As we see it

Last week, NCR gave Michael Sean Winters two lengthy blog posts to respond to the weekly posts we write. It is not our normal practice to respond to the many comments that typically follow what we write. However, since this response came in the form of a critique by another NCR writer, our response is intended not as a rebuttal of Winters' views but as an effort to make clear what our views are on various aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that garnered us a verdict of "extreme bias" by Mr. Winters.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a deeply emotional one, a zero-sum issue for many on both sides. Advocates on either side too easily diverge from the respectful, measured and thoughtful debate that should be the norm on the issues. They profess a desire for peace and adherence to the rights of the others, but they paint their opponents as unready to make peace or untrustworthy "wolves in sheep's clothing." Contempt is cloaked in barely concealed sarcasm, similar to the "Politics 101" Winters deemed we were not capable of understanding, or, worse, imputations of being dupes for evildoers: "The devil has purposes for the good-hearted, too."

We refuse to engage in that kind of debate. We respect the right of others to disagree with our opinions and analysis but will always believe that the only way to present such viewpoints is in a thoughtful and measured way without personal invective.

Do we represent the Palestinian side? We try to represent the cause of justice. Beyond all the violence perpetrated by both sides, the very heart of the issue is whether a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be found that gives the Palestinians a state of their own, that is independent and sovereign in every sense of what those two words mean, and that exists alongside Israel in peace.

Do we focus mainly on Israeli-Palestinian issues? Yes, that was the commission we received from NCR's editors. Beginning with last summer's war in Gaza, they requested a blog on Israeli-Palestinian issues. At the end of the summer, they renewed their request with the understanding that we would offer an independent perspective not represented in the mainstream press.

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We have not, however, narrowly restricted ourselves to commentary on this single issue. As events transpired or the contest of ideas unfolded, we have also posted on the dire situation of Christians in the Middle East, the need for a synod on the Middle East, humanitarian intervention, the dangers of the Islamic State group, and the recent jihadist killings at Charlie Hebdo in Paris.

Now, to set straight our position on the particulars of the Israeli-Palestinian question, here are our views on some major issues:

On a Palestinian state

A Palestinian state must be formed on the territories deemed by international law (the United Nations, the European Union and, yes, the United States, too) as in belligerent occupation by Israel; namely, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. The exact borders of the state can be established by negotiations between the two parties, not through unilateral Israeli settlement building.

Two sets of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, one official (the Taba Talks of 2001 sponsored by the Clinton administration) and one unofficial (the grass-roots Geneva Initiative), both sketch out a solution incorporating the major Israeli settlements abutting the 1967 lines in exchange for Israeli land, with Jerusalem as the capital of both states, yet also an "open city" allowing for access for all faiths to pray at their holy sites and a negotiated settlement to the Palestinian refugee issue that is a combination of return, compensation and acknowledgment of responsibility.

On parity

Israel has the fourth most powerful military in the world, supplied by the U.S. with the most sophisticated and advanced military hardware, with hundreds of nuclear warheads. No Arab country or combination of countries, let alone the Palestinians, could stand up to Israel militarily.

The Palestinians have no army, air force, navy, tanks or heavy artillery. Their heaviest weapons are homemade rockets owned by Hamas that are made in underground workshops, and while they are deadly if they directly hit a target, they are pinpricks to Israel in military terms. So yes, the conflict is one between an Israeli Goliath and a Palestinian David, militarily speaking.

The lack of parity is replicated in other ways. With respect to security, Israel controls most of the West Bank and all of Jerusalem, and its forces act with impunity even in areas technically under Palestinian control. They control access, including ports of entry to the Territories, with the most punishing effects falling on Gaza. In addition, they control and exploit Palestinian water supplies, and they control Palestinian import tax revenues.

On settlements

International law prohibits the occupying power -- in this case, Israel -- from making any changes to the territory it occupies, including the building of settlements and allowing the transfer of its civilian population to those territories. Therefore, by definition, all Israeli settlements are illegal. It is understood that it will be practically impossible to remove hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers from settlements in the occupied territories, and that is why a solution will likely include a "land swap," allowing the incorporation of the major settlement blocks into Israel.

On extremism

There is no shortage of extremists on both sides. Whether it's Palestinians handing out sweets when Israelis die or Israelis sitting in lawn chairs cheering the death reaped from the Israeli bombing of Gaza last summer, painting either side with the actions of a few is disingenuous and intellectually dishonest. Violence is the most fertile ground for extremism, and extremist voices on both sides will always punch way above their weight class during times of conflict. Unfortunately, violence and conflict will almost always drown out moderate voices.

Any Palestinian or Israeli faction, party or group has the right to criticize and even resist the other, but only through nonviolent means. On the other hand, Hamas' lobbing of rockets indiscriminately against Israeli civilian targets are war crimes. Israeli indiscriminate bombing of Gaza, demolishing of whole apartment buildings, and targeting of power plants that fuel hospitals are also war crimes. Deadly attacks against Palestinian civilians by Israeli settlers or extremists are, likewise, terrorism.

On Gaza

Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2006, and this is often used to illustrate that despite this withdrawal, Palestinians continued to resort to violence. What is rarely mentioned is that in reality, the Israeli occupation of Gaza did not end because Israel continues to exercise control over Gaza's borders (except the southern border, which is controlled just as tightly by Egypt), airspace and waters as well as the import and export of products to and from the territory. Israel's punitive policies prevent the civilian and commercial reconstruction and development of Gaza. There has yet to be an example of a full and complete Israeli withdrawal from occupied Palestinian territory, simply because it has yet to happen.

On holding Israel to higher standards

Israel certainly has many qualities to be admired. It has a flourishing free press, a creative and industrious population, and a system of democracy not found elsewhere in the neighborhood. The problem is that this democracy only applies to Israeli citizens and not as much to Israeli citizens of Palestinian origin. Repeated studies demonstrate patterns of extensive discrimination against its Arab citizens.

It is correct and fair to judge Israel by a higher and more critical standard because Israel is a full-fledged sovereign and independent state that identifies itself loudly as the only democracy in the Middle East. A sovereign and viable Palestinian state ought to be held to the same standards. Nothing we have written hasn't been also written about by Israelis in Israeli newspapers and often much more critically.

On a shared future

Israelis and Palestinians make their homes on the same land. Neither group is leaving, and they may not be forced to. It is in the shared interest of both peoples that the land be fairly shared and that cooperation replaces conflict. Reaching that stage of cooperation will mean Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories. Once that has happened and a Palestinian state is established, it can be judged, rewarded or sanctioned by its actions as a sovereign, independent state. It will be in the interests of both Palestinians and Israelis to work together toward a common prosperity, as the lack of prosperity or security of one will certainly reflect negatively on the other.

[Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen is former editor of America magazine and a professor of ethics at Georgetown University. Ra'fat Aldajani is a Palestinian-American writer and commentator.]


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