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Israel's Endless War: Is It All In The Numbers?

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The attacks on Israel by Hamas and Hezbollah are a bad omen for anyone hoping that the Zionist dream of a "normal state" was anywhere near realization, 58 years after Israel's founding.

Hamas and Hezbollah are outright rejectionists. They don't want Israelis to simply vacate the occupied territories; they want Israelis to vacate Israel. And they're backed by Iran, Syria and - if reports are true - a large, enthusiastic percentage of the Arab population.

Which raises the interesting historical question: Why would this be? Why would Israel face such ferocious resistance to its very existence after so many decades as a fact-on-the-ground? Especially when so many other nations that are the products of a similar kind of settlement migration - including the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, much of South America - quickly emerged as geographically unassailable.

One possible answer is that there are different categories of settlement migration. Most turn out peacefully in the end, but one almost never does.

Historically the most common type of settlement migration was settlement migration followed by assimilation. France is a typical example. Its people are descended from Gauls, later waves of Roman settlers, and even later waves of Frankish invaders and other tribes who settled, intermarried, assimilated and ultimately morphed into the French. These settlers and conquerors often fought at first, but assimilation and intermarriage eventually put an end to their differences.

This was by far the most common type of settlement migration in history, and it led to most of the stable modern national identities in the world today.

The last few hundred years have seen a different category come to the fore: settlement migration without assimilation, but with overwhelming demographic superiority. This model prevailed in much of the New World, Australia and New Zealand.

In most of these cases, native populations in these regions were perfectly prepared to keep resisting the settlers endlessly. The factor that finally convinced them to give up was not the settlers' superior technology, military might or organization. It was numbers.

In cases after case, the beleaguered but resisting tribes fought bravely until the day they looked out across the horizon, saw endless wagon trains, charging locomotives, massive cities rising on the plains, and realized they had been completely outnumbered. Then, and only then, did they reluctantly but decisively give up.

But if overwhelming demographic superiority is the key factor in that model, what happens when history produces settlement migration without overwhelming numbers?

There, the historic record has not been kind to the settlers.

They may start off victorious due to superior arms, technology, organization, leadership, alliances, social cohesion, etc. But the defeated locals have no real motivation to admit defeat. They can see that they themselves have the overwhelming numbers, and assume that sooner or later they will prevail.

So they fight on endlessly, leading to two general outcomes.

One is endless conflict, often punctuated by periods of truce, but always followed by more conflict. The other is that the newcomers themselves are eventually driven out, or at least driven out of power.

Consider a few examples:

In the 1500s and 1600s the Protestant English and Scotch settlers in Ireland never came close to swamping the Irish numerically, and neither side ever dreamed of assimilating. So the struggle between the Catholic natives and the Protestant settlers has raged off and on in Ireland for four centuries. Even periods of peace lasting many decades eventually give way to more conflict.

Or consider the French settlement of Algeria. Hundreds of thousands of French colons may have thought they had created a stable new world in Algeria, but they were surrounded by several million Algerians well aware of their own numerical superiority. Today that French world has completely vanished.

Another example is the white presence in southern Africa, which turned out quite differently from the white presence in the Americas and Australia not because it was morally less defensible, but because it was numerically less defensible.

Even in the Americas, in regions where native populations remain in the majority without substantial assimilation, like Guatemala, Ecuador and Peru, wars and uprisings have flared for five hundred years.

The same thing even happened to Moslem settlers in places like India and Spain where they never swamped the natives numerically. In Spain they were eventually driven out. In India, there was a chaotic division and brutal population transfer at Independence, followed by tension, terrorism and wars ever since.

Tellingly, one of the most notable examples happened on the very ground where Israel sits today. The European Crusaders carved out a dynamic and powerful settlement in much of what is now Israel and Lebanon that thrived for about a century. But the Arabs knew they had the numbers and never gave up. In the end, the Crusader state disappeared.

Looking out over the historic record, it is difficult to find any example of settlement migration that lacks either assimilation or overwhelming demographic superiority (or both) that ever turned out well for the newcomers.

Israel today is a nation of 5.3 million Jews and 1.3 million Arabs. There is no serious intention on either side to assimilate in terms of widespread intermarriage or conversion to the others' religion, language or culture.

Israel is surrounded by an ocean of 300 million Arabs, expected to rise to over 400 million by 2020. Even discounting the total Arab population of the region, just the Palestinian population west of the Jordan River alone is approaching parity with the Jewish population.

In a situation like that, it would be very hard to convince committed opponents of Israel to give up, admit defeat and accept the relative crumbs of a truncated mini state in Gaza and the West Bank. Why accept crumbs, when history indicates you can ultimately get the whole cake?

This realization - as much as wounded Arab pride, legitimate grievances about the Israeli occupation, or Islamic radicalism - may provide a clue to the seemingly endless allure of the rejectionist ideology of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.

To Westerners, it looks like the Arabs keep losing and just can't admit it. To many Arabs, mindful of the history of the Crusader states, it seems equally obvious that they are guaranteed to win in the long run, as long as they are not betrayed by feckless leaders.

This is not to say that history produces iron laws, for Israel or anyone else. Recorded history has been far too brief to produce anything like historic laws, and human conflicts can be tempered by free will and creative thought.

The relatively benign fate of the white settlers in South Africa is an example of how vision and reconciliation can trump a historic record that would not necessarily have predicted such a peaceful outcome. Though even there, the outnumbered settlers had to relinquish political power.

But the tragic history of non-assimilating settlers who lacked overwhelming numerical superiority does indicate one thing: If Israel ever convinces its neighbors to genuinely welcome it to the neighborhood as a fully integrated and normal state, it will be a feat unprecedented in history.

Conversely, if Israel faces endless conflict, if groups like Hamas and Hezbollah continuously arise and find legions of eager followers, that's pretty much what the historic record would lead us to expect. And so far, it seems to be what we've got.