Demographics governs so many policy decisions both domestic and foreign in Israel. There is an obsession with numbers; with how many of its population are of one religion or another and we have seen recently how self-determination is offered only to people who identify as Jewish inside the country. To look at the demographics of Israel / Palestine before the horrors of the Third Reich and before Zion was anything other than a biblical reference gives us a stencil of history, before the cleansing began. It is a common misconception that Palestine was a land without people. According to Ottoman record keepers, in 1878 the population was 462,465 – 87% Muslim, 10% Christian and 3% Jewish. It was cohesive, relatively secular and presented a rich, fertile basin for growth in farming and industrialisation, before the arrival of Zionism.
Zionism, to be understood as the project of colonisation of the Palestinian lands by the Jewish diaspora, has started lately to be used as an identifier; an identifier of those with anti-Semitic leanings; if you use this phrase you must be anti-Jewish. In reality, the opposite is true. Zionism began as a racist Christian project of eschatology which proclaims that the Jews must be in the land of Judea to instigate the end of days, at which point all Jews will convert to Christianity and be saved, or wiped out in Armageddon; convert or die. Speeches and works in support of transferring populations of Jewish people to the Holy Land didn’t begin with people such as Theodor Herzl, one of the apparent founding fathers of Zionism; they can be traced further back to Lord Shaftsbury in England or François-René de Chateaubriand in France who influenced Napoleon to support his Zionist views. To illustrate the underhanded and devious nature of their proposals, Shaftsbury wrote the following in The London Quarterly Review “Jews must be encouraged to return in yet greater numbers and become once more the husbandman of Judea and Galilee… though admittedly a stiff-necked, dark hearted people, and sunk in moral degradation, obduracy, and ignorance of the Gospel, [they are] not only worthy of salvation but also vital to Christianity’s hope of salvation”, he successfully persuaded Lord Palmerstone to acquiesce to his plans whose own desire for agreement was more political than religious, in being able to use the Jewish migration to buttress the failing Ottoman Empire.
There can be no doubt that Jewish-led European Zionism later in the century came from a place of honesty, alongside fear and anger, particularly at persecutions in Russia and anti-Semitic nationalism in Western Europe illustrated neatly by the Dreyfus affair in France. But also another tranche of Zionism was through socialism and agrarian communalism. Indeed, only very recently has this changed and many leftists still maintaining a soft spot for an Israel that is either long-gone or never really happened. They still see the ideal of the nation, rather than what the nation has become. Many early settlers chose to buy land in Palestinian villages and work and trade openly with the local population. A minority however relied on Jewish industrialists overseas to sustain them. The British connection to the immigrants soured local feeling, led by the Mufti of Jerusalem, Tahir al-Hussayni II who felt this was all part of a European project economic imperialism, British Consul James Finn didn’t help when he invoked the language of the crusades into his Christian minded project. The religious and the racist elements of the project coalesced into the British and other European nations wanting rid of the Jews from their lands, and those Jews being persuaded a better life could be had in Palestine; both strands of which disenfranchise the population already living there and alienate the indigenous people to the newcomers; this attitude was cemented by the infamous Balfour Agreement, seen still as an act of extreme treachery and racism on the part of the British towards the Muslim population of Palestine (Lloyd-George as Prime Minister supported the agreement on the basis that he would prefer a Jewish colony to a Muslim one, out of no other desire than his inherent racism).
The early history of Israel, and what increasingly appears to be the later history of Palestine, is tangled and difficult but it is essential to understand why we are where we are in the conflict. There is a chronology of myth which are central to Israeli propaganda, and they begin with their supposition that the Palestinians left their homes voluntarily in 1948. It may be the greatest lie ever told and it is easily shown to be a falsehood. From the start, talk of transfers of Palestinian people were regular at the highest levels of officialdom. Berl Katznelson, considered the moral conscience of the movement is on record at the Twentieth Zionist Conference calling for the Palestinians to be made a “distant neighbour” rather than a “nearby enemy”. When he heard that the British were considering internal transfer to other areas of Palestine he complained that he saw the future for Palestinians being in Syria or Iraq. David Ben Gurion sent his son a letter in 1937 stating that if the British would not move people on behalf of the Israelis then it would be necessary for them to do it on their own, by force. Early inducements for people to move voluntarily created the conditions for mass ethnic cleansing at a later date that became the Nakba of 1948. Declassified documents in the 1980s show clearly that the Palestinians lost their homes and homeland through “expulsions, intimidation and fear”.
An interesting side note here is the early involvement of the USA. United Nations resolution 194 supports the right of return to Palestinian refugees to their homeland after their expulsion in 1948. In 1949 the Americans supported the resolution but with growing concerns over the USSR and the beginnings of the Cold War they quickly lost interest until Kennedy became president; he attempted to exert pressure on Israel to live by this resolution and remains the last president to refuse vast levels of military aid to Israel, this is probably the reason Mossad are often linked to one or some of the plethora of conspiracy theories surrounding Kennedy’s assassination. What is not a conspiracy theory, but a plain falsehood is that the Palestinians were to blame for their own expulsion. Some say they were punished for a rejection of a UN sponsored partition and peace plan in 1947, but this canard takes no account of the colonial nature of the Zionist movement and ignores conveniently that the plan was concocted with no consultation with the Palestinians or their representatives. A further myth is that Israel extended an olive branch to the Palestinians after the 1948 conflict; quite the opposite is true. When it was evident that Palestinians wanted to negotiate a more rounded peace agreement, the UN negotiator, Count Bernadotte was murdered by a Jewish terrorist group and Israel then refused to play any part in further proposals, they chose not to recognise the body that replaced Bernadotte, the Palestine Conciliation Commission or the resolution that ultimately transpired from their initiatives; UN Resolution 194 concerned with the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
At the end of the British Mandate period, in fact just before the official end, the Israeli’s put in to action Plan Dalet, or Plan D which meant that Israeli forces moved in as soon as a British post moved out and began cleansing that village or town. The process began with small villages and progressed eventually to Haifa, Jaffa, Safad, Beisan, Acre and West Jerusalem. Plan D was prepared by Ben Gurion and the high command of the Haganagh, the military wing of the Jewish community. The plan included the following clear and crisp instruction to clearances “Destruction of villages (setting fire to, blowing up, and planting mines in the debris), especially those population centers which are difficult to control continuously … Mounting search and control operations according to the following guidelines: encirclement of the village and conducting a search inside it. In the event of resistance, the armed force must be destroyed and the population must be expelled outside the borders of the state”. This was all carried out before Arab armies from outside the country could mobilise, and in some areas, particularly the Jordanian Army under British leadership, ignored the issue altogether rather than engage with Israeli forces. Let us be clear, this was a war crime, indeed a crime against humanity and to fail to recognise it as such means we are unable to get to the nub of the way the Israeli’s see the Palestinians, for to accept their role in human rights abuses in 1947/48 is to accept the illegitimacy of their own national founding. The Balkan war of the 1990s provides clarity for such human rights abuses “ethnic cleansing is any action by one ethnic group meant to drive out another ethnic group with the purpose of transforming a mixed ethnic region into a pure one. Such an action amounts to ethnic cleansing regardless of the means employed to obtain it—from persuasion and threats to expulsions and mass killings”. But there can be no grey area here for which a nuanced understanding is required. In the space of seven months, 531 villages were destroyed and 11 urban areas cleared. The expulsions were accompanied by massacres, rapes, terrorising and the imprisonment of males over the age of 10 in labour camps for over a year. It is ethnic cleansing at its most stark.
We come then to the well written about and opined upon 1967 war, which Israel’s accomplices say proved that Israel had no choice but to occupy Gaza and the West Bank until those residing there could make peace with the Jewish state. The take-over of the whole of historic Palestine was a desire from long before the 1967 conflict. A post-mandate deal keeping Jordan out of the 1948 war meant the West Bank was kept under Jordanian control was referred to as bechiya ledorot by Ben Gurion; a fatal historical mistake. The complete control of the Palestinian majority inside Israel was an apparatus that had long been preparing for take-over of the West Bank and Gaza and machinations elsewhere in the Middle East through Nasser and the new Ba’ath movement gave the perfect opportunity for the transfer of these powers. Israel struck on June 5th while peace initiatives were still being led by the US, it all but destroyed the Egyptian air-force and followed up with attacks on Syria, Jordan and Iraq. This air assault coupled with the invasion of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, later they took control of the Golan Heights from Syria.
Minutes of a meeting following the occupation are now in the public domain and they call for permanent control of the West Bank, without which “Israel cannot exist”, but they also go on to state the citizens of occupied areas cannot be given Israeli citizenship, upsetting the demography of what is intentioned to be a Jewish state. It was clear to the people at the meeting that this left the people living in these areas under control of a foreign power, without a state and essentially condemned to be citizens of nowhere. Only once has the desire to consistently rule over and occupy the West Bank been acknowledged, by Levy Eshkol as Prime Minister in 1967. The international response was rightly robust and since then Israeli leaders have seen it as unhelpful to make their true goals known with regards the West Bank. To this day Israel have maintained this is a temporary solution to a problem which will be resolved when the Palestinians become a proper partner for peace, so for over 50 years the people of the West Bank are imprisoned as rightless nowhere people; neither refugees nor citizens.
Having rightless citizens both inside and outside of their own rather fluid borders is a feature of Israel and gives proof to the lie that they are the only democracy in the Middle East. It was not a democracy for the Palestinian population within Israel prior to 1967, as people lived under military rule with all the abuses of power that entails, and further away did it slip from democracy post-1967, with regards to the increased population it controls, even if it does not count them as citizens. Surely the litmus test for any democracy is the way it treats minorities for which it is responsible? Not only does Israel prevent the right of return to properties and lands stolen from those both outside and inside Israel, it goes to an extra level of un-democracy; granting what it calls a further “right of return” to every Jewish person in the world wherever they were born. An equivalent would be for the people of Lancashire to be removed from those borders and their lands given to any person from Rome, because 2000 years ago they may or may not have had ancestors that lived there. Aside from these most heinous acts of un-democracy, there are other areas of discrimination that compound the fact. The most prosperous Palestinian community is that of Me’ilya in Galilee; but this village is still worse off than the most destitute Jewish town in the Negev. The average income of Jews is between 40 and 60% higher than Arab income in comparative areas. More than 90% of land is owned by the Jewish National Fund and it is illegal to engage in transactions with non-Jewish citizens. What this means in practice is that as Palestinian towns grow in population, they are unable to expand in the same way settlements do. Nazareth has tripled its population but not grown one square mile since 1948. This is before we start to factor in the way people are treated who live outside the official boundaries of Israel in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza with all the well documented collective punishments they have to endure, and have had to endure since the beginning of the occupation.
When people in the occupied territories resist they are targeted as though they were combatants in a military conflict, when in reality they are disenfranchised and stateless peoples. During periods of non-resistance the house demolitions, the farm destructions, the arrests without trial, the assassinations, water-well draining all continue regardless. Each year Amnesty International documents the harsh realities of the occupation, this is from their 2015 report: “In the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, Israeli forces committed unlawful killings of Palestinian civilians, including children, and detained thousands of Palestinians who protested against or otherwise opposed Israel’s continuing military occupation, holding hundreds in administrative detention. Torture and other ill-treatment remained rife and were committed with impunity. The authorities continued to promote illegal settlements in the West Bank, and severely restricted Palestinians’ freedom of movement, further tightening restrictions amid an escalation of violence from October, which included attacks on Israeli civilians by Palestinians and apparent extrajudicial executions by Israeli forces. Israeli settlers in the West Bank attacked Palestinians and their property with virtual impunity. The Gaza Strip remained under an Israeli military blockade that imposed collective punishment on its inhabitants. The authorities continued to demolish Palestinian homes in the West Bank and inside Israel, particularly in Bedouin villages in the Negev/Naqab region, forcibly evicting their residents”. The figures on imprisonment without trial are staggering; every fifth person in the West Bank or Gaza Strip has undergone unlawful detention, proportionally that is more than the numbers of Japanese citizens locked up in the US during World War II which Gerald Ford as president later declared a “national mistake… which shall never be repeated”. Middle East Monitor has published 200 known methods of torture used by the Israeli state on the Palestinians held in detention.
All this while road maps and peace processes are supposed to be negotiated in good faith. Israel likes to put about the story that the Oslo process fell apart because of Palestinian intransigence, particularly on the part of Yasser Arafat who they say orchestrated the Second Intifada as a way to derail the negotiations. Some more liberal minded critics in Israel shared the blame between him and Benjamin Netanyahu but the accusation of Arafat not keeping his side of the bargain doesn’t hold water. According to the “agreement”, the Palestinian forces were to act as Israel’s subcontracted security force in the occupied territories as well as accepting the Israeli interpretation of whatever the final settlement was; this amounted to a demilitarised state for the Palestinians, a capital at Abu Dis, a small village well outside Jerusalem, and to give up huge swathes of West Bank territory that had already been illegally occupied. In addition the Palestinian state, such as it would be, would have no independent foreign or economic policy but be dictated to by Israel. In return Arafat was expected to forgo the right of return for which Palestinians have agitated for 70 years now. As this final proposal in 2000 hit the table, alongside the Bantustan-isation of Palestinian territories no Palestinian leader could have accepted it and maintained the faith of their people. The right of return is key; in 1949 it was a precondition for Israel to sign up to Resolution 194 which, as stated above, calls for unconditional right of return of the Palestinian refugees from 1948, or for significant compensation to be given. Israel signed this and was accepted in to the UN; effective legitimacy and international recognition. The day after this happened Israel retracted its commitment to the Resolution and that retraction governs its political manoeuvres to this day.
Since the Second Intifada Hamas has grown as a force in Palestine and particularly the Gaza Strip. In terms of a political solution it differs from Fatah who govern the West Bank in a specific way. Fatah support a two-state solution still whereas Hamas has demanded a full withdrawal from occupied territories followed by a 10-year armistice before further solutions can be discussed. By 2006 it had won a majority in the Palestinian parliament and had the right to form a government, this quickly fell apart and it was ousted by Fatah leaving the latter in charge of the West Bank and the former in power in Gaza. Hamas is often demonised (as Fatah) once was, as a terrorist organisation that refuses to accept the right of Israel to exist. In reality it is a multi-faceted organisation of resistance, and is a reflection of complexities arising from the everyday reality of occupation and blockade. Israel and the west are often mistaken in their psephology of the Middle East and particularly Palestine. The very first municipal elections in the Palestinian Territories allowed by Yitzhak Rabin in 1976 went the way of PLO and not, as predicted, in favour of pro-Jordanian/Egyptian parties. Israel and the West have never understood that if you use your power to restrain the ability of secular, socialist movements in the Middle-East, a power vacuum will be created and filled by a more radical religious movement. Hamas for its part, while being undeniably violent in its attitude towards Israel, also pushes its charitable side in the Gaza Strip and encourages community cohesion among different groups of people; it provides schooling, medicine and welfare in the same way any reasonable state operator would; and it does so hand in glove with its own internal resistance movement, however the most violent acts Hamas have carried out have been against their own opponents in Palestine, and not against the state of Israel.
The Gaza Strip amounts to just 2% of the Palestinian landmass. It had always been a more cosmopolitan place than the rest of the country before the occupation, being a port region with trade connections across Europe and North Africa, this is to be expected. The prosperity and diversity of Gaza was destroyed in 1948 and this destruction has continued into the 21st Century. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were pushed from Jaffa and surrounding towns and villages into to the area we know as the Strip today. Sandwiched between Israel and an apathetic and at times hostile Egypt, the abilities of people to access normal routes of assistance and justice have been eroded. Meanwhile the population has since doubled making the Strip one of the most densely populated regions of the planet with no economic or infrastructural policies in place to support them. These days it is entirely separated from the West Bank via the Israeli security barrier / wall and the network of checkpoints placed strategically to make movement between areas impossible. The people of Gaza are trapped in a huge open air prison and are routinely used as a testing ground for new Israeli weapons which are then sold on the open market at events such as the DSEI Arms Fair in London. People are trapped, electricity and gas are scarce, medicines are restricted from entering and food is in short supply; all of this is controlled at the borders by the Israeli Defence Force. Even fishermen trying to work in the eastern Mediterranean are shot at to halt their work. The military attacks on Gaza are more and more extreme each time, and more and more civilians are casualties with every new “operation”. Israeli exceptionalism allows it and the international community either backs them wholly in the cases of the US and UK or shrugs and wonders what it can do in the case of the EU. Other Arabic states are more interested in maintaining economic ties to the western nations who support Israel than coming to the aid of their fellow Muslims and what is left is a destitute, traumatised and attacked people who are no more than play things for a criminal military occupation. Three military incursions in six years added to a decade long blockade has led the UN to declare that it expects Gaza to be uninhabitable by 2020. De-development is taking place with the economic wellbeing of a person in the Gaza Strip being worse than what it was two decades ago. The coup in Egypt by the military has meant the only avenue to easing the blockade has also now been closed. Western flotillas are refused entry with their cargoes stolen by Israel at any port they choose to redirect the boats to, and they are not above attacking such humanitarian acts; nine people onboard the Mavi Marmara were killed while trying to deliver things such as food, car parts and medical supplies to Gaza.
What began as settlement, however unjust became an occupation, but that word is no longer viable over 50 years down the line. What the Palestinians suffer now is occupation, and military occupation at that. The War on Terror, in reality a war on Islam, gave Israel the veneer it needed to escalate matters to a tipping point of exploitation and ruthlessness. Settlements continue to grow and Palestinians continue to be slaughtered. Recent protests and the violent response to them in Gaza prove the international community is entirely toothless in being able to condemn, in any meaningful way, what is happening to the Palestinians. As the far right in America and Europe gains new degrees of respectability it should come as no surprise that they find a common ally in Netanyahu; old anti-Semitisms can be brushed aside when a common enemy of their own mythologies is found. Israeli flags pop up at far right rallies with alarming frequency, and in Israel itself a startling number of young people, who we are used to seeing as left wing and tolerant, are showing attitudes of bigotry and chauvinism on previously unheard of scales. Whether this translates into a fully-fledged far right movement, or an Israeli fascism remains to be seen but that is the route being etched into the future’s map. Already we have the apartheid era self-determination laws reserved only for Jews and more liberal voices in newspapers and universities being curtailed. Wherever the politics of Likud and its right wing partners in government end up, one thing remains certain, the people who suffer will remain the Palestinians until Israeli’s themselves wake up to their own national memory they continue to supress, or until the international community grows a pair and starts acting in a humane and fair way towards all nations, and un-nations too.