The reductive nature of the Israel-Palestine conflict – a balanced Muslim perspective

The conflict between Israel and Palestine is longstanding. It is one where history with its unresolved lacerating impacts today manifests in a tumultuous fury of emotion, hurt, religion, anger, tribalism, occupation, terrorism, geopolitics, apartheid, contestation of rights to defence and self-determination, international law,  humanitarianism, and so on. Often it is a challenging conflict to talk about. In the fog of conflict, words – with or without intonation – have an unremarkable way of being misunderstood and misrepresented. Not to mention, just being Muslim or Jewish in this debate itself can trigger all sorts of  biases and unforgiving judgements.

But justice requires objective and unconditional recognition of the rights and wrongs of a matter. However, only God’s justice is absolute and redemptive, and  ultimately it comes in the Supreme Court of God in the Hereafter. In the meantime, then, our attempts to bring about justice is human effort, which, for believers ought to anchor back to God’s command to instantiate justice on Earth. This impetus can be found in scripture and Prophetic examples. It can also be experienced in the cause-effect relationships of our day-to-day actions. So too is it inherent in the way we are biologically and socially motivated to desire the best of human nature and intelligence. For truth-seekers and those who want to genuinely seek a way forward, or to offer up reasonable judgements, reality must be interrogated unfiltered. This is where we tend to go wrong. Our personal feelings, political affiliations, tribal instincts, biases, and so on, get in the way. God reminds in the Qur’an that justice for believers is about “…uphold[ing] justice and bear[ing] witness to God, even if it is against yourselves, your parents, or your close relatives. Whether the person is rich or poor, God can best take care of both. Refrain from following your own desire, so that you can act justly – if you distort or neglect justice, God is fully aware of what you do”.

In this opinion and analysis piece, I hope to provide a more balanced perspective in the hope that it will help us move beyond a reductive discourse of the conflict as it has been playing out in the UK (and elsewhere). Where, unfortunately, though not unexpected, there is a tendency to interpret or spin public reactions from both sides in reductive, adversarial, crude form.

Hamas is a terrorist organisation

In the UK, Australia, the EU and the US, Hamas is proscribed by law as a terrorist organisation. Elsewhere, in countries like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Dubai, Turkey, India, with quite different legal codes, this is not the case. International differences aside, objectively looking at it, Hamas certainly displays the typical characteristics of a terrorist organisation: it has a publicly stated political grievance against Israel and seeks redress through violence. Couple this to a proven track record of violence against Israel, and you  can see the very reasonable grounds why anyone found to be supporting Hamas is breaking the law in the UK.

What complicates things in the context of the conflict is that Hamas doubles up as the ruling government in the Gaza Strip. The Gaza Strip was under Israeli military occupation following the 1967 war, for 38 years between 1967 to 2005. Prior to 1967, Egypt administered the Gaza Strip from 1950. Following Israel’s retreat (which included both military withdrawal and evacuation of settlements), there was a first-past-the-post (FPP) election which Hamas won. Since then, Hamas has faced political isolation, including aid cuts, power cuts, tight controls on the entry and movement of goods, blocking workers entering Israel for work, and so on. From 2014, the Egyptian government closed its border too, cementing what many,  including the UN, have described the Gaza Strip to be the largest “open prison” in the world. Because the borders on all sides are still controlled by Israel, and Israel continues to impose a blockade through land, sea and air, the Gaza Strip remains known by the UN as still under occupation, and hence, the Gaza Strip together with the West Bank are known as “Palestinian Territories Under Occupation”

However, whilst Hamas is a terrorist organisation, the same judgement cannot be extended to ordinary  civilians living in the Gaza Strip. Even if they politically support Hamas, which some surveys put it at a third, the fact that they are civilians and not involved in violence by definition means that they are not terrorists. Besides, voting for Hamas as the dominant political group in the only election ever held in Gaza does not make ordinary civilians complicit in any subsequent violence committed by Hamas. Moreover, merely throwing stones at police or military personnel or burning effigies, though violent, is not terrorism per se. Equally, hateful rhetoric from ordinary Palestinians towards Israel is not terrorism. The same hateful rhetoric exudes, for example, from right-wing Israelis in settler communities in the West Bank, where it is common for Israeli’s to feign the slit throat at Palestinians or randomly shooting at Palestinian passers-by. Many Israeli’s desire to forcefully expunge Palestinians from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and some even go as far as wanting to revoke Israeli citizenship from all native Palestinians in Israel which accounts for around 20% of Israel’s total population.

Similarly, countries of the UN that do not recognise Israel does not mean those countries support terrorism. Sovereign countries are free to form positions on their own reasonable terms. Some of them do not recognise Israel but still have diplomatic ties. Others refuse to recognise Israel until a Palestinian state or a mutually negotiated settlement has been enacted. Some, like South Africa recently, have withdrawn diplomatic representatives from Tel Aviv in protest to Israel’s bombing of innocent Palestinians.

Equally, it is not right to tar Muslims /  Arabs / ethnic people as pro-Hamas or anti-Israel or anti-Semitic or terrorist sympathisers based on policy disagreements. Instead, it should be reasonable to expect people to decouple positions and opinions into their respective contexts, to reflect true-to-life views. Human beings can and have always differed as well as held similar views on different matters all at the same time.

Israel has the right to exist and defend itself, but must do so according to international law

Israel is recognised as a fully-fledged country by the UN and by at least 163 (85%) of the member states of the UN. Based on this consensus, Israel is clearly a well-established country with as much right to exist as any other. There are plenty of reasonable justifications, some of which are worth stating here as they are subject of popular discussion:

  • The argument that Israel’s existence was borne out of the dispossession of native Palestinians from their homeland and therefore does not have a moral right to exist, is not enough to deny Israel’s future as a nation state. Dispossession, though morally grossly wrong, is quite common in the history of how many, if not most, countries have more or less come about. Whether it’s the dispossession of American Indians, the transatlantic slave trade, or slave trade more generally, the death of Aborigines from disease brought over by European colonisers, wars between nations (at least 500 years of continuous fighting in the history of European nations), colonial partitioning of land, civil wars, the India-Pakistan partition, the Spanish inquisition, the Holocaust, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia to name a few .
  • Moreover, there is a tacit acceptance of Israel’s nationhood by neighbouring countries such as Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and so on, on account of diplomatic ties and not intervening militarily in conflicts in recent decades. Turkey, under the Ottoman empire lost Palestine to the British, and the British in the Balfour Declaration in 1917 sought to establish a home for Jewish people, called Israel, and thus the birth of Zionism.
  • For second and third generation Israelis today, their home is Israel, which is what they know best and it would be wrong to hold them personally accountable for the crimes involved in the creation of Israel, or to deny them their home today. Historic injustices are not undone or redressed by meting out new injustice to those benefitting in the present from historical wrongs.
  • Instead, what the focus should be is on finding a permanent political settlement of some kind to redress the ongoing injustice to the dispossessed Palestinians, who are now into their third/fourth generation.

National sovereignty carries both implicit and explicit responsibilities to adhere to international law, serving as the foundational framework that grants legitimacy to a nation-state. It is imperative for Israel to recognise that the right to self-defence does not provide an unrestricted license to target innocent civilians, including women, children, and the elderly and infirm. This holds true whether these individuals find themselves on the opposing side of a border or are unable or unwilling to vacate a danger zone. Labelling the loss of over 13,000 lives, more than half of whom are children and women, and the displacement of 75% of Gazan Palestinians from north Gaza, within just a few weeks as mere ”collateral damage / too many Palestinians have died ” narrative raises critical questions about how seriously Israel takes its obligations as a normal member of the international community. International law, God’s law, and human morality requires proportionate and measured response, and the right to Palestinian self-determination in accordance with UN Resolutions.

Clearly, Israel faces a moral dilemma: it can’t let terrorists kill innocent people and not go punished but, at the same time it’s response must comply with international law. For Israelis, it is morally wrong to ignore international and humanitarian law believing that it would give advantage to an enemy. The whole point of these laws is to regulate war and to have some boundaries as to how far (satanic) human depravity can be allowed to go.

The complementarity of Islamic and modern international and humanitarian laws of conflict and warfare

Islamic law, and more widely the deen (religion) in general, has plenty to say about this and offers protections, checks and balances. In today’s world we also have institutions and international legal norms and agreements that govern this. But, tracing back to as early as the seventh century Madina to the time of the Prophet, the ethics of warfare, espionage, conditions when war was legal, dispensing the spoils of war, treatment of non-combatants and women and children, and of conflicts between nations and people, the laws of warfare in Islamic law were well-defined by the eight century.

They were written down, for example, in Imam Muhammad al-Shaybani’s  (d. 805) The Law of Nations (Al-Siyar al-Saghir/al-Kabir and others). As a prime architect of the Kufah School of Law, which came about under Imam Abu Hanifah, Imam al-Shaybani served in the legal system of the Abbasid courts of Harun al-Rashid. Imam al-Shaybani’s senior,  Imam Abu Yusuf was the chief judge of the entire Abbasid empire, a seat that he is the only scholar in Islamic history to have presided over. In other words, the students of Imam Abu Hanifah – the Kufan School of Law – were very much in the thick of providing the legal needs of the rapidly expanding Abbasid empire. They noted that applying Islamic principles to their context extended the minimum age of a soldier to 15. They noted that Islam also forbade fighting women, children and non-combatants, as well as unnecessarily clearing trees or destroying property. Unjust killing and destruction was punishable in a court of law and victims were to be compensated. These Islamic laws trace back to the way the Prophet conducted war.

Figures such as Hugo Grotius, a seminal figure in Western scholarship on international law who lived until 1645, likely encountered Islamic works in the seventeenth century. This period, occurring some 800 years after the contributions of Imam al-Shaybani, marked the inception of the process that saw the integration of Islamic principles into European legal systems. It is not surprising, therefore, that in contemporary times, the Geneva Conventions bear a resemblance to the Islamic laws codified during the eighth century Abbasid dynasty. However, the efficacy of legal frameworks, both historical and contemporary, hinges on their respect, adaptability to evolving needs, and the willingness of powerful nations, such as the US, China, EU, UK, Russia, India, and others, to enforce them. Simply having these laws in place is insufficient; their impact is realized when nations actively adhere to and adjust them to meet the challenges of the present era.

However, in the case of Israel, powerful nations and global institutions have failed to stop Israel from flouting international law and UN Resolutions that everyone has backed.

Instead, since the founding of Israel there has been at least six Arab-Israeli wars, most notably in 1948–49, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982, and 2006, which have involved neighbouring countries, and all of them have been won by Israel, which has given Israel an “untouchable” aura, that has in turn emboldened it to act much more punitively than otherwise Israel would have. Akin to unwritten conventions of war of ancient times and prior to the Geneva Conventions, that the victor gets to keep “the spoils of war” including any land captured or they get to decide the fate of the land they occupy. In today’s world, we have the Westphalian concept of nationhood and international laws that protect against such capture of “spoils of war” and land grabbing against national boundaries. Where clear encroachment does happen such as Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait (1990), or, more recently, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (2022-ongoing), the big international powers (US, EU, UK etc.) have pushed back hard. Yet, in Israel’s expansion into the “Occupied Territories of Palestine” since 1947 which was more than the UN Partition Plan allocated, expansion of settler communities in the West Bank and in its annexation of East Jerusalem for example, there has not been a similar pushback from the US, EU or UK.

Hamas has flouted Islamic law in killing civilians, taking innocent hostages and using civilians as human shields

The central principle of Islam on warfare prohibits Muslims from initiating aggression and permission to respond to being attacked stipulates proportionality and restraint. The basis of this principle is captured in the well-known saying of the Prophet, which is taken as an essential governing maxim of Islam (usul al-din), “Do not cause harm nor return harm.” As I briefly mentioned earlier, Islam also prohibits targeting children, women, the elderly, non-combatants or non-combatant personnel, those with physical or mental disabilities, clergy, farmers, craftsmen, traders, and so on. The Israelis attacked by Hamas were not in combat and many were in a party or a peaceful kibbutz community setting. Even if Hamas considers itself to be at war with Israel, killing protected groups is not permitted in Islamic law (Shari’ah). And there is no question of an eye-for-eye here because it is not about individuals or civil criminal law. The question then is, if Muslims are flagrantly flouting their own restraints how can it be expected that others will uphold theirs? The whole point of being guided by God is so that those guided can exemplify the deen (religion), and in turn instantiate the value-system and competence that allows them to play a role in bringing about godly and beneficial outcomes while also helping to refrain from destructive and unproductive outcomes.

The argument that action taken to secure a greater benefit or to repel a greater harm in justifying the attack on Israel does not hold here, too. It is not reasonable for Hamas to have thought that their attack on Israel would have resulted in greater safety and benefit to Gazan’s or the Palestinian cause. The deaths and suffering in the last ten years of the conflict should have been evidence enough. Regardless, it’s quite a stretch for Hamas to think that they could win a war against such a military power like Israel using violence and cheap rockets, not to mention going against the US, EU. UK and so on. And, the assumption that past success with negotiating large numbers of prison exchange could be replicated at no cost to Palestinians was clearly ill-judged because for a start those examples didn’t accompany an attack of this scale.

Similarly, intentional placement of civilian Gazan’s in harm’s way by using them as shields, as Hamas has a tendency to do, which, admittedly, they can’t avoid given how dense Gaza is, is prohibited in Islam. I doubt ordinary Gazan’s were asked for their informed consent to be put in harm’s way. Even the creation of tunnels underneath civilian areas in preparation for war with Israel which Hamas might see as a cunning ploy for tactical advantage, but knowing that it would endanger civilians above ground makes it problematic from an Islamic point of view.

There is good reason why the Shari’ah and the wider deen (religion) stipulates such conditions. Frankly, it is to prevent wars that in reality could not be won or would not result in positive outcomes. Bringing war to one’s own doorstep without a clear mandate from ordinary citizens to be put in harm’s way is a sure sign of moral weakness and callous disregard for civilians/individuals. When situations are like this, the best course of action is to refrain from war. In fact, not taking up arms, especially in a chaotic way, against tyrannical rule unless there is a clear and realistic path to victory and preservation of moral order has always been a strong position among Islamic scholars throughout history. Instead, there are other means of resistance and campaigning that would be advisable.

I know some Muslims might disagree with this view and point to the history of wars and conflict against tyrannical powers. I say to them, the context of our world has changed and we need to renew our deen to make it relevant and meaningful in ways that expresses godliness. Much work has yet to be done to broaden our thinking, analysis and engagement in deep rooted tajdid /renewal if we are to once again re-discover the meaningful and productive connection between our worldly life with God, revelation (wahy/Qur’an/Sunnah) and higher virtue (‘amal).

Hamas has made a costly strategic error

Aside from breaking Islamic and international law, Hamas has also made a gross strategic political and military error.

Hamas’s attack was incredibly daring and their biggest yet, which no doubt took months, perhaps even years, to plan. Some of the reports about the use of distraction tactics (demonstrations near the border and rockets), use of hundreds of fighters, paragliders, vehicles, breaking through barriers at multiple border points, taking over 200 hostages, and so on bespeak of a highly co-ordinated and well thought-out attack.

The timing of the attacks was perhaps meant to be a stark reminder to the world of a forgotten people. Taking over 200 civilian hostages, perhaps, had an element of prisoner exchange in mind. Perhaps also a calculated attempt to scupper plans to normalise relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Time and the cyclical nature of the conflict perhaps may have also leaned on Hamas. Every four to five years the conflict ratchets up leading to mainly Palestinians getting killed and injured. Conflict left to run without an active peace process naturally results in such cyles of violence-retreat-violence. In 2018 over 31,000 Palestinian’s were injured or killed by Israel. Four years prior, in 2014, over 19,000 were injured or killed, and 5 years prior to that, in 2009, over 7,000 were injured or killed.

Gaza’s 2.3 million inhabitants are packed into an area of 25 miles long by 3.7-7.5 miles wide, with 80% of them impoverished and 46% unemployed. Some 108,000 cubic meters of untreated sewage flow daily from the Gaza Strip into the Mediterranean Sea, and drinking water often hard to come by. Against this backdrop and absent of any path to something better for residents of Gaza, no military strategy to contain the resentment and sense of hopelessness can succeed in the long run. Without a peace process, Gaza was always bound to explode.

However, what Hamas does not seem to have planned for is what happens in the aftermath of the attack and the “end game.” None of this looks at all positive for Hamas or the Palestinians.

  • The Israeli response so far has been extremely disproportionate which was perhaps predictable. The last time Israel fought a ground war in Gaza in 2014, it lasted 50 days, flattened large swathes of land. The US, UK and the EU seem fully behind the right of Israel to go after Hamas. Many have recognised Israel’s  killing spree as genocide. At least five countries have filed a request to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate Israeli war crimes.
  • None of the Arab countries want to escalate the conflict, or militarily defend Palestinians, like back in 2014, acutely aware that it would only bring further disaster. Since losing the Six Day war with Israel, Arab countries know well the risks of engaging in military conflict, especially with the US being Israel’s ultimate backer. Besides, the consequences of extremism and wars, which have wrought instability and devastation all round in recent years, are still painful memories in the Middle East. Moreover, deep-rooted modernisation plans would stall in countries like Saudi Arabia, which is not something the likes of Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman would be willing to risk. For Saudi Arabia aerial bombing has been a useful tool to keep the Houthi anti-government rebels in Yemen in check. Egypt would also have a burgeoning refugee crises to deal with, too. And, the Egyptian government would be hard pressed to show sympathy towards Hamas as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.
  • Hezbollah’s involvement will at most be a low intensity war between Israel and Lebanon, in which the US, UK and EU will back Israel without getting directly involved. The Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, is unlikely to declare an all-out war on Israel. There’s little appetite in Lebanon for another war with Israel, especially with the Lebanese economy in ruins and political instability rife. Iran doesn’t have a well thought-out strategy and the Hamas attack may well have taken them by surprise. The US will be prepared to strike targets in Syria to prevent munitions getting through to Lebanon and so on. The two US aircraft carriers recently deployed to the Mediterranean Sea and US surveillance drones already in operation may also be a powerful deterrents.

The net result is that it will be the innocent Palestinians of the Gaza Strip (and the West Bank) who will suffer, and any political outcomes, as a red line, will need to exclude Hamas. Finding a replacement to Hamas will be a useful argument for Israel to justify keeping control of Gaza, and with it taper the aspirations of Palestinians for a state. Especially as none of the neighbouring Arab countries are willing and prepared to administer the Gaza Strip.

In the meantime, whist Hamas has done something incredibly wrong and the attack, to quote the AI tech founder, Mustafa Suleyman, “was unbelievably painful to watch,” it still doesn’t make it right for Israel’s army to kill Palestinian civilians. In fact, the Washington Post commentator Shadi Hamid, rightly observed that, “One of the most pernicious arguments that’s become mainstreamed in the Israel-Palestine debate is that all Palestinian deaths are on Hamas. This is eerily similar to the argument that some pro-Palestine voices made after Hamas massacred Israelis. They said that any violence against Israeli civilians was Israel’s fault, as if Hamas had no agency. And now folks are saying that Israel has no agency despite having one of the most advanced militaries in the world. The argument seems to be that Israel is being “forced” to kill Palestinians. This argument is as logically absurd as it is offensive.

Whilst highly unlikely, if a two state solution does come about after this war, would it be worth the suffering? Probably, on balance, yes, but it’s not for me to say. The thought of a single death is hard enough to contemplate for me, and nothing can bring back the suffering of the tens of thousands killed and over a million children traumatised by Israel over the years.

What is clearer, however, is that a  “maximalist strategy” is Israel’s top priority at this stage. A “maximalist strategy” aims to achieve the most comprehensive or ambitious outcome by pursuing all available options without compromising or settling for less. This means Israel will be looking to inflict a heavy wound on Gaza and expel yet more Palestinians out of the West Bank. So far this strategy is in full motion. The UN has reported that 1000 Palestinians have been forced out their land in the West Bank by Israeli settlers since 7th October, under active support of Israeli forces.

As it stands, Israel has no post-war plans for Gaza. No plan for rebuilding and regeneration. No plan for a lasting settlement for Palestinians. No plan for building civic institutions and better governance. Without this Israel will be unable to end the cycle of violence.  As, David Cameron said, “There won’t be long term safety and security and stability for Israel, unless there is long term safety, security and stability for the Palestinian people.” A RAND Corporation commentator also  observed, “…Once all the killing is done, Israel will have to do something even harder if it’s to have any hope of preventing the next war and the one after that: It will need to rebuild Gaza into something better than it was. That means ensuring Gaza’s inhabitants have a chance at economic prosperity, potentially even at the risk of loosening the blockade. That means ensuring Gaza’s inhabitants have political options apart from Hamas and the corrupt and pliant Palestinian Authority. And it means rebuilding the social fabric of Gaza, which will likely be even more tattered after what could be a devastating war that could leave the enclave that much more hostile to Israel.

Israel’s security strategy and intelligence badly failed, but the conflict has far greater context prior to the attack on 7th October – Palestinians have lived under Israeli occupation, brutality and subordination for the last 75 years

There is growing unease in Israeli society with Netanyahu’s failure to prevent the Hamas attack. Once the war is over there will likely be some level of political fallout. Ben Bowen, the veteran BBC correspondent interviewed Noam Tibon, a retired general, who said: “This is the biggest failure in the history of the state of Israel. It was a military failure. It was an intelligence failure. And it was the failure of the government… the one really in charge – and all the blame is on him – is the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu… He is in charge of the biggest failure in the history of Israel.”

In November 2022, I had the privilege of touring Jerusalem through Jewish lenses for a couple of days. This was part of a private tech-related work conference that I was invited to consisting of about 19 Europeans and Americans. I was the only Westerner with Eastern heritage, and the only Muslim. The tour included opening up the Jewish University for us, spending time at the Wailing Wall as well as listening to private lectures on commerce and politics, visits to Jerusalem’s famous religious and archaeological sites, and some great food.  One of the lectures was by an advisor to the last four Israeli Prime Ministers, who reportedly held quarterly advisory meetings with them, including Netenyahu.  What struck me was how well-understood Israel’s strategy to secure itself was, though from an economic development perspective Israel was probably behind many of the oil rich countries. What also struck me was that there was considerable body of thought within Israeli intelligentsia advocating for a two-state solution, but the right wing of Israeli politics, like groups like Hamas, which hold all the cards, seem intent on thwarting that effort. In fact, the decades of expanding right-wing ultra nationalist Israeli settler communities in the West Bank is a cunning strategy to annex yet more Palestinian lands and making sure that a two state solution becomes  challenging with each day and each new settler outpost.

This takes us to the crux of the matter. Can Israelis and Palestinians come to a mutually agreed settlement?

There is no worse example of dispossession anywhere in the world than the Palestinians, even surpassing that of the Uighurs of Burma/Myanmar many of whom have been expelled by the Burmese military dictatorship. One cannot but have sympathy for the struggles of ordinary Palestinians. They lived in peace for hundreds of years until being colonised and taken over by Europeans, who then decided to create on the same land a new home for other people, drafted in from across Europe. As the image below shows, there has been systematic and unrelenting encroachment, expelling of Palestinian people, and capture of Palestinian land. The Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe”) war in 1948 led to the displacement and dispossession of over 700,000 Palestinians.

Israel’s policy is to continue colonising land in the West Bank through settler communities, which contravenes international law. The UN has passed countless motions condemning violations of international law, and humanitarian laws over the years – a list can be found here. The latest examples in recent weeks are of Israel repeatedly cutting off food, essential medical supplies, power and communication to the entire Gaza Strip, targeting  all civilians, which of course grossly violates international and humanitarian laws, not least basic human morality.

Israel has a proven record of flouting international and humanitarian laws, and its actions in the latest conflict are a brazen affront to God and historic Judea

Israel is widely known and prides itself as a Jewish state. However, while it might be the only country with a Jewish majority, its laws and systems of government and institutions are not necessarily based on the religious teachings of Judaism. But, though Israel is meant to be a Jewish state, curiously, people don’t equate the actions of Israel to the religion of Judaism. By the 4th week of the violence, Israel had already killed more Palestinian civilians as Russia has killed in Ukraine since February 2022. This level of killing and dispossession can hardly be the work of people worried by their accountability to God. God in the Hebrew Bible has not given anybody, even those who consider themselves to be the “chosen people of God,” permission to act with impunity, forcefully taking land and expelling native Palestinians out of land designated to them in the agreements in 1947 and subsequently.

In contrast, had it been a predominantly Muslim nation, there might have been a tendency to link state-sanctioned violence with the Islamic faith. This could have led to an unwarranted expectation for British Muslims to denounce these actions, despite their complete lack of involvement.

This of course reflects how in British and Western societies, Israelis, Jews and Judaism, unlike non-European ethnicities, Muslims and Islam, don’t have an image/PR problem. Secondly, it reflects how Israelis, Jews (in their faith centric identity) and Judaism have worthy allies in politics and the public realm. Thirdly, it reflects how the media, politicians and opinion makers manufacture consent and steer public opinion. The architects of the latter have conflated political and policy-based criticism of Israel to mean anti-Semitism.

But, as one Harvard professor put it, “It cannot be ruled as ipso facto antisemitic to question the actions of this particular ethno-nationalist [Israeli] government any more than it would be ipso facto racist to question the actions of Robert Mugabe’s ethno-nationalist government in Zimbabwe. Nor can arguments that characterize Israel as an ‘apartheid’ state or its recent actions as ‘ethnic cleansing’ or even ‘genocide’ be considered automatically antisemitic, regardless of whether one concurs with such arguments.

The intensity with which Jews were so badly treated by Europeans in European nations throughout history which culminated in the horrendous events of the Holocaust has engendered a sense of guilt among Europeans, creating a backdrop for the conflation of distinct issues. The historical narrative has woven the logic that “Israel is a Jewish nation” into a symbol implicitly tied to the existential question of the Jewish people. Consequently, any discussion of Israel inherently provides a poignant justification for the conflation of historical events and contemporary issues.

However, despite such complication, I do think it is right that we don’t consider the actions of Israel to be a reflection of the religion of Judaism. In the same way that we don’t consider the actions of Hamas to reflect the religion of Islam.

The Christian think tank, TheosThinkTank, published an interesting article highlighting the different segments of Zionism – “Liberal”, “Cultural”, and “Labour” and their complex interplay between religion, culture and politics.

However, what we can say is that killing innocent people, women, children and civilians as well as displacing them from their homes by a well-equipped and largely unchallenged military is an affront to God. This is the same God of Abraham, Ismail, David, Soloman, Moses, Aaron, Jesus and Muhammad, all of whom walked in the historic land of Judea / Al-Quds advocating peace, compassion, and justice.

Neighbouring Arab countries and the US have completely failed the Palestinians and a peace process

The failure of pan-Arab nationalism has given way to a set of Arab countries that simply have little political, economic or social solidarity between them. They have always been tribalistic societies. Many have accumulated substantial wealth from the oil and gas industry, and remain governed by ruling families, not independent institutions or the electorate. This makes for intriguing personal politics and rivalry between the rulers. What is common between them, though, is that they have collectively failed to champion the cause of Palestinians and actively seek a meaningful resolution. Egypt is perhaps the most influential as it controls the only operating border and controls the flow of people and goods into the Gaza Strip, yet probably does the least for Palestinians. Generally, throughout history, Arab countries have demonstrated a tendency to be subdued when confronted by the US. This historical reticence has contributed to their inability to assertively advocate for Palestinian rights and engage in proactive efforts toward a meaningful resolution.

The US, UK and the EU, too, have completely failed the Palestinians. Their foreign policy does a lot of good and keeps freedom an important agenda item for global development, but it also has many faults. Western interventionism has tended to be poorly planned (Afghanistan), or poorly timed (Bosnia) or built on egregious war mongering (remember WMD and Iraq) or overlooks the unintended consequences (Iraq and ISIS/Daesh) or is too gun-ho in its fervour (war on terror). Now, Western powers seek to turn a blind eye to Israeli aggression at the expense of further suffering of the Palestinian people. The Malaysian PM, Dr Anwar Ibrahim, starkly put it to Jo Biden: “We’ve been asked to condemn the aggression in Ukraine, but now some remain muted in front of the atrocities inflicted on Palestinians…”:

But whatever has happened in the past need not be what should happen going forward.  All parties must re-double their efforts far beyond the current war in order to give peace a chance and a lasting resolution to come about.

Thoughts on reactions in the UK

Calls cancelling peaceful Pro-Palestinian demonstrations by proponents of free speech is cancel culture

In the UK, there have been many calls to cancel pro-Palestinian marches. These calls were often from the UK’s proponents of free speech and those whose agonise about the cancel culture of the left. While I agree with them on the principle of free speech and I am ardent advocated of the fundamental concept of the open society, but, as the American commentator Shadi Hamid put it, it is, “Quite something to see those who opposed cancel culture until last week completely renege on their principles overnight just because they’re the ones now with the power to censor views they disagree with.” Far too many speech advocates and antagonists of cancel culture think that being Pro-Palestinian is by default an eliminationist threat to Israel. But the assumption that Palestinian’s are an eliminationist threat to Israel is what leads to, says Hamid, Israelis justifying eliminationist rhetoric towards Palestinians. For us in the UK, we should look to move the discourse to a more objective, syncretic and fair direction.

The UK Government’s response was poor and undemocratic

At the beginning of the conflict the UK Government failed to champion international and humanitarian laws, and only did so in a half-hearted way once the US had started hinting at it. The UK failed to offer something unique to the international order that from outside world would have been seen as morally upright and internationalist attitude. It then took David Cameron’s shock return to Government to firmly push this point – but that was some 46 days after the start of Israel’s bombings with 13,000 killed, over half of whom were women and children. Making matters worse, the Home Secretary at the time, Suella Braverman, sought to ban pro-Palestinian marches on Armistice Day calling them “hate marches.” Yes, there were a few who broke the law in previous marches, but 99.99% of the marchers were peaceful and did not do or say anything that could be deemed hateful. In any mass public event there are always a few arrests, as happens in the Notting Hill carnival for example. Seeking to ban peaceful marches was anti-democratic. Rightly, the Royal British Legion (Armed Forces) charity, the Metropolitan Police and most MPs did not agree with the Home Secretary. Moreover,  the Government’s refusal to call for ceasefire or proposing ideas on how to bring it about through, for example, quicker exchange of hostages was a hark back to the Government’s mishandling of Covid policies.

The MCB have once again failed to unequivocally condemn terrorism in its initial statement

In response to the Hamas attack and subsequently military strikes by Israel, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) called for “an immediate end to the violence and adherence to international law” in Gaza but did not mention the Hamas attack. Exactly why the MCB plays identity politics like this us quite puzzling. It was an opportunity to clearly demonstrate that the MCB could be taken seriously. Instead, it will keep them in the abyss of political influence. Including, the likely awkwardness that the MCB will face with the British Jewish community. All needless drama that the MCB has made for itself. The guidance materials for mosques was good, however, it’s also confirmed that the MCB isn’t prepared to take a position on the more wider framework questions about contextualising Islam, and the need to move away from ethnocentric approach to religion. Nor does the MCB offer refreshing perspective on the interaction of religion with secularism.

It was good that Muslims scholars denounced Hamas, but far more needs to be done to improve public communication and understanding of Islam

I welcome the statement by 15 British Muslim faith leaders, which was published on 18 October in the longest-running UK-based Muslim newspaper, Muslim News in which they denounced Hamas and called for Israel to act “with restraint and within boundaries of international law.” This was an important statement because Muslims do need to be seen to be condemning people and groups that carry out attacks on others in the name of the Islamic faith. The Islamic tradition is meant to engender scholars that can go against group think, biases and self-enhancing imagery, in favour of fair-mindedness, truth and justice. However, the group of scholars, as well as more generally the case, offer no vision for British Muslims, and no direction setting for bringing about a different approach to the now upended interfaith work.

It is not right to make the Israel Palestine conflict the sole form of activism parents teach kids

Parents have a duty to teach their children morals and what it means to be upright (salih). This requires giving them broad and well-balanced nurturing. Children need to learn that the Israel-Palestine conflict is not just about sloganism or flag waving, but in as much about understanding their own individual responsibility, long term strategy and agency. And they need to teach the differences and pros and cons of tactical campaigning verses strategic long term work, and that there are many activisms that are equally important and require long term commitment, such as on environment protection, moving to a cyclical economy, social cohesion, community development, charity work, international development, volunteering for good causes, visiting the sick and elderly, advancing the way we think about economic growth, and so on.

Islam is not anti-Semitic and historically Jews were most persecuted by Europeans

Islam protects all religions, and, Judaism as an Abrahamic faith enjoys a particular special status. Throughout history it was in Muslims societies that Jews found sanctuary and protection from persecution. Conversely, historically it was in European societies largely under Christian leadership that Jews were persecuted. The British Isles, Spain, France and Germany were once a haven of anti-Semitism. This historical perspective led secular British leaders to conceive the land of Palestine as a solution to “the Jewish problem,” as a place where Europe could find redemption through creating a new home or in essence relocating, what was historically, its unwanted Jewish populations.

The persecution of Jews in Europe has a long and tragic history, with many events and periods of discrimination and violence. Here are some notable examples:

Medieval Pogroms: During the Middle Ages, Jews faced persecution and violence, including pogroms (organized, violent attacks) in various European cities.

Spanish Inquisition: In the late 15th century, Jews in Spain were forced to convert to Christianity or face expulsion. The Spanish Inquisition targeted Conversos (converted Jews) for suspicion of practicing Judaism in secret. This was a shared experience with Muslims.

Expulsions: Jews were expelled from various European countries, including England in 1290 and France in 1394.

Blood Libel Accusations: False accusations that Jews used the blood of Christian children in religious rituals led to persecution and violence in various parts of Europe.

The Holocaust: The Holocaust during World War II saw the systematic murder of six million Jews by Nazi Germany and its collaborators. Never has there been such brutal eradication of people.

Anti-Semitic legislation: Anti-Jewish laws were enacted in Nazi-occupied territories, as well as in countries such as Hungary, Romania, and Poland during World War II.

Soviet Union: Under Stalin’s regime, Jews faced discrimination and persecution, including the “Doctors’ Plot” in the early 1950s.

Post-war anti-Semitism: Many European countries saw a resurgence of anti-Semitic sentiment and attacks after World War II.

By contrast, the historical experience of Jews with Muslims has been far more convivial, protective and mutually accommodating:

  • During Muslim rule of Spain, Jews enjoyed an extensive period of tolerance, integration and prosperity. Their fate was linked to those of Muslims, so when Muslim rule of Spain disintegrated, Jews were persecuted in Spain. They were forced to migrate to North Africa in largely Muslim majority societies. The city of Marrakech, for example, has a long history of Jewish-Muslim coexistence, with Jewish quarters called “Mellah” historically protected by local authorities.
  • Jewish communities across North Africa, in countries like Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya have relatively peacefully coexisted with Muslim populations for centuries.
  • In regions like Bosnia and parts of Albania, Jews found protection and have lived alongside Muslims for centuries.
  • Yemen was home to one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities, and for much of its history, Jews lived alongside Muslim neighbours in peace.
  • Throughout the Ottoman period from the 15th to 20th century, Jews often served in important administrative and financial roles. The Ottomans provided protection and autonomy to Jewish communities. Until the early 20th century, Baghdad had a thriving Jewish community that coexisted with Muslims, contributing to the city’s diverse cultural heritage.
  • Before the mass exodus of Jews from Libya in the mid-20th century, Jewish communities lived there for centuries, alongside Muslims in various cities.

So what’s changed – the “push” and “pull” effects

However, the establishment of Israel in 1948,  coincided with a progressive decline in the number of indigenous Jewish communities across much of the Muslim world. It was likely that, partly, the creation of Israel created a nationalistic “pull effect” on Jews around the world to reconsider their concept of  “home.” Simultaneously, there was a “push effect” compelling Jews from Muslim societies to migrate to the West. This migration was fuelled by a declining tolerance in Muslim societies, particularly in contrast to the increasingly diverse, liberal, and tolerant post-war European societies.

The “push effect” gained momentum as anti-Jewish sentiment became normalised among many religiously-minded Muslims following the partitioning of Palestine. This sentiment was less pronounced among secular-minded Muslims. The confluence of factors such as the rise of ethnic nationalism, identity politics, and the amplification of Islamist voices coincided with the diminishing presence of Islam in the public sphere across various Muslim societies. This complex interplay helped spawn a culture of toxic, otherising religious rhetoric.

It seems, as with jihadists in the 1990s and 2000s manipulating the context and usul (principles) of revelatory texts to justify and propagate violence or self-enhancing pursuits, many Muslims have fallen into a trap of bending revelatory texts to fit the narrative of a condemned, usurping Jewry because they dispossessed the indigenous Palestinians of their land.

However, reductively condemning Jews in this way and making this a consideration for how Jewish people ought to be approached is problematic theologically:

  • Under the category of ahl al-dimmi (“protected people”) in Islamic law (Shari’ah), Jewish people were protected and enjoyed the same rights of freedom to practice religion and commerce as Muslims. Islam gave Muslims the impetus to protect Jews under Muslim rule, which was sacrosanct. In the Qur’an, God refers  to them as ahl al-kitab or “people of the book”. As Muslims we understand this in the context of historical Islamic rule which require some level of tajdid – renewal – to meet the needs of modern expectations of government and citizenship, and so on. This isn’t the main point here, but I wanted to highlight to the reader that Islam has a moral, legal and state level grounding on protecting religious minorities like Jews. The Prophet said about the dhimmis: “Whoever kills a man under covenant (i.e. a dhimmi) will not smell the fragrance of Paradise… ” Of course in reality there were many incidents and times of tension and communal rioting against Jews by Muslims, but my argument is that it was not because of obeying God’s law, being Muslim to God or any notion of deen (religion), but, rather, due to an absence of Islam triggered by such factors like social issues, politics and identarianism.
  • The Prophet married into Jewish family.
  • The Prophet signed treaties with Jewish tribes such as in the Treaty of Madina in 622 giving equality of treatment between Muslims and Jews. Whilst the treaty was broken by Jewish tribes, the point of principle here is that good relations with Jewish tribespeople was a priority for the Prophet.
  • In the Qur’an, a specific group of people is described as “earning God’s wrath,” a characterisation that many scholars attribute to Jews deviating from the teachings of the Torah. However, it is crucial to note that God encourages believers not to let this be a barrier to cultivating good and just relations with Jews. Core values of the deen (religion), such as justice, fairness, and mutual respect, should prevail regardless of any other consideration. This perspective should be understood in the broader context of God’s critique, which extends to Muslims as well. Terms like “hypocrite” (munafiq) and “transgressor” (fasiq) are employed by God to describe the most egregious among Muslims. Importantly, the use of such terms by God does not grant us, as human creations, the authority to wield them in the same manner, especially if their misuse leads to malicious outcomes. Our position as creation mandates humility, recognising the conditional nature of our own standing before God. This humility extends to our interactions with others. When God uses such terms, it serves the purpose of illustration, elucidating God’s displeasure with those who have deviated from the Abrahamic path and the Ten commandments for example. It is a reminder that any believer in the Islamic faith is susceptible to a similar fate if they stray from the righteous path.
  • Many of Islam’s celebrated leaders, like Salah al-Din Ayyubi (or Saladin in the West, d. 1193), had non-Muslim specialists as advisors. In Salah al-Din Ayyubi’s case the great Jewish philosopher and scholar of the Middle Ages, Moses Bin Maimon (or Maimonides/Rambam, d. 1204) as his personal physician. Throughout history, Jews served important administrative roles in Muslim states like this.
  • It might come as a surprise to some that it was not Jews but the British in the Balfour Declaration in 1917 and later the Americans who instantiated Israel as a nation-state or national home for Jews. This was signed into the UN treaty in 1947, heralding the birth of the state of Israel. There were already many native Jews living in the then Palestine, who’s ancestry could be traced back many generations.  Jews that migrated to Israel in successive waves from the 1880s and by the late 1940s and throughout later decades were European Jews – mainly fleeing persecution in Russia, Poland and other Eastern European countries, which in one sense signified failure, or at least a lack of will, in Europe to accommodate supposedly non-conformist Jews into European societies. The Jews that arrived in Israel increasingly sought self-determination, and without integration and social cohesion policies in place there was, as expected, tension with native Palestinians. Subsequent to the establishment of Israel as a state, more Jews emigrated from Muslim countries as resentment towards them grew as a backlash to the partitioning of Palestine.
  • 20% of Israeli’s are Arab (ethnic Palestinian) Israelis. Today, Arabic is the second language of Israel after Hebrew, highway signs and public documents and signage are in both Hebrew and Arabic. In this sense accusing Israel of being an apartheid is not wholly correct. Unless of course it is meant that Gaza belongs as a part of Israel and through apartheid it is being barricaded out. But, paradoxically, this is not what those who argue that it is an apartheid want it to mean.

With the balance of power and authority shifted to the state of Israel since 1947, it has been the Palestinians who have been suffering displacement and dispossession at the hands of Israel.

Final remarks

Armed violence as a means to redressing grievances and military responses to them rarely work but almost always causes untold suffering for ordinary people, and perpetuates cycles of violence.

I pray that God brings restitution, justice and peace to the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, protects Masjid al-Aqsa and other sites where God is remembered, and softens the hearts of the Israelis and Palestinians alike so that they can work for a mutually agreed lasting peace.

God is with the dispossessed and patient.

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