Both sides now
‘In 1948, the state of Israel was created out of Palestine as a homeland for the Jewish people. Why did the Jews claim this land as their own, and what claims did the Arabs make over it?’ Thus begins the synopsis on the back of Franklin Watts’ sixth Both Sides of the Story title. Regardless of your position on this highly contested issue, what would you say is the key word in that description? Or, to put it another way, the ‘Arab-Israeli’ conflict is a dispute over what? Land. Israel, Palestine, state, homeland: land. ‘This conflict is essentially over land,’ reads the book’s second sentence. Ah, thank you. Couldn’t have said it better myself.
Now, what is the one thing you would expect to find in a book that aims to present each side’s claim to the same piece of biblically mandated real estate? Yes, a map. The 48 pages of this clear and concise book contain a number of fine colour photos and information boxes, but, bizarrely, maps are as scarce as Jews inside the Dome of the Rock.
It surely can’t be the case that the book’s authors assumed that their intended audience of youngsters would be able to draw on their own mental chart of the area in question; I doubt that a young person who needs a definition of the word ‘discrimination’ could pinpoint the Sea of Galilee. The only explanation I can offer is that the authors consider maps too problematic. Is the land around Tel Aviv ‘Israel’ or ‘Occupied Palestine’? Equally, how does one describe the Golan Heights without betraying a political slant — are they part of Israel or ‘Israeli-occupied’? Can one label the Gaza Strip as ‘Palestine’ when such a country is not a member of the United Nations? And so on, and so on…
The decision to keep the book map-free is radical, but moot; for the authors’ impossible if noble attempt to satisfy both sides of the quarrel falls at the first hurdle. Look at the cover and feel free to judge the book by it: on one side is a rag-tag smattering of Palestinian youths armed with stones and slingshots; on the other side stands a sleek, modern and imposing Israeli soldier dressed in black riot gear and clutching a hefty automatic weapon. Is it biased of me to point out that it is rockets rather than rocks that keeps Mossad awake at night?
Then there is the title. One side is denoted by race, the other by nationality. Unsurprisingly, nowhere in the book do the authors mention either of the facts that dismantle such a framing of the issue: the population of Israel is 20.7% Arab; and Arabic is one of Israel’s two official languages. Thus, The Arab-Israeli Conflict could be interpreted as a book describing the inner struggles of an Israeli citizen of Arab ethnicity (a plausible and important topic given the latent racism such Israelis face from their fellow citizens). Furthermore, the conflict has also featured weapons from Iran and diplomatic interference from Turkey, Guinea and Pakistan, to name but three. In fact, look at the list of countries that refuse to recognise Israel and you’ll get to the heart of the matter. Leaving aside North Korea and Cuba, anachronistic legacies of the Cold War, the countries on the list have one thing in common: they are part of the Dar-al-Islam, the House of Islam.
In his book God is not Great Christopher Hitchens points out that during the Bosnian War of the mid 1990s the western media labelled the aggressors as either ‘Croat’ or ‘Serb’ and the victims as ‘Muslim,’ an inconsistency calculated to hide the fact that it was the Christian faith of the former two that fuelled their desire to wipe out the latter. The authors of The Arab-Israeli Conflict have gone the other way: the forces antagonistic towards Israel are never described as ‘Muslim.’ Moreover, there is no explanation of the, shall we say, troubled relationship between Judaism and Islam: no mention of the fact that the Jews were the first to encounter Muhammad and the first to reject him as a fraud; no mention of the dozens of verses of the Qur’an that express hostility towards or outright loathing of Jews; no mention of the aforementioned list of Islamic states that do not recognise Israel, nor that most of these refer not to ‘Israelis’ but to ‘Zionists.’ As I wrote earlier, and as the authors very tentatively assert, it is the fact that each side claims a divine warrant for the land in question that makes the dispute so intractable. With of all of this in mind, why not choose a title that draws attention to the overwhelming culpability of religion? In the Name of God: The Great Judaeo-Islamic Land War. Wordy, but accurate.
If I appear to be favouring Israel please be assured that it is only to counteract the book’s faint but unmistakeable Palestinian tinge and not from any personal viewpoint. What further evidence do I have of this partiality? First, though the chapter on the Second Intifada does feature the line, ‘this time many Palestinian militants were armed with weapons, obtained by organisations such as Fatah and Hamas,’ there is nothing on the fact that these ‘weapons’ included — and still include — medium and long-range rockets and that since 2001 Islamic militants have fired many thousands of them into densely populated areas of Israel. (Equally, there is little hint of the viscousness of Israel’s reprisals.)
Second, and most startling of all, while there are plenty of words on the land Israel has taken, there is nothing on the land it has relinquished, namely the Gaza Strip. In 2005 the Israeli government ordered the full disengagement of Israelis from Gaza and four settlements of the northern West Bank, a move which involved the forcible removal of the many hundreds of Israelis who refused to leave. That same year the Israeli government also gave the green light to its controversial though effective ‘Security Barrier,’ an event that the authors describe in great detail over two pages.
I could go on, but I’ll end by repeating two important points. The Arab-Israeli Conflict is highly informative, clearly presented and very accessible. Second, although there is, in my opinion, a clear leaning if not towards Palestine then certainly away from Israel, no account of this conflict could be wholly objective. Despite all I’ve written here, I still submit that this book ought to occupy a prominent place in any classroom bookcase.