Wednesday, October 19, 2011

israel/palestine: statehood & prisoner release

Israel and Palestine have been in the news quite a bit lately, and I'd like to offer my thoughts on recent events. Is the request for Palestinian statehood and/or entrance into UNESCO (requested mainly by Fatah, the more diplomatic party in Palestinian politics) positive or negative for Israel, Palestine, the United States, and the ongoing peace process regarding the land of Israel and Palestine? Is the prisoner release yesterday (orchestrated by Hamas, a more militant party in Palestinian politics) positive or negative for those same parties and the peace process? So here are some brief thoughts.

First, statehood and/or entrance into UNESCO and other UN agencies: 

Many people think the Palestinians asking for recognition from the UN is halting the peace process, because it is attempting to circumnavigate the peace process that they've been working on directly with Israel in order to force Israel to have to see them as a nation because of international pressure. In some ways this is true, but I don't think it's fair to say that Palestinians are breaking the treaties. Israel continuously breaks agreements made with Palestinians by continuing to build new settlements and make major improvements on established settlements of Israelis within the West Bank.

This is, in my opinion, analogous to citizens of the United States going onto a reservation and building on that land. Settlers in the United States did something very similar in the previous several centuries, making the argument that "they're not using the land" that is so familiar in the West Bank. This ignores the fact that many Palestinians, like many Native Americans, have a culture that utilizes and values land in a very different way from the way we think of "productive" land in Western cultures.

I could go on here, but I'll stop with that for now. Suffice it to say that settlements are still being built in the West Bank, and the Israeli government offers incentives to those who will go live in them. Many of the settlements are virtually empty buildings, but Israel tries to use them as "facts on the ground," saying that they can't just make people move elsewhere because those are their homes. This all goes directly against any peace agreements that have been made in the last 60 years between Israel and Palestine, so it makes a lot of sense that Palestinians would try something new.

Palestinian statehood might not be that great for the US in our goal to gain more leverage in the Middle East, but at the same time, if we supported Palestinian statehood, would this not make us more popular in the Middle East (with everyone but Israel)? Do we want to be allies only with the group in the Middle East with the least land and power (apart from what we give it)? Wouldn't it make more sense in a foreign policy sense if we made friends with Palestinian Arabs, and in so doing, made friends with other Arabs in the region?

This is not anti-semitism. This is valuing all people and their right to self-determination as a people, their right to not be systematically exterminated or evicted. But the US unquestioning support of Israel, even when Israel's actions are unjust, is completely inhumane. We would do well to support Palestinian statehood so that peace talks have the ability to move forward between equals. Perhaps a one-state solution would eventually work best, but it needs to be negotiated fairly.

Second, the prisoner exchange:

Yesterday I listened with interest as NPR reported on the prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Here is an article and audio about the exchange. Basically, Israel got back one prisoner (Gilad Shalit), a soldier who had been caught and kept in custody by Hamas in Gaza until their demands for the release of Palestinian prisoners were met. They received 500 prisoners from Israeli detention centers, although not the original 500 they requested.

I am thrilled for the sake of the 501 prisoners who got to return home to their families! That is wonderful news.

The major problem with this is that Israel negotiated this with Hamas, which party is more apt to use terrorist methods to reach their ends. As the NPR story points out, it is likely that Israel brokered this deal right now in order to weaken Fatah as that more moderate party seeks statehood or other recognition from the UN. But the short-term gain of this tactic for Israel is likely to cause a longer-term problem in that making Hamas' tactics look effective means more acts of terrorism are likely to occur than if they were willing to negotiate peacefully with Fatah. Is Israel intentionally trying to make this happen so that people will continue to see Palestinians as terrorists, and continue to feel bad for the Jewish victims? This is just sick, since it means many innocent Israeli lives will be shed as a result of the Israeli government's manipulative policies.

One good thing about this deal, however (besides the prisoners returning to their families), is that an Israeli peace activist, Gershon Baskin, brokered this deal. NPR reports him saying this was the most important thing he's done in his life. I think this part is awesome. He talked with the family of the missing soldier and he built relationships with Hamas leaders. He had no official capacity within the Israeli government, but he worked as a go-between for the last five years to make this exchange happen. This gives me hope, because I know not all Israelis agree with the policies of their government (no more than all people in the United States agree with our government's policies!), and it's great when Israelis working for peace make the news (here are some others). It also gives me hope because maybe someday, if we all work hard enough and refuse to give up, we can make a difference for peace in that land that is holy space for so many Jews, Muslims and Christians--in shallah.

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