A few weeks ago I wrote a piece about how the Israeli government as planning to build a total of 3,050 new settlements on Palestinian land: 550 in East Jerusalem and 2,500 in the Occupied West Bank. When looking through the headlines I saw a report on the BBC News website which said that Israel was planning to build 3,000 homes in the Occupied Territories. I was slightly confused at first. Despite priding myself on being quite self-aware, for a second I genuinely thought that I had covered a story before the BBC. Unsurprising, I was wrong. Rather than the BBC being late to the party, in a chilling indication of what the next few years will bring, the Israeli government has announced another 3,000 settlements in the West Bank.
According to the Israeli government, the move is designed to meet demand for housing. Even if there is a high demand for housing in Israel, this does not justify continuing to take Palestinian land. Israelis and Palestinians both want, above all else, peace in the Middle East so they can live their lives without fear of violence. Actions like this do nothing to help the peace process, and make the situation significantly worse. Diplomatic attempts by Palestinian leaders have been met with anger by Israel in international fora like the UN, and more land-grabs by Benjamin Netanyahu’s government only drives people into the arms of extremists.
The new announcement comes in the wake of a decision by the Israeli Supreme Court that deemed the settlement of Amona illegal because it was built of privately-owned Palestinian land. Thousands of police officers and members of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) have been sent into the settlement to evacuate the residents, but this decision has been met with scorn from certain sections of Israeli society. Some hard-right members of the Knesset have traveled to Amona to stand with the settlers, and if this a reflection of actions to come, we should be very worried.
But rather than dwell on the increasingly distressing situation in Israel-Palestine, let’s look at the problem from a different perspective. The right-wing government of Israel under Netanyahu are proponents of ‘revisionist Zionism’. This is an ideological position that combines one of the initial premises of Zionism- the desire live in a society that isn’t structurally anti-Semitic- and fuses it with a form of right-wing nationalism. This ideological approach allows for the displacement of Palestinians and the territorial expansion of the State of Israel. Some in the Israeli government, although not all, also support ‘religious Zionism’ which, as the name would suggest, combines territorial claims with Jewish theology. In essence, God promises the Land of Israel to the Jewish people, and therefore Jews have a right to claim Israeli and Palestinian land.
A way forward for the pro-Palestinian movement would be undermine the ideological basis of these two approaches to the Israel-Palestine conflict. For example, to base the legitimacy of the State of Israel on the word of God seems eerily like what jihadists do. ISIS often cite divine providence as the justification for their supposed caliphate, and we all rightly deride those people as religious fanatics and, in some cases, mentally disturbed. As a passionate believer in secularism, I fail to see how justifying any nation-state on a religious doctrine is a viable way of looking at the world.
In terms of the revisionist Zionism, the argument has to be more nuanced. The premise of Zionism generally as I outlined above is perfectly reasonable, and thankfully many Western countries are much less anti-Semitic than they were at the time Theodor Herzl was writing. Work still needs to be done in this area so that people of all religious and ethnic groups feel welcome in Western societies, but I genuinely don’t see a non-religious reason for wanting to move to Israel.
Back in the late 19th/early 20th century, I can see the appeal of living in a country explicitly designed to allow Jews the freedom to practice their religion as anti-Semitic attitudes were common, with notable examples being the Dreyfus Affair in France and, of course, the rise of the Nazis in Germany. However, I contend that most people in most Western countries aren’t massive anti-Semites and so living in these countries can be perfectly pleasant, especially given that all the countries I’m thinking of- France, Germany, the US, the UK, Canada etc.- all protect citizens right to freedom of religion. That isn’t to say that anti-Semitism doesn’t exist, but it is certainly less prevalent than in recent history.
In terms of the right-wing nationalist element of the Israeli government’s ideology, this can be counteracted through frank discussions with people. A large proportion of right-wing nationalist sentiment is based on emotion and reactionary thinking. As such, asking people why they think the way they do allows us to examine their epistemological approach and gives us a better chance of convincing them to change their view. Speaking in a sealed ideological vacuum may reinforce your own view, but this does little to resolve this issue. Supporters of the Palestinian cause need to calmly engage with the other side in order to understand their point of view before seeking to refute their argument. Without engaging with people on the other side, there is a risk that they are caricatured and their arguments straw-manned, and this doesn’t help anyone.
There’s only so many stories pro-Palestinian activists like myself can write about Israel’s continued expansion of settlements before we start repeating ourselves. Everyone who is even vaguely aware of this issue knows that these actions violate international law. Furthermore, some laws passed inside Israel favour Jewish Israelis over Arab Israelis, and when Palestinians are denied their basic human rights by the Israeli government, comparisons with Apartheid South Africa are appropriate.
Coordinated international action will force Israel to the negotiating table, but with the new US government so hostile to the Palestinian side of this conflict, other global powers need to step up. But in order to maintain peace, the ideological foundations of Israeli expansionism need to challenged. Only by convincing Israelis and supporters of Israel around the world that the ideology of the Israeli government is harmful to Israelis and Palestinians alike. Incidentally, I am fully aware that I am probably missing out something incredibly important, so feel free to let me know how wrong I am.