Mark Twain once described Palestine as desolate and unlovely. But whatever it lacks in physical resources it more than makes up for in opportunity for Jewish and Palestinian myth-making and mutual demonisation.
Early Zionism set the pace with its claim of a land without a people (Palestine) for a people (European Jews) without a land. Mathematics, clearly, was not one of that Zionism’s strong points. In the first decades of the twentieth century, Palestine’s population totalled some three quarters of a million people. Nearly 90 per cent of them were Muslim or Christian Palestinians. If there was a ‘land without a people’ it was certainly not Palestine.
Fast forward to 1948. The Zionist dream marches towards fulfilment through Israel’s declaration of independence. Attacked by its Arab neighbours, the fledgling Jewish state emerges victorious, its demographic problems dramatically eased by the departure of some 700,000 Palestinians. But did they ‘run away’ or were they expelled? The reality was both. But myths speak only in absolutes. So for the Israelis this departure is a ‘convenient relocation’. For the Palestinians it is ‘ethnic cleansing’.
Nineteen years later God adds to Israel’s bank of myths. Some see the country’s stunning win over the surrounding Arab states in the 1967 Six Day War as divinely inspired. A sign of God’s blessing of the dream of ‘Greater Israel’ and, by extension, Israeli colonisation of the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. But Israeli settlements kill off hopes of Palestinian statehood and, in turn, Palestinians kill Israelis.
A new chapter in myth making and demonisation opens. This focuses attention squarely on the issue of terrorism. Too many Palestinians, encouraged by some of their leaders, have dressed up the most outrageous attacks on ordinary Israelis – on buses and in cafes and other meeting places – as noble acts of ‘martyrdom’. They are nothing of the sort. They are unforgivable acts of wanton, indiscriminate violence. They target everyday life, with devastating effect.
But in rightly condemning these attacks Israelis, preoccupied with the Biblical past, forget their recent history in Palestine. They forget that terror was employed in pursuit of their own nationalist dreams. They forget, for example, that the militia group associated with Menachem Begin, a future Prime Minister of Israel, planted a land mine in a market place in the port of Haifa in 1938, killing some seventy Palestinians. They forget that another future Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir, was involved in a bomb attack on the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946. Then, around 90 people, including civilians, women and children, perished.
They forget that two years later Begin was also involved in an infamous attack on the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin, near Jerusalem. There, scores of people were killed, again including women and children – and Begin took pride in the ‘legend of terror’ he had helped create among Palestinians.
In their struggle for the land they see as home both Israeli and Palestinian employ the most egregious violence and still claim the moral high ground. Both seek to demonise and discredit the other – as both a people and a cause. It is extraordinary and depressing that two people who share the same God cannot bring themselves to share the same land. Cannot see that the other has a legitimate place on the landscape, cannot see that they are both victims. They paint each as interlopers, whose nationalist goals are somehow inferior to their own. How either can believe that this will bring them a more secure, more contented life beggars belief.
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