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A Beginner's Guide to the Israel-Palestine Conflict

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Ever tried to understand what's going on in the Israel-Palestine conflict?

Yeah me too. This weekend I listened to the roar of the shells, and the din of the two sides repeating their angry mantras, and for the first time in 30 odd years I no longer knew what I thought.

This crazy conflict has been a part of my life since 1967, when Jews around the world gathered round their TV sets in fear and then triumph as Israel won the Six Day War. We were, quite literally, dancing in the streets of my home town Leeds that night. I was eight years old at the time, too young to understand, but now I'm 54 and I'm even more confused. So I've decided to write this piece, if only to try and explain the situation to myself.

I shall try not to express opinions. I know from past experience that whatever I write will be criticised by both sides, each utterly convinced that the other is absolutely wrong.

So I shall try and simply (simply? Ha!) stick to the facts...

But here I am, even before I begin, already trapped in the chasm between fact and opinion. There is a small, extremist group of religious fundamentalist Jews who believe the Old Testament is incontrovertible fact, proof that Israel and the occupied territories belongs, by right, to the Jews. And the only solution is for Palestinians to give up all claims of ownership.

Usually such extreme opinions tend to stay at the margin. Israel, however, is a liberal democracy, and has for years been ruled by coalition government. In recent years these ultra-religious groups have become the chief power-brokers. So they, effectively, control Israeli foreign policy.

Liberal democracy, by the way, is what a lot of the Middle East is currently fighting for. The uprisings of Libya and Egypt, and the bloody battles in Syria, evolved as people became fed up with government by dictatorship. The people of the Arab world don't only want Israel's land, they want its due process of government, and its legal system that puts corrupt politicians in jail. Seeing such Israeli court cases on Al Jazeera TV three years ago was partly what inspired the people of Tunisia and Egypt to demand the same for their own countries.

But I digress. Right, where was I, oh yes, the facts. The state of Israel was created in 1948. That is a fact - but as soon as we start to talk about how it was created we are caught again in a giant Vicki Pollard of an argument: the land which had previously been under British rule was handed to the Zionist Jews to create Israel.
"Yeah but then they killed thousands of Arabs and chased them off other parts of the land to secure it."
"Yeah but without doing that they would not have felt secure."
"No but in so doing they sowed the seeds of hatred that were to blight future generations."
"Yeah but Israel was a tiny Jewish state surrounded by hostile Arabs and they had to prove they were no pushover."
"Yeah but they only survived with massive financial aid from America."
"Yeah but if it hadn't been for the Holocaust a few years earlier Jews might not have felt so desperate to have a homeland."

So, digression number two: the Holocaust. This is what helps to keep the Israel-Palestine issue so insoluble. I know, we Jews do bang on about it, don't we? A lot of Muslims in the Middle East say we play on Western guilt at the Holocaust to stop them taking action in Israel. After all, in the space of a decade Jews went from being at the heart of cultural life in Europe, living peacefully in countries like Poland, France and Germany, to being murdered, six million in all, by the Nazis.

It doesn't take much imagination to see the parallels with today, where just like the 1930s a vibrant but chaotic Europe is straining under the weight of world economic collapse. However sympathetic I am to the Palestinian cause, when I hear members of Hamas say "Jews are the enemy of Allah and should be killed," well, I get a bit jumpy.

Which brings us to digression number three. For many years the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) pledge "to drive Jews into the sea" was enough to keep world public opinion more or less on Israel's side. In the early 1990s Yasser Arafat publicly declared that the PLO were ready to live side by side with Israel. This should have been, and nearly was, the breakthrough required to bring peace. The Oslo accord, brokered by Bill Clinton, was signed in 1993. This was when Palestine was first recognised.

What happened next was a wave of suicide bombings in Israel. Meanwhile the Israeli prime minister and architect of the peace accord, Yitzhak Rabin, was assassinated. This hardened Israeli opinion, and in 1995 the right-wing Binyamin Netanyahu began his first period of rule as prime minister.

Things were difficult, but not yet impossible. Bill Clinton was determined to see the peace process through, but the Monica Lewinsky affair dragged him away from dealing with it. The 2000 Camp David Summit came tantalisingly close to securing agreememnt between Israel and Palestine, but collapsed with both sides blaming the other for refusing to budge the extra distance required to make a deal.

A few weeks later, in September 2000, the then Israel defence minister Ariel Sharon entered the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem on foot, in an act designed to create maximum anger across the Arab world. And boy did he succeed. Notice how right-wing Israelis always choose to make their boldest moves around the times that Democrat American presidential candidates are at their most vulnerable.

Sharon's act is generally seen as the starting point for the current situation. Incredibly, Sharon was possibly the only politician strong enough to enforce an Israeli agreement to a new truce, and he had just launched a new centre-right party to achieve this when in early 2006 he lapsed into a coma. He remains alive but in a permanently vegetative state, a grimly prescient symbol of what would then happen to the peace process.

So that's enough facts for now, even though I've missed out huge chunks of the story.

There are dozens of complications that I haven't even mentioned - the building of Israeli settlements on occupied territory, the war in Lebanon, the treatment of Arab citizens of Israel, the hundreds of co-operative activities between Jews and Palestinians in Israel, the giant wall between Israel and Gaza, the "nuke Iran" option...

...I've stopped because I can only take so much historical context. Both sides have enough facts to support their case twenty times over. I sometimes think that facts are what helps to keep the animosity so alive. This week alone both sides have been hit by enough deadly facts to keep them hating each other for years.

The only other thing I will mention now is the decades of "talks", in which both sides appeared to get together merely to harden each other's prejudices.

What this conflict lacks is a politician on either side (or both) who can see that violence serves only to perpetuate more violence. The massive wall across the length of Israel's border did stop the suicide bombings, but unless the Israelis can build it 30,000 feet high it's not going to stop the shells landing in Ashkelon. (If there are any Israeli Ministers reading this by the way, that's a joke, please don't try it.)

Someone needs to take the imaginative leap that FW De Klerk took in South Africa, and John Major made in Ireland. Knowing that like Yitzhak Rabin, they could die as a result, is probably what stops such a leader appearing.

But it's time for a senior politician to pick up on the lead offered by all those groups in Israel and Palestine who are working together. Rather than dwell on the past, these ordinary Jews and Muslims plan for the future, and act as though peace has already been achieved.

We know from the experience of Ireland and South Africa that the path to peace is dangerous. There are powerful well-armed groups on both sides who are happy for the conflict to continue at this level, and talk of peace scares them.

But since the last Israel-Gaza battles nearly four years ago, thousands of young people in Egypt and Tunisia have risked their lives to overthrow dictatorships, and they offer cause for hope. What if they were to look at Israel not as an enemy, but as a country that can help their transition to democracy?

Even as I type that sentence I can hear the bottom half of the internet go into overdrive. Of all the stupid naïve half-baked suggestions that has to be the craziest ever. To which I say: yeah, I know. Would you like to come up with a better idea?