Opinion: Israel and the sinister face of nationalism

The idea of nationalism is an old one and has both graced and scourged the global landscape for many centuries. Countries have been built on its premises and within nations’ borders people have come together because of it. But what happens when that same driving force behind social cohesion becomes a permanent obstacle in the search for peace between warring nations? The answer is found in the West Bank.

When US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced yesterday that the United States will no longer consider the Israeli settlements in the West Bank to be illegal, prime minister Netanyahu could not have reacted more gleefully, and understandably so. After the movement of the US embassy to Jerusalem and the acknowledgment of Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel, this is yet another symbolic step to affirm the unshakable US – Israel relations.

Netanyahu stated that “this policy reflects a historical truth – that the Jewish people are not foreign colonialists in Judea and Samaria.” Unfortunately, it also reflects a complete unwillingness to have further peace negotiations with the Palestinian people. This most recent Trumpian gift to the Israeli prime minister, who is currently battling potential indictments for fraud and bribery and failed to form a government after two rounds of elections, perfectly illustrates the nationalism behind Israel’s claim to the holy land and fits right into Trump’s protectionist ideology. Albeit on the international level.

We were here first

Most nation states as they exist today were formed at the end of the 18th and during the 19th century. Before that, the majority of peoples worldwide lived in multiethnic empires, often spanning many different cultures and languages. The idea of political boundaries lining up with cultural ones, the citizens of a single nation all speaking roughly the same language and those same citizens feeling connected through their mutual background and history became more prevalent in this time period.

Hitler used the same sort of argumentation when he took over the Sudetenland in 1938 and sparked World War II.

Because of this evolution, the notion of nationalism, even though it had already existed in different forms for centuries, started taking firm root in people’s minds. Citizens felt connected because of the many elements they shared, which could be directly related to the rule of the nation state under which they lived. Unfortunately, this same ideology also has the power to strongly divide people, since nationalism has a tendency to favour the past over the future.

Never is this more obvious than when one nation attacks and (partially) annexes another one and the nation’s leader justifies his aggression by appealing to a collective past. Netanyahu basically claims that the Jewish people ‘were here first’, appealing to their shared history and sense of identity, and that therefore they should have sole claim over the ancient land of Judea.

By saying this, he not only conventiently ignores the multiethnic background of the land in question, which over the centuries has been home to Jews, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Ottomans and more, but also makes clear that he prefers historical arguments to honest debate. And in doing so he sidelines any existing opportunities for future peace negotiations in favour of nationalistic propaganda and further annexation of Palestinian lands.

National interest vs. International law

Obviously, Netanyahu isn’t the only one following this line of reasoning. Russia’s president Putin used the same argumentation when he annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014, Hitler used it when he took over the Sudetenland in 1938 and sparked World War II and in China similar arguments were heard when the People’s Republic invaded Tibet in 1950, to give a few examples. And even though president Trump currently has no clear plans to invade or annex any countries (we’ll leave the whole ‘purchasing Greenland’ debacle out of this), his nationalistic and protectionist ideology becomes clear enough whenever he repeats ‘America first’, ‘The future belongs to patriots’ or ‘We’re gonna build the wall’.

The Israeli settlements on the West Bank are illegal under international law, clearly violating article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

However, this sort of reasoning is of very little use in the long term, since it doesn’t help solve any problems on the international level. Spurred by the United States’ loyal support to Israel in the last decades, the Trump administration is once again subtly telling the Israeli government to not worry too much about breaking any international laws by occupying the West Bank.

Yes, of course the lands you have annexed now belong to you, Mr. Netanyahu, because Jews were here first. Protect what you have instead of asking yourself if you should be having it in the first place. Meanwhile, we’ll also completely cut our 360 million dollar funding to the UNRWA, severely handicapping any aid to Palestine. But no worries, we will still try our best to negotiate peace. That’s why we’ve dispatched Jared Kushner with his “Peace to Prosperity” plan which doesn’t negotiate peace and merely focusses on prosperity. Because surely some economic investments will be enough to end over 70 years of ethnic warfare.

The noose of patriotism

The Israeli settlements on the West Bank are illegal under international law, clearly violating article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. There’s no doubt about this and how Secretary Pompeo could ever conclude that “the settlements aren’t per se illegal” is anyone’s guess. But far more important is the sinister role of the nationalistic ideas behind Pompeo’s statement and the Israeli occupation in general.

That is the danger of nationalism. It has built nations and connected people in the past, that much is for certain. But it also makes people look backwards instead of forwards, focussing not on solutions of international cooperation, but instead hammering on past achievements and historical borders. The West Bank is a prime example of this. As long as both sides of the conflict refuse to look forward to potential solutions and instead prefer to justify their respective annexations and violent retributions by looking backwards, it’s the Palestinian people that will continue to be strangled by the noose of patriotism.