Part 1: The nature of Israeli colonialism
August 2005 saw the withdrawal of over 8,000 Israeli colonists from the occupied Palestinian territory of the Gaza Strip, and from four settlements in the West Bank. Protesters barracked the Israeli army as it moved in to eject them and demolish their settlements, under the gaze of the global media. With attention focused briefly on that part of the world, the opportunity arose to review the nature of Israel's colonial record; something that ought to have been of particular interest in the US and the UK, being as they are Israel's principal allies on the world stage. But the media and political classes in both countries failed to grasp that opportunity to any meaningful extent.
Since the Israeli-Palestinian conflict lies at the epicentre of the Middle East's political troubles, and since the US and the UK share responsibility for their allies' role in the conflict, the subject is worth examining in detail. Part 1 of this article will examine the nature of Israeli colonialism. Part 2 will examine the fraud and melodrama of the withdrawal, comparing it with IDF evictions of Palestinians in Gaza during May 2004. Finally, Part 3 will look at the reason these affairs concern us - Britain's complicity in Israel's actions [focusing specifically on the Israel-Hezbollah war of summer 2006]. Since the recent colonist withdrawals were mainly from the Gaza strip, the bulk, though not all, Part 1 of this article will focus on that part of the occupied Palestinian territories.
"A Land without a People for a People without a Land" - early Zionist Slogan
Gaza is a 370 square-kilometre strip of land on the Mediterranean coast. It is one of the two areas of what was British-occupied Palestine, along with the West Bank, that that did not become part of the new state of Israel as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Around 1.2 million Palestinians live there, making it one of the most densely populated parts of the globe. Approximately seventy-eight percent of those Palestinians are refugees, and their descendents, who fled or were ethnically cleansed in 1948 and 1949 from what became the state of Israel.
In 1947, the Arab population of Palestine was around 1.2 million and the Jewish population 600,000. 92 percent to 94 percent of the land was owned by Palestinian Arabs and 6 percent to 8 percent owned by Jewish settlers. In spite of this, and the population ratio of 2:1, the U.N. partition plan of that year called for a Jewish state on 56 percent of historic Palestine and a Palestinian Arab state on the remaining 44 percent. A significant amount of Arab-owned land was therefore to be handed over to the new Jewish settler state. Tension was predictable and, sure enough, war ensued.
Israeli historian Ilan Pappe has researched and written extensively, both on the expulsion of the Arab population during that conflict and on the failure of Israeli society to acknowledge the crime, which Palestinians refer to as the "Nakba"; Arabic for "the catastrophe". In 2002 he reflected that "Because so many of the people who live in Israel lived through 1948, this is not a distant memory. It is not the genocide of the Native Americans in the United States. People know exactly what they did, and they know what others did. Yet they still succeed in erasing it totally from their own memory while struggling rigorously against anyone trying to present the other, unpleasant, story of 1948, in and outside Israel. If you look at Israeli textbooks, curricula, media, and political discourse you see how this chapter in Jewish history - the chapter of expulsion, colonization, massacres, rape, and the burning of villages - is totally absent. It is not there. It is replaced by a chapter of heroism, glorious campaigns and amazing stories of moral courage and superiority unheard of in any other histories of people's liberation in the 20th century. So whenever I speak of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948, we must remember that not just the very terms of "ethnic cleansing" and "expulsion" are totally alien to the community and society from which I come and from where I grew up; the very history of that chapter is either distorted in the recollection of people, or totally absent. We have yet to be told the most horrific stories of 1948, although so many of us have been working as professional historians on that. We haven't talked about the rape. We haven't talked about the more than 30 or 40 massacres which popular historiography mentions. We haven't yet decided how to define the systematic killing of several individuals that took place in each and every village in order to create the panic that should produce the exodus."
Pappe described the Zionist goals as twofold: "the dispossession of the indigenous population from the land and its re-populating with newcomers - i.e. settlement and expulsion...The colonization effort was pushed forward by a movement [which, in its early stages from the late 19th to mid 20th centuries] had to buy land, and create enclaves within the indigenous population. Yet from the very beginning of Zionist strategy, the leaders of Zionism knew that settlement is a very long and measured process, which may not be sufficient if you want to revolutionize the reality on the ground and impose your own interpretation. For that, you needed something more powerful. David Ben-Gurion, the leader of the Jewish community in the 1930s and later the first Prime Minister of Israel, mentioned more than once, that for that [imposing your interpretation on the ground] you need what he called "revolutionary conditions". He meant a situation of war".
In 1938, Ben-Gurion wrote that, "[I am] satisfied with part of the country, but on the basis of the assumption that after we build up a strong force following the establishment of the state -- we will abolish the partition of the country, and we will expand to the whole Land of Israel". War came, first with Palestinian Arabs and then with the Arab armies of Syria, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq. By the end of the conflict, out of 900,000 Palestinians that had been living in the areas allocated to the Jewish state by the UN and additional areas occupied by Israel from the designated Arab states, only 100,000 remained. Israel had acquired by force of arms about 78 percent of the British 'Mandate' Palestine, with Egypt and Jordan taking the remainder. A Palestinian state never emerged.
The Palestinians would continue to pay the cost of the international community's recognition of the new 1949 borders and its failure to insist that the UN partition plan was implemented and the land settlement envisaged in that plan adhered to. The Zionist vision of fluid, expanding borders was in the ascendancy. Or, to paraphrase various condemnations of Yasser Arafat as the US sponsored peace process broke down in the late 1990’s: the Zionists had rejected a “generous offer” from the international community, choosing instead to “embrace terror”. This was entirely consistent with the expressed views of Israel’s founding fathers. In 1936, Ben Gurion had said that "the boundaries of Zionist aspirations are the concern of the Jewish people and no external factor will be able to limit them". Moshe Dayan, famed military commander and later an Israeli government minister told the youth of Israel that expansionism was a continuous enterprise. "You have not started it, and you will not finish it!". Elsewhere, he said that "[Israel] must see the sword as the main, if not the only, instrument with which to keep its morale high and to retain its moral tension. Toward this end it may, no - it must - invent dangers, and to do this it must adopt the method of provocation-and-revenge...And above all - let us hope for a new war with the Arab countries, so that we may finally get rid of our troubles and acquire our space". These views persisted. In the 1990's, Israeli minister for tourism Rehavam Zeevi was a vocal and by no means sole advocate of the "transfer by agreement" of 3.3m Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza to the Arab nations of the region, in order to "cure a demographic ailment". His description of Palestinians, living in what used to be their home country, as "a demographic ailment" was a kind one, by his standards. On another occasion, he described Arabs working illegally in Israel as "lice" and "cancer". Zeevi’s views on the subject of “transfer” have wide support according to a recent poll conducted by Israel's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies. Almost one-half of Israelis support the expulsion of Palestinians from the occupied territories, and nearly one-third support expulsion of Palestinians from Israel itself. Three-fifths support "encouraging" Israeli Palestinians to leave.
Gaza was seized from Egypt in 1967, during what apologists for Israeli expansionism often describe, as they do the 1948-49 conflict, as a war of self-defence; a version of history that is dubious to say the least. As even former Israeli Prime Minister Menahem Begin, an idol for such apologists, once commented: "In June 1967, we again had a choice. The Egyptian Army concentrations in the Sinai approaches do not prove that [President] Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him." And even if it had been acting in self defence, Israel's occupation and colonisation of Gaza and the West Bank was certainly illegal under international law. So began a fresh, miserable chapter in the lives of Palestinians living in the newly occupied territories.
"We are dealing with soldiers who 'did their military duty and not with criminals"
In his 1989 book "Necessary Illusions", Noam Chomsky described how the failure of the US media to acknowledge the crimes of allied states such as Israel gives those states free reign to continue with their worst excesses. Chomsky noted that, with the US media and political classes virtually silent, Israel was free in the occupied territories "to use its phenomenal U.S. aid to send its military forces to conduct the regular operations described in the Israeli press (but rarely here): To bar supplies from refugee camps where there is "a serious lack of food." .......To break into a home and drag out a seven-year-old boy who had been hiding under his bed, then "beat him up savagely in front of his parents and the family," then to beat his father and brother too because they did not reveal the hiding place of the child, while the other children scream hysterically and "the mother cannot calm them because she is told not to move"; and to mercilessly beat children of age five and up, sometimes three or four soldiers with sticks "until his hands and legs are broken," or to spray gas directly into their eyes......To rake a boy twelve to fifteen years old over barbed wire "in order to injure him" as prisoners arrive at the Dahariya prison, with no reaction by the officer observing, after vicious beatings of prisoners en route with clubs, plastic pipes, and handcuffs while their commanding officer looked on ("Israeli buses have become torture chambers," Knesset member Dedi Zucker reports, citing these and other atrocities). To rampage freely through Jericho, breaking into houses, brutally beating and humiliating residents. To "run amok" through the Amari refugee camp, "knocking down doors, breaking into houses, smashing furniture, and beating residents, including children".
Elsewhere, "an eleven-year-old boy was found throwing a stone and taken to his house, where his father was ordered to beat him. The father slapped him but the officer screamed "Is this a beating? Beat him! Beat him!" The tension mounted and the father "became hysterical," starting to beat the child brutally, knocking him on the floor and kicking him in the ribs as hard as he could.....according to UNRWA relief workers and doctors at clinics, the victims of the sharp increase in brutal beatings were mostly "men [sic] aged 15 to 30," but the clinics had "also treated 24 boys and five girls aged five and younger" in the past weeks, as well as many older children, such as a seven-year-old boy brought to a clinic "with a bleeding kidney, and bearing club marks." Soldiers routinely beat, kick, and club children, according to doctors and relief officials".
Israel often claims that its armed forces adhere to the strictest moral standards and that any wrongdoing is dealt with by due process of the law. The second part of this statement at least is true, after a fashion. Chomsky described one case that was brought to trial, that of a resident of the Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza, beaten to death by the elite Givati Brigade of the IDF (Israel Defence Forces). "After children had thrown stones, twenty soldiers broke into a home and began to beat the father of one of the suspected stonethrowers, Hani al-Shami. He was kicked and beaten with clubs and weapons. Soldiers jumped on him from the bed while he was lying on the floor, his head bleeding from blows with clubs. His wife was also beaten up by soldiers". Al-Shami later died from his injuries. "The courts released the four soldiers charged with the murder while the trial proceeded, as briefly noted without comment in the Jerusalem Post. A soldier testified at the trial that "the humiliation and the beatings were because of the need to pass the time." Another added that al-Shami's protruding belly particularly amused the soldiers and was "a target for the beatings." An officer testified that he had threatened to kill al-Shami because "his groans disturbed me"; "I shouted at him that he should shut up, or I will kill him." He testified further that in the military compound to which al-Shami had been brought after the beatings [rather than a hospital], he had asked a doctor to treat al-Shami, but the doctor had refused, only giving an order to wipe the blood from his face".
"The military court accepted the defense plea, ruling that "there is a basis to the claim that the deceased was beaten up in the military stronghold by soldiers whom to our sorrow the investigation did not succeed in identifying." Furthermore, the fact that the soldiers were detained for eighty-three days brings "a correct balance between the needs of the army and the nature of their innocence and the nature of justice." We are dealing with soldiers who "did their military duty and not with criminals," the court ruled. "Nobody had denied that they had brutally beaten an unarmed Arab inside his own home, that they had broken a club or two over his head in front of his children or jumped on him in their boots," [Israeli journalist] Ziva Yariv commented; but there is no legal liability because these beatings might not have been the actual cause of death "as if there were no law banning the brutal beating of civilians, or the breaking of a club over the body of an innocent man, as if there were no law against vicious attacks or grievous bodily harm."
"The military correspondent of Ha'aretz observed that ......The Givati soldiers, like the members of an elite paratrooper unit tried for rampaging in the Kalandia refugee camp, "did not understand what the fuss is about." They had behaved no differently from soldiers in other units and had been following orders, doing exactly what is expected of them. Brutal beating of prisoners or Arab civilians in their homes or on the streets is simply part of daily life, so they were unjustly tried. Evidently, the Court agreed." In 2005, Givati soldiers were not deployed in the Gaza withdrawal because of the high percentage of religious-nationalist soldiers in its ranks who would sympathise with the settlers, and so could not be trusted with their expulsion.
The brutality of the occupation continued, as did the contempt for Palestinian life shown by the Israeli armed forces. In 1996, Dr Samir Quota, director of research for the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, was quoted in The Journal of Palestine Studies as saying that, "90 percent of children two years old or more have experienced - some many, many times - the [Israeli] army breaking into the home, beating relatives, destroying things. Many were beaten themselves, had bones broken, were shot, tear gassed, or had these things happen to siblings and neighbors".
The brutality rolled on and on inexorably, to the present day, where a 2004 Human Rights Watch report says that in Gaza "IDF positions fire with large caliber machine guns and tanks at civilian areas [shooting which] appears to be largely indiscriminate and in some cases unprovoked. In July 2004, nearly every house on Rafah's southern edge was pockmarked by heavy machine gun, tank, and rocket fire on the side facing the border. Bullet holes were not only clustered around windows or other possible sniper positions, but sprayed over entire sides of buildings. Human Rights Watch researchers also witnessed indiscriminate use of heavy machine gun fire against Palestinian civilian areas in nearby Khan Yunis, without apparent shooting by Palestinians from that area at the time".
Violence against Palestinians has by no means been confined to the soldiers of the IDF. Settlers too have weighed in with their own abuses, actions which have increased sharply since 2000. These include blocking roads in order to disrupt the lives of Palestinians, shooting solar panels on roofs of buildings, torching cars, smashing windowpanes and windshields, destroying crops, uprooting trees and generally abusing the population. Describing these and other exploits of the colonists, Israeli human rights group B'Tselem observed that the intent was often "to force Palestinians to leave their homes and farmland, and thereby enable the settlers to gain control of them".
The idealistic pioneers of the settler movement have been able to conduct themselves in this way safe under the protective wing of the Israeli state. According to B'Tselem, "when Palestinians attack Israelis, the authorities invoke all means at their disposal - including some that are incompatible with international law and constitute gross violations of human rights - to arrest the suspects and bring them to trial. Defendants convicted by military courts can expect harsh sentences. In contrast, when Israeli civilians attack Palestinians, the Israeli authorities employ an undeclared policy of leniency and compromise toward the perpetrators." Furthermore, "by being subject to the Israeli judicial system, settlers enjoy liberties and legal guarantees that are denied Palestinian defendants in the Occupied Territories charged with a similar offense.....different legal systems are applied to two populations residing in the same area, and the nationality of the individual determines the applicable system and court. This situation violates the principle of equality before the law. It is doubtful that any comparable system has existed since the end of apartheid in South Africa".
Amongst the many testimonies of abused Palestinians collected by B'Tselem is that of Raja'a Taysir Muhammad Abu 'Ayesha, age 17, a high school student and resident of Hebron in the West Bank. She describes the experience of growing up under Israeli occupation. "I have no social life. Our house is like a cage. It is completely fenced in, including the entrance. My grandfather set it up that way in 1996 to protect us, after settlers broke all of our windows. Our house looks like an island surrounded by a sea of soldiers, settlers and a violent atmosphere. The settlers have also attacked my school. Almost every day, the settler children block the path for me and my sister, Fida'a, age 14. They throw stones, water and leftover food at us. We try to ignore them as much as possible. I have been injured by stones thrown at me more then once. The last time was when I walked my grandfather's second wife back from the hospital. Two weeks ago during the Jewish holiday of Passover, my uncle Ibrahim, who is six years-old, broke his arm when he fell from a window after settlers threw stones at him."
"The settlers throw stones and leftover food at the house while we are inside, and sometimes at night while we are sleeping. My brothers and I wake up frightened, worried and scared....there is not one family member that hasn't been attacked by settlers - my grandfather, my parents and my siblings. On Friday two weeks ago, they spilled hot tea on my father and my brother Ashraf, on their way back from prayers.....The last time we had a curfew was during Passover while the settlers had a house-warming for the new building. The soldiers entered our house and locked us all in one room from 8 A.M. until 5:30 P.M.. Getting to school is awful as well....on Saturday, 23 April 2005...while leaving the school, dozens of settlers threw stones at us and beat us. More then fifteen students were injured. This was in the presence of many soldiers and cops."
"I feel happiness very rarely. Ashraf won't sleep alone. He only sleeps in my father's bed. Ashraf and the other children in our family do not get to experience the innocence of childhood. We are constantly in the house, looking out of the windows......"
State support remains active and committed. According to Uri Avnery, Israeli author and head of the peace movement Gush Shalom, "In hundreds of demonstrations of peace activists against the establishment of [illegal] settlements, they were faced by soldiers who lobbed tear gas grenades at them and shot rubber-coated bullets, and sometimes live ammunition. When the settlers drove Palestinian villagers from their olive groves, stole their olives and uprooted their trees, the soldiers generally defended the robbers and evicted the robbed".
The "beach paradise" of Gaza
In addition to the broken bones of Palestinian men, women and children, Israeli "closure" policies that date back to the early 1990s, justified on grounds of self defence against Palestinian terrorism, have helped to break the economy of the occupied territories. "The external closure of the Gaza strip effectively cut off what had become since the beginning of the occupation in 1967 a major source of employment for Gazans", according to Human Rights Watch. "The movement of people and goods, as well as access to health care" is severely restricted.
According to the World Bank, "the proximate cause of the Palestinian economic crisis is closure." In Gaza, the poverty rate doubled, whilst unemployment went from seventeen to twenty-nine percent between 1999 and 2003. Nearly half of Palestinians live below the poverty line. In addition, "hospitals suffer regular interruptions in access to clean water, electricity, and basic medical supplies that negatively affect clinical services, sanitation, and the prevalence of infectious disease". In Rafah, 89.6 percent of the population receives some food aid on a regular basis. Many Palestinian families are without running water for several days, whilst the exclusively Jewish settlements enjoy outdoor swimming pools and sprinklers for their lawns.
Meanwhile, an article appears on MSNBC, entitled "Gaza surfers will be forced to find new waves: Pullout means settlers will bid farewell to beach paradise". According to this heartbreaking human interest story "the beach lovers and surfers of Gush Khatif [an exclusive Jewish settlement] are in mourning". It seems that withdrawal will deprive them of the beaches and waves they have grown accustomed to enjoying. One surfer describes the withdrawal as "unbearable, I can’t believe it's happening. I feel let down by my own country, I’m being treated like a stranger suddenly".
Returning to the trivialities of Palestinian living conditions under the occupation that so profited the beach lovers and surfers of Gush Katif: children, as already described, have borne the brunt of the occupation's miseries. Human Rights Watch notes that "according to UNICEF, "the decline in the well-being and quality of life of Palestinian children [in the occupied territories] over the past two years has been rapid and profound...According to CARE, 17.5 percent of children in Gaza are malnourished. Among children between the ages of six months and five years, over thirteen percent in Gaza have moderate to severe acute malnutrition, compared to roughly two percent in a normally nourished population". Opportunities for surfing have also been scarce, not least for the would-be beach lovers of the Rafah refugee camp, whose access to the Mediterranean has been blocked by the Gush Katif settlement bloc that runs along the coast, on top of Gaza’s best water sources.
Human Rights Watch points out that, even after the decolonisation, "The IDF will retain control over Gaza's borders, coastline, and airspace, and will reserve the right to enter Gaza at will.....A World Bank study on the effects of the "disengagement" plan on the Palestinian economy determined that.....If accompanied by a sealing of the borders to labor and trade....the plan "would create worse hardship than is seen today"". In the short term, Palestinian communities living near Jewish settlements in Gaza were to be subject to a month-long Israeli-imposed closure immediately following the withdrawal. "No one should be under the illusion that Gaza will cease to be the world's largest prison camp", warned Paul McCann, former spokesman for the U.N.'s Palestinian refugee agency in Gaza.
Such are the painful sacrifices that both sides must make for peace. For colonisists, the loss of a surfer’s paradise. For the refugees, confinement to “the world's largest prison camp".
Coming up in Part 2: the fraud of Sharon’s “painful sacrifice”, eviction hysteria and the Palestinians’ own experience of an IDF eviction in May 2004.
"Normally we would storm a house killing everyone inside, whereas here we have to storm the house and keep everyone alive," said one [IDF] commander. "It's not an easy job." - Psychologists on hand for army's nightmare eviction of settlers , Sunday Times, 14 August 2005