Nakba One, Two, Three?

Against the Current, No. 128, May/June 2007

The Editors

IN SHEER MAGNITUDE, the Palestine partition of 1947 wasn’t even that year’s most disastrous division of a former British colonial possession. The partition of the Indian subcontinent — between India and the new Muslim state Pakistan — produced roughly as many deaths, in horrific communal violence between Muslims and Hindus, as the numbers of Palestinian Arabs expelled from their homeland and robbed of their lands in the 1947-49 Catastrophe — al-Nakba — accompanying the establishment of the state of Israel.

Both tragedies were products, among other things, of the decaying empire of a one-time superpower. (Is it ironic enough that around the same number of Iraqi deaths, something over 650,000, are now estimated to have resulted from the U.S. invasion and occupation?)  But as we mark multiple anniversaries — 60 years since the Palestine and Indian partitions, and 40 since the 1967 war that marked the beginning of the world’s longest-lasting modern military occupation — it’s worth contrasting the subsequent events.

The partition of India produced two independent states.  India and Pakistan today — despite three wars, despite the unsolved Kashmir crisis, despite severe intercommunal violence in both countries, despite the fact that Pakistan teeters on the edge of political chaos, and despite the fact that both are nuclear-armed — now conduct essentially “normal” state relations, with a level of coexistence such that neither is seen as an “existential threat” to the other.

In contrast, the Arab Palestinian nation was cheated of the state that was promised to it under the 1947 resolution, however sad that solution would have been by comparison to the potential of a united democratic binational country. On the terrible twin anniversaries of partition, and then occupation, Israel and Palestine today — despite the fact that Israel is a stable albeit troubled democratic state, for its Jewish citizens anyway — have never had worse relations.

Three generations after the expulsion from their homeland, among roughly six million Palestinians living in exile — not including over a million living as second class Israeli citzens — many remain refugees or in officially “stateless” status with few rights or security.

In the post-1967 Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPTs), the entire fabric of society is close to destruction. Medical services are in collapse; the population has been robbed of economic self-sufficiency and more heavily dependent on international humanitarian aid than at any previous time; the life of villages and farmers is choked off as Israel’s apartheid-annexation Wall cuts them off from their livelihoods and access to basic services.

Today’s reality has nothing to do with Condoleezza Rice’s babbling rhetoric of “two states living together in peace.” The hope for a “two state solution” — the Palestinian national movement’s demand over more than thirty years (as well as the global consensus outside Israel and the United States) for an independent state alongside Israel, on 22% of the Palestinian people’s homeland — is fading as fast as the Wall rises.

Whether that hope may be salvaged, under the aegis of the Arab League’s proposal for full recognition and peace with Israel in exchange for full Israeli withdrawal from the 1967 OPTs, is debated among expert analysts. In any case, so long as an independent Palestinian state remains the demand of the population under occupation, socialists and principled democrats must support this struggle for self-determination, whatever its constraints and limitations.

Our main point here, however, is not to detail the brutalities and endless humiliations of the Israeli occupation. These are now widely and well documented, and some of them are discussed in our coverage in this issue. Instead the twin anniversaries of 1947 and June 1967 are an occasion for offering some broader historical perspective.

Tragic Missed Chances

The long and tragic confrontation between Palestine and the Zionist movement is not a religious war, and never has been. Nor is it a conflict between ancient peoples or some “clash of civilizations.”

This highly specific social and political conflict began in the late 19th and early 20th century, with the intrusion of a colonial settler movement into a largely peasant society already coming under pressure from the world market. It became ultimately a confrontation of two modern nations — one of the indigenous Arab people who became an identifiably Palestinian nation in the course of the colonial carveups and crises of the twentieth century; the other of Hebrew-speaking Jews, partly from the Zionist settlement project but above all from hundreds of thousands of desperate survivors of Nazi genocide (in many cases herded to Palestine against their own wishes).

Two facts above all, then, must underlie any morally and politically viable analysis. The first is that there are two peoples, two nations, living in historic Palestine, who must ultimately share a common future if they are to have any future at all. The second is that one of them, Israel, today has its boot on the neck of the other. The relationship in short is fatally asymmetrical — by which we mean that no solution, no real coexistence or mutual recognition, no end of “terrorism,” no matter how desirable all these things are, can occur except through the struggle to get the oppressor nation’s boot off the oppressed nation’s neck.

There’s a longstanding Zionist mythology that peace has been blocked by the Arab world’s intransigent refusal to accept Israel’s existence. It is almost completely false.

Years before the 1967 war, in fact, Egypt’s ruler Gamal Abdel Nasser secretly approached Israel for peace; Israel’s leader David Ben Gurion had no interest at the time, since in his view Israel hadn’t yet achieved its “natural” (or Biblical) borders. His tactical acceptance of the 1947 partition and 1948 armistice lines never meant that these would mark a final renunciation of Zionism’s claim to the whole land.

In 1967, Israel deliberately provoked a war, the Arab rulers fatally fell for it, several Arab armies were destroyed, and Israel seized Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem — the part of formerly British-controlled (Mandate) Palestine left under Arab control after 1948. It also took the Egyptian Sinai and Syrian Golan Heights. But 1967 was not only a territorial expansion for Israel and a second Nakba for the Palestinian people, in which thousands more were expelled or fled. It produced a tectonic shift and two developments in particular which would bring the Palestine-Zionist conflict to the center of world politics.

Immediately after 1967, the broad international and Israeli consensus (outside the extremist “Greater Israel” movement) anticipated a withdrawal from the Occupied Territories in exchange for an Arab-Israeli peace deal. Instead, under the pretext of security, the secular (ostensibly quasi-leftist) Israeli government authorized the first military and religious settlements in the West Bank. It had also immediately annexed East Jerusalem.

These decisions enabled the settler movement that has become the entrenched base for Israeli nationalist-religious fanaticism, poisoned Israeli-Palestinian relations, blocked the possibility for withdrawal and set in motion Israel’s slow-motion course toward national suicide. But this was only one of the poisoned fruits of 1967.

The second and even more fatal consequence, in a way, confirmed Hannah Arendt’s nightmare vision of 1945 (see the excerpt from her essay “Zionism Reconsidered” elsewhere in this issue), although not quite as she imagined. Having destroyed substantial Third World (Arab) armies, Israel would now become the prized strategic ally of the United States. Hence the “special relationship:” the explosion of U.S. military aid to Israel between 1967 and 1973 and its further growth thereafter; the new importance of Israel as an arms supplier for dirty regimes like Guatemala; Israel’s stature as the “unsinkable aircraft carrier” for U.S. domination of the Middle East.

Out of this transformed relationship, in turn, would grow the poisonous tentacles of the “Israel Lobby” and of Christian Zionism in the United States — phenomena that admittedly existed before 1967, when Israel was immensely less powerful, but on nothing resembling the scale they achieved once Israel’s military prowess established its value as imperial strategic asset. In 1956, President Eisenhower had effectively ordered Israel’s army out of the Suez Canal after the British-French-Israeli conquest; after 1967, no more.

Fatal Choices

More missed opportunities followed, which can only briefly and partially noted here but follow a common pattern. In the early 1970s, Egyptian president Anwar Sadat sought U.S. sponsorship for peace and Israeli withdrawal from Sinai; his snubbing by the Nixon- Kissinger administration led to the 1973 war. By the end of the decade, Sadat visited Jerusalem and ultimately signed a peace treaty with Israel; but Israeli prime minister Begin, having promised Jimmy Carter that “autonomy” for the OPTs would lead toward Palestinian self-determination, instead expanded the settlements and exploited the absence of an Egyptian front to invade Lebanon in 1982.

The combined impact of Israel’s impasse in Lebanon, the First Palestinian Intifada (the uprising beginning in December 1987), and the political shock waves of the First Gulf War (1990-91) led to the first official direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and the hopes inspired by the Oslo Accords and the Rabin-Arafat agreement with Bill Clinton at Camp David.

Once again, fully backed by unconditional American support for “the Jewish State” — which now means support for an Israeli state governed by institutions of unquestioned Jewish supremacy, and for its guaranteed military superiority over all other Middle Eastern countries combined — successive Israeli governments systematically and deliberately sabotaged every chance for peace. Under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, settlements continued to grow (as he liked to boast) and the most basic concessions, the release of Palestinian prisoners, was summarily denied.

When the Brooklyn-born fanatic settler Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 Palestinians at prayer in a Hebron mosque in 1994, Israel’s Prime Minister and Nobel Peace laureate could have shut down the settlement in the heart of Hebron — instead, he locked down the Palestinian population in the city, which remains effectively imprisoned to this day.

After Rabin was assassinated by another settler, and after the Islamist movement Hamas had suspended all military operations due to overwhelming popular Palestinian support for the “peace process,” Rabin’s successor Shimon Peres authorized the assassination of its leading Gaza militant — setting off an explosion of violence that led Peres’s government to defeat. A few years later, yet another Labor Party prime minister, Ehud Barak, provided Ariel Sharon with a massive military escort to the Temple Mount, touching off the Second Intifada. The last seven years of escalating brutality — the thousands of civilian deaths, Israeli soldiers using Arab kids for target practice, the Jenin massacre, the virtual destruction of Gaza, Palestine’s descent toward civil war — continues the story. Call it Nakba Three; and at every phase we continue to be told that it’s all the Palestinian people’s own fault for “refusing to recognize Israel.”

Today’s Impasse

Exactly what this is supposed to mean has been richly illustrated since the free and transparent Palestinian democratic election of January 2006. The United States, European Union and Israel immediately quarantined the newly elected Palestinian Authority government, demanding that it “recognize Israel, renounce violence, respect previous agreements,” blah blah blah – while simultaneously making it impossible for this or any Palestinian government to do any of it.

Indeed, the strategy of the United States ever since the failed Israeli war in Lebanon last summer has been to provoke an internal Palestinian civil war: to induce president Mahmoud Abbas to dissolve the Hamas-led Palestinian parliament and call early elections, an act which would have produced uncontrollable internal violence. The strategy was not to support Abbas against Hamas, but rather to destroy both of them — to crush Hamas and then turn Abbas into a Bantustan-type puppet.

The Hamas-Fateh agreement reached between prime minister Ismail Haniya and president Abbas in Saudi Arabia, leading to the long-delayed national unity government (discussed  in  our interview  with  Hisham Ahmed in this issue), thwarted this plan, for now at least. The underlying destruction of Palestinian society, in the absence of self-determination and denial of the principled right of return — remains as brutally unresolved as ever.

Meanwhile, even with Israel’s economic recovery, Israel’s own slide into social crisis and political demoralization continues. And if there is any “existential threat” to Israel today, it lies in the U.S. administration’s cynical pretext of “protecting Israel” as an excuse for launching a war with Iran.

Among many conclusions to be drawn from 60 years of disastrous history, two stand out today with special force. First, the long-denied achievement of self-determination of the Palestinian people is the essential condition for progress on any level. In that context –- an authentic peace agreement, and above all as a choice made freely and with the nation’s dignity intact — Palestinian recognition of Israel and renunciation of violence would be altogether positive.

But such “recognition” has no progressive meaning at all if imposed on imperialist terms, as an act of Palestinian defeat and ultimate humiliation. Not only wouldn’t it bring peace, but it couldn’t be considered morally or politically binding on a future movement. The delusion of “peace” imposed by overwhelming firepower is no peace at all.

The second point is particularly important for those of us living in the dominant political and intellectual culture of North America, where the population is thoroughly indoctrinated, via both religious and secular media, in the special and unique quality of the state of Israel.

Israel’s right to exist is never posed like that of any other independent nation-state — on the straightforward basis that its citizens want it to exist. Rather, the demand imposed on the Palestinian people is unique, to “recognize Israel as a Jewish state,” which has come to mean the unique historical privilege of their oppressors to establish unconditionally and forever a “state of the Jewish people,” a Jewish-supremacist state, on the land taken away from them and in which non-Jews would never have full equal rights.

This special demand not only forecloses the Palestinian right of return; it strongly implies indulgence in advance for future “population transfers” as necessary to insure the precious “Jewish and democratic character of the state,” a perspective that is by no means an abstraction in Israeli political discourse, and by no means only on the extreme right.

This is not political recognition of a state, but rather a demand to surrender to racism. The former is legitimate and ultimately necessary, while the latter is unacceptable and repulsive. For socialists above all, and for partisans of the rights of the Palestinian people, it is essential to “recognize” and insist upon the difference.

ATC 128, May-June 2007