To understand the Israel-Palestine conflict, start with these two simple questions

Historian Zach Foster uncomplicates the long, tangled histories of Palestine, Israel and Zionism — and breaks down the biggest myths clouding the conversation.
Cover Image for To understand the Israel-Palestine conflict, start with these two simple questions

The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem

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Acclaimed writer Ta-Nehisi Coates recently said the most shocking thing about his transformative visit to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories was realizing how uncomplicated the conflict actually is.

“The way this is reported in Western media is as though one needs a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern studies to understand the basic morality of holding a people in a situation in which they don’t have basic rights,” Coates said.

Maybe you don’t need a Ph.D., but as rampant misinformation takes hold in both popular and political discourse, it certainly can help to talk to someone who does.

“There is a tremendous number of people trying very hard to make you think it’s actually really complicated,” says historian and Rutgers University senior fellow Zach Foster, who holds a doctorate in Near Eastern studies from Princeton University. “They don’t want you to see the basic reality of the situation, so they’re obfuscating that reality.”

A Jewish American who spent years unlearning the Zionism he was taught in his youth, Foster recently launched a popular newsletter that unpacks academic research on Palestine for a lay audience. In the wake of Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack and Israel’s ensuing bombardment of Gaza, his newsletter and social media presence have rapidly emerged as a rare source of historical context and accessible analysis for people hungry for understanding.

We spoke to Foster about how to understand this conflict, as well as the most pervasive myths and misconceptions clouding the discourse — from accusations about human shields to the peace process. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Historian Zach Foster writes the “Palestine Nexus” newsletter, which unpacks academic research on Palestine for a lay audience.
Courtesy of Zach Foster

You’ve heard Ta-Nehisi Coates’s now-famous statement. Do you think you need a Ph.D. to understand what’s happening in Gaza?

I would agree it’s not that complicated. Historically, you can understand the history of Israel-Palestine if you just understand two simple questions. Really, it’s almost as simple as that.

From the 1880s to 1948, all Zionists had to answer one question. Every Zionist leader, thinker and settler had to ask themselves: “How is it that we are going to establish a Jewish state in a land that is, overwhelmingly, majority Palestinian Arab?” You have to kick them out; or you have to establish a state on top of them, and subject them to second-class citizenship or an apartheid regime where they don’t have political rights, where they can’t vote for the government that controls their lives; or in the case of Gaza, you subject them to a total blockade and siege and just let them rot away in an open-air prison with no rights. That’s a short history of Zionism.

On the Palestinian side, all Palestinian thinkers and leaders had to answer the other side of that question: “What is the correct way to resist a group of people intent on making all of the important decisions over your life?”

There’s an active attempt on the part of the Israeli military, the Israeli political establishment and its allies abroad to obfuscate what is happening.

On the Zionist side, they took different positions. Some said: “These Palestinians have deep roots in the country and a strong national identity, and they’re going to resist, so the only option is to expel them by force.” You had other Zionists that said, “No, Zionists are good people. We’re bringing development to the country. And because of our ingenuity and our value system, the Palestinian Arabs will love to live under Jewish rule.” You had this reconciliatory position that kind of believes in a fantasy, and then you had the hardline Zionist position, which was more realistic.

Same thing on the Palestinian side. You had the group that said, “Let’s work with these Zionists, let’s work within the British system, and we’ll try our best to resist in peaceful and diplomatic ways.” Then you had the Palestinians who said, “No, the only way you resist an anti-democratic colonial government that is employing violence on a day-to-day basis is with violence.”

Those two questions get you a long way to understanding the entire history of the Palestinian response to Zionism, of Zionist settlement, of Israeli policy to the present, of how we got to where we are today. 

Many people seem to think history started on Oct. 7 and resist attempts at contextualization. Why don’t more people know and understand this history? 

There’s an active attempt on the part of the Israeli military, the Israeli political establishment and its allies abroad to obfuscate what is happening. That’s the first and foremost reason why there’s so much misinformation: because there are many people spreading misinformation.

They’ll tell you, “Oh, we pulled out of Gaza in 2005 and gave Gaza back to the Palestinians, and look what they did to it.” They’re obfuscating the reality, which is that Israel never withdrew its forces from Gaza. It maintained control over the airspace, over the land borders, the telecommunication networks, the population registry, the electricity. So it maintained complete control of Gaza from the outside and the maritime coastline. But at the same time, you have all of these people telling you that it withdrew and then it gave Gaza back.

Because they don’t want you to understand the reality of the situation on the ground, which is that you have one of the most powerful states in the world, and one of the most powerless peoples in the world. One has all the power, and the other has almost none of the power. The people with the power want you to think it’s complicated — that there are two equal sides here.

Nobody is equal in a world where you have 10 million Israelis who vote for the government that represents them, who can travel abroad, who have a normal economy, who can import and export goods and services. And then you have a powerless people, who live under a state of occupation, who live under a state of apartheid, who are trying to resist that. That’s actually pretty simple to understand.

What are some of the other major misconceptions that are hindering a more productive conversation?

Claim number one that you’ll hear regurgitated by mainstream analysts all the time: There is “no moral equivalency” between Israel and Hamas. How many times have you heard that? What people mean is that Hamas is committed to carrying out violent attacks on civilians, carrying out war crimes, while Israel is committed to preserving civilian life and upholding international law and distinguishes between military targets and civilians.

Where to begin? There are two basic principles of international law as they relate to war: proportionality and distinction. The principle of proportionality is that the military advantage of the attack has to be commensurate to the impact it will have on civilians. If you look at the statements of every single Israeli prime minister since ’48, there’s actually an incredibly consistent military doctrine of disproportionality. The guiding principle of the Israeli military for the past 75 years is disproportionality. 

In the 1950s, in statements made from [Israel’s first prime minister] David Ben-Gurion to [former prime minister] Ariel Sharon, he says, here’s what you have to do in Gaza to root out the [Palestinian militant] fedayeen: Make them pay, make them suffer disproportionate violence.

The same is true in the First Intifada, where Israel killed eight times as many Palestinians as Palestinians killed Israelis. The same is true during the 1990s. The same is true during the Second Intifada, where Israel killed three times as many Palestinians as Israelis were killed. The same is true in 2008, where Israel killed more than, I think, 50 times as many Palestinians. In 2012, Israel killed 10 times as many Palestinians. In 2014 Israel killed, I think, 100 times as many Palestinians. In 2018 Israel killed 256 Palestinians and Palestinians killed zero Israelis, so it’s infinity times. In 2021, Israel killed something like 30 times as many Palestinians. You’re telling me Israel has a moral high ground?

They don’t want you to understand the reality of the situation, which is that you have one of the most powerful states in the world, and one of the most powerless peoples in the world. The people with the power want you to think it’s complicated — that there are two equal sides here.

On the question of distinction, both Israel and the Palestinian militant groups do not distinguish between military and civilian targets. In 2009, the [U.N.’s] Goldstone report found that in 10 out of 11 strikes that resulted in civilian loss of life, there was no military target identified. Remember, this is the war where more than 1,000 Palestinians were killed in Gaza under 2008’s Operation Cast Lead. In other words, the Goldstone report concluded Israel’s goal in the operation was to terrorize the civilian population of Gaza. The goal was to kill civilians. 

Israel does not distinguish between civilian and military targets, even though it has the power to. I think that’s a critical difference here. Of course, the Palestinians do not distinguish: Hamas fires rockets into Israeli civilian centers. Hamas committed horrible atrocities on Oct. 7. That is a fact. But over the course of the past 16 years in which Palestinians have been living under siege and blockade, the Palestinians hadn’t had the ability to distinguish. Those rockets do not have the ability to distinguish between military and civilian targets, and that’s because of Israel’s blockade on Gaza. Maybe they would distinguish, but Israel doesn’t allow them to. 

The Israeli military also says Palestinians hide behind human shields; actually, the reverse is closer to the truth. They talk about Hamas basing themselves under Shifa Hospital. The Israeli military headquarters is in the city center of Tel Aviv. Hold on — how does no one bring that up?

If you look at human rights reports over the past 20 years, there’s consistent evidence that Israeli soldiers grab Palestinians and hide behind them when they shoot at Palestinians. It happens in every war. We just saw images that surfaced a few days ago of them doing it in Gaza. I’m not saying Hamas doesn’t also do that. But the idea that Hamas is uniquely committing war crimes here, hiding behind civilians and indiscriminately targeting civilians — Israel does all the same things at much more severe levels.

The Intifada in the Gaza Strip in 1987.
Efi Sharir

We often hear that Hamas is savage, evil, that it’s worse than ISIS or the Nazis. How do you respond when people frame this as an existential fight between good and evil?

If you study Hamas’s statements and its very complex evolution, you’ll understand that for the past three decades, there have been countless proposals for peace. Going back to 1988, [Hamas co-founder] Mahmoud al-Zahar basically told [former Israeli Prime Minister] Yitzhak Rabin that we’re open to peace. Just withdraw from the occupied territories, let us name our own representatives, and we are open to peace with you.

Throughout the 1990s, you have many calls for truces with Israel. The 2006 Ismail Haniya piece in The Guardian says, treat us as equals and we’re open to peace. In 2008 [Hamas leader] Khaled Meshal said the same thing. In 2012, you have second-in-command Ahmed Jabari basically about to sign a peace treaty with Israel. Israel assassinated him a few hours after he receives the proposal for peace, and a war breaks out thereafter. So if you know nothing about the history of Hamas, you can come to the conclusion that they’re evil.

Another question that comes up frequently is why Palestinians don’t resist nonviolently. How do you address this?

The history of Palestinian nonviolent resistance dates back to the Ottoman period, where you had Palestinians peacefully protesting in the Ottoman parliament saying, “These people are trying to take over our country.” Palestinian nonviolent resistance is almost as old as Zionist history itself.

In the 1920s, every year from 1919 to 1926, Palestinian delegates meet in Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa and Nablus, passing resolutions calling for democracy in Palestine. These are peaceful congresses. They’re calling for an end to Zionist immigration and an end to British support for Zionism. And they’re ignored. 

So 20 years of Palestinian nonviolent resistance failed. Then what do you know, they turned to violent resistance in the Great Revolt from ’36 to ’39. That fails. Let’s fast forward a few decades. From 1967 to 1987, Israel occupies the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. For 20 years, Israel is killing on average 32 Palestinians per year. So we’re talking about 650 Palestinians killed. This is before there are any terrorist organizations based out of the occupied territories, before there are really any terrorist attacks coming from the occupied territories. Israel is imposing a violent, brutal military occupation, and almost all of the resistance to it is nonviolent protests and strikes.

There’s a long history of Palestinian nonviolent resistance. In almost every single case, the Israeli military resorts to disproportionate and indiscriminate violence in response.

In 1987, it reaches a crescendo, and when an Israeli truck driver strikes and kills four Palestinians and injures dozens that December, you get this outbreak of a nonviolent revolt. In the course of the first year of the revolt, from late ’87 to ’88, the Israeli military slaughters 142 Palestinians in Gaza. Palestinians in return kill zero Israelis because it was a nonviolent revolt primarily — it was kids throwing stones at Israeli soldiers with machine guns and tanks.

What did that bring the Palestinians? About 1,200 Palestinians were slaughtered over the course of the next six years. That’s what happened when the Palestinian protested nonviolently. They got massacred — mostly kids. 

Fast forward to the 2000s. Israel decides to build a wall, a separation barrier, and 90% of it is inside the West Bank. Israel’s trying to lock down the West Bank the same way it locked down Gaza. All these protest movements spring up in Palestinian villages whose lands are being confiscated by the wall. The Israeli military confronts the protesters week after week. Every week someone is killed, not to mention the dozens of life-changing injuries. By 2010, ’11, ’12, many of those protest movements died down. 

You have another massive protest movement in 2018. In Gaza, tens of thousands of people march to the wall, demanding the right of return, calling for an end to the siege and the blockade on Gaza. And Israel just slaughters them. Just guns them down. Israeli snipers shooting at medics, shooting at journalists — targeted assassinations. On May 14, 2018, Israel slaughtered 60 people in a single day. What was the United States’ reaction? On the same day, Israeli officials were traveling to Jerusalem to celebrate the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. They didn’t even pay any attention. While Israel was slaughtering Palestinians protesting nonviolently in a Gandhian-style movement, the U.S. government was celebrating, with Israel, Israel’s illegal annexation of Jerusalem.

There’s a long history of Palestinian nonviolent resistance. In almost every single case, the Israeli military resorts to disproportionate and indiscriminate violence in response.

Why didn’t the Palestinians accept any of the two-state proposals they’ve been offered over the past century?

To understand the Camp David Summit of 2000, and the Taba Summit of 2001 and the Olmert peace offer in 2008, you really have to back up to Oslo.

In the Oslo process, which began in 1993, you had two parties — Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization — that agreed to the Oslo Accords. The idea with these talks was that both Israel and Palestinians would be making these concessions and building trust with the other side — such that in five years time, they could sit down to negotiate all the final status agreements. Borders, refugees, water, settlements, Jerusalem, etc.

There was one basic problem with Oslo: Israel was both a party to the Oslo Accords, and it was the enforcer of the Oslo Accords. Try playing a soccer game where one side is both playing in the game and [acting as] the referee. Imagine how that’s going to work out. Whenever Israel had to make a choice or a tradeoff between its own security needs and Palestinian rights, guess what Israel chose? Obviously, it almost always chose its own interests first.

So there was never, I think, really any fair negotiations. Even in 2000, in Camp David, you have a situation in which Israel and the Palestinians sit down to negotiate who would get to control the land that, over the past seven years, Israel had already been taking control over piece by piece. It doubled its settler population and massively expanded the settlement enterprise, confiscating more Palestinian land, destroying more Palestinian homes in the territories — at a time when it’s supposed to be building trust with Palestinians. 

From 2000 to 2008, we had a situation in which Palestinian delegates would be traveling from Ramallah to Tel Aviv to take part in these talks, and they would be stopped at checkpoints and harassed, forced to wait for hours under the sun for the Israeli military to approve. We’re talking about senior Palestinian diplomats being forced to wait at military checkpoints, humiliated, harassed, just to reach the negotiating table. How about you take your foot off my neck so we can negotiate as equals?

The more you study Palestinian history and Israeli history, the more pro-Palestinian you become. You can’t study the history of Zionism and not be horrified. It’s as simple as that. 

That was never part of the equation for Israel. The equation was, here’s what we have to offer you, take it or leave it. What did Israel offer the Palestinians in 2000? It offered them a capital in Abu Dis [a village in the West Bank], not Jerusalem. It said Israel would maintain security control over the Jordan Valley for 20 years. It said, “You want a state? Well, we’re going to maintain control of the border of your state. You cool with that? If not, too bad. We’re also going to maintain three military outposts in the West Bank.” Did the Palestinians get three military outposts inside Israel? No, they did not. 

There was never any semblance of equality in these negotiations. On the one side, you had Israel and the United States. On the other side, you had the Palestinians. The United States was pressuring the Palestinians to come towards the Israeli position. Talk to any of the negotiators; that point is not disputed. Israel was never prepared to make the concessions it needed to make. Israel never even acknowledged taking any role or responsibility in having created the refugee problem, let alone offer these refugees any compensation or the right to return. 

The Palestinians do bear some responsibility. Yasser Arafat should have made a counter offer in 2000, 2001. He walked away. Arafat is not completely blameless, but to pretend like this was somehow an equal negotiation where the two sides had equal seats at the table — that is fiction. That’s ultimately why the negotiations failed.

What do people get wrong about Zionism?

The narrative that Zionists like to tell themselves is that this is a liberation movement: Jews have been oppressed for so many years and this is a movement for the liberation of the Jewish people. Yes, that’s one interpretation of what it is. But I don’t know many other liberation movements that are also settler-colonial movements. You’re moving to another country and colonizing that country and subjecting the indigenous inhabitants of that country to your rule. I’m not sure that’s super compatible with liberation.

I don’t deny that Jews face persecution, and Jews have a right to be safe. What I would say, though, is if you believe that creating an ethno-national state where one group, the Jews, have rights and all the other groups, all the non-Jews, the native inhabitants, have no rights – if you think that is going to make Jews safe and liberate Jews, well, you get Oct. 7. 

If you want a Jewish state, and you want to do it in a land that already has people living in it, you’re going to get an Oct. 7, every few years or every few decades, because violence breeds violence. Colonialism breeds violence. Occupation breeds violence.

You yourself grew up as a Zionist. What made you move away from that? 

I grew up in a very “exotic” suburb of Detroit, went to Jewish schools, Jewish summer camps, Jewish youth groups — all of which were Zionist. I went to Israel as a study abroad student in undergrad. That was the beginning of my transition from Zionist to non-Zionist to anti-Zionist, getting exposed to what day-to-day life was like for Palestinians in Jerusalem.

You don’t go from a Zionist household to speaking out publicly, frequently advocating for Palestinian human rights, overnight. It’s a process. 

When I discovered that Palestinian Americans — who identify strongly with Palestine, whose parents and grandparents are from Palestine — are not allowed to go move to or visit Palestine, while I — an American Jew who may speak zero Arabic or Hebrew, who may have zero family in the country, who may literally not be able to identify it on a map or even ever heard of it — have a right to claim citizenship because I’m Jewish? Does that make any sense to you? That’s insane. That was a real lightbulb moment for me, meeting Palestinians and understanding the trauma of  ’48 — and understanding that while I have rights there, they don’t. 

The more you study Palestinian history and Israeli history, the more pro-Palestinian you become. You can’t study the history of Zionism and not be horrified. It’s as simple as that.