Whenever progressives decry the ‘illegal’ Israeli occupation or question its very legitimacy, they should be asked three basic questions.
By: Henry Roth
Whenever progressives decry the ‘illegal’ Israeli occupation of Judea, Samaria and the Golan or question the very legitimacy of Israel itself, we should be asking these critics three basic questions:
How can a nation brought into existence with the support of most nations in the UN be illegitimate, given how very few countries were created as a result of international consensus?
How can it be illegal to occupy territory that you seized in a defensive war against a genocidal enemy?
How does Israel’s existence and territorial evolution differ in any significant way from that of other countries?
Surely fair-minded people would agree that Israel should be judged by the same standards by which we assess the actions of other nations, and in that context, the question is how was the creation of Israel and its subsequent land-holding expansion qualitatively different than the origins and boundary changes of other nations?
To the question of Israel’s legitimacy, let us remember that Israel was founded in 1948 with the approval of almost 60% of the members of the United Nations (75% if you include the nations that abstained). Its territory was carved out of the Palestinian Mandate area ruled by the British, and much of the land originally envisaged to be ceded to the Jewish state was miniscule and consisted mostly of enclaves that were already predominantly Jewish-populated.
Because the Arabs refused to accept the existence of a Jewish state in the Middle East, they went to war in a futile effort to annihilate Israel, and in the aftermath of that conflict, Israel ended up with more territory than was envisaged by the UN partition plan (although Jordan did seize the West Bank which was meant to be part of Israel).
Their Arab neighbors again threatened Israel in 1967, and in the ensuing conflict, Israel managed to acquire additional territory in the West Bank of Jordan, Gaza, the Sinai and the Golan Heights. Only six years later, her Arab neighbours attacked again and Israel was able to prevail, albeit with a horrendous loss of life.
It must also be noted that Jews have lived in Israel (or whatever the area was called at any point in time) continuously for more than 2,000 years, and much of the territories captured by Israel, such as eastern Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, had significant and well-documented historical ties to the Jewish people. It is also important to note that the Arabs living in ‘Palestine’ did not see themselves as Palestinians; that self-identification only evolved in later years.
Israel occupies lands that were not part of the original UN Partition Plan because of the military failures of its enemies, not because Israel coveted their neighbours’ property. We should also remember that Israel has repeatedly offered to return captured territories in return for peace but the response was always terrorism and intifadas.
As to the question of how Israel’s history differs from other countries, we should recognize that the history of the critic’s native land does not necessarily have any bearing on the lucidity or accuracy of their complaints about Israel. Just because slavery existed in the United States almost two centuries ago doesn’t mean that an American cannot criticize the current slave trade in parts of Africa and the Arab world. We should also acknowledge that social mores evolve so that actions or behavior that were once acceptable and widespread may today be considered beyond the pale.
But nonetheless, even if we concede that any person has right to critique Israel’s actions, it is informative to identify both the parallels as well as the differences in history and territorial evolution between Israel and other countries throughout the world.
Let’s start with the United States and Canada. Both countries were established, to a large extent, by forcibly evicting the native peoples and even though some form of sovereignty has been granted to a number of native enclaves, no one is seriously suggesting that the US or Canada should return the entire country to its original inhabitants.
European Colonization Around the World
Europe? For almost 2,000 years, different groups have planted their flags on European territories, with the English, French and Dutch all taking turns conquering and controlling various regions. France and the Germany kept trading territories back-and-forth after their numerous clashes. And lest we forget, most of the European nations spent the better part of two centuries overpowering and colonizing smaller countries all over the planet.
Not much difference in Scandinavia where they’ve been trading whole countries amongst themselves since the 1100s.
Arab countries in the Middle East? Virtually every country in the region was conquered by successive colonizers over the centuries. Phoenicians, Macedonians, Christian Crusaders, Ottoman Empire, European powers; all of them controlled wide swaths of the region at different times, and the actual boundaries of the individual countries were constantly changing.
So when progressives question Israel’s legitimacy or cite the settlements as an obstacle to peace, let us remember some basic truths.
First, very few countries came into existence with the approval of much of the international community as was the case with Israel.
Second, the creation of Israel represented a repatriation of the area’s indigenous people, and if the Arab residents in the region had accepted the proposed equitable partition of land, they too would have had their own independent state.
Third, Israel is sitting on more territory now than it did in 1947 because their Arab foes lost the numerous wars they initiated against Israel (unlike the many countries whose present borders were the result of conquest and aggression).
Fourth, Israel would be foolhardy and arguably suicidal if it were to return captured territories that now serve as a buffer between Israel and an enemy determined to erase them from the map.
Fifth, notwithstanding the previous item, Israel has offered to return conquered territory on numerous occasions in return for peace, but it has been rebuffed at every turn.
Israel’s Uniqueness: Qualitative and Quantitative
The fact is that the difference between Israel and the rest of the world is both qualitative and quantitative, qualitative because Israel’s birth and growth are clearly more virtuous than has been the case for most other countries, and quantitative because the events in Israel’s history have taken place in our lifetime while the origins and changes in other countries’ borders took place mostly in centuries past.
The lesson for Israel and its supporters? Based on historical precedent, all the hypocritical questions and ill-founded criticisms of Israel’s birth and expansion will simply fade into non-relevance at some point, but if the questions and attacks continue way past their normal shelf life, perhaps there is nothing Jews could ever do to satisfy their critics.
The writer is a resident of Montreal, Canada.