What Is Special about Israel? — By Ran Greenstein on Jadaliyya com

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Palestinian Loss of Land 1947 to Present

Image from ifamericansknew.org]

Image from ifamericansknew.org


This time of the year we commemorate sixty-seven years to the 1948 war and Nakba, and forty-eight years to the 1967 war and occupation. As always, the question of why particular attention must be paid to these events comes up. Is there anything special about them, and about Israel as a state?

Israeli hasbara officials and their supporters overseas frequently invoke the notion of “singling out” as a problem in analyses and campaigns aimed to address Israeli state practices. They do not necessarily deny that there are problems with government policies, formal and informal discrimination within the Green Line, and denial of rights beyond it. But they usually explain these away as the unfortunate results of ever-present difficult security situation which calls for undemocratic measures, albeit of a limited and temporary nature. These measures, the argument goes, are not unique to Israel. In a similar form they can be found in many places throughout the world, today or historically. Why regard Israel, then, as a unique state deserving of unique treatment?

In what follows I suggest possible answers to this question, seeking to identify the particular features of the case of Israel and explore their implications both for analysis and political activism.

Let us start with 1948. On its face, it was a war between two national communities, each trying to grab as much land and power as possible from the departing colonial forces. The Jewish side managed to acquire a larger territory and to evict many of the Palestinians who resided there, sending them to territories under the control of Arab forces. It was a messy outcome but essentially no different from that of other conflicts unfolding under similar circumstances: Turkey and Greece in the aftermath of the First World War, Czechoslovakia and Germany in the aftermath of the Second World War, India and Pakistan in the aftermath of the 1947 partition that ended colonial rule in the sub-continent.

The similarities between these situations are real enough, but with three crucial differences:

  • The Nakba involved the displacement of indigenous people by settler immigrants. In the other cases above all those involved were equally indigenous to the scene in the sense they had co-existed in the same territory for centuries.

  • The Nakba affected almost exclusively one side: for every Jew in Palestine displaced in the war there were hundreds of Palestinians. In other cases, displacement of populations was more mutual. Jews were indeed displaced from other Arab countries, but not by Palestinians, at their behest or on their behalf.

  • The Nakba saw the displacement of eighty percent of the Arab population residing in what became Israel (sixty percent of the overall Palestinian population), and their replacement within a short period of time by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. In other cases only a small segment on either side of the divide was involved, perhaps two to three percent of the population. The bulk of the population was not affected directly.

Putting all this together, it is clear that the partition of Palestine and subsequent war resulted in the destruction of indigenous society and the creation of a settler-dominated society in its place. This was not a coincidence, a series of unfortunate events, or the result of chaotic war conditions. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the Zionist movement embarked on a project of building an ever-expanding zone of exclusion from which Arabs were barred. Tenants were not allowed to stay on land bought by official settlement agencies, nor were Palestinians accepted as residents in new rural or urban Jewish settlements. The campaigns for Conquest of Land and of Labor were not always successful, but they set in motion exclusionary dynamics that aimed to remove Arab workers from Jewish-owned enterprises and to eliminate (or at least reduce) dependence on Palestinian agricultural produce. The British imperial authorities created a legal framework that made such policies possible.

This had nothing to do with “security,” but rather with the goal of building one place in the world where Jews would be in complete control of their own affairs, with no danger of becoming a minority. Nor was it an inevitable outcome of Jewish settlement as such: the early stage of settlement, from 1882 to 1904, known as the First Aliyah, made extensive use of local labor, in the fields and at homes, in a pattern familiar from colonial settlement elsewhere (though its small scale meant it had minimal impact on indigenous society). That pattern had a basic flaw though: it limited employment opportunities for potential Jewish immigrants.


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