Palestine, Once Again the Issue

The Citizen: Issue 3
Autumn 2010

Author: Conor McCarthy

In 1977 and again in 2002, John Pilger made documentary films, both of them entitled Palestine is Still the Issue. The premise of this essay, also, is that ‘Palestine is still the issue’ and that what Edward Said called ‘the question of Palestine’ remains a touchstone for our understanding of the global system of international relations. By ‘the question of Palestine,’ Said meant the unresolved situation created in historical Palestine with the birth of the State of Israel in 1948 and the attendant problem of the displaced Palestinian refugees. Any serious discussion of the question of Palestine today has to take the full measure of its historical dimension. This is no mere pedantry (though one notes with incredulity the occasional call by Israelis or Israel’s supporters on Palestinians to ‘move on’ from their history) because the continuities between today’s situation and that in Palestine in the earlier twentieth century are striking and important, right down to the level of policy detail.

In juridical terms, Israel came into being between the UN Partition Plan of November 1947 and the ‘declaration of independence’ of 14 May 1948. The Partition Plan was the proposed solution to the problem of competing national movements that had developed over the previous sixty years, since the beginning of Jewish aliyah, or immigration to Palestine. Zionism is best understood as an ethnic nationalism, similar to those of the late nineteenth-century Eastern Europe from which Zionism drew so many of its leaders and thinkers. However, Zionism differs crucially from European ethnic nationalism in its required affiliation with great-power imperialism to realise its ambition of a Jewish national home. Zionist thinkers and leaders, from the Rothschilds to Ben-Gurion, were clear that the only way that Jews could decisively take control of Palestine was by cultivating a relationship with the European colonial empires, specifically Britain and France, and affiliating in their war against the Ottoman Turks. Thus, Zionism was a colonial movement from very early in its history, and it remains a colonial movement today – the last, and one of the most successful colonial projects, still underway.

Zionist land purchases caused disquiet amongst the Palestinians as early as the Ottoman period, and more general Zionist activity helped to stimulate the development of an answering Palestinian national consciousness. When Britain was awarded the League of Nations Mandate of Palestine, however, its structural bias towards the Zionist movement, already illustrated by the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 and the Balfour Declaration of 1917, was obvious, and when the Palestinians eventually rebelled violently in 1936, the revolt was put down ruthlessly by the British with the assistance of Zionist militias. The Arab Revolt helped to crystallise Palestinian Arab nationalism, but it also led to the systematic disarming of the Palestinian population and the loss of crucial leadership cadres whose absence would be felt painfully and disastrously between 1947 and 1949.

Alarm at the revolt caused Britain to alter its policy vis-á-vis the Jewish national home and produce the White Paper of 1939, which placed limits on Jewish immigration to Palestine, making future immigration contingent on Palestinian consent, and which proposed government by Arabs and Jews together in a proportionate arrangement. The Peel Commission of 1937, however, had already recommended partition, and the growing crisis of European Jewry under the spreading influence of the German Nazi regime doomed the ideas of the White Paper. After the end of the war, with illegal Jewish immigration to Palestine increasing and under great pressure from the United States, as well as armed insurrection by Jewish militias such as the Haganah and the Irgun Zvai Leumi, Britain eventually gave up its control of the Mandate territory to the newly formed United Nations in February 1947.

The UN sent its own commission to Palestine, the UN Special Commission on Palestine (UNSCOP). Its main report recommended partition; a minority report recommended a federative solution. On 29 November 1947, the General Assembly voted through Resolution 181, calling for the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Palestinian states, with Jerusalem internationalised under UN administration. The resolution was supported by both the United States and the Soviet Union, while Britain abstained – it was passed by thirty-three votes to thirteen. The Partition Plan was accepted tactically by the main Zionist movement and its leader David Ben-Gurion (who did not accept the borders assigned to the Jewish state under the terms of the plan); it was rejected by the Arab Higher Committee, the main representative organisation of Palestinian nationalism. The reasons for this division were plain to see. The plan assigned 14,000 square kilometres of the land of historical Palestine to the new Jewish state and 11,500 square kilometres to the Palestinian state. However, the Jewish state was to have a population balance of 558,000 Jews to 405,000 Palestinians, whereas the Palestinian state was to have 804,000 Palestinians to 10,000 Jews. In other words, the Palestinians were allotted approximately 45 per cent of the territory, with 66 per cent of the population; whereas the Jews were allotted 55 per cent of the territory, with 34 per cent of the population.

Armed conflict broke out soon after the adoption of Resolution 181. The fighting quickly revealed the political-institutional differences between the Palestinian and Jewish communities. The Yishuv was very well prepared for statehood, with armed militias (the Haganah and the Irgun) and a variety of proto-state institutions, mostly stemming from the Jewish Agency.1 The Jewish armed groups were, contrary to received opinion, numerous, well-armed, well-equipped, and experienced (many Jewish soldiers had served with the British forces during World War II). The Palestinians were much less organised and not as well-equipped, and they had recently experienced a major defeat and the loss of their leadership in the aftermath of the revolt. When the Haganah decided to adopt Plan D in March 1948 and go on the offensive, forcibly opening corridors linking the various areas assigned to the Yishuv under the partition terms to create a fully contiguous Jewish territory, Palestinian armed resistance melted and Palestinian society underwent a catastrophic collapse. In a process that combined the voluntary departure of Palestinian leaders with the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian peasants, at least 250,000 Palestinians had fled their homeland before war broke out between Israel and the Arab states on 15 May; by the end of the war, fully three-quarters of a million Palestinians had become refugees. The entry of the Arab armies into Palestine the day after Israel proclaimed its ‘independence’ still left the Haganah in the ascendant – Jewish forces always outnumbered their Arab regular opponents (by the end of the 1947-49 war by a ratio of 2 to 1), and a crucial shipment of Czechoslovakian arms that arrived during the first truce provided the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) with superior equipment also. The result at the end of the war was Jewish Israeli conquest of seventy-eight per cent of historical Palestine, the occupation of the Gaza Strip by Egypt, and the occupation of the West Bank by Transjordan – the latter promoted by secret negotiations between Golda Meir and King Abdullah before the war began.2 No Palestinian state emerged from the war, and none has yet existed.

In his treatise Der Judenstaat (1896), its founding ideologist Theodor Herzl predicated Zionism on a number of crucial tenets: (1) the existence of a Jewish people; (2) the failure, and hence impossibility, of Jewish assimilation in Gentile society in Europe after the French Revolution; (3) the right of this Jewish people to the Promised Land; and (4) the non-existence in the Promised Land of another people who also had rights. It arose as an answer to anti-Semitic persecution of Jews in late nineteenth-century Europe, most pronounced in Eastern Europe and Russia, but also exemplified by the Dreyfus affair in France. Zionism’s success, however, lay in its ability to not only mobilise Jewish opinion but also to address the tendencies and susceptibilities of the great powers of the day. It is worth remembering that Zionism took shape both in the context of the rise of ethnic nationalism in Eastern Europe and in the time of high imperialism, the ‘scramble for Africa’ (announced by the Berlin Conference of 1884-5, at which the European powers agreed the colonial division of Africa), and increasing interimperial rivalry. The legitimacy of inserting European power and personnel into territories overseas was a given at this time. In its projection of a Jewish state in Palestine, Zionism was useful to Britain as a way of entrenching its influence in the Middle East and protecting the Suez Canal (and, ultimately, the routes to India). Elsewhere, Tsarist Russia wished to quash growing revolutionary movements, many of whose leaders were Jewish; Germany’s leaders dreamed of getting rid of a large and influential Jewish community; and even the Ottoman Turks were attracted by the revenues brought in by Zionist land purchases. To each of these interlocutors, Herzl could show how the Zionist project would serve its interests. This was especially the case with Britain: Herzl wrote in his Journal in 1900 that ‘free and powerful England, whose gaze encompasses the seven seas, will understand us and our aspirations. It is from there, we may be sure, that the Zionist movement will soar towards new and higher summits.’ Subsequent Zionist leaders acted on the same principle, especially with Britain, which remained Zionism’s chief ally until 1939, with the protection of the Suez Canal as its main motivation. ‘England,’ Chaim Weizmann exulted, ‘will have a secure barrier, and we will have a country.’

Zionist leaders were not unaware of the presence of the Arab population of Palestine, in spite of Israel Zangwill’s notorious description of the territory as ‘a land without people for a people without land,’ though they tended to be ignorant of the specifics of Palestinian society and economy. Palestine in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century was not empty or a desert ready to be made ‘bloom’ by Jewish settlement. But the local population was seen, both by Zionism and contemporary European travellers in the region, as nugatory, as lacking any claim to political sovereignty over the land, and as a mere outpost of the much larger Arab nation. Many important Zionists recognised the problematic nature of the claim to a Jewish Palestine, but, ultimately, their concern was more with the Jewish question in Europe and with forging a close link with the great powers. Herzl himself saw the Palestinians as backward and primitive but believed that economic development steered by Jewish enterprise would reconcile the Palestinian population to the emergence of a Jewish state.

The predominant images we associate with Zionism – the settler-pioneer, the kibbutznik, the armed labourer – are actually those of liberal or ‘labour Zionism,’ and, until the rise to power of Revisionist Zionist parties such as Herut and Likud in the 1970s, labour Zionism dominated the Israeli mainstream. The founder of Revisionism was Ze’ev Jabotinsky, one of early Zionism’s most formidable intellectuals and also one of its most clear-eyed leaders. Where mainstream and labour Zionism tended to avoid serious thought about the potential Arab reaction to Zionist goals in Palestine, Jabotinsky confronted this issue head-on and without pious sentiment: ‘We Jews have nothing in common with what is denoted “the East”, and we thank God for that.’ Jabotinsky subscribed to what we, after Said, would now call typically ‘Orientalist’ views – for him, the East was characterised by passivity, stasis, despotism, and a position outside of history. Underpinning all of his positions were the assumptions of the territorial integrity of Eretz Israel in the entirety of the British mandate of Palestine on both banks of the River Jordan and of an immediate Zionist claim to political sovereignty over the whole territory. In a crucial essay published in 1923, ‘On the Iron Wall (We and the Arabs),’ Jabotinsky gave Zionism a model that has been important to Israel’s self-concept ever since, whether under liberal or rightwing leadership. He recognised from the start that ‘a voluntary agreement between us and the Arabs of Palestine is inconceivable now or in the foreseeable future.’ The belief of moderate Zionists that native Palestinians could be persuaded to allow their territory become a state with a Jewish majority or could be bought off was mere wishful thinking. Palestinians regarded the territory as their national homeland, he said, and wanted to remain in control of it:

Every indigenous people will resist alien settlers as long as they see any hope of ridding themselves of the danger of foreign settlement. This is how the Arabs will behave and go on behaving so long as they possess a gleam of hope that they can prevent ‘Palestine’ from becoming the Land of Israel.

Having recognised the will-to-resist of the Palestinians, Jabotinsky then argued that Jewish Zionists faced a stark choice – either to give up the Zionist project or to devise a method to lodge themselves in Palestine irrespective of the assent, misgivings, or resistance of the native people: ‘Settlement can thus develop under the protection of a force that is not dependent on the local population, behind an iron wall which they will be powerless to break down.’ Jabotinsky explicitly asserted that he did not rule out an agreement with the Palestinian Arabs, but his argument was that as long as they had a sense that the Zionist project could be blocked, they would not come to any agreement. To this perceived maximalism, Jabotinsky counterposed one of his own: the Arabs of Palestine would be willing to negotiate:

… only when they have given up all hope of getting rid of the alien settlers. Only then will extremist groups with their slogans of ‘no, never’ lose their influence, and only then will their influence be transferred to more moderate groups. And only then will the moderates offer suggestions for compromise. Then only will they begin bargaining with us on practical matters, such as guarantees against pushing them out, and equality of civil and national rights.

Only when either defeated or convinced by the ‘iron wall’ of the immovability of Zionist colonisation would the Palestinian Arabs negotiate. Accordingly, ‘the only way to achieve a settlement in the future is total avoidance of all attempts to arrive at a settlement in the present.’

The liberal Israeli historian Avi Shlaim, taking Jabotinsky’s metaphor of the ‘iron wall’ as the title of his fine history of ‘Israel and the Arab World’, suggests that Jabotinsky provided the template for Israeli foreign policy from the 1940s to the 1980s at least. Jabotinsky’s position explains and apparently justifies Israeli foreign policy vis-á-vis the frontline Arab states: working assiduously to maintain a decisive superiority over them in arms, to defeat them militarily, or to remove them from the military equation (Egypt by means of the Camp David treaty; Iraq by way of US-led conquest and occupation). And Jabotinsky also goes some way to explaining the policy of settlement, whether within the Green Line or outside it in the Palestinian territories: an armed colonisation that, where it does not shoulder aside the native population, ignores that population and uses the apparatuses of the state to appropriate resources and privileges.3 It is very important to note that this has been the Israeli model both within ‘Israel proper’ and in the West Bank and Gaza. It is this linkage, then, that allows us to argue that there is continuity of Israeli policy between the pre-1948 period and the present.

By that, I mean that the problem is and always has been a colonial problem. If one thinks that the pace and scale of colonisation was greater in the 1920s and 1930s, one must remember that the 1990s witnessed the arrival of approximately one million Russian Jews from the former USSR, many of whom were settled in the territories. If one thinks that colonisation is a problem now only in the territories, one must remember the explicitly articulated Israeli policies of the ‘Judaisation’ of the Galilee and the Negev inside the Green Line, which continues to this day. If one believes that colonisation ceased with the Oslo Process, one must remember that the number of Jewish settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem doubled during the process and under the aegis of the ‘dovish’ Ehud Barak. Israeli violence against Palestinians is not primarily the violence displayed by M109 howitzers and F-16 fighter planes against Gaza last year, as terrible and revolting a war crime as Operation Cast Lead may have been. Edward Said suggested that Zionism should be understood as ‘a discipline of detail,’ by which he meant the brilliant and relentless capacity of Zionism to plan in the most rigorous detail for the transformation of the Ottoman territory of Palestine into the Jewish State of Israel. Palestine, to Zionism, was not simply the Promised Land, which is a highly abstract concept; it was also a territory that was to be known, surveyed, studied, planned for, and worked on down to the last square metre. Accordingly, one must see that Israeli violence against Palestinians is crucially and most tellingly worked out at the slow incremental level of land law, house demolitions, land confiscations, the building of illegal settlements and the illegal transfer of Israelis to them, the construction of Jews-only roads, the neglect of Palestinian villages inside Israel, the destruction of olive groves, and the construction of the ‘Wall’ that will eventually encircle the major Palestinian population centres in the West Bank in their entirety, creating an open-air prison even larger than the Gaza Strip.

Allied to the usefulness and pertinence of colonial models of understanding the situation is the idea of an ethnocracy, a concept also usefully deployed against the often-iterated claim that Israel is ‘the only democracy in the Middle East.’ This concept refers to a political system in which the apparatus of the state is in the possession and service of one ethnic group in a multi-ethnic society or sovereignty is vested not in the citizens of the state but in an ethnic group. It is associated with the work of Oren Yiftachel and Baruch Kimmerling, and deployed powerfully by activists such as Jeff Halper, and recognises the extraordinarily ramified character of the ‘Jewishness’ of the State of Israel. As Halper explains:

Ethnocracy, or ethno-nationalism, privileges ethnos over demos, whereby one’s ethnic affiliation, be it defined by race, descent, religion, language or national origin, takes precedence over citizenship in determining to whom a country actually ‘belongs.’ Israel is referred to explicitly by its political leaders as a ‘Jewish democracy.’

The difference between the Jewish ethnocracy of Israel and the former white/Boer ethnocracy of apartheid South Africa is that Israel has relatively little openly discriminatory legislation on its statute books. However, at or shortly after the moment of ‘independence’ in 1948, the state transferred crucial functions to organisations such as the Jewish Agency and the Jewish National Fund, ‘civil’ organisations that are constituted so as to serve only Jews. Thus, the great bulk of land is held and administered by the Jewish National Fund, but its Jews-only constitution means that Palestinian land purchase or building development inside the Green Line are almost impossible.

In spite of its manifest inequities and repeated breaches of international law, Israel remains a powerful fixture in the international system. It has been able to maintain this position principally because of its close, though not always easy, relationship with the last superpower, the United States, which developed more strongly after 1967. As long as the US remains Israel’s diplomatic and military patron – a patronage that has remained constant through both Republican and Democratic administrations: hence the seeming helplessness of the Obama administration in the face of the Netanyahu government’s continuing flagrant breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention in respect of settlement construction – Israel will continue to operate as an aggressive regional power and will not negotiate seriously with the Palestinians.

One crucial current focus of international resistance to and critique of Israel is the Goldstone Report. The report was the outcome of a UN fact-finding mission to the Gaza Strip in the wake of Operation Cast Lead. Under the leadership of Richard Goldstone, a former judge of the South African Constitutional Court and a former prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda, a team (including a retired Irish Army officer, Colonel Desmond Travers) was dispatched by the UN Human Rights Council in April 2009 to investigate all breaches of international human rights and humanitarian law in the Gaza Strip, by all parties, in the period from 27 December 2008 to 18 January 2009. The mission issued its report in September 2009.

Although the report covers offences perpetrated against Israel and Israeli citizens by Hamas and other Palestinian militias, the weight of its criticisms fall on Israel and the IDF. It finds that the assault on Gaza was premeditated; that it deliberately targeted civilians and civil infrastructure; and that the IDF committed offences such as ‘wilful killing, torture, or inhuman treatment,’ ‘wilfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health,’ ‘extensive destruction of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly,’ and ‘use of human shields.’ The report pinned primary responsibility for these offences on the Israeli political and military elite. While bluntly pointing out the offences committed in the form of Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel, the report (and Goldstone himself separately) recognised that to suggest an equivalence between the violence of the IDF and Palestinian guerrillas was ‘neither possible nor necessary.’ The report indicts the wider Israeli treatment of the Palestinians – the charges include: Israel’s ‘institutionalised discrimination’ against Palestinians in the territories and Israel itself; Israel’s violent suppression of Palestinian demonstrations against the occupation and the violent attacks on Palestinian civilians by Israeli soldiers and settlers acting with legal impunity; its political detention of hundreds of Palestinians; its ‘silent transfer’ of Palestinians out of East Jerusalem; its ‘de facto annexation’ of ten per cent of the area of the West Bank behind the ‘Wall’; and its illegal settlement activities generally.

The report recommends that individual states in the international community should start criminal investigations using universal jurisdiction where they find that the Geneva Conventions have been breached. It also calls on the UN Security Council to monitor the readiness of the Israeli and Gazan authorities to launch independent investigations into possible war crimes – if they fail to do so, the report recommends that the Security Council should refer the situation in Gaza to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. The report received strong support from the UN Human Rights Council and, then, overwhelming support in a UN General Assembly Resolution, when 114 countries voted in favour of a supporting resolution, with 44 abstentions and 18 votes against. To Ireland’s credit, it supported the resolution.

Inevitably, the report provoked a hurricane of negative responses from quarters including leading Israeli politicians (Prime Minister Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman); American neo-conservatives (Max Boot and John Bolton); the American Israel lobby (Alan Dershowitz, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the American Jewish Committee, and the Anti-Defamation League); and officials of the Obama administration. The US House of Representatives passed by 344 votes to 36 a non-binding resolution that condemned the report as ‘irredeemably biased.’ Of course, this very furore is proof that the report has significantly shifted the terrain in international public debate on the Palestine question. Richard Goldstone was invulnerable to traditional Israel-lobby charges of anti-Semitism, being himself Jewish and, in fact, a professed Zionist, motivated in his career goals by the memory of the Holocaust. Goldstone’s personal status combined with his report, Norman Finkelstein suggests, delivers a lethal blow to the idea of ‘liberal Zionism’ as espoused by most American Jews, which has traditionally extenuated Israel’s crimes. Further, as panic-stricken Israeli officials have noted, the report is now the hook on which much future criticism of Israel will hang – in the media, in academia, in political discourse, and everywhere that UN institutions are still taken seriously. The Goldstone Report may yet also shift the focus away from the endlessly stalled ‘peace process’ (as discredited under the aegis of the Obama government as it ever was under the Bush administration) towards the universal human-rights dimension of the Palestine problem. Within the parameters of human-rights law, international law, and international humanitarian law, the prospects for a positive settlement may yet be discerned.

Reading List

Norman G. Finkelstein, ‘This Time We Went Too Far’: Truth & Consequences of the Gaza Invasion, (New York: OR Books 2010).
Jeff Halper, An Israeli in Palestine: Resisting Dispossession, Redeeming Israel, (London: Pluto 2008).
Edward Said, The Question of Palestine, (New York: Times Books 1979).
Avi Shlaim, The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World, (London: WW Norton 2000).


1. The Yishuv was the Hebrew name given to the Jewish community in Palestine before the emergence of the State of Israel in 1948. The Jewish Agency, formed in 1923, was the Jewish administration-in-waiting in Palestine, charged with land purchase and facilitating Jewish immigration. The Haganah was a militia created by the Yishuv in 1920 to defend Jewish property and settlements in Palestine and formed the core of the Israel Defence Forces after 1948. The Irgun Zvai Leumi was a rightwing group, which broke with the Haganah in 1931 under the inspiration of Jabotinsky.

2. Golda Meir was Prime Minister of Israel from 1969 to 1974. In May 1948, days before Israel’s proclamation of independence, she was involved in secret negotiations with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. (The Hashemites trace their ancestry from Hashim, the great-grandfather of Mohammed; today, Hashemite refers mainly to the descendants of Fatimah, the prophet’s daughter. The Royal family of Jordan stem from Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca, whose sons were installed as Kings of Jordan, Syria, and Iraq at the end of the Mandate period.)

3. The Green Line refers to the 1949 Armistice lines established between Israel and its neighbours after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War; it separates Israel from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and the territories occupied by Israel after the 1967 war, i.e. the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights, and Sinai Peninsula. The Palestinian territories comprise the Gaza Strip, West Bank, and East Jerusalem, occupied by Jordan and Egypt until the 1967 war.

Dr. Conor McCarthy is a founder-member of the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign (IPSC) and author of The Cambridge Introduction to Edward Said (Cambridge University Press 2010).

Copyright © The Citizen and the contributors, 2010