Demography is destiny. Population has been an overarching metric in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the last century or so. Today, there are just over seven million Jewish people in the area that constituted the two states proposed by the UN in 1948. There are also around seven million Arabs, if you take the populations of Gaza and the West Bank and add to these the two million Arab citizens of Israel. How these 14 million people live together matters.
Taking the division of India and Pakistan in the same year as their framework, many of the seven million Jews point out that this is a small piece of land (and it is very small, I’ve travelled around it), and is surrounded by enormous tracts of land populated by over 100 million Arabs, a vast area where many Jewish Israelis thought the Palestinians would resettle – after all, they argue, there’s plenty of land with the same language, religion and culture. And if Arabs are so concerned about Palestinians, why don’t they host them, their brothers? I’ve heard this many times in Israel.
The Palestinians, disagreeing, emphasise that they live on their land, the Nakba was ethnic cleansing and why should they move – why don’t the Jews ‘go back to Europe’ or move to America?
In response, the Israeliswill point out that more than half of all Israelis are Mizrahi Jews, expelled from Arab countries, who can’t go anywhere, while many descendants of Holocaust victims might not be too keen to go back to central Europe. And around we go, apportioning blame. Who said what, who did what, to whom and when.
People are taking sides to an extent unseen in other significant conflicts, such as the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda or, more recently and in the same region, the murder of 250,000 Syrians
Many years ago, I met the brilliant Palestinian academic, Edward Said, who described the Palestinian dilemma succinctly by explaining that the Palestinians are the “victims of victims”. This resonates and represents, at least psychologically, a starting point. The fact remains that this is a relatively small land dispute between, on a global scale, a minuscule amount of the world’s people. We are talking about 0.2 per cent of the world’s population. Why are the other 99.8 per cent of humanity getting so exercised about what 0.1 per cent on one side and 0.1 per cent on the other side are up to?
People are taking sides to an extent unseen in other significant conflicts, such as the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda or, more recently when more than 350,000 people were killed in 10 years of war in Syria. Were people out on the streets of the world’s capital cities waving Syrian flags for the five million Syrian refugees who fled their country? Who was demonstrating in support of the Kurds massacred by Turkey, or Christian Armenians who are being expelled, right now, by Muslims? Or the Uighurs? Even pro-Ukrainian demonstrations against the Russian invasion when it began were nothing on the scale of what we see today regarding Israel-Palestine.
The possible reason for this asymmetry of indignation, concern and outrage is that in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, both sides have long sought to internationalise their local land war. The Israelis sought French help from the beginning of the Jewish state and French technology built Israel’s nuclear bomb. Since the early 1960s, America has been Israel’s unambiguous backer. Following the Suez crisis, the Soviet Union provided arms and money for the Arab side during the ensuing wars. The PLO [Palestine Liberation Organisation] was financed by the Kremlin and even this week, a Hamas delegation turned up in Moscow.
You can actually be pro-Palestinian, pro-Israel (within pre-1967 borders) and pro-American, but that nuanced position is getting trickier
The Cold War and its ideology persist and, over time, where a person stands on Israel-Palestine has become shorthand for where they stand on a variety of issues. It is the trump card in a suite of beliefs that line up neatly. As a result, the left tends to be pro-Palestinian and equivocal on Russia, the right is pro-Israel and wholehearted in their support of America.
The problem with this rubric is that many people feel forced, by their own sense of who and what they belong to and their preferred ideology, to take the whole suite of beliefs, rather than the more sensible a la carte option. You can actually be pro-Palestinian, pro-Israel (within pre-1967 borders) and pro-American, but that nuanced position is getting trickier. Despite being a conflict that directly involves such a tiny percentage of the world’s population, it has come to represent something greater. Far more people were killed in Syria than have (so far) been killed in Gaza, but the streets of the West remained strangely calm 10 years ago. Do Syrian lives matter less than Palestinian lives? Or could it be about the side that is killing as much as who is being killed?
In postcolonial Ireland, we have the most pro-Palestinian population in Europe yet the most pro-American economy in the world. The Irish street is Palestinian, while the Irish boardroom is American. The stock of American foreign direct investment (FDI) in Ireland stood at $557 billion in 2021. There are about 950 US subsidiaries in Ireland, employing around 209,000 people and supporting work for another 167,000 indirectly. This figure represents a significant proportion of the 2.57 million people employed in Ireland.
Nine out of the world’s top 10 drug companies have significant production facilities in Ireland. Corporate tax receipts are now the second-largest source of tax revenue (after income tax) for the Irish State, accounting for 27 per cent of total tax income in 2022 – in contrast to an average of just 9 per cent across the OECD in 2020. Only 10 multinationals – all of them US-based tech and pharmaceutical companies – pay nearly 60 per cent of Ireland’s corporate tax. We are unambiguously in the American world; the Irish economy is an adjunct of the US. At the same time, there are around 650 Irish companies operating in the US, employing around 100,000 people, with Ireland ranking as the ninth biggest source in the US of FDI (some $240 billion). Ireland is the most westernised, pro-American economy in the world. The Irish streets may look Palestinian but they are paved with American money. Ireland needs the West to be strong and unified.
The inescapable political logic of the demographic reality of the region is that Israel needs a Palestinian state as much as the Palestinians. When the killing stops, a two-state solution is the only option
For some time, the enemies of the West – Russia and China – have been looking for a “wedge issue” to divide it. They’ve found it in Palestine. Putin and Xi have met each other 42 times over the past 10 years. Their aim has always been to weaken the West and drive a wedge between America and Europe. They had high hopes for Ukraine, gambling on a soft Europe not having the stomach for a fight. They miscalculated. But with Israel-Palestine they have their issue. Europe is divided and the European street is enflamed. In their proxy, Iran, they have the trainer of Hamas and the paymaster of Hizbullah, which can increase and decrease the Middle East temperature. Moscow and Beijing have their weapon, and America is compromised.
In the end, the Israel-Palestine conflict is a local land dispute between two peoples who aren’t going anywhere. The Israeli state can’t incorporate the West Bank and remain Jewish. The inescapable political logic of the demographic reality of the region is that Israel needs a Palestinian state as much as the Palestinians. When the killing stops, a two-state solution is the only option.
It is perplexing that a dispute involving less than 1 per cent of humanity has engulfed the world. But it is worth remembering that the first World War started with a territorial row, a local border dispute, between Austria and Serbia.