Two scholars of the ongoing Israel-Palestine tension visited Ithaca College this week. Israeli educator and journalist Jeremy Maissel gave a public lecture Monday sponsored by Hillel titled, “A History of the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict 101.” Maissel, who is associated with the Zionist educational organization Melitz, argued points of the conflict from an Israeli perspective. Ali Abunimah, a journalist and commentator on issues in the Middle East, gave a speech on Tuesday sponsored by Students For A Just Peace titled, “Israel and Palestine: Is Peace About to Break Out?” Abunimah, the founder of the Israel-Palestine news site ElectronicIntifada.net, discussed the conflict from a Palestinian perspective. The Ithacan recently posed the same questions about the conflict in two separate conversations with the visitors.
William Earl: Please describe the Israeli—Palestinian situation as it stands today.
Ali Abunimah: Well, it’s very simple. You have in Israel the West Bank and Gaza Strip and two populations roughly equal in number - about 5 million Israeli Jews and 5 million Palestinians. One of these groups has a near monopoly on political, military and economic power and the other group is almost completely disenfranchised and doesn’t enjoy basic human civil political or economic rights. In any situation with any two groups of people, that’s a recipe for massive conflict. That’s the situation today.
Jeremy Maissel: At the moment, with the new Palestinian regime under Mahmoud Abbas [President of the Palestinian National Authority], there seems to be some hope for the Middle East, although experience tells us that we have to be very cautious. The Middle East has always been a very dynamic place in the world. But at the moment, people are talking and that is very optimistic.
WE: What can be done to resolve the conflict?
AA: What can be done is to bring justice so that Palestinians and Israelis enjoy equal access to economic opportunity, political power, the chance to have a say in their own lives. Israelis and Palestinians must feel security, but there cannot be security for Israelis if Palestinians are insecure and vice-versa. Right now, we have a situation of tremendous violence. Most of the violence has been perpetrated by the Israeli army against the Palestinians, but you also have had significant violence by Palestinians against Israelis. Violence is the symptom of the inequality and injustice that exists, and bringing equality and justice is the only route to peace.
JM: Well that’s a very easy question - if you had a few days, I could give you some ideas. What can be done? People have to be constructive. People have to try to put unhelpful events from the past aside and try and concentrate on the sorts of things that will be constructive in the path to world peace.
WE: Is it realistic that this conflict can be resolved?
AA: It is realistic that the conflict can be resolved. We’ve seen many conflicts resolved in the world that we often don’t think about. The conflict in South Africa which lasted for many centuries was resolved, and we now see a peaceful democratic, multi-racial South Africa. Europe, which had many bloody wars in which tens of millions of people were killed, is now in the process of forming a European Union without borders. In our own country, we’ve seen a tremendous history of injustice - slavery, genocide of Native Americans, Jim Crow laws - and we have addressed those conflicts and those injustices. We strive towards a society in which every American has equal rights. So there are plenty of examples of people resolving conflicts. Israelis and Palestinians are nothing special. They’re human beings like everyone else, and yes they can resolve the conflict.
JM: It’s realistic in that other conflicts that were thought to be intractable have been resolved. It’s realistic in that at the end of the day, you’re talking about human beings. As an optimist, I would hope that human beings could sort out their differences rationally.
WE: Are there any grievances that Israelis have that you feel are justified?
AA: Of course. Ordinary Israelis have suffered a great deal from the conflict as do ordinary Palestinians. Ordinary Israelis are caught in the conflict like Palestinians, and the responsibility lies with the Israeli government to stop doing the things which endanger Israelis. Israel is engaged in a military occupation, depriving millions of Palestinians their basic rights. This is directly producing conflict and violence, which is harming ordinary Israelis as well as Palestinians. It’s very interesting that while the whole world is talking about renewing the peace process, Israel continues to announce that it is continuing to confiscate Palestinian land to build Jewish-only housing settlements on it. That’s not the path to peace and we need to see Israel choose a different path.
WE: Are there any grievances that Palestinians have that you feel are justified?
JM: I will say this: I think there are faults on both sides. I don’t think that either side is completely blameless and it would be very arrogant to say that the Israelis haven’t made their mistakes in the past. I think the Palestinians have also made their mistakes.
WE: What drives you to stay so active in discussing the topic of the Israeli - Palestinian conflict?
AA: I believe that the Israelis and Palestinians deserve justice. That peace depends upon the efforts of all of us. I believe that this conflict is harmful, not just to Israelis and Palestinians but also to the United States. The U.S.’s unconditional and biased support of Israel, no matter what Israel does, has done a lot of harm to U.S. interests around the world. The U.S. has an interest in a solution that is fair to Palestinians and fair to Israelis.
JM: Primarily my motivation is that I have a very strong personal commitment to Judaism. I live in Israel. My children are growing up in Israel and I see my future and my children’s future in Israel. Also, I think it’s a fascinating subject.
WE: How are you hoping to educate students about the conflict?
AA: I’m hoping to get them to ask questions and to recognize that the simplified version of the conflict that they might get from the mass media in this country leaves out a lot of issues. Generally in any history, or any story, the strong usually go on to get to tell their story and those on the weaker side are the ones who end up being dehumanized and marginalized. I want them to hear that there is another story here, and to understand that Palestinians are human just like Israelis. They’re not different from other human beings and what they want is the right to live in peace in dignity, something that has been denied to them for decades.
JM: I think the most important element is to give students as much access to as much information about as many issues as possible and to allow them to make informed decisions for themselves.
WE: Can the Ithaca College community do anything directly to help people who are suffering because of the situation?
AA: I think they can do a lot. I think it’s really important for students and other members of the community to speak out about this issue especially because there are lots of efforts being made to scare people from speaking. To say that this issue is too complicated, or if you criticize Israel, then somehow you’re being anti-Semitic, has a chilling effect on free speech and on the ability to debate a sensible U.S. policy towards this conflict. I think we need to broaden the debate. We need to not be afraid to have the debate and we need to say that justice and peace requires us to be critical of Israel when Israel is doing wrong.
JM: I’m not sure how they can take an active, practical role in solving the conflict. I would say that keeping their eyes on the news, going to visit Israel, taking an active interest in affairs - that might motivate someone to become more involved on a personal level. But people living in Ithaca and spending their life in Ithaca … I think it would be hard for them to find an avenue where they would directly influence the peace process.