‘Destroy the Us V/S Them dichotomy’: Orrie Johan

by tybmmjourno

Shruti Parmar interviews Orrie Johan, an International Relations graduate from the University of New South Wales on the Israel-Palestine conflict as it stands today.

SP: Can you briefly tell us about your roots and your academic background?

Orrie Johan:  My family all originated in Eastern Europe (Romania, Poland and Czechoslovakia), and all migrated to Israel after World War II ended. My parents were born in Israel and I was born in Australia. Despite having an Israeli heritage to some extent, I am also a progressive and am therefore ambivalent towards some of Israel’s actions towards the Palestinians. I do believe a two-state solution is best for both groups, because a one-state solution will lead to violence over who controls the land, as in 1948.

I studied history in school and my interest in it combined with my interest in politics led me to want to become a political reporter. However, the dire state of the media in Australia led me to shift towards becoming a diplomat as my aim during my first year of university. I studied International Relations for 4 years, the last of which I did Honours focusing on India’s current Relationship with the United States as well as with China.

SP: What would you say are major challenges in the Israel-Palestine peace process stalled since 2010?

Orrie Johan:  Note that “Palestinians” here means Fatah, while “Hamas” is used to describe Hamas. (The challenges would be):

a. The settlements: Netanyahu imposed a temporary freeze (10 months) on settlements as a gesture to open negotiations. However, it was argued by the Palestinian side that some settlement building was still occurring, while the temporary nature of the settlement freeze was also condemned. The freeze later ended. This is meant to be the main reason for the stalling of the negotiations, since Abbas refused to return to the negotiating table unless the settlement building ended, which it has not.
b. Hamas and Hezbollah: Both of which were not participants in the peace deal, though both are stakeholders in the conflict due to their antagonism to Israel constituting a major part of their strength amongst Gazans and Southern Lebanese respectively. Hamas actually increased its attacks against Israel in August and September 2010, purportedly to try and sabotage the talks.
c. Israel as a Jewish state: This is controversial for the Palestinians because it undermines the right of return for Palestinian refugees living in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, etc since 1948. Israel insists upon it being so, while the Palestinians want Israel to be a bi-racial/bi-national state instead.
d. Land-swaps: A major policy pushed by prominent coalition party Israel Beiteinu (whose leader was the foreign minister of Israel) was land-swaps; some of the West Bank would go to Israel while some of Israel will go to the West Bank. Palestinians agreed to this, but insisted on a 1:1 ratio swap of land, while Israel offered them less than that from Israeli land.

SP: What are the most pressing obstacles of the two-state solution that need to be overcome for  the Hamas and the Israeli military forces to end their vicious circle of violence & human rights violations.

Orrie Johan:  a. The settlements: If Israel cannot withdraw its citizens from the West Bank, there is no chance that a two-state solution will occur. None at all. Of course, Israel could do so militarily if it wanted to, but pro-settlers are very strong within Israel politically, constitution both religious parties like Shas which believe that Judea and Samaria (ie. the West Bank today) should be part of Israel because they used to be in biblical times and secular nationalists like Israel Beiteinu (Israel Our Home), who desire the land merely because it makes Israel larger than it otherwise would be. Now, there’s a really right-wing party called Habayit Hayehudi (The Jewish Home) which combines the two rationales together and did very well in the 2013 election as a result. These parties are very influential due to the unwieldy nature of Israel’s political system which is formed by Coalition parties (like India, but with the equivalents of Congress and the BJP being smaller and therefore less powerful). As such, it is very hard to muster the political will in Israel to end the settlements right now and questionable whether enough people in the Israeli political system (or Israel civilians at large) want this to happen.                                                                                                                                                                                  

b. Hamas’ ideology: The issue with Hamas is that it developed power on the basis of a perceived failure by Fatah to obtain a Palestinian state through diplomacy rather than conflict (there was also the issue of the endemic corruption within Fatah, but that’s not really relevant here). Unlike Fatah (formerly the PLO) which was founded on secular nationalist principles, Hamas was founded upon Islamic fundamentalism, which emphasises the importance not only of regaining Jerusalem (a holy Islamic city), but also Israel itself (land perceived to be stolen from Muslims by Jews). For a long time, this meant that Hamas refused to acknowledge the existence of Israel and fought to achieve its destruction. While Hamas is not strong enough to do this through conventional military victory, I believe it is trying/tried a form of kamikaze instead. It would attack Israel with dumb missiles, hitting any target which it would be lucky to hit. After a while, Israel would retaliate by storming Gaza or bombing it, leading to civilian casualties in Gaza as well as casualties amongst Hamas’ military. Israel would then be criticised for being a bully by hurting civilians (or even a bully for killing more people than Hamas killed, a claim often true, but made difficult to avoid by the fact that Gaza City is a high-density, which increases the probability of unintended casualties. This is known as criticising Israel for creating ‘disproportionate casualties’). Sometimes Israel does attack first however and sometimes Israel is more aggressive than it should be, so I guess you can’t say that Hamas is doing all of the provocation (far from it!). In late 2011, there was some hope for change because of plans for Hamas to link up with Fatah in the PLO and the then-leader of Hamas even stated support for a two-state solution, with Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. However rocket attacks against Israel continued after this (though those may have been from other groups within Gaza, not necessarily Hamas). I believe that Israel considers Hamas the de facto sovereign of Gaza and therefore considers it to be at fault even when another group attacks Israel because it believes that Hamas should be able to control it. Hamas on the other hand refuses to take responsibility for other groups’ actions within Gaza. This (may have) triggered the (Israeli) Operation Pillar of Defence and (Hamas’) Operation Stones of Shale in late 2012. It remains disputed over who actually started that conflict, but either way, this suggests that Israel and Hamas have not been able to negotiate with each other.

As such, I think the challenges which need to be overcome are disinclination towards violence from Hamas and Israel towards each other, a willingness by both to pursue a two-state solution (or one-state, though I think two is safer and easier). Also Hamas would need to control the other (often even more radical) groups within Gaza, and Israel needs to be willing to trade with Gaza to alleviate and eventually end the poverty and suffering there.

SP: With reference to the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 and the Palestinian bid for full UN membership, what would you say are the strengths and weaknesses of the UN in dealing with this conflict?

Orrie Johan:  Resolution 181 is undermined in my view by the Palestinian refusal to support it. This would’ve created a two-state solution straight away; however the Palestinians were angry at the perceived loss of land to the Jews and thought they could win in a conflict against the fledgling Jewish army. To say that they were wrong is a massive understatement. As for the UN membership today, the UN is relatively powerless to change the balance of the conflict in Palestine’s favour while the United States continues to use its veto to block such actions (which it will do unless something extremely drastic changes).

I believe the Palestinians can refer Israel’s actions in warfare against Palestinians to the ICC, which I suppose counts as a strength. No idea how that is proceeding or whether it is right now. Although, I believe Israel will be able to do the same thing back to Palestinians as well.

SP: With a propagandist and prejudiced media, how does anyone get the full story on the Israel-Palestine conflict?

Orrie Johan: This one is really hard. I often use Haaretz, because while it is an Israeli newspaper, it is a left-liberal one and is therefore much more open to peace with Palestinians and less antagonistic towards them than others. The New York Times tends to be pretty pro-Israel, the BBC in the middle and Al Jazeera more anti-Israel. The three together should provide a pretty good view alongside Haartez. I’m not particularly satisfied with my answer to the fourth question. It’s probably worth reading this to see how bad reportage is on both sides: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Media_coverage_of_the_Arab%E2%80%93Israeli_conflict. It has some media watchdog groups from both sides which may help to get past all of the bias.

SP: Is there a commonality in these long pending conflicts – Israel-Palestine, the question of Kashmir, the Naxalite issue among others?

Orrie Johan: Sure, they certainly do have much in common. They are all created by a dichotomy of US vs. THEM. All except the last example are created by the dichotomy of religion (and conflicting nationalisms to an extent for the first two as well), while the Naxalite situation seems to be a class conflict.

There are obviously other issues at play with all of these situations, so my last statement is an oversimplification. However, I think that the US vs. THEM dichotomy is what really keeps these fights going and the ability to destroy the dichotomy is the only way to end them.