Zionism has always sought to both erase and instrumentalize Palestinians. That dual aim lies at the heart of the events of the past several weeks.
Since its inception as a settler colonial movement in the late 19th century, Zionism has relentlessly pursued a campaign to erase the Palestinian presence in Palestine. It has done so by manipulating the resistance generated by that campaign among Palestinians to its own ends, by instrumentalizing Palestinian resistance to de-politicize it and make it appear nothing but criminalized terror.
A key element of settler colonialism, in the famous phrase of the Australian anthropologist Patrick Wolfe, is the elimination of the indigenous people in the lands coveted by the settlers. Although this suggests their physical elimination – which usually happens at least partially – it can take different forms: cultural as well as physical genocide, displacement, marginalization, ghettoization or, when they have ceased being a demographic or political threat, assimilation. They might even be offered some form of symbolic self-determination. Whatever works. I use the term “erasure.” More nuanced, it covers all strategies of removing the indigenous presence, political, legal, physical and cultural.
At the same time, settlers, who are constantly attempting to market their colonial narrative as the “civilized” one, even among their own people, instrumentalize the resistance of the indigenous people, ensuring that it is kept within tolerable limits. This strategy is clear to Israelis. The image of the plucky kibbutznik against the faceless gangs of Arab terrorists stands out in Zionist hasbara (“explanation,” a Hebrew euphemism for propaganda) from the highly influential novel Exodus through the David and Goliath motif of the Six Day War down to demonstrating the higher moral calibre of the Israeli soldiers risking their own lives in Gaza so not to harm innocent civilians, in stark contrast to the “murderous Arabs.” That dual aim of erasure and instrumentalization of the Palestinians lies at the heart of the events of the past several weeks, from the Sheikh Jarrah evictions through the attack on the worshippers in the Al Aqsa Mosque and on to the deadly exchanges with Hamas in Gaza, the inter-communal fighting within Israel and, perhaps, uprisings in the West Bank.
From the Nakba to the 1967 War
The process of erasure has continued unabated since Zionism first claimed the Jews’ exclusive entitlement to the Land 125 years ago. Even before any actual contact, before Zionist adherents in Minsk or Plonsk ever realized that Arabs lived in the land that was awaiting them and they thought to be “without a people,” Palestine was cast as a country that “belonged” to the Jews. The very purpose of Zionism – and this is still true of Israel today – was to transform an Arab country into a Jewish one, Palestine into the Land of Israel.
If anything, the Palestinians were merely irrelevant. From those early days until this moment, both the Zionist movement as well as the Israeli state have refused to recognize the very existence, let alone the national rights, of a Palestinian people.
The Zionist movement soon got crucial support from Britain, the world’s leading colonial power of the day. The Mandate over Palestine given to the British by the League of Nations carefully incorporated whole sections of the Balfour Declaration, itself dictated to the British government by Zionist leaders, which committed the British to establishing a Jewish national home in Arab Palestine. If it addressed the Jews as a national group, a people with rights of self-determination, the Mandate denied that to the Palestinian majority (which represented about 90 percent of the population in the early 1920s), who were referred to only as non-Jewish communities in Palestine. To be sure, their civil and religious rights were to be protected, but under the Mandate Palestinians enjoyed no national rights as a people.
The ultimate acts of erasure came in 1947-48. The national wishes of the Palestinian people for independence were ignored when the United Nations recognized 56 percent of Palestine as a “Jewish” state, handing it over to the third of the population that was by then Jewish, despite clear signs that massive ethnic cleansing of Palestinians would result. And, in fact, by the end of 1948 war (the Nakba or Catastrophe), 85 percent of the Palestinian population, about 750,000 people, of what became Israel had been driven out.
After 1948, the campaign of erasure started taking other forms: the erasure of Palestine’s Arab character, the Judaization of the landscape; putting into place the colonial structures of Jewish domination and control. A permanent State of Emergency was declared – it is still in effect today in the Occupied Palestinian Territory – placing the Palestinian population beyond the bounds of the Israel’s legal system and under martial law. The Military Government under which Palestinian citizens of Israel lived until 1966 allowed the state to expropriate their lands and ghettoize them.
The Israeli parliament passed a series of laws, supplemented by dozens of military orders, to de-Arabize – or as they put it, to Judaize – the country. The Absentee’ Property Law of 1950, for example, alienated refugees’ land from their owners and allowed Israel to systematically demolish, without compensation, some 530 entire Palestinian villages, towns and urban areas – about 52,000 homes were destroyed – transferring title to the lands to Jewish settlers and Judaizing the landscape.
To complete the erasure of a Palestinian presence, the Arabic names of towns, rivers and geographical areas were replaced with Hebrew ones. By the early 1950s, 94 percent of the land that had been in Palestinian hands, including two million cultivated acres, was now classified as Israeli “State Land.”
Had Israel stopped there, its settler colonial project might have succeeded. Israel had achieved a degree of normalcy and international recognition that settler states crave, the Palestinian refugee issue had been largely forgotten and no serious resistance had emerged from within. But having set its eye on the whole of Palestine, Zionism could not resist the temptation to conquer East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 War – together with Sinai and the Golan Heights, but these issues fall outside the scope of this essay.
Now that the whole of Palestine fell under Israeli military rule, the Military Government that Israel placed over its own Palestinian citizens was simply transferred into the Occupied Palestinian Territory. There the processes of displacement, Judaization, massive Jewish settlement and the ghettoization of the Palestinians continued, and by now has been virtually completed. Taking the country between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea as a whole, as Zionism does, we find that the majority population, the Palestinians, are locked into dozens of small and impoverished enclaves on just 12-15 percent of their homeland: Areas A and B of the West Bank, isolated pockets in East Jerusalem and the open-air prison of Gaza, under total siege now for 15 years.
Israel’s struggle for legitimacy has thus changed. Having erased much of the Palestinian presence from its territory – Israel in the 1967 borders, “East” Jerusalem plus Area C, the 62 percent of the West Bank housing its settlements – it now faces the most difficult part of the settlement process: normalization. A settler regime “triumphs” only when the native population is erased, driven out, killed, marginalized and pacified to the point where the settler state and society appear the natural and normal ones, the settlers appearing self-evidently as the natives of the country which obviously “belongs” to them.
This happened in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, where the indigenous population became, and remained, small and marginal. But what does a settler regime like Israel do, where the indigenous Palestinians are the majority, have retained their national aspirations and are far from pacified? True, they have been erased from the body-politic and from the everyday landscape, but their presence, even externally, threatens the settler normalization process. In Israel’s case, the solution is to instrumentalize them.
Repression of a rebellious indigenous minority that occurs after the settler state has become well established is far harder to justify and sustain than the process of erasure during the violent settlement process. In order to cast it in an acceptable light, the settler state reverts to what had worked well before: appeals to security. Indigenous resistance to displacement can never be acknowledged as legitimate expressions of an indigenous population with collective rights to the land since that would undercut the settlers’ own claims to entitlement. Resistance must be delegitimized, even criminalized, so as to remove any political justification that may render repression unacceptable. On the contrary, the indigenous are blamed for “the violence,” thus justifying the repression as mere “self-defense” or “security measures.”
The notion of “terrorism,” a term dear to Netanyahu, who has written books on the subject (International Terrorism: Challenge and Response; Terrorism: How the West Can Win; Fighting Terrorism: How Democracies Can Defeat Domestic and International Terrorists), serves this purpose perfectly. It legitimizes political repression while removing any blame or responsibility from the settler regime itself. For after the erasure has been completed and the state of the settler-country appears normal, the violence and ongoing repression that is the structural reality of a settler society disappears; the oppression becomes invisible, hidden now in laws, planning restrictions, political and economic dynamics – repression is concealed behind the façade of “security.”
As such, the alienation of Palestinian resistance from visible sources of oppression has allowed Israel to instrumentalize the Palestinians, enabling it to manipulate them for its own purposes.
How this all works in practice is well-illustrated by the events from mid-April to late May, the immediate background being the Israeli elections of March 23, in which Netanyahu did not get enough votes to put together a government, so then needed to dissuade the Islamic party, Ra’am, from joining a coalition government that would have ousted him from office.
Here is a clear example of how Israel instrumentalizes Palestinians. Allowing that Netanyahu might need Ra’am’s support at some future time, how could the party be neutralized, if not delegitimized? By having his Minister of Internal Security, Amir Ohana, use the police to push the religious and political polarization in which Ramadan was laden to the brink, a backlash was created so that Ra’am could not join any Israeli government.
The evictions in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah provided both the kindling and the spark. There, erasure was being pursued through a combination of physical violence and well-financed settlers’ associations with the resources to keep Palestinian residents in court for decades until they simply wore them out. The court’s decision in mid-April to remove some of the last families from that strategically located neighborhood provoked protest. In response, the police attacked the protesters with a heavy-handedness that was intended, as Ohana put it, to demonstrate zero-tolerance towards Arab “violence.”
The start of Ramadan at precisely this time – April 12 – with tens of thousands of Palestinians converging on the Old City and its Al Aqsa Mosque just down the street from Sheikh Jarrah, called for a further assertion of Israeli control over everything to do with Palestinian life in Jerusalem. Ohana’s hand-picked police chief decided arbitrarily that young Palestinian men would not be allowed to sit on the wide stairs of the Damascus Gate, where they would normally relax for a few minutes after a day of fasting and prayers. That predictably triggered a response from Palestinian youths which soon escalated into full-blown street battles, which in turn, spilled into the Al Aqsa compound and even into the mosque itself.
Two days later, on April 14, Israel celebrated its Independence Day, the day of Palestinian erasure. Alongside the draping of the Old City in the Israeli national colors blue and white, gangs of young Jewish thugs belonging to the right-wing religious-nationalist Lehava movement poured into the Damascus Gate area to join the police in their attacks on the Palestinian youths for the sake of “Jewish pride.” The confrontations escalated violently. Ohana’s police soon found themselves battling worshippers in the Al Aqsa compound itself, throwing stun grenades and invading the inner sanctum of the mosque – to the horror now of all religious Muslims, Hamas at their head.
Just at this moment, the most Israeli “holiday” of all arrives – “Jerusalem Day” (May 10th) – where tens of thousands of religious Zionists pour into Jerusalem from the West Bank settlements to triumphantly proclaim Jerusalem’s “Jewishness,” parading with flags, drums and shouting nationalist slogans at Palestinians as they stream through their Old City neighborhoods.
At this juncture I have to say that Hamas was also engaged in instrumentalizing Israel. Hamas was stymied by the Palestinian Authority’s success in limiting its activities in the West Bank and frustrated by Mahmoud Abbas’s canceling of the Palestinian elections that Hamas was poised to win. Hamas’ leadership saw in the Ramadan tumult in Jerusalem an opportunity to stand up to Israel in the eyes of all Palestinians in order to save a threatened Al Aqsa.
Despite Netanyahu’s provocations, the Israeli intelligence community did not think Hamas would actually attack. But they did, the first missiles aimed at Jerusalem, and what we witnessed was the eleven-day assault on Gaza.
Where Do We Go From Here?
From local news reports and reactions among activists with whom I am in contact here in Palestine/Israel, we have not experienced merely another “round” of fighting, to be succeeded once again by the status quo ante. This time something fundamental has changed.
The Hamas attacks, in the context of what had been happening in Jerusalem, have galvanized the Palestinians, in Palestine and worldwide, as protests and expressions of solidarity among all the far-flung fragments of Palestinian communities’ attest. As Jack Khoury writes in Ha’aretz:
'In the past week it looked like the Green Line had disappeared for a moment, and it became clear that it’s not difficult for Palestinians on both sides to find a common denominator and take to the streets in the face of bullying and oppression…. The message to the international community, especially the United States, is that after 73 years, the time has come to try and end the conflict instead of managing it. And it has been made clear to the Arab community’s political leadership that Arab citizens of Israel have not abandoned their national identity. They want to be a part of society, standing unbowed, are seeking real equality and are no longer satisfied with mere crumbs.'
Fed up with decades of displacement, humiliation, struggles for the barest necessities of life, the demolition of their homes and their collective imprisonment in a cruel, ever-more constricting form of warehousing, they have had it. What does this portend for the Palestinian struggle for liberation which must be defined and led by Palestinians? What are the implications for effective political work with non-Palestinian allies, anti-colonial Israelis like me in particular?
Any political movement forward depends upon Palestinian leadership, if Khoury is correct. More grassroots leadership than that of formal parties or the Palestinian Authority, more younger people than older ones, a leadership just galvanizing its ranks and positions. A first order of business might be to exploit their new-found unity to engage in an internal Palestinian discussion around the main question facing them at this moment: What do we need? Putting aside peace processes, negotiations, concerns for “peace” and “coexistence” imposed from outside, what is the Palestinian national agenda, the Palestinians’ fundamental demands?
From that discussion may emerge a Palestinian-centric national movement that could then work to reestablish working relations with Israeli and international partners. Above all, if their recent history tells us anything, Palestinians must resist their instrumentalization by Israel and others.
In the meantime, the international civil society remains a key ally of the Palestinians and anti-colonial Israelis – indeed, our only ally. If anything positive can be salvaged from the events of the past months, it is the sea-change that seems to have occurred in support for the Palestinian cause abroad, and particularly in the United States. It remains undirected, however, in need of a political program, an endgame, advocated by Palestinians around which it can effectively mobilize.
Armed with that, the fluid political situation in Israel may offer significant opportunities to advance a just peace. Netanyahu did not come out well from the latest Operation Guardian of the Walls. Although he probably succeeded in preventing the establishment of an opposition government, Israel seems to be heading for yet another round of elections. Not that a center-left government might emerge. Any Israeli government will be but an imitation of a Likud one – but without Netanyahu, and that means something. Think of him what you will, Netanyahu is a skilled manager, nay, manipulator. A native-English speaker with a wide-ranging network of political leaders based on an equally wide network of arms and hi-tech sales, Netanyahu has managed to maintain international support for what is actually an indefensible, illegal and highly unpopular policy of occupation abroad.
The next Israeli Prime Minister, be he such an unknown to the outside world as Gidon Saar, Yair Lapid, Naftali Bennett, Benny Gans or someone else, will lack those skills. He will be a run-of-the-mill local politician. If so, the rising support for Palestinians worldwide may have an impact, especially on their governments’ policies, that Netanyahu’s Israel is still able to repel. “Reading” what is happening in Israel must be a key part of the Palestinians’ strategy.
This article was first published by ROAR magazine on 23 May 2021