An absurd dimension of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that after 34 years of occupying Palestinian lands in the West Bank and Gaza, Israeli leaders still do not realize the natural law that has worked throughout history — namely, that any armed occupation will generate fierce resistance.
Instead, what Israeli leaders are doing is escalating the oppression, the killing and the destruction, prolonging the suffering of both peoples, but especially the economically and militarily weaker Palestinians. Yet the historical lesson of invaded and oppressed peoples teaches that a free Palestine will inevitably emerge from this nightmare, sooner or later.
During the Second World War, Hitler’s armies occupied most of Europe, using sheer military might to spread Nazism. Resistance movements, armed not only with scavenged weapons, but also with courage, hope, persistence and ingenuity, opposed Hitler and were instrumental in preparing the way for Allied forces to defeat the Third Reich. To accomplish this, resistance fighters — men, women, children, even the elderly — often had to resort to what we today would call terrorist acts in the absence of any other alternatives to regaining their peoples’ freedom.
When German occupation forces retaliated by wiping out local resistance cells, they killed many innocent men, women and children, even destroying entire villages. Yet military reprisals did not crush that desire for freedom; resistance members were and are regarded as heroes.
In his book “The Jews and the Crusaders” Shlomo Eidelberg tells us that in 1096 CE “the Jews who fought the Crusaders reflect the typical fate of the self-defender.” In a desperate move to free his people from Christian mistreatment, a young Jewish man named Simcha ha-Cohen [a highly revered priestly name in Hebrew] “drew a knife and murdered the nephew of the local bishop.” He too was labelled a terrorist by his oppressors, but a resistance hero by Rabbi Eliezer bar Nathan, one of the foremost Jewish chroniclers of the time. Like other Jewish historians, he considered all Jews who were killed while fighting the advancing Crusaders as martyrs for their faith.
More than nine centuries later, post-Holocaust Jews of the 1940s fought against seemingly impossible odds to establish a new state of Israel in the Middle East. They too were a focused resistance movement, using guerilla and disruption tactics against the superior British forces. The Jews fought fearlessly, killing many in bloody attacks and ambushes. Called heroic “freedom fighters” by their compatriots, and remembered in national history books for their war of independence, they were labelled terrorist killers by the British.
In 1967, Israel occupied huge tracts of Palestinian Arab land, and for more than three decades has been establishing dozens of armed Jews-only settlements there.
Now, just like those long-ago Jewish guerilla patriots, several generations of Palestinians are fighting fiercely to re-establish their own nation. And they are being brutally attacked by Israeli tanks, soldiers and fighter airplanes. Numerous homes of innocent families have been destroyed, hundreds killed and injured (many for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time), and hundreds more jailed, including the tenacious Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat.
Despite their own historical experience of being oppressed, Israel’s leaders still seem not to have grasped that their 34-year occupation of Palestinian territories and the crude “finders-keepers” method of planting armed settlements on them, is wholly responsible for creating and sustaining the environment of terror in which several generations of young Palestinian have grown up.
Born as children of war, and now in their late teens, twenties and thirties, they exist as hopeless and helpless adults with no prospects of contributing to normal society. Many young Palestinians, like their peers anywhere in the world, yearn for meaning in life: if given the choice between death, and merely existing as virtual prisoners under armed occupation, death is often seen as the better alternative.
Military might cannot prevent resistance movements from arising among occupied peoples, nor can soldiers stamp them out, unless virtually everyone dies in the process, as happened to the Jewish defenders of Masada in 70 CE.
History has shown over and over again that increasing the combat level of occupation only raises the resistance level. It is almost a scientific formula by now. The result for today’s Israeli occupation is that all who die in the struggle for a free Palestine have become martyrs; and all who continue on in the face of death are hailed as freedom-fighters and heroes. It does not matter that their oppressors label them as killers or terrorists.
Yasser Arafat is the elected and internationally acknowledged leader of the Palestinian people in their struggle for a free and independent nation. To them and their freedom-supporters worldwide, he is a hero while alive (whether at large, imprisoned, or exiled) and — should the Israelis be obscenely foolish enough to allow or orchestrate his death — a martyr.
Israel’s leaders have lost their moral credibility, despite retaining unbelievably strong American economic, political and military support. This is a many-layered tragedy for Jews and Palestinians, for on the bottom line, both continue to pay the lessons of history with their own people’s lives.
Why hasn’t Israel read the book of history — including its own?
Prof. Mohamed Elmasry is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Waterloo and national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress.