The Common Good

Selective Memory in the Gaza Conflict

A well-repeated Arab saying dealing with conflicts states: al bad'azlam, "the initiator [of a conflict] is the wrong one." So if you are trying to figure out who is wrong in the current round of violence around Gaza, all you have to do is figure out who started it. But the moment you begin this search you will find yourself in a more complicated bind-namely, figuring out your starting point.

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One thing is evident in this region-people have very erratic memories. Israeli protagonists these days talk repeatedly in a very short term frame of mind when it comes to Gaza. However, when it comes to settlement activities in the West Bank, they talk about a divine promise to Jews thousands of years ago.

Chronology might be the most important key to understanding the Middle East. Every act can be seen as a reaction to something that happened before it. Who is right often depends on where you start. Take for example the current Israeli bombardment on Gaza. Israelis insist that the bombing of Gaza is a reaction to the Qassam attacks coming out of Gaza to Israeli towns.

Hamas says that their rockets are a direct result to the siege placed on Gaza after the Islamic movement won elections early in 2006. Israel says it withdrew from Gaza in 2005. Palestinians say that by controlling land borders, sea, and air, the Israelis have not ended their occupation of Gaza. Furthermore, they say that all Palestinian territories are occupied and Israel must end the 1967 occupation and remove Jewish settlements built on the West Bank. Israel says that Jews have a God-given right to settle anywhere in what they consider their biblical land inherited by God to Abraham exclusively for Jewish use.

Looking back a few decades is revealing from another point of view. Israelis regularly declare that their occupation of Arab territories was legitimate because the areas were conquered in self defense and as a direct result of an Arab-initiated attack on them in June 1967. Israelis and their defenders repeatedly say that the Israeli preemptive war was taken because of Egypt's blockade on their Red Sea port of Eilat. According to Israel, the demand of President Nasser for the withdrawal of U.N. troops in the Sinai and the sea blockade were nothing short of a declaration of war, thus justifying the Israeli occupation of Arab territory. The fact that a siege is considered a declaration of war is completely forgotten when the case being discussed is the Gaza strip.

It is clear that in order to distinguish right from wrong both sides need to agree on a starting point. Many today believe that the natural starting point for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the late 1940s, which witnessed the U.N. partition plan-initially the legal basis for the creation of Israel. If the partition of mandatory Palestine is an accepted starting point, then a logical conclusion to the conflict would require that an end to both direct and indirect occupation of the Palestinian half of the partition plan is in order. Irrespective of time and chronology, trading land for peace continues to be the most logical and appropriate way to address the conflict which has bridged the 20th and 21st centuries.

Daoud Kuttab is an award-winning Palestinian journalist and a former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. His email is

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