May 19, 2021
From Autonomies

Photograph: Mahmoud Illean/AP

Understanding demands words, even before the obscene.

We share an essay by Ghassan Salhab, originally published in french with lundi matin (#288, 17/05/2021)

The “Palestinian question” is not a topical issue, it is daily, constantly out of focus, off-camera. We would like so much to keep it there, and not hear about it again.

Anonymous, at a demonstration in Haifa, May 2021

However allegedly complicated the nature of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict may be, and more generally the Arab-Israel conflict, we urgently need to raise the same fundamental, elementary, questions over and over again.[1] The territories of the West Bank, of which East Jerusalem is a part, of the Golan Heights, of the Shebaa Farms, are they occupied, yes or no? The colonies and the settlements in the West Bank and the Golan Heights, are they illegal or not? Are the annexations of East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights illegal or not? Is the decision to proclaim Jerusalem as the capital of Israel illegal or not? The diversion of water, daily rationing, the endless closure of territories, collective punishments, the incessant expropriation of Palestinian lands, of their houses, for the famous reasons of security or in the name of supposed ancient texts, are are they totally illegal or not? Are the “targeted assassinations”, the imprisonment of thousands of Palestinians, the kidnappings of several of their leaders, are they or are they not completely illegal? This is not to mention the endless and ruthless blockade of the Gaza Strip. The number of United Nations resolutions that various Israeli governments have ignored is impressive, to say the least, a record in the history of this organisation. Equally impressive is the number of times the United States has used its veto power in the Security Council when it comes to a resolution that puts Israel at a disadvantage, however small. Let us recall that these territories have been occupied since June 1967, and that the tragedy of the Palestinians goes back even further, to the catastrophe of 1948, which saw the expulsion and displacement of a very large part of its population, as well as the destruction of hundreds of towns and villages, thus preventing any possible return – facts that some continue to brazenly deny, in spite of the considerable evidence brought forth, among others, by more than one Israeli historian. The truth is, the whole world knows full well who is occupying and who is occupied.

The eviction of Palestinian families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem are not the result of a property dispute, but of a clear strategy to evict the city of what remains of Palestinian-owned homes. And, of course, to place families of Israeli settlers there as quickly as possible. Whether they are from the far right or from the ordinary right does not change a reality that seeks to be irreversible and irrevocable, and thus the more than duplicitous appeal to the laws of property restitution by Israeli justice, laws that apply only to “despoiled Jews”. Clarification: During the year 2020, 140 Palestinian families lost their homes in East Jerusalem. This is State doctrine. These latest expulsions come on top of Israel’s refusal to allow Palestinians in East Jerusalem to vote in the elections that the nebulous Fatah-Hamas duo is trying to organise, whose despotic, incompetent and corrupt leaders are increasingly disparaged by the demonstrators. From one city to another, and this time more particularly in Israel, from Haifa, to Jerusalem, passing through Jaffa, Nazareth, Lod, Acre, and many other towns and villages, the anger has spread, breaking the wall of silence. These protests seem to resemble so many other protests all over the world, on the one hand the demonstrators, on the other hand the repressive forces, but on closer inspection, one can see Israel Defence Forces (IDF) soldiers breaking into apartments, forcibly taking citizens, and armed colonists patrolling at night.

These scheduled evictions of 300 residents from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in Jerusalem are the drop that overflowed the glass, already filled to the brim. Since coming to power in 2009, Benjamin Netanyahu and his various coalitions have continued to expand colonisation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, accelerating it at an infernal pace in recent years. And since Jerusalem was declared the capital of Israel, the world, including Arab leaders, have closed their eyes ever more tightly, while the Palestinian population has found itself more than ever left on its own. The detonator does not date from this eviction notice or the repeated ban on access to Al-Aqsa Mosque. The revolt was brewing.

However far back we might go, everything indicated, for those who wanted to see, that we would still be at this point, that it could only get worse. At the very beginning of the nineteenth century, the Zionists – as complex as this movement is – I mean, the Zionists, for those who will inevitably mislead, or will want to mislead, did not come to Palestine, as it was called, to find or discover a country (i.e., a geographical and human entity), its inhabitants, to encounter their fellows if you prefer, in the desire to finally find for the persecuted Jews a land of welcome, a haven of peace, to share it. No, they landed with the firm intention of re-appropriating, in the name of the said promised land, the right of return of the “people of Israel”, and this more than two thousand years after the fact, as if humanity were immutable, as if, of course, they were indeed the direct and pure descendants of the famous twelve tribes, as if we had to take at face value these fabulous stories of patriarchs, prophets, messiahs and other divine elections, and suddenly sweep away the many other tribes in the region, their legends and their History, not to mention the many conversions to Judaism. They, the Zionists, came (first) from Eastern and Western Europe with the intention of creating, establishing a Jewish state, a state that would bring together the Jews scattered around the world. The renaissance of Hebrew, to which they contributed greatly, could only further add to the establishment of this nation-state, giving it linguistic unity and above all, they thought, an indisputable symbolic cohesion. This would put an end to the “shattered” Jewish world! That was their ambition, and at the expense of whomever. So they had to seize by all possible means the maximum amount of land, a land preferably expunged, cleansed, emptied of its natives – let us remember the sinister slogan “a people without land for a land without people”. Here then is an entity (then far from being the majority among the different Jewish communities, let us remember) which gradually appropriates a territory, ignoring as much as it can the greater part of its population (as far as I know, apart from a few isolated cases, the Zionists never really tried to speak with the natives, preferring to negotiate with their “masters”, the Ottomans, then the English); an entity which acts as if the other does not exist, but which proclaims (and will not cease to proclaim) loud and clear that the other does not want it, that it wants to chase it out, to throw it into the sea; the other who does not exist, who can only exist as a culprit, as an executioner. Yes, everything is there, in this wonderful work of reversing history. The aggressor will play the role of the aggressee, the victim, and it will never fail in this role. Not only does the aggressor rob the victim of the land where s/he was born and raised, it denies her/him any past, any specificity by assimilating her/him to a whole, “the Arabs”; the aggressor also deprives her/him of her/his own status as a victim, gives her/him the convenient attire of terrorist in the event of a rebellion, just to cut her/him even more from the community of women and men, like the many torturers who marked the long and tragic History of the Jews – a tragic History from which Zionism certainly sprang, but which it has now practically put into its service. As we know well, for centuries, and certainly still today in some parts of the world, the Jew was the ideal victim, the scapegoat. We must believe however that being the victim of barbarism, abjection, obscurantism, hypocrisy and other human abominations, does not absolve us, does not enlighten us in any way. We must believe that whatever her/his history, and whatever the exceptions, a human being remains a human being, that is to say capable of the worst. And the worst invites the worst, it has always done so.

Yes, but the State of Israel now exists, it is a reality, it will be retorted. Of course, Israel exists, but which Israel? What are its limits ? What are its borders, or at least, what borders does it set for itself? Those of the partition of 1947 (which granted 56.5% of the territory to the Jewish state, when the Jewish community, in spite of the forced immigration of the previous twenty years, represented only a third of the total population, and when it owned just 10% of the land; a division of territory therefore that the Zionists, with much more skill than the Arabs, were able to strategically accept, and that the victorious “Allies” of World War II imposed for the reasons we know)? Or those before the Arab rout of June 1967? Or those since? In his diary, Ben-Gurion, for May 18, 1948, wrote: “Take the example of the declaration of independence of the United States. It does not mention land borders. We, too, are not obliged to demarcate our own.”

What then of these natives today called the Palestinians? What about this population that persists in not dissolving itself and disappearing into the limbo of history, like so many peoples and other living species before it? What about it in these times, when all kinds of lamentable rhetoric is used and abused, where cause and effect continue to be confused, along with occupier and occupied; when we forget the meaning and the very essence of a word such as Colony, when one demands from the other what one precisely refuses: recognition of her/his existence? The Zionists knew very well that this land was by no means “arid, desolate and empty”, they knew very well that they were setting foot in a region which never ceased to bend and expire under the long yoke of the Ottomans, to be succeed by that of the British (who with the French, knew perfectly well how to maneuver the Arab leaders to get rid of the Sublime Porte). I guess they must have thought that being dominated had become a kind of second nature to these people, so they would obediently let themselves be “displaced”. It must be said that the context of the time was very suitable. There was nothing incongruous in the fact that populations were subordinated to others, that they were despoiled, displaced, quite the contrary. In any principle of conquest, the other counts for so little, s/he is no more than a greater or lesser cumbersome obstacle, because that is what conquest is all about. The Zionists came to this land with a mentality of European conquerors, of Westerners – just read everything that the many Zionist leaders have always said and written since the beginning of time, from Theodore Herzl to Benjamin Netanyahu to Vladimir Jabotinsky, David Ben Gourian, Yitzhlak Rabin and Ariel Sharon. This West which more than once humiliated them, persecuted them, which almost became their last home, this West which for a long time subjugated vast regions of the world, which effectively conquered three continents (the two Americas and Oceania), and who are nevertheless practically the Zionists only allies – but this is not really paradoxical, for Zionism, let us repeat, was born and forged in the West, the cradle of the modern nation-state. And there is no point here in underlining the hopeless despotism that characterises most (if not all) Arab regimes, to recall the degeneration and usurpation of more than one intifada by the Palestinian leadership. This is not the issue, for this in no way clears the Zionists of their immeasurable responsibility in this tragic conflict. Nothing can mask this original sin of Zionism: a twofold sin, first, of course, towards the Palestinians, but also, towards the Jews and Judaism itself.

It is now up to the Israelis to mourn definitively for the “Greater Israel”, as most Palestinians have had to mourn for “historic Palestine”. It’s up to the occupant to take the decisive step. Yes, it is for Israel to leave all the occupied territories, to leave them without the slightest exception and without the slightest conditions (how can we fail to see that Gaza, admittedly “evacuated”, is more than ever a huge open-air prison, since the sea, the sky, like the earth – with the exception of a miserable border point with Egypt – are controlled and locked by the IDF), and then, and only then, can Palestinians and Israelis eventually take on a human face, each for the other, and think about how to live with the other. I dare not here speak of a binational country, yet it is fundamentally inevitable.

  1. Translators note: If Ghassan Salhab here employs the word “conflict”, it is by no means to suggest that between the Israeli State and the Palestinians there is anything resembling a military confrontation between relative equals. The whole tenure of his essay places “conflict” strictly within the logic of conquest.

Palestinian have been suffocating under 73 years of a settler colonial regime that treats us as a security threat and a demographic problem, tries to erase our identity, our collective rights and our very existence in our homeland.

This is not a “conflict,” these are not “clashes” or “tensions,” nor a “war” between “two sides” with diverging interests, religions or races. Words matter. Such terminology and narratives erase the extreme asymmetry of power, the domination and the privileges, meanwhile creating a false equivalence that contributes to the denial of reality. Palestinians wherever they live, in Jaffa, in Gaza, in the West Bank or in Jerusalem, are born with inferior rights to Israelis and have been deliberately fragmented and subjugated to a sophisticated bureaucratic regime maintaining them unfree: it is called apartheid.

They will tell you that Hamas is the problem, but the ethnic cleansing of 1948 and 1967, the military occupation and its regime of arbitrary arrests and rights denial were there long before Hamas even existed.

Inès Abdel Razek, This is not a conflict. This is apartheid (Roarmag, 19/05/2021)

The quantity of literature on Zionism, the creation of Israel, the occupation and colonisation of Palestine, is vast and by no means mastered by any of us at Autonomies. Perhaps then we can make at least a reference to two short pieces by Edward Said: Israel-Palestine: A third way and The One-Nation Solution.