I grew up in a very pro-Israel household. For eight years I attended synagogue, said my prayers every Shabbat, and listened to explanations of the Middle East conflict that, as I gathered at the time, consisted of villainous terrorists killing the good people of Israel. It was a very comfortable black-and-white view of the situation, reinforced by the media and textbooks, and I believed it up until high school. After flatly refusing to become a Bar Mitzvah (despite my friends’ protests of “But what about the money?”) and subsequently dropping Sunday school, I took the time to double-check what I’d learned about the history of tension in the Middle East. I learned about the Arab-Israeli War, the Suez War, the Six-Day War, the Intifadas, the blockade of the Gaza Strip, and the Israeli settlements in the West Bank. I’m still no expert, of course, but I know enough to not view the issue in moral absolutes—usually a good sign that you’re getting the right information.
Last month’s peace talks were centered on the expiration of a 10-month moratorium on the building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which Palestinians regard as their land, and ended without agreement. On Oct. 14 Israel announced its intent to build more than 200 new Jewish homes in the Palestinian-claimed district of East Jerusalem. The situation in the Gaza Strip is equally—if not more—troubling. Israel has had a blockade on the Gaza Strip since 2007, when a military conflict erupted and Hamas took control of the region, removing Fatah officials (Hamas and Fatah had formed a unity government following their victory in the 2006 Palestinian elections). By some measures, sanctions intended to weaken Hamas have been effective, but they’ve also created widespread poverty. Aid organizations say that blockaded items include tea, chocolate, crayons, light bulbs, and other supplies. The mistargeted blockade poses little threat to Hamas and hurts Palestinians’ quality of life. Humanitarian organizations publicized the issue several months ago by attempting to circumvent the blockade by sea, which led to an easing of restrictions. Nonetheless, various NGOs still describe the majority of the population of Gaza as “food-insecure.”
Of the two Palestinian-administered areas, the West Bank is much larger and viewed as more politically legitimate than the Gaza Strip. It’s curious, then, that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems to have almost as little patience for diplomacy with Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian National Authority and public face of the West Bank government, as he does for mediation with Hamas, Abbas’s rival political faction in the Gaza Strip. Despite pleas from the United States and other nations, Netanyahu has refused to extend the moratorium on new settlements. Instead, he dangles the possibility of “temporary extensions” of the moratorium in exchange for permanent concessions from the Palestinians. Some analysts predict that Netanyahu is simply biding his time until the expected Republican victory in the American midterm elections, when Congress will be more receptive to the settlement status quo.
To make it perfectly clear: these settlements are illegal and have been rightly condemned by the international community. The United States remains concerned about phrasing their displeasure too strongly, given the history of Israeli-American cooperation and Israel’s position as the sole pro-American nation in the Middle East. However, such continued, blatant disregard for international law demands action.
The United States is by far Israel’s strongest—and perhaps only—true ally. The U.S. provides Israel with funds and advanced weaponry, which help make the country, despite its small size, the most ferocious fighting force in the region. Netanyahu’s blasé attitude toward antagonizing members of the American government reflects the atmosphere of entitlement which has existed around the U.S.-Israel military relationship. If any substantial peace process is going to occur, this needs to change. Congress cannot be afraid to restrict funds destined for Israel, especially when the recipient of those funds appears intent on maintaining a situation that harms Israeli, American, and global security—the plight of the Palestinians makes for an extremely effective extremist recruiting tool.
Differing opinions on the initial or current formation of Israel aside, the modern state is a legitimate one, and Israelis have every right to refer to it as their homeland. But here’s the trouble: so do Palestinians. While the discrimination Palestinians face regarding their sovereignty, identity, and freedom of movement does not even remotely approach the oppression Jews faced in the mid-20th century, the current Israeli power dynamic is a sadly ironic reversal of roles.
Israel has a right to be assertive. It faces multiple hostile nations—including one that seems determined to develop nuclear weapons—and domestic terror cells. Its uncompromising military readiness has saved the country time and again. The historical persecution of the Jewish people makes it entirely reasonable that Israelis view issues through a combative lens. Israel has also shown instances of restraint and goodwill. During the first Gulf War, Israel did not launch a counter-attack to Saddam Hussein’s 39 Scud missiles (leaving that duty to the Americans) and instead provided gas masks to both Israelis and Palestinians. The current situation, however, is different. Nothing can justify the infringement upon national sovereignty and human rights. Of all the world’s nations, the sole Jewish state should be especially cognizant of that.