Israel-Palestine

The Methodology of Historical Misrepresentation

By Asher Susser
Tuesday, February 13, 2018, 7:00 AM

There is a widespread tendency amongst scholars, journalists, and legal experts to apply a double standard when relating to Israel and the Palestinians. Israel is often singled out for prejudicial treatment in comparison to cases far more severe than its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza since 1967, such as the killing in Syria of over half a million people, the hanging of hundreds of dissidents in Iran every year, the Chinese occupation of Tibet, Russian behavior in Chechnya, Syria, and Ukraine, and countless other human rights infringements infinitely worse than the Israeli occupation and settlement movement.

Just about every Israeli act of self-defense has been criminalized by its detractors. When Israel built a security fence to put an end to the suicide bombings that were ravaging Israeli civilians, the fence was dubbed by Israel’s critics as the “Apartheid Wall,” as if its construction was motivated by racist reasoning. Israel cannot defend its citizens against rocket attacks from Gaza without immediately being condemned for "war crimes."

But Israelis and their defenders cannot absolve themselves of responsibility for the evils of the occupation. They cannot just brush off legitimate criticism as anti-Semitic in a desperate effort to continue basking in a false sense of self-righteous innocence. Some of Israel’s policies are indeed unacceptable, and Israel is not above the law. But neither are Israel’s enemies. Equality before the law ought to mean that Israel should not constantly have to face selective prosecution based on a systemic misrepresentation of the historical record.

There is a method to this historical misrepresentation. It has two key components: selectivity and de-contextualization. In other words, this kind of history is about selecting only part of the story and then telling it out of context. Two recent essays in the New York Review of Books (January 18, 2018) are cases in point. The first is by Raja Shehadeh, “,” reviewing Enclosure: Palestinian Landscapes in A Historical Mirror by Gary Fields. The second is by Sarah Helm, “,” promoting the forthcoming book by Ramzy Baroud, The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story.

 

Absolving the Palestinians of Historical Responsibility

Selectivity in the historical narrative of Israel-Palestine in the works of scholars and writers like Fields, Shehadeh and Helm tends to absolve the Palestinians of any responsibility for their own fate. Shehadeh criticizes Israel for not coming to terms with its past, “unwilling to recognize the Nakba (catastrophe)” that took place in the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948, “and unprepared to accept that the Palestinians are a nation entitled to self-determination.” The Israelis are unquestionably responsible for all their deeds and misdeeds. But the Palestinians are mature players, responsible for their actions just like everyone else, and Israel cannot be held accountable for their decisions. The very use of the term Nakba, which is a natural disaster like an earthquake or a tsunami, is an act of flight from responsibility.1

The Nakba of 1948 was not a natural disaster that suddenly fell upon the Palestinian people. The war and its fallout were not an earthquake, but the products of decisions made by the Palestinians themselves, supported by the neighboring Arab states, to defeat the UN partition resolution. The undisguised objective was to crush Israel in a campaign of genocidal intent. The Secretary General of the Arab League in 1948, Abd al-Rahman Azzam, proclaimed that: “This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre, which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the Crusades.”2 The Arabs, however, were not well-prepared for war and its consequences were disastrous for the Palestinians. The Israelis certainly share responsibility for the outcomes of 1948, but they could hardly be expected to apologize for winning the war that was launched against them to destroy their national enterprise.

As for Israel’s failure to recognize Palestinian national rights, Shehadeh is simply wrong. At Camp David in September 1978, during the Israeli-Egyptian peace negotiations, Israel recognized for the very first time the “legitimate rights of the Palestinian people and their just requirements.”3 This was a far cry from the acceptance of Palestinian statehood but it was still more than the Palestinians have done in respect to Jewish rights. To this day, no Palestinian leader has ever recognized the “legitimate rights of the Jewish people and their just requirements.”

In September 2005, in a speech to the UN, shortly after Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that the “right of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel does not mean disregarding the rights of others in the land. The Palestinians will always be our neighbors … They are also entitled to freedom and to a national, sovereign existence in a state of their own.” Sharon’s incapacitation by a stroke in January 2006 and the Second Lebanon War in the summer of that year combined to put a premature end to his disengagement policy.

The traditional right wing returned to power in Israel under Benjamin Netanyahu in February 2009. In his Bar Ilan University speech in June of that year he also declared his acceptance of the two-state solution, albeit with reservations. Netanyahu declared that “if the Palestinians recognize Israel as the state of the Jewish people, then we will be ready in a future peace agreement to reach a solution where a demilitarized Palestinian state exists alongside the Jewish state.”4 Netanyahu, however, is notorious for the yawning gap between his words and deeds. He has done very little, if anything at all, to put his words into action. It is on his watch, almost a decade long, that the two-state option has been allowed to wallow in the wilderness of corrosive indecision, on the one hand, and settlements on the other, and thus lose virtually all the traction it ever had.

 Simultaneously, however, Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza under Prime Minister Sharon, in the summer of 2005, including the removal of all the settlements there, did precious little to mollify Israel’s detractors. Gaza is rapidly turning into a humanitarian disaster and the blame is being placed squarely on Israel. In Sarah Helm’s mind Hamas and the Palestinians bear no responsibility for the trials and tribulations of Gaza which are, in her rendition, generally a function of the inherent ill will of the Israelis.

But the sorry state of Gaza is not only Israel’s doing. The Palestinians have their share too, through some very poor choices that have contributed much to their misery. After Israel’s withdrawal many in the international community were more than willing to pour money into Gaza for its development. The people of Gaza faced the real choice of turning the Strip into a version of Singapore or into a base for the continuation of the war against Israel. They opted for the latter.

In the free elections to the Palestinian Legislative Assembly in January 2006, the people’s choice in both the West Bank and Gaza was for Hamas. The Palestinian Authority (PA) led by Fatah, and backed by Israel, the US and the EU, refused to accept its defeat at the polls, leading eventually in June 2007 to the forceful takeover of Gaza by Hamas. The Hamas victory, at least in part, was thanks to their election campaign that highlighted the successful armed struggle which, so they contended, had coerced Israel to withdraw.

Though rockets had been fired regularly from Gaza into Israel before the withdrawal, in the period thereafter the military capabilities of Hamas and other factions were significantly enhanced. Gaza was soon converted into a potent launching pad for more sophisticated rocketry against Israeli civilian targets. Newly imported (through tunnels into Sinai under the border of Gaza with Egypt) and locally produced rockets could reach targets not only in Gaza’s immediate perimeter, but as far into Israel as Tel Aviv, including Israel’s one and only international airport.

Israel imposed a siege (albeit incomplete) on Gaza to bring pressure to bear on Hamas, to destabilize its government and to force it to desist from attacking Israeli targets. With the passage of time Israel actually acquiesced in the Hamas government in Gaza realizing that it was the only effective force in the area which could not only make war, but could also impose peace and quiet along the border with Israel, as it has done, more or less, for the last three and a half years since the war in the summer of 2014.

Helm enumerates the various hardships that the people of Gaza have been forced to endure in recent years. But she invariably fails to explain the direct causes for these afflictions, other than the implication that Israel was behind them all. The borders with Gaza and the coastline are still policed by Israel. As Helm reports, Gaza is “surrounded by walls and fences patrolled by Israeli soldiers. Israeli drones fill the skies above, its gunboats patrol the sea.” All true, but these measures are not intended just to make life difficult for Hamas and the people of Gaza. They are designed first and foremost to prevent attacks from Gaza on Israel. They keep up the pressure on Hamas and seek to control or prevent the entry of weapons or undesirable dual-purpose goods that could be used for rocket manufacture as well as strategic materials like cement, which could be used not only for housing, but for rocket and mortar emplacements, other fortifications or tunnels.

Tunnels were being constructed all over Gaza for the protection of Hamas fighters or for penetration under the border fence into Israel to attack, kidnap or kill Israeli soldiers and civilians. Tunnels were also built under Gaza’s border with Egypt for smuggling goods, people and weapons in both directions. As for the tunnels being dug into Egypt, Helm notes that “in recent months Israel has begun working on a new underground wall, sunk deep into the desert, to block off such tunnels. Nearby on Rafah’s beach … refugee dwellings lie in the path of bulldozers clearing the area to create a wider buffer zone.”

But this is all confused and misleading. Israel, needless to say, has no presence on the border between Egypt and Gaza. That is Egyptian territory. Israel’s underground wall is being built on the border with Israel, not Egypt, and the widening of the buffer zone on Egypt’s border, to make tunneling more difficult, is the work of Egyptian bulldozers and not Israel. The Egyptians have their own problems with Gaza. Egypt under General Sisi is no fan of Hamas and the other militant factions there, and they seek to cut off any routes of supply of men or materiel to the Islamic State in Sinai, which is at war with the Egyptian government.

Reading Helm you would never know that the underground wall on the Israeli side is not another punitive measure against Gaza. It is actually a component of Israeli defense against the nightmare scenario of Hamas fighters penetrating through one such tunnel into a nearby kibbutz to commit a massacre, ISIS style. Just like Israel’s “Iron Dome” anti-rocket interceptor system, the “underground wall” and its counterpart above ground in the West Bank is a massive investment to protect Israelis, not to punish Palestinians.

The tunnels into Israel are not for smuggling into the “besieged strip,” but for offensive military purposes. Smuggling from Israel is unnecessary. Anywhere between a few hundred and as many as a thousand trucks of goods flow from Israel into Gaza every day, depending on the purchasing power in Gaza at any given time. Not exactly a “siege” in the true sense of the word. Israel also supplies electricity to Gaza. Thus, ironically, Israeli electricity helps to keep the workshops in Gaza running as they manufacture, amongst other things, the rockets and mortars that are then fired into Israel.

The UN says that Gaza will be uninhabitable by 2020. Almost all the water (95 percent) is unfit for human consumption due to salinization and sewage pollution. Helm reports that electricity cuts have crippled the sewage system, but she does not explain why. Electricity was supplied to Gaza by power stations in Egypt and Israel (paid for by the PA) and by the main power station in Gaza which operated on fuel supplied by Egypt and paid for by Turkey and Qatar. When support from Turkey and Qatar cooled their payments ended, stopping fuel supply from Egypt. Because of the infighting between the PA and Hamas the PA also reduced payments to put pressure on Hamas, leading to electricity cutbacks by Israel. Troubles in Sinai led to the stoppage of power from Egypt, greatly exacerbating the humanitarian crisis. Israel and the PA have recently agreed on the resumption of payments and the return of supply from Israel to normal, which accounts for about one third of the overall demand.

Though waste treatment was obviously critical Hamas opted to use the available electricity for other purposes that it considered to be of higher priority. Since its rise to power Hamas has spent hundreds of millions of dollars digging the tunnels and building fortifications. This was a huge amount that could have gone a very long way for housing and infrastructure and could have made an immense improvement in the quality of life of the people of Gaza. After the heavy fighting in the summer of 2014 Israel proposed a program for economic development in exchange for the demilitarization of Gaza. Hamas refused. Armed resistance to Israel (muqawama) was its raison d’etre. More recently the Hamas refusal to accept the PA’s control of its military forces became the major stumbling block to genuine reconciliation between the two.

Such choices and priorities have their consequences. The Israeli government has now formally presented its ideas for an international development plan for Gaza that would include the building of a port and a desalination plant and an upgrading and increase of the power supply that would all alter the situation in Gaza dramatically and set the region on a new constructive course. Such plans, however, cannot come to fruition if they are going to be exploited by Hamas to strengthen its political grip on Gaza and to reinforce and enhance its military capabilities against Israel.

The Gazans, Helm tells us, have lived through three wars since Israel’s withdrawal, in 2008, 2012 and 2014. But she offers no explanation as to what brought these wars about. Gazans described Israeli bombing in 2014 as “the second Nakba,” thus absolving themselves again of any responsibility for the outbreak of war. Helm makes repeated mention of Israeli actions and the extensive loss of life and huge damage inflicted on Gaza by the Israeli military, but no mention at all of the kidnapping and murder of Israelis and the frequent rocket and mortar attacks on Israel by Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and others that eventually provoked the Israeli response and war on all three occasions.

As for the bigger picture, for Gazans, a two-state solution based on a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza is not very appealing. Most Gazans are 1948 refugees and their descendants (who are now the great majority of the refugee population), and the two-state solution leaves them just where they are. The bottom line for Gazans is that “Oslo failed to address what many of them believe was the root cause of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians: the dispossession of Palestinians during the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, during which Israel was created.”

The original sin for them was not the post-1967 occupation, but Israel’s creation. The real solution, therefore, was not Oslo or some other agreement with Israel, but a settlement without it, that is, one that would undo Israel and reverse the consequences of 1948. Refugee return would lead to the creation of “a single democratic state on all of mandate Palestine” that would rapidly become an Arab majority state with a steadily declining Jewish minority.

As Helm observes, among Israeli Jews today “this prospect seems especially fanciful”. Of course it does. In a Middle East where there are no Arab democracies, where minorities are being persecuted, and in a Palestine where even Hamas and Fatah are unable to consummate a reconciliation, the expectation that the Israeli Jews will subject themselves to Arab protection sounds entirely detached from reality.

Justifying refugee return, Helm explains that in December 1948 the UN passed Resolution 194 “stating that the Palestinians have the right to return to their homes.” But, she notes, the Israelis refused. The reality is considerably more complex. The resolution, generally interpreted these days by the Palestinians as granting the unfettered right of all Palestinians to return to their former homes, is actually more nuanced and conditional. The resolution resolved that those wishing to return and “live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted [by Israel] to do so” and that for those not returning compensation should be paid “by the Governments or authorities responsible” [that is, not only by Israel].5 All the Arab states that were members of the UN at the time voted against the resolution precisely because of the conditionality and shared responsibility.

In 1949 Israel offered to allow 100,000 refugees to return, provided that the Arabs states agreed to resettle the rest and make peace with Israel. The Arabs turned down the offer, which has never been repeated and, in all likelihood, will not be. Those most adamantly supportive of the right of return amongst the Palestinians and their foreign supporters are also the most hostile to Israel, creating the impression that refugee return is not an element of secure peace-making, but quite the opposite.

Israel is admonished by Helm for being “increasingly intransigent.” Indeed, in the present balance of power, Israel could and should be more forthcoming, by accepting, for example, the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 as a basis for negotiation. The rise of the right in Israeli politics has been a long historical process stemming from profound changes within Israeli society over the years since its foundation. But the Palestinians have also made their contribution. The prevalent Palestinian opinions on refugee return, coupled with the suicide bombings of the early 2000s, the escalating rocketry from Gaza and the rise of Hamas to power after Israel’s 2005 unilateral withdrawal have all combined to gravely undermine the credibility of the Israeli peace camp in the eyes of the public. The two-state idea has become a hard sell to Israelis who fear that, for the Palestinians, two states might only be a half-way house to one state and the undoing of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. It is easy for Netanyahu to play on the people’s fears when the Palestinians have done such a poor job of convincing the Israelis that they have good intentions. One need only read Sarah Helm to realize why they have failed so completely.

The international community supports the Palestinian positions and not Israel on all the key issues of settlements, borders and Jerusalem (even Trump did not recognize Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem), seeking to establish two states, more or less along the lines of the 1967 boundaries. But this very same international community does not support the Palestinians on refugee return, which clearly undercuts the logic of two states. After all, if there were to be two states, one Palestinian and one Jewish, as an end of conflict formula, surely the refugees who wish to return should go to Palestine and not Israel. Refugee return to Israel, in anything more than symbolic numbers, seemed more like a recipe for the perpetuation of the conflict rather than its conclusion, especially when the entire argument for refugee return was based on the illegitimacy of Israel’s creation in the first place.

UN Security Council adopted on 23 December 2016 condemned Israel’s settlement policy. The resolution also called upon all states “to distinguish, in their relevant dealings, between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967,” thereby suggesting the possible application of sanctions on the settlements. However, by explicitly distinguishing “between the territory of the State of Israel and the territories occupied since 1967” the resolution simultaneously implied that the UN and the international community continued to endorse the legitimacy of pre-1967 Israel.

In a major just a few days later, on 28 December, US Secretary of State John Kerry elaborated upon the contours of the two-state solution, which well-represented what had developed into the international consensus. Kerry spoke inter alia in favor of the fulfillment of the vision of the UN Partition Resolution of 1947 on two states for two peoples, one Jewish and one Arab. This, Kerry observed, should be accompanied by “a just, agreed, fair, and realistic solution to the Palestinian refugee issue,” based on the “general recognition that the solution must be consistent with two states for two peoples, and cannot affect the fundamental character of Israel.” In other words the solution of the refugee question should not be allowed to subvert Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people and the refugees who returned should return to Palestine and not Israel.

 

Ignoring the Context of Conflict

In his book, Enclosure, Gary Fields argues that the way in which the Zionists acquired land in Palestine from the late 19th century onwards was actually very similar to the way in which land was “transferred from one group to another” in England and North America in the last three centuries. But the Zionist story is not of land transfers as in “enclosures in early modern England” nor is it akin to the subjugation of Native Americans and the “transferring [of] their land to colonists.” This is a story of Jewish statehood in the face of oppression, persecution and eventual genocide in Europe, on the one hand, and Palestinian resistance to the fulfilment of Jewish national aspirations at their expense, on the other. Fields expands on his comparisons with property rights and transfers in England and North America of the 17th and 18th centuries as if the Arab-Israeli conflict never occurred.

Real estate transfers in England and North America explain little if anything at all about the motives, the needs, and the aspirations of either the Zionists or the Arabs of Palestine. Nothing much can really be explained outside of the two essential contexts of the Jewish predicament in Europe and the conflict between the Zionists and the Arabs in Palestine.

The story of Israel-Palestine is not about European Jewish acquisition of land from hapless Palestinians for the sake of exclusion and economic gain. It is the story of the struggle of two peoples for their respective national rights of freedom and liberation and the tragic collision between them. The struggle is obviously about land but not the acquisition of land as a financial asset, but as the foundation for national self-determination.

The Palestinians, including Raja Shehadeh (and other opponents of Israel and Zionism), have never empathized with the Jewish historical predicament. Perhaps it was, and still is, too much to ask of the Palestinians to show compassion and bear the consequences of European anti-Semitism. The Palestinians have always argued, quite understandably, that the “Jewish problem” created by Europeans, should not be resolved at their expense. While that was perfectly reasonable, it was of no consolation to the Jews in their darkest hours of need.

Shehadeh writes of the wealthy Lebanese “absentee Arab landowners” who sold their large estates in Palestine to the Zionists. But it was not only they who did so. Palestinians of all stations, including the national leadership, who condemned land sales in public, sold land in private.6 Land was traded between willing buyers and willing sellers at skyrocketing prices on the free market. Between 1910 and 1944 the price of land increased by as much as 5,000 percent,7 and more land was on offer to the Zionists than they could afford to purchase with the funds at their disposal.

Purchases concentrated in the plains and the lowlands that were relatively uninhabited and uncultivated in comparison to the more densely populated highlands, which remained entirely Arab. Shehadeh quotes the Arab educator Khalil Sakakini who noted in December 1934 that at a time when the “Jews have a few impoverished colonies the Arabs have thousands of villages.” Travelling “from Jerusalem to Hebron to Beir Sabaa [now Beersheba] to Gaza to Khan Yunus to Majdal to Ramle to Lydda to Kalkilia to Tul Karam” one passed only through Arab lands. All of the above (except for Jerusalem which was to be internationalized) were included in the Arab state in the 1947 UN partition of Palestine which was rejected by the Palestinians.

As the predicament of the Jews in Europe worsened with rise of the Nazis to power in Germany in 1933 and the advent of rampant anti-Semitism in Poland in the 1930s, Jewish immigration to Palestine increased dramatically as did popular Arab resistance to the Zionist enterprise. In April 1936 the Arabs in Palestine rose in rebellion, demanding that the British put an end to Jewish immigration and to the Zionist project.

The British set up a Commission of Inquiry headed by Lord Peel to examine the causes of the violence and to make policy recommendations. Testifying before the Peel Commission in November 1936 the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann agonized over that fate of millions of Jews in Europe for whom “the world is divided into places where they cannot live, and places into which they cannot enter.”8 In July 1937 Peel suggested partition, awarding the Jews 20 percent of Palestine. The Jews, albeit reluctantly, agreed, but the Arabs would not accept anything less than an independent Arab state in all of Palestine. In the wake of Arab opposition, the British withdrew the proposal. In May 1939 they acceded to Arab demands and imposed severe restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine, just when the Jews were in their most frantic need of a safe haven.

After the Second World War, in November 1947, the UN passed a resolution in favor of the partition of Palestine into two states, one Arab and one Jewish. The Jews were awarded 55 percent of Palestine (most of which was the Negev Desert) and only 45 percent was given to the Arabs of Palestine, even though they were two-thirds of the population. The international community, at the time, took into account not only the number of Jews in Palestine but also the urgent need to solve the problem of the hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors in the DP (Displaced Persons) camps of Europe. Because of the Holocaust a state for the Jews in Palestine seemed to be the right thing to do, but the Arabs still rejected partition in principle and went to war to defeat the UN Resolution.

The Israelis, at great cost, emerged victorious from the 1948 War. They had lost 6,000 men and women, one percent of their entire population (equivalent to the US losing 3.5 million Americans today). Despite the victory, Israel’s founding fathers remained concerned about the long term. In 1949 Prime Minister Ben-Gurion noted in his diary that “the position is grave, and security is a cardinal concern of the state … [Israel’s Arab neighbors] constitute a great danger. [They are] a unified world in terms of language, religion, and culture; we are an alien element. There may also be a desire for revenge … our victory is not an index for the future.”9

In the course of the war some 750,000 Palestinians refugees fled the fighting or were forced out by the Israelis. After the war, as Shehadeh and Fields remind us, the Israelis passed laws assuming full control of the territory of their state, including the lands evacuated by the now “absentee” refugees and other expropriations from the Arab population that remained in Israel and became Israeli citizens. But what they fail to explain is the Israeli mindset at the time. For the Israelis this was an essential measure to protect their newly won patrimony against invasion. The hostile Arab neighborhood promised Israel certain defeat in a much vaunted “second round” (al-jawla al-thaniya) that was bound to come.

In his conclusion Fields tells us that he wrote Enclosure to show “how the making of private space, the making of white space, and the making of Jewish space on territorial landscapes all spring from the same exclusionary impulses deriving from the enclosures and the appropriation of land in England” [emphasis added]. But they do not.

Fields is trapped in an alternative universe which is entirely unrelated to the context of the conflict. The “making of Jewish space” in Palestine did not “spring from the same exclusionary impulses” or “settler colonialism” but rather from Jewish survivalist impulses shaped in the context of oppression and war. It was these that motivated the Jews in their struggle for national liberation and self-determination and in defense of their statehood that was achieved in the wake of the Holocaust.

In Enclosure Fields writes that the “impulses for this book initially took shape” (p. 1) during a visit to the West Bank in 2003-4 when he observed the wall the Israelis had built there. It reminded him of similar barriers in other places and he, therefore, thought “to compare this walled environment with other deliberately walled and partitioned territorial spaces around the world, from Melilla and Ceuta in Morocco to San Diego/Tijuana” on the U.S. border with Mexico. (p. ix).

But why did the Israelis build their “wall” (over 90 percent of which is actually a fence, not a wall) in the first place? Why in 2003 and not at any other time since 1967? Other than the fact that it was a barrier it had nothing in common with the two other cases. Both of them were erected to keep out unwanted immigrants, Hispanics from the United States and Africans from Europe. In Israel’s case the “wall” was not constructed to keep out Palestinians as the “ultimate other.” There are millions of Palestinians on both sides of the security barrier. The barrier was constructed to keep out the suicide bombers entering from the West Bank to blow up civilians in the buses, the restaurants and the night clubs of Israeli towns and cities, killing many hundreds of innocent people. In the month of March 2002 alone 135 Israelis were killed by the bombers.

Construction of the barrier, therefore, was begun in 2003, because of the bombers and not in 1967, when the West Bank was occupied. Since the erection of the barrier the number of Israelis killed by suicide bombers has been reduced to nil. For Israelis, the barrier was a life and death issue. In terms of historical context it has nothing to do with enclosures in Spanish Morocco or California, or property rights in England and North America in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Israel’s establishment in 1948 in the face of extreme adversity accorded the country widespread international acceptance and legitimacy which also rested on Israel’s willingness to compromise and to accept the UN Partition Resolution of 1947. All that began to change after 1967. The conquest of the West Bank, biblical Judea and Samaria and the core of historical Jewish sovereignty and statehood, spurred the emergence of a neo-Zionist religious right. The settlerist neo-Zionists were driven by the messianic belief in the redemption of the Jewish people through the control of all of historical Palestine or Eretz Yisrael. It was of no concern to them if this process of deliverance meant ignoring Palestinian rights to self-determination and statehood, and dismissing the notion of partition.

This is where Shehadeh and Fields have a much stronger case as the settler movement has resorted to various forms of deceit, fraud and other outright illegality, not only in terms of international law but also in violation of Israeli law, to appropriate land, all in the name of their God-given right and the for the sake of Jewish religious salvation, rather than any genuine needs of Israeli self-defense. The present Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu has even been maneuvered by the settlers into resorting to the reprehensible practice of retroactive legislation “regularizing” the illegal appropriation by the settlers of private Palestinian property.

Thus the Israeli religious right creates the fertile backdrop for the endeavors of Israel’s critics in academe, the international media, and elsewhere. Nothing plays into the hands of Israel’s opponents more than its own de-legitimizing settlement activities since 1967. In the corridors of world opinion, as Israel appears to be retreating from the logic of partition, its own actions contribute to the erosion of the international acceptance not just of the occupation, but of the Zionist project in its entirety.

 

In Conclusion

It is not difficult to understand why the Palestinians would aspire to undo 1948. But it is equally obvious why the Israelis will not cooperate in the dismantling of their state. The peace process is not deadlocked for the lack of creative ideas or the absence of the “ultimate deal” maker. Considering their conflicting histories, narratives, beliefs and aspirations, the peoples involved, normal human beings just like everyone else, are sadly incapable at present of coming to a mutually acceptable agreement.

The Palestinians, as a people with the inherent right to self-determination, are responsible for their actions and for the decisions they make, just like the Israelis. Bad Palestinian choices, however, do not absolve the Israelis of their moral obligation to the well-being of their immediate neighbors in Gaza, who depend on their assistance and goodwill.

Israel is caught on the horns of a dilemma. It has no interest in enhancing the political stature and military capabilities of a hostile force like Hamas that has the worst of intentions towards Israel and its people. It has to find the middle ground between containing Hamas and the other even more militant factions and facilitating solutions to the desperate humanitarian crisis faced by the people of Gaza. Even if the Palestinians are not blameless for their predicament it still is incumbent upon Israel, for both the moral imperative and for its own security, to do much more to secure the well-being and even the prosperity of over two million impoverished people on its doorstep.

For Israel there is also another, even greater, dilemma. As the peace process falters the status quo of occupation becomes increasingly untenable. The continuation of the status quo in the West Bank leads inevitably towards the creation of an undesirable one-state reality. But ending the occupation through a negotiated peace agreement on a two-state solution, does not seem to be attainable in the near future. Israel, therefore must again consider a unilateral initiative, coordinated with the Palestinians, if possible, to gradually undo the occupation over a period of years, five to seven or so, to extricate itself from the occupation and for the creation at least of a two-state reality, if not a solution, even if real peace will not follow.

At all costs Israel must avoid the evolution of a one-state reality, for its own sake. One state promises endless tension and possible civil war. It could develop into an Israel ruling over millions of disenfranchised Palestinians with an ever greater use of force; or into a Palestine with the Jews of Israel subdued by the demographic preponderance of a steadily increasing Arab majority. For Israel, as the democratic nation state of the Jewish people, and as a legitimate member of the family of nations, these are not viable options.

 

[1] The best explanation of this practice was actually given by an Arab critic, the Syrian, the late Sadiq al-Azm, in his book Al-naqd al-dhati ba’d al-hazima (Beirut: Dar al-tali’a, 1968) and translated into English as Self-Criticism After the Defeat, 1967 (London: Saqi Books,2011).

[2] Benny Morris, Righteous Victims; A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001 (New York: Vintage Books, 2001), p. 219.

[3] Asher Susser, Israel, Jordan and Palestine; The Two-State Imperative (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2012), p. 77.

[4] Asher Susser, Israel, Jordan and Palestine, p. 95.

[5] UN General Assembly Resolution 194, 11 December 1948, as in Laura Zittrain Eisenberg and Neil Caplan, Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace, Second Edition (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010), Appendix B, Document No. 10.

[6] The names are listed systematically in Kenneth Stein, The Land Question in Palestine, 1917-1939 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984), Appendix 3, pp. 228-239.

[7] Benny Morris, Righteous Victims, p. 38.

[8] Barnet Litvinoff (Ed.), The Letters and Papers of Chaim Weizmann, (Series B, Papers, Vol. II, December 1931- April 1952; Transaction Books, 1984), Paper 22, p.102.

[9] Itamar Rabinovich, The Road Not Taken; Early Arab-Israeli Negotiations (Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 4.