Sunday, October 5, 2008

Why The Green Line?

If there’s going to be a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict—apart from ethnic cleansing advocated by both Hassan Nasrallah (Hizbollah), and Pat Robertson et al (Christian Hizbollah, I suppose)—it is going to be a One State solution or a Two State solution. The former may have been the better choice, but the latter is the only one with political currency today.

So, let’s imagine for a minute that there actually is a possible ‘two state solution’ to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Where should the border between the two states be if this situation is going to be viable? I would like to make the case—obvious to some, but opposed by many and more every day—that this border ought to be on what is called the Green Line.

The Green Line refers to the border that existed between the new Israeli state and its Arab neighbors before the start of the 1967 war. A number of border lines have been drawn, so why should the Green Line have any particular value? We can all flip the first pages of our family Bible if we have one and see maps of antique kingdoms. A friend of mine gave me a book covering centuries of invasion, occupation, dispossession, and conquest in the Middle East in order for me to catch up on who should be mad at who for what, with a different map for almost each page of the book. In more recent history, there has been the Sykes-Picot agreement line, the 1948 UN partition plan line, the 1967 Green Line supported by UN resolutions, and now the line drawn on the ground by the wall—the “security fence” being erected by Israel around islands of Palestinian population. Why should the Green Line be more acceptable than this latter line, any previous one or another one to follow? On which basis should we support one or another potential border line?

I would like to examine some of the rationales used to support various positions, from slogans, history, to religion and perhaps human decency.

You might think that slogans would play no role in such a weighty debate, but you would be wrong. Slogans are often all that is needed to build a large consensus and stay the course on a suicidal and/or destructive position.

Maybe I need to define what I call a slogan. A slogan is a short, preferably catchy phrase, which sounds like an actual principled and self-evident position, but is in fact nothing except a jingle to rally weak or prejudiced minds behind an indefensible position.

Let us examine some of the slogans which tend to shape the Israeli-Palestinian debate. I will start with an easy anti-Zionist one.

Zionism is just another version of Western colonialism. The Jews have not had a
state in Palestine for millennia, so what entitles them to take over the land?
If the Europeans felt bad about what they did to them, they should have settled
them in Central Europe.

Given my Palestinian sympathies, this is a tempting one, but it actually denies the particulars of Zionism among other European-born colonial ambitions, and it ignores that Jews have been repeating “next year in Jerusalem” for 2,000 years, not “next year in Kampala.” If absence of a state for such a long period were enough to take away all claim on the land, then all the most radical settlers would have to do to be “legitimate” would be to keep the Palestinians they have evicted at bay for another century or millennium. By then Palestinians would have lost all legitimate claim on their land. Ridiculous either way.

On the other hand, there are even more slogans used to deny the Palestinians their basic human rights, usually through some variation on the following:

Palestinians are not entitled to a state because they are terrorists. All they
want is to destroy Israel and they will never be happy. Just look at how Arafat
turned down Ehud Barak’s generous offer in 2000. They are not a partner for

The world of people who care about this place seems divided between those who see nothing wrong with this statement, and those who can’t even begin counting how many things are wrong with it—namely lies, distortions and hypocrisy. For a rapid review of what actually is wrong with this statement, it is useful to remember that Palestinians are millions of individuals all with their own persona, beliefs and actions; the vast majority of them are actually not terrorists; that many other groups of people produce terrorists in certain circumstances (including the pre-1948 Zionists and many more), that the Irish—for example—have not lost their rights to Ireland simply because the IRA was born in their midst, and finally that there was nothing “generous” or even acceptable about the 2000 Camp David proposal of Barak and Clinton.

Let us stop here, if we can agree that slogans are not going to give us the proper answer to a complex question. Can history be a better guide? After all, history is about facts and what really happened. Nothing could be further from empty slogans than recourse to history.

A proper historical perspective will help us come to some sense, but there is a caveat. While we all sing the praises of “objectivity,” we live in a world where it is hard to find. And historical writing—the “production of history” in postmodern terms—is no less subjective than any other endeavor. Whether it be “history is written by the winners” or a case of “silencing the past[1],” a historical text can be highly biased toward a given perspective. This basically means that history, in and of itself, will not solve our question. But an effort to look at historical facts from different angles may still help us come to better terms with challenging human problems.

In the case of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, there are at least two obvious perspectives. Each one has its own narrative, which can fully deny the rights of the other side. People genuinely interested in a long term solution (or rather interested in a moral and humane long term solution) have put some effort into addressing the differences between the “two narratives.[2]

The Jewish narrative has been the dominant one in the US and the Western World, ever since the end of WWII and the Holocaust. It is the history of 2,000 years of life in Diaspora, with regular episodes of persecution, widespread anti-Semitism particularly in Europe, marginalization from the official networks of power, all the way to the end of 19th Century pogroms and finally the Holocaust itself. During that time, the religious heart of Judaism has remained attached to the “Promised Land” and its ideal of a homeland where Jews are not second-rate citizens but masters of their own destiny. “Next year in Jerusalem” was a ritual phrase, until it became a rallying point of Zionism. The Russian pogroms and then the Nazi holocaust turned Zionism into a life-or-death movement, which carried the new state through a series of generally successful wars—some provoked, and some by choice. While a “land without people” was a clear example of a deceptive slogan, the early Jewish community in Palestine—the Yishuv—found a land ruled by colonial powers, inhabited by people whose national aspirations as “Palestinians” was at best ill-organized (and when it organized itself in 1937 was crushed in blood by the British), although they all recognized themselves as Arabs, Muslims or Christians. The better Jewish organization, greater cohesiveness and determination, (heavily supported by the British during formative years) carried the day in spite of general opposition, threats and conflict from generally disorganized Arab neighboring nations.

What is less known is that from the early Zionists on to the political leaders of today’s Israel, there has been a clear recognition that the success of a Jewish state required the eviction of the major part of the Arab population. “Transfer” has been spoken of, more often whispered about, and also implemented on regular occasions, giving birth to the Palestinian refugee problem.

The transfer—or ethnic cleansing—of Arab populations is clearly required by the settler movement. But for a significant number of Israeli Jews the narrative remains one of trying to live in peace with Israel’s Arab citizens and neighbors, including the Palestinians. It is not unusual for a cognitive dissonance to exist between a people and its political leadership. It is part of the art of politicians to know how to deceive their own people. And people are nowhere more interested in being deceived than when the facts challenge their conscience. Consequently, for a number of Israelis the dominant narrative remains one of rejection of their own rights by the Arabs at large, and one of rejection of peace—manifested through terrorism—by the Palestinians in particular. The voice of the Hamas and other Jihadist groups, and the blood of civilians in discos and public buses after suicide bombings reinforce this view.

The point is not whether you and I agree or disagree with this version of history. You may call, “What about Deir Yassin? What about women dying in childbirth at checkpoints? What about Israel’s role in strengthening the Hamas against the Palestinian Authority?” The point is that the pro-Zionist version of history exists, can be defended, and is shared by people who find in it the motivation and inspiration to vote for their leaders, to organize and to take action.

Where objectivity plays a part is in at least recognizing that there is a different narrative. Unfortunately, for reasons deserving their own examination, this second narrative has generally been ignored or rejected by the Western world.

For the Palestinians, the last centuries have been about occupation and domination by one power after another: the Ottomans, the British and, after the 1967 war, the Israelis. Before a national identity was even clearly formed, dispossession started—surprise—by the dispossession of the poor who were farming and maintaining the land of rich Palestinian owners. As the landowners sold their land to the early Zionists and as a policy of hiring “Jews first” was progressively adopted to strengthen the Yishuv, the farmers found themselves dispossessed of their livelihood. The colonial powers, principally the British, played a very uneven game at being an arbiter of a growing conflict. Much like the US today, the British who spoke loudly of the rights of all people in Palestine, actually made irreconcilable deals with both sides, and in practice strengthened the hand of the Jewish colons at almost every turn. A national Palestinian identity developed under this process of dispossession, which took a turn for the worse through massacres committed by the Yishuv, occasional terrorism, as well as forced evacuation of villages during the 1948 and 1967 wars and from then on, less dramatically but ever more efficiently, through the settler movement.

While neighboring Arab countries shared a cultural and linguistic identity with the Palestinians along with opposition to the Zionists, the bonds of “Arab brotherhood” have not delivered much benefit to the Palestinians. The average Palestinian has few reasons to feel love from his Egyptian, Lebanese, Syrian or Jordanian brothers. In fact, every Arab intervention against Israel has generally left the Palestinians in a worst situation than they were to start with. Only the first Intifada—an internal, non-lethal Palestinian uprising—has at least led to Madrid and Oslo. But since the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Rabin (not by a Palestinian mind you, but by an extremist Israeli Jew), the ascendancy of the hard-liners in Israel, the acceleration of the settlement project and now the construction of Palestinian ghettos behind the Wall erected by Israel, the dreams of Oslo have pretty much been shattered and Palestinians have very limited reasons for hope.

Once again, you may react to this narrative and ask, “What about the suicide bombers? What about Islamic Jihad and its call to push the Israelis back into the sea?” My answer is that these are actual phenomena, but that you cannot progress without first recognizing that most Palestinians are not Jihadists, and that the above summary narrative exists, can be defended historically, and is shared by people who can take collective action.

History will only give us an easy answer if we choose one of the two narratives against the other. This happens every day in speeches and writings, where words are chosen to write a different story. It’s “terrorists” versus “martyrs;” it’s “security fence” versus “annexation wall;” and it’s “making the desert bloom” versus “stealing water resources.”

History will help us however, if we understand that peace requires that a common narrative be created from actually positive facts on the ground, and if we accept that the starting point is two extremely different stories. A viable border somehow will have to reflect the evolution from two narratives into one. This is obviously a challenge.

If the perspectives of men are hard to reconcile, what about turning to God? He should know, He should be fair, and He should be objective. Can religion help us find where the border should be?

The most secular minds will easily complain about the role of religion in human ills, wars, and fundamentalisms of every kind. “Take God out of the equation” they will advocate “and human reason can solve all these problems.” Who knows? They may be right. But getting God out of the equation in Jerusalem is like taking the sand out of the desert. An interesting perspective, but it’s not going to happen.

There is little point in debating whether God said this or God said that. Theology is an internal debate within each religious group. How can I interfere with the Muslim understanding of where God’s commitment and promises lie, who He favors, and what He wants for the Umma, the Muslim community? How can I debate about the “Promised Land” with an Orthodox Jew and what the main commandment of the Torah is? I am a Christian myself, and I have almost given up totally on trying to make sense of the most fundamentalist of my friends within the Christian community. So I hold little hope for mutual understanding with fundamentalists of other brands.
But there are a few questions that might be made for consideration, regardless of one’s religious belonging.

If you believe that sacred texts from God command that the land—all the land—be yours, what do you make of the text which says “You shall not kill,” and “love your neighbor as yourself?” Aren’t you making a choice between which commands you will obey? Aren’t you in essence making yourself God and committing idolatry?

If you believe that God has rejected a people, which proved unfaithful to Him and has given your group a better revelation that will provide order to the world, what do you make of God’s compassion and mercy which you call for every day? And if God has rejected a people wholesale (meaning all the individuals in that group) because of their past behavior, do you not fear that there is enough sin in the history of your people to cause your own rejection?

Finally, there are many—and I am among them—who have a problem with the very concept of a state based on religion. But if you and I were part of a group systematically stigmatized and oppressed for centuries because of that very religion, wouldn’t we want to take over some place we can call ours, and where we do not have to take order and domination from anyone else?

Ultimately, men of violence and hatred will use anything to take from others and to kill. Even religion. But people of faith will allow God to challenge their selfishness and greed, their racism and hatred, and maybe let Him give them the courage to change and become an instrument of peace rather than war. This may not tell you and me where the border lies, but it should guide all people of conscience into taking away from bloodthirsty zealots the right to claim God’s name to sanction their greed. Both the Torah and the New Testament are nowhere more vehement than in their condemnation of religious tyranny and hypocrisy. And I am quite certain the Qur’an doesn’t take hypocrisy lightly either. If you and I believe in peace and justice as foundational values, especially if we call upon a God of love, or a God of mercy, or a God of compassion as the foundation of that peace and justice, we will have to agree that the conflict will precisely not be solved by those who claim to act directly on orders from God.

So, let’s look at the options left to us.

Human decency, and a pragmatic view of international law
It is supposed to be balanced to place back-to-back crimes from one side and crimes from the other. Considering that there are two sides to the story does not, however, imply a moral equivalency between all actions. The reality is far messier. Crimes feed on each other; they do not balance each other. There is not a last act of conquest, violence, oppression or destruction that can “solve the equation” or bring the sum to zero. It has been said many times, “an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.” People of conscience and courage simply one day come to recognize that enough is enough, and that peace needs to start now, while doing the best—not the ideal, which does not exist—to redress past grievances.

The Green Line is neither just, fair, nor determined by divine will, but by conflict, victories, defeats, historical mistakes, and ultimately some pragmatic consensus. That consensus was reflected in international—U.N. sanctioned—resolutions. I for one do not imbue the U.N. with mystical power. It is simply a bureaucratic, messy way for humans to try something else than the rule of force in governing our international affairs. But that consensus was also reflected in the Oslo agreements. Here again, many people have a lot of issues with Oslo. But it reflects a landmark, a place where some compromise position was found by the two parties. It is imperfect, but what human endeavor is not?

If you look at the Palestinian side of things, the Green Line border represents a huge sacrifice over what was once the territory inhabited by their ancestors. The space left for a Palestinian state is merely 22% of what was historical Palestine, and it is much smaller than what was agreed upon by the ruling powers before 1947. There are hundred of Palestinian villages, which have been destroyed over the remaining 78% and from where hundred of thousands of refugees have come. Most Palestinians are at least resigned to this border as the best they can hope for after decades of conflict and many lost battles by Arab forces. Additionally there is—or at least there was after Oslo—a sense that this could be a viable option with some adjustments.

For the majority of Israelis except for the most radical groups, the Green Line represents a viable border. With it, full recognition by neighboring countries has been pledged. It represents a tremendous success for Zionism, establishing a Jewish state over 78% of a land which contained more than 90% Arabs only a century ago. It would also call for a relative yet significant sacrifice given the extent of settlement activities which have taken place particularly since 1967 in the West Bank and Gaza, and which would have to be dismantled.

Once again, the point is not to find some moral equivalency. Some view with justifiable reason the entire settlement enterprise and construction of the wall as an illegal land grab and continuation of the politics of dispossession by Israel (well, I do). Others may have different views. Some may claim that Palestinians need first to stop terrorism before being entitled to a state, while others will say that without a state apparatus there is little chance the Palestinians can actually reverse the tide of young people attracted to a violent resistance. The polemic can go on and on, still opposing one narrative to the other (and letting guns and mortar do the real talking in the meantime). On the other hand, building peace will require building the common narrative that a common border can symbolize and materialize. The Green Line represents a border line based on some modicum of mutual agreement, as well as a reasonable reference to international law. It is not perfect, but it is much better than the law of suicide bombers or that of targeted (and untargeted) assassinations by Israel, settlers who still the land from farmers, checkpoints and collective house-arrest.

No other moral alternatives
Finally, there is no alternative to the Green Line that does not call for more war and death, or an aggravated dispossession and oppression—maybe tomorrow transfer and full-fledged ethnic cleansing.

For the Palestinians to get more than the Green Line at this point would be hard to imagine, and involve a war of re-conquest of huge proportion and intensity. Some might dream of it, but reasonable people would rather avoid this Armageddon-like scenario, if they can conceive it at all.

For the Palestinians to get less than the Green Line is, on the other end, easy to imagine. Just look at the map being drawn by the separation wall, the continued occupation of the Jordan valley, the total absence of any border between a tentative future Palestine and its Arab neighbors, and the scenarios being presented for ensuring the “territorial continuity” between islands or Bantustans of Palestinian territories. It is easy to imagine, but can anyone really expect this to represent a viable solution? Hopelessness universally leads humans to death. Combined with dispossession and hatred, the resulting mix is not something people of reason and peace want to contemplate.

If you watch the Israeli and US media, you will read at regular intervals some discussion of how “indefensible” the Green Line is. The speciousness of the argument is fairly obvious, its point being to always extend the border of Israel. Security is a legitimate concern, but it is a legitimate concern for the two sides.

The fact of the matter is that Israel has now solidly established its upper hand in the conflict. Palestinians have by and large recognized and accepted this. There is no option for a just peace without at least a return to the Green Line. And this means a dismantling of the separation wall in most places where it has been erected. Cynics will say that this return to the Green Line is already doomed. Maybe they are right. But in that case there can only be more war, terrorism, bloodshed and suffering. If the world accepts the new “facts on the ground” and forgets to require the return to the Green Line, it will condone the next cycle of violence, and the next, and the next. Until Armageddon or some reverse variation of a “final solution.”

I for one would hope for a different outcome.

* For historical maps of Palestine / Israel, see
[1] Silencing the past. Michel-Rolph Trouillot.
[2] Healing Israel/Palestine. A path to peace and reconciliation. Rabbi Michael Lerner.Shared Histories. A Palestinian-Israeli Dialogue. Paul Scham; Walid Salem; Benjamin Pogrund; Editors.

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