Thursday, March 15, 2007

Israel, Palestine and the pitfalls of rhetoric

In order for international aid to flow once again to the Palestinian people, the four major international players—the E.U., U.N., U.S.A. and Russia—stipulated last year the following conditions:
“All members of the future Palestinian government must be committed to non-violence, recognition of Israel and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations, including the roadmap.”
Having witnessed first hand various acts of violence directed, with Israeli sanction, against unarmed Palestinians (e.g., tear gas, “rubber” bullets, percussion grenades, clubs, house demolition), I have to ask: why are not both sides being held to standards of non-violence? I strongly oppose Palestinian suicide bombers and lament the tragic loss of Israeli lives. I also strongly oppose Israeli acts of collective punishment and the excessive, disproportionate use of force displayed by the Israeli Defense Forces. Argue if you like about which side started it or which side should stop first, but it’s hard to dispute which side is causing more loss of life and property.

My second question concerns the Quartet's demand that the Palestinian government “recognize” Israel. (Even the famous roadmap only required the Palestinian leadership to affirm Israel's "right to exist in peace and security," which amounted to their accepting the political status quo and rejecting violence.) A recent L.A.Times opinion piece by U.C.L.A. professor Saree Makdisi has drawn intense fire (metaphorically speaking) for disputing the fairness of this demand:
[T]he formal diplomatic language of "recognition" is traditionally used by one state with respect to another state. It is literally meaningless for a non-state to "recognize" a state. Moreover, in diplomacy, such recognition is supposed to be mutual. In order to earn its own recognition, Israel would have to simultaneously recognize the state of Palestine.
She continues:
[W]hich Israel, precisely, are the Palestinians being asked to "recognize?" Israel has stubbornly refused to declare its own borders. So, territorially speaking, "Israel" is an open-ended concept. Are the Palestinians to recognize the Israel that ends at the lines proposed by the 1947 U.N. Partition Plan? Or the one that extends to the 1949 Armistice Line (the de facto border that resulted from the 1948 war)? Or does Israel include the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which it has occupied in violation of international law for 40 years — and which maps in its school textbooks show as part of "Israel"?
Provocative stuff. Persuasive to some, no doubt, but perverse to others. I wonder, though, if we can agree that Makdisi articulates nicely how it is that many, even most, Palestinians see things. This is their reality. To demand that Palestinians "recognize" Israel—to demand that they acknowledge her "right to exist"—is to require them to say (again quoting Makdisi)
that it was right for them to have been dispossessed of their homes, their property and their livelihoods so that a Jewish state could be created on their land.
Part of the problem is that acknowledging someone’s "right to exist" (the language of Condoleeza Rice, among others) seems so basic, so reasonable, so innocuous. From this, as John Whitbeck (Christian Science Monitor, Feb.2) explains, it follows that
if the "right to exist" is reasonable, then refusing to accept it must represent perversity, rather than Palestinians' deeply felt need to cling to their self-respect and dignity as full-fledged human beings.
To Palestinians, ordinary non-militant, struggling Palestinians, it is like demanding that they acknowledge that they deserve what has been done to them. I suppose some people think they do indeed deserve what the last 60 years have wrought, but can anyone seriously expect the Palestinians themselves to concur?

I pray for the day when Israelis and Palestinians finally live together in peace, security and dignity. To get there, however, the international community needs to respect the power, and avoid the pitfalls, of ill-chosen rhetoric.


J. B. Hood said...


saw your Isrl-Plstn link. Good work there. You might put up some biblio as well. I usually throw out Gary Burge, Whose Land? Whose Promise? (
for American evangelicals with little experience on this.

Bruce Fisk said...

Thanks. I'm leading a student trip to the M.E. this year and assigned Burge's book as pre-trip reading. I have a small page of links that might be of use to some.

Josh Keaney said...


Great post. Its completely reasonable in my opinion that Israel be held to the same stands as Palestinians rhetorically and in action.

- Josh

Josh Keaney said...


I meant to say, "held to the same *standards" in my previous post. My typo.

- Keaney