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History does matter

The Middle East's cycle of violence and retaliation can only be ended through negotiations

By Dennis Gruending

Israel has launched another bloody invasion into Gaza Strip. In response to rocket attacks by the group Hamas, Israel has shelled and bombed targets in tiny coastal region — including homes and hospitals — and has more recently unleashed a ground offensive. The fatality count is about 20 Palestinians killed for every Israeli. Most of the dead Palestinians are civilians, including many children; the Israeli dead are mostly soldiers.

Unfortunately, partisan explanations for these recurring conflicts provide us with too little history. Defenders of Hamas, point correctly to Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. But Hamas, which is both a political and military group, has a bloody record of its own. Meanwhile, Israel’s defenders argue that the country is surrounded by hostile Arab nations and movements and therefore blame everything on them.

In Canada, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird repeat by rote that Israel has a right to defend itself. This, however, ignores Israel’s history of oppressing Palestinians and its killing of adult civilians and children in Gaza.

For unqualified supporters of Israel, history seldom extends back as far as 1917. In the Balfour Declaration, the great powers — seeking support in the First World War — promised the Zionist movement that Jews could have a piece of Palestine as their own, even though there were already people living there. Nor do we often hear that in 1947, when the United Nations issued a declaration partitioning Palestine, the proposed Jewish state was allotted 56 per cent of the total land area at a time when Jewish ownership of land there stood at about six per cent.

Not surprisingly, there was a war, which the Israelis won before taking another 22 percent of Palestinian land. During and after that conflict, an estimated 700,000 Palestinians were driven out of what became the state of Israel in 1948. There was another war in 1967. What was known as the Six-Day-War created more Palestinian refugees and allowed Israel to seize even more territory in the Sinai Peninsula, Syria’s Golan Heights and all land west of the Jordan River. That occupation continues even though the United Nations declared it to be illegal.

History does matter. The late Rev. Frank Epp, a historian of Mennonite heritage, wrote a book in 1970 entitled, Whose Land is Palestine? In it, he wrote that both Jews and Arabs have been wronged. Jews were persecuted, particularly in Europe, for centuries. It was an oppression that culminated in pogroms and the unspeakable Nazi death camps of the 1940s. Still, Europe and America decided to arrange for the partition of Palestine, which created yet another injustice, according to Epp. “This then is the central problem of the Middle East," he wrote. "The attempt to redress a wrong committed against the Jews produced a similar wrong against the Palestinian Arabs."

Jews in Israel desire security while Arabs seek redress for injustices committed against them through Israel’s very creation. It's a cycle of violence and retaliation that can only be ended through negotiations. Sure, the conflict may appear intractable. But remember that others, such as the civil war in Ireland, once appeared the very same way but were settled nevertheless.

Author's photo
Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based author, blogger and a former Member of Parliament. His work will appear on the second and fourth Thursday of the month. His Pulpit and Politics blog can be found at www.dennisgruending.ca.
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