The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict in Terms of Liberal Theory

The hot conflict between Palestine and Israel has confronted liberal thought, like all approaches, with the problem of introspection and the comparison of theory and practice. This is a problem that inevitably needs to be addressed and that will be revealed more and more in the future.

The reason for my use of the term ‘liberal thought’ rather than ‘liberal ideology’ is that I have little sympathy for the idea that liberalism is an ideology in the classical sense. At least, I do distinguish liberalism from hard ideologies such as socialism, fascism, Islamism, etc., which are based on complete truths that must be transmitted and imposed on society from top to down, and which consider that a right and a duty for the state to do so. If liberalism is to be called an ideology at all, it must be emphasized that it is a soft and incomplete ideology, and as such it must be distinguished from hardline and completed / total ideologies.

As such, liberalism is based on a set of instrumental values, not a final set of values. This means that the values that liberalism espouses are the framework values that are essential for a peaceful and prosperous common life. The natural consequence is that in a place where liberal thought prevails, everyone can live as he or she wishes, provided that the equal rights of others are respected.

But the area in which liberal thought is at its weakest is in international relations. In other words, liberalism lacks an international policy proposal. Although liberal thought is shown to be the owner of idealist theory among the realist and idealist approaches to international relations, this cannot be seen as a complete mirroring or overlapping of the two. Idealist theory fits liberalism in part. But that is in theory. What happens in practice? In my opinion, in practice, realist policies on the basis of the balance of power and the perception of national interests are predominant.

In parallel, we have the problem that liberal individuals and organizations, especially those with a global interest, appeal to liberal principles and values when evaluating other countries and states, but either completely ignore or gloss over the issue of evaluating their own country’s foreign policy on the same basis. Most liberal individuals and organizations in the United States can be cited as an example. However, we see that they adopt this attitude mainly towards another power, Israel.

Unfortunately, in discussions among liberals (classical liberals, minarchists, anarcho-capitalists) in various parts of the world, or in public statements made by these groups, some individuals and organizations take very contradictory positions that throw liberal values out of the window. While some liberal individuals and organizations are vocal, others remain silent and do not show their true colors on this issue. In the face of Israel’s brutal aggression against Palestine, some liberal individuals and organizations publicly and strongly support Palestine, while others support Israel. Quite a few individuals and organizations remain silent and try not to show any color. Of course, it can be said that this situation in the world also applies to Türkiye. This issue deserves to be highlighted separately.

Israel’s Occupation

The main issue to be addressed is Israel’s position. Although Israel appears to be carrying out its relentless and ruthless attacks in response to the recent HAMAS raid, the story did not begin on October 7, 2023, the date of the raid; it goes back much further. However, those who seek to justify and rationalize Israel’s actions in Gaza prefer to ignore this fact and rely on three main arguments to justify Israeli aggression. First, they argue that Israel is not an occupier because there was no previous political authority in the territories it occupies. Second, that the Jews owned the land long ago but were expelled from it, and therefore it is their historical right (and, some argue, the promise of the land to the Jews in their holy book, the Torah) to take it over completely and establish an independent state. The third argument is that on October 7, 2023, HAMAS carried out a ‘brutal attack’ on Israeli territory, almost exclusively targeting civilians, which gave Israel the right to take revenge and bomb Gaza, as it is doing today. Israel must respond to this attack and fight HAMAS, which is a ‘terrorist organization’. Others, unable to slow down, express the idea that this is an existential struggle not only for Israel but for all Western civilization.

Are these theses true or false in terms of historical facts and liberal thought? Why are they true or false? Let us consider them one by one:

Was there no Palestinian state?

As is well known, the region dwelled for a long time under the rule of Ottoman Empire. This was largely a period of peace and tranquility for the region. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the British domination of the region, the Mandatory Palestine was established by a decision of the Entente Powers and officially recognized by the League of Nations in June 1922. This state lasted from 1920 to 1948. If things had gone as usual/ regular, this state would have gained its independence from Great Britain and would have appeared at the world stage today as an independent state. In fact, the Mandate had its own political existence. The permits issued to Jews who wanted to immigrate to the region and the coins minted in the name of the administration are signs and results of this fact. Similarly, the state of Palestine appears on the maps of the time.

Palestine’s misfortune first came in the 19th century, when, contrary to popular belief, it was decided to adopt the land as the homeland of the Jews in a process initiated not by Jewish Zionists but by Christian Zionists and continued by Jewish Zionists. This led to the immigration of Jews from many parts of the world to the region. Thus, the Jewish population began to grow. However, the land was still predominantly Palestinian and the majority of the population was Palestinian. Despite all the immigration efforts, by the end of World War II, the Jewish population and Jewish-owned land in the region was very small. Britain’s withdrawal from the region caused the already established and active Jewish terrorist organizations to change direction and target Palestinians. The terrorist activities carried out by these organizations aimed at expelling the Palestinians from the region and eventually began the journey that led to establishing the State of Israel. Based on this, it would not be inappropriate, unfair and wrong to say that Israel is a power that was pioneered by terrorist organizations acting in accordance with the goals of Zionism.

There was a state – a political authority – in the region that existed under the name of Palestine, but even if such a state never existed, most of the people who lived there were Palestinians, and their land and homes were privately owned. The expansion of Israel effectively meant that these areas of private property were attacked, liquidated and made Jewish by means and methods that were contrary to morality and justice. It was also an attack on the right to life of the people through the invasion of private property. Therefore, it is inconceivable that a line of thought that truly values human rights, and especially private property, would support Israel’s behavior. In such a case, either the theory is wrong, or the people who claim to adhere to the theory are betraying it…

Historically occupied lands?

The second thesis used to justify Israel’s existence and its treatment of the Palestinians, as emphasized above, is that Jews lived in the region thousands of years ago, but were expelled from these lands by the dominant powers of the time. Therefore, these lands actually belong to the Jews. This thesis is supported, at least in the eyes of some, by a religious claim. The Torah, the holy book of the Jews, claims that the land in question was promised to the Jews. This view is shared, for example, by American evangelical Christians and religious Jews who give Israel endless and unlimited support.

In many places and times in history we see cases of occupation and exile. This shows us that human beings are not angels, and that at times great injustices have been committed. But how far back in time can we go when we try to redress injustices? Will going back too far help to redress injustices or will it lead to new ones? This is the real question that needs to be discussed. In other words, how far back is reasonable, moderate, and feasible? We can draw on the insights of Allen Buchanan in Secession (Westview Press, 1991), who has done excellent work on these issues.

According to Buchanan, going back thousands of years to redress injustices is both impossible and wrong.

It is impossible because in many cases it is even difficult to determine the true extent of the case and the perpetrators. It is also possible that efforts to redress injustices may create new injustices, radically and irrevocably altering the status quo. Therefore, in efforts to address past injustices, it is important to consider whether or not there are witnesses to the injustices – that is, people who were alive at the time of the injustices – and whether or not there is a vivid and widespread historical record of the event…. In many cases that means that we can go back at most three or four generations in terms of time.

It is wrong because if we accept that presence in some lands thousands of years ago gives communities of the same descent the right to claim those lands, and if we develop policies based on that, the world would be turned upside down. For example, Indians could claim that most of the United States is theirs. Therefore, as Allen Buchanan points out, it seems to be reasonable to go back three or four generations at the most. And that makes Palestine legitimate, not Israel. Because the Palestinian case is still going on, some of the people who lived through the first expulsions and massacres are still alive, and the new case means that time extends to the next three or four generations…

Another question is how much credibility should be given to the religious references. The credentials of any religion are essentially a matter for its believers. For those who do not believe in the Torah, these claims have no meaning or value. Zionist Jews may claim that the land they occupy belongs to them, and that they are therefore not occupying it, but rather bringing it into conformity with the commandments of the Book. However, this view is only meaningful and valued by them. Moreover, in today’s world, it is not possible to legitimize the occupation of land by appealing to theo-political arguments alone. Then, for example, the religious and historical significance that Muslims attach to Jerusalem can also compete with this claim…

Is HAMAS a terrorist organization or a resistance movement?

The third thesis of Israel’s supporters is that HAMAS is a terrorist organization and should be fought like any other terrorist organization. This is a manipulation of the concept of terrorism. The US and Israel do not hesitate to call any organization they don’t like as a terrorist organization. They even believe that they have a monopoly on deciding who is terrorist or not. For example, while Türkiye is in an existential struggle with the terrorist organization PKK in Türkiye, Syria and Iraq, the United States of America does not see the extension of this terrorist group in Syria and Iraq, PKK/YPG, as terrorist and cooperating with it as an ally in the name of fighting another terrorist group, ISIS. This attitude shows USA’s double standards in its view of terrorism in the clearest way.

Is HAMAS a terrorist organization? Israel and its supporters answer to this question ‘yes’ without hesitation. However, it is very difficult to say that HAMAS is a terrorist organization. HAMAS is a political party. It was born out of the Palestinian Authority’s inability to govern effectively and the Palestinian people’s despair and hopelessness that their homeland was going to be liberated from Israeli occupation. HAMAS was born as a result. It participated in the elections and was successful. HAMAS enjoys great popular support not only in Gaza but also in the West Bank. It won 4 of 5 West Bank cities in 2005 municipal elections and a parliamentary majority in 2006 legislative elections.

The October 7 attack and the use of violence against civilians by HAMAS can of course be criticized. However, one cannot ignore the fact that there is intense disinformation about it. For example, the claims that 40 beheaded babies and participants in a music festival near the Gaza border were massacred by HAMAS turned out to be Israeli disinformation. Moreover, when the whole story is considered – what has happened since 1948 and what Israel has done and continues to do – it can be said that the HAMAS attack was a response to Israeli terrorism rather than an attack in itself.

Let us not forget that Israel pursues a policy of occupation and annihilation not only in Gaza, but everywhere Palestinians live. In addition to the massive territories it has acquired through wars and expulsions, it has displaced Palestinians and confiscated their lands through a policy of salami slicing. Therefore, HAMAS’s attack is an ‘attack’ on the occupiers of people’s occupied lands, not on lands that are legally and morally recognized as belonging to a state.

In fact, Israel was sneaky and quite successful until the recent HAMAS operation. So much so that the fact that Israel is an occupying and lawless entity was almost completely forgotten. It had already occupied most of the Palestinian territories and settled the Jews there. In order to liquidate the rest, it followed a policy of salami slicing, moving forward in small steps. The HAMAS ‘attack’ and Israel’s brutal response put the reality of what Israel is and what it is trying to do back on the world’s agenda, perhaps never to leave it again…

From a liberal perspective

From a liberal perspective, Israel is clearly in the wrong. In addition to the points made above Israel has a long-standing practice of trampling on all human rights and freedoms, in the heat of conflict it violates many rules, many of them derived from liberal thought. Collective punishment, for example, has been an Israeli policy for decades. This policy has now emerged in Gaza, but traditionally the entire family of someone believed to have committed a crime is punished by demolishing their home. Likewise, civilians, especially children and women, are not accidentally killed in Israeli attacks, they are deliberately slaughtered by Israel. In our time, the mortality rate of children in wars is about 8%, while in Gaza it is 42%. Israel uses phosphor bombs which are forbidden by international law and very harmful to humans. Israel also deliberately kills journalists. The number of journalists killed so far is over one hundred. Israel also arrests and detains minors in the occupied West Bank. It tries them in military courts, not in civilian courts like Israeli citizens, and sentences them to prison…

All these practices are contrary to liberal theory. Therefore, for liberals to support Israel is to betray the theory they claim to embrace. No one who is aware of liberal theory and has the power and ability to read and interpret life based on its elements would or could support Israel.

* Prof. Dr. Atilla Yayla,

School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Medipol University,

Founding Member of Association for Liberal Thinking.

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