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‘No Winners’ in Re-Ignited Israeli/Palestinian Conflict, Which Exploded over Weekend

University of Southern Indiana Associate Professor of Political Science Trent Engbers said the views of the conflict from everyday Israelis varies greatly by region and demographic. He said conservative hard line leadership will be unwilling to literally give any ground to cool the fighting.
Tim Jagielo
University of Southern Indiana Associate Professor of Political Science Trent Engbers said the views of the conflict from everyday Israelis varies greatly by region and demographic. He said conservative hard line leadership will be unwilling to literally give any ground to cool the fighting.

University of Southern Indiana Associate Professor of Political Science Trent Engbers spent four months in Israel on sabbatical studying non-profit organizations, giving him further insight into the Israeli state of mind

With the Israel and Palestine conflict re-erupting over the weekend , WNIN’s Tim Jagielo spoke with University of Southern Indiana Associate Professor of Political Science Trent Engbers to gain some insight into the violence. Engbers  recently conducted a four-month national comprehensive study in Israel. 

Below is a nearly full transcript of the conversation.
The 4:52 minute audio feature can be heard above.

Trent Engbers
So one of the many benefits of being a faculty member is that they have the opportunity to engage in a sabbatical. So last year, I took a sabbatical where I left teaching my courses for a semester and moved to Israel to conduct a research project on faith-based nonprofits. And so I was there for about four months conducting research.

I did a national survey of Israel, Israeli nonprofits, and then did a lot of one-on-one interviews where I had the opportunity to travel the country, from Eilat to the south to the Golan Heights and the North, meeting with nonprofit leaders learning about the way they manage their organizations and their experience of nonprofit management in the country.

Timothy Jagielo
Is there anything that you studied or learned that gave you insight into the current events that you've been hearing?

Certainly — you know, I think it's a simplification to call the conflict in the Middle East a 'conflict about religion.' But the fact that my research looks at religious nonprofits gave me an opportunity to meet with a really wide cross section of Israeli society — young Jews, Arabs, European immigrants, African immigrants, Christians, Muslims … and through that you get a flavor for what the culture is like in Israel and the perspectives of different people as they relate to these types of issues.

What did Israelis say if you ever talked about this conflict?

Well, there's certainly a lot of distrust between Arabs and Palestinians. And Palestinians are by no means a monolithic group.

I think that it also depends on where you live — Palestinians who live in Gaza, or the West Bank, have a very different attitude toward these issues than if you're a Palestinian who lives on the Israeli side of the green line. Or if you're a Palestinian expatriate who lives in the surrounding area in the United States or Canada.

I think everyone realizes that it's a tragedy, (and) there's this is a conflict over land and a conflict over history and religion.

And that in the end, there's real no winners; the people want to frame this in terms of ‘winners and losers’ … far as I'm concerned, and as far as the people that I talked to, there's ‘losers and losers.’ So you know, everyone is going to come out of this conflict worse off than they were before.

Well, could you just kind of give us some highlights on what precipitated the conflict and these events?

I think that there are a number of things that have been going on. I mean, over the long term trajectory, there has been a conflict between Palestinians and Jews as it relates to land. You know, since the founding of the State of Israel, and the political changes in Gaza, the control of Hamas has emboldened a certain faction within that community to try and retake the land.

I think the political position of Hamas, is that the State of Israel shouldn't exist, and that they're willing to do whatever it takes. Now, I think that brings us to the more important issue for today, which is the issue of timing. Why now? I think one of the things that really struck me when I was living in Israel is that people in the West often think about the conflict between Arabs and Jews. But to me, the conflict within Israeli society between religious Jews and secular Jews is just as pronounced.

And so there's been a tremendous amount of political turmoil within Israeli society that I think created a window of opportunity that perhaps emboldened Hamas, and once they got the support of Iran, then they were able to take action in a way that many Israelis did not anticipate that they could.

That's not to say that this was a spur of the moment kind of revolution. I mean, I think the other thing that really strikes me about this, is how caught off guard many Israelis were in the planning that must have gone into this, in order to surprise what is one of the best militaries in the world had to have been tremendous.

In the stream of events between the violent conflicts that's been happening, where does this sit historically … I guess we'll say amplitude or severity?

I think it's fair to say this is probably the most violent incident in the last 20 years. Israelis live in under a siege mentality. There's a constant state or feeling of tension as it relates to the conflict. You know, one of the things that I think that was surprising to me when I first moved there is that all new construction is built with a bomb room, a cinderblock room where people can can can take place; the apartment that we rented had an air filtration system for purposes of chemical attacks. It's just part of life in Israel.

But the fact that this was so dramatic, in its surprise in its ability for a meaningful number of Hamas militants to enter into the state of Israel, through tunnels and other avenues, makes this fundamentally different.

What is the official US posture been? And why is that?

My understanding is that the US posture is one of support for its allies , to criticize and denounce the the transgressions of Hamas, and to lend moral support for Israel.

I would be surprised if the US were to become militarily engaged in this conflict. The US already sells a significant amount of arms. The Israelis are incredibly proud of their air force. And they will immediately tell you that they purchase all of their planes from the United States and our military complexes are highly integrated already. So I wouldn't expect a big change in that moving forward.

There were borders set that Israel was supposed to abide by — and so that would be probably one of the main arguments that Palestinians would have. Does that factor in here at all?

I think that it's important to take a very balanced approach to this question. You know, I believe in the State of Israel, you know, there is value in having a historical homeland for the Jewish people in the Middle East. At the same time, that land was not empty when the State of Israel was founded.

There were vibrant and valuable and important Palestinian communities that were displaced by the creation of the State of Israel. I understand the beef that Palestinians have in this situation.

Likewise, there is no excuse for the military action of Hamas, the transgression towards civilians is unprecedented and immoral by every standard. At the same time, I have very legitimate concerns about the ability of Israel to execute a just war in response. The rhetoric that I'm hearing from my Israeli colleagues are not rhetoric of justice, it's rhetoric of annihilation.

And in a community that is as dense as Gaza, any action — military action on military installations is bound to have civilian impact. I think the fact that the Israelis are telling Palestinians in Gaza to just ‘go to Egypt now,’ is a precursor of what is to come.

Getting back to your work. What can you add about what you learned about the average person? And if you want to frame it with this conflict, you can. But we're talking about religion, we're talking about nonprofits, we're talking about the conflict between religious Jews and not.

I think that there's two things that are relevant to this conflict. One is just the fact that there's a tremendous number of nonprofits operating in Israel, who want to help solve this problem. They want to be part of a solution that brings Arabs and Israelis together, for purposes of figuring out how to live in peace in the Middle East.

The other thing that I would answer is that there are really important differences between Christians and Muslims within the Palestinian community. And there are important differences between Palestinians that live in the territories versus on the other side of the green line.

But one of the real important findings that I found with regard to nonprofit organizations that I would say has implications for the broader part of society, is that the dividing line isn't Jewish, Muslim, Christian. The dividing line is Arab, non Arab. I tend to find the nonprofit divisions dividing much more around ethnicity than about religion. And that I think it's helpful for us to thinking about how people relate to each other in the middle east.

I would say that there are just like any other society, there are a wide range of experiences and attitudes from a very conservative conciliatory position to a very hardline position. There are Israelis who live in very insular societies, who see Palestinians as the ‘other,’ and other to be feared.

And there are Israelis that have much more integrated lives that are working professionally, day after day with Arabs and see them as an important and valuable part of their community. And so it's tough to draw those.

I would say that there is still a significant sense of segregation, not ‘Jim Crow’ segregation, where there's water fountains and bathrooms, but, but the degree to which people's social, religious and familiar lives are disconnected.

What solutions have been discussed? There’s the 'two state solution' — one of the big ones. Obviously, none of them have worked, but which ones have been floated? And maybe why have they failed?

I think it's difficult to say what has been tried and failed, because I don't think anything has been tried effectively. It takes time — these things are not easy problems, and we're not going to solve them overnight. I think one of the things that I thought was interesting about my time in Israel, is I went there with the assumption that the consensus was around a two-state solution.

But even among Palestinian and Palestinian advocates that I got to know, there is a belief that a two-state solution may not be the solution that results in peace. That said, it's hard for me to imagine a one-state solution; it would involve a very different kind of democracy than what we currently see it in the Middle East.

With regard to a two-state solution, a lot of it has to do with ‘how does the land get divided up,’ and I think there are blueprints for that. But the problem with why that hasn't resolved itself is less about the relationship between Arabs and Jews, as it is between secularists and religionist, within the Israeli government, that the current government of Israel is supported by a very, a very traditional conservative faction, who is not willing to to lend ground on this issue.

And as long as that group is in power, and as long as Israel has the style of parliamentary government that it currently has, it's hard to imagine a coalition that's able to move forward on what could potentially be realistic boundaries.

Considering your experience, is there anything else you want to add about, about this, about the latest news?

I would say, just the tragedy of it all, you know, that there are no winners in this situation, everyone's lives are gonna be worse off. As I talked to friends and colleagues there, they described the skies filled with fighter planes, that there is no peace in the Middle East. And there's less peace now than there was five days ago. And to me, for a country filled with such beauty, natural beauty, rich, cultural, religious and historical tradition. That's a loss for everyone.

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