When I’m in the US, I’m a supporter of Israel.
When I’m in Israel, I’m a supporter of the Palestinians.
Let me explain.
As someone who has taught Genocide Studies for a living, and who is neither Jewish nor Muslim, I’m watching the events in Gaza unfold with personal horror and professional dread.
I’ve lived and worked in Israel in a number of capacities over the years. I’ve lived on a kibbutz. I’ve worked on digs. I celebrated the Entebbe raid in Jerusalem and had Israeli friends killed in bus bombings. But I’ve also lived next to and visited a Palestinian village regarded as a terrorist stronghold and seen West Bank Palestinians humiliated, threatened, and attacked by Israeli soldiers and settlers alike, treated in a manner that would have made Bull Connor and George Wallace proud.
Now, facing the most consequential eruption of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, I’m struck yet again by how little facts and empathy are evidenced by either side.
Taking the Palestinian side first, I’m constantly amazed by how illiterate my leftist friends—whose politics I normally share—are about the geography and politics of the area. For example, prior to the Six-Day War of 1967 the distance from Palestinian-controlled territory to the Mediterranean was less than 10 miles: militarily, you could cut the country in half in the time it takes to drive to the mall.
These same friends are either ignorant—or uncaring—of the depth of the hatred Palestinians hold for Israel specifically and Jews in general, and how that hatred is promoted. They ignore the textbooks, the televised speeches and religious teachings that demonize Jews, glorify terrorism, and encourage martyrdom. They haven’t read Hamas’ charter, which calls explicitly for the total destruction of Israel and the slaughter of Jews. When called to defend these beliefs, they say that Hamas and Hezbollah are being hyperbolic. There’s nothing hyperbolic about October 7. “From the sea to the river” is not a slogan: it’s a call for genocide.
Conversely, American backers of Israel are either ignorant of–or unmoved by—the destitution and suffering that permeate Palestinian lives from the cradle, especially in Gaza. And conditions have only deteriorated under the current Israeli government, which seems determined to erode any hope of a true Palestinian homeland.
There are any number of villains in this conflict, but two stand out, united by their stubborn determination to put their own interests above those of the people they serve.
Yassir Arafat torpedoed the best chance Palestinians had at a viable state, rejecting offers that today would be seen as major achievements. Joining him in history’s basement are the Arab governments who have conducted multiple failed wars against Israel and done just enough for the Palestinians to keep them poor and festering, a distraction for their own governmental failings.
Arafat’s counterpart in history’s hell is Bibi Netanyahu, Israeli prime minister who has repeatedly put self-interest over patriotism. In his latest gambit he has built a coalition with right-wing fanatics who not only disavow the two-state solution but call for the annexation of Gaza and the West Bank as part of a “Greater Israel,” their version of Manifest Destiny.
Netanyahu has steadily moonwalked back from the Oslo and Camp David accords, giving lip service to the two-state solution while rendering that same solution impossible through the authorization and deployment of a growing network of settlements across the West Bank. Founded and defended by heavily armed religious and political hardliners, these settlements and their inhabitants are now as wedded to this land as their Palestinian predecessors. And if you think they will agree to be dismantled to enable a Palestinian state, remember Masada, Israel’s most sacred memory of resistance. Or, closer to home, Waco. Then multiply that by 150.
On a professional level, I never thought I’d be considering the application of terms such as apartheid, war crimes and genocide to a country I have longed loved and admired.
And yet, here we are.
While the term ‘apartheid’ brings howls from Israel’s supporters, the government actions since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin exhibit a systematic plan for one party to “dominate and oppress” another people. And if the activities and intentions of past governments can be debated, those of the current administration leave no doubt about the policies and intentions behind them.
The term ‘war crimes’ comes up whenever there are significant civilian casualties. The legal terminology most applicable to the current campaign in Gaza is: Attacking or bombarding, by whatever means, towns, villages, dwellings or buildings which are undefended and not military objectives. But that sounds more like Hamas’s activities of October 7 than the current Israeli bombing campaign, especially given Hamas’s practice of embedding its forces in civilian buildings. If it turns out that Israel has been targeting civilian buildings as part of a terror campaign, then they should be brought before The Hague, but thus far that is not the case.
Which brings us to genocide, which is defined as “a crime committed with the intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, in whole or in part.” The key word here is ‘intent.’ Until or unless we find that Israel is targeting civilian populations or buildings for the sole purpose of killing or driving them into exile, the term doesn’t apply. And while pundits and protesters can apply the term freely to the war in Gaza, no government will. Because the use of the actual term brings with it a moral—and at times legal—obligation to intervene. And few countries, including the United States, have either the charter or stomach to do so.
I don’t pretend to have a solution to this political and humanitarian Gordian knot. I do know that any solution will require a flexibility and a realpolitik that neither side has exhibited thus far. To begin, Hamas needs to be replaced by a single Palestinian governing force for both Gaza and the West Bank. And no settlement can be regarded as a permanent political fixture. The US and UN will have to step up and act as honest brokers and Arab governments will need to redirect their funds from supporting Hamas to creating the infrastructure and housing any Palestinian state will require.
One thing I do know: Peace won’t come about through half measures. Like the Gordian knot, it will require decisive action, with both sides having their hands on the sword.
Tom Hogan is a former lecturer in Holocaust and Genocide Studies. He lives in Austin, TX.