Sunday Dec 27, 2009

The Warped Mirror: A decade of anti-Israel clichés

Posted by Petra Marquardt-Bigman
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Just in time for Christmas, The Financial Times came out with a seasonally-themed editorial on "The need for peace in the Holy Land." You wouldn't quite know it from this editorial, but the 21st century's first decade began with far-reaching Israeli proposals for peace that were rejected by the Palestinians at Camp David and Taba in 2000/01, and now that the decade is about to end, it turns out that last year, Israel's prime minister proposed a Palestinian state on the equivalent of all the pre-1967 territories of Gaza and the West Bank, with east Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital - but again, the proposal was apparently not good enough.

While these Israeli efforts are not even mentioned, the Financial Times worries about a lack of outside interest and involvement:

It is, at best, disingenuous to pretend that two parties with such massively disproportionate power, resources and diplomatic and financial support could ever reach a deal on their own. The Palestinians are under Israeli occupation and the land on which they hope eventually to build their state is daily being eaten away. Any possibility of dividing the Holy Land into two states - with 78 per cent of historic Palestine for Israelis and 22 per cent (the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem) for the Palestinians - will soon evaporate, if it has not already."

This short paragraph could be a promising entry for any competition that seeks the most concise summary of the past decade's most popular distortions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Let's begin with the statement at the end that talks of "78 per cent of historic Palestine for Israelis and 22 per cent [ …] for the Palestinians." Sounds awfully unfair to the Palestinians, doesn't it? However, for this statement to be correct, "historic Palestine" would have to be defined as the territory that remained after Britain decided in the early 1920s that the area east of the Jordan river - constituting 77 percent of the British Mandate of Palestine - would be considered as "Transjordan," while only the remaining 23 percent west of the Jordan river would be referred to as "Palestine."

In other words, Israel in its pre-1967 borders does not cover "78 per cent of historic Palestine," but 78 percent of modern-day Palestine as defined less than a century ago by Britain. Indeed, if the point of reference is British Mandate Palestine, Israel's pre-1967 territory amounts to less than 20 percent, while more than 80 percent - Gaza, the West Bank and Jordan - was under Arab rule until 1967, and obviously, these areas are still populated predominantly by Palestinians. 

Another mantra-like claim repeated by the editorial is that "the land on which they [the Palestinians] hope eventually to build their state is daily being eaten away." Leaving aside the recent announcement of a construction freeze, the fact of the matter is that in the past decade, no new settlement was established, and the oft-invoked relentless "land grab” since 1967 has resulted in built-up areas that take up less than 2 percent of the West Bank territory captured by Israel in 1967. Moreover, during the "disengagement" in 2005, 25 settlements were abandoned, and Israel's withdrawal from Gaza provided the Palestinians for the first time in their history with the opportunity to start building their state on a sizeable part of territory free of any Israeli presence.

But the perhaps most insidious distortion is right at the beginning of the quoted paragraph, when the editorial complains about a gross imbalance reflected in "massively disproportionate power, resources and diplomatic and financial support." In the context of this editorial - and in the context of the prevalent political discourse about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - there is no doubt which side is deemed to have "massively disproportionate power, resources and diplomatic and financial support."

An unbiased reader could hesitate for a moment and wonder: could it be that the unquestioning support of the whole Muslim world counts for nothing? Could it be that the oil wealth of the Arab world is irrelevant, and that the associated economic, financial and political clout doesn't matter? Could it be that the economic and diplomatic boycott upheld by the Arab and Muslim world for decades is meaningless and that their automatic majority in many international organizations is of no consequence?

Apparently, a tiny country that for good reason requires all homes and public buildings to have bomb shelters, that is the target of often repeated threats by groups and regimes that deny its right to exist, and is fiercely condemned for exercising its right to self-defense even after suffering years of unremitting rocket attacks can still be seen as disproportionately powerful just because it endured and even flourished despite all the hostility directed against it.

Finally, there is a piece of urgent advice that concludes the editorial:

What everyone needs to understand is that if this conflict ceases to be about land - a halfway equitable division of holy land - then it risks becoming a new war of religion. This is not just another squabble."

Isn't it rather curious to talk about a "division of holy land" and warn in the same sentence against viewing the conflict as a "war of religion"? Of course, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or rather, the Israeli-Arab conflict, has never been just about land. While Zionism and its quest for re-establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine was not a religiously motivated movement, the opposition to Zionism always had a religious dimension. It is by no means irrelevant that it was the Jews who first regarded Palestine as the "holy land," and Jerusalem as their holy city. Indeed, the Arab name for Jerusalem, al-Quds, was adapted from the Hebrew term for the Temple Mount, Beit HaMikdash.

Since ancient times, religion played a powerful role in the attempts of invaders and conquerors to deny Jews their historic rights in their homeland. Even in the last century, some of the early violent confrontations were instigated by spreading false rumors of "Zionist" plans to rebuild the Jewish Temple in place of the Muslim shrines that had been built to claim the Temple Mount for Islam.

Religiously inspired denials of Jewish rights remain central not only in the rhetoric of groups like Hamas, but, according to the Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, they were also a major motivation for the rejection of the Israeli peace proposals in Camp David and Taba as well as in the Annapolis talks.

Similarly, the so-called al-Aqsa intifada that claimed the lives of thousands in the first half of the past decade was unleashed by appealing to religious passions, as Tanzim leader Marwan Barghouti once explained:

On the eve of Sharon's visit I participated in a TV panel, on a local TV station. I found this to be the right opportunity to call upon the public to go to al-Aqsa on the following morning because it is not possible for Sharon to arrive at the Temple Mount [...] 'just like that' and walk away peacefully. [...] I saw within the situation a historic opportunity to ignite the conflict. The strongest conflict is the one that initiated from Jerusalem due to the sensitivity of the city, its uniqueness and its special place in the hearts of the masses who are willing to sacrifice themselves [for her] with not even thinking of the cost.

There is perhaps a bitter irony in the fact that some Muslim scholars argue that Islamic scripture actually recognizes the Jewish bond with Israel, because "traditional commentators from the eighth and ninth century onwards have uniformly interpreted the Koran to say explicitly that Eretz Yisrael has been given by God to the Jewish people as a perpetual covenant. There is no Islamic counterclaim to the Land anywhere in the traditional corpus of commentary."

Yet, from anonymous talk-backs to elitist editorials, today's conventional wisdom holds that it is a "disproportionately" powerful Jewish state that risks bringing down Armageddon on the world by trampling on the rights of hapless Arab Muslims who would gladly make peace if they were only offered a "halfway equitable division of holy land." The fact that even a proposal that offered the equivalent of 100 percent of the territory claimed by the Palestinians was spurned is conveniently ignored in order to cling to the popular narrative that blames a favorite scapegoat for the lack of peace in the Holy Land.

 
 
 
 
 
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1  |   muslim, Sunday Dec 27, 2009
we can speak about the middle east till the last day but -and i am really sorry for western people who need so desperately Arab/Muslim oil-but the only truth is that Arabs/Muslims want to massacre Jews and Jews want to live.....all the rest is...anecdote.
2  |   Miriam Mogilevsky, Chicago, Sunday Dec 27, 2009
Great commentary. I, too, am constantly perplexed by this tendency of pro-Palestinian writers to paint Israel as some sort of global superpower whose military might can easily crush these poor, oppressed...freedom fighters. Those who argue that this conflict is simply a matter of land are ignorant of history. The first terrorist attacks on Jews in the area began decades before the State of Israel was established, back when Zionist settlers were reclaiming previously-unusable swampland that local Arabs had no use for anyway.
3  |   David, Israel, Sunday Dec 27, 2009
Excellent analysis. Clear, well written and to the point.
4  |   Dave in Pasadena, USA, Monday Dec 28, 2009
It's always depressing to see the argument focus on percentages of land held by Israelis or Palestinians. As this blog notes, and as is undeniably obvious, the conflict has nothing to do with who holds what percent of the land. If it were that simple, a deal would have been cut years ago. The wars are and always have been about Israel's right to exist. Peace comes when Arabs are okay that Israel lives. It's fine if they despise Israel; they just have to tolerate it. But we're not there yet, and that's why peace hasn't come. Can anyone deny it?
5  |   Jake S USA, Monday Dec 28, 2009
Ronald..so we should not have shown friendliness to Great Britain in WW2 when we gave them "Lend Lease"..and for sure if we did not , the english woudl be speaking German today! I got for you Ronald..Israel is the best ally we can have in the Middle East agaisnt Iran. And heres a irony for you Ronny ole boy..Germany and Japan are on our side today!
6  |   Matt Bianco, Monday Dec 28, 2009
Pretty bogus that FT doesn't have any way to comment on their Editorial. Another example of UK elitism and arrogance.
7  |   John R, Monday Dec 28, 2009
In 1922 when the mandate was established, Jews constituted 11% of the population outside of Jordon. Jordon received the 78% because it was virtually 100% Muslim. The reason the British did not simultaneously establish Israel is because they didn't want a guaranteed civil war. Christians had 9.6% of the population and Muslims the balance(outside of Jordon). Even in 1947 when Israel agreed to the UNGAR 181 partition they only constituted a third of the population in the remaining 22%. Since the bulk of the Muslims lived on the WB , Continued
8  |   John R, Monday Dec 28, 2009
Israel got 55% of the remaining 22%. This is because the Israeli portion (non WB) actually contained 55% Jews. In terms of the settlements, the International Ct of Justice ruled in 2004 that all WB Israeli settlements are illegal. No rational legal authority that understands the intent of the framers of the League of Nations Mandate believes the right of settlement was to continue after Israel accepted 181 and was recognized(now by162 countries) as a sovereign nation state. Even Sharon prior to his coma said Israel is an occupier. Since 1993 Israeli sellers have doubled.
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John R: Israel got 55% of the remaining 22%. This is because the Israeli portion (non WB) actually contained 55% Jews. In terms of the settlements, the International Ct of Justice ruled in 2004 that all WB Israeli settlements are illegal. No rational legal authority that understands the intent of the framers of the League of Nations Mandate believes the right of settlement was to continue after Israel accepted 181 and was recognized(now by162 countries) as a sovereign nation state. Even Sharon prior to his coma said Israel is an occupier. Since 1993 Israeli sellers have doubled.
John R: In 1922 when the mandate was established, Jews constituted 11% of the population outside of Jordon. Jordon received the 78% because it was virtually 100% Muslim. The reason the British did not simultaneously establish Israel is because they didn't want a guaranteed civil war. Christians had 9.6% of the population and Muslims the balance(outside of Jordon). Even in 1947 when Israel agreed to the UNGAR 181 partition they only constituted a third of the population in the remaining 22%. Since the bulk of the Muslims lived on the WB , Continued
Matt Bianco: Pretty bogus that FT doesn't have any way to comment on their Editorial. Another example of UK elitism and arrogance.