The Question of Palestine

New Politics: The year 2008 is the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of Israel and of the Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe. What do you see as the Israeli goal and has it changed over the years?


Bashir Abu-Manneh: Israel’s goal has been a constant: Jewish sovereignty in Palestine. Israel has always sought to expropriate as much Palestinian land as possible and to rule over as few Palestinians as possible. This has been the single most important ideological and political principle informing the practices of the dominant strand of Zionism which founded the Jewish State in Palestine against the wishes of the Arab indigenous majority. The year 1948 epitomizes this principle: 78 percent of Palestine was forcibly conquered and 750,000-840,000 Palestinians were systematically expelled and prevented from returning to their cities and villages (hundreds of which were completely erased) in violation of international law and of UN General Assembly resolution 194 safeguarding refugees’ right of return.


     Israel bears full responsibility for destroying Palestinian society and for turning most Palestinians into stateless refugees. No Israeli denial or American diplomatic summersaults can erase this nagging and unresolved fact. Palestinians still constitute the largest refugee population in the world today: 70 percent of Palestinians, out of 10 million in all, are refugees (the American occupation of Iraq has produced around four million refugees and internally displaced Iraqis). For most Palestinians and Arabs, the Palestinian question is a refugee question and 1948 remains at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict. If Israel wants real peace, it must rectify the wrongs it willfully committed in 1948, and do so in a way that is democratically acceptable to a majority of Palestinians (i.e., subject to popular referendum). There is no historical reconciliation or lasting peace without justice and national rights for the Palestinians.


     Sixty years after the Palestinian Catastrophe, the complete opposite is now taking place: Israel is extending and deepening Palestinian dispossession and suffering, rather than alleviating them. Refugee rights are ignored and marginalized, and Palestinians are being pushed to accept besieged Bantustans for a state. After the political destruction of Arab nationalism in 1967 and the capitulation of secular Palestinian nationalism in Oslo in 1993, Palestinian refugees have been basically left to fend for themselves, with little protection or support from the Palestinian Liberation Organization or the Palestinian Authority (PLO/PA). We can see the consequences of this neglect in events like the depopulation and destruction of the Naher il-Bared refugee camp in Lebanon (once home to 31,000 refugees) over the summer and in the expulsion of thousands of Palestinians from Iraq. Though the two cases are very different, and Iraqis themselves have suffered a catastrophic fate as a result of the American occupation, Palestinians are always deeply affected and hit hard by regional developments and externally induced insecurities. So they always suffer both as dispossessed Palestinians and as oppressed Arabs: no other Arab nation is placed that way and carries that burden.


     1991 is a good indicator of what it means to be a refugee: 350,000 Palestinians were unjustly expelled from Kuwait because Arafat stupidly supported Saddam’s adventurism and his occupation of Kuwait. The New World Order was declared on the backs of Iraqis, who were killed in their hundreds of thousands, and on the backs of Palestinians, who had to suffer another exile. To be stateless is to be vulnerable to such ravages and be completely dependent on the whims and interests of others.


     And this is only a part of the story. On top of political insecurity, there is discrimination and willful impoverishment. Take Lebanon as an example. To be a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon is to live without any political and civil rights, be legally barred from working in 73 professions, and suffer extremely high rates of poverty and unemployment. 1948 is far from over: Israel’s expulsion is experienced daily as stateless wretchedness by Palestinians.


NP: 2007 was the fortieth anniversary of the June 1967 war. What is the significance of 1967 in this history?


BAM: 1967 was an additional historical injury. Occupying the West Bank and Gaza fulfilled Israel’s colonial imperative to expropriate the remainder of Palestine. If before the June 1967 war Israel controlled 78 percent of Palestine, after the war it controlled all of it, illegally occupying the remaining 22 percent. 1967 should really be understood as stage two of 1948, as outstanding Zionist business previously considered but delayed for tactical, not fundamental, reasons. 1967 was thus part of the ongoing pattern of the Israeli expropriation and dispossession of Palestine: only this time Israel managed to expel only a minority of Palestinians, 320,000. The majority couldn’t be pushed out. So Israel was faced with what now people freely refer to as a "demographic problem," a racist designation which basically means that Israel was forced to rule over Arabs because it couldn’t expel them en masse as before. For a settler-colonial state premised on exclusion not exploitation, incorporating undesired natives is indeed an issue. All of Israel’s plans — from Allon’s strategic settlement and land control to closure, Sharon’s Wall, and his "disengagement" — are fundamentally about the fact that a Zionist Israel can neither incorporate Palestinians as equal citizens, turning Israel into a binational state, nor can it expel them all in one go (due to what many Zionists regard as "unfavorable international circumstances," i.e. international objection). And yet Israel still wants more Palestinian land. So: no expulsion, no incorporation, and no withdrawal. What Israel is left with is a powerful internal contradiction. A desired territorial expansion has led to an undesired demographic burden.


     With the first Intifada of 1987, Israel’s 1967 contradiction exploded in its face. Having severely weakened the PLO and expelled it from Lebanon in 1982, Israel expected quiet, a drastic lowering of national demands: submission. But what it got was a mass popular self-organized Palestinian revolt demanding the end of the Israeli occupation and independence. The Intifada left major population centers in the West Bank and Gaza completely free from Israeli control. It also left Israel, after the failure of brute force and massive repression, groping for a political solution. Oslo became Israel’s answer to the first Intifada, and was formulated to help Israel get out of the bind it had put itself into with the occupation of 1967, but without reversing it. So rather than granting Jordan control over "autonomous" Palestinian areas in the West Bank, as the original Allon plan had stipulated, Israel would now grant it to Arafat’s PLO. As Chomsky put it then, the PLO would become Israel’s "colonial enforcer," controlling, demobilizing, and suppressing Palestinians for the benefit of their dispossessors and occupiers. So, with Palestinian elite consent, Israel remained sovereign, was allowed to build and expand Jewish settlements and roads, and control all borders. All UN resolutions requiring Israel to fully withdraw to the 1967 borders, dismantle all illegal settlements, and accept Palestinian statehood and independence were shelved and sidelined by Oslo. Zionism was victorious and the principle of Jewish sovereignty was reaffirmed. Israeli colonialism was also given further lease on life to encircle, suffocate, and slowly dispossess more occupied Palestinians.


     1967, however, is not Israel’s only "demographic problem." An internal population "time bomb" has also reared its head inside Israel. There, remnants of Palestinians from 1948, who managed by some historical fluke to stay behind after the mass expulsions of Israel’s founding, have slowly increased in relative number. In 1948 they numbered 150,000. Now there are 1.2 million, about 18 percent of the Israeli population, with nearly half living in the Galilee and only a small minority in "mixed towns" like Haifa, Lydda, and Jaffa. Israel refers to them as "Israeli Arabs" or "the minorities," and has not only subjected them to 18 years of military rule until 1966, and discriminated against them systematically and by racist law from 1948 to the present, but it has also dispossessed them of most of their lands, treating them in exactly the same way it treated their refugee brethren. Their dispossession is still taking place even today: the Negev Bedouins have suffered the brunt of it in recent months. Many "unrecognized villages" have been internally displaced and have had their lands stolen by the state.2


     Worse still: Palestinians inside Israel suffer periodic massacres conducted by the Israeli army and police, some to facilitate flight. Kufr Kassem in 1956 was one such massacre: 49 Palestinian citizens were killed. On 30 March 1976, six were killed while protesting land expropriations in the Galilee as part of a national day of mass demonstrations and strikes, now annually commemorated as Land Day. In 2000, 13 were killed and hundreds injured when Palestinians inside protested against Israel’s massive repression of the second Intifada. Dispossession and occasional killing are compounded by political discrimination and endless repression, as well as economic suffocation and impoverishment. Israel intentionally induces high rates of unemployment and poverty among its Palestinian citizens to encourage their emigration and lessen their growing numbers. Recent Israeli National Insurance figures show that, as Ynet reported: "The percentage of Arab citizens is nearing 50 percent of the overall poor population in Israel as opposed to 40 percent in 2004," and 400,000 out of 550,000 children who go hungry in Israel happen to be Palestinian!3


     In addition, a new instrument of control and exclusion has recently been developed by the Israeli elite: the threat of population swap: Palestinian citizens in Israel for colonial settlers in the West Bank. This option has become subject to growing discussion and debate in Israel, both in the media and in strategic circles. It has also been recently aired in diplomatic discussions with Abbas and his team. Israel dubs it a "land-swap" or "population exchange": Israeli settlers become de jure (not only de facto) part of Israel as some of Israel’s Palestinian citizens become part of the Palestinian Authority. A minor border adjustment in the Triangle area and Israel would miraculously lose around 200,000 of its Palestinian citizens. A stationary transfer/expulsion if ever there was one, and another looming danger to the Palestinian presence inside Israel.


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