Palestinian Self-determination and the Israeli Occupation
Palestinian Self-determination and the Israeli Occupation
One of the features of living in our contemporary societies is the prevalence of a certain kind of understanding of history. History is about change, discontinuity, and heterogeneity. The notion that there are deep determining structures of power or that there are certain historical constants and transhistorical truths is not something postmodern skepticism is happy to acknowledge. Current intellectual fashions, therefore, dictate that difference rules and that commonalities and unities are necessarily oppressive. I'd like to suggest that such a conception of history won't get us very far in understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is of course not to downgrade the value of the specific and the contingent in analysis but only to suggest that these have to be positioned within broader and deeper sets of structures in order for us to be able to determine the continuities of history.
I am interested in exploring this identity of history in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. My thesis, however, is neither theoretically original nor historically new. It merely seeks to provide a coherent framework in which to understand what is by now over a century of conflict and struggle. And I'd like to state it clearly from the beginning. It is the following: that the Zionist colonization of Palestine has necessarily entailed the denial of the right of Palestinians to self-determination. No Jewish State would have been created without that foundational denial. And no Palestinian State or Palestinian Liberation can ever be had without the negation of that denial, i.e. without the affirmation of the Palestinian right of self-determination. This permanent Zionist denial and the Palestinian resistance to it can indeed be understood as the constants of history in Israel- Palestine. My aim in the following is to provide a very brief historical outline of the conflict, and to show how the Israeli Government's current policies fall within the longer continuity of domination and negation. I will also, at the end, address the question of whether the Palestinians are capable of countering Sharon's current onslaught and of overcoming their own subjugation.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the longest colonial conflicts in recent history. It began in the late 19th century and continues to this day. It covers the whole period from the crystallization of the political Zionist notion of Jewish sovereignty as a particular response to European anti-Semitism (captured in Herzl's pamphlet The Jewish State in 1896) to Sharon's Disengagement Plan announced in February 2004. Between Herzl and Sharon lies the whole expanse of the 20th century, with the following central events taking place: Growing Jewish immigration and settlement in Palestine from the early century. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 (committing Britain to the creation of a Jewish National Home in Palestine), and its facilitation during the British Mandate period from 1920 onwards. The Palestinian Revolt of 1936-39 demanding an end to Jewish immigration and settlement, and an end to British colonialism. The foundation of the State of Israel in 1948 which resulted in the premeditated and systematic expulsion of nearly a million Palestinians, the destruction of their towns and 530 villages, the active prevention of their return, and the colonization and expropriation of 78% of Palestine (most of which was still owned by Palestinians, who constituted, even after half a century of constant Jewish immigration, two-thirds of the population then). There is also the subjecting of the remaining Palestinian population in the newly established Jewish state to a cruel military regime which lasted until 1966. The Israeli expansion into the remaining 22% of Palestine in 1967 (when the Jewish army destroyed the forces of three Arab countries and occupied the West Bank, Gaza, the Sinai Desert, and the Golan Heights in a mere six days). The foundation of the PLO and the rise of Palestinian nationalism. Its violent suppression by Arab reaction in Black September in 1970 and its expulsion from Amman to Beirut. The 1982 invasion of Lebanon (resulting in the deaths of 20,000 civilians and in the expulsion of the PLO from Beirut). The breakout of the first Intifada in late 1987, which Edward Said described as: 'one of the most extraordinary anti-colonial and unarmed mass insurrections in the whole history of the modern period.' Its violent suppression by Israel and political containment (even abortion) by the PLO in a series of diplomatic initiatives which ended in the signing of the Oslo accords of 1993. And, finally, the breakout of the al-Aqsa Intifada (against both Israeli colonialism and Palestinian bureaucracy and capitulation), and the current phase of intensified Israeli brutality, Palestinian Suicide Bombing, despair, and resistance.
What I'd like to emphasize about this thumbnail sketch is the following: Israel was founded by a particular form of colonial territorial nationalism which has succeeded in gaining total control of Palestine, and transforming it from an Arab to a Jewish sovereign land in the process. Imperial alliance and force have been the two main strategic instruments employed by Israel. The international community has legitimized the state's conquest and methods in 1948 (by acknowledging and accepting its existence as part of the political community of states, even while calling for a return of the expelled refugees) but it has also, very importantly, rejected its expansionism and acquisition by force of further territory in 1967. So, as a result, there still exists a very broad international consensus (excluding the US) which continues to affirm the illegality of the Occupation and the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.
What is also very clear is that Palestinian nationalism has failed to either regain lands lost in 1967 or to realize the right for compensation and/or return. Most Palestinians remain refugees living in camps outside of Palestine. 3.5 million have been living under the longest military occupation in modern times. And, 1.2 million are Israeli citizens and experience systematic discrimination against them by the Israeli state. So there remain three central struggles that Palestinians have to wage in order to practice their right of self-determination: the struggle to end their dispossession and diasporic existence; the struggle to gain their freedom and independence from occupation; and the struggle to gain political and civil equality with Jewish citizens inside Israel. The most urgent and primary one today, I believe, is the struggle against the Occupation: nothing is more important for any sense of a Palestinian future than the defeat of the Israeli occupation and the liberation of the West Bank and Gaza. My point is not that this is a tactical choice between equally available options but that this is a strategic necessity. There cannot be any serious developments on the other two fronts without that initial gain: i.e. there cannot be any serious way of confronting the exclusivism and racism of Zionism without ending the Occupation first.
So I'd like to focus on the Occupation in my final remarks. It is safe to say that the situation in the West Bank and Gaza has never been worse than today, and there is no sense that improvement is on the horizon in the near future. Since 1991, the Israelis have followed a ruthless policy of closure and collective punishment. The right to freedom of movement is denied to the collective, and a regime of individual travel permits has been instituted which ensures that free travel is the exception not the rule. Only those approved by Israel to travel can do so. Palestinian society is as a result deeply stratified and fragmented, as Amira Hass has explained in a recent lecture at Barnard. The closure regime is currently being enforced by around 700 roadblocks and checkpoints, Jews-only bypass roads, fences, and walls. Spatial segregation is thus the norm. Gaza has also been permanently distanced from the West Bank (making travel been the two nearly impossible), and East Jerusalem is gradually being cut off from Ramallah. The expansion of Maa'leh Adumim (by building 3500 housing units in the area known as E-1) will certainly achieve that and permanently divide the West Bank into disconnected and discontinuous parts.
The policy of closure has also been accompanied by a policy of intensified settlements: in the Oslo years alone Israel more than doubled the number of both settlers and settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The Wall being built in the West Bank (85% within it) consolidates this expansion and the annexation of new lands and natural resources. It is therefore certain to have huge negative repercussions for around half a million Palestinians in 58 towns and villages -- where the future threat of 'transfer' could be a real possibility for many of them. For Israel, then, the so-called Peace Process has thus only brought more expansion of territory, more consolidation of the settlements, and increased control of Palestinian life. The inequality between Palestinians and Israelis is now greater than ever. The Israeli minority controls 88% of water resources; 50% of lands in the West Bank, 42% in Gaza (were 8,000 settles live in the midst of 1.4 million Palestinians in the most densely populated place on earth). Inequalities of health, education, welfare, living standards, social provisions have risen to horrific proportions: over 77% of Gazans, for example, live under the poverty line as a result of a policy of economic strangulation (as recorded by B'Tselem recently). Israel has also assassinated hundreds of activists, killed thousands of civilians, and injured tens of thousands more in the last couple of years alone; not to mention the thousands of house demolitions and the hundred of thousands of acres of fertile lands razed by the army. One has only to extend the period under review to comprehend the sheer perversity of Israeli cruelty and domination over Palestinian life: for example, between 1967 and 1998 approximately 600,000 Palestinians were held in Israeli jails for periods ranging from a week to life (Palestine Times. No. 83, May 1998). 177 of them died as a result of willful killing, torture or medical negligence (55 since the beginning of this Intifada). The itinerary of Israeli brutality and dehumanization is very long indeed.
What this brief sampling of facts about the Occupation means is clear. The conclusion is obvious: Israel doesn't want peace and Palestinian bourgeois nationalism has failed to force it to do so. It has, in fact, made the situation much worse by collaborating with Israel in suppressing its own people and enforcing the will of the Israeli occupiers. The Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza have as a result never been more humiliated and more despairing. And their future will, therefore, remain very bleak if the Oslo capitulationists continue to have their way politically. It is safe to conclude that they can only lead the Palestinians into national suicide, and all for a few breadcrumbs of privilege and power of their own. The 'state' they'll inherent after Sharon's unilateralist disengagement will have no control of borders, no contiguous territory, no control of air space or water, and no political or economic independence or sovereignty. Palestinians will become a redundant, poverty-stricken population languishing in open-air prisons subsidized by the UN, EU and Arab 'guilt' money. In short: A nation of disenfranchised beggars. Is this Fatah's vision of the Palestinian future? Is this Arafat's historical legacy to his nation: from the promise of liberation in the late 60s to the certainty of misery, want, and eternal dispossession in the new century?
The majority of Palestinians reject this abysmal future. Which is why all is not lost yet: there remain immense resources of resilience and steadfastness amongst the Palestinians, who continue to believe in the legitimacy and justice of their struggle for self-determination. It is up to them to overcome their especially submissive comprador elite and formulate a new popular nationalism which aims to satisfy their own social and political needs. That, if anything, remains the challenge of Palestine: to re-produce forms of mass mobilization and struggle which will ensure the freedom, democratic participation, and collective self-empowerment of the majority of Palestinians. Only then will the phrase 'Palestinian Future' have any meaning.
I will end by saying this: international solidarity is crucial for achieving this outcome, as is Arab popular support. The global anti-war movement can have a decisive role to play here: Ending US support for Israel and rolling back the US occupation in Iraq would be huge progressive developments for all the peoples of the Middle East. These will certainly help the Israeli public overcome its cruel indifference to Palestinian suffering. History teaches us that it is imperative that occupiers confront the moral and political cost of their occupation. Why should the Israelis be any different? So, international pressure is crucial in order to push the Israelis to mobilize against their own colonialist elite. Indeed, when that begins to happen, the road to justice would become very short indeed. And the future of a real democratic egalitarian Middle East would then be a mere stone throw away.
Bashir Abu-Manneh teaches English at Barnard College. He is the author of "Palestine Revealed: The Liberation Cinema of Michel Khleifi," in Dreams of a Nation: On Palestinian Cinema, edited by Hamid Dabashi (forthcoming). This article is the text of a talk given at the 2005 Left Forum in New York, April 16, 2005.