most common response evokes self-defence. Israeli spokespersons have frequently argued that it is Palestinian violence, particularly suicide bombings and the deliberate targeting of Israeli civilians by militants, that violate international law and that, therefore, Israel is entitled to take action to defend its citizens. This argument has been directed both at Israeli audiences and international actors. In other instances, Israeli spokespersons argued that for international law to be taken seriously, its principles need to apply universally to all countries. Absent such universality, it is argued that it is unreasonable to demand of Israel what is not demanded of others. This argument was raised about the security/separation fence/barrier/wall and Israeli military operations in the West Bank and Gaza. The intended audience of this argument were humanitarian organizations, who were accused by Israel of applying double standards, as well as states that also hold onto contested territories (e.g. China) and face insurgency (e.g. Russia and Turkey), who might come under greater international pressure if the same standards were applied to them.

A related argument poses that Israel is situated in an environment where no other country pays particular attention to international law. In such an environment, it is argued, you have to play by the regional rules or else you lose. The target audiences of this argument are Israeli public opinion, right-of-center public opinion in North America and Europe, and Israel’s Arab neighbours. The intended message to the latter group is “don’t expect us to be constrained by rules that do not constrain you”. And then there were instances when Israeli governments simply chose not to respond to accusations that it violates international law. In short, like most other countries, Israeli responses to claims about violations of international law are influenced by the intended audience, the needs of the moment, image, interest, domestic, and international pressure.

Are talks coming out of the Annapolis conference relevant?

Haklai: Thanks for yet another very important current affairs question. It is not uncommon for an American president in the final year or so of his administration to convene an international conference in the hope of pushing the peace process forward. Clinton called a summit in the summer of 2000 and Bush Sr. convened the Madrid Conference in the Fall 1991, although he, of course, was hoping to get re-elected. There is a risk involved in such attempts in that they may raise expectations that cannot be fulfilled in the short period remaining to the end of the presidency. The 2000 Camp David summit was followed by the outbreak of violence when hopes for a final resolution to the conflict were dashed. I do not think there is a serious danger of this happening again because expectations are already very low. At the same time, such low expectations can already lead us to assess that no serious break through is likely unless other meaningful things happen.

To what degree does having two different Palestinian governments (Hamas and Fatah) undermine peace talks or the possibility for them?

Is Abbas’s government a legitimate one (broadly but also in terms of peace talks)?

Haklai:Fragmented polities, whether in Palestine, Israel, or elsewhere, are unable to make credible commitments to peace because the central government is not in control of all the territory and the population, and therefore, dissenters from the peace process have more opportunities to undermine peace. In a fragmented polity, such as the PA, the capacity of the central government to enforce its policy preferences and laws is limited. The Hamas movement is a dissenter from the PA (Palestinian Authority) – led peace process. It contests the right of the central PA government to represent the Palestinians in the conflict. Therefore, in the eyes of Hamas sympathizers, the government established by President Abbas is illegitimate. Others argue that the President of the PA has the constitutional right to disperse the government. In their eyes, the unlawful takeover of Gaza by Hamas’ militia justifies Hamas’ dismissal from the PA government. Irrespective of where one stands on the question of legitimacy, Abbas’ PA does not control Gaza and is unable to fulfil its commitment under the Road Map initiative to stop the violence. Its inability to fulfill its commitments, in turn, exacerbates Israel’s security anxieties and makes Israel reluctant to fulfil its own commitments, remove checkpoints, or confront the settlers, some of whom are also dissenters who reject the Israeli government’s right to speak on their behalf in the peace process. Thus, the cycle of mutual suspicion is perpetuated.

What, in practical terms, are the effects of the separation wall and checkpoints on Palestinians living in the West Bank?

Haklai: The effects of the separation wall/barrier and checkpoints on the Palestinians have been multiple. The everyday lives of many Palestinians have been negatively influenced. In some cases, privately owned Palestinian land has been expropriated. In other cases, landowners and peasants have been separated from their land. Some have been cut off from neighbouring villages. Furthermore, the restrictions imposed on mobility by checkpoints can cause trips between two geographically proximate locations take a very long time. Students and workers often find it difficult to estimate how long it will take them to get to school/work place.

Beyond the everyday life hardships, there are also psychological and political implications. The checkpoints and wall/barrier are a relatively recent phenomenon, engendered by the second Palestinian intifadah. Their existence intensifies the sense of Israel’s presence in a way that was not felt before the second intifadah and provides ammunition in the hands of hardliners who are trying to persuade the Palestinian population that Israel is not serious about withdrawing from the West Bank and that Israel wants to strengthen its hold on the West Bank. Thus, the popularity of hardliners and militants rises. The growth in the political power of militants, however, intensifies Israel’s security concerns, thus making Israel less willing to remove checkpoints. And thus, the vicious cycle of mistrust and anxiety continues.

What pressure (if any) from the international community would motivate Israel to withdraw from the West Bank or negotiate with the PA towards a realistic solution?

On whom does the onus rest right now to initiate good-faith talks towards ending violence in Israel/Palestine and ensuring Palestinian human-rights and self-determination concerns, as well as Israeli security concerns, are addressed? How likely is this to happen?

Haklai:S/he who finds the formula for resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict deserves a Nobel Peace prize! There are diverse positions on the role that the international community can and should take in this conflict.

Some observers argue that the best approach is for the international community to withdraw from the conflict altogether. Excessive attention to the conflict, according to this approach, only inflames the situation. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is benign relative not only to other conflicts in the world but also in the Middle East region. Death tolls have been much higher in the Algerian civil war, the Lebanese civil war, the Iran-Iraq war, Darfur, and other conflicts in the region. And yet, the disproportionate attention that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict grabs has encouraged a culture of victimization and has trapped the two sides in the blame game. Proponents of this perspective suggest that the warring sides have become too dependent on outsiders to assist them. Accordingly, communicating to Israel and the Palestinians that it is up to them to resolve their dispute and that they have lost the interest of the outside world is the best medicine.

Others disagree. Some argue that even though the conflict receives disproportionate attention, the international community needs to facilitate its resolution, if only because it is exploited by extremists such as al-Qaeda. The question is how. The biggest challenge is that at this point, addressing Israeli security concerns seems to come at the expense of Palestinian basic needs and addressing Palestinian basic needs comes at the expense of Israel’s security needs. The concerns of both sides are concrete. A huge number of Palestinians lives in poverty and distress. They view Israeli security measures as collective punishment. At the same time, suicide bombers and Qassam rockets are also very real. Israelis ask why the quality of life of the Palestinians should come at the expense of their personal safety.

One of the tasks of any mediator is to move beyond a zero-sum game. The key is to identify ways in which security and human rights become a shared interest. One idea that is being tossed around is to introduce an international armed force. An international force will allow a withdrawal of the Israeli military from the West Bank and will provide the Palestinians with reasons to believe that Israeli presence is ending. This will also serve to calm Israeli fears that its withdrawal will not lead to a Hamas takeover as was the case in Gaza (keep in mind Israel’s convergence plan of 2006 to withdraw from parts of the West Bank. The plan was shelved indefinitely after the Lebanon war and the Hamas takeover in Gaza). There are a number of problems associated with this proposal. First, any international armed force will need to be credible in the eyes of Palestinians and Israelis alike, and that’s easier said than done. Palestinians might feel that an Israeli occupation is being replaced by some other Western imperial occupation. Israelis might fear that the international force will be less committed to confronting militants who aim to engage in violence. Furthermore, not many countries will want to send troops to such a volatile region. In short, I doubt very much that this idea will be implemented.

Another proposal circulated in think tanks is to try to change the discourse. Many Palestinian sympathizers view Israel as a product, or an extension, of colonialism and refuse to recognize the legitimacy and authenticity of Jewish nationalism. Some Israel sympathizers do not recognize the legitimacy and authenticity of Palestinian nationalism and ignore the suffering of the Palestinians. According to this approach, the key is to get the two sides to accept the legitimacy of the other side’s narratives. There is such a thing as Jewish nationalism and there is such a thing as Palestinian nationalism, distinct from the broader Arab nationalism. Each side has legitimate claims to the contested territory. Once both sides accept the legitimacy of each other’s claims, partitioning the territory into two will become easier. This sounds nice and easy. One of the problems is that each side believes that it has taken the steps to recognize the other side, but that the other side is unwilling to compromise. Israel cites the Palestinian rejection of the Clinton plan from 2000, according to which 97% of the West bank would have been transferred to a Palestinian state, and the continued discourse about colonialism, as evidence that the Palestinians are not serious about ending the conflict. Palestinians point to the growth of Israeli settlements as a sign that Israel does not recognize Palestinian rights. Of course, changing the discourse will have to be accompanied by other concrete steps like building credible institutions and taking steps to promote economic growth in the Palestinian territories.

History professor Ariel Salzmann: Let me try to lay out as clearly as possible the current obstacles to a resumption of negotiations between Palestinian and Israeli representatives, one which may have any prospect of delivering a viable plan for a two state solution.

Since Israel began its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza the policy of successive Israeli governments regardless of ideology has been to promote Israeli settlement in these territories. For some parties, this has been justified in the name of security and future bargaining over final borders; for others, it is part of a mission to create a “greater Israel” which would encompass these regions in addition to the pre-1967 borders of Israel. Under the Likud government in the 1970s, settlement activity expanded greatly. Many of the settlers, however, are merely ordinary Jewish citizens (clearly Arab-Israelis are not wanted) who take advantage of cheaper homes afforded by government subsidies. Other settlers are part of an extremist vanguard wishing to annex all Palestinian lands and push the remaining Muslims and Christians out. By creating outposts and beachheads in Arab towns and cities (notably Hebron) or simply by establishing a few trailers on a Palestinian peasant’s field or pasture land, their actions lead to new “facts on the ground.”

Whether or not Israel recognizes it, (let us not forget that Israel although a nuclear power, is not a signatory of the U.N. Non-Proliferation Treaty) these settlements are illegal under the Geneva conventions. That documentation is readily available and ongoing violations of Palestinian rights are continually documented by a host of Israeli, Palestinian and International human rights organizations.

In an important book, Eyal Weizman (Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation, 2007) lays out the complexity of Israel’s annexation and settlement policy. It is a post-modern colonialism, if you will, which creates layers of control: through sophisticated surveillence technologies, superior weapons (drones and missiles , tapping underground resources, such as water, by building Israeli-use only highways which bypass Arab towns and villages and connect settlements directly to Israeli cities, by continuing to expropriate Palestinian lands and entire villages in the name of security (for the wall or for military outposts). Every week that passes means that there is less of “Palestine” for a possible Palestinian state and thus to negotiate.

The Bush administration, by deciding early in its tenure, to ignore the Palestinian-Israeli stalemate and escalating violence (both his administration and the Clinton administration scapegoated Yassir Arafat for the failure of the Clinton’s last ditch effort to force a settlement without appropriate confidence building measures) effectively allowed Ariel Sharon to conduct, because of Israel’s superior air and ground power, a unilateral war against the Palestinian Authority and its institutions, including the police which wrought terrible death and destruction in the West Bank and Gaza and an upsurge in retaliations by suicide bombers against Israeli civilians. Finally, Sharon decided, in 2005, to withdrawal from Gaza, a tiny area which is one of the most densely populated places on earth. Never a very important goal of the settlement movement or Israel’s strategic concerns; Sharon’s decision to unilaterally evacuate served to cut military costs rather than facilitate a new round of negotiations.

When the Bush administration finally woke up to the fact that this crisis if not directly tied to the al-Qaedi attacks and the Iraq conflict was at least contributing to massive unhappiness in the Muslim world, it belatedly promoted its one-size fits all recipe: elections. Predictably, the elections brought the defeat of Fatah and the PLO and the democratic election of an Hamas government. (Let us not forget Israel had earlier facilitated Hamas’ rise in an effort to undermine the secular PLO). Naturally, neither Israel nor the US was prepared to accept the results of the election: a civil war ensued within Palestine. Both the Israelis and the US cast Hamas as the villain and recognized only the authority of President Abbas. Havining squandered the USA’s moral and material resources in Iraq, the Bush administration is in not in a position to bring about the necessary reconciliation within and between the Palestinian parties, much less apply the pressure that is needed to get the Olmert government to make real concessions for new negotiations.

On a separate note: the situation in Gaza cries out for international attention. Whilet Hamas’ use of rockets against Israeli civilian population must be condemned, Israeli military and state actions against the entire population of Gaza entail collective punishment and represent gross violations of human rights. Hundreds of thousands of people have been walled in for months with only the temporary relief brought when the the wall separating Gaza from Egypt was dismantled. The shipments Israel permits into Gaza do not suffice to power vital institutions such as hospitals or to fully feed and cloth the populations. Naturally, without contact with the outside world, Gaza’s economy is in shambles.

Salzmann: I would like to take this discussion back tobthe points expressed in the two opinion-pieces written by students and add some historical perspectives of my own….

Anniversary celebrations elicit many types of reactions, from elation to sadness, from regret to recrimination. In the hands of states and organizations, official acts of remembrance often involve official acts of forgetting. It is little wonder that the anniversary of the date on which Israel declared itself a new state (mid-May 1948) and which took place in the midst of a post-colonial conflict that precipitated the dispossession of hundreds of thousands of Middle Eastern Muslims and Christians might provoke such divergent responses.

Indeed, what is forgotten is the fact that not one, but three different tragedies led to the creation of the Israeli state sixty years ago:

The first, poorly appreciated (or conveniently ignored) in the West, was colonialism, a catastrophe of global proportions; indeed, Mike Davis provocatively employs the term “holocaust” to characterize the millions of deaths which occurred when a handful of European superpowers stripped rights and resources from much of the world’s peoples during the Victorian Age. Although at least part of the Middle Eastern heartland was spared this experience until the early 20th century, the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire after 1917 brought almost all of the Arab east under colonial rule. In the case of Palestine the situation was more complicated.

The struggle to impose foreign rule, not only pitted the “mandate authority,” Great Britain, against the Arab elite but also embittered relations between the indigenous population and a growing number of European immigrants who by the terms of a separate agreement (the Balfour Declaration), between prominent European Jews and the British government, were permitted entry into a undefined “Jewish homeland” in the midst of Palestine.

The second tragedy unfolded in Europe itself during 1930s: this involved the systematic failure, often premeditated destruction, of democracy accompanied by the rise of an institutionalized, exterminationist racism. In Germany what began “legally” with the Nuremburg Laws that “denaturalized” (that is, revoked the citizenship from) an entire segment of the nation on the basis of religion and ethnicity, ended with the mass murder of millions of human beings, of whom more than six million were European Jews and Roma (Gypsies). When countries like Canada and the US slammed their doors shut to the refugees, Jews (Zionist and non-Zionist alike) sought safe haven across the Mediterranean. Fascism’s victims before, during and after World War II changed the economic and demographic balance in certain Palestinian cities, frightening the majority, indigenous Arab population whose desires for self-rule had already been betrayed.

And so, conditions were put into place for a third tragedy, the one which is intimately intertwined with the establishment of the state of Israel. That tragedy should be considered one which was repeated throughout the decolonizing world. It was the product of the actions and inaction of the exiting European powers and the insufficient means and biases of international bodies, such as the United Nations, which offered neither viable government nor basic security to former colonial subjects. In Palestine the “cut and run” evacuation of the British left two communities, divided by history, culture, and influence, in a zero sum competition for a small land: confusion, panic, and conflagration ensued. Despite the numerical superiority of the Palestinian Christians and Muslims, force of weapons and organization determined the outcome. (The British authorities had disarmed the Arab population after the anti-colonial uprising of 1936-39 while arming “loyal” Zionist settlers during the uprising and the war.) Sympathy (and guilty consciences) toward the Jews after the Shoah, including from the Soviet block which first recognized the new Israeli state and later supplied it with arms, enabled the fledgling Israeli armies to defeat Arab battalions and turn three quarters of a million Palestinians into refugees.

If we may assign the colonial powers and Nazism greater blame in creating the conditions for the violence that ensued, Israeli and Palestinian historians have amply documented a consistently intransigent Israeli stance toward the refugee crisis which owes to its policy of maintaining a Jewish majority in a Jewish state. During and after the war of 1947-49, Israel’s leaders remained firm: once displaced, Palestinians – with very rare exceptions — would not be allowed to return or be compensated for their losses. “Abandoned” lands could be and were expropriated “legally” by the state or by the Jewish National Fund. Often with only the clothes on their backs, the Palestinians converged on neighboring Lebanon and Jordan, newly independent countries which were economically and politically unprepared to absorb a population of this size without destabilizing their own nascent


Sixty years have passed without a resolution to the refugee’s plight. Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, now four decades long, has brought neither peace nor security. Although there is little doubt – measured in lost land, lives, and property — that Palestinians in the disapora, the West Bank, Gaza and within pre-1967 Israel, have and continue to pay a far higher price for what historians have begun to call “the hundred-year war,” Israeli newspaper polls register increasing discontent among Jewish citizens and official statistics in 2007 recorded an unprecedented number of Israelis who preferred to emigrate to North America and Europe.

These historical reflections to one side, it must be said that it is all too commonplace to find officials and national organizations rallying their compatriots by selectively remembering the past. However, it is odd to think that we in Canada must be enjoined to commemorate either Israeli Independence or the Day of the Catastrophe (Yeum an-Nakba) without taking into consideration its meaning for us and the world as a whole. In Canada no barbed wire, check points, rockets, or armed men prevent us from using this occasion as a time to understand the tragedies that have scarred the past and its memory. By initiating a dialogue between communities, one that remembers our common humanity and aspirations for peace and justice, we can moreover help to fulfill the Hillel organization’s admirable mission: tikkun olam “healing the world.”

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