Special edition: Israel & Palestine

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Good morning!

Something we watch very closely at International Intrigue HQ is how narratives hijack reality. It's part of our job, really, to help you pull apart global affairs issues and separate facts from stories, so you can make informed judgments about the way the world is.

Ok, ok, let us give you an example... actually, just watch this:

"Benefits everybody… hurts nobody" is going to do some heavy lifting in the coming months, including but not limited to: buying Airpods even though our current headphones work fine; saying yes to double protein at Chipotle; ordering a 4th swimsuit despite being 1000 miles from the ocean; and shutting down the club on a Wednesday.

See what we mean when we talk about narratives hijacking reality?

This week:

  1. 🕊 Israel-Palestine: from ancient times to now

  2. 🕊 Israel-Palestine: from now and into the future

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Special note:

We're giving over this week’s edition to the Israel & Palestine conflict. During Helen’s three years as a diplomat in Tel Aviv, she developed unique insights and a deep understanding of the issues. While we generally avoid very mainstream news, we think that we can tell you something you haven't already heard.

Also, we've had multiple requests to cover it (looking at you Policy Fellow at Perth USAsia!). We are nothing if not customer focused.

It’s a serious understatement to call the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a divisive topic. Sort of like writing about whether the dress is blue or gold but you know, more serious. So we've decided not to link to any outrageous material showing one side doing something awful to the other - you can find plenty of that yourself on the internet. We hope you’ll read this week’s edition in the spirit it’s intended - as a genuine effort to contextualise the conflict to help you arrive at your own conclusions.

We’ll also be including an extra goodie in our audio feed this week - Helen will talk candidly about her experience in Tel Aviv and how she approached writing the following piece. You can subscribe here.


🕊 Israel-Palestine: from ancient times to now

By Helen

When I first arrived in Tel Aviv for my posting, a seasoned diplomat told me that if I didn’t leave the Middle East feeling more confused about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I'd have failed at my job.

I interpreted that to mean, basically, I couldn’t stuff up my job one way or another, Insha’Allah. 🙏🏽

When my posting was up, I can honestly say that I left the region feeling less certain about everything. This was especially the case when it came to determining which country produced the best hummus or falafel.

Between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River

There's one thing the Israelis and Palestinians agree on: these two countries have disputed the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River since the beginning of time. Both sides used to joke that every pebble in this region traced back to a major historical event - starting right from the origin of each people:

  • Palestinians believe they are descended from seafaring folk in the eastern Mediterranean, who then settled across what is now modern-day Israel/Palestine. Those areas include Jaffa, where the biblical Jonah encountered the whale, and Jericho, one of the world’s oldest continuously-settled agricultural sites.

  • Israelis trace their presence in the region back to Moses' fabled parting of the Red Sea, the wise kings David and Solomon, the Babylonian and Roman sackings of the Jewish holy temples, and the subsequent exile of Jewish peoples from modern-day Israel/Palestine.

A cast of thousands have conquered this region over the centuries, including the Roman Byzantine Empire, various Muslim dynasties, the European Crusaders, the Egyptian Mamluks (which supposedly inspired the Unsullied from GoT), and the Turkish Ottoman Empire.

If you’d like more of this colourful history, read ‘Jerusalem’ by Simon Sebag Montefiore.

The British Mandate and Balfour Declaration

Still with us? Good!

The Turkish Ottomans ruled the area from the late 1400s until their reign was ended by the British Empire in WW1. The British ruled over modern-day Israel and Palestine from 1918-1948 under the ‘British Mandate’. Back in Europe, calls to establish a Jewish nation (aka Zionism) had grown thanks to rising anti-Semitism from, you know, soon-to-be Nazis.

In response, the British government declared in 1917 a ‘national home for the Jewish people’ in Palestine, presumably without sparing much thought for the Palestinians already living there. Many Jewish people moved to the ‘Holy Land’, which was prescient, because things soon got a lot worse in Europe.

Uncharacteristic of the Brits to forget about the indigenous population, we hear you say? And saying 'yes' to two peoples with competing claims to the same land? What could go wrong?

Interesting fact: many other locations for a new Jewish nation were considered, including Kenya, eastern Russia, Japan, Madagascar, British Guiana, and even Australia (Tasmania).

Ed: For a beautifully written and painfully honest account of this period of history, read 'My Promised Land' by Ari Shavit.

The Israeli-Arab Wars

In the lead up to the creation of Israel in 1948, skirmishes between the Jewish and Arab populations on this newly shared (and crowded) land had grown more frequent and violent. The Brits decided the best way to govern was to abandon ship altogether. From there, it gets complicated:

  • Just prior to the Brits leaving in 1948, the United Nations voted to divide the land in two in an attempt to meet both Jewish and Palestinian demands. Jerusalem was granted special international status due to its religious significance (kinda like the Vatican, sans Pope).

  • This promptly led to the 1948 Israeli-Arab War, which pitted the fledgling Israel against its five Arab neighbours (who fought for Palestine). Israel won its independence, while Palestinians still call the war 'the Catastrophe' because it displaced over 700,000 people.

  • Both sides continued trading blows, including in two more Israeli-Arab wars in 1967 and 1973, leading to various configurations of Israel winning/losing territory from the Egyptians, Lebanese, Syrians, and Jordanians.

  • At the end of these conflicts, the Israeli military had fought well past the initial UN-drawn partition borders. As a result, Israel occupied the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza.

And there the Israeli military remained to defend Israel's UN-approved right to exist, pending a final peace agreement with the Palestinians, which… is where we still are today.

After Oslo: The Cycles of Violence

Fatah = the political party in charge of the ‘Palestinian Authority’, the governing body of the West Bank (and nominally Gaza). Their leader Mahmoud Abbas won the last Presidential elections in 2005.
Hamas = a political and military organisation (designated by the US as a terrorist organisation) that controls Gaza, despite their disputed loss to Fatah in the last election.

There have been countless false dawns to peace talks over the years, with the Clinton-brokered 1993 Oslo Accords arguably the closest to both sides reaching a deal. It created the Palestinian Authority and a five-year plan to resolve outstanding issues. (Despite what he'd tell you, Jared Kushner didn't get much achieved).

Sadly, the brief optimism between the two sides after Oslo was quickly replaced by the cycles of violence and mutual distrust that now feel routine:

  • Two horrific Palestinian Intifadas (uprisings) resulting in significant civilian casualties

  • Three Israel-Hamas wars in Gaza

  • Persistent and expanding Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands

  • Increasing demonisation and dehumanisation by each side

  • A border wall in the West Bank limiting freedom of movement (now a favoured canvas for Banksy)

And the outlook for comprehensive peace looks grim:

  • Israeli domestic politics is becoming more polarised and extremist over recent years, with conservative-religious agendas drowning out more moderate voices.

  • Palestinians are frustrated by their leaders. Plus, other Arab states in the region are warming towards Israel - pushing the joint cause of Palestinian statehood to the back burner.

Zoom out: all eyes on the Middle East Peace Process

I often asked myself in Tel Aviv: why is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict one of the most controversial, media-saturated conflicts in the world? My best attempt at an answer:

  1. Religion: never underestimate the power of religion. With Jerusalem the epicentre of the three major Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), the conflict is a proxy war for a wider, all-encompassing ideological and religious battle.

  2. The media: covering the Israel/Palestine conflict offers journalists the unique mix of a plum lifestyle in Tel Aviv, and easy access to 'sexy' frontline war reporting. The journalism equivalent of Bear Grylls staying in a hotel while shooting Man vs Wild.

  3. Guilt: because Israel was created by the UN, I think many states around the world feel like they still have a stake in making sure the Israel Palestine solution works.

Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the one topic I've avoided discussing in my post Tel-Aviv life. Not just because it inflames passions, but also because every time I've made up my mind about some aspect of the situation, something new emerges that makes me question what I thought I knew. I think that's how it's supposed to be.


🕊 Israel-Palestine: from now and into the future

By John

April 13 - May 18

Rather than rehashing what is freely available elsewhere, I found some good pieces if you'd like to deep dive into the timeline:

The more things change the more they stay the same

This week, I dug out a Congressional Research Service report from my days as a staffer in US Congress:

The Gaza crisis constitutes a conundrum for all involved. Israel would like to avoid a drawn-out invasion and occupation of Gaza, but at the same time does not want to abandon the military operation prematurely for fear of having to go back into Gaza at a later date.

Although the ground attack might endanger its rule in Gaza, Hamas may welcome it in the hopes of miring Israeli forces in close-quarters combat to strip away their advantages in technology and firepower and in hopes of heightening perceptions that Palestinians are being victimized.

U.S. President-elect Barack Obama will likely be compelled to address the Gaza situation directly at the outset of his administration

- Israel & Hamas: Conflict in Gaza (2008-2009), Congressional Research Service

Let's ignore how old that makes me, and focus on other remarkable things, like how little has changed in 13 years. Swap 'President-elect Obama' for his then Vice President, and the Congressional Research Service could just hit republish and head for the pub 🍺.

Looking ahead - the short term

According to Helen's former boss:

Hamas will keep firing rockets until it feels it has won a propaganda victory, or until it has absorbed so much punishment that its rule on Gaza becomes threatened

- Dave Sharma, Australian MP and former Australian Ambassador to Israel

It is undoubtedly true that Israel will not stop its military action until the rockets stop. But there are some reports that Hamas has been offering a ceasefire, so why might Israel ignore an offer for a ceasefire in the short term?

These episodes follow a familiar pattern: Israel presses home its military advantage until the international outcry over civilian casualties... demands that the operation end. In Israel's estimation, we have not reached that point yet

- Paul Adams, BBC diplomatic correspondent

If we were forced to predict, we expect a ceasefire within a fortnight - international pressure is growing and neither side wants another summer war.

Looking ahead - the long term

What issues need to be solved?

🗺 Borders: where should they be drawn?

🛕 Jerusalem: the city has to be shared, but how?

🤝 Recognition: both sides want recognition from each other, and the world.

👨‍👩‍👧‍👦 Refugees: can over 1 million Palestinian refugees return to their former homes?

🔐 Security: how can Palestine and Israel protect their people?

🕊 Peace: ‘nuff said.

Clearly those questions won't be resolved soon, so perhaps a better question is, how have similar issues been resolved in the past?

  • The Troubles
    The 30 years of conflict in Northern Ireland officially ended in 1998. Though more a cultural and political conflict, at least one prominent historian attributes peace to the diminishing importance of religion to younger generations of Irish and Northern Irish people.

  • East Timor
    After the disintegration of the Portuguese empire in 1974, East Timor was forcibly occupied by Indonesia until it achieved independence in 1999. Peace in this case was only possible because of international involvement, notably the Australian-led International Force for East Timor.

  • India and Pakistan
    The two countries were created by the dissolution of British rule in India. Similar to Israel and Palestine, borders were drawn and populations were separated by religion. While there are continuing tensions, peace was arguably achieved and maintained because both sides developed nuclear weapons and, thus, the credible threat of mutually assured destruction.

Of course, the Israel and Palestine conflict is not the same as any of these conflicts. But these do give a sense of how conflicts with some similar characteristics have been 'resolved' in the past.

The narrative water in which we swim

Let's take a step back.

If you're like me (you poor sod), something doesn't sit right with you about the way the Israel-Palestine conflict is discussed. The issues seem at once impossibly complex (history, religion, security, agh) and exceedingly simple (just, like, don’t?).

If you're like me (my heartfelt sympathies), you don't really understand the issues, you waver between opinions, and you don't know who to believe. It's very often easier to not engage at all.

Don't worry, I'm not here to tell you that you should deeply care about the plight of the Israelis or the Palestinians. You can figure that out on your own. But I am here to tell you it's not your fault.

In 2021, we are all swimming in a vast narrative sea, buffeted on all sides by the currents of opinion. And as if the legacy media wasn't enough, social media has turned everyone with a strong opinion into a 'missionary for their cause'.

Narrative battles in geopolitics are everywhere: US vs China, developed vs developing, freedom vs authoritarianism. The Israel-Palestine conflict is no different:

  • Palestinians want to destroy Israel

  • Israelis wants to destroy Palestine

  • There is no solution so the status quo is the best we can do

In fact, you can find all of those narratives in one short article, in which the writer David Harris, the CEO of the American Jewish Committee, rebuts a recent monologue by Trevor Noah, the host of The Daily Show.

Both the article and the monologue claim to present just 'the facts', but I don’t think either of them actually care about giving you the truth. Because they're not writing or talking to you.

What Harris, Noah, and folks like them care very much about however, is delivering a glib rebuttal, an inside joke, or an earnest plea for the benefit of the people who make up their audience.

I'm certainly not saying they're lying - I bet both Harris and Noah really believe what they’re saying, and each could even be right. But really, what these 'missionaries of narrative' are saying to you is: my story about the 'truth' is better than his story about the 'truth'.

How to live in our narrative world

The truth about what is really going on in this latest conflict is unknowable right now. In time, historians will unravel the facts, motivations, political manoeuvrings, and timings that will help us get closer to the whole truth about this latest conflict.

It's sort of like an episode of Law & Order: we see the horrible crimes up front, but we'll only know who did what if we keep watching.

So, how do you make sense of (and stay sane in) a world where you are told you must pick a side? Are you pro-Israel or are you pro-Palestine? You're not an anti-Semite are you? You do care, don't you?

I think the only answer is: think independently.

I promise you didn’t come this far for some red pill, drunk-uncle-on-Facebook bollocks. I really mean it - when you don't know which side to believe, or if you sympathise with both sides or neither, or when you wonder whether there are even sides, trust your instincts.

The problem isn't you, it's the missionaries of narrative, pushing you to surrender your critical thinking in service of a story that gives your brain a rest and won’t get you into trouble.

As for how to think independently, well if I told you how to do that, I’d be falling into a trap of my own making. Instead:

[Be] fastidiousness about truth, resist being told what to think, and be curious
- Paul Graham

And if you independently conclude that you don’t like this note, then my work here is done 😂.


➕ Extra intrigue


🔎 Intriguing recommendations

💁🏻‍♀️ Helen: If you feel like delving further into the Israeli-Palestinian and regional dynamics, check out some of my personal favourites: Fauda, Waltz with Bashir, Tears of Gaza, The Green Prince, Bethlehem, David and Fatima, and Paradise Now. And for some Israeli-Palestinian food, see Ottelenghi's ‘Jerusalem’. If you're lucky enough to visit Israel/Palestine, you must eat at Uri Buru.

👴  John: It’s been raining cats and dogs all week in London. In honour of our friends then:


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