Every now and then, when passions flare up as groups lay claim to a land, they believe is theirs, very little reasoning is employed, and a lot of subterfuge is allowed into the non-conversation. That is because, you see, the intention is not to shed light on the issues at hand but to win debating points and maybe advance some agenda.
Every time the Middle East erupts this is evident, basically because the issues attached to that area have a lot to do with identity, historicity and entrenched rights. They are also deeply religious, which tells you they tend to be unthinking.
When, many years ago, I got the chance to affect a study tour in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank for a month, I first thought it was an occasion to clarify a number of issues that seemed cloudy for me at that time, but after a month I came back even more befuddled than I had been before landing at Tel Aviv. Subsequent developments around that same place have not managed to enlighten me, and the feeling of helplessness seems to grow darker with every new development.
Matters would have been complicated enough if they remained at the level of a fight among cousins who have failed to live together in the land, they both claim was given to them by God. But they have also been subsumed by entangled global geopolitical interests and machinations whose high-stakes calculations leave very little room for cool heads to work out solutions. Unfortunately, past mistakes push those who committed them to seek so-called solutions, whose only outcome is the creation of other problems, sometimes more daunting that the earlier problems.
In recent weeks, there has been a lot of talk about the historicity of the conflict that we are witnessing since the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, a ferocious reminder, if we needed one, that nothing in that old feud has been solved in any sensible way and that all the past attempts to fix the problem have all been band-aid attempts that have little staying power.
Recently, people have been going back to the so-called Balfour Declaration, among other momentous statements by historic figures. The reading of that document makes it clear that the British and their allies in the implementation of what Lord Balfour envisaged could not be guaranteed unless a strong and effective and fair international governance system was in place.
The decision to create a country in which Jews — largely from Europe — would live free and safe from the pogroms that were commonplace at that time was supposedly predicated on the assurance of the respect for cultural and other rights of other groups living in the designated country.
Had Uganda been finally chosen for such a settlement — an idea that was mulled seriously by Joseph Chamberlain in the 1900s — we may allow ourselves to imagine what would have happened to the lands around Lake Victoria. The only saving grace in this eventuality would have been that the Israelis would have believed their land to be a creation of Lord Balfour, rather than a creation of the Lord.
Eventually, it was not Uganda, but Palestine, and the rest has been history, as they say. The birth pangs of that creation, coming hard on the heels of the Hitler War and the Holocaust, was painful beyond words, especially for the Palestinians, who have borne the pains of that Naqba (Disaster) to date.
What we are witnessing today is one of the ugly manifestations of the perfidy of British colonialism at the time of the dissolution of the Ottoman empire. The Palestinians were treated as an expendable people, not worth serious consideration. I am in no doubt at all that had Uganda been decided upon, a worse fate would have been suffered by the Baganda, Basoga and Luo of that area, and the fallout would have poured over all the way to Rwanda, Burundi, Congo and beyond.
The claims and counterclaims we hear today about right and wrong; terrorists and terror victims; civilians and combatants; all these are chosen epithets to bolster value judgements we may not hold in common, which means, partly, that we are swayed by deep-rooted biases that form our opinions and feelings this way or that way.
If it is okay for us to blame and condemn Hamas for the atrocities against Israeli civilians on October 7, how does that justify the bloody orgy of infanticide that we are being fed on our television screens for all this time?
It may seem easy for the Israeli prime minister to compare Hamas to Hitler and ISIS, but really? It may sound strong to say that October 7 will live forever in infamy — good quote from Pearl Harbour, no? — but how can it bigger that 1948? Plus, how does it help Israel to act like an international outlaw and spoilt brat, savaging a humble, toothless secretary-general of the UN simply for saying October 7 has a context? So, it has no context? Really? And we are expected to say Never Again. Is there context there?
The Israelis have been condemned by history to live side-by-side with the Palestinians. At some stage the latter were bent on eliminating the former; now it looks like roles have switched. Both have to learn to co-exist; they have no choice.