The events unfolding over the last few weeks in the occupied territories seem as if they’ve been taken out of the Bible. Everything is immersed in religion and fundamentalism – the Temple Mount, Joseph’s Tomb, the yeshiva at Homesh, the pilgrims, the worshippers, Ramadan, the sacrificial lamb, the Temple. A religious war taken straight out of the biblical stories.
Despite this, make no mistake, religion is only a theatrical prop. The motive driving the settlers and their supporters remains ultra-nationalist, fueled by real estate considerations, including the attendant evil, violence and sadism employed by settlers and the authorities behind them.
The Palestinian aspirations always have been and remain national ones: rights, independence, removal of the occupier. This is what underlies the violent unrest expressed by unbridled young Palestinians. Religion is used by both sides only as an excuse. Despite all the trappings, this is not a war of religion, although it may well become one.
The Israeli right has long branded the war over land and sovereignty in Israel-Palestine as a religious war between Muslims and Jews. It’s much more convenient for ultra-nationalists to present it as such, rather than as a war between colonialists and the dispossessed, which is what it really is. In wars of religion there is no room for compromise. It’s us or them.
And if that’s the case, it’s an eschatological battle of the End Times. Either they throw us into the sea or we expel them to the desert. There is no third way. And if that is the case, not only does anything go, but all means are essential, including the dispossession, the killings, the destruction and oppression.
In a religious war, everything is permitted, since it has no resolution other than a total and violent one. This way, one can portray a nation fighting for what it deserves as a nation trying to impose its religion. The Palestinians as the Islamic State. If so, Israel is waging a war over its very existence, and justice is exclusively on its side. This is of course mendacious propaganda. Most Palestinians don’t want to live in a caliphate, they want freedom and national dignity.
If this is a battle for freedom, another anti-colonial struggle similar to its predecessors, colonialism must respect the national rights of the occupied nation in order to resolve the problem. What does Israel have to do with any of this? How removed settlers are from such a mindset, since that would preclude permitting Israel to do anything it pleases, and Palestinians would deserve the same national rights Jews have, God forbid.
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Both nations have undergone a process of increased religiosity and extremism in recent years. This process has swept up Palestinians, who used to be among the most secular of Arab nations, and Israeli Jews, most of whom saw themselves as secular, even if this was always debatable. Palestinian despair has pushed many young people towards religion. The mosque is in most of their communities the only gathering place, and Al-Aqsa is the only location in the occupied territories in which they can have some sense of sovereignty and independence.
With the Jews, the natural growth of the ultra-Orthodox community and the construction of huge Haredi cities in the territories, as well as a further burgeoning of the settler establishment, have contributed to the sense that the struggle over the territories is a religious one. But the die has not been cast. The struggle was and remains a national one.
The settlers, most of them religious, have used religion for their needs from the outset. The Park Hotel in Hebron was in our forefathers’ territory, which made it theirs. The Cave of the Patriarchs belongs only to them, as does every clod of Palestinian land in the West Bank.
This is not a religious war but a war for dominion under a religious mantle. Their battle for expelling Palestinians from the territories – which is their true aim – is a territorial and national battle. They simply want the whole country for themselves. Just like they made cynical and dishonest use of security as a motive for their settlement, they tell themselves and others biblical stories in order to prove their sovereignty. This is not a religious war.
The Palestinians fighting for Al-Aqsa or Gaza are not doing so in the name of imposing their religion. There are such elements among them, getting stronger in the absence of an alternative savior, but most of them still aspire to what all other secular nations want for themselves – equal national rights or a state of their own.
A refugee in Jenin does not want an Islamic state. He wants a free state. He may yet change his preference. Israel will most likely do all it can to push him in that direction.