By John Roberts
Watching yet another calculated bout of obscene violence in the Levant, one of the questions that ought to recur is: what persuades an ordinary young man (or woman) to dress in the armed garb of a martyr and deliberately blow themselves up, together with an unknown collection of more or less innocent victims? And linked to that: what induces a democratic society to equip an army to ravage its near-defenceless neighbours? The answer to the first may seem to be ‘hatred’, hatred of one group for another group of people; but hatred requires a cause and that cause is almost inevitably a perceived injustice, however giant, that must have some basis in fact. The truth and the details may be obscure – years of conflict and twisted historical argument can make the whole sorry mess a veritable tangle of contradictory truths and half-truths. But getting back to basics can simplify and illuminate, for those who do not have a vested interest in the obscurities.
The parents and grandparents of Arab Palestinians in Israel and the West Bank, who for a thousand years had muslim rulers, usually Arab, were violently dispossessed and their lands legally assigned to Jewish conquerors. Their continuing plight, which has worsened with each generation, has been used by Arab governments in the region for political purposes; but the injustices have preyed on the minds of young muslims in every generation. Now this has provided a ready supply of suicide bombers and their supporters in every country of the Middle East.
On the other side, the Israelis, secure in the legal possession granted by 1948 decree of the United Nations, have felt the injustice of demands to reverse their achievements in building the sole democratic state in the Middle East. Unfortunately, in their justified resentment at the refusal of neighbours to accept what was a legal, if not very just, UN decision, they have become blind both to the sufferings of the dispossessed Arabs and to their own over-reaching of territory and refusal to accept limitations on their own power.
Nearly forty years ago the world federalists in Britain published a pamphlet called Crisis Middle East, occasioned then by a war between Israel and Arabs. It discussed the original quarrel caused by the establishment of the state of Israel and the obscurities occasioned by years of bitter and deadly quarrelling. It continued by offering short-term and long-term proposals for ending the crisis and preventing a recurrence. But after that war in 1967 and the ensuing cease-fire, the United Nations Security Council decreed that Israeli should withdraw from land occupied during the fighting. That has never taken place and Israel still shows no sign of willingness to consider such a withdrawal to its UN-sanctioned borders of 1948. Instead, over the past two decades, military occupation of the territories at issue has turned the conquered Palestinian population into a helot labour force and their West Bank land into a large-scale prison.
In such circumstance, it is fruitless – and misleading – to ignore the reality that Arab terrorism is related to the long-standing grievances of the captive Palestinians. Terrorism is the weapon of the weak or the powerless and suicide bombers are the ultimate proof of that. The danger for the powerful, those rulers of the world with their massive fire-power, is that by ignoring the weak and the downtrodden, they will undermine their own legitimacy and thereafter their own power. For world citizens, turning to a United Nations that lacks the power to enforce its decrees is not adequate. Kofi Annan has deplored “the shredding of Lebanon” but a divided Security Council still refuses to act. The permanent members are willing to spar over the devastation that is occurring. They are unwilling to pool their power and sovereignties in order to make UN capable of acting “to maintain international peace and security”. Institutions that are not ‘fit for purpose’ are unlikely to survive.
The federalist pamphlet offered a series of suggestions not only for solving the immediate crisis, but for preventing its known causes continuing to yet another international crisis. It ended by recommending a federal system for the Middle East and an emergency relief programme to provide both the routes and the incentives for the states of the region to collaborate in rebuilding their whole environment. Right or wrong, the vision from the federalists in 1968 certainly offered a better future than what the “realist” Israelis and their Arab adversaries hammered out.
John Roberts was formerly Chair of the Trustees of the One World Trust. He writes here in a personal capacity. This article was first published as World Citizen Letter 522, and represents the opinions of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. First published 26 July 2006.