Israeli settlements and Palestinian terror: a moral equivalence?

Israeli settlements and Palestinian terror: a moral equivalence?
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Israeli settlements and Palestinian terror: a moral equivalence?

Moral obsessions block creative solutions to political disputes

By Ghassan Michel Rubeiz

I recently asked a Palestinian friend this provocative question: Is there moral equivalence between building Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories and Palestinian “acts of terror”? He said “Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands and Palestinian acts of violence against Israelis are connected, the former causes the latter. The desperation of Palestinians, caused by Israel’s oppression, drives them to suicidal crimes against their oppressors”.

This opinion is appreciated in the Arab world, not in the West, but opinions are slowly changing. It has taken a long time for the US State Department (DOS) to recognize the connection between punitive Israeli policy and Palestinian rage. While highlighting much concern over Palestinian terror attacks, the 2017 D0S report on terrorism explains that “lack of hope” drives Palestinian violence.

The report identified several dimensions of discrimination against Palestinians of the Occupied Territories and in Israel proper: “Continued drivers of violence included a lack of hope in achieving Palestinian statehood, Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank, settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank, the perception that the Israeli government was changing the status quo on the Haram Al Sharif/Temple Mount, and IDF tactics that the Palestinians considered overly aggressive,”  click here for info

English: Ma'ale Efrayim Israeli settlement in ...

English: Ma’ale Efrayim Israeli settlement in the Jordan Valley, West Bank (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

American Jewish organizations reacted to this report with “deep concern”. The Zionist Organization of America claims that the DOS report “shifts the responsibility” of terrorism from the Palestinians to Israel.

Shortly before the DOS Report was released to the public, former US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer wrote a piece in the New York Daily News titled The Hard Part on Mideast Peace. Kurtzer asserts that “While there is no moral equivalence between terrorism and settlements, the settlements continue to be a very significant obstacle on the road to peace”. The former ambassador, who currently teaches at Princeton, challenged Washington to discourage settlements monetarily.  In his opinion, “The United States could withhold assistance to Israel on a dollar-for-dollar basis of what Israel invests in settlement activity..”

Like many thinkers in Israel itself, Kurtzer opposes settlements but does not find construction of houses on disputed land to be as morally offensive as suicidal attacks on Israeli citizens. Kurtzer’s strong moral rejection of Palestinian violence is understandable; in fact, his view is shared by many who care about the plight of Palestinians but may not be sufficiently in tune with their enduring suffering.

To people in despair the world looks different.  Palestinians who consider the establishment of Israel [and subsequent ethnic cleansing] as an act of displacement of one nation by another, who view the 1967 occupation as a further act of displacement, and who view Israeli settlements as more of the same, they also do not see moral equivalence between settlements and “resistance”, their term for terrorism.

Both sides of the dispute have symmetrical arguments for rejecting moral equivalence. It may be time for all to quit obsessing about issues too subjective to handle. Regardless of moral equivalence and cause and effect it is imperative to realize that these two emotionally loaded issues have distracted attention from the most vital priority the protagonists face: resolution of the conflict. Peace can no longer be delayed with tunnels of vision. For the Palestinians the Israeli occupation is too painful to bear; for the Israelis it is too costly for their future.

When leadership of both Palestinians and Israelis come to realize how distracting, if not paralyzing, purist moral positions are, creative ideas on conflict resolution will start emerging.

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Ghassan Rubeiz

Ghassan Rubeiz

Blogger, writers at The Arab Daily News online
Dr. Ghassan Rubeiz is an Arab-American writer, journalist and commentator on issues of development, peace and justice. He is the former Middle East Secretary of the Geneva-based World Council of Churches. Reach him at
Ghassan Rubeiz
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