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THE WORLD | Middle East

Can You End a War of Survival?

November 12, 2000|Meron Benvenisti | Meron Benvenisti, former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, is author of "Sacred Landscape: The Buried History of the Holy Land Since 1948

TEL AVIV — The violent scenes of the second Palestinian uprising dominate TV screens, concentrating attention on the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza. To many observers, the violence resembles anti-colonial, low-intensity warfare waged by an occupied people fighting for freedom from their powerful occupier. This impression, however, does not sufficiently explain the ferocity of the Israeli-Palestinian encounters, the emotional outbursts and the feeling in both communities that they are engaged in an existential conflict, a war of survival.

The current troubles should not be viewed in isolation. Rather, they reflect a historical burden that both sides carry to this latest encounter in the 100-year conflict between Jews and Arabs over the Holy Land. For example, it is too simple to define the conflict as colonial and the West Bank as "occupied," for that assumes the conflict started in 1967, when the territories were occupied by Israel. As such, the dispute is over returning to the pre-'67 borders, and this, indeed, is its legal, formal definition.

To truly understand the Israeli and Palestinian heritage of hatred, however, one must return to the formative experiences of the early Zionist settlers who toiled to take root in their ancestral land, inhabited by a hostile indigenous community, and the Arab rage that greeted this alien intrusion. This tragic encounter is deeply etched on the consciousness of both communities and defines their perceptions.

The intercommunal conflict erupted in all its ferocity in the 1948 war and resulted in the almost complete destruction of the Palestinian landscape that became Israel. Hundreds of villages, flourishing urban centers and a million acres of orchards and cultivated fields were abandoned by their inhabitants, almost 700,000 people, who became refugees. A new landscape was created by Jewish immigrants, who molded it to conform to their needs and their tastes.

Scores of Muslim saints' graves were taken over and hallowed as Jewish holy sites. For example, the grave of a local sheik not far from Jerusalem became the sacred tomb of Dan, son of Jacob. Remnants of Palestinian civilization--flour mills, water apparatuses and old machinery--were restored and incorporated in parts of abandoned Palestinian orchards to demonstrate "the ancient way of life," but the Palestinian connection was sanitized. All Arab names of topographical features were replaced with Hebrew names, many of biblical origin but most invented by a government naming committee.

Only one in 20 Jewish Israelis living in Israel today has personal experience of the 1948 war and its aftermath. No wonder that Israelis have cast a thick veil of denial and forgetfulness over the events that led to the creation of the Hebrew landscape. The War of Independence is the narrative of the creation of Israel, and creations must be pure, just and heroic. The destroyed Arab landscape was overlaid with a blossoming and prosperous Israeli landscape, and anyone seeking to delve beneath its foundations would not only arouse slumbering ghosts from their lair but also would undermine the entire structure and bring it tumbling down.

The 1948 war, so heroic and so just in the eyes of the Israelis, is the Palestinian catastrophe (al Nakba). One cannot exaggerate the enormity of the blow Palestinians have sustained: the destruction of their society, banishment from their homes and homeland. Out of the misery of the wretched refugee camps, whose numbers have swelled into the millions, came the rallying cry: The Return. This national Palestinian objective is perceived by Israelis as a call for the destruction of the Jewish state. Even those Palestinians who understood that actual return to their former homes was unfeasible and bowed their heads to the reality of defeat have emphasized the fact that accepting a total withdrawal from the occupied territories constitutes an agreement to settle for less than one-quarter of their homeland.

But Israelis refuse to open the old accounts, insist on retaining parts of the territories and utterly repudiate the Right to Return in any form. Thus, the obliterated Palestinian landscape, covered by the stratum of modern Israel, remains a symbol and a battle standard for both sides. Time has not alleviated the deep-seated emotions of fear, rage and urges for revenge, because these emotions are not simply irrational. The struggle for possession of the physical landscape, as well as for its symbolic assets--holy places, place names and signposts of memory--continues unabated and underlies the present violence.

there be a solution to such fundamental conflict? Definitely not a declared "end" to it. Intercommunal conflicts that involve issues of identity, absolute justice, affinity to the same homeland and antagonistic myths are organic, endemic, primordial. They are insoluble but manageable, not necessarily because the sides can forgo their emotions but because otherwise they will destroy one another, and in such conflicts, there are no victors or vanquished. At present, there are two national communities living in the landscape of the Holy Land. Their only choice is to manage their coexistence in the hope that better times, more conducive to peaceful relations, will arrive.

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