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Fifty years of dispossession

By Edward Said

Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
7 - 13 May, 1998
Issue No.376


In the United States, celebrations of Israel's fifty years as a state have tried to project an image of the country that went out of fashion since the Palestinian Intifada (1987-92): a pioneering state, full of hope and promise for the survivors of the Nazi Holocaust, a haven of enlightened liberalism in a sea of Arab fanaticism and reaction. On 15 April, for instance, CBS broadcast a two hour prime-time program from Hollywood hosted by Michael Douglas and Kevin Costner, featuring movie stars such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kathy Bates (who recited passages from Golda Meir minus, of course, her most celebrated remark that there were no Palestinians) and Winona Ryder. None of these luminaries are particularly known for their Middle Eastern expertise or enthusiasm, although all of them in one way or another praised Israel's greatness and enduring achievements. There was even time for a cameo appearance by President Bill Clinton, who provided perhaps the least edifying, most atavistic note of the evening by complimenting Israel, "a small oasis," for "making a once barren desert bloom," and for " building a thriving democracy in hostile terrain."

Ironically enough, no such encomia were intoned on Israeli television, which has been broadcasting a 22-part series, Tkuma, on the country's history. This series has a decidedly more complicated content. Episodes on the l948 War, for instance, made use of archival sources unearthed by the new historians (Benny Morris, Ilan Pappe, Avi Schlaim, Tom Segev, et al) to demonstrate that the indigenous Palestinians were forcibly expelled, their villages destroyed, their land taken, their society eradicated. It was as if Israeli audiences had no need of all the palliatives provided for diasporic and international viewers, who still needed to be told that Israel was a cause for uncomplicated rejoicing and not, as it has been for Palestinians, the cause of a protracted, and still continuing dispossession of the country's indigenous people.

That the American celebration simply omitted any mention of the Palestinians indicated also how remorselessly an ideological mind-set can hold on, despite the facts, despite years of news and headlines, despite an extraordinary, if ultimately unsuccessful, effort to keep effacing Palestinians from the picture of Israel's untroubled sublimity. If they're not mentioned, therefore they don't exist. Even after fifty years of living the Palestinian exile I still find myself astonished at the lengths to which official Israel and its supporters will go to suppress the fact that a half century has gone by without Israeli restitution, recognition, or acknowledgment of Palestinian human rights and without, as the facts undoubtedly show, connecting that suspension of rights to Israel's official policies. Even when there is a vague buried awareness of the facts, as is the case with a front page New York Times story on April 23 by one Ethan Bronner, the Palestinian Nakba is characterized as a semi-fictional event (dutiful inverted commas around the word "catastrophe" for instance) caused by no one in particular. When Bronner quotes an uprooted Palestinian who describes his miseries, the man's testimony is qualified by "for most Israelis, the idea of Mr Shikaki staking claim to victimhood is chilling," a reaction made plausible as Bronner blithely leapfrogs over the man's uprooting and systematic deprivations and immediately tells us how his "rage" (for years the approved word for dealing with Palestinian history) has impelled his sons into joining Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Ergo, Palestinians are violent terrorists, whereas Israel can go on being a "vibrant and democratic regional superpower established on the ashes of Nazi genocide." But not on the ashes of Palestine, an obliteration that lingers on in measures taken by Israel to block Palestinian rights, domestically as well as in territories occupied in l967.

Take land and citizenship for instance. Approximately 750,000 Palestinians were expelled in 1948: they are now more than 4 million. Left behind were 120,000 (now one million) who subsequently became Israelis, a minority constituting about 18 per cent of the state's population, but not fully-fledged citizens in anything more than name. In addition there are now some 2.5 million Palestinians without sovereignty on the West Bank and Gaza. Israel is the only state in the world which is not the state of its actual citizens, but of the whole Jewish people who consequently have rights that non-Jews do not. Without a constitution, Israel is governed by Basic Laws of which one in particular, the Law of Return, makes it possible for any Jew anywhere to emigrate to Israel and become a citizen, at the same time that native-born Palestinians do not have the same right. 93 per cent of the land of the state is characterised as Jewish land, meaning that no non-Jew is allowed to lease, sell or buy it. Before 1948, the Jewish community in Palestine owned a little over 6 per cent of the land. A recent case in which a Palestinian Israeli, Adel Kaadan, wished to buy land but was refused because he was a non-Jew has become something of a cause célèbre in Israel, and has even made it to the Supreme Court which is supposed to but would prefer not to rule on it. Kaadan's lawyer has said that "as a Jew in Israel, I think that if a Jew somewhere else in the world was prohibited from buying state land, public land, owned by the federal government, because they're Jews, I believe there would have been an outcry in Israel." (New York Times, 1 March, l998). This anomaly about Israeli democracy, not well known and rarely cited, is compounded by the fact that, as I said above Israel's land in the first place was owned by Palestinians expelled in l948; since their forced exodus their property was legally turned into Jewish land by The Absentees' Property Law, the Law of the State's Property, and the Land Ordinance (the Acquisition of Land for Public Purposes). Now only Jewish citizens have access to that land, a fact that does not corroborate The Economist's extraordinarily sweeping statement on "Israel at 50" (25 April-1 May l998) that since the state's founding Palestinians "have enjoyed full political rights.

What makes it specially galling for Palestinians is that they have been forced to watch the transformation of their own homeland into a Western state, one of whose express purposes is to provide for Jews and not for non-Jews. Between l948 and l966 Palestinian Israelis were ruled by military ordinance. After that, as the state regularised its policies on education, legal practice, religion, social, economic and political participation, a regime evolved to keep the Palestinian minority disadvantaged, segregated and constantly discriminated against. There is an eye-opening account of this shabby history which is rarely cited and, when it is, elided or explained away by the euphemism (familiar from South African apartheid) that "they" have their own system: it is the Report of March l998 entitled "Legal Violations of Arab Minority Rights in Israel," published by Adalah (the Arabic word for justice), an Arab-Jewish organization within Israel. Especially telling is the section on the "discriminatory approach of Israeli courts", routinely praised by supporters of Israel for their impartiality and fairness. In fact, the report notes that the courts having delivered progressive and decent-minded decisions on the rights of women, homosexuals, the disabled, etc. have "since l948 dismissed all cases dealing with equal rights for Arab citizens, and have never included a declamatory statement in decisions regarding the protection of Arab group rights." This is borne out by a survey of criminal and civil cases in which Arabs get no help from the courts and are far more likely to be indicted than Jews in similar circumstances.

It is only in the past year or two that investigations of Israel's political makeup, hitherto assumed to be socialist, egalitarian, pioneering, forward-looking, have turned up a rather unattractive picture. Zeev Sternhell's book The Founding Myths of Israel (Princeton l998) is the work of an Israeli historian of twentieth century right-wing European mass-movements who finds a disturbing congruence between those movements and Israel's own brand of what Sternhell rightly calls "nationalist socialism". Far from being socialist, Israel's founders and subsequently the polity they established were profoundly anti-socialist, bent almost entirely upon "conquest of the land" and the creation of "self-realisation" and a new sense of organic peoplehood that moved steadily to the right during the pre-l948 years. "Neither the Zionist movement abroad," Sternhell says, "nor the pioneers who were beginning to settle the country could frame a policy toward the Palestinian national movement. The real reason for this was not a lack of understanding of the problem but a clear recognition of the insurmountable contradiction between the basic objectives of the two sides." (p.43). After l948, policy towards the Palestinians clearly envisioned that community's disappearance or its political nullity, since it was clear that the contradiction between the two sides would always remain insurmountable. Israel, in short, could not become a secular liberal state, despite the efforts of two generations of publicists to make it so.

After l967 the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza produced a military and civil regime for Palestinians whose aim was Palestinian submission and Israeli dominance, an extension of the model on which Israel proper functioned. Settlements were established in the late summer of l967 (and Jerusalem annexed) not by right-wing parties but by the Labour Party, a member, interestingly enough, of the Socialist International. The promulgation of literally hundreds of "occupiers' laws" directly contravened not only the tenets of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but the Geneva Conventions as well. These violations ran the gamut from administrative detention, to mass land expropriations, house demolition, forced movement of populations, torture, uprooting of trees, assassination, book banning, closure of schools and universities. Always, however, the illegal settlements were being expanded as more and more Arab land was ethnically cleansed so that Jewish populations from Russia, Ethiopia, Canada and the United States, among other places, could be accommodated.

After the Oslo Accords were signed in September l993 conditions for Palestinians steadily worsened. It became impossible for Palestinians to travel freely between one place and another, Jerusalem was declared off limits, and massive building projects transformed the country's geography. In everything, the distinction between Jew and non-Jew is scrupulously preserved. The most perspicacious analysis of the legal situation obtaining after Oslo is Raja Shehadeh's in his book From Occupation to Interim Accords: Israel and the Palestinian Territories (Kluwer, 1997), an important work that demonstrates the carefully preserved continuity between Israeli negotiating strategy during the Oslo process and its land occupation policy established in the Occupied Territories from the early 1970s. In addition Shehadeh demonstrates the tragic lack of preparation and understanding in the PLO's strategy during the peace process, with the result that much of the sympathy gained internationally for the Palestinians against Israeli settlement policy and its dismal human rights record was frittered away, unused and unexploited. "All the support and sympathy," he says, "which it took years for Palestinians to rally, returned home, so to speak, with the mistaken belief that the struggle was over. The Palestinians, as much as the Israelis, helped in giving the false impression through, among other things, the highly publicised media image of the Arafat-Rabin handshake, that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was resolved. No serious attempt was made to remind the world that one of the main causes of the conflict after 1967, the Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory, remained intact. This is not to speak of the other basic unresolved questions of the return of refugees, compensation, and the issue of Jerusalem" (p.131).

Unquestionably the moral dilemma faced by anyone trying to come to terms with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a deep one. Israeli Jews are not white settlers of the stripe that colonised Algeria or South Africa, though similar methods have been used. They are correctly seen as victims of a long history of Western, largely Christian anti-Semitic persecution that culminated in the scarcely comprehensible horrors of the Nazi holocaust. To Palestinians, however, their role is that of victims of the victims. This is why Western liberals who openly espoused the anti-apartheid movement, or that of the Nicaraguan Sandanistas, or Bosnia, or East Timor, or American civil rights, or Armenian commemoration of the Turkish genocide, or many other political causes of that kind, have shied away from openly endorsing Palestinian self-determination. As for Israel's nuclear policy, or its legally underwritten campaign of torture, or of using civilians as hostages, or of refusing to give Palestinians permits to build on their own land in the West Bank -- the case is never made in the liberal public sphere, partly out of fear, partly out of guilt.

An even greater challenge is the difficulty of separating between Palestinian and Israeli-Jewish populations who are now inextricably linked in all sorts of ways, despite the immense chasm that divides them. Those of us who for years have argued for a Palestinian state have come to the realization that if such a "state" (the inverted commas here are definitely required) is going to appear out of the shambles of Oslo it will be weak, economically dependent on Israel, without real sovereignty or power. Above all, as the present map of the West Bank amply shows, the Palestinian autonomy zones will be non-contiguous (they now account for only 3 per cent of the West Bank; Netanyahu's government has balked at giving up an additional 13 per cent) and effectively divided into Bantustans controlled from the outside by Israel. The only reasonable course therefore is to recommend that Palestinians and their supporters renew the struggle against the fundamental principle that relegates "non-Jews" to subservience on the land of historical Palestine. This, it seems to me, is what is entailed by any principled campaign on behalf of justice for Palestinians, and certainly not the enfeebled separatism that movements like Peace Now have fitfully embraced and quickly abandoned. There can be no concept of human rights, no matter how elastic, that accommodates the strictures of Israeli state practice against "non-Jewish" Palestinians in favour of Jewish citizens. Only if the inherent contradiction is faced between what in effect is a theocratic and ethnic exclusivism on the one hand and genuine democracy on the other, can there be any hope for reconciliation and peace in Israel/Palestine. Fudging, waffling, looking the other way, avoiding the issue entirely, or accepting pabulum definitions of "peace" will bring Palestinians and, in the long run Israelis, nothing but hardship and insecurity.



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