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Yet another ceasefire like so many others before it, in Israel’s colonial occupation of Palestine; yet another death count for the archives of oblivion; yet another occasion to ease the conscience of the international community, especially in North America and Europe; yet another period for trivializing the daily humiliation of those who are forced to cross Israeli checkpoints in order to go to work; yet another process of rising provocations until the next bombings; yet another surge in ethnic cleansing by a violent colonial power.
This is a well-known story. Faced with the atrocities committed against Jews by the German Nazi regime during the Second World War, the West felt it was its moral obligation to accept the Zionist demand for the establishment of a Jewish state. This was the context in which, shortly after the founding of the United Nations, the U.N. Special Committee on Palestine, led by the US and the then USSR, submitted a proposal for a partition of the territory. This Plan, which provided for the division of Palestine into a Jewish state and a Palestinian state (covering 55 percent and 45 percent of the territory, respectively), was based on the modern colonial project and was similar to several other partition projects aimed at ending conflicts that remain unresolved to this day (as is the case with the two Koreas, or India and Pakistan).
At a time when participation in the U.N. on the part of the countries of the South was still low, the Plan was approved, even if the Arab states did not recognize the new state of Israel. Emerging victorious from the ensuing war against the Arab states and Palestinian forces (1948-1949), Israel occupied several regions, thereby adding about 20,000 square kilometers (75 percent of the whole of Palestine) to its territory. The remaining territory was occupied by Jordan, which annexed the West Bank, and by Egypt, which occupied the Gaza Strip. These episodes marked a new phase of the violence against the Palestinians, this time caused by the state of Israel and involving the displacement of almost one million Palestinians, who were forced to leave the areas annexed by Israel.1 This huge mass of refugees, spread across a number of camps located in countries of the Near East and the rest of the world, is at the root of what is known as “the Palestinian question”. As pointed out by Tariq Ali, a common culture that had long been shared by Muslim Arabs, Christians and Jews underwent a profound fracture, in what Palestinians would come to call al Nakba – the catastrophe.2
Nothing one writes in defense of Palestinians will help alleviate the tribulations they have gone through since the creation of Israel, a suffering that is all the more unjust because it was inflicted to atone for the crimes committed by Europeans. Nor will my writing help those Jews that, given the poisonous propaganda to which they are being subjected, are unable to disassociate themselves from the colonial Zionist project carried out by Israel in Palestine. When the subject is Palestine, writing is a form of anger management, a written cry of desperation and helplessness. Therein, paradoxically, resides the fundamental meaning of the present tragedy: with disturbing but crystalline clarity, it brings to the fore the historical, philosophical and sociological falsehood of the “facts” that most firmly support today’s dominant policies. Whenever lies and bad faith become state policy, unarmed good faith and truthfulness stand up against them. Stones against bombs. We are faced with a massive destruction of meaning. Albert Camus said that “every false idea ends up with bloodshed, but it is always somebody else’s blood”.3 Palestine is the great decoder of the hypocritical falsehood underlying the dominant mechanisms used to ensure the continuity of the “Western values” that incessantly lead to the violation of those same values. Those very mechanisms are now being “remastered” with an eye to the next catastrophic use: the war with China.
Historical-theological falsification. Jerusalem is not and cannot be the capital of Israel. It has been a sacred city for many centuries and therefore it belongs to all who profess the religions that live within it side by side. States, not peoples, have a capital. Israel claims to be a Jewish state. As a state, it has no right to Jerusalem, unless we make a mockery of international law; it is a theological absurdity for a people to have a capital. As Rabbi Yaakov Shapiro puts it, peoples don’t have a capital, the Jewish people don’t have a capital.
Political falsification 1. The West claims that its stance is justified by the need to defend democracy. When President Barack Obama signed the agreement to provide aid to Israel until the year 2028, he stated that the US and Israel are two “vibrant democracies” that share the same values and must be equally protected against their enemies. This claim is doubly false. Israel is no more democratic than apartheid South Africa. The Palestinians living in the state of Israel (about 21 percent of the population) are the descendants of the approximately 150,000 Palestinians who stayed in the country that is now Israel – a small minority, compared to those who were expelled from their land and are currently living in the occupied territories. They are second-class citizens living under severe legal and political constraints, especially since Benjamin Netanyahu rose to power in 2009 and implemented his policy of subordinating Israel’s democratic nature to its Jewish nature. Faced with the continuous erosion of their rights, some Palestinians struggle for equal rights, while others abandon politics altogether.4 They live divided by the “my state is at war with my nation” dilemma. The other falsehood has to do with the governance of the occupied territories. In Palestine, as elsewhere in the world, democracy is not recognized unless it favors Western interests. Given the fact that, in Palestine, Western interests and the interests of Israel are one and the same, Hamas’s free and fair victory in the 2006 parliamentary elections (74 seats in a chamber of 132 deputies, with al Fatah taking 45 seats) was not recognized. The events of these past sixteen years cannot be understood without taking into account this arbitrary decision by Western countries under pressure from Israel and its U.S. ally.
Political falsification 2. I have argued that colonialism did not end when the European colonies gained political independence. Only one form of colonialism, that which involved foreign occupation, came to an end then, and then not entirely. We need only think of today’s colonial grip on the Saharawi people. In our time, colonialism has taken new forms, the most obvious being structural racism and the apartheid regime imposed by Israel in the occupied territories. To recognize that there is apartheid is to recognize that there is colonialism. In April 2021, Human Rights Watch – the most pro-American human rights organization in existence – published a report describing Israel as an apartheid state. It should be pointed out that in 1973 the U.N. General Assembly adopted the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid (Resolution 3068), which came into force in 1976. In the occupied territories (East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip), Palestinian self-government is entirely in the hands of the occupying power. Systematic oppression and institutional discrimination are the rule: expropriation of land, forced change of residence, checks on movements, water and electricity management, the denying of essential services (as was recently the case with the COVID vaccines). Violent occupation has turned the Gaza Strip into the largest open-air prison in the world. In a nutshell, hardline colonialism. If apartheid is recognized by the U.N. as a crime against humanity, why isn’t Israel tried for such a crime? Because Western values only apply when it suits those who have the power to benefit from them.
But the colonialism to which the Palestinian people are subjected has many other facets that clearly place it in the same category as historical colonialism. One of them is the erasure of Palestinian identity and of the memory of al Nakba – the 1948 annexation, by Israel, of 78 percent of the Palestinian territory. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, which, as the name implies, aims to care for the Palestinian refugees who were violently expelled from their homes in 1948 and 1967, as well as their descendants, has come under harsh criticism by conservative Zionist organizations, who complain that, were it not for UNRWA, Palestinians “would likely have lost their identity and assimilated into surrounding society.” How is this any different from the policies pursued by the colonizers in the Americas and Africa to erase the identity and memory of the autochthonous peoples?5
The falsification of equivalences. Contrary to Israel’s claims, this is not a case of meeting violence with violence. I am not in favor of launching missiles against Israel or the deaths caused by it, but the disproportion between the Hamas attacks and the Israeli response is so shocking that it is simply inadmissible as a justification for the indiscriminate death of thousands of innocent people. Israel has the world’s fourth-most-powerful army. When we look at the recurrent outbreaks of violence, we are reminded of the fact that in 2014 Israel’s attacks lasted 51 days and killed more than 2,200 Palestinians, including 551 children. This time around, 11 days of violence (a ceasefire was declared on 20 May) resulted in 232 deaths on the Palestinian side, 65 of which were children, and 12 deaths on the Israeli side (including two children), in addition to the brutal destruction of infrastructures in the Gaza Strip, including schools. We are talking about state terrorism, which has resorted to highly sophisticated, US-supplied weapons to keep an entire people in a permanent state of terror since 1948.
Media falsification. The world’s media will one day be ashamed for their biased treatment of the events in Palestine. Here are two examples. World public opinion is informed that Israel’s most recent strike on the Gaza Strip was triggered by the missiles fired by Hamas. Because that was all that happened. Before that, there was no invasion of Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa mosque, nor was there any shooting at the praying mosque-goers right in the middle of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, just as there were no months-long attacks by bands of fanatics against residential and commercial buildings in East Jerusalem. Therefore, the blame lies entirely with Hamas, and Israel is only defending itself. Example number two: during the Israeli strikes, Palestinians simply “die”, whereas Israelis are “killed by Hamas” or “killed by missile attacks”.
The horror of an unthinkable symmetry. It was probably Illan Pappé, the great Jewish historian, who first asked himself, with much anguish, how could one even begin to imagine that, seventy years into the Holocaust, the Israelis would be subjecting Palestinians to the same tactics of destruction, humiliation and denial the Nazis had used against the Jews. Upon visiting Palestine in 2002, José Saramago, the Portuguese writer Nobel Prize in Literature, made some polemical comparisons between Palestinians’ suffering under Israel and Jews’ suffering under Nazism. He clarified his point during an interview with the BBC: “It was of course, and was meant to be, a strained comparison. Had I articulated my protest in more common terms, it would probably have not provoked the same reaction. There are, of course, no gas chambers for the extermination of Palestinians, but the Palestinian people do find themselves in a concentrationary situation… [to which he premonitorily added], “This is no conflict. We could call it a conflict if it we were talking about two countries, with a border in between, and two states, each with its own army. But what we are talking about is something altogether different: Apartheid.”
In 1933, the majority of German Jews were not Zionists, which is to say that they did not advocate the creation of a state for the Jewish people. In fact, the largest Jewish organization was called “the central association of German citizens of Jewish faith”. Hitler had been obsessed with the idea of expelling the Jews from Germany (and, later, from Europe altogether) long before he ordered the Holocaust. He thus negotiated an agreement (very controversial among Jews) with the Zionist organization (the German Zionist Federation) aimed at transferring Jews to Palestine (then under British rule), offering them “better” (i.e., less shameful) conditions than those that characterized emigration to other countries. According to the 1933 Haavara Transfer Agreement, the state was to confiscate all their wealth, but it would also transfer 42.8 percent of the total value of their assets to the Jewish Agency for Palestine, 38.9 percent of that amount being in the form of industrial goods produced in Germany. There is a blatant humiliation in making the forced emigrants consume the products manufactured by the very state that expelled them. It is estimated that only 40,000 Germans and 80,000 Poles emigrated to Palestine between 1933 and 1938. The number would have been even lower had other countries in Europe been more open to accepting Jewish immigrants, even if it later became evident that the ultimate goal was “a Europe without Jews”.6
In our time, the creation of the state of Israel was founded on a massive operation of ethnic cleansing: 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes and land, with over 300,000 more being added to that figure after the 1967 war. In today’s Israel there is a proliferation of far-right groups who demand that all Palestinians be expelled from the occupied territories and sent to neighboring Arab countries. Even “Israeli Arabs” are legally barred from residing in certain cities. In 2011, the Israeli Knesset passed a law permitting towns in the Negev and Galilee with up to 400 households to maintain admissions committees that can reject applicants from living there for being “not suitable for the social life of the community” or for incompatibility with the “social-cultural fabric.”7 For decades now, entire cities have been destroyed, with wounded Palestinians being left to die because the ambulances are blocked by the Israeli military. If a Palestinian is suspected of an individual act of resistance, the occupying authorities arrest their parents, family members and neighbors, and cut off water and electricity. None of this is new, and it brings back horrible memories. According to the Israeli daily Maariv, quoted by the renowned journalist Robert Fisk, a high-ranking Israeli officer used to advise his troops, in case of entry into densely populated refugee camps, to follow the lessons of past battles, including the tactics adopted by the German army in the Warsaw ghetto.8
What is happening these days in Sheikh Jarrah is history repeating itself in a microcosm. In 1956, 28 Palestinian families that had been expelled from their land in 1948 settled in this East Jerusalem neighborhood, in the hope that they would not be expelled from their homes again. At a time when the neighborhood in question and the entire West Bank were under Jordanian administration (1951-1967), the establishment of these families was negotiated with Jordan, the U.N. and Jerusalem-based human rights organizations. Now they are being dispossessed of their homes by an order of Israel’s Supreme Court, after years of seeing stones thrown at their homes by fanatics, some of whom move into the main part of the house and force its residents to huddle in the back. With the complicity of the police, Israeli extremists prowl the neighborhood streets at night chanting “Death to the Arabs”. Buildings are even marked so that houses are not attacked by mistake. Doesn’t all this bring back memories of other times?
The last shred of hope. It is hard to speak of hope in a way that is not offensive to the Palestinian people. Hope cannot lie in the ceasefire agreements, because their sole purpose is to make sure that the alliances among the powers whose complicity are responsible for the continuation of the unjust suffering of the Palestinian people remain stable and to prepare the ceasefire that will follow the next eruption of violence. The only hope, at this point, comes from international civil society. We have been witnessing the expansion of three types of initiative which, although very different, converge in the potential to push Israel toward increasing isolation, and which may finally lead – if it is not too late – to compliance with the U.N. resolutions.
The first comprises the increasingly numerous and vigorous public stances taken against Israel’s policies by well-known Jewish intellectuals, journalists and artists. The sources mentioned in the present text are proof of this. The second initiative comprises the public demonstrations held in various parts of the world, in growing support of the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination. The third gets its inspiration from the international struggle against South Africa’s apartheid regime. The imbalance of violent force within that country, with a largely black population standing in opposition to the white minority, was smaller than the imbalance between the Israeli forces and Palestinian resistance. Even so, the initiatives involved in the context of the international movement to isolate South Africa were among the decisive factors contributing to the end of apartheid: boycott of South African companies and of a number of international companies with a high level of involvement in apartheid; academic, tourist and sports boycott targeting South African nationals.
The anti-apartheid campaign has inspired the BDS international movement. Founded in 2005, it promotes boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel and has been on the rise in recent years. As an initiative of active nonviolence, it is not without its problems, because it may come at a cost in terms of the legitimate livelihoods of innocent people. Interestingly enough, however, the movement has the capacity to win the support of those who live in these countries but oppose their apartheid policies. I remember that when I joined the academic embargo against South Africa, during apartheid, our white South African colleagues met our actions not only with sympathy but with actual support, for they strengthened their struggle at the domestic level. The international context is different now. Faced with the unjust martyrdom of the Palestinian people – who are being punished for a crime committed by Europeans – and with hypocritical indifference on the part of the international community, for how much longer will we continue to pretend that the Palestinian problem is not our problem? All my life I have fought against anti-Semitism and it is in full consistency with this position that I denounce the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians being carried out by Israel.
Boaventura de Sousa Santos is Professor of Sociology at the School of Economics, University of Coimbra (Portugal), Distinguished Legal Scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School and Global Legal Scholar at the University of Warwick.