My post on whether there is a right of national self-determination was inspired by a conversation about the current Palestinian/Israeli conflict. Given the conclusion of that post, that there is no such right, given a moral position in which all rights pertain to individuals not groups, what are the implications for the current conflict?
It’s a hard question. I start with a sketch of what I believe to be the historical background.
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The history 1
His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country. (Letter from Arthur Balfour, Foreign Secretary of the U.K., to Lord Rothschild a leader of the British Jewish community, for transmission to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland.)
After WWI and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Palestine became a British mandate. Many Jews wanted to immigrate to Israel. Some imagined establishing a community there under British rule, open to Jews from all over the world living at peace with their Arab neighbors. Others imagined establishing an independent country with a large Jewish population, probably a majority. Some imagined establishing a Jewish state enacting Jewish law and mostly closed to non-Jews, inconsistent with the terms of the Balfour declaration but not impossible. Many in the intellectual leadership of the Zionist movement were in favor of moving Arab Palestinians out of the parts of Palestine to be occupied by Jews.
For some years the British permitted Jews to buy land in Palestine and immigrate. Eventually, in response to Arab pressure, they attempted to restrict both land purchases and immigration. Intercommunal conflict increased in the twenties, mostly from the Arab side, at the time a large majority, culminating with a riot in 1929 in which 133 Jews were killed and a further 339 injured. A partition proposed by the British in 1937, dividing Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state, was accepted equivocally by much of the Jewish leadership, rejected by the Palestinian.
After WWII the British continued to attempt to restrict Jewish immigration, with limited success. In 1947 the UN proposed a partition plan. That set off a Jewish vs Arab civil war, by spring 1948 being won by the Jewish side, leading to the declaration of the state of Israel. Armies from Egypt, Transjordan, Syria and Iraq invaded but were defeated. About 700,000 Palestinian Arabs fled during the war; the Israeli government refused to let them return and confiscated their abandoned land. Arabs who had not fled were permitted to remain, eventually became full citizens of Israel with the same legal rights as Jewish citizens.
The West Bank, the area between Israel and the Jordan River, was initially under Jordanian rule, came under Israeli control as a result of victory in the six day war, is now controlled in part by Israel, in part by the Palestinian Authority. The Gaza strip, conquered from Egypt in the same war, has been under the internal control of Hamas with border control by Israel. Throughout the period there has been off and on violent conflict, with Palestinian attacks on Israeli territory and Israeli responses. Palestinian organizations have mostly taken the position that all of Palestine should be under Arab control, a view apparently shared by most of the Palestinian population.
The Simple Answer
If we look at the situation from the standpoint of individual rights, the conclusion seems clear. The seizure of the land of Arabs who fled in 1948 violated their property rights; they or their heirs should get the land back or be compensated for its value. Jews had a right to buy or rent land in Palestine and immigrate, Arabs have a right to buy or rent land in Israel and immigrate. Arabs and Jews should have the same individual rights in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza.
Why It Doesn’t Work
One problem with that answer is that a considerable number of the Palestinians are, on the basis of both what they say and what they have done, in favor of either killing all the Jews or driving them out of Palestine. Morally speaking, an Arab has the same right as a Jew to buy land in Israel but neither has a right to kill his neighbor. If someone has a gun pointed at me it is not a rights violation to knock it out of his hand. On the same principle, if you know someone is planning to assassinate you it is not a rights violation to keep him from getting close enough to do so. Hence it is not a rights violation to keep a Palestinian Arab known to want to kill Jews, for example one who was part of the October 7th Hamas raid, far from areas inhabited by Jews.
The application of the principle to a Palestinian Arab who might want to kill Jews is a harder problem. If someone decides to play Russian Roulette with the gun pointed at my head instead of his, one chance in six of firing, I still get to knock it out of his hand. On the other hand, anyone who flies an airplane anywhere close to me is imposing a very small probability of crashing through my roof and killing me; that does not give me a right to forbid airplane flights. I do not claim to be able to prove moral claims; both of those are reports of moral intuitions, I suspect widely shared. The case of the random Palestinian who would like to come into Israel to work or to live is somewhere between those cases.
It follows from this argument that the Israelis have a legitimate right to restrict, to some degree, the settlement in Israel of those presently living in Gaza or the West Bank. The argument is not sufficient to say what the limits of that right are. The Israelis also have a legitimate right to use violent force against those persons who have used or are using violent force against them, but that is a claim against those active in the Hamas war against Israel and similar projects by other groups, not against inhabitants of Gaza who have not participated, whether or not they approved.
Fighting Hamas in Gaza is almost certain to kill, surely has killed, inhabitants of Gaza against whom the Israelis have no legitimate claim. That is not, in my view, a reason that doing so is morally wrong, any more than it is wrong to shoot back at someone shooting at me from behind a hostage, but I think it is at least arguable that under some such circumstances Israelis owe compensation to those injured.
Applying the Principle in the Other Direction
The same argument that implies that Israelis have some right to restrict immigration of Palestinians to Israel also implies that the Palestinians had some right to restrict immigration of Jews to Palestine. As in the other case, how much right and what restrictions depend on beliefs about the intentions of those restricted and their ability to act on them. If it was clear that lots of Jews were planning to immigrate to Palestine and use violent force to drive the present inhabitants out of part or all of it, as some surely were, that would justify those inhabitants using force to keep them from doing so. It would still justify it, in my view, if the plan was to get a Jewish majority, establish a democratic state, and then use the power of that state to expel the previous inhabitants, since I do not believe that being in the majority confers any special rights.
While some of the Zionist immigrants had such plans, my impression is that the great majority of the immigrants intended either to live in Palestine along with Arabs under British rule or to establish an independent state in Palestine open to both Jews and Arabs, possibly with a Jewish majority. That is consistent both with the terms of the Balfour declaration, viewed by some as the justification for Jewish immigration, and with the present state of Israel, about 20% Arab. On the other hand, a considerable majority of the Arab population of what is now Israel was forced out by the 1948 war and kept out thereafter. We have no way of knowing now, the Palestinian Arabs had no way of knowing then, whether if they refrained from using violence against Palestinian Jews the Jews in Palestine would use violence against them.
Meanwhile in the Real World
Almost nobody on either side of the conflict accepts the principles I have been arguing from. Almost all at least claim to accept the legitimacy of the principle of majority rule, most see moral issues in terms of group rights, the rights of “the Arabs” or “the Jews.” That gives the Palestinian Arabs an incentive to claim that the relevant polity is all of Palestine and theirs, force out the Jewish residents and rule it. It gives the Palestinian Jews an incentive to keep the West bank separate from Israel and prevent large scale Arab immigration to Israel. It lets both sides ignore rights of the individuals caught up in the conflict.
After posting this I came across an article discussing attempts to estimate the value of the land seized by Israel after the 1948 war: Michael R. Fischbach, “The United Nations and Palestinian Refugee Property Compensation,” Journal of Palestine Studies , Vol. 31, No. 2 (Winter 2002), pp. 34-50. The estimates were made under UN auspices, initially in an attempt to get Israel and the Arab states to agree on compensation, later to provide the information that would be needed if at some future time they decided on such an agreement.
Most of the work aimed at estimating a total value, with a variety of approaches, but it appears that the data still exist to calculate how much is owed to individual land owners or their heirs, although probably not for all the land seized.
These documents constituted the raw material from which the Technical Office drew up what is called the “Refugee Property,” or R/P 1, forms, cataloguing individually owned Arab property. These forms include, for each individual plot of Arab-owned land within what became Israel, such information as the name(s) of the owner(s), the surface area, the precise location, including village and subdistrict, and the estimated value (this last written by hand). The Technical Office also compiled an index of the landowners in the R/P1 forms organized on a village basis. All these materials are in hard copy and on microfilm
The other thing I found interesting was that one of the things that prevented agreement in the immediate post-war period was that the Israelis — possibly also the Arabs — were thinking of the issue in terms of group rights not individual rights:
Beyond that, Israel declared that it would link Palestinian compensation with Israel’s demands that the Arabs pay compensation for Jewish property in the West Bank and Gaza as well as for war damages in areas like Jerusalem.