Why “Reciprocity” should be the most important word when talking about the Israel-Palestine conflict

Activists protest in Sheikh Jarrah, Jerusalem, on 19 March 2021 (AFP)

Renewed clashes between Israelis and Palestinians have erupted again, with rocket attacks and air strikes claiming civilian lives on both sides. It’s a story we’ve heard before, repeating itself consistently year after year with no end to the bloodshed in sight. The conflict remains highly misunderstood by Westerners who often pontificate on the tit-for-tat attacks, condemning either Israel or Palestine without much exploration for the root causes and long existing tensions. Often that gap in the discourse has been filled by misinformed, some anti-Semitic and Islamophobic, online activism across social media which attempts to provide simplistic narratives beyond the rockets and air strikes that we see on traditional media.

The high proliferation of visceral, all-or-nothing, extremist discourse is regrettable but not surprising given greater online-driven trends of political polarisation. As a young person on the centre-left, I find many of my followers’ Instagram stories filled with plenty of pastel infographics and maps that talk in broad terms about the origins of the State of Israel and questioning its legitimacy. Similarly, on Twitter, I see a lot of more right-leaning people focus entirely on the actions of Hamas militants and try to tar any pro-Palestinian advocacy with the same anti-Semitic and terroristic brush. The internet is not a good place for nuance, and while my own views (that of wanting some form of two-state or confederal solution to the conflict) are relatively mainstream within diplomatic and policy circles, it is scarcely found in online viral posts.

What I find interesting, albeit regrettable, is that much of the online debate centres around state legitimacy as in a way that we never would around any other nation states today. For both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine voices, violence delegitimises the claims to statehood, or more specifically any acts of violence committed either by the State of Israel or Palestinian militants ultimately justifies the removal of political and representative rights for the opposite side. This is the antithesis to my thinking, as I do not believe in removing rights for anyone, the debate should be about expanding existing rights to more people.

In my view, I do not regret (and in fact celebrate) the fact that Jews have a state to call their own, a right of return, clear access to their holy sites and a representative democracy. These are all things worth celebrating and defending, but not at the cost of Palestinians being deprived of all the same. To me, the core of the Palestinian cause is equal rights with that of Israel, both as its own state and for its people, many of which have languished for decades in refugee camps with no right to return home.

Looking at the most recent spark for clashes displays the inequality in political rights that I’m talking about. The predominantly Palestinian neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem has been fighting a long legal battle that is at the heart of the conflict. Based on documents of questionable authenticity, the disputed land in Sheikh Jarrah was bought by Jewish trusts from Arab landowners in the 1870s, it then followed that after the relinquishing of Jordanian control following the Six-Day War, the Israeli Custodian General registered the properties under the Jewish trusts, which in turn demanded that the Palestinian tenants there pay the trusts rent. The Jewish trusts then sold the homes to a right-wing settler organisation, who have since made repeated attempts to evict the Palestinian residents with more heavy-handed recent attempts reigniting the conflict even more. Under Israeli land and property laws, Israelis have the right to reclaim properties in East Jerusalem owned by Jews before the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, but no similar law exists that would allow Palestinians to claim their lost property inside Israel during the hostilities. What is clearly lacking is a massive lack of reciprocal rights. To add insult to injury, the Palestinians that are being threatened with eviction are the descendants of refugees expelled and displaced in 1948. In recent days, clashes in Sheikh Jarrah followed intimidation by Jewish settlers openly carrying assault rifles and revolvers, with one visiting far-right Israeli politician requesting that the police open fire upon the Palestinians protesting against eviction.

The inequities of the Israeli state became even more apparent in the following days with restrictions on the closure of Damascus Gate, a popular place for Muslims to gather during Ramadan, and when the Israeli government imposed a 10,000-person limit on people praying at the al-Aqsa Mosque. No equivalent closures of Jewish religious sites occurred at this time. On the morning of 9 May, the final Friday of Ramadan, there was a massive gathering of Muslim worshippers on the Temple Mount. Among the tens of thousands present, some stockpiled and threw stones at the Israeli police, and with disproportionate force, Israeli forces stormed the al-Aqsa Mosque compound, injuring hundreds, attacking both violent and peaceful worshippers alike. Alongside the violence, several Palestinians reported receiving text messages, allegedly from the Israeli military intelligence, reading “Hello! You have been identified to have partaken in acts of violence at Al-Aqsa Mosque. You will be held accountable”. How can one consider these acts appropriate? Muslim worshippers are owed the same rights as worshippers of other religions but such a state of affairs is clearly not afforded to Palestinians today. This entire debate however became completely overshadowed by cruel violence committed by Hamas militants and Palestinian rioters in the days that followed and Israeli airstrikes on the Gaza strip in reaction to that.

If it wasn’t obvious already, I absolutely cannot excuse the violence committed by some Palestinians at the Temple Mount, nor the rioting that took place in Lod and other heavily Arab populated parts of Israel, nor the terrorist attacks committed by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Anyone who does try to defend such actions is fundamentally unserious and not worth listening to. But why must discussion begin at this point? Why were the peaceful protests in Sheikh Jarrah ignored? The rioting and rocket attacks make the news (inadvertently strengthening the case for Israel’s defence and security) but the underlying problems that lead to Palestinian anguish and protest remain unresolved.

Had political solutions been applied that allowed Palestinians the same rights enjoyed by Israelis, much of the escalation of tensions could have been avoided, indeed these are perennial issues that is most poignantly seen in Israel exercising a right of return for Jews but denying the same for Palestinians and their descendants. Opposition to the illegal Israeli annexation of the West Bank entwined with the right to settle and live freely in your homeland formed the crux of initial Palestinian protest but has escalated into war where the only discussion people are having is who has the right to exist.

I do not want the debate framed by a loud online minorities who seek to remove the rights of Jews and Palestinians to their shared homeland. I do not want to have to be share my lot with anti-Semites or anti-Arab racists simply because I want to secure the rights of both Jews and Arabs to live side by side in peace, not forced to face brute and illegal force because of political boundaries. I want Palestinians afforded the same rights that Israelis enjoy. I want reciprocity. The more that advocacy for the Palestinian cause remains rooted in the struggles faced by people such as the residents of Sheikh Jarrah, and less about the legitimacy of Israeli and Palestinian statehood, the more genuine progress that will be made. That, I think, will make a bit more of an impact than anything you’ll see posted on Twitter or Instagram.

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