Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Israeli/Palestinian Conflict: My View

As I sit at my desk wearing my souvenir t-shirt from the Benjamin Franklin Museum in Philadelphia emboldened with Franklin’s statement “There never was a good war or a bad peace” my thoughts turn to the Middle East where for my whole life (I was born in 1956 the year of the second Arab-Israeli War) there have been wars and rumors of wars. These wars foster a wide array of feelings and opinions. What follows is a personal narrative of my view of the ongoing conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. I write it in hopes that it might help others better understand the conflict and its complexities. 

I grew up in a time when most Americans and most Mormons saw the establishment of the state of Israel as the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. They also saw continued support for Israel as a key component of US foreign policy in a cold war era (and then later in our war against radical Islam). These views were justified and sustained by what we watched on the evening news, read in our daily newspapers and heard from our politicians. 

On a more local, personal level, I remember Sunday School and Seminary lessons about the signs of the times and the return of the Jews, of “sticks” of Joseph and Judah coming together, and of familial Israelite ties between Jews and Mormons. I remember being aware of a pro-Israel LDS book entitled Fantastic Victory about Israel’s victory in the June 67 Six-day war. I also remember reading many interesting books about Jews, Judaism, the Holocaust and Israel including: Exodus, Mila 18, The Chosen, The Promise, The Source, The Winds of War, War and Remembrance etc. These experiences instilled within me a love and interest in Judaism, Jews and Israel. 

Then my world view broadened and began to evolve. I was sent on a LDS mission to Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world. There I came to learn about many similar views and beliefs shared between Mormons and Muslims. I no longer perceived Muslims as solely the antagonists of Israel, but rather as real people who loved God and others. I started studying Arabic (because of my on-going interest in the Middle East and because of the influence of Arabic on Indonesian). I traveled to Israel for three weeks after graduating from USU.  I went to BYU and got a Master’s degree in International Relations and Middle East Studies. I interned in DC with the National Association of Arab Americans. I participated in the BYU Jerusalem Study Abroad in 1982 where I did research for my master’s thesis entitled: “An Attitude Survey of BYU Jerusalem Students towards the Arab-Israeli conflict.” I lived in Nazareth for a year (1988-89, during the height of the intifada) doing research for my dissertation. I studied more Arabic and more about the Middle East while earning my PhD in Geography from the University of Chicago. I have researched and taught at the university level about the Middle East and more specifically the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for 24 years. I taught Old and New Testament classes at the BYU Jerusalem Center for three semesters, 2009-2010.

Through these many years I have come to see the conflict in many shades of grey. The black and white of my childhood--Israel good, Arabs bad--is long gone.  Nothing is simple. A common feeling throughout the years has been one of confusion. Some days I get mad at the stubborn Israelis, other days I get mad at the stubborn Palestinians. Why can’t they compromise? Some days I sympathize with Israel’s demand for security and its need to defend itself, but then on other days my anger swells when bombs fall on children playing on the beach in Gaza, when Palestinian friends are left trapped in the walled ghetto of Bethlehem, when Palestinian land is expropriated and built upon, when justice does not “roll down like waters” (Amos 5:24). Conversely, I support Palestinian demands for something better (independence or equality) and yet cannot support methods of terrorism in the form of missiles and suicide bombers that target non-combatants. I sorrow for both sides where death often comes too soon and where everyday life is never easy and never without extra concern or burden. 

Jews and Arabs in Hebron 1995

Here are some things I have come to realize over the years. 1) There is no right or wrong side in this conflict. Both sides have valid claims to living in the land. Both sides have done bad things. 2) Trying to justify the territorial/nationalistic/religious claims of one group over the other or blaming one side over the other will never work. For every rocket launched, wall constructed, bomb detonated, home demolished, permit denied, or bullet shot, there is another side, another story, another reason, and another time and place where the other side did something equally atrocious.  3) There will never be peace until both sides agree to somehow share the land. Neither group is going to pack up and leave. 4) Israel will never have peace until Palestinians have a state or equality. Peace does not come through strength, or walls, or better missiles and military. It comes through sharing and understanding and working together. If Gazans had any hope at all for something good in their future they would be much less inclined to turn toward terrorism. Having a job, a safe home, and well fed kids is a much greater incentive to live in peace with your neighbor than the dropping of bigger bombs. 5) Radical Islam (Hamas in Gaza and al-Qaeda and others elsewhere) has and will continue to fester and bring more suffering and sorrow to innocent people in Gaza, in Israel and throughout the Middle East and the world (one of al-Qaeda's on-going grievances is the Israeli occupation of Arab lands) as long as Israel and the Palestinians are at odds and the West (ie US) is viewed as being biased in the conflict. 6) There is always hope and there are good people on both sides doing good things. For example attorney Danny Seideman an Israeli Jew born and raised in the United States has established a legal foundation called  Ir-Amin that uses the Israeli legal system to defend the housing rights of Arabs in East Jerusalem He also regularly escorts BYU Jerusalem students on a compelling tour in which he shares his dream of a shared and peaceful Jerusalem. Sahar Qumsiyeh is a Palestinian Mormon from Beit Sahour who tells an uplifting story of how she learned to love her enemy

From a LDS perspective here are some other things I have come to realize: The land was and is a covenant land that was promised to Abraham and his descendants contingent up their following God and keeping His commandants (Genesis 17:1-8, Abraham 2: 6-10). Arabs, via Ishmael and Esau, and Jews via Isaac and Jacob are those descendants. Mormon Church President Howard W. Hunter referred to both of these people as “children of promise” and stressed that “as a church we do not take sides” (All Are Alike Unto God, BYU devotional 1979). Over time Abraham’s posterity slowly turned from the covenant and lost their heavenly right to live in the land. Esau sold his birthright and married out of the covenant. The idolatrous northern ten tribes were “spewed out of the land” by the Assyrians as first warned by Moses (Leviticus 18:24-28, see also 1 Nephi 17:33-35). A century later Israelite inhabitants of the southern kingdom of Judah who persecuted the prophets and turned from God were likewise removed from the land by the Babylonians. Jews were once again exiled from the land in 70 AD by the Romans. 

Which of Abraham’s descendants will re-inherit the land and when that will happen seems to be a complicated, ongoing process. The Arabs of Abraham’s fold (through Esau and Ishmael) have lived in East Mediterranean lands for thousands of years. Additionally, many of the Arab Palestinian Christians are descendants of the first converts to Christ. This means that they were most likely Jewish converts. Some of these early Christians later converted to Islam further mixing the “blood of Israel.” To me this means that the modern day Palestinian Arabs more likely than not have claim to the promises of Abraham through both branches of the Abrahamic family. 

Complicating the matter are the many prophecies of Judah returning to the land (Isaiah 11: 11-12; 2 Nephi 9:2). That return is certainly happening, but must it happen at the expense and even expulsion of other Abrahamic peoples who have remained in the land? More importantly, that return to re-inherit the promised land is conditional. In multiple places in the scriptures we are taught that that return is contingent upon a time when Israel (the people) “shall have one shepherd” and “they all shall also walk in [his] judgments, and observe [his] statutes,” (Ezekiel 37: 21-28). More specifically, the Book of Mormon explains: “When the day cometh that they [the Jews] shall believe in me, that I am Christ, then have I covenanted with their fathers that they shall be restored in the flesh, upon the earth, unto the lands of their inheritance” (2 Nephi 10: 5-8, see also 2 Nephi 6:9-11, 3 Nephi 29-33). That day is not yet here. 

 Central Park Protest, June 2014.

Interestingly, there are some factions within Orthodox Judaism who do not recognize the establishment of a political state for Jews. They believe that such a state much be a religious state in terms of Jewish belief and practice and not just in terms of Jewish ethnicity and nationality. 

So what is to be done with this one land, claimed by two nations (Palestinian and Israeli) and deemed holy by three religions?

One option is for Israel to continue to maintain its control over of all of the land while ignoring the fact that this “lone democracy in the Middle East” is denying democratic rights to millions of people. In doing so it would continue to support an apartheid-like regime in the West Bank where there now exist separate road networks, car license plates, economies, schools and communities. Palestinians would continue to live in misery, frustration and anger while Israelis would continue to live in daily fear of more suicide bombers and missiles. To me, this is not an option. Something has to change. 

Another unacceptable solution is that of the extremists on both sides who seek for an ethnically cleansed land, a single state just for Jews or just for Palestinians. Their methods are atrocious. There are Israelis who have put bombs under the gas peddles of Palestinian mayors and have entered mosques and killed dozens at prayer with a machine gun. Similarly there are Palestinians who have detonated themselves on buses, in wedding halls and in restaurants, and who have run amok with knives and tractors. Simply put, people on both sides, from the time of the British Mandate until now, have resorted to terrorist acts that have killed too many innocent civilians.

Sometimes the methods used to solidify single control of the land are more subtle. The state of Israel, for example has for decades demolished thousands of homes because they were built without permits when permits were long denied and as punishment to families suspected of having a child who has engaged in acts of resistance. The state has also implemented policies that make it very hard for Palestinians to hold on to their land, to build new homes, and to travel freely (Palestinian women have given birth at Israeli controlled checkpoints where young soldiers, for whatever reason, refuse these women passage to a hospital). The underlying hope always seems to be that if life for Palestinians gets to be too hard they will go elsewhere. No one is killed in these acts, but like traditional terrorism, these acts serve to unsettle, upset and terrorize people.

Additionally, Israeli policies make it very difficult to obtain residency permits to live in the many different jurisdictions under Israeli control. I know of a BYU graduate who is a Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem. He works in the West Bank town of Ramallah. Several years ago when he was trying to find a wife he explained how challenging it was. If he ever wanted to marry a Palestinian from the West Bank, she would not be permitted to move into his family home in East Jerusalem. He would have to move to the West Bank. Their children would then not have East Jerusalem residency which would mean it would be difficult to go visit their paternal grandparents. A Palestinian LDS family living in Bethlehem that I know has to deal with these ludicrous permits all the time. The mother has East Jerusalem residency but her husband does not. She teaches at an Arab school in Jerusalem and has the necessary permit to cross through the security wall every day for work. He cannot enter Jerusalem (even to attend church services), except by special, hard-to-obtain one time permits. In order that the couple’s three children have the same rights as their mother, they have had to be born in East Jerusalem, sometimes without the father being able to attend the birth of his child. 

Even with their lives disrupted and terrorized, the majority of Palestinians and Israelis are not going anywhere. They choose to remain entwined in a land where they seldom interact. The very reality of this intertwining of Israelis and Palestinians, both within Israel where Palestinian Arabs who are Israeli citizens make up 20 percent of the population and in the West Bank and East Jerusalem where Israeli built “settlements” exist side-by-side with Palestinian neighborhoods and villages, has led many to come to the conclusion that the only possible solution now is a one state solution. The “facts on the ground” make partition next to impossible. There is no going back. In theory this sounds like a wonderful idea. Establish a secular democratic state in the land of Israel/Palestine in which all peoples of the land—whether they think of themselves as Israeli, Palestinian, Arab, Jew, Muslim, Christian, or Druze—are equal citizens. Unfortunately, there are two main drawbacks to this otherwise great idea. First, Israel would have to cease existing as a “Jewish State.” This means that there would no longer be one country in a world where the Holocaust happened and antisemitism is still a reality that ensures Jews will always have their own place to protect them. The loss of a state in which Jews are the majority and the unchallenged rulers would be a hard thing for Israeli Jews to accept. Second, the intense animosity between the two groups may need a generation or two of peace and cooperation before they are willing to govern together. 

The most practical solution thus seems to be the long espoused two-state solution, first proposed by the British in 1937 when they realized that the conflict was one of “right against right” and then as part of the proposed 1947 UN Partition plan. The UN plan, with its fragmented states, was accepted by the Jews who had no other place to go after WWII. The Palestinian Arabs on the other hand refused the offer (hindsight says they should have accepted it) thinking it wasn’t fair that over half of their land be given to another people (who only made up 1/3 of the population and owned only 7-12 % of the land) to assuage the world’s guilt for not having done more to protect Europe’s Jews and to hasten the fulfillment of biblical prophecies. The plan proposed the creation of a Jewish state on 56% of the land, including the Huleh Valley, Jezreel Valley and coastal plain where many Jews had settled in the previous 50 years and the sparsely populated arid Negev in the south. Included in that state were about 500,000 Arabs (in cities like Jaffa, Haifa and Tiberius) who would then make up 45% of the Jewish state. The Arab state included the Arab populated hills of Galilee, Samaria and Judea as well as Gaza. This state was over 98% Arab. The mixed city of Jerusalem was to become an international zone. 

The Arab rejection of this unfair plan led to the first Arab-Israeli war. That war sent 700,000 Palestinian refugees fleeing into neighboring countries and facilitated an expansion of the Jewish State (including the Arab Galilee) to include 78% of historic Palestine. That state of Israel expanded even further with territories conquered in the Six-day War (when Israel launched a preemptive strike against Egypt and Syria). Of those territories, Israel gave back the Sinai to make peace with Egypt, it annexed the strategic Golan Heights (which Syria still claims) and sacred East Jerusalem, and left the West Bank and Gaza in territorial limbo, under Israeli control but without citizenship or rights. Israel has long feared annexation of these populous territories. If annexed, then “democratic” Israel would have to grant citizenship and the right to vote. The higher birth rate of Palestinians over Israelis means that there are now almost equal numbers of Jews and Arab in Israel/Palestine and that soon Arabs will be the majority. This fear of being out-numbered is what has compelled many Israelis to embrace a two-state solution so that a Jewish majority state might remain. Other Israelis reject a two-state solution wanting to hold on to the West Bank for its historical/religious sites (tomb of the patriarchs in Hebron, Rachel’s tomb in Bethlehem, Shiloh, Shechem, Bethel etc.) so central to Jewish heritage and located in the heart of the promised land, for its vital aquifers, and for its strategic highlands that look down on Israel’s narrow coastal plain. Interestingly, in 1947 Palestinians rejected partition because they were on top in terms of population and land holdings while the beleaguered Jews were willing to accept whatever was offered.  Nowadays, it is the Israelis who have little desire to compromise or share, while the under-dog Palestinians are willing to accept partition. 

The most obvious way to partition the land into two states is to return to the 1948-1967 cease-fire line. Most Palestinians would willingly accept an independent state of Palestine that encompassed East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza (if Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank prove unable to work together then there may need to be a three-state solution consisting of Israel and  two small Palestinian states). To get to that point there are a few points of contention. First, what to do with the wall and the border?  In the name of security the wall gerrymanders deep into the West Bank to include as many Israeli settlements as possible (the original intent of these settlements was to solidify Israeli control over the occupied territories, but in a shift towards a two state solution they have now become impediments to peace). If the wall had been built along the green line of the 67 border then the wall would be a fitting border, but in its current route it serves as an Israeli land grab that also cuts Palestinian cities off from their hinterland and farmers off from their fields. What to do with all of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank? They could be vacated and dismantled as were the settlements in Gaza, Israeli settlers could remain and become Jewish citizens of Palestine or they could be vacated and then offered to returning Palestinians refugees. Some settlements close to the 67 border could be allowed to remain a part of Israel if equal amounts of border lands in other areas are offered in exchange to Palestine.  

The most obvious stumbling block is Jerusalem—that “burdensome stone” of the last days (Zechariah 12:3). Neither side wants to give up this sacred city, particularly the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary (Haram al-Sharif). Options include partitioning the city once again, maintaining the status quo of Israeli control, or making it an international city jointly controlled and enjoyed  by its many religious communities. I like the international option, but it would be a very hard thing for Israel to give up its control of the Temple Mount. One other option (which I wrote about in 1997 in an article in the Journal of Palestine Studies) that I personally like is to make Jerusalem a shared capital of two states--Israel and Palestine. If ever asked to broker a peace, this is what I would work toward. Read more here:  To see how Israelis are gradually encroaching into Palestinian neighborhoods to solidify Israeli control over all of Jerusalem read this blog post:

In summary, the state of Israel is here to stay and Palestinians are here to stay. Israelis and Palestinians have to share the land. There is no other humane way. If the two parties cannot work it out (which does not seem likely), then the rest of the world may need to help. That help may come in the form of economic aid to build infrastructure and institutions in Palestine (something the US is already doing), writing a senator or congressman to encourage fairness, supporting economic pressure in the form of boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel (http://www.bdsmovement), providing negotiation help in working through the hard issues of Jerusalem and right of return (or compensation) for Palestinian refugees, offering economic compensation for Jewish settlers who vacate their West Bank homes, and continued vigilance in routing out  religious and nationalist extremism.

At the very least, we can all seek to be “peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9) and we can “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (Psalm 122:6).

I am not Israeli or Palestinian. I cannot begin to fathom the complexity and conflict of what they feel. What I feel is based on my own experiences and my own study. Here is a series of photos that I have taken over the years that help to explain why I feel the way I do.

North and east of central Jerusalem are the Jewish settlements of Neve Yaacov and Pigat Zeev. They neighbor the Arab village of Hizma. Over the years I have visited this area and have taken photos to show some changes in the landscape.
Here is a 1989 photo of Neve Yaacov  (distance) and Pigat Zeev where my Aunt and Uncle lived while he was director of the BYU Jerusalem Center. Notice all of the construction that is going on.
Down below Pisgat Ze'ev on the outskirts of Hizma I met an Arab family one morning while out jogging. Their son got married and they tired to get permission from the Jerusalem municipal government to add two rooms to their two room house for the newlywed couple to live in. Permission was denied. The family went ahead and built the addition.
 The Israeli government then came in and bulldozed down the addition. Meanwhile up on the hill the construction of homes for Israeli settlers continued.
From the front yard of that Arab home I took this photo looking westward--the East Jerusalem (Arab) neighborhood of Beit Hanina is just over the crest of the hill. The hill was being terraced for more Israeli homes which would further serve to fragment and isolated the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem. 
I returned in 1995 to the same place and in six years the whole hillside was covered in new homes subsidized by the Israeli government.  The home of the Arab family I met which stood in the open space at the center of the photo was demolished. Two other Arab homes remained. This was all being done at a time when Israel and the Palestinians were engaged in intense peace negotiations centered in Oslo. Acts like this made Palestinians wonder how committed Israel really was towards peace.
By 1997 dozens of Israeli villas had popped up
By 2008 the two Arab homes on the outskirts of Hizma are enveloped by Israeli homes.
Additional Israeli housing creeps eastward onto more Arab lands.
Turning and looking toward the east you can see the wall that now separates Hizma from the two Arab homes and from the ever growing Israeli East Jerusalem settlements. If it was my home being demolished or my land being expropriated or my travel being cut off by the wall I don't think I would be very happy.


  1. Excellent. Thank you for this blog. I like the one state/country solution. This is the only goal that can guarantee lasting peace. These two people, living cheek to cheek, even with their own state but separated by a wall means only lasting war. Zionism (A Jewish State) was a bad idea born long before the holocaust. For a future world of peace the goal we must be inclusiveness not separatism. If American ideals stand for anything, they stand for non discrimination and equality. These are not possible under the Jewish State concept which ironically breeds the very antisemitism it claims to protect itself from. The US holds the reins to peace. No more 3 billion a year in military aid until Israel stops illegal settlements. No more support for the requirement that the Palestinians accept the title 'Jewish State'. Then we go from there.

  2. Great post, Uncle Chad. I remember seeing the documentary 5 Broken Cameras years ago and feeling terrible about the situation. Now it is crazy to see how far it continues to escalate. Thanks for all of your research on the subject as we all hope for a better tomorrow.

  3. Nice article, by any chance would you be willing to cross-post this to Writer Beat? Cross-posting is free and can only provide more exposure to you and your work.

    Autumn -

  4. Terrific post. We need more people who can see both sides intelligently, and can see that taking any of the traditional sides will only perpetuate the conflict.

  5. I appreciate your insight and wisdom on this topic with this post and your remarkable 1998 BYU speech. (Lesa and I re-listened to it last Sunday.) I may never truly understand even a portion of the problem but while there's a lot of gray area and complexity, if nothing else Abraham's posterity are consistently and clearly obstinate and the description of Jerusalem as that "burdensome stone" is surely prophetic. Thanks.

  6. I loved this post (and your blog). I recently read it to my dad when I was home for a visit. We both thought it was very insightful. I wish more people could read this and gain a greater understanding of the situation in the Middle East.

  7. This article is fair-minded and all, but the fact remains that the Palestinians have rejected all peace proposals, including Israel giving them a big part of their land in exchange for peace and stability. There is also the fact that the Lord's covenants were made not with various and sundry descendents of Abraham, but specifically with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And if the Palestinians can't get along with the Israelis, they should emigrate elsewhere. That's what conquered people do.