The quest for survival and justice in Israel

Nowhere is the stark inequality between Israelis and Palestinians, who live in one of the world’s most hallowed lands, more evident than in their COVID-19 vaccination record. With 60 percent of its population fully vaccinated, Israel leads the world in the race to herd immunity. In contrast, Palestinians who are noncitizens of Israel have vaccinated only 5.2 percent of their people.

But today, the fight to tame the COVID-19 pandemic through vaccination is farthest from the minds of ordinary people in this fiercely contested patch of land, that Christians refer to as the Holy Land. Since Monday last week, fighting between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs has, once again, shattered the tenuous peace that has reigned in this country since 2014.

Palestinian militants have fired some 1,800 rockets from Gaza aimed at Jewish communities in Israel. Many of these crudely made missiles are being intercepted in mid-air by the Israeli military, while others fall right within Gaza’s border. But, still, a few of these have killed—mostly civilians. The Israeli death toll stands at 8: one soldier and seven civilians.

The Israel Defense Force has unleashed its own artillery and tank fire against targets in Gaza, a narrow piece of land along the Mediterranean Sea about 29 kilometers long and 8 kilometers wide, and sandwiched between Egypt and Israel. About 2 million Palestinian Arabs live cramped on this strip, where the militant organization known as Hamas holds sway. The number of casualties on the Gaza side has been placed at 119, including 21 children and 18 women.

At once, the disparity in military capability may be gleaned from these dismal figures. Israel gets most of its high-powered weapons from the United States. The Palestinians obtain theirs from Iran, though some of its rockets are reportedly assembled from components of Israeli bombs that have failed to explode. What they lack in weaponry, however, Palestinian militants have tried to make up for through surprise attacks launched from the maze of underground tunnels the Palestinians have dug below Gaza City.

As in the past, the conflict may further escalate, before the UN Security Council and international mediators are able to find a suitable formula, and pave the way for the immediate cessation of hostilities. To outsiders, the whole episode may often appear like a ritual of aggression periodically enacted to dramatize the same apocalyptic message of mutual exclusion and extinction. It does seem like that just looking at the images of destruction and displacement, and listening to the world’s powers predictably vowing to stop the conflagration before it gets bigger.

Indeed, there are extremists in both camps. There are Israeli Jews who think that the only way they could feel secure in their homeland is by establishing a Jewish nation-state where Jewishness is a condition for the full enjoyment of citizenship. And, there are Palestinian Arabs who think that their fight for survival as a people is only achievable through the expulsion of all Jews from their homeland.

Yet, it is difficult to imagine that reasonable people on both sides, who refuse to be ruled by historic fear and resentment, have given up all hope of finding a common ground for peaceful coexistence under a single state, if not under two distinct states.

In the early 1990s, I was one of those who keenly followed the progress of the peace negotiation between the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organization, which culminated in the signing of the Oslo Accords. I was hoping that some lessons from the process could help us figure out the best way forward for our own peace process in Mindanao. The Oslo process broke new ground. It led to the recognition by the PLO of the State of Israel, and Israel’s recognition of the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people. The accords established a Palestinian Authority but fell short of creating a Palestinian State. Among other things, Israel agreed to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and the Jericho area, and redeploy its troops from sections of the West Bank.

The two-state plan envisioned by the accords never took off. The Palestinian Authority could exercise only the most limited jurisdiction in the areas assigned to it. It often seemed like it was nothing more than an adjunct of the Israeli government, rather than the State-in-waiting it was meant to be. Its lack of credibility as a protector of Palestinian interests further strengthened the influence of the radical Hamas, which today effectively controls the Gaza Strip.

Israel’s greatest fear as a Jewish nation-state is that there may come a time when Jews will become a minority in their own country. Right now, Israel’s Arab citizens make up only about 21 percent of its 9 million population. They are, however, the fastest growing segment of the population. An Israeli State that integrates the 5.2 million Palestinian Arabs now living under impoverished conditions in Gaza and the West Bank will tip the population balance slightly in favor of Palestinian Arabs. It is a thought that many Israelis refuse to consider.

The paranoia is understandable in the face of the current political climate. But, in the long term, the one-state option might be inescapable. A just society that respects cultural diversity while guaranteeing the basic rights and needs of all its citizens is not only a vision worth pursuing in a globalized world, it also seems the moral thing to do for a people that experienced untold persecution everywhere until a permanent home was found for them in Palestine.