Thursday, July 21, 2011


I read an article on holiday by Perry Anderson on the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, and the conflict that has arisen from it. Written almost ten years ago, it is (as Anderson’s condensations so often are) the best summary of the situation I have read. In it he makes the following points:

1. This is a conflict between two distinct nationalisms. The Palestinian identity was largely forged after the Nakba of 1948. The Zionist cause is older, and its strength lies in its call to tradition, history and theology; its link to a “sacred homeland”; and its influence in Western Europe in the late 19th century.

2. The 1917 Balfour Declaration, which promised Jews a homeland in Palestine, was an imperialist ploy. Britain had secured control of Palestine at Versailles, and it brokered the removal of Arabs from the land by force, and by encouraging the ideological community of the kibbutz. Between the wars, an apartheid was created in which Zionist colonisation of the land was backed by British force. Between 1936 and 1939, the first intifada was crushed by Major-General Orde Wingate’s troops.

3. But there was a certain friction between the British and the settlers. In the mid 1930s, Britain tried to curb Jewish migration. Into the 1940s, the extreme Zionist Irgun paramilitary group tried to defeat Britain and take full control of Palestine. The USSR were impressed by the Irgun’s anti-imperialism and initially supported them.

4. In 1947, Britain handed over its mandate to the UN, which in practice meant the US. Palestine became officially split between Arabs and Jews (though at that stage, Jews represented 35% of the population and gained 55% of the land). A Palestinian uprising was crushed, and Israel was created; Arab national armies invaded Israel, but were crushed; a deal was struck with Jordan, a client state of Britain, by which Israel were awarded a much enlarged state and Jordan took the West Bank.

5. 700,000 Arabs, around 50%, were forced from Palestine during the late 1940s, and a huge proportion of Arab land was seized. “In early 1947, Jews owned 7% of the land of Palestine. By the end of 1950, they had appropriated 92% of land within the new state.” A handful of Arabs remained as refugees. While it is generally accepted that the Holocaust provided the moral justification for the creation of Israel (and, therefore, the Nakba), there was little or no link at the time; this reasoning has been applied retroactively.

6. Israeli citizenship became based on “blood and faith – confessional and biological criteria combining to define actual or potential citizens in full right as those individuals either born of a Jewish mother, or of attested Mosaic persuasion, regardless of physical location.” Palestinian refugees were denied the right of return; more generally, Arabs were denied ownership rights, entry into armed services, political organisation etc. Israel was generally more supportive of international Jews than Arab states were of Palestinian refugees. Israel received huge financial support from the diaspora, German reparations and – especially military support – the US.

7. The 1950s saw the emergence of new Arab nationalisms in Egypt, Syria and Iraq. Israel attempted to fight this threat by colluding with France and Britain. In 1956, the three states invaded Egypt on the pretext of Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal. The US, fearful that Egypt might ally with the USSR, halted the conflict. But in 1967, the US supported the Israeli pre-emptive assault on Egypt. Israel made huge territorial gains (Sinai, Golan Heights, West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem) and 1.5m Palestinians were brought under Israeli military occupation. In 1973, Israel launched a further defensive attack on Egypt, and by 1979, Egypt gave in and allied itself with the US in return for Sinai. In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon, gaining a buffer zone for its northern borders. Such victories meant Israel now had to manage large numbers of Palestinian refugees within its borders; meanwhile, Jewish settlements began incrementally to colonise the occupied territories.

8. In 1987, the first modern intifada spontaneously rose up. It never really threatened Israel, but it was only really dampened by the US invasion of Iraq. The 1993 and 1995 Oslo Accords led to limited IDF withdrawal in exchange for a cessation of Palestinian attacks on the Israeli occupation.

9. The Accords were universally lauded, but they did not alter the fact that here was an occupation based on brutality. The IDF remains in charge of most of the West Bank; many roads can only be accessed by Israelis; Jewish settlements increase weekly; and the income of Palestinians has plummeted. Not surprisingly, Palestinian attacks increased during the 1990s. Israel tried to do a deal with Arafat whereby they annexed all settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Since this would have netailed Palestinians abandoning all hope of a return to 1967 borders, Arafat refused and a second intifada was unleashed.

10. Edward Said, “the most courageous and lucid critic of the Oslo Accords,” believed that the moral dimension was the Palestinian cause’s only real strength, and that the world should react as it had done earlier to apartheid-era South Africa. The problem with this is that the Afrikaner regime enjoyed virtually nil international support, especially in the US, whereas US sympathies tend to be with Israel rather than the Palestinians.

11. In the US, criticising Israel is risky. “For many years American Zionism has had little difficulty stifling any serious dissent, automatically typecast as ‘self-hating’ if Jewish or ‘anti-Semitic if Gentile.” Indeed, anti-Zionist criticism is heard more in Israel than in the US.

12. Israel has taken a neoliberal turn since the 1990s. This has further disenfranchised Palestinians who are not allowed to purchase land. “The country has becomes one of the two most unequal societies in the advanced capitalist world.”

13. Labour and Likud share similar socio-economic policies, but very different electoral bases. Their distinctions tend to be tactical, rather than substantial. Labour is more pragmatic, Likud more dogmatic. “Neither side has any intention of contemplating real national sovereignty for the Palestinians.”

14. “Post-Zionists” have seriously considered only two alternatives to a Zionist state. 1) a ‘bi-national’ state (unlikely, given the “antagonistic ethnic nationalisms”). 2) partition, under pretty terrible terms for the Palestinians (they would get 15% of Israel; territory would be divided into two chunks, with no harbour; no defence force would be allowed; no reparations would be paid). (An alternative model by the Frenchman Guy Mandrou was, at least, geographically contiguous and had equivalent security forces to Israel.)

15. Morally and realistically, a Palestinian state would need to contain equal resources (as Israeli and Palestinian populations are similar and a port, namely Haifa. It would need to abandon Gaza but cover the West Bank and Eats Jerusalem and the coast from Lebanon to Haifa, and should be the recipient of reparations.

Given this pessimistic outlook, Anderson then asks whether there are any chinks in the Israeli carapace. He finds one: its reliance on the US (and others). “But how would America ever contemplate such a betrayal? The answer lies, as it has done ever since the fifties, in the Arab world.

And here is where it gets exciting. He says the only real possibility of changes lies with “Egypt with its population, and Saudi Arabia with its petroleum”. If either of these powers – Mubarak or the House of Saud – were ever overthrown, “the fate of Palestinians would instantly alter.”

Anderson is, again, pessimistic. “The dismal political history of the Arab world over the last half-century gives little reason for thinking this is likely in the short-run.” But we know differently. However much we are becoming accustomed to unforeseeable events in the news (cf. News International), we should not forget what an extraordinary achievement the Egyptian Revolution is.


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