The Last Olive Branch?

By Roy Ribitzky

Editor’s note: This is the second part in a series of three articles to be published consecutively. The first part can be found here.

There is a saying among Palestinian refugees and Arab-Israelis: “The Nazis committed the crime, the Palestinians did the time.” Perhaps Western guilt in failing to prevent the largest genocide of the 20th century played a role in world support for Israel’s establishment, but the Holocaust did more than systematically wipe out entire generations; it solidified the feeling among many Jews that still stands today – we are on our own.

Three years after the European Jewish population was almost exterminated, the Jewish State was established. May 15, 1948 was also the day that neighboring Arab nations declared war and promised to push the Jews into the Mediterranean Sea.

Israel won the War of Independence and Palestinians called it “the Nakba” in response to the thousands of Palestinians who fled or were forced to leave the country. After the war ended with United Nations recognition in 1949, Israel began envisioning what a modern Israel would look like. Among the many agendas, two plans in particular adversely affected Palestinian Nationalism in both the short and long term.

Renaming streets, buildings, towns and cities was an act of conquest designed to substantiate the power of those in charge. “A new Israeli national map was drawn up with the Biblical Hebrew place names replacing Arabic ones,” wrote Adam Lebor in “City of Oranges.”

“[It] was a political act [with] two main purposes: to establish a link between the toponomy of the new Israel and the Hebrew States of the Biblical era, and to erase the very idea of a Palestinian community with its own history and roots in the land,” he wrote.

The first Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, was faced with the not-so-easy task of creating a government. There’s a joke about Jews and politics – where there are two Jews, there are three opinions. Ben-Gurion knew that he would not be able to form a unified government unless he bridged the social divide among religious and secular Jews. The idea was for all members of Israel to have a voice and not be subjugated to only two or three parties. As such, he created a parliament, the Knesset, which has multiple interest groups. Now there are 12 parties. Imagine trying to get anything done with 12 groups of passionate religious, secular, socialist, communist, Arabic, Jewish laborers, liberals, conservative representatives. It would come to make extending an olive branch to the other side acutely difficult.

Of course the rise of Palestinian Nationalism as a separate but parallel movement in this context was a complicated matter, to say the least. Their nationalism, however, was not immediate.

The first movement was a Pan-Islamic one that failed during the First World War and the British Mandate. While European nationalist concepts helped form Jewish nationalism, Palestinians felt abandoned by their fellow Muslims who withdrew from the idea of a unified Muslim nation and betrayed by the British for not helping form their own state next to the Zionists. For the first time, Palestinians – both Muslim and Christian – had a unifying factor to lay the groundwork for a Palestinian state.

The first 25 years of Israel exemplify the story of David versus Goliath better than the story itself. This tiny nation of Jews, no wider than three miles in some areas, defended itself from Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. Then, on June 5, 1967, Israel launched a surprise attack against Egypt, Syria and Jordan in the Six-Day War. Israel took over the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza, the West Bank and the Golan Heights, and managed to push Jordan away from Jerusalem. As a result,  ultra-religious Jewish settlements emerged in Palestinian territories and demonstrated they were willing to go to violent ends in order to exist. Victory had swelled the Israeli government’s ego.

This all changed in 1973.

On Yom Kippur, the holiest day for Jews, the border nations caught Israel off-guard with a surprise attack. Israel managed to hold its defenses in the North and successfully repel Syrian troops. Israel may have survived, but it was viewed as a failure of an ignorant, arrogant and incompetent government and most of the cabinet resigned. When asked about the Palestinian refugees, Prime Minister Golda Meir said, “There is no Palestinian entity.”

A few years later, in 1977, Menachem Begin was elected Prime Minister. He formed the first conservative government in Israel’s history. However, it was under his power that Israel signed its first peace treaty; it was with Egypt. Despite his success with Egypt, Begin could not, however, establish peace with the Palestinians. It was during this time that Yasser Arafat founded the Fatah movement to wage an armed struggle against Israel to “liberate Palestine.”

Various organizations came under the umbrella of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, which took advantage of the weak government in Jordan and established a “state within a state,” ignoring all laws set by King Hussein. A brief civil war ensued in 1971 where the Jordanians kicked out the PLO, forcing Arafat to move into Syria then station headquarters in Lebanon. From there they would plan and implement the armed struggle against Israel and other Arab organizations.

Bombing civilians inside Israel was a common tactic used by Fatah movement followers, and they were also some of the first to hijack airliners.

In 1972, PLO operatives broke into the Israeli Olympic team’s hotel in Munich. All 11 athletes and coaches were murdered.

In the mid-70s, Arafat joined in the Lebanese civil war against Arab-Christian and Syrian-backed Palestinian groups for the power to control Lebanon. At the same time, the PLO launched attacks against military posts and civilians in Israel.

In 1987, the First Intifada began and lasted until 1992. It was the first time the PLO backed suicide bombings of civilians at cafes, restaurants, clubs and neighborhoods. Israel would respond with bombing of suspected terrorist locations – many of which were located in refugee camps.

In 1993, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Arafat agreed to a peace deal in the Oslo Accords. Israel agreed to recognize the right for the PLO to exist and the PLO agreed to recognize the right for Israel to exist. In return, the PLO received the West Bank and Gaza.

Regretfully, the efforts at peace ultimately failed. Bill Clinton tried as president to return Israel and the Palestinian Authority to peace talks but that, too, failed.

When all is said and done, the soil of Israel is spent, built upon layers and layers of hurt.

Roy Ribitzky is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]