The recent terror attack at the Lions’ Gate in Jerusalem reminded me, as if I needed reminding, of the complexity of the Jewish-Arab conflict in the land of Israel.
There are actually three separate conflicts raging in the same place, involving more or less the same people. They have distinct objectives, but they are intertwined in a complex way, which is detrimental to ending any of them.
The first is the political conflict between the State of Israel and the PLO in its embodiment as the Palestinian Authority (PA). This is a disagreement over borders, settlements, security, and other geopolitical issues.
The second is the national conflict between the Jewish people and those Arabs whose self-defining national narrative is that of “Palestinians.” This is a disagreement that can be characterized as an argument over the historical title to the land between the river and the sea.
The third is the religious conflict between Jews and Muslims. This stems from the Islamic ideas that Muslims are superior to non-Muslims (especially Jews), that they should live under shari’a (which implies Muslim sovereignty), and that land that has once been Muslim must not be allowed to remain in the hands of infidels.
The various attempts to end the conflict have mostly focused on the political conflict, and to a great extent ignored the national and religious ones. This confuses people who don’t understand or aren’t aware of the latter two, which in my opinion are far more important than the political one.
So, for example, when Yasser Arafat walked away from a political compromise at Camp David/Taba that was unprecedented in its generosity, US President Clinton was shocked. But the compromise did not include recognition of a right of return for Arab refugees, and thus represented an defeat in the national conflict that could not possibly be accepted by Arafat.
The Arab position in the national conflict is based on the Palestinian narrative, in which the “Palestinian people” are a distinct people who have been living for many generations, even from biblical times, in the land. They had a flourishing civilization which was usurped by Zionist colonizers, who invaded Palestine and dispossessed the indigenous Palestinian inhabitants in 1948. The continued occupation – which includes the territory on both sides of the Green Line – is a continued besmirching of Palestinian honor.
This story is entirely false, but that doesn’t matter, because the Arabs firmly believe it, and – of great importance in an honor-shame culture – much of the rest of the world believes it too. The implication of the story is that the “Palestinian people” had their most important possession, their land, taken from them by force – and they were unable to prevent it. Not only that but (and here we see the interplay between the national and religious conflicts) it was done by the despicable Jews. Only a complete reversal of the act of dispossession, in which Palestinians violently dispossess the Jews, can begin to restore Palestinian honor.
The religious and national conflicts are intertwined. The original Hamas charter refers to the land between the river and the sea as an “Islamic waqf,” that is, as inalienably Islamic property, once governed by Muslims and now in the hands of infidels. The imperative to regain this land for religious reasons is thus added to the need to do so in order to restore national honor.
The conflict that is going on right now at the Temple Mount is over both religion and national honor. Of course there is no Islamic issue with metal detectors, which are in use in Mecca during the Haj, along with even more invasive security measures. However, the idea that Jews (or non-Muslim Israelis like Druze police officers) can decide who is allowed to enter the site damages the honor of the Arabs, both as Muslims and as Palestinians. The fact that these metal detectors were introduced in response to a brutal murder is not relevant for Palestinians who believe that violent ‘resistance to occupation’ is fully justified, and for Muslims who believe that jihad for the sake of recovering land that was once dar al-islam is praiseworthy.
In other words, the murder of the two policemen is not seen as immoral, but Jewish control of Muslim Palestinians is.
There is no way to separate these conflicts. Not only that, but the tools that would be employed for solving the political one – negotiations, compromise, concessions on both sides – are precisely the wrong ones to use for conflicts based on honor and religion. In the latter cases, concessions are seen as admissions of weakness, a reason to push harder. So it isn’t puzzling that Arafat responded to the failed Camp David negotiations by launching the Second Intifada; he saw the Clinton and Barak offers as signaling their desperation, and expected that more violence would bring about the collapse of the tottering colonialist empire (despite all his years of trying to kill them, he never understood Israelis).
In pre-modern days, national and religious conflicts were easy to solve. The side with military superiority would drive out, kill or enslave the enemy population. In the today’s enlightened world, it’s not so easy (although third-world actors still do it under the Western radar whenever possible). This is surely the option the Arabs would take if Israel were weaker, but Israel is too Western and too modern to behave like that.
Sometimes what appears to be human progress is actually the opposite. Contemporary diplomacy can only solve political conflicts, not ones about national honor or religion. So they go on forever.