The issue of identity politics in the Middle East seems to be the most prominent one in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is of such focus to the conflict that key political researchers often question why this is the case. Based on scholarly definitions, identity politics is a political approach in which certain religious, ethnic, and regional groups of people are defined. More precisely, in the Middle East, identity politics divides groups into complex sub and subpar national structures that vary from states, tribes, clans, and so on. The disparity between a wide variety of communities leads to the separation of cultures in the Middle East, resulting in a broad range of personal beliefs, attitudes and reactions around political identity and how society should be run. The issue of identity politics has been predominantly present in the territories of Israel and Palestine which are both continuously struggling to prove their legitimacy and statehood to one another and the world. Identity politics in Israel and Palestine has been described as how each state defines itself as a nation. This includes the conception of their core beliefs and practices, strengths and weaknesses, as well as their credibility.
To grasp identity politics as a concern in the conflict between Israel and Palestine, we must look at the historical context of the dispute itself. Tensions between the Palestinians and Israelis in the region did not begin to grow until after 1917 when British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour announced that the British authorities would support the creation of a homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine. After WWI, the Ottoman Empire who initially governed Palestine had collapsed and the League of Nations gave Britain the mandate to govern Palestine. In 1945, Britain had codified the British Defence Regulations, which was subsequently adopted into Israeli law as an act of the new Jewish state. This permitted the prosecution of civilians by military courts, administrative detention without trial, official censorship, the enforcement of curfews and travel restrictions and the confiscation of land and property. These new regulations were quickly used against the Palestinians, causing widespread violence.
In 1947, the United Nations approved a proposal to split Arab Palestine into two independent states across borders, one for Jews which became Israel, and one for Arabs which became Palestine. This plan was intended to give the Jews a state, as well as establish Palestinian independence, and put an end to the violence that the British could no longer control. As a result, Israel made an immediate declaration of statehood on 14th May 1948. In response, Arabs across the region saw the UN as a colonial empire seeking to conquer their territory. Many of the Middle East Arab nations, who had only recently gained independence themselves, declared war on Israel to create a united Arab-Palestine. The new state of Israel won this war and, in the process, expanded its borders well beyond the UN plan, taking the majority of Palestinian occupied territory, displacing large numbers of Palestinians from their homes, and thus creating a vast refugee population. This was the beginning of the almost century-long Israeli-Palestinian war.
Supporting this underlying conflict, the problem of identity politics in Israel/Palestine is exasperated by the disparity in classified identities between the states. These distinctions can be seen by the distinction of sub and supranational identities in each group. In other words, the meanings of the two identity categories that make up each ‘state’ are disputed and somewhat uncertain due to the different interpretations and perspectives of what they are. For example, in the case of the Israeli identity group, a Jewish person is someone who admits to practicing Judaism. On top of this, Jews are also seen as a people, a culture and a community. In the case of the Palestinian identity group, it is difficult for Arabs to be considered an ethnicity since the Arab world has been invaded many times throughout history and has been subjected to a variety of refugee influxes. Therefore, the term ‘Arab’ can be also defined in many ways depending on the identification of such individuals.
To understand the identity politics within both states, we must interpret their classified identities. The main language spoken in Israel is Hebrew, the dominant religion practiced is Judaism and the majority of Israelis describe their ethnic group as Jewish. Like the Jewish people, Arabs are identified by their common language and religion. The main language spoken in Palestine is Arabic, the main religion is Sunni Muslim and their ethnic group is identified as Arab. Identity politics continues to be a complex issue to resolve because of the separate categorical identities between the two states. Israel is a representative democracy made up of the legislative, administrative and judicial branches. Politics in Israel is governed by Jewish Zionist groups, which integrate laws into a culture founded on Judaism. This is significant because it demonstrates that religion plays a central role in identity politics.
Compared to Israel, the Palestinian government is less organized, with a self-governing body set up to rule the Gaza Strip and two parts of the West Bank of the territory. With a semi-presidential structure, both the President and the Prime Minister assist in the governance of the state. The most significant philosophies of Palestinian identity in politics are to honour their land, people and education. As seen in the definition of identity politics in both states, a strong distinction can be made between the two. Both states have different views towards almost every aspect of society; from the way they operate, to what politics should be focused on and even to the kind of government structure that should be utilized. Therefore, it makes it extremely difficult for both states to coexist with one another and share a common political identity.
In addition, the impact of nationalism on the issue of identity politics restates its prominence in Israel/Palestine. Nationalism can be described as the belief that representation in a country is the primary focus of political identity and loyalty, in particular the exclusion of the interests of other nations. In Israel/Palestine, nationalism has taken a heavy toll on how each state sees one another’s political identity. As a response, opposing groups frequently participate in increasingly violent forms of reciprocal violence, leading to more cycles of violence directed at their opponents. As a result of nationalism in Israel and Palestine, both sides view each other’s political identities through a lens that defends themselves yet threatens the other. The Israelis see their political identity through the lens of a Westphalian system whereby each state is entitled to sovereignty over its territory and domestic affairs. On the other hand, the Palestinians see their own as movements towards liberation.
As a result of nationalism, identity politics in the territories of Israel and Palestine have been built by distinguishing between ‘us’ and ‘them’. These discrepancies tend to show a hierarchy whereby Israeli identity politics have a stronger power position than Palestinians. This stronger position shows a stronger level of shared identity in Israel, showing that if they gave up this position, they would lose a large part of their identity. As a result of nationalism, identity politics in Israel seems to urge a need to hold on to a powerful position over Palestine. This indicates that Israelis are not prepared to give up nor compromise on their political identity.
Following the impact of nationalism, two alternative solutions have been presented to promote peace and settlement in Israel and Palestine. However, these promoted solutions come with controversy and appear to have further hardened pre-existing identities as both states have become so loyal and devoted to their own constituencies and ideologies that they are unwilling to change for fear that their opponent may find a way to gain sovereignty over them. Both sides claim that Israel/Palestine is their homeland, and both sides want national self-determination as well as their government to have control over the territory. And so, the acceptance of the other’s political identity seems to jeopardize the identity of one party. As a result, over the course of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there has been a systematic tendency on both sides to deny the other’s status as a human being, as well as the validity of the other’s claims to political rights.
One of the solutions is a one-state solution that would unite Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip into a binational state that would extend equal citizenship to all. However, the declaration of such a solution has contributed to a widening rift between Israel and Palestine. This is because there are two versions of this solution, where one is preferred by the majority of Arabs and the other is preferred by the majority of Israelis. The version favoured by the Palestinians would establish a single democratic nation. As a result, Israel would have to give up its Zionist-styled rules, undermining Israel’s Zionist project of Israel as a Jewish state. In the other version of the one-state solution, Palestinians would have to give up their national struggle in exchange for a denial of their human rights. This contrasting idea, which has been favoured by the majority of Israelis, would involve the occupation of the West Bank by Israel, therefore either forcing Palestinians out or denying them the right to vote. However, this comes as an unacceptable violation of human rights, and as a result, identity politics has only grown between the two groups who remain exclusive and loyal to their own identities.
Alternatively, there is the two-state solution that came about as a second proposed solution, where the territory would be divided along a border labelled the Green Line, and a sovereign Palestine state would be created alongside contemporary Israel. This would, however, only be a compromise that would not fully satisfy either side. This solution has been recommended since 1947, was negotiated in the 1990s and partially agreed upon in 1993. However, it has not yet been settled. Since each state depends on the political identity and allegiance of its own members, it makes it more difficult to find a possible solution for peace and conflict resolution which could quite possibly diminish the issue of identity politics.
Identity politics in Israel and Palestine, as discussed in this report, is a major issue with contrasting principles and terminology concerning the systems of belief in both states. The problem has been exploited by the disparity in classified identities between states. With different categorical ethnicities, cultures, religions and more between the two nations, it makes it very difficult for each to stably and peacefully coexist in a shared territory. Further, the recurrent impacts of nationalism have shown exclusive support of the interests of one state alone and the refusal to accept the other as legitimate.
Finally, the concept of a two-state solution, which has been suggested for over 60 years, reveals just how antagonistic each state is to one another and reintroduces the concept that identity politics divides both states into their bubbles, which prevents external control to help build more tolerant identities and perspectives. It is also important to note that when it comes to identity politics in Israel and Palestine alongside the Middle East as a whole, these states and territories must be open to compromise in their governments and political systems. If political leadership of both states comes together to discuss what their people want and what can be done to address challenges, as well as to introduce fair and equitable solutions with the aid of international actors, a peaceful outcome is possible.
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