Which Side of the Israel-Palestine Conflict Are You On? A Dictionary Playbook

Intellectual, analytical categories within the context of the Israel/Palestine conflict are increasingly unhelpful.

Mira Sucharov
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Demonstrators protest Israel's operation in Gaza in New York, July 24, 2014.Credit: Reuters
Mira Sucharov

Now that the Israel-Hamas ceasefire seems to be holding, here at The Fifth Question I’m taking the opportunity to mull over the tone and tenor of social media discourse over the last month. It’s not surprising to see citizens (or residents) of a territory lining up behind their government during wartime while decrying the villainy of the enemy. And there will always be many within a given ethnic community who see their “side” as necessarily in the right.

But what is particularly striking is the deep fissures that run in all sorts of other directions: The doves versus hawks within the Diaspora Jewish community; the struggling peace movement within Israel itself; and of course the various pockets — neither Jewish, Muslim nor Arab — within wider North American society who side vocally with one “side” or the other.

Why the strong desire to pick a side? I think it comes down to the use and abuse of analytical categories, which in turn lead those who use them to become wedded to certain moral absolutes. And I’m going to suggest that we need to rethink how useful these tools really are.

Israel supporters see Israel as a life raft for a people who have been singularly persecuted through the centuries. Trying to puncture a life raft, it follows, is simply cruel. This is where Israel supporters tend to invoke terms like “security” and “self defense.” Israel supporters also place a moral overlay on its border conflicts. In those, they see the divide as one between democracy and authoritarianism (or “Islamo-fascism"). So pushing back the spectre of what they see as a globally threatening ideology is seen to be a boon to the world at large.

Palestine supporters wear very different analytical lenses. While they might acknowledge Jewish historical suffering in twentieth-century Europe, they see the State of Israel as a colonial implant. Palestine supporters therefore saw the recent Hamas violence against Israel as an “anti-colonial” one. Ditto any resistance — whether violent or not — emanating from the West Bank.

Let’s examine some of these categories. First, Israel’s self-defense: On one hand, Israel’s government understandably needed to defend its citizens against the hail of rockets coming from Gaza. Critics, however, see Israel as the occupying power in Gaza (given its “effective control” over the area) thus concluding that Israel’s self-defence claim is null.

What about the charge of colonialism? Colonialism tended to be motivated by greed rather than by survival. And given that colonialism implies a center and a periphery, Israel does not fit the bill. Neither was Israel colonialist in the economic sense: rather than exploit “indigenous” labor, the early Yishuv settlers did everything they could to cultivate a “Hebrew labor” ethic. (Thus Palestinian workers were displaced altogether — a different economic hardship.)

But even if we agree that colonialism is not an appropriate term to apply to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one has to acknowledge a category that is much more contemporary, concrete and contextually applicable: the occupation. But even there, the term is contested. Most agree that the West Bank is occupied — the international community is very clear on this — but some Israel supporters oppose even that descriptor. As for the settlements, international law makes clear that bringing one’s own citizens into occupied territory is illegal. Not surprisingly, some Israel supporters find ways to dispute that ruling too.

When it comes to Gaza, the situation is even murkier. Since Israel withdrew its ground troops and settlers in 2005, is Gaza still to be considered occupied? Some analysts, citing “effective control” including a border perimeter and control over the population registry, argue that it is. Others prefer to simply acknowledge the joint Israeli-Egyptian blockade, without using the term occupation. Still others acknowledge the blockade but argue that it exists solely as a function of Hamas violence.

So in seeking to understand the conflict, where does this leave us? Rapacious occupation or defensive security seeking? Callous bombing or resistance against nihilistic Islamicism? Colonialism or self preservation?

As much as I favour analytical categories —I am an academic, after all, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that in the Israel/Palestine conflict, these categories are increasingly unhelpful. Where once I believed that these intellectual categories were absolute (you can’t be just a little bit pregnant, one of my political science professors impressed upon us in graduate school), I now think that they are more useful as rhetorical artillery than as a tool for understanding. So let’s leave our fancy terms in the corner, for a moment, and look at what those twenty-five cent words have been obscuring: The very real material and identity needs that both sides are crying out for. There is a solution to that, but it’s one that rests with the potential signers of political agreements, rather than with those who would wield the weapons of war as well as the weapons of words.