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Ali A. Rizvi Headshot

7 Things to Consider Before Choosing Sides in the Middle East Conflict

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GAZA
ASSOCIATED PRESS

Are you "pro-Israel" or "pro-Palestine"? It isn't even noon yet as I write this, and I've already been accused of being both.

These terms intrigue me because they directly speak to the doggedly tribal nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You don't hear of too many other countries being universally spoken of this way. Why these two? Both Israelis and Palestinians are complex, with diverse histories and cultures, and two incredibly similar (if divisive) religions. To come down completely on the side of one or the other doesn't seem rational to me.

It is telling that most Muslims around the world support Palestinians, and most Jews support Israel. This, of course, is natural -- but it's also problematic. It means that this is not about who's right or wrong as much as which tribe or nation you are loyal to. It means that Palestinian supporters would be just as ardently pro-Israel if they were born in Israeli or Jewish families, and vice versa. It means that the principles that guide most people's view of this conflict are largely accidents of birth -- that however we intellectualize and analyze the components of the Middle East mess, it remains, at its core, a tribal conflict.

By definition, tribal conflicts thrive and survive when people take sides. Choosing sides in these kinds of conflicts fuels them further and deepens the polarization. And worst of all, you get blood on your hands.

So before picking a side in this latest Israeli-Palestine conflict, consider these 7 questions:

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1. Why is everything so much worse when there are Jews involved?

Over 700 people have died in Gaza as of this writing. Muslims have woken up around the world. But is it really because of the numbers?

Bashar al-Assad has killed over 180,000 Syrians, mostly Muslim, in two years -- more than the number killed in Palestine in two decades. Thousands of Muslims in Iraq and Syria have been killed by ISIS in the last two months. Tens of thousands have been killed by the Taliban. Half a million black Muslims were killed by Arab Muslims in Sudan. The list goes on.

But Gaza makes Muslims around the world, both Sunni and Shia, speak up in a way they never do otherwise. Up-to-date death counts and horrific pictures of the mangled corpses of Gazan children flood their social media timelines every day. If it was just about the numbers, wouldn't the other conflicts take precedence? What is it about then?

If I were Assad or ISIS right now, I'd be thanking God I'm not Jewish.

Amazingly, many of the graphic images of dead children attributed to Israeli bombardment that are circulating online are from Syria, based on a BBC report. Many of the pictures you're seeing are of children killed by Assad, who is supported by Iran, which also funds Hezbollah and Hamas. What could be more exploitative of dead children than attributing the pictures of innocents killed by your own supporters to your enemy simply because you weren't paying enough attention when your own were killing your own?

This doesn't, by any means, excuse the recklessness, negligence, and sometimes outright cruelty of Israeli forces. But it clearly points to the likelihood that the Muslim world's opposition to Israel isn't just about the number of dead.

Here is a question for those who grew up in the Middle East and other Muslim-majority countries like I did: if Israel withdrew from the occupied territories tomorrow, all in one go -- and went back to the 1967 borders -- and gave the Palestinians East Jerusalem -- do you honestly think Hamas wouldn't find something else to pick a fight about? Do you honestly think that this has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that they are Jews? Do you recall what you watched and heard on public TV growing up in Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Egypt?

Yes, there's an unfair and illegal occupation there, and yes, it's a human rights disaster. But it is also true that much of the other side is deeply driven by anti-Semitism. Anyone who has lived in the Arab/Muslim world for more than a few years knows that. It isn't always a clean, one-or-the-other blame split in these situations like your Chomskys and Greenwalds would have you believe. It's both.

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2. Why does everyone keep saying this is not a religious conflict?

There are three pervasive myths that are widely circulated about the "roots" of the Middle East conflict:

Myth 1: Judaism has nothing to do with Zionism.
Myth 2: Islam has nothing to do with Jihadism or anti-Semitism.
Myth 3: This conflict has nothing to do with religion.

To the "I oppose Zionism, not Judaism!" crowd, is it mere coincidence that this passage from the Old Testament (emphasis added) describes so accurately what's happening today?

"I will establish your borders from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, and from the desert to the Euphrates River. I will give into your hands the people who live in the land, and you will drive them out before you. Do not make a covenant with them or with their gods." - Exodus 23:31-32

Or this one?

"See, I have given you this land. Go in and take possession of the land the Lord swore he would give to your fathers -- to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob -- and to their descendants after them." - Deuteronomy 1:8

There's more: Genesis 15:18-21, and Numbers 34 for more detail on the borders. Zionism is not the "politicization" or "distortion" of Judaism. It is the revival of it.

And to the "This is not about Islam, it's about politics!" crowd, is this verse from the Quran (emphasis added) meaningless?

"O you who have believed, do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies. They are [in fact] allies of one another. And whoever is an ally to them among you--then indeed, he is [one] of them. Indeed, Allah guides not the wrongdoing people." - Quran, 5:51

What about the numerous verses and hadith quoted in Hamas' charter? And the famous hadith of the Gharqad tree explicitly commanding Muslims to kill Jews?

Please tell me -- in light of these passages written centuries and millennia before the creation of Israel or the occupation -- how can anyone conclude that religion isn't at the root of this, or at least a key driving factor? You may roll your eyes at these verses, but they are taken very seriously by many of the players in this conflict, on both sides. Shouldn't they be acknowledged and addressed? When is the last time you heard a good rational, secular argument supporting settlement expansion in the West Bank?

Denying religion's role seems to be a way to be able to criticize the politics while remaining apologetically "respectful" of people's beliefs for fear of "offending" them. But is this apologism and "respect" for inhuman ideas worth the deaths of human beings?

People have all kinds of beliefs -- from insisting the Earth is flat to denying the Holocaust. You may respect their right to hold these beliefs, but you're not obligated to respect the beliefs themselves. It's 2014, and religions don't need to be "respected" any more than any other political ideology or philosophical thought system. Human beings have rights. Ideas don't. The oft-cited politics/religion dichotomy in Abrahamic religions is false and misleading. All of the Abrahamic religions are inherently political.

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3. Why would Israel deliberately want to kill civilians?

This is the single most important issue that gets everyone riled up, and rightfully so.

Again, there is no justification for innocent Gazans dying. And there's no excuse for Israel's negligence in incidents like the killing of four children on a Gazan beach. But let's back up and think about this for a minute.

Why on Earth would Israel deliberately want to kill civilians?

When civilians die, Israel looks like a monster. It draws the ire of even its closest allies. Horrific images of injured and dead innocents flood the media. Ever-growing anti-Israel protests are held everywhere from Norway to New York. And the relatively low number of Israeli casualties (we'll get to that in a bit) repeatedly draws allegations of a "disproportionate" response. Most importantly, civilian deaths help Hamas immensely.

How can any of this possibly ever be in Israel's interest?

If Israel wanted to kill civilians, it is terrible at it. ISIS killed more civilians in two days (700 plus) than Israel has in two weeks. Imagine if ISIS or Hamas had Israel's weapons, army, air force, US support, and nuclear arsenal. Their enemies would've been annihilated long ago. If Israel truly wanted to destroy Gaza, it could do so within a day, right from the air. Why carry out a more painful, expensive ground incursion that risks the lives of its soldiers?

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4. Does Hamas really use its own civilians as human shields?

Ask Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas how he feels about Hamas' tactics.

"What are you trying to achieve by sending rockets?" he asks. "I don't like trading in Palestinian blood."

It isn't just speculation anymore that Hamas puts its civilians in the line of fire.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri plainly admitted on Gazan national TV that the human shield strategy has proven "very effective."

The UN relief organization UNRWA issued a furious condemnation of Hamas after discovering hidden rockets in not one, but two children's schools in Gaza last week.

Hamas fires thousands of rockets into Israel, rarely killing any civilians or causing any serious damage. It launches them from densely populated areas, including hospitals and schools.

Why launch rockets without causing any real damage to the other side, inviting great damage to your own people, then putting your own civilians in the line of fire when the response comes? Even when the IDF warns civilians to evacuate their homes before a strike, why does Hamas tell them to stay put?

Because Hamas knows its cause is helped when Gazans die. If there is one thing that helps Hamas most -- one thing that gives it any legitimacy -- it is dead civilians. Rockets in schools. Hamas exploits the deaths of its children to gain the world's sympathy. It uses them as a weapon.

You don't have to like what Israel is doing to abhor Hamas. Arguably, Israel and Fatah are morally equivalent. Both have a lot of right on their side. Hamas, on the other hand, doesn't have a shred of it.

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5. Why are people asking for Israel to end the "occupation" in Gaza?

Because they have short memories.

In 2005, Israel ended the occupation in Gaza. It pulled out every last Israeli soldier. It dismantled every last settlement. Many Israeli settlers who refused to leave were forcefully evicted from their homes, kicking and screaming.

This was a unilateral move by Israel, part of a disengagement plan intended to reduce friction between Israelis and Palestinians. It wasn't perfect -- Israel was still to control Gaza's borders, coastline, and airspace -- but considering the history of the region, it was a pretty significant first step.

After the evacuation, Israel opened up border crossings to facilitate commerce. The Palestinians were also given 3,000 greenhouses which had already been producing fruit and flowers for export for many years.

But Hamas chose not to invest in schools, trade, or infrastructure. Instead, it built an extensive network of tunnels to house thousands upon thousands of rockets and weapons, including newer, sophisticated ones from Iran and Syria. All the greenhouses were destroyed.

Hamas did not build any bomb shelters for its people. It did, however, build a few for its leaders to hide out in during airstrikes. Civilians are not given access to these shelters for precisely the same reason Hamas tells them to stay home when the bombs come.

Gaza was given a great opportunity in 2005 that Hamas squandered by transforming it into an anti-Israel weapons store instead of a thriving Palestinian state that, with time, may have served as a model for the future of the West Bank as well. If Fatah needed yet another reason to abhor Hamas, here it was.

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6. Why are there so many more casualties in Gaza than in Israel?

The reason fewer Israeli civilians die is not because there are fewer rockets raining down on them. It's because they are better protected by their government.

When Hamas' missiles head towards Israel, sirens go off, the Iron Dome goes into effect, and civilians are rushed into bomb shelters. When Israeli missiles head towards Gaza, Hamas tells civilians to stay in their homes and face them.

While Israel's government urges its civilians to get away from rockets targeted at them, Gaza's government urges its civilians to get in front of missiles not targeted at them.

The popular explanation for this is that Hamas is poor and lacks the resources to protect its people like Israel does. The real reason, however, seems to have more to do with disordered priorities than deficient resources (see #5). This is about will, not ability. All those rockets, missiles, and tunnels aren't cheap to build or acquire. But they are priorities. And it's not like Palestinians don't have a handful of oil-rich neighbors to help them the way Israel has the US.

The problem is, if civilian casualties in Gaza drop, Hamas loses the only weapon it has in its incredibly effective PR war. It is in Israel's national interest to protect its civilians and minimize the deaths of those in Gaza. It is in Hamas' interest to do exactly the opposite on both fronts.

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7. If Hamas is so bad, why isn't everyone pro-Israel in this conflict?

Because Israel's flaws, while smaller in number, are massive in impact.

Many Israelis seem to have the same tribal mentality that their Palestinian counterparts do. They celebrate the bombing of Gaza the same way many Arabs celebrated 9/11. A UN report recently found that Israeli forces tortured Palestinian children and used them as human shields. They beat up teenagers. They are often reckless with their airstrikes. They have academics who explain how rape may be the only truly effective weapon against their enemy. And many of them callously and publicly revel in the deaths of innocent Palestinian children.

To be fair, these kinds of things do happen on both sides. They are an inevitable consequence of multiple generations raised to hate the other over the course of 65 plus years. To hold Israel up to a higher standard would mean approaching the Palestinians with the racism of lowered expectations.

However, if Israel holds itself to a higher standard like it claims -- it needs to do much more to show it isn't the same as the worst of its neighbors.

Israel is leading itself towards increasing international isolation and national suicide because of two things: 1. The occupation; and 2. Settlement expansion.

Settlement expansion is simply incomprehensible. No one really understands the point of it. Virtually every US administration -- from Nixon to Bush to Obama -- has unequivocally opposed it. There is no justification for it except a Biblical one (see #2), which makes it slightly more difficult to see Israel's motives as purely secular.

The occupation is more complicated. The late Christopher Hitchens was right when he said this about Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories:

"In order for Israel to become part of the alliance against whatever we want to call it, religious barbarism, theocratic, possibly thermonuclear theocratic or nuclear theocratic aggression, it can't, it'll have to dispense with the occupation. It's as simple as that.

It can be, you can think of it as a kind of European style, Western style country if you want, but it can't govern other people against their will. It can't continue to steal their land in the way that it does every day.And it's unbelievably irresponsible of Israelis, knowing the position of the United States and its allies are in around the world, to continue to behave in this unconscionable way. And I'm afraid I know too much about the history of the conflict to think of Israel as just a tiny, little island surrounded by a sea of ravening wolves and so on. I mean, I know quite a lot about how that state was founded, and the amount of violence and dispossession that involved. And I'm a prisoner of that knowledge. I can't un-know it."

As seen with Gaza in 2005, unilateral disengagement is probably easier to talk about than actually carry out. But if it Israel doesn't work harder towards a two-state (maybe three-state, thanks to Hamas) solution, it will eventually have to make that ugly choice between being a Jewish-majority state or a democracy.

It's still too early to call Israel an apartheid state, but when John Kerry said Israel could end up as one in the future, he wasn't completely off the mark. It's simple math. There are only a limited number of ways a bi-national Jewish state with a non-Jewish majority population can retain its Jewish identity. And none of them are pretty.

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Let's face it, the land belongs to both of them now. Israel was carved out of Palestine for Jews with help from the British in the late 1940s just like my own birthplace of Pakistan was carved out of India for Muslims around the same time. The process was painful, and displaced millions in both instances. But it's been almost 70 years. There are now at least two or three generations of Israelis who were born and raised in this land, to whom it really is a home, and who are often held accountable and made to pay for for historical atrocities that are no fault of their own. They are programmed to oppose "the other" just as Palestinian children are. At its very core, this is a tribal religious conflict that will never be resolved unless people stop choosing sides.

So you really don't have to choose between being "pro-Israel" or "pro-Palestine." If you support secularism, democracy, and a two-state solution -- and you oppose Hamas, settlement expansion, and the occupation -- you can be both.

If they keep asking you to pick a side after all of that, tell them you're going with hummus.