The Arab World Geographer
Forum on Current Crisis in Palestine/Israel
On a Razor’s Edge: Opportunity Lost or Opportunity Gained?

Robert W. McColl
Department of Geography, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas    66045   U.S.A.

Perception is everything. World TV missed the massacres in the refugee camps of  Beirut, but the visually indelible image of Israeli troops machine gunning a helpless, clearly non-combatant father and son, combined with images of helicopter gun ships firing rockets at rock-throwing Palestinians, not only made every news media in the world; they severely crippled any Israeli claim to the moral high ground. The image is a classic symbolic of David and Goliath—including the stone throwing. Until 1967, it was Israel that could portray itself as David. This has ended—once and for all.

This could not have occurred at a worse time for Israel or a more opportune time for the Palestinians.   Now is the time to define a Palestinian state. Israel can no longer put this off as a matter to be negotiated at some future time. Clearly, a failure to deal with this situation now can only devolve into increased violence and greater armed repression by Israel and a greater militancy and increased partisan warfare by the Palestinians. After all, if the Israeli Army is willing indiscriminately to kill Palestinian civilians; why not make a total commitment and kill them all? If the government of Israel now says it is up to the Palestinians to stop the violence, they de facto acknowledge there is a Palestinian government and that it should have power. Yet the Israeli government, through statements by Ehud Barak on 7 October 2000, says it will turn its army loose on Palestinians (and since there is no Palestinian army, this has to mean civilians) with no guiding principles other than total repression. This is not negotiation.  It is not even intimidation. "Do it my way or I will kill you and your family." "This land is our land.  You live here with our permission only."  There is total contempt for the rights of others.

The issues —An Israeli View

The State of Israel and individual Israelis fear the Palestinians. Why? The Palestinians have no army,  few guns, fewer legal rights than Jews in Israeli courts, and clearly could not attack or defeat Israel in any conceivable war—partisan or regular.

The political geography (reality) of enclaves of conservative and highly armed (for defense naturally) Israeli Jews in the midst of Palestinian communities creates the image and geographic reality of an interesting kind of "ghetto." Unfortunately, the reality is one reminiscent of American forts in the midst of Indian Territories. And the intention is the same, to claim and dominate the land. To remove people. It is ethnic cleansing and it has a long tradition in the Middle East.

The complementary reality—too often ignored—is that the Palestinians must live with an enclave in their very midst of hostile, armed, and aggressive enemies who are protected by an entire national army. This is clearly a much greater threat to the Palestinians than are the Palestinians a threat to Israel. But again we have to deal with perceptions.  The Jews feel that total occupation of the land of Israel (Eratz Israel) is their destiny and a religious right. The ultra conservative view is that all non-Jews must be removed.

Supporting the rights of Israelis to water over the needs of Palestinians can be viewed as something akin to supporting Anglo-Americans’ oil claims over the rights of native American Indians or supporting the rights of the U.S. to Colorado River water over claims from Mexico. One side claims to need it more or have the technology necessary to use the resource more efficiently than the other. Often national defense or economic stability issues are raised to justify the unequal policies. The bottom line is that the process and practice is completely one-sided. It is an abuse of power wherever it occurs.

There is the often expressed fear that a Palestinian State would put a mortal enemy essentially inside the State of Israel. This enemy would be too close to allow for national defense. But what happens if this same argument is used by all of the world's states that find an enemy on their borders? Furthermore, who created this political geography? Initially, it was designed by the Israelis—not unlike South Africa's Bantustans—to provide physical and geographic control of an unwanted internal population. However, unlike South Africa, where many of the Blacks were recent migrants, Palestinians were already living in the territory of modern Israel before the State of Israel was formed. Certainly a major Israeli concern is demographics. Palestinians clearly outnumber and are out-producing the Israelis. However, the Israelis are master geopoliticians and political psychologists. They will (must?) find ways to deal with these human and geographic realities. A concern is where they learned the practice and how long can they continue to confuse the issue?

The Issues—A  Palestinian Perspective

Palestinians see the creation of a Palestinian state as the exercise of an essential human right of any and all peoples who are territorially cohesive and who share common values (and in this instance, common threats and fears). Other Arab countries support the creation of such a state, not only from a sense of brotherhood but also as a place to which their own Palestinian displaced persons and refugees can return—or be returned.

Palestinians view their political and legal rights as even more legitimate than those of Zionist Jews who began coming to Israel as new settlers increased in 1947. After all, it is the Palestinians who were displaced from land they were currently occupying They are not a people returning to long-abandoned lands, pushing out the existing inhabitants. This has been the practice of "ethnic cleansing" well before the term was used by Milosevic.

Israeli carto-propaganda, in which small Jewish enclaves and settlements are shown in large symbols while large Palestinian populations are shown as a small dot and the Israelis erase Palestinian cemeteries and villages from the landscape; Israeli bulldozing or dynamiting of  homes and the forcing of people to live in the rubble; these are not the acts of people prepared to live together.

Would Jewish Israelis allow Yassir  Arafat to visit a Jewish shrine with over 1 000 armed Palestinian guards? Would Palestinian snipers be allowed forcibly to occupy the upper floors of Israeli homes with the excuse that it is to protect Palestinians? Would Palestinian police in machine-gun-mounted jeeps be allowed to patrol Palestinian neighbourhoods inside Israel?

If the solution is to fall back on a philosophy and practice of "might makes right,"  then there can be no solution until one side physically eliminates the other. And there are current examples that reveal how the memory of such eliminations continues through the centuries—the Balkans (the former Yugoslavia), Armenia, Kurdistan, Chechnya, Rwanda, and Burundi. Today Israel must stop the bullying, negotiate, and recognize that it needs to develop a new geo-political model or it must once and for all eliminate and kill as many Palestinians as possible. To hell with public opinion. Could Israel or the world live with such a decision? Israel geographically exists in what is still termed "the Arab World."    And, while war may be good for the economy and nation-building, it is not good for the soul. Neither the Arab states nor Israel can justify continued hostility except as a means of diverting attention from internal stresses. Israel and individual Israelis should not allow themselves to be used this way.

As the clear minority, the ones literally under the Israeli gun, Palestinians must define a state that recognizes legitimate Israeli fears and its own dependence on the State of Israel's good will, even its support. Israel must acknowledge that there is no alternative to a Palestinian state. Israel set the stage for this by its own actions and declarations. It is now time to pay the piper. Simultaneously, Palestinians should not allow themselves to be mere pawns in the politics of other Arab states.

Tactics and Strategies

In October of 2 000 Israeli leaders complain of Palestinians’ using "children" and sending them to the front. This, while Israelis for years have built entire cities and bomb shelters for families on the frontlines of Lebanon and Syria in the Golan. Who would send entire families to an active war front and then complain they were fired upon?  And when the children are shot in the head  (a head shot is designed to kill—period) even with rubber bullets, this is declared self-defense. Really? For the Palestinians the tactic of using children is both a necessity and a lesson learned from the Israelis themselves.

What Israel, in its geopolitical gamesmanship, has now created is an active military front along the border with Lebanon and the potential for a coordinated internal uprising among the Palestinians both in the Israeli-occupied territories as well as among Palestinians citizens living in Israel. Such a simultaneous uprising and attack would inevitably result in an Israeli action against all Arabs.  Any possible sense of community or shared space would end for the foreseeable future.

Today Israelis fear all their Arab neighbours (countries as well as next-door neighbours) and they have already begun to murder them in pre-emptive fear. Yet Palestinians have had to live as second-class citizens among Jews toting Uzi and M-16 machine guns in their cars, on buses, and in the streets. If these two antagonists can develop a modus vivendi, it will not only be a major break in the region's tradition of violence, it may provide a model for dealing with similar circumstances in many other countries,—in much of Central Asia, and also in Indonesia and many countries in Africa. This is a point in time that has been reached via too much bloodshed.  It is an opportunity essential to the moral well-being as well as international  political future of both Israelis and Palestinians. Israel, especially, as the dominant military might, must move beyond the concept of "putting their hand on the landscape" or breaking arms and legs to teach lessons to rock throwers. Chasing rock-throwing street gangs with helicopter gun ships is patently ridiculous.


Palestinians cannot be expected to develop political maturity and population control until they are given the rights and responsibilities that go with such control. They cannot be, or appear to be, mere puppets of Israel. If they play the current situation right, it will be the Palestinians who can claim the moral high ground. It then will  be up to the international community, especially the United States, to protect and nourish a new status. A collateral positive result of this would be that the United States might become a hero in the Arab world while not abandoning Israel. Failing this, there is the probability that the Palestinians will invite others, with no clear ties to Israel, to help protect them – politically.

(Submitted 11 October 2000)

© The Arab World Geograppher

Forum / Editorial / Nolte / Khashan / Mustafa / McColl / Newman / Halper / Schechla / Khamaisi / Taylor

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