Israel: 68 Years Old and as Backward as It Gets

On a flight from Turkey to the United States last year, I was seated behind a young man from Ramallah who, having finally completed an arduous hoop-jumping process, was en route to see his Palestinian wife in a suburb of Houston. Accompanying him was a gigantic binder stuffed with documents.

As the young man did not read English, he ceded his customs declaration form to me to fill out. All went smoothly until we got to numbers five and seven on the form, which were, respectively, “Passport issued by (country)” and “Country of Residence.”

For the first one we went with “Palestinian Authority.” For the second, we were instructed by an elderly Palestinian resident of Jordan sitting down the aisle to put “West Bank,” which he insisted was the proper response. In the end, West Bank it was—and I crossed my fingers that the immigration official on duty was at least somewhat human.

To be sure, the West Banker was luckier than many Palestinians in that he was able to travel at all—albeit not conveniently—as opposed to languishing in the open-air prison of the Gaza Strip or in refugee camps in Lebanon, where conditions aren’t much better.

Surviving members of the first wave of Palestinian refugees to Lebanon have now clocked 68 years in the country but are still denied citizenship and attendant liberties, including the right to work most jobs.

Back in 1995, the situation was already so dire as to prompt the following horrified description from acclaimed writer Juan Goytisolo in Spain’s El País newspaper: “350,000 human beings reduced to the position of rubbish from a history of blood and fire, mere sound and fury! The international community shrugs its shoulders: dramas that go on for too long are boring.”

Now, more than 20 years later, the Palestinian refugee population of Lebanon has grown to some half a million. As you can imagine, things are as boring as ever.

For the Israelis, however, growing numbers of Palestinians—particularly, of course, in Israel/Palestine itself—pose a rather tough quandary. After all, justification for the Zionist project is predicated not only religious legend but also, effectively, on Palestinian nonexistence.

Recall former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir’s notorious quote:

“It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country from them. They did not exist.”

On the 68th anniversary of Israel’s “independence” from those non-people who self-identified as nothing, the campaign to erase Palestinian identity—as it were—has yet to succeed. Not that Israel hasn’t tried its damnedest. Beyond the rhetorical disappearing act attempted by Meir, there have also been plenty of hands-on maneuvers.

For starters, Israeli independence was made possible via the destruction of more than 500 Palestinian villages and the expulsion from the territory of approximately 750,000 people. Thousands were killed—a lethal legacy that has continued uninterrupted until this very day.

In one of the more brutal bouts of recent violence, the Israeli military extinguished 2,251 Palestinian lives in the course of its 51-day assault on Gaza in 2014, code-named Operation Protective Edge. According to the United Nations, 299 of the fatalities were women and 551 were children.

The sky-high death count among children incidentally may have been seen as dovetailing nicely with a certain prescription offered by the late Uri Elitzur, a former adviser to Benjamin Netanyahu. In the lead-up to Operation Protective Edge, then-Knesset member Ayelet Shaked—now the nominal justice minister of Israeli—posted an excerpt of Elitzur’s inspirational musings on Facebook.

An English translation of Shaked’s post appeared in various publications including The Washington Post, which cited the “leftist site Mondoweiss” as its source. Some key points are as follows:

“Behind every terrorist stand dozens of men and women, without whom he could not engage in terrorism … They are all enemy combatants, and their blood shall be on all their heads. Now this also includes the mothers of the martyrs, who send them to hell with flowers and kisses. They should follow their sons, nothing would be more just. They should go, as should the physical homes in which they raised the snakes. Otherwise, more little snakes will be raised there.”

As popular as the extermination approach might be among sectors of the Israeli public, however, there are facts on the ground that stand in the way—namely a certain “Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people” and continuing to breathe in defiance of Israeli designs.

Nevertheless, Israeli media has detected plenty of reasons for optimism on Israel’s sixty-eighth birthday. In a recent article headlined “Israel at 68 years: Still strong and modern,” the Ynetnews website gushed over a report by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, according to which “96 percent of Israelis now have washing machines in their homes, 99.9 percent of Israelis have refrigerators, 87 percent have air conditioning, and while 73 percent of Israelis still have a landline, 96 percent of the population has at least one cellphone.”

But if we consider the fact that institutionalized ethnic cleansing happens to rank among the most outdated of phenomena, it seems the appliance-happy nation is as backwards as it gets.

Belén Fernández is the author of “The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work,” published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine.

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