The present dismal reality unfolding in the Middle East has clear historical roots and a journey into the past may help to illuminate what lies behind the destructive policies of Israel in both Palestine and Lebanon.
Zionism arrived in Palestine in the late 19th as a colonialist movement motivated by national impulses.
The colonisation of Palestine fitted well the interests and policies of the British Empire on the eve of the First World War.
With the backing of Britain, the colonisation project expanded, and became a solid presence on the land after the war and with the establishment of the British mandate in Palestine (which lasted between 1918 and 1948).
While this consolidation took place, the indigenous society underwent, like other societies in the rest of the Arab world, a steady process of establishing a national identity.
But with one difference. While the rest of the Arab world was shaping its political identity through the struggle against European colonialism, in Palestine nationalism meant asserting your collective identity against both an exploitative British colonialism and expansionist Zionism.
Thus, the conflict with Zionism was an additional burden. The pro-Zionist policy of the British mandate there naturally strained the relationship between Britain and the local Palestinian society.
This climaxed in a revolt in 1936 against both London and the expanding Zionist colonisation project.
The revolt, which lasted for three years, failed to sway the British mandate from a policy it had already decided upon in 1917. The British foreign secretary, Lord Balfour, had promised the Zionist leaders that Britain would help the movement to build a homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine.
The number of Jews coming into the country increased by the day – although even at that point, during the 1930s, the Jews were just a quarter of the population, possessing 4 percent of the land.
As resistance to colonialism strengthened, the Zionist leadership became convinced that only through a total expulsion of the Palestinians would they be able to create a state of their own.
From its early inception and up to the 1930s, Zionist thinkers propagated the need to ethnically cleanse the indigenous population of Palestine if the dream of a Jewish state were to come true.
The preparation for implementing these two goals of statehood and ethnic supremacy accelerated after the Second World War.
For the British the country lost its strategic importance once they were evicted from India.
It was a tense place that required the presence of British forces in equal numbers to those kept by the empire in the Indian sub continent – without obvious imperial rewards.
While the Zionist leadership finalised a plan for taking over the land and expelling the people between 1946 and 1948, the Palestinian leadership hoped the British empire would transfer to them their country in which they were still the vast majority and the indigenous population.
But Britain decided to transfer the issue of Palestine to the United Nations (UN) in February 1947. Palestine was the first conflict in which it was asked to mediate in a significant way.
It offered a pro-Zionist solution, and a very unjust and impractical one at that.
The first obstacle was that since the Palestinians demanded to be treated as any other Arab national movement, they expected the international community to recognise, without any conditions, their natural right to the country.
They did not expect this right to be negotiated with a colonialist movement. They therefore boycotted the process.
The UN ignored this and the special committee it appointed for the question, Unscop (United Nations Special Committee for Palestine) conversed only with the Zionist leadership. It devised a solution that catered for the needs and aspirations of that side alone.
In any case, the Palestinians had a difficult time presenting the moral side of their demands due to the Holocaust.
The Western international community was only too happy to evade any discussions about the implications of the genocide in Europe and to drop the problem on Palestine’s doorstep.
The inevitable result of this approach was accepting almost unconditionally the Zionist demands for a state in Palestine.
At the end of November 1947, the UN offered to divide Palestine into two states almost equal in their territorial space. The Jews were only one third of the population by 1947 and most of them had arrived in Palestine only a few years earlier.
The categorical Palestinian refusal to go along with this deal, backed by the Arab League, allowed the Zionist leadership to plan carefully the next step. Between February 1947 and March 1948, a final plan for ethnic cleansing was prepared.
The Zionist leadership defined 80 percent of Palestine (Israel today without the West Bank) as the space for the future state.
This was an area in which one million Palestinians lived next to 600,000 Jews.
The idea was to uproot as many Palestinians as possible. From March 1948 until the end of that year the plan was implemented despite the attempt by some Arab states to oppose it, which failed. Some 750,000 Palestinians were expelled, 531 villages were destroyed and 11 urban neighbourhoods demolished.
Half of Palestine’s population was uprooted and half of its villages destroyed. The state of Israel was established in over 80 percent of Palestine, turning Palestinian villages into Jewish settlements and recreation parks, but allowing a small number of Palestinian to remain citizens in it.
The June 1967 war allowed Israel to take the remaining 20 percent of Palestine.
This seizure defeated in a way the ethnic ideology of the Zionist movement. Israel encompassed 100 percent of Palestine, but the state incorporated a large number of Palestinians, the people who Zionists made such an effort to expel in 1948.
The fact that Israel was let off easily in 1948, and not condemned for the ethnic cleansing it committed, encouraged it to ethnically cleanse a further 300,000 Palestinians from the West Bank and the Gaza strip.
But the June 1967 war was too short – six days – and the international community more aware. Palestinian society was more experienced. Hence Israel was left with a large number of Palestinians under its control and could not complete “the job”.
The Palestinian national movement rose again in the form of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and even if it did not liberate one square inch of Palestine, it did relocate the Palestinian issue and the 1948 Nakbah (catastrophe) in the centre of world public attention.
The ethnic cleansing operation was also defeated by the persistence and resilience of those Palestinians that were allowed to stay in Israel.
They became one quarter of the population.
Demography thus became the major issue in Israel’s national security agenda. It overshadows any other concern, be it for social equality, democracy or human rights.
The educational system, the media and the politicians all stress the “danger” Palestinians constitute for the state’s existence and the Jewish citizens’ wellbeing.
In this situation the Israeli “left” urges downsizing the territory, the right calls for downsizing the Palestinians.
But the moral and ideological distance between the two poles of the political system is very short indeed.
After two uprisings in the occupied territories and a failed international diplomatic effort that totally ignored the root of the conflict as represented above, we are now back to the very basics of the conflict.
For the last six years, with the full backing of its Jewish electorate, successive Israeli governments have tried to impose by force what for them is the ideal solution.
It consists of imprisoning large numbers of Palestinians in enclaves in the West Bank and the Gaza strip, controlling thorough an apartheid system the Palestinian minority in Israel, and rejecting categorically any repatriation of the Palestinian refugees.
This plan is fully backed by the US.
Bush’s neo-conservative presidency pursues its own unilateralism, trying to impose by military means and intimidation its economic and strategic values on the rest of the world.
Only two movements in the area resist Israel and the US.
Sadly for people of the left, like myself, they are not from “our school”, but we should respect their steadfastness and will to resist occupation and colonisation. These are Hamas and Hizbollah.
Israel feels it has now a window of opportunity to eliminate these forces in Gaza and in Lebanon – and beyond in Syria and Iran.
The regional war that is developing may in the short run undermine these two forces, but in the long run it may mean Israeli confrontation not only with the Arab world but with the Muslim world as a whole.
At that point, the US might abandon it, and the Jewish state would end like the crusaders’ kingdom of medieval times.
A disaster thus is looming for us all – Jews and Arabs – and it is only Europe that could avert it, if it would stop slaving its interests and ours, to the interests of the US and Zionism.
Ilan Pappe is an Israeli-born professor at Haifa University. His most recent books are The Modern Middle East (Routledge 2005), and A History of Modern Palestine: One Land, Two Peoples (Cambridge University Press 2004), in which he documents the expulsion of Palestinians as an orchestrated crime of ethnic cleansing that tore apart Jews and Arabs coexisting peacefully. His previous books include The Making of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1948-1951 (New York 1992) and The Israel/Palestine Question (London 1999). All are available from Bookmarks. Phone 020 7637 1848.
From Socialist Worker 29 July 2004