Since its inception as a settler colonial movement in the late 19th century, Zionism has relentlessly pursued a campaign to erase the Palestinian presence in Palestine. It has done so by manipulating the resistance generated by that campaign among Palestinians to its own ends, by instrumentalizing Palestinian resistance so as to de-politicize it and make it appear nothing but criminalized terror.
A key element of settler colonialism, in the famous phrase of the Australian anthropologist Patrick Wolfe, is the elimination of the indigenous people in the lands coveted by the settlers. Although this suggests their physical elimination – which usually happens at least partially – it can take different forms: cultural as well as physical genocide, displacement, marginalization, ghettoization or, when they have ceased being a demographic or political threat, assimilation. They might even be offered some form of symbolic self-determination. Whatever works. I use the term “erasure.” More nuanced, it covers all strategies of removing the indigenous presence, political, legal, physical and cultural. At the same time, settlers, who are constantly attempting to market their colonial narrative as the “civilized” one, even among their own people, instrumentalize the resistance of the indigenous people, ensuring that it is kept within tolerable limits.
This strategy is clear to Israelis. The image of the plucky kibbutznik against the faceless gangs of Arab terrorists stands out in Zionist hasbara (“explanation,” a Hebrew euphemism for propaganda) from the highly influential novel Exodus through the David and Golaith motif of the Six Day War down to demonstrating the higher moral caliber of the Israeli soldiers risking their own lives in Gaza so not to harm innocent civilians, in stark contrast to the “murderous Arabs.”
That dual aim of erasure and instrumentalization of the Palestinians lies at the heart of the events of the past several weeks, from the Sheikh Jarrah evictions through the attack on the worshippers in the Al Aqsa Mosque and on to the attacks by Hamas on Israel and Israel’s bombing of Gaza, the inter-communal fighting within Israel and, perhaps, uprisings in the West Bank.
From the Nakba to the 1967 War
The process of erasure has continued unabated since Zionism first claimed the Jews’ exclusive entitlement to the Land 125 years ago. Even before any actual contact, before Zionist adherents in Minsk or Plonsk ever realized that Arabs lived in the land that was awaiting them and that they thought to be “without a people,” Palestine was cast as a country that “belonged” to the Jews. The very purpose of Zionism — and this is still true of Israel today — was to transform an Arab country into a Jewish one, Palestine into the Land of Israel. If anything, the Palestinians were merely irrelevant. From those early days until this moment, both the Zionist movement as well as the Israeli state have refused to recognize the very existence, let alone the national rights, of a Palestinian people.
The Zionist movement soon got crucial support from Britain, the world’s leading colonial power of the day. The Mandate over Palestine given to the British by the League of Nations carefully incorporated whole sections of the Balfour Declaration, itself dictated to the British government by Zionist leaders, which committed the British to establishing a Jewish national home in Arab Palestine. If it addressed the Jews as a national group, a people with rights of self-determination, the Mandate denied that to the Palestinian majority (which represented about 90 percent of the population in the early 1920s), who were referred to only as non-Jewish communities in Palestine. To be sure, their civil and religious rights were to be protected, but under the Mandate Palestinians enjoyed no national rights as a people. The ultimate acts of erasure came in 1947-48. The national wishes of the Palestinian people for independence were ignored when the United Nations recognized 56 percent of Palestine as a “Jewish” state, handing it over to the third of the population that was by then Jewish, despite clear signs that massive ethnic cleansing of Palestinians would result. And, in fact, by the end of 1948 war (the Nakba or Catastrophe), 85 percent of the Palestinian population, about 750,000 people, of what became Israel had been driven out.
After 1948, the campaign of erasure started taking other forms: the erasure of Palestine’s Arab character, the Judaization of the landscape; putting into place the colonial structures of Jewish domination and control. A permanent State of Emergency was declared — it is still in effect today in the Occupied Palestinian Territory — placing the Palestinian population beyond the bounds of Israel’s legal system and under martial law. The Military Government under which Palestinian citizens of Israel lived until 1966 allowed the state to expropriate their lands and ghettoize them.
The Israeli parliament passed a series of laws, supplemented by dozens of military orders, to de-Arabize – or as they put it, to Judaize – the country. The Absentee’ Property Law of 1950, for example, alienated refugees’ land from their owners and allowed Israel to systematically demolish, without compensation, some 530 entire Palestinian villages, towns and urban areas — about 52,000 homes were destroyed — transferring title to the lands to Jewish settlers and Judaizing the landscape. To complete the erasure of a Palestinian presence, the Arabic names of towns, rivers and geographical areas were replaced with Hebrew ones. By the early 1950s, 94 percent of the land that had been in Palestinian hands, including two million cultivated acres, was now classified as Israeli “State Land.”
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