by Edgar Koh

“Instead of using them as a base for suicide bombing and other terror attacks and launching rockets against Israelis, why can’t Palestinians make Gaza and the West Bank a success story like Singapore?”

This is a question my Jewish American friends in New York have asked me long before the recent Hamas attack on Israel and the current Israeli aerial and ground operations in Gaza. My answer was always along these lines:

“I know very little about Israelis and Palestinians. I do know you, of course, my friends. I also read that the Israeli Defence Force advised setting up the Singapore Armed Forces when we became independent. Unfortunately, I haven’t had the opportunity to get to know any Palestinians. So, I know very little about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But you seem to know even less about Singapore than I know about Israel and Palestine.”

I began to write about that conflict when I first covered the United Nations as a young journalist in 1974. That year, the General Assembly granted the Palestine Liberation Organisation observer status.

PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat had offered what he called “an olive branch” in a speech in plenary. On that occasion, some delegates and reporters like me also glimpsed as he raised his arms to acknowledge the applause, a holster from which he had reportedly been told to remove a pistol before getting on stage.

I first came to understand the term Zionism the following year. Arab and other Islamic member states, supported by the Soviet Union, co-sponsored a draft equating Zionism to racism, defining it as a system of racial discrimination.

The assembly adopted the resolution by a vote of 72 to 35, with 32 countries (including Singapore) abstaining. The assembly revoked the resolution 16 years later, in 1991, acquiescing to a demand by Israel, which would otherwise not take part in the Madrid Peace Conference. (Singapore voted for the revocation).

It has been slightly more than a century since Jews began returning to the Holy Land in numbers. It was in 1897 that Theodor Herzl founded the modern Zionist movement with the aspiration to establish an independent Jewish state.

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And now it has been 75 years since that movement realised that aspiration, with the United Nations partition of the British mandate territory of Palestine into a Jewish and a Palestinian entity.

Amidst much tension, Israel was thus born in 1948, triggering war with neighbouring Arab states. Zionist leaders claimed that Jews have the right to come back to a homeland from which they left or were driven over the past few millennia.

They asserted that it was a land to which God had granted them, His chosen people, a title deed enshrined in no less sacred a document than the Torah. It was, reportedly in their words, “a land without a people for a people without a land.” Yet, nearly 600,000 Palestinians were already living there in 1922.

The Zionist movement is a recent phenomenon, although its claims of an exclusive Jewish homeland and a Jewish state are based on ancient narratives.

The present Israeli-Palestinian conflict dates no further back than the modern era. Previously, Jews, Muslims, Christians, Bedouins, Druze and other groups had lived there in relative peace and harmony.

Hostilities between the Jews and Palestinians began in 1947/48 with what the Palestinians call the nakba or catastrophe, when 750,000 of them – more than 80 per cent of the population of what was to become Israel – left or were driven from their homes to neighbouring states and refugee camps.

Thereafter, the conflict erupted often, in the 1967 Six Day War, the 1973 Yom Kippur War and other major armed encounters.

The current crisis is only the latest in a seemingly endless cycle of vengeful and bloody violence. The present moment appears to be the most appalling in decades.

Any hope for a political resolution must start from a recognition that most Israelis and Palestinians want to live normal lives in peace and security for themselves and their families.

Above all, leaders on both sides must work from that realisation. They would fail if they continue to dwell on allegedly irreconcilable differences and stereotypical prejudices: Palestinians are not conciliatory by nature; Jews are racial supremacists, etc.

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Such generalisations are far from accurate and do not help in the search for peace.

Whether they are to live in one or in two states, Jews and Palestinians must live in a democratic state providing for equality and justice that would not deteriorate into an apartheid system that relegates people to second-class citizenship on account of their ethnicity or any other ascribed criterion.

It may be early days yet for any glimmer of hope to emerge, but the current crisis presents an opportunity: Moderate voices within and beyond the region should seize any chance to be heard and heard with more impact than previously.

The forces for peace have not been defeated and must be prepared to coalesce around a political settlement that would ensure equality, justice, dignity, respect for human rights and freedom for both Jews and Palestinians living in the land “from the river to the sea”.

These two gifted, intelligent and hardworking people deserve no less than that – and much better leadership.

Some Arab states in the region have recently been seen to be willing to have normal relations with Israel. The Abraham Accords indicated a readiness among countries in the region to coexist.

Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states appeared ready to move on to an era of openness and prosperity by liberalising trade and investment, among other changes.

In moving on, however, the governments of those countries must not leave the Palestinian issue behind – or indeed ignore the support of their own populations for the Palestinian cause.

The United States needs to reconsider its unconditional support for the extremist rightwing coalition government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and return to helping restart the neglected and abandoned peace process.

Violence indeed breeds violence, but it’s more accurate to say that extremism breeds extremism. Many leaders on both sides have been complicit in what has been happening in recent months and years.

If indeed there is a Singapore solution to the bloodshed, as my Jewish American friends seemed to suggest, then it is unequivocally based on preserving a multi-racial, multi-religious and multi-cultural nation but ensuring that public life remains secular, fair, inclusive and tolerant.

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In short, give and take; live and let live, eschewing any extremist claim to racial, religious or cultural superiority.

Never take for granted, but always be prepared to uphold those values embedded in society, government, and other public institutions.

Such a framework has made Singapore more than merely an economic miracle; it has transformed us into a forbearing and unified nation despite diversity.

Israelis and Palestinians may find Singapore elements worthy of consideration.

Antagonistic communities elsewhere that have experienced more tension and violence than those in Singapore have, led by moderate and enlightened leaders, managed to change their mindsets and live with some level of security and stability, if not peace with one another: Northern Ireland, South Africa, Cyprus come to mind.

So, Israelis and Palestinians should not feel that they are without hope.

As I write this at the start of the new year, I take cold comfort that the bombing in Gaza has killed none of my former colleagues in the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) trying to get humanitarian assistance to children and their families struggling to survive there.

An estimated 30,000 children have been killed or maimed. At least 136 United Nations workers have perished in the campaign of cruelty along with other women and men, making a total death toll of around 22,000 so far.

Among the dead are at least 106 journalists, according to the Gaza government. That cuts close to home for me, who was once also a newsman, albeit reporting from much safer fronts.

My prayers are with my former UN colleagues on a mission under unbearable pressure and mortal danger to bring relief to the displaced, homeless and suffering civilian victims of the war.


Edgar Koh was a Straits Times senior leader writer and New York correspondent. He was also a senior information professional in two United Nations agencies at their New York headquarters