Things were better once, (yes, really.)
Whenever violence flares in Israel, each side has a plausible claim that the other "started it". But "it" is here a relative term in this conflict, which which can only be understood from multiple scales of time, distance and culture. I've organized this post chronologically, since it's the easiest way to try to understand what's going on there, at least for a history major like me.
1. The Origin Story.
The most depressing view of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is the one rooted in theology. Jerusalem is a sacred site in both the Old Testament and the Koran. Jews believe that the Temple Mount is where "the divine presence" resides. Sunni Muslims believe that this very same spot is where Mohammed ascended to heaven. Fundamentalist Christians agree with the Jews on the significance of this spot, with some believing that the site must be a Jewish temple in order for the second coming of Christ to happen.
Being a lapsed Catholic Atheist, none of these views have ever been persuasive to me. And I think the religious dimension of the conflict is over stated. (Yes, really.) Of course people pay lip service to the theological importance of this site. And some small percentage of people are willing to die for that idea. But most of the religious fervor is really the outgrowth of cynical political manipulation. There is a lot of political grief to be avoided by pretending this fight is about God Almighty. But really it's about real estate.
I'm old enough to remember when the Troubles in Northern Ireland were thought to be intractable because of the religious differences between Protestants and Catholics there. But people got over it. I don't expect the Middle East to become as secular as a prosperous Ireland became in the 1990s, but I do take the point that these differences can be overcome, and it doesn't take a miracle to make it so.
2. The Middle Part of the 20th Century.
Modern day Israel was created by the Western Powers in the aftermath of the near extermination of European Jewry during World War 2. One popular view is that the allies felt guilty about not doing more to prevent or mitigate the Holocaust. There is some truth in that. Britain was certainly anxious to get out of the empire business and Israel seemed like a feel-good story in the immediate post-war years. Eventually the Brits and the Americans, as is their wont, drew some lines on a map of what had been called Mandatory Palestine (yes, really) and carved the area into an Arab state and a Jewish state.
The Arab world never embraced this plan and soon enough, a war broke out. Israel eventually won that war. The rest of the Arab world eventually gave up the fight, but refused to recognize Israel as a legitimate state. Over the next few decades, the cause of the Palestinian people became a popular one in the Arab world. By 1967, the Arab powers were planning an invasion of Israel. Israel preemptively attacked those military forces in what became known as the Six Day War for the swiftness with which Israel destroyed the military forces of Egypt, Jordan and Syria. Israel occupied a large swath of land outside its original borders in order to prevent any future invasion attempts.
So, depending on your point of view, this conflict is the fault of:
a. The Brits in 1948 for cavalierly abandoning a region that it had been responsible for without much concern for what came in its wake.
b. The Arab powers for planning an invasion of Egypt.
c. The Israelis for preemptively starting that war and/or occupying more land in its aftermath.
There is some truth in all of these theories. Together they add up to the truth. But most folks only focus one one of them. Which one they prefer to believe correlates very strongly with their ethnic and religious affiliations. Knowing this little bit of history will do little to resolve the current crisis.
3. The Recent Past.
In 1979 Egypt became the first Arab power to formally recognize the right of Israel to exist. In exchange for this, they got back the land they had lost as a consequence of the Six Day War. This did not exactly open the flood gates of Arab countries rushing to recognize Israel. But by the 1990s the international community began to get both sides to talk to one another and Israel eventually agreed to grant autonomy to the portions of their country with majority Arab Muslim populations. The goal was to eventually create a Palestinian state, but the Palestinians walked away from a deal negotiated with a left-wing Israeli government, and facilitated by the Clinton administration that would have given them almost all of the land they wanted. The Palestinian Authority was afraid that if it made the concessions required by the deal, more radical elements, such as Hamas, would supplant their standing, and assume political power. (Spoiler alert: this happened anyway, at least in Gaza, even though Arafat walked away from a very fair offer of a Palestinian state.)
In recent years, Israel has been governed by right-wing coalitions led by the Likud Party. Gaza has been governed by Hamas since 2006. Hamas and Likud both owe their political status to appearing tough on the other side. Likud has been very aggressive about building settlements on land that belonged to Palestinians before 1967 and has imposed harsh restrictions on the people of Gaza. Hamas refuses to recognize the right of Israel to exist and their political appeal is rooted in posturing as the real champions of Palestine, committed to the destruction of Israel.
4. The Current War.
So now we have two peoples governed by parties who owe their political viability to demonizing the other side. Israel has accomplished great things. Among these great things is its survival as a pluralistic democracy surrounded by a host of hostile, undemocratic countries. But its survival has come at a price, not just in blood but to compromises with its own principals. Israel agreed to let the Palestinian people have a kind of pseudo-sovereignty but has retained de facto military control over its territory and economy. Worse still, it has continued to build illegal settlements on land acquired after the 1967 war. Even before this war, the conditions in Gaza were dire and analogies to apartheid South Africa were not without merit.
The Palestinian people in Gaza have reacted to these deprivations by electing governments run by Hamas. Hamas was born in the 1980s as a reaction to the decision by the PLO to seek a negotiated two-state solution with Israel. Hamas' charter calls for the destruction of Israel and the establishment in its place of an Islamic state. It also dabbles in Holocaust denial and all sorts of unsavory behavior that you would expect from a bunch of religious fanatics raised to believe they are at war with Satan.
During the course of the first half of 2014, Hamas fired about 150 rockets into Israel. Most of these rockets missed their targets or were shot down by Israel's Iron Dome defense system. Hamas even erected a statue of one such rocket to celebrate this futile campaign. On June 12th, three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped. Three days later, the Israeli government accused Hamas of committing the crime. They denied it, but in a typical bit of insane political theater, the head of Hamas "blessed the hands that captured" the teenagers, explaining that such actions were a duty of Palestinian people.
So a few weeks later, Israel began to bomb Gaza. A couple hundred Palestinians were killed. Hamas increased its own bombing campaign, but to little effect. Only one Israeli citizen was killed during the opening phase of the current war. Early on in the conflict, Egypt offered to broker a ceasefire between the two sides. Israel agreed and held its fire for six hours. Hamas did not, and continued launching its futile, wasteful, ineffective weapons, which were either shot down by the Iron Dome or landed some place where little damage could be done. Eventually Israel resumed its rocket campaign, and the body count in Gaza continued to grow, while no additional Israelis died.
Eventually Israel launched a ground offensive. This of course has caused hundreds of more Palestinian deaths, and resulted in the death of a few Israeli soldiers. The latest estimates are that about 600 Palestinians have died and that 25 Israelis have died. A majority of the dead Palestinians were civilians. All but one of the dead Israelis was a soldier. (The three kidnapped Israeli teenagers were also killed, in the run up to the war, as well as one Palestinian teenager who was apparently kidnapped by Israelis to avenge their deaths.)
5. What's Next: More of the Same.
The war will stretch on for another week or two, perhaps a bit longer. Eventually Hamas will run out of rockets to fire. Once the Netanyahu government is convinced that Hamas has been temporarily deprived of its ability to launch significant numbers of rockets into Israel, it will stop shooting. Then, both sides will declare victory. And both sides will be right. Hamas will look "tough" for having refused the ceasefire and for having waged its foolish "resistance" against a far superior military power. Likud will look "tough" for having inflicted a lot of casualties and for temporarily removing an immediate security threat by destroying Hamas' tunnels and depleting its armory.
For awhile, both sides will go back to "normal". Israel will keep building illegal settlements. Hamas will continue to posture as the one true force of opposition to Zionism. And in six months, or a year, some other crime or atrocity or diplomatic slight will give one side an excuse to rsume trying to kill the other.
6. What is to be done?
Israel is not a project of lines hastily drawn by a dying empire on its way out the door. It is a country. A rich and powerful one, whose citizens lead a very comfortable lifestyle and whose artists and musicians and scientists are the envy of the world. It is here to stay. Eventually I hope it elects a government that realizes that the policies of settlement construction and oppressive occupation are not helpful to its long term interests.
Palestine is still a wish. It has many friends and world opinion is increasingly sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinian people. Perhaps this fight will eventually be remembered as the time that Israel went too far and changed the diplomatic sympathies of its fellow wealthy democracies. But an even better outcome would be if it became the fight that finally made the people of Gaza realize that Hamas does not have their best interest at heart. Hamas can not win a military campaign against Israel. And the Palestinian people can't expect the world's sympathy for very long if they continue to elect leaders that would rather bite the ankles of the enemy than build something positive for its people.
There is no reason that the land of Israel can't be divided into two sovereign nations. But the current conflict benefits those who are in power there. It makes it easy for them to stay in power. They don't have to solve the problem for as long as the enemy behaves so inhumanely.
I am not optimistic about this situation being resolved. Such a resolution will require a degree of foresight and political patience that is not commonly found and is unlikely to be bred by the current cycle of violence. Eventually someone will have to be the good guy and walk away from a useless, never ending fight in favor of an uncertain future. For Israel this would mean electing a government that recognizes that the construction of settlements on Arab land is counterproductive to long term security and that renounces the harsh restrictions it imposes on the economy and movement of Palestinian people. For Gaza it would mean electing a government that accepts the permanent existence of Israel and the futility of the military resistance that now serves as a poor, unsatisfying substitute for a realistic vision of its future. In the mean time, Israel will continue to compromise its democratic principles for a false sense of security. And the people of Hamas will accept a persistent, futile struggle rather than accept the reality of their situation.
The leftist tendency to root for the under dog and to empathize with the oppressed may make Hamas' "resistance" to Israel seem noble. I'll admit that it's hard to accept defeat, particularly when you are so certain that justice is on your side. The price of this stubborn resistance to reality is being paid by hundreds of unarmed civilians. They deserve better than that. They deserve a nation of their own. Spitting into the wind will not get them there.