Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Justice, Security, and Peace: A Paradox of Values Preventing Israeli-Palestinian Peace

by William James Stover, Ph.D.


Mindless violence between Palestinians and Israelis has become a whirlpool of death, pulling both sides into its cold, dark despair. Each group wants resolution of the conflict, but it's hard to negotiate, for peace is eclipsed by other values.

Based on recent conversations in Jerusalem with Palestinians and Israelis, the author examines this paradox of values preventing peace. For Palestinians, the contravening value is justice. For Israelis, it's security. Neither value can be achieved, however, without negotiations for peace.


It was unusually quiet in the old city of Jerusalem. Few tourists ventured out into the narrow streets, and those who did were accompanied by armed guards. Palestinian shop keepers closed their doors early, and some spoke of plans to close permanently, for there were no customers. Their attitude seemed hopeless, filled with despair. "There is no life here," said one merchant, "no justice for us. My sons will have to move away or die fighting the Israelis."

In the modern, western part of the city, there seemed to be a similar attitude of hopeless resignation. Sitting in a coffee shop, an Israeli attorney admitted that he didn't like the prime minister but supports him anyway. "We don't have Palestinian negotiating partners," he said; "and until we do, I'm with Sharon. He'll build a wall, kill the terrorists, and give us better security until we can make peace."

In fact, both Palestinians and Israelis want peace after more than half a century of violence. It's elusive, however, not because of flawed negotiating positions or failed efforts at compromise. Peace is difficult to achieve because it's a goal that is eclipsed by other, seemingly more important values.

For the Palestinians, the contravening value is justice. They believe the Jews stole their land, and unfairly retain it in violation of international law and basic equity. The only peace proposal Palestinians ever viewed as truly just was the London White Paper issued in May 1939. It offered Arabs all the land of Palestine in a democratic, secular state with an Arab majority and vague guarantees for the Jewish minority. That plan was never implemented, and the horrors of World War II convinced the post-war international community that the Jews could never live as a minority in an Arab dominated state.
To the Palestinians, however, a democratic, secular state in all of Palestine represented justice. All subsequent plans were weighed against this proposal and found wanting.

In 1947, the United Nations' plan for ending the British Mandate in Palestine presented another injustice to the Palestinians. It gave the Jews, a minority in the land of Palestine at the time, more and better territory than it gave the majority Arabs. Injustice continued after the 1967 War, when United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 demanded withdrawal by Israel to pre-war boundaries. Palestinians rejected this, for it offered Israel recognition by Arab states in exchange for withdrawal from occupied territory while never mentioning a Palestinian state, a grave injustice in their view.

Most Palestinians also saw the Oslo peace process as equally unjust. The final proposal framed by former President Clinton offered Palestinians an independent state as well as territory in East Jerusalem. Arafat could not accept this, however, rejecting the proposal ostensibly because it denied Palestinian refugees the right of return to Israel. His real reason was a belief that the Palestinians would reject him if he signed such an unjust proposal. "How could we accept such an offer?" said a Palestinian in Beirut. "Israel stole half our land in 1948 and now wants to give us less than half the remainder. And the conditions are intolerable! It's like allowing prison inmates independence in their cellblocks. They can't come or go, can't invite outsiders to visit, can't even control the water coming into the prison," he argued. "How is that just"?

Motivated by this sense of injustice as well as personal loss, many Palestinians have sought justice through revenge, punishing Israel for stealing their land and mistreating them as an occupying power for half a century. In the 1950's and 1960's, they looked to Arab states to gain their land and extract revenge. In the 1970's and 1980's, it was the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine who sought to punish Israel. Today, it's the "suicide bombers" of Hamas and Islamic Jihad as well as factions within the Palestinian Authority who seek justice and revenge through violence. Between 1993 and 1998, thirty-seven "human bombs" exploded. Since the eruption of the second intifada in September 2000, scores of suicide bombers have struck, killing hundreds of Israelis and injuring many more.

This violence makes Israelis more determined than ever to protect themselves against terrorism. Instead of taking the risks for peace that the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin envisioned, Israelis focus on their own contravening value—security. This is an understandable, indeed vital value for a people almost destroyed in the Holocaust, now under daily attack in their own land. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was elected on a platform to bring security to Israel, but this hasn't happened. Palestinian factions continue to attack civilians and make security elusive. Israel fuels such terror with extra-judicial killings and the destruction of Palestinian property. In fact, Israeli citizens are less secure today than during the negotiations associated with the Oslo peace process.

This desire for security has led Israel to retain conquered land and develop settlements in much of the territories occupied since 1967. The strategy began as an element in the effort to obtain security by denying Palestinians statehood under the Palestinian Liberation Organization. Today, settlement expansion is most strongly pursued by a small minority of religious Israelis with power beyond their numbers in the fractious Knesset. However, both Labor and Likud governments in Israel have pursued security by establishing settlements in the West Bank, with its strong links to Jewish history as well as in Gaza, with no such links. These "facts on the ground" in the territories made it more difficult to reach an agreement with the Palestinians during the Oslo process. Today, Prime Minister Sharon pursues his quest for security by "unilateral disengagement" from the Palestinians, an increase in the population of settlements, a security fence enclosing more land inside Israel, and the construction of exclusive Israeli roadways in the territories. This denies Palestinians the contiguous areas necessary to establish a viable state, a vital condition to achieve peace.

The contravening values preventing peace for Palestinians and Israelis have several similarities. First, security for the Israelis and justice for the Palestinians are legitimate ends. That's why peace making is so difficult. Both sides must recognize this legitimacy, try to understand each other's needs, and make efforts to help each other realize their values.

Second, neither security nor justice can be absolute. Even Americans with cooperative neighbors and two oceans for protection can't be absolutely secure. The tragic events of September 11 taught us that even the most powerful country in history is vulnerable to attack.

The Israelis may like to think that absolute security is possible, but it is an illusion. The pursuit of this kind of security would require the brutal subjugation of the Palestinian population in an "ethnic cleansing" that would make the Balkans seem benign. Israelis could not condone the genocide necessary for a "final solution" to Palestinian resistance.

Nor can Palestinians expect to find absolute justice. Of course, they would like to go back to 1939 and create an Arab state in Palestine with Jerusalem as its capital. Short of that, many would only accept a pre-1967 Israel with the right of return for Palestinian refugees to claim their property in Israel. However, this kind of "justice" would mean the end of Israel, and that is simply not going to happen.

Palestinians must learn an agonizing lesson of history: offers to settle are relative to time and place. Once an offer is made and rejected, there's often no going back. New deals must be negotiated despite the injustice inherent in their terms. The sooner Palestinians accept this and negotiate a settlement, the sooner they can turn their attention to creating a just and prosperous state.

Third, Palestinian leaders must give up their pursuit of revenge to find justice, and, equally Israelis must give up expanding settlements in search of security. This would at least permit renewed negotiations. Palestinian leaders must renounce terrorism, mean it, and take serious steps to stop it once and for all. Perhaps they can embrace the lessons of non-violent resistance to occupation through civil disobedience. Clearly, however, Palestinians must learn that attacking Israel is counter-productive and self-destructive.

Israeli leaders must also move to limit settlements in the territories, even buy back some of this property (perhaps with United States assistance) so Palestinians can contemplate the creation of their own contiguous, viable state. That would provide them hope, limit their violent acts of desperation, and increase Israeli security.

Finally, both sides need to understand a paradox: only through negotiations toward peace can their other values be achieved. Palestinians have no justice now, nor can they hope for it under the occupation of a foreign power. It's only in their own country that they can pursue justice and build their nation; and they will achieve statehood only through peaceful means.

Without peace, future generations of Palestinian youths will continue to feel betrayed by leaders who sold out their rights, and these youths will take out their rage both in Israel and in the territories. Security in Israel will become more elusive, life and democracy more fragile, as despair drives Palestinians increasingly toward terror.

For both sides, legitimate values seeming to prevent peace can be achieved only through negotiations toward peace. Understanding this, Israelis and Palestinians must reopen peace negotiations to end this self-destructive and seemingly intractable conflict. Only through the negotiation process can they achieve their long sought values of justice and security.

William James Stover teaches international politics at Santa Clara University, California, using an interactive, on-line simulation that focuses on Middle East conflict. He recently returned from a visit to the region as a Hackworth fellow with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.

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