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Questioning the assumption

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In an oped article in today's Philadelphia Inquirer,¹ Hesham Hassaballa, a physician and writer living in Chicago, wrote the following, logical-sounding sentence:

Where will this lead both Israelis and Palestinians, who surely in their hearts know that they eventually will have to learn to live together in peace?

The question that must be asked is: is Dr Hassaballa's statement true? Do both Israelis and Palestinians really know in their hearts that they eventually will have to learn to live together in peace? After over half a century of fighting, this seems to make just so much sense to Westerners, but is it really true of the Israelis and Palestinians who are fighting and killing each other in the Levant right now?

I'd say that no, it isn't true, at least not universally true. It might be argued that in their heads even the militants realize that they eventually will have to learn to live together in peace, but people simply don't put their own lives at risk -- and in the case of some of them, willingly and deliberately give up their own lives -- for something that they don't believe in their hearts.

In his own way, though I'm not certain that he meant to do so, Dr Hassaballa illustrated the problem. He wrote:

I believe the vast majority of American Muslims and Arab Americans feel the same way I do about this conflict. They are terribly hurt by the suffering of innocent Palestinians who have nowhere to run from the Gaza onslaught, but they do not think that the appropriate response is to hurl more death and destruction at Israeli civilians in a twisted form of revenge. Like our Jewish counterparts, we also think that "there has to be another way of doing this."

These voices - those of the "middle way" - need to become stronger in the discourse over what to do about the crisis in Gaza and southern Israel. It is possible to be pro-Palestine, pro-Israel and pro-peace all at the same time; these are not mutually exclusive. And groups such as the Arab American Institute, J Street, Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, and the American Taskforce for Palestine, among many others, are showing just that. They are successfully embodying the voice of the middle way.


He identified them as American Muslims and Arab Americans. And you could go throughout the entire Western world and make similar statements.

One thing is clear: if the solution to the problems, the "middle way" of which Dr Hassaballa spoke, were to be negotiated between Arab Americans and Jewish Americans, it would have been solved decades ago. Perhaps I've been a bit of a broken record on this, but the "middle way" solution has been clear since the close of the 1967 war: split the differences, Israel is recognized by the Arabs, the Israelis withdraw from Gaza and the West Bank, and the Palestinians get an independent state of their own, and everyone agrees to a much more profitable peace. We Westerners can quibble about the details, but the basic outlines are clear to us -- and we really do fail to understand why such an obvious solution isn't clear to the people in the Levant.

But it really is simple: if we discard Dr Hassaballa's basic assumption, if we consider the possibility that a sizable enough number of Israelis and Arabs do not believe in their hearts that they must eventually accept each other in peace, it all comes together. If we consider the possibility that there are enough people on both sides who see victory for their mutually exclusive goals as still possible and attainable, then we can understand it.

I make no apologies here: I am far more sympathetic to the Israelis, and I have said before that the Israelis should have expelled the Arabs from all of the land they seized in 1967 back when it was possible to do so. Israel did not do that, and that's simply no longer an option. There are, however, some Israelis, primarily the settlers and their supporters, who do not think that this option has been foreclosed. They will remain a political problem for the Israeli government, but Ariel Sharon demonstrated, on a smaller scale, that yes, the Israeli government is able to evict forcibly settlers who don't want to leave.

The bigger problem is the Arabs. When former Prime Minister Sharon forced the Israeli evacuation of Gaza, the Palestinians could have taken what they had, tried to build something, and stopped shooting at the Israelis. Had they done so, foreign capital, particularly from Europe, would have flowed in to Gaza, giving the Palestinioans at least a chance of building something. Because there are still enough Palestinians who cling to the notion that Israel cannot be allowed to continue to exist, and that by military force they can eventually conquer the Israelis and destroy the Jewish state, that couldn't happen. Not enough Palestinians actually living in the contested areas agreed with Dr Hassaballa's "middle way" idea for it to work. Not enough Palestinians knew, "in their hearts," that they would have to settle for peace and give up on victory.

So yes, I put much more of the blame on the Palestinians for the current round of fighting. But, even if you don't accept that conclusion, one conclusion that is really inescapable -- if you are willing to admit it -- is that our basic Western assumption, as Dr Hassaballa stated, and as we as liberal Westerners just naturally think, that everyone really wants peace and understands that we must have peace, is simply not universal, and really doesn't apply to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

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¹ - The Philadelphia Inquirer, Thursday, 8 January 2009, p. A-15
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