In Bill Hanrahan’s recent op-ed on the Israeli-Palestinian prisoner exchange a picture of the conflict was presented that matched well the storyline given the American public by its government and media. Since this point of view has been delivered consistently for over sixty years it comes as no surprise that many people believe it. Yet that story is not complete nor accurate. In the short op-ed reply that follows I will give you an alternative picture of the conflict that is historically accurate.
After the allied victory in World War I the British took control of Palestine. In fulfillment of the Balfour Declaration, a pledge made to the World Zionist Organization, Britain began to facilitate the immigration of European Jews into what was an Arab land. The Zionists saw this immigration as the beginning of a process that would lead to a Jewish State in Palestine. The Jewish immigrants proceeded to acquire land and develop a Jewish centered economy. As their numbers grew so did the tension between them and the Arab majority population.
The Zionist leaders expected this tension and the increasing violence that went along with it. There is a verified and quite infamous1956 statement made by Zionism’s principal leader in Palestine, David Ben Gurion, “It is normal, we have taken their country. It is true God promised it to us, but how could that interest them? Our God is not theirs. There has been anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They see one thing: we have come and we have stolen their country. Why should they accept that?”
The Palestinians did not accept that and the result was repeated Arab rebellion against both the Zionists and the British. As 1948 and the announced date of British withdrawal from Palestine drew near, the Zionist leadership drew up a plan to cleanse the land of as much of its Arab population as possible. It is important to note that they did this prior to any invasion by outside Arab states. This too is well documented. Two Israeli historians, Benny Morris and Ilan Pappe, among others, have used declassified Israeli government documents to describe this process. Morris tells of a four stage expulsion of some 700,000 Palestinians, most of whom left to escape targeted Zionist violence. This violence included attacks and massacres of civilians and the destruction of entire Arab villages and towns, and was clearly of a terrorist nature. Pappe, in his 2007 book “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine,” gives even more detail of this process. As Pappe concludes, the process of expulsion was not the consequence of Jews of Palestine defending themselves against Arab violence. It was the consequence of a premeditated Zionist offensive. The real defensive violence was that of the Palestinians.
The effort to encourage Palestinian emigration has never ceased. And from this point on this writer has been an eye witness to much of what follows. Within Israel the democratic status given the non-Jewish population proved to be a facade. Arab citizens of Israel may be able to vote, but they are also systematically discriminated against at all levels, their standard of living purposely kept low, and their educational opportunities limited. Since 1948, Israel has not permitted the founding of a single new Palestinian town despite a high birth rate. This means the increasing over-crowding Palestinians now experience is artificially manufactured by Israeli policy. As the Zionist leader Yesha’ayahu Ben-Porat put it in 1972, “…it is the duty of the [Israeli] leadership to explain to the public a number of truths. One truth is that there is no Zionism without evacuating Arabs, without expropriating [their] lands and their fencing off.” Finally, the very few examples of successful Arab-Israelis are the exceptions that prove the rule. Their numbers are minuscule relative to the size of their population. They are artificially manufactured tokens.
In the Occupied Territories, which have been suffering a process of colonization since 1967 that is in clear violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, things are worse. Here Palestinians are crowded into Bantustan-like enclaves and their ability to travel for reasons of health or education, or work, are extremely limited. To date, the Israelis have destroyed or confiscated over four million acres of Palestinian land, uprooted over 25,000 olive trees belonging to Palestinian farmers, confiscated 90% of the water resources for exclusive Jewish use, and daily harass Palestinians as they try to go about their business. Palestinian unemployment stands at 57% and 47% of Palestinians live below the poverty level. Meron Benvenisti, the former Israeli mayor of Jerusalem, has described the Israeli administration of the West Bank as “a cruel regime….a regime based on ethnic discrimination and separation, double standards and the absence of the rule of law.” The result is a life lived under constant threat of violence both from the state and its colonial settler agents. In January of 2007, Yosef Lapid, then head of Israel’s central holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, condemned the treatment of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. He said “it is inconceivable for the memory of Aushwitz to warrant ignoring the fact that there are Jews among us who behave today towards the Palestinians just like the German, Hungarian, Polish and other anti-Semites behaved toward the Jews.” The Jews who behave this way are not randomly spread through the population. They are specifically soldiers and settlers. They are agents of the state.
It is against this backdrop that the entire issue of terrorism has to be understood. One might argue that the Israelis have been forced to act in this hostile and violent way because the Palestinians have refused to recognize the Israeli state, have sought its destruction. But, at least since 1988, this has not been true. It was in 1988 that Yasir Arafat and the PLO first recognized the state of Israel, renounced terrorism and sought negotiations for a two state solution to the conflict. Subsequently, even Hamas announced that it would accept a two state solution if the Palestinian people approved such a settlement in an open and fair referendum. Have Palestinians who are not associated with the PLO, violently attacked Israelis, sometimes using terror tactics, resulting in the deaths of innocent Israeli civilians? Yes, they have. And have almost all of these actions come in response to Israeli attacks, many of which fall into the category of state terrorism that have killed and maimed innocent Palestinian civilians? Yes, they have.
The simple fact of the matter is that both sides have a lot of “blood on their hands.” There is little sense in looking for morality in this struggle, there is none. That being said, from an historical perspective there is no doubt that Israel was founded by Europeans acting in a colonist fashion just at a period of history when colonialism was going out of fashion. That is a fact that cannot be undone. Israel is now part of the Middle East and it is not going to go away. The question is do the Israelis want to live in peace or do they want to expand and see their country evolve into an apartheid state? Given its present course there is little doubt that Israel does not want peace. It wants the land, all the land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. And it wants it with as few Palestinians as possible. The problem for the Israelis is that the Palestinians are not simply going to go away either. They will fight back, they will resist. If you chose to point fingers at them for doing so you will have to come up with a better reason than the charge of resorting to terrorism. Both sides do that. It is just that the Palestinians have a better excuse to do so than do their oppressors.
Dr. Davidson is a professor of History at West Chester University. He can be reached at LDavidson@wcupa.edu.