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Religion, the scapegoat of the Israel-Palestine crisis

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OPINION by Megan Hanna – The sirens had barely stopped wailing before commentators started exploiting the terror attacks in Paris on 13 November, twisting the horrific event to serve a range of varying political agendas. While most of the world mourned in respectful grief, an opportunistic few used the event to begin speaking about issues as varied as climate change, anti-immigration and unrest in the Middle East.

Given his tendency for making tenuous connections between Israel’s plight and disparate foreign events, it’s no surprise that Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was one of the first to climb up on France’s bloodied bandwagon to make hasty links between Paris and present-day Israel.

Without dwelling too long over French fatalities, Netanyahu lamented over his country’s own victimhood, claiming “the terrorists who attack us have the same murderous intent as those in Paris”, saying that world leaders should condemn the “radical Islam” as effected by Palestinians.

“It would be proper for Abu Mazen, who condemned the attack in France yesterday, to condemn ruthless terrorism against innocent people in Israel”, Netanyahu continued emphatically, using a broad brush to paint imaginary connections between religious extremists and Palestinians.

To compare the actions of ISIS with those of dispossessed Palestinians – who are resisting in an anti-colonial struggle against a brutal military occupation – is intentionally deceptive, and appears to be part of Israel’s strategy to elicit global sympathy and support in their prolonged occupation of Palestinian lands.

As explained by Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestinian Executive Committee, “Netanyahu is attempting to exploit the cruel and inhuman terrorism of Daesh [ISIS] in order to score cheap political points at the expense of the Palestinian people… his statements are not only fraudulent and politically coercive, they are symptomatic of political and moral bankruptcy.”

Netanyahu dismissed Israeli’s expansion of settlements past the 1949 Green Line as a motivating factor for violence, instead portraying Palestinians as inherently aggressive and ideologically-motivated proponents of violence; “It is the terrorists who are to blame for terrorism, not the territories, not the settlements, not any other thing. It is the desire to destroy us that perpetuates this conflict and drives the murderous aggression against us.”


The Israeli leader’s comments over Paris were delivered less than a week after Israel’s security cabinet outlawed the northern branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, which provides religious and educational services for Israeli Arabs, in a bid to end “dangerous incitement”. Gilad Erdan, Israel’s public security minister, commented on the move saying, “Israel must act as an example and spearhead in the struggle against radical Islam, whose emissaries we saw massacring innocent people in Paris.”

Such statements are indicative of Israel’s continuous tactic to convey Palestinian resistance as a barbaric and religious war where radical Muslims are fighting Jews on ideological grounds, rather than a struggle over land where the occupied are resisting their occupiers. Israel’s claims that the violence is being enacted by religiously-motived radical attackers fuelled by incitement by Palestinian religious leaders, is at odds with claims of Palestinians who are pointing towards a half-century belligerent occupation as the catalyst behind recent unrest.


The role religion has to play in this on-going violence should not be completely discounted; many media discussions are interpreting the current ‘intifada’ as happening due to disagreements over the holy Al-Asqa site in Jerusalem.

However, as stated by Ali Abdunimah, author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, “the present struggle over Al-Aqsa is the consequence of Israel’s use of religious dogma as a cover for its violent settler-colonialism and ethnic cleansing in Jerusalem and the rest of the occupied West Bank since 1967.”

In other vein, religion cannot be considered a completely separate aspect of Palestinian identity or as the singular foundation of violent impulses. For many, the desire to defend Muslim presence in Al-Aqsa isn’t solely based upon spiritual reasoning.

As Hala Marshood, a political activist based in Jerusalem, said: “”I don’t look at Al-Aqsa as just a religious symbol. It’s a cultural symbol. It’s a symbol of our heritage and our Palestinian identity. It’s a symbol of our social life. It’s a really important place for the Palestinians in Jerusalem and outside of Jerusalem.”


In another statement issued on 14 November in relation to the Paris attacks and Palestinian violence, Netanyahu said, “militant Islamic terrorism attacks our societies because it wants to destroy our civilization and our values. I call on the entire civilized world to unite to defeat the plague of worldwide terrorism. … It’s only with this moral clarity that the forces of civilization will defeat the savagery of terrorism.”

It is almost impossible to listen to Netanyahu’s antiquated binary of ‘civilized’ and ‘moral’ forces pitted against the atavistic ‘savages’ of mindless violence, and to not hear echoes of imperial rhetoric derived from the collective memory of past empires; the British Empire’s colonial expansion was supposedly justified through the work of Christian missionaries and ‘humanizing’ or ‘moralizing’ ventures. Indeed, it is important to remember that Zionism gained traction at the beginning of the 20th century, when imperialist Britain was looking for an ally to hand over the reins of their mandate.

Few recognize that Zionism originated as a secular movement based around Theodore Herzl’s 1886 publication Der Judeenstaat (The Jew’s State). Herzel stated in a letter to the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes, that Zionism was a fundamentally “political program”, rather than a religious one, and “the Jewish Question is for me neither a social question nor a religious question… it is a national question.” A product of the zeitgeist of the 19th century, the publication dreamed of the creation of a national homeland to compliment a new Jewish identity, one based on a fusion of nationalism, socialism and ethnicity rather than a religious covenant based on ancient promises made in biblical texts. Thus a large aspect of the problem lies in not only viewing Palestinian resistance as being motivated by religious sentiments, but also viewing Zionism as a predominantly religious project too.

Interpreting Palestinian violence as a historic “desire to destroy” which is rooted in religious antagonism negates the political character of Zionism and the complexity of the situation, which is more adequately defined as a conflict over land, dispossession, occupation and colonial settlement, rather than a clash of civilizations over religion. In the same way that it could be argued that it was Bush and Blair who gave birth to ISIS rather than the Prophet Muhammed, the roots of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis lie in texts such as the Balfour Declaration, not the Quran.

Too often religion is used as a scapegoat for conflict that masks underpinning socio-political factors. At a time when Middle Eastern politics appear to become more complicated, many people instinctively turn to simpler narratives. The paradigm of religious extremism is one that is easily understood, and thus the Israel-Palestine crisis is too often reduced to a misleading and rather superficial binary of ‘radical Islam’ verses national democracy.

In this particular case, using Paris as a soapbox to point the finger towards religious radicalism is distracting from Israel’s political agenda, colonial expansion of settlements within the oPt, and prolonged military occupation, which appear to be a more accurate and credible reasons for the current surge in violence. Middle East Monitor

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