Israelis and Palestinians: Who’s oppressing whom?

For decades western opinion has been divided with respect to the ongoing struggle between Israel and the Palestinians. Few people take an even-handed view of the conflict. However, I would like to suggest that, if we follow the Marxian tendency to divide the world into oppressors and oppressed, we are certain to miss the true character of the conflict. Indeed, both sides are responsible for committing oppressive acts against the other, and the sooner we recognize this, the better the chances of achieving some measure of justice in the region.

First, the Palestinian side. Given my paternal relatives’ experience as refugees in Cyprus four decades ago, I am instinctively sympathetic to the cause of a people who have been displaced en masse from their homes. As Britain was in the process of conquering Turkish-controlled Palestine in late 1917, Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour published a declaration committing his government to the establishment there of a homeland for the Jews. Although he specified “that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country,” Balfour did not bother to consult the inhabitants of Palestine or to seek their approval, which would almost certainly not have been forthcoming.

This is something that Palestinians have never forgotten, and it fuels their sense of grievance in the face of what they see as continued Israeli oppression. Nearly a century after the Balfour Declaration, it is no longer considered acceptable to offer someone else’s territory to another people without their consent. But this overdue recognition did not come in time to help Palestinian Arabs, who were victims of the late British Empire’s divide and rule strategy.

Furthermore, Israel’s Law of Return grants citizenship to Jews born elsewhere, while Palestinian refugees who fled in 1948 and shortly thereafter are denied citizenship. This obvious double standard is scarcely conducive to peace and stability.

No simple resolution

Now for the Israeli side. There can be no doubt that Jews have historic ties to the land between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea going back more than 3,000 years. Even after the vast majority were living in exile, there has always been a Jewish presence, however small, in Palestine. That Jews should wish to return is hardly surprising.

Moreover, Israeli Jews remind us that they have always been willing to share Palestine with its Arab inhabitants, beginning before 1948. However, the surrounding states were unwilling to accept the Jewish presence, and their attacks were successfully repelled by an expanding Israeli state. Israel had not sought more territory and would not have acquired it if its neighbours had been content to leave it in peace. Because they have not been willing to coexist with Israel, that country has been compelled to keep the occupied territories as a buffer against Arab aggression.

At present Israel appears to be in a strategically untenable position. If it were to annex outright the occupied territories, the huge Arab presence would endanger its status as a Jewish state. The example of Lebanon to its north is hardly encouraging. Once boasting a Christian majority, the demographic shift to a Muslim majority has made Lebanon an increasingly difficult place for Christians to live in peace. Furthermore, given that Hamas controls Gaza and that the 1988 Hamas Covenant vilifies the Jews, there is little incentive for Israel to confer citizenship on those who view Jews as enemies.

If, on the other hand, Israel were to recognize the independence of the occupied territories as a separate Palestinian state, the influence of Hamas on its new neighbour would constitute a grave threat to Israel’s very existence. As it turns out, the dangers to Israel are considerable whether it opts for a one-state or a two-state solution. Outsiders proposing simple resolutions to the conflict are deluding themselves if they think Israel will follow their advice at its own peril.

I wish it were possible to settle this tragic conflict in the course of a 700-word column. However, my recommendation that Israel repeal its Law of Return and abandon its Jewish settlements in the West Bank is unlikely to be heeded. Nor are Palestinian leaders liable to follow my counsel to accept Israel’s legitimacy and put aside the anti-Semitic ranting of the Hamas Covenant. Israelis and Palestinians are both oppressors and oppressed, and only if they come to recognize this reality will peace and reconciliation become possible.


  • David Koyzis

    David Koyzis is a Global Scholar with Global Scholars Canada. He is the author of the award-winning Political Visions and Illusions (2nd ed., 2019) and We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God (2014). He has written a column for Christian Courier since 1990.

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