To the Teacher:
Efforts to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have repeatedly reached a dead end. As Israeli novelist Amos Oz put it, there are "two peoples and one land" caught up in "a clash between right and right."
Israel's attack on Gaza is a current example. Israelis have a right to be free from indiscriminate rocket and mortar strikes from Gaza. Palestinians in Gaza have a right to be free from Israeli blockades and bombings.
The first student reading below discusses Israel's attack on Gaza. Questions to probe student understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict follow. A second reading discusses the longstanding stalemate, followed by additional readings that review the U.S.-Israel alliance; major issues dividing the two sides and the difficulties in resolving them; a demographic problem facing Israelis; and how President Obama might address the longstanding conflict. Discussion questions, inquiry suggestions and a writing assignment follow.
In the high school section of TeachableMoment are earlier discussions of the conflict: "Israel, the Palestinians, and the United States" (a capsule history and special attention to the refugee issue); "The Current Israeli-Palestinian Conflict" (competing points of view); "A Road Map for Israelis & Palestinians" (the Bush road map, Jerusalem, Israeli settlements); and "Israelis vs. Palestinians: New Leaders, & Old Problems" (basic issues, the barrier, Hamas).
Student Reading 1:
The Israeli attack on Gaza
On December 27 waves of Israeli warplanes bombed security compounds in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, killing more than 200 and wounding more than 400. Associated Press reported: "The strikes caused widespread panic and confusion in Gaza, as black clouds of smoke rose above the territory, ruled by Hamas for the past 18 months. Some of the Israeli missiles struck in densely populated areas as children were leaving school and women rushed into the streets frantically looking for their children...The Israeli army said Palestinian militants had fired some 300 rockets and mortars at Israeli targets over the past week." (Associated Press, 12/27/08)
On January 3 Israeli tanks and thousands of troops invaded Gaza, a 25-mile-long strip of territory along the Mediterranean Sea. Fierce fighting, Israeli bombings and Hamas rocket attacks continued. By January 11 Israeli troops were fighting on the outskirts of Gaza City.
Israel's attack followed the end of a six-month truce between Israel and Hamas that was not fully observed by either side. Hamas agreed to end rocket fire into southern Israel but did not end it completely. Israel agreed to ease an economic embargo that kept out of Gaza full supplies of drugs, medical equipment, food, commercial goods and money but did not meet its commitment completely. (www.detnews.com, 11/25/08)
Israeli officials said their main goal was to end rocket and mortar fire from Gaza that hit nearby towns or cities and killed a construction worker. Another goal was to destroy Hamas-built tunnels running from Gaza to the Egyptian border. Through them come weapons, food and other supplies. They also stated that they were doing everything possible to avoid harming civilians.
The New York Times reports that the U.S. military has "faced much criticism for killing civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite what officials say is the utmost precaution against doing so." The basic problem, of course, is that when densely populated areas like Gaza are bombed to kill militants and destroy their offices, hideouts and weapons, no matter how "surgical" the strikes, civilians will be maimed and killed.
"There is no clear understanding of what constitutes a military target. Palestinians argue that because Hamas is also the government in Gaza, many of the police officers who have been killed were civil servants, not hard-core militants," reports Taghreed El-Khodary in the Times. "The ambiguity was evident in the intensive care ward in Shifa Hospital...There were 11 patients. One was a pharmacist...who had a shrapnel wound to the head. Several were police officers. It was impossible to know the identities of many of the others. But there were several children in another intensive care unit....Among them was Ismael Hamdan, 8, who had severe brain damage as well as two broken legs, according to a doctor there. Earlier that day, two of his sisters, Lama, 5, and Hayya, 12, were killed." (Taghreed El-Khodary, "In Dense Gaza, Civilians Suffer, New York Times , 1/1/09)
After 22 days, Israel and Hamas agreed to an uneasy truce. In Israel, 13 were dead, including three civilians, and some buildings were damaged. In Gaza more than 1,400 were dead, hundreds of them children; 5,500 were wounded; thousands of homes, schools, and government buildings were destroyed; 50,000 were left homeless. Almost $2 billion in damage had been suffered in Gaza. (www.tomdispatch.com, 1/22/09)
Hamas and Fatah
Israel's attack on Gaza is the latest episode in the periodic, century-long violence between Israelis and Palestinians. After a 38-year occupation of the Gaza Strip, Israel removed its settlers and army three years ago. A Palestinian election resulted in a victory for Hamas. "Hamas" is an acronym in Arabic for the "Islamic Resistance Movement" and a division of Palestinian authority.
In another Palestinian territory, the West Bank, Fatah, a reverse acronym for "Palestinian National Liberation Movement," is the leadership group. Fatah, the older of the two organizations, has recognized Israel's nationhood and participated in an Israeli-Palestinian "peace process" for years.
Hamas was founded in the 1980s with, ironically, Israel's help. Israel saw the Islamic group as a way to counter Fatah. Hamas states in its charter that it "strives to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine" from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean.
Opposing Israeli views of the attack
Dore Gold wrote in the Jerusalem Post: "The attack becomes a war crime when it is directed against civilians (which is precisely what Hamas does) or when the incidental civilian injuries would be clearly excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage."
But Gold wrote that even if the Palestinian casualties increase, "the numbers reported indicate that there was no clear intent to inflict disproportionate collateral civilian casualties...Numbers matter less than the purpose of the use of force. Israel has argued that it is specifically targeting facilities serving the Hamas regime and its determined effort to continue its rocket assault on Israel: headquarters, training bases, weapons depots, command and control networks, and weapons-smuggling tunnels. In this, Israel is respecting the international legal concept of proportionality." (www.jpost.com, 12/30/08)
Gideon Levy wrote in another Israeli newspaper, Haaretz : "Once again, Israel's violent responses, even if there is justification for them, exceed all proportion and cross every red line of humaneness, morality, international law and wisdom. What began yesterday in Gaza is a war crime. The pictures that flooded television screens around the world yesterday showed a parade of corpses and wounded being laded into and unloaded from the trunks of private cars that transported them to the only hospital in Gaza worthy of being called a hospital. Perhaps we once again need to remember that we are dealing with a wretched, battered strip of land, most of whose population consists of the children of refugees who have endured inhumane tribulations...
"The line of thinking that states that...abusing the population and killing its sons will sear this into their consciousness; and that a military operation would suffice in toppling an entrenched regime and thus replace it with another one friendlier to us is no more than lunacy."
The Israel Defense Force, "a hero against the weak...bombed dozens of targets from the air yesterday, and the pictures of blood and fire are designed to show Israelis, Arabs, and the entire world that the neighborhood bully's strength has yet to wane. When the bully is on a rampage, nobody can stop him." (www.haaretz.com, 12/28/08)
President Obama's response to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
Two days after his inauguration, President Obama declared, "Let me be clear. America is committed to Israel's security and we will always support Israel's right to defend itself against legitimate threats."
Responding to the Gaza conflict, he said, "I was deeply concerned by the loss of Palestinian and Israeli life in recent days and by the substantial suffering and humanitarian needs in Gaza. Our hearts go out to Palestinian civilians who are in need of immediate food, clear water, and basic medical care, and who've faced suffocating poverty for far too long."
Obama named George Mitchell as his special envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mitchell's mediation services contributed to a lasting settlement of the Northern Ireland conflict.
The president also said, "The outline for a durable ceasefire is clear: Hamas must end its rocket fire. Israel will complete the withdrawal of forces from Gaza. The U.S. and our partners will support a credible anti-smuggling and interdiction regime, so that Hamas cannot re-arm. As part of a lasting ceasefire, Gaza's border crossings should be open to allow the flow of aid and commerce, with an appropriate monitoring regime.." (www.ft.com, 1/22/09)
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. What was the six-month Israel-Hamas truce supposed to accomplish? How successful was it?
3. What is Israel's explanation for its bombing attacks on Gaza?
4. Define a "military target"? Why is there "ambiguity" about "military targets" in Gaza? Why are maimings and deaths of civilians inevitable?
5. What is your assessment of President Obama's response to the Israeli attack on Gaza?
According to CNN (1/4/08), 80 percent of Israelis support the attack on Gaza. But there are differences among Israelis, as the excerpts from the Gold and Levy op-eds demonstrate.
Form groups of three or four students. Give each person in the groups one uninterrupted minute to present his/her view of Israel's Gaza attack.
Following the micro lab, conduct a class discussion that allows for presentation of competing views.
Questions for students
Continue the class's study of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a consideration of geography and location of the two peoples. Then consider student responses to the following questions. Note answers on the chalkboard for later examination.
Map: Palestinians and Israelis live on land along the Mediterranean Sea. Locate the Gaza Strip, which is occupied by Palestinians only. Locate the West Bank (the West Bank of what? you might prompt), where most Palestinians live, but where there are also Israeli settlements. East Jerusalem has a mixed population, but Palestinians are in the majority. Israeli Arabs—that is, Palestinians—make up 20 percent of the Israeli citizens who live in the rest of this land.
1. What do you understand to be major reasons for the long-term conflict between Israelis and Palestinians?
2. What problems stand in the way of a peaceful settlement?
3. What is the US relationship with Israel? With the Palestinians?
If students misstate facts, ask what their sources are. When appropriate, invite other students to make corrections and state their sources of information. If necessary, correct misstatements yourself. Differences of opinion might be the basis for later independent and small group student inquiries.
Student Reading 2:
Death to the others
Humans have been at each other's throats since ancient times, usually for land, power, and wealth — but also because of skin color, ethnicity, and religion. Persians and Greeks battled in the 5th century B.C.; British and Irish off and on for some 800 years and until just recently; Protestants and Roman Catholics in the 16th and 17th centuries; Russians and Chechens; South African whites and South African blacks; Hindus and Muslims. The list is very long.
Often each side is convinced of its own righteousness and believes that victory can be achieved by humiliating and brutalizing, confiscating and destroying, enslaving and killing their opponents.
Beginning about a century ago, conflicts began erupting between Palestinians and their Arab supporters in neighboring lands and Jewish settlers in the region. Riots and killings escalated in the 1920s and 1930s. It became war in 1947-1948, when Jewish settlers and refugees from the Holocaust established the nation of Israel on land that had been called Palestine. An intermittent war has continued since then. In 1987 and 2000, it took the form of Palestinian intifadas ("shaking off") that escalated from youths throwing stones to arson, sabotage, and murder. Since then it has included Palestinian suicide bombings, Israeli torture of prisoners, Palestinian sniper attacks, Israeli arbitrary detentions, Palestinian rocket attacks, Israeli missile attacks...
"As I see it, the confrontation between the Jews returning to Zion and the Arab inhabitants of the country is not like a western or an epic, but more like a Greek tragedy. It is a clash between right and right (although one must not seek a simplistic symmetry in it). And, as in all tragedies, there is no hope of a happy reconciliation based on a clever magical formula. The choice is between a bloodbath and a disappointing compromise, more like the enforced acceptance than a sudden breakthrough of mutual understanding...We are here because this is the only place where we can exist as a free nation. The Arabs are here because Palestine is the home of the Palestinians, just as Iraq is the homeland of the Iraqis and Holland the homeland of the Dutch."
—Israeli novelist Amos Oz, "The Meaning of Homeland" in Under This Blazing Light
1. How would you explain why Amos Oz sees the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as "a clash between right and right"? Do you agree? Why or why not?
2. What do you understand him to mean by observing that "one must not seek a simplistic symmetry in it (the tragedy)"?
3. Why do you think he concludes that "The choice is between a bloodbath and a disappointing compromise"?
Student Reading 3:
The U.S.-Israel Alliance
The United States and Israel have been allies for many years.
1. The U.S. subsidizes Israel with $3 billion yearly, most of it for the purchase of American military equipment and advanced weapons systems.
2. The two countries cooperate on military strategies and conduct joint military exercises.
3. They have cooperative institutions in such fields as counter-terrorism, science and economic development.
4. The U.S. is Israel's largest trading partner. In 2007, U.S. exports to Israel totaled $13 billion, more than the value of its exports to any other country in the region.
One reason for this close relationship is that each country relies on the other for its national security. Israel has been at war with neighboring Arab countries six times. It counts on U.S. military support to maintain its superiority over these countries, and on U.S. diplomatic support in international forums like the United Nations.
And the U.S. relies on Israel's military dominance in the Middle East. Israel also shares with the U.S. its military intelligence and ideas about potential threats to the two countries. Israel helps to ensure against disruption of Persian Gulf oil shipments. U.S. officials frequently comment about the longstanding historical and cultural ties between the two nations.
In 1947, the United Nations voted 33-13 to partition Palestine into two states, one for an emerging Jewish state, the other for Palestinians, most of whom are Muslims. Arab countries in the region did not accept the UN plan, and armies from Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq invaded Israel. In 1948, Israel won what it calls its war for independence. Palestinians call it al-Nakba (the catastrophe).
During the fighting the Israeli army forced some 700,000 Palestinians from their land and into exile and refugee camps. Other Palestinians fled in fear. Many of those still surviving and their descendants, about 4 million people, continue to live in those camps, mostly in neighboring Arab countries.
The Palestinians who remained are in four areas: (1) Israel, where today 1.8 million Palestinian survivors of the 1948 war and their descendants are Israeli citizens; (2) East Jerusalem, population 270,000; (3) the Gaza strip, population 1.6 million; and (4) the West Bank, population 2.6 million.
Israel's total population, including its Palestinian citizens, is 7.1 million.
Periodically, violence has erupted between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem. For 40 years, U.S. leaders, beginning with President Richard Nixon, have tried and failed to mediate a peace agreement establishing a Palestinian state and a secure Israeli state—a so-called "two-state solution."
President Jimmy Carter was successful in his 1979 mediation of a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt. In 1994, Israel and Jordan signed a peace agreement.
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. Why is the U.S.-Israel alliance important to the U.S.? To Israel?
3. Why did the UN decide to partition Palestine? Why did Israelis accept the plan, but not the Palestinians? If you don't know, how might you find out?
4. Why are there 4 million Palestinian refugees?
Student Reading 4:
Key issues and problems in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
On September 21, Ehud Olmert, the prime minister of Israel, resigned. He had been caught up for many months in a growing corruption scandal. Only hours after his resignation, the Israeli daily newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, interviewed him. An excerpt:
Yedioth Ahronoth: You must have done some soul-searching before your resignation.
Ehud Olmert: At the moment, I'd like to do some soul-searching on behalf of the nation of Israel...We have a window of opportunity—a short amount of time before we enter an extremely dangerous situation—in which to take a historic step in our relations with the Palestinians....The decision we have to make is the decision we've spent forty years refusing to look at with our eyes open...
And yet we are not prepared to say to ourselves, 'Yes, this is what we must do.' We must reach an agreement with the Palestinians, meaning a withdrawal from nearly all, if not all, of the [occupied] territories. Some percentage of these territories would remain in our hands, but we must give the Palestinians the same percentage [of territory elsewhere]—without this, there will be no peace.
Yedioth Ahronoth: Including Jerusalem?
Ehud Olmert: Including Jerusalem—with, I'd imagine, special arrangements made for the Temple Mount and the holy/historical sites. Whoever talks seriously about security in Jerusalem...must be willing to relinquish parts of Jerusalem...Whoever wants to maintain control over the entire city will have to absorb 270,000 Arabs into the borders of Israel proper. This won't do...
What I'm saying here has never been said by a leader of Israel. But the time has come to say these things...
Our goal should be, for the first time, to designate a final and exact borderline between us and the Palestinians so that the entire world, the United States, the U.N. and Europe can say, 'These are the borders of Israel, we recognize them, and we will anchor them with formal resolutions in the major international bodies.
Six key issues must be settled before the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians can be resolved. Olmert named three and state emphatically how he thought they could be resolved:
1, Israel must give up most of its settlements in the West Bank (where about 280,000 Israelis live amidst 2.6 million Palestinians).
2. Israel must "relinquish parts of Jerusalem." (To be specific, East Jerusalem, with its 200,000 Israelis and 270,000 Palestinians, would become a Palestinian capital.)
3. These transfers of sovereignty must produce, for the first time, an "exact borderline" between Israel and Palestine.
Olmert suggested something beyond these issues when he spoke of "a short amount of time before we enter an extremely dangerous situation." This was a reference to demographic trends in the region: Birth rates of Palestinians in Israel itself, as well as in the West Bank and Gaza, are significantly higher than that of Israeli Jews. As Nicholas Kristof wrote, "If there is no two-state solution, there will be a one-state solution—and given demographic trends, that will mean either the end of Israeli democracy or the end of the Jewish state." ( New York Times , 7/24/08)
Isabel Kershner explained that "Prominent mainstream Palestinians are increasingly warning that if they fail soon to achieve the kind of state they want—sovereign and independent, with East Jerusalem as its capital—they will opt instead for a one-state solution based on a long-term fight for equal rights within the state of Israel, a struggle they compare with what took place in South Africa...[because] granting equal voting rights to millions of Palestinians in the territories would ultimately spell the end of the Zionist project of Jewish self-determination and a Jewish state." ( New York Times, 9/4/08)
In short, if a two-state solution isn't reached, there are two possibilities: (1) Israel will become an undemocratic apartheid Jewish state in which they rule over and confine Palestinian Muslims to particular areas — just as racist whites of South Africa for many years ruled that nation (even though whites were in a minority), maintaining a rigid separation between whites and blacks. (2) Israel will become a democratic, but not a Jewish, binational state in which Israeli Jews are outnumbered, and outvoted, by Palestinian Muslims. (This is sometimes called a "one-state solution.")
And then there are the three additional issues Olmert did not mention, but that are widely known to be key:
4. Israel and the Palestinians must reach agreement on what is to be done about the four million Palestinian refugees. These refugees and/or their descendants were forced from their land by the Israeli army or fled from it during the 1948 war. They live now in refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank, or neighboring Arab countries.
5. Palestinians must have a contiguous state.
6. Israel must have security from Palestinian attacks and suicide bombings.
Resolution of these issues requires overcoming major difficulties:
Israeli settlements. While most settlers would willingly leave the West Bank if provided with homes in Israel, a mostly religious minority would not and would have to be forcibly removed—just as some Israelis had to be forcibly removed from Gaza.
Jerusalem. Israel has declared Jerusalem its "eternal capital" and over the years steadily expanded its boundaries, encouraging Israelis to move into East Jerusalem and forcing Palestinians out. Religious opposition to the Palestinian claim of at least East Jerusalem for its capital would be strong.
Achieving "an exact borderline." Doing so must overcome such problems as competing land claims and access to water. Israel has been building a wall that diverges in many places from the lines set in 1949 so as to include Israeli settlements.
Refugees. Would Israelis allow 4 million Palestinian refugees to return to land and homes in Israel? Most unlikely. A possible resolution might involve the long and difficult process of compensating Palestinians for their losses.
A contiguous Palestinian state. This requires not only the shutdown of Israeli settlements scattered through the West Bank and the removal of Israelis but also establishing a Palestinian-controlled corridor between Gaza and the West Bank.
Israel's security. Palestinians are split politically and territorially into two rival groups. The Palestinian Authority, led by Mahmoud Abbas, governs the West Bank. It has represented Palestinians in negotiations with Israel, and is recognized diplomatically by the U.S. A group called Hamas governs Gaza. Hamas' charter declares its determination "to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean." Hamas is regarded as a terrorist organization by Israel and the U.S. The organization's declaration that it is willing to agree to a "long-term truce" with Israel is unlikely to be acceptable to Israelis.
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. Consider each of the six major issues that require resolution. Why is each important? What problems are there about each?
3. What demographic problem do Israelis face if a two-state peace solution does not occur?
Student Reading 5:
What role for President Obama?
"I think it's unrealistic to expect that a U.S. president alone can suddenly snap his fingers and bring about peace in this region," Barack Obama told an Arab reporter in July during his presidential campaign. "What a U.S. president can do is apply sustained energy and focus on the issues of the Israelis and the Palestinians..." Sometimes I think there's a tendency for each side to focus on the faults of the other instead of looking in the mirror and seeing what can be done to improve the situation." Obama also said that Israel's security would be "a priority" of his administration. (www.suntimes.com, 7/23/08)
As a presidential candidate, Senator Obama did not say much more about the Israeli-Palestinian relationship or what he sees as his role. As president, though, he almost certainly will have a major role in trying to achieve a peace settlement. Obama knows that over the past 40 years, six U.S. presidents have failed to bring Israelis and Palestinians together in a two-state solution.
The U.S. has long regarded a comprehensive peace settlement between Israel and Palestinians and Middle East Arab nations as desirable for at least three major reasons:
1. It would end Israel's need to be on the alert against Palestinian attacks, whether they come from Gaza-launched rockets, West Bank assaults, Jerusalem suicide missions or an invasion from an Arab country. It could bring normalcy to the country.
2. It would offer hope to the Palestinians that they, too, could lead normal lives free from Israeli seizure of their property, humiliation at check points, arbitrary arrests and indefinite detentions and military attacks.
3. It would raise U.S. status in Muslim countries. Most Muslims strongly condemn what they see as unending U.S. favoritism for Israel and agree with scholar Edward Said's assessment that Israelis have for decades "dispossessed, alienated, and brutalizedÃ¢â‚¬Â¦the Palestinians, with the moral approval and support of the West generally and the United States in particular." ( The Politics of Dispossession )
Questions that may be answered in 2009:
- What has Obama learned from past failures of peace efforts? How will that inform his own efforts?
- Given the close U.S.-Israel friendship and U.S. financial and military support for Israel, can Obama convince Palestinians that he and his representatives will be fair-minded mediators in peace negotiations?
- Is a two-state solution possible without the cooperation of Hamas?
- What effects will Israel's election in February 2009 have on its negotiating strategy?
- Israel's next leader probably will be either Benjamin Netanyahu, a former prime minister, head of the Likud Party and a hardliner about the Palestinians, or Tziipi Livni, who heads the Kadima Party. What has each of them learned from past failures? How will that inform the winner's efforts?
1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?
2. Why is a two-state solution important to Palestinians? Israelis? Americans?
3. What difficulties do President Obama and his representatives face in any peace negotiations?
4. Why is the role of Hamas during peace negotiations significant?
Historical subjects and issues
Origins of and reasons for the Zionist movement
The Balfour Declaration
Jewish migration to Palestine
Reaction of Arabs to this migration
The British mandate between the two world wars
The UN partition plan
The creation of Fatah
The creation of Hamas
The wars of 1947-1948, 1967, 1973
Origins and development of Israeli settlements in the West Bank
Competing Palestinian and Israeli claims to Jerusalem
Palestinian human rights issues
Palestinian economic life
U.S. support for Israel
Israel's security barrier
Israel's security problems
American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)
U.S. efforts at peacemaking
The demographic issue
The binational state solution
An approach to independent and small group inquiries might include the following:
1. Students select a subject and make a preliminary inquiry to help them decide what to focus on and to begin a bibliography of possible sources of information.
2. Independently or in small groups, students frame several questions to guide an inquiry. (Teachers might find useful in this connection "Thinking is Questioning").
3. Students meet with the teacher to analyze their questions, to determine its final form, and to list likely sources of information.
Write a well-developed essay in which you discuss one of the following:
1. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is "a clash between right and right."
2. "The Arab refugee problem was caused by a war of aggression, launched by the Arab states against Israel in 1947 and 1948...If there had been no war against Israel, there would be no problem of Arab refugees today."
—Abba Eban, Chief Israeli representative to the United Nations
3. "The alternatives are simple and cruel. Either one people controls the other, dooming them both to eternal violence, or else a way must be found to live in a partnership based on shared sovereignty.
—Meron Benvenisti, a writer and former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, "The Case for Shared Sovereignty," The Nation, 6/18/07
4. "I want two states for two people."
—David Avidan, Israeli West Bank settler, "Settlers Who Long to Leave West Bank," New York Times, 11/14/08
This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: firstname.lastname@example.org