War without ends

What are the Israelis and the Palestinians fighting for?

Josie Appleton

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With six Palestinian suicide attacks in six days and Israeli tanks rolling into Palestinian areas, the violence in the Middle East is intensifying.

In some ways, the current escalation is reminiscent of past stages of the conflict. Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, who oversaw the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, is a symbol of old-time Israeli hardliners. But such similarities are deceptive. In reality, the terrible events of the past few weeks show just how much politics has changed.

In the past, the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians had a certain political content. It was a battle between principled Zionism, backed up by US allies, and a movement for a Palestinian homeland, backed by idealistic international supporters and the Soviet Union. Now the violence just seems senseless – a tit-for-tat exchange that nobody can justify.

Israel no longer justifies its actions in terms of defending a Jewish homeland, instead claiming a need to react to Palestinian violence and pleading for ‘recognition’ of its right to exist. Israeli leaders have recently latched on to President George W Bush’s rhetoric of the ‘war on terror’ – illustrating their inability to justify defending Israel on its own terms and in its own interests, instead feeling the need to get some legitimacy by joining the Western powers’ war against terror-in-general. As Israeli troops tightened its siege on PLO leader Yasser Arafat’s headquarters, Sharon said: ‘We have to combat this terrorism uncompromisingly. We have to uproot it. You cannot make any compromise with terrorism.’

Meanwhile, the Palestinian struggle has become detached from the cause of national liberation. When Palestinian youths blow themselves up in Israeli restaurants, their actions reek more of nihilistic desperation than freedom-fighting.

Reactions to the Middle Eastern conflict in the West also show how the political tables have turned. The USA is no longer the staunch supporter of Israel it once was, often giving out ambivalent and contradictory statements. On 13 March 2002, Bush said Israel’s military actions in Palestinian territory were ‘not helpful’, but he described Sharon’s recent attack on Arafat’s compound as ‘responding to the will of the people’.

And the US government is not happy about Israel’s hijacking its ‘war on terrorism’ rhetoric, either. Bush’s spokesman Ari Fleischer said the so-called ‘Bush doctrine’ – that a state that harbours terrorists is as guilty as the terrorists – could not be applied to the Palestinian Authority, because it is involved in a peace process.

Israel has lost many of its other supporters in the West, and is fast becoming an international pariah. It seems that nearly everybody is pro-Palestinian now in some way, less because they support the ideals of national liberation, than because Israel goes against the grain of contemporary politically correct culture. Israel is seen as uncompromising, fundamentalist, aggressive – everything that our age of relativism and mutual respect cannot tolerate.

The violence now just seems numbing – the death toll mounts, and nobody can really see a way out of it. President Bush seems to be drawing back from intervention, with some in his administration allegedly questioning whether the USA should be involved at all. In a strange turnaround, the UK’s liberal-left Guardian newspaper today runs the accusatory headline, ‘Bush stands back as Israel tightens siege’. How times have changed, with the left asking a right-wing president of the USA to intervene more in the Middle East.

But the last thing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict needs now is outside intervention – from the USA or anybody else. The peace deal negotiated by Arab powers only days ago lies dead on the table, as the conflict grows around it. This is testimony to the fact that a solution to the conflict cannot be drawn up at a conference in another country. And another endless and frustrating cycle of ‘peace negotiations’ is unlikely to help, either.

As Israeli tanks went into Palestinian towns, Sharon’s spokesman Raanan Gissin said that he was ‘fed up with declarations and wants to see actions’. Whatever the solution to the crisis is, it isn’t more ‘talks’.

Josie Appleton is speaking at the spiked conference After 11 September: Fear and Loathing in the West, on Sunday 26 May at the Bishopsgate Institute in London. See here for full details.

Read on:

Peace process gone wrong?, by Brendan O’Neill

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