As a Pakistani-American, I was initially hesitant to visit Israel but when an invitation from Tel Aviv University beckoned to explore prospects for ecological peace-building in the region, I felt obliged to accept. The trip was risky in two ways: first in Pakistan, I would be immediately marginalized for visiting a country that is still perceived by many to be illegitimate. Second, as a Muslim of Pakistani lineage traveling to the region, I would be considered with suspicion in Israel as well as back in the United States. Even within academia, I defied calls for a boycott of the current government's policies because I felt that would only further deepen the sense of victimization by Israelis that can be used to perpetuate the status quo. Thus I arrived with conflicting emotions and a protracted security screening at Ben Gurion airport, only to find the country in its latest conflagration in Gaza. An air attack on the beleaguered region had left four Palestinians dead and an aid convoy from the UK on Gaza's border with Egypt was being stopped by Egyptians who claimed that they were under treaty obligations with Israel to ensure proper security measures. An Egyptian soldier was also killed in the frenzied fury of the waiting game for desperately needed aid.
Despite their many differences, Pakistan and Israel have many interesting commonalities. Both countries came into existence on the basis of religious nationalism as manifest, initially, by relatively secular politicians. Jinnah and Ben Gurion were both not particularly religious but championed the cause of their Faith communities for statehood against the British empire. Both countries were the product of a "partition" but this is where the similarities fade. While India reluctantly accepted Pakistan's formation and even had diplomatic ties with its partitioned neighbor, the neighboring states to Israel initially rejected the formation of the state. Both Israel and Pakistan encountered huge migration flows in their early years but the origins of the migration flows were far more diffuse and more distantly connected to the land of migration than in the Pakistani case.
First, let me be unequivocal in stating that Israel has a right to exist because its people have worked and fought hard to win that right just as much as America has a right to exist because of a synthetic and often painful process of nation-building. In both cases, the struggle had some noble aspirations but also involved great suffering for the prior inhabitants of the land. Given such a path to nationhood, it is essential to appreciate that Israel's right to exist does not preclude the rights of others who have lived on the land and have similar claims to self-determination. Furthermore, let us also keep in mind that the creation of Israel was an unprecedented experiment in rewriting the wrongs of history with an enormous temporal gap. Thus the initial reluctance of the Arab and Muslim states to accepting the outcome should also be understood in that context rather than being summarily dismissed as "anti-Semitism." Even the founding prime minister of Israel, Ben Gurion, recognized the plight of the Arabs in this regard when he stated: "There has been anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault (the Arabs)? They only see one thing: we have come here and stolen their country. Why should they accept that? They may perhaps forget in one or two generations' time, but for the moment there is no chance." Times have changed and most of these states would indeed be willing to recognize Israel, as outlined by King Abdullah in his plan five years ago, if there is clear recognition of Palestinian rights as well.
Sadly the situation in Gaza demonstrates that those rights are far from recognition by Israel or much of the international community and are only leading to further radicalization of the Palestinians in the enclave. More insidiously the siege in Gaza is giving a reason for radicalism to spread across the Muslim world. This is a sensitive issue for many Israelis and Jewish-Americans who tend to reject any linkage between the conflict and the greater Islamist movement but the evidence is now quite clear. Islamists may have their own agenda for domination but they get their fuel to fire-up young minds by preying on the perpetuation of Palestinian plight. In my study of Islamic religious schools in Pakistan, the most significant rallying cry which united all radical factions of Shias and Sunnis in their hatred of the West was the continuing lack of progress on the Middle-east peace process.
This month we had more direct evidence of the connection between the Gaza conflict and radicalization. The young Jordanian doctor who acted as a double agent for the United States and then blew himself up along with 7 CIA personnel and a Jordanian intelligence officer in Afghanistan had been motivated by this conflict. In an interview to CNN's Nick Robertson, the brother of the bomber stated that Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, had been incensed by the war in Gaza last year and decided to commit himself to "helping" the people of the region. In sermon after sermon in mosques across the world, the Gaza conflict his brought up on Fridays as an example of Western apathy towards the plight of the Palestinians. Most do not advocate any violence but there is plenty of fiery rhetoric online and it is hard to control a young internet-savvy population that can be easily targeted by even a few renegade clerics. Furthermore, American allies such as Jordan are losing clout with their population as there is continuing suffering in Gaza. The fact that affluent and professional Muslims with some contorted convictions such as the Jordanian can be recruited by Al-qaeda also undermines the argument that terrorism is solely linked to poverty and deprivation. This is a multiple-causality problem and we cannot afford to decouple any potential causal linkages.
Ironically, President Obama admitted that the Guantanamo had become a "tremendous recruiting tool" for Al-qaeda in his recent speech following the Christmas bombing attempt but has been more ambiguous about the linkage between the Middle East conflict and Al-qaeda recruitment. Gaza in essence has become a huge prison as well – the Egyptian decision to close off the smuggling tunnels will make the incarceration of its 1.5 million residents even more austere. While the Guantanamo inmates at least have recourse to military courts, the Gaza citizenry has no international legal recourse on its own. The Isaraeli "strategic" withdrawal from the area and the subsequent closure, has sealed the fate of the territory since it is now much easier to bomb and tighten the tap on resources. However, the resolve of Hamas and their popular support remains unimpeded and, more significantly, the influence of its "resistance" strategy is spreading and being capitalized by the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan in their propaganda campaigns. Extremist propaganda is also spinning the perceiving the support for the Palestinian Authority (in the absence of a peace agreement) versus austerity against authorities in Gaza as a classic "divide and rule" strategy and linking it to the colonial narrative. As to who cast the first stone in starting the Gaza debacle, the issue is no longer relevant since the power dynamics are so utterly asymmetric. A peace agreement would be the most potent way to delegitimize Hamas and also allow for international intervention to stop their ineffective rockets coming into Israel.
Let us not forget that Israel is becoming more radicalized as well. While visiting the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in the Negev that aims to bring Palestinian and Israelis together for ecological peace-building exercises, I was given some startling news. It is more difficult for the institute to recruit conservative Israelis to work with Palestinians than it is to recruit Palestinians. So far the institute has not been able to get a single ultra-orthodox Jew or anyone from the Jewish settlements to take courses with Palestinians as a peace-building measure in its decade of operations. One Jewish-American student at the institute told me that his own relatively secular brother had chided him for going to study "alongside Arabs." Israel's population is also becoming more radical for demographic reasons -- similar to more religious Muslims, there are higher birth rates among more religious Jews. Russian immigrants who have joined Israel within the last two decades and are now almost 20% of the population are also less willing to engage with Palestinians. The American "J-Street" movement of more peace-oriented Jews is not gaining much traction despite their best efforts. In their first major conference, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren (who is known to be a fairly moderate academician) declined to attend as well.
The only way out of this ominous situation is for the United States to take a leadership role in resolving the Palestinian problem and include Gaza in its deliberations. Some of the Gulf States, such as Qatar, might be able to play a positive mediating role as well since they have hosted many influential clerics such as Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, who have contact with Hamas. While it might not be prudent to talk directly to Hamas, indirect interactions through such processes may be fruitful. Egypt will also need to be engaged at some point to explore prospects for a confederation or other creative solutions with Gaza. Geographically, Gaza is distinct from the West Bank now and its governance may need to be considered independently. At the end of the day, the Palestinians, particularly those in Gaza need to see some light at the end of the tunnel rather than subterranean or towering edifices of doom. To paraphrase Robert Frost's classic poem on "mending walls," good neighbors DONT make good fences and indeed "something there is that doesn't love a wall." Engagement on this vital issue is essential for US security interests and draining the swamp from which Al-Qaeda draws its strength.
Saleem H. Ali is associate professor of Asian studies and Environmental Planning at the University of Vermont and the author of Islam and Education: Conflict and Conformity in Pakistan's Madrassas (Oxford University Press, 2008).