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The funeral of May Naim, 24, who was killed by Palestinians militants at the Supernova festival, near the Israeli border with Gaza, in Gan Haim, Israel. Picture: AMIR LEVY/GETTY IMAGES
The funeral of May Naim, 24, who was killed by Palestinians militants at the Supernova festival, near the Israeli border with Gaza, in Gan Haim, Israel. Picture: AMIR LEVY/GETTY IMAGES

In 1974, the American theorist and public intellectual Michael Walzer prepared an early draft for the preface of what would become his seminal contribution to the study of war. The book, Just and Unjust War: A Moral Argument with Historical Allusions would become a touchstone of thinking about military ethics, notably in Europe and North America.

Walzer sets out a series of criteria that should be met for a war to be considered “just”. Stemming from this, habitual thinking about war stumbled around beliefs that reasons for entering war have to be just; that the conduct of war has to be just — there has to be proportionality, among other things — and that a postwar settlement has to be just. With reference to the conflict in Western Asia, ostensibly between Israelis and Palestinians, two points are entered here for consideration and exploration.

First it should be said that there is little evidence to believe the conflict will end within our lifetime. It is war against history and against the future; it is about whose history is more important, and who may look forward to a future. The theatre of war may be in Western Asia, but the US was the first to rush to Israel’s defence, on top of being that country’s biggest financial, military, intelligence and intellectual supporter.

The first of the two points is a thought that has stayed with me since I first read Walzer’s book more than three decades ago. When he wrote the draft, Walzer was a guest at Mishkenot Sha’ananim (Place of Tranquillity), a name inspired by a Biblical passage: “My people will abide in peaceful habitation, in secure dwellings and in peaceful resting places (Isaiah 32:18).” Mishkenot Sha’ananim is also one of the early examples of European settlement on Palestinian land. Mishkenot Sha’ananim was funded in about 1860 by Moses Montefiore (1784-1885) and Judah Touro (1775-1854), businessmen from Britain and America, respectively.

When I visited Mishkenot Sha’ananim, also more than three decades ago, I smiled and thought, how wonderful the privilege must have been of writing about war in a place of tranquillity, when all around there was such violence and injustice. I can only speculate that Walzer ignored the abundance of the present at the time of writing. I would later meet descendants of one of the families who lived near Mishkenot Sha’ananim, and fled from Palestine after the creation of Israel. Their descendants would go on to live as exiles and immigrants in London, Ankara and Istanbul.

At Mishkenot Sha’ananim I also recalled the story about American soldiers who could not bear to look at the carnage at Hiroshima and Nagasaki caused by their compatriots, and chose to look away. Rather than garrison the two cities it was easier to ask their allies to do so, and “spare their own soldiers scenes of what they had accomplished”. Today, a little like those American soldiers, and a lot like Walzer, it is probably best to turn one's gaze away from the day-to-day stories, if only because of the waves of misinformation that flood social media.

We live in a time when everyone is versed in conspiratorial spycraft, and go about their daily lives armed with home-made spy decoders, or cypher wheels in search of offence or persecution ... And if there is no offence, it is easy to manipulate the facts until there is. Nonetheless, those of us fortunate enough to think in terms of months and years about ideas, about the life and half-life of facts, and the significance of facts, are privileged. We try, as we might, to avoid being led into a trap.

This is not a sign of bad faith. It is simply the realisation that there is an inevitable conflict of conscience in joining campaigns and signing petitions in support of those oppressed by society, or any one group, while they, the public intellectual, are (precisely) playing the role that society has given them; their role in public life allows them that privilege.

The second point that came up, and which is more relevant here, was about the ends of war (why we go to war), how wars end and how these ends and endings fit into the ebb and flow of history. And I can be forgiven for becoming turbid..

An Endless War

It is exceedingly difficult to imagine that the Palestinian-Israeli war will end in our lifetime. Israelis are bent on “reclaiming” whatever land they wish, by any means necessary, with complete absolution, and backed by the most powerful military-political force on earth. It can be explained that simply.

In 2020, the late American political commentator Michael Brooks summed up the US-Israel relationship rather well. The Palestine-Israel conflict was “not a complex issue... it’s super simple. There is one group that has enormous power, it’s the most powerful country in the Middle East, and is backed by the US. It acts on another population with total impunity and is never held accountable for anything. So there’s no symmetry in the relationship. Period.” We will return to Brooks’ comments below.

This takes nothing away from the absolutist position of Hamas, which presents itself as a liberation movement and has turned the resistance to historical Zionist expansion in Western Asia into a holy war. Hamas’ Covenant (1988) is explicit. “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it,” says a statement by the late Egyptian scholar Imam Hassan al-Banna (1906-1949).

Similarly, in an annual speech in support of Palestinians, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in May 2020, “The Zionist regime is a deadly, cancerous growth and a detriment to this region ... It will undoubtedly be uprooted and destroyed.” To this existential threat, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said “whoever threatens Israel with destruction puts himself in similar danger”.

A Palestinian girl amid the rubble of her destroyed home in Beit Hanoun, Gaza. Picture: FATIMA SHBAIR/GETTY IMAGES
A Palestinian girl amid the rubble of her destroyed home in Beit Hanoun, Gaza. Picture: FATIMA SHBAIR/GETTY IMAGES

On October 12 2023, the Al Azhar University in Egypt called on “Arab and Islamic countries to uphold their religious and historical duties and responsibilities, and provide humanitarian and relief aid quickly” and that “supporting innocent Palestinian civilians through official channels is a religious and legal duty, as well as a moral and humanitarian obligation, and that history will not be kind to those who neglect this duty”.

Turned into a “holy war”, Hamas and many of its followers (not all Palestinians support the group) are prepared to take their struggle to “heaven’s door”. Martyrdom is the sacred duty of religious fundamentalists. For the children of Abraham history ends in heaven. Greater things await them there. Scriptural injunctions insist that the righteous are made to suffer in this world so that their reward will be that much greater in the next. (Leviticus Rabbah 27:1)

Life in the real world, Rabbi Ya’akov, explained, is merely a “vestibule” to OlamHa–Ba, (the World-to-Come) and the worthy suffer only to be rewarded in the world to come — a type of “banqueting hall”. (Pirkei Avot 4:21). The “worthy” Muslims, Jews and Christians live their lives towards heaven. History and the future matter less than the afterlife.

In some ways Israel and the US have removed themselves from a history (and society) that they do not approve of. David Barno, a retired general who was part of the American invading forces that occupied Afghanistan after 2001 wrote in Foreign Policy magazine a few years ago that the US military and leadership live “in a bubble separate from society [and] risked fostering a closed culture of superiority and aloofness”.

As a reminder, the former Soviet Union considered itself a custodian of history. This self-image runs deep in Russian history too. The Russian philosopher Pyotor Chaadav (1795-1856), highly critical of his own country and society, wrote, “We are one of those nations which do not appear to be part of the human race, but exist only in order to teach some great lesson to the world …”

The lesson we learn from Israel has always been that “there is no such thing as a Palestinian”, and there has to be an Israel, which means there will not be a Palestine. The latest (hot) phase of Israel’s total war is effectively bombing away the future of Palestinians. In the Israeli imagination there will, at some point in the future, finally, actually, be a people without a land, a place called home and where they belong, and a people with a land, a place called home and where they belong. To destroy a people it is necessary to destroy their past. To protect your own people, it is necessary to secure their future.

Asymmetry and Collective Punishment

The Israeli government is holding the people of Gaza responsible for the actions and guilt of Hamas. The poet Octavio Paz told of how “the communalisation of guilt” justifies “the communalisation of punishment”. In the case of the enduring conflict in Western Asia, collective punishment, indiscriminate war or disproportionality, are commanded or approved, as it were, in the Hebrew Bible. During biblical times, non-Israelites living in the area believed by the Hebrews to have been promised to them by God were a temptation for them to abandon their faith and justified the slaughter of entire communities (Deuteronomy 20:10-18).

This belief that slaughter is justified marks the beliefs of Abraham’s children across time. Where Khamenei (Iran) and Al Banna (Egypt) wished death and destruction on Israelis, the Christians greatly admired the bravery of Joshua who destroyed virtually everything in the city of Jericho; “men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys ... Joshua defeated the whole land ... he left no one remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded”. (Joshua 6:21 and 10:40)

Here on earth then, the Israelis have given themselves the right to expand their territory and have their god and the US military on their side. The Palestinians have a right to protect their homes, families and territory, and the right to their history. Both sides claim innocence and truth and thereby absolve themselves from guilt. The conflict is marked by an absence of proportionality; Israel is backed by the US and is infinitely more powerful than the Palestinians, backed or represented by Hamas. The asymmetry extends from the material to the ideational. Brooks summed this up with clarity. It’s worth stating the relevant passage on asymmetry more fully.

“As a thought experiment ... if we know that somehow a population of Jewish refugees ended up in West Bank and Gaza, and an Arabic government in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv had an open-air prison in ‘Jewish Gaza’ which they bombed with white phosphorus, they killed civilians indiscriminately ... and they had no provisions for medicine, and they had an embargo that blocked food, electricity wasn’t running, that there was an over 48% unemployment rate, life expectancy and malnutrition statistics were horrifying ... one of the policymakers in this hypothetical Arab ... Palestinian state said, ‘We need to put those Jews on a diet’.

“In the West Bank there was another Jewish area where there was a little bit more autonomy, but there were regular Arabic settlements, they pulled up the Jewish farmers’s foods, they terrorised them with rocks, the security forces broke children’s bones and they couldn’t drive on roads, we’d have no problem with understanding what that was. So there is nothing complex about it. It’s pure asymmetry,” Brooks told an interviewer.

There is no indication that the war between Israel and Palestinians will end when each side claims biblical privilege, when history has to be contested and when the future belongs to only one group. Whichever side prevails will probably always face a threat to its “right to exist” dragging it further into an endless war — ripped from historical context. For Israel, waging war against Palestinians will give them the illusion of being in control. Within hours of first landing in Tel Aviv, seeing a heavily armed man walking beside a woman pushing a pram with a baby, my first thoughts were: if this is all so right, why does it all seem so wrong.

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