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Jerusalem was awakened this past Shabbat morning by sirens announcing missiles and by the low thud of the guns that intercept them. My friends in the Israeli Defense Forces are preparing to invade Gaza, or else they are guarding the West Bank and the Lebanese border. Thirteen hundred Israelis are dead. 

Accurate scholarship can unearth whatever mishaps allowed armed men to breach the Gaza border fence, to conquer army bases and kibbutzim, to kill and rape attendees at a holiday music festival, to behead infants in front of their parents, to incinerate homes with their residents inside, and to take several dozen hostages. One expects the IDF will find the militants still in Israel just as it has reclaimed the border towns. Then, into Gaza. Meanwhile, those who ask others to fire weapons and risk death on their behalf should understand why they are making the request. Which means establishing why we are here to begin with. 

In charity, Hamas should be permitted to speak first. The military chief of the militant group governing Gaza since 2007 justifies attacking Israelis who “desecrated [the] al-Aqsa” mosque on Jerusalem’s temple mount. I would be outraged if Jews were prohibited from visiting Jewish holy places. Christians were rightly angered when the Turkish government declared the Hagia Sophia a mosque in 2020. But nothing of the kind has happened to Muslims in Jerusalem. They worship in al-Aqsa freely. Tourists are permitted to visit freely. It is Jews whose rights of public worship are curbed, by the Israeli police and the Jordanian Waqf, lest Muslim worshippers and the Muslim world take violent offense.

The Hamas attack seems timed to disrupt negotiations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Hamas would be humiliated were its commitment to war against the Jewish State to be officially abandoned by the most powerful Arab state. Peace between Saudi Arabia and Israel would formalize and intensify Jewish-Sunni opposition to Hamas’s Iranian patrons who, it seems, helped planned this operation. But even if a Saudi-Israeli rapprochement occasioned this particular irruption, it does not explain why Iran finds Palestinians to be such willing executioners.

The Palestinians’ sympathizers in the West often cite Israel’s settlements and military presence in the West Bank, and its blockade of the Gaza strip, to account for Palestinian violence. Perhaps if Israel withdrew from the land it conquered in the 1967 Six-Day War, the Palestinians would be satisfied and Israel would have peace. 

I wish this explanation had merit. Then ending the conflict would require mainly that the Jewish State act on its own citizens and withdraw its own forces. But the explanation fails both normatively and analytically. Israel’s presence in the West Bank is justified by the international legal principle of uti possidetis juris, as the scholars Avi Bell and Eugene Kontorovich have shown in a comprehensive article in the Arizona Law Review. The principle says that the boundaries of new sovereigns are determined by the administrative boundaries established by the prior power in the region. This principle applies around the world. It has lately been used to determine the borders of the countries that emerged from the Soviet Union and the breakup of Yugoslavia. Israel emerged from British Mandatory Palestine, which included the West Bank, Gaza, and all of Jerusalem. Israel was the only sovereign to emerge in the territory following the British withdrawal in 1947. Israel’s residents are entitled to live in the West Bank––and Tel Aviv and Haifa––by the same principle that entitles Ukrainians to live in Crimea, which was part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic when the Soviet Union collapsed. 

Analytically––the history of Israel’s relations in the West Bank and Gaza since the 1967 War shows that Palestinians are more violent and their leaders more extreme the less Israel intervenes in their affairs. The years following the 1990s Oslo process, which ceded just under a third of the West Bank to the Palestinian Authority’s civilian control, saw the annual Israeli death rate from Palestinian terrorism go up, not down. In 2000, Palestinian Authority chief Yasser Arafat was offered a Palestinian state in the West Bank––he rejected the offer and launched the Second Intifada, which killed over a thousand Israelis. The 2005 Israeli withdrawal from Gaza under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was followed by the victory of Hamas in Palestinian legislative elections in 2006. Hamas violently evicted the PA from the strip in 2007. Hamas has since used Gaza as a launching pad for thousands of rockets and, now, ground invasions. 

So, we must go back before the Six-Day War of 1967, which in any case could not have occurred without the conflict. Indeed, we need to go back even before Israel’s 1947–1949 war of independence against the Palestinian Arabs and invading Arab armies, which cost 6,000 Jewish lives. 

Large-scale Palestinian violence against Jews goes back to the early 1920s. After the defeat of the Ottoman empire in World War I, the League of Nations approved a mandate for Great Britain to establish a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. The quoted phrase is a verbatim reference to the Balfour Declaration of 1917, Britain’s wartime pledge of support for Zionism. The British, with help from a unit of Jewish soldiers, conquered Palestine from the Ottomans. Jews had been emigrating to Palestine by the tens of thousands for decades. At last, under the British, Palestine was governed by a country officially committed to a Jewish national home. The victorious allies would in time grant the Arabs––who had been ruled by and who almost universally supported the Ottomans––independence in 99 percent of the Near East. Britain’s mandate opened Palestine to “close settlement” by Jews, allowing a long-persecuted people to have their own polity.

The Arabs of Palestine rebelled against the League of Nations-approved mandate. Incited by the British-appointed mayor of Jerusalem and by his cousin Haj Amin al-Husseini, Arabs in April 1920 rioted in Jerusalem during the Muslim festival of Nebi Musa. Five Jews were killed and a few hundred were injured. Two Jewish women were raped. The Cairo-based head of British military intelligence wrote to the British Foreign Secretary describing the events as a “pogrom.” Though Haj Amin was convicted of inciting the riot, he was pardoned then and appointed mufti of Jerusalem by the British governor of Palestine in May 1921. That same month, Arab rioters in Jaffa killed dozens of Jews and wounded over a hundred. A British government investigation ––the Haycraft Commission––blamed the 1921 riots on Arab opposition to Jewish immigration and to Britain’s pro-Zionist policy. The British High Commissioner of Palestine temporarily suspended Jewish immigration to Palestine to placate the Arabs. This did not work. Haj Amin helped to incite and lead the 1929 riots in Jerusalem, Hebron, Jaffa, and Safed, in which 133 Jews were murdered. He led the Arab revolt against the British from 1936–1939, which culminated in the British suspension of virtually all Jewish immigration to Palestine. The Palestinian Arab leadership rejected the British Peel Commission’s proposal in 1937 to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab state, and it rejected the partition of Palestine proposed by the United Nations a decade later. In May 1948, the Jewish State declared independence, defending itself then and since against Palestinian efforts to destroy it which have occasionally paused but never finally ceased. 

Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky, a leading Zionist from the 1900s until his death in 1940, understood that as long as Palestinian Arabs do not despair of evicting the Jews from Palestine, they will continue to attempt it. Two years after the 1921 riots, Jabotinsky wrote that “as long as the Arabs feel that there is the least hope of getting rid of us, they will refuse to give up this hope in return for either kind words or for bread and butter, because they are not a rabble, but a living people.” Jabotinsky proposed an “Iron Wall” a Jewish military that would enforce the rights of Jews to emigrate to Palestine, to live there in peace, and to build a Jewish-majority state. 

Today’s Iron Wall is the Israeli Defense Forces. It is tasked, like any army fighting a just war, with establishing the conditions for a just peace. Hamas has tried to destroy the Jewish State since its 1988 covenant. The group is culpable for the deaths of numerous Israelis. It has used civilian Gazans as human shields for rocket launchers, supplies, and militants. So long as Hamas rules Gaza, neither Israelis nor Palestinians can live decently.

But ending Hamas’s rule serves another purpose as well––too many Palestinians, in Jabotinsky’s day and in our own, remain hopeful that local terrorism and international pressure can, eventually, drive the Jews out. Depriving Palestinians of their instruments of terror is the only way to persuade them that this century-old goal is impossible. The Gaza Palestinians who cheered this weekend as the bodies of dead Jews were paraded about need to be shown the total futility of continuing this way. Then they may replace the thugs in charge with leaders who treat both them and Jews humanely.

If they do, there may be peace in the Holy Land.

Cole S. Aronson is writing a philosophical defense of traditional Judaism.

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Image by Berthold Werner via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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