By Richard Falk
This is a grand essay on the dimensions, history, structures of the Middle East/Palestine-Israeli-Western conflict over about 100 years. It is extraordinarily rich – but doesn’t cause the reader to drown in too many details. I highly recommend it to any student – young or old, journalist and politician – whose understanding of the issues may be based on the woefully biased, general account in Western mainstream media.
– Jan Oberg
In this period when the centenary of the genocidal victimization of the Armenian people in 1915 is being so widely observed and discussed, it seems especially appropriate to call attention to the comparable victimization of the Palestinian people. This second story of prolonged collective victimization also received its jump start almost a century ago with the issuance by the British Foreign Office of the Balfour Declaration supporting the Zionist movement project of establishing a Jewish national home in historic Palestine.
The most striking difference between these two experiences of severe historical wrongs is that the Armenian people are seeking acknowledgement and apology for what was done to their ancestors a century ago, and possibly seeking reparations, while the Palestinian people may sometime in the future have the opportunity to seek similar redress for the past but now their urgent focus is upon liberation from present daily structures of acute oppression.
This Palestinian situation is tragic, in part, because there is no clear path to liberation, and the devastation of oppressive circumstances have gone on decade after decade with no end in view.
The political puzzle of the Israel/Palestine conflict continues to frustrate American policymakers despite their lengthy diplomatic engagement in the search for a peaceful future that satisfies both peoples. There are significant changes, of course, that have occurred as time unwinds.
Perhaps, the most crucial change has involved the gradual extension of Israeli control over virtually the whole of historic Palestine with American acquiescence. This coincides with a growing and more vivid awareness around the world of how much suffering and humiliation the Palestinian people have endured over the course of the last century, and the degree to which this frozen situation can be blamed on the unlimited willingness of the United States to deploy its geopolitical muscle on Israel’s behalf.
My approach to the Palestinian struggle reflects four points of departure:
First, regarding the long suffering of the Palestinian people as having become the primary international moral challenge of our time, which does not deny that there are other equally serious moral challenges, but none is so implicated in wider global patterns of past injustice or as salient in the political consciousness of the peoples of the world;
Secondly, believing that international law and morality should be allowed to provide essential guidance in determining the contours of a just and sustainable peace between these two long embattled peoples;
Thirdly, emphasizing the decisive liberating role of nonviolent civil society militancy in finding a solution for the conflict, achieving liberation from below by the mobilization of people, not the action governments as offering the most promising present scenario for ending the Palestinian ordeal; and
Fourthly, approaching the struggle for Palestine as matter of human wellbeing without privileging a particular ethnicity, nationality, and religion, that is, from a sense of shared humanity rather than from adversary perspectives of Jewish and Palestinian exclusivity.
The Palestinian struggle is about far more than the ‘end to occupation,’ although the concreteness of the Israeli occupation of Palestine lends itself to visualization, as would Israeli withdrawal, and this partly explains why so many liberal activists equate peace with ending the occupation.
Yet conceiving the conflict in this territorial manner is profoundly misleading.
It ignores the depth and complexity of what is at stake for both Jews and Palestinians, but especially for Palestinians. I consider the Palestinian national struggle within its broader scope and less distinct parameters as a persisting struggle to achieve the right of self-determination.
Self-determination is the solemn promise of common Article 1 in the two international human rights covenants made to all peoples in the world, in effect, a legal, moral, cultural, and frequently a political entitlement to determine collective destiny so long as the equal right of other peoples is not encroached upon. These 1966 covenants set forth the content of international human rights law in their most authoritative treaty form.
The extended inability to realize this right is the core tragedy of the Palestinian people, informing the hardships and humiliations of daily life.
In some respects, even describing the Palestinian goal in the language of self-determination is too restrictive, and by itself, not very clarifying. Ultimately the preconditions and contours of a just and sustainable peace is what should concern us most. It is an outcome that controversially also addresses the overlapping and conflicting right of self-determination enjoyed by those of Jewish identity who are now long enough resident in Israel to possess their own legitimate basis for claiming self-determination.
The key strategy of accommodation is to find the best formula for reconciling these basic competing claims of self-determination, and to reject as unacceptable contentions of their fundamental incompatibility or their resolution by force of arms. It is important at this stage to recognize that Israeli unilateralism and Zionist maximalism are making it increasingly difficult for the affected parties to find such a formula, much less give it life.
When considering the content of this underlying right of self-determination additional substantive concerns are disclosed, above all the fate of the several million Palestinian refugees many living for more than 50 years in miserable refugee camps in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.
If Palestinian goals or the requirements of peace are confined to the territorial language of ending the occupation, the plight of Palestinian refugees tends to be left in limbo or at best consigned to the periphery of peacemaking that implicitly denies any right of repatriation and leaves the refugee communities without adequate representation.
There are other challenges facing peacemakers, as well.
Edward Said, and other sensitive commentators on the interminable Palestinian ordeal have repeatedly observed that one catastrophic dispossession, that of the Palestinians in 1948, in no way justifies seeking a second dispossession, this time of Jews. In effect, the illegitimacies of the past that have victimized the Palestinians and produced the present intolerable state of affairs, must be put to one side in peacemaking contexts, and the future framed by reference to how Palestinians and Jews can best live together when account is taken of all the circumstances of past and present, including the allocation of rights by the application of international law.
This injunction of mutuality should not be interpreted as a readiness to forget the past, or to minimize its relevance. Rather it is an insistence that replicating past wrongs by superimposing on all of historic Palestine a new power structure that excludes or subjugates Jews is not ethically acceptable or politically feasible as goals of conceiving Palestinian empowerment.
Said did insist, however, that grave past injustices endured by the Palestinians, especially the massive dispossessions of 1948 and again in 1967, must be confronted and acknowledged by Israel before any sustainable progress toward peace and reconciliation is possible. Similarly, there is no way of reconciling the contending claims of self-determination if Zionism clings to its demand of ‘a Jewish state’ and an exclusive unlimited right of return for Jews only.
The contention that Israel has become an apartheid state is highly relevant to grasping the fate endured by the Palestinian people over the course of the last hundred years. Most poignantly, if the quest for Palestinian self-determination continues to fail, the outcome of the unresolved struggle will almost certainly result in the further entrenchment of existing systematic structures of ethnic discrimination.
Such structures possess the key elements of the international crime of apartheid. If this is so, it means that the very arrangement relied upon to sustain public order in Palestine and Israel is itself an ongoing international crime of utmost gravity. Apartheid is designated as a crime against humanity in the Rome Statute of 2002, the treaty that regulates the operations of the International Criminal Court.
In other words, the present and the future of the Israel/Palestine relationship cannot be understood in neutral, symmetrical, and static terms of both sides more or less equally thwarting the path leading to conflict resolution and enduring the same consequences if that path remains blocked.
Unfortunately, this has long been the official American rebuke to both parties. John Kerry, the American Secretary of State, and President Barack Obama, never tire of telling Israel and Palestine that each must make ‘painful concessions’ if the deadlock is to be broken and peace to be attained.
Such language conveys a fundamentally distorted image of the present reality because it refuses to take account of the essential and vital difference between the situation of the oppressor and the oppressed, a difference that becomes unmistakable if you experience directly the many dimensions of everyday inequality between the two peoples. This point was often made by Edward Said. See for instance his last interview: “My Right of Return,” (with Ari Shavit), in Gauri Viswanathan, ed., Power, Politics, and Culture: Interviews with Edward W. Said (Pantheon, 2001, 443-458, esp. 445-449.]
The imagery of deadlock and equal responsibility for the unsatisfactory present reality also falsely implies a static situation that would seem detrimental to both sides. This is a false image because with the passage of time Palestine loses, and Israel gains. This is so territorially, but also to live as the oppressor is consistent in most respects with living well, while living under conditions of oppression or as refugees in to varying degrees living badly. Of course, power shifts are common, and roles can be reversed, although this does not seem likely anytime soon.
The existing Israel and Palestine interplay is constantly evolving.
This understanding leads me to have a quite different overview of the present situation that I will express in a deliberately provocative way: Either the future will witness a further entrenching of the Israeli apartheid state or Israel will abandon and dismantle current apartheid structures and accept a Palestinian call for peace in accord with international human rights law, and more generally, agree on steps that need to be taken to realize the Palestinian right of self-determination.
As previously stated such a Palestinian realization of self-determination must not be exercised at the expense of a complementary Jewish right of self-determination. This is not meant as an indirect endorsement of Zionist goals as articulated by currently dominant Israeli forces.
It is obviously difficult to adjudicate between these overlapping claims of self-determination, and doing so most likely requires help from genuinely detached third parties. Putting this more concretely, a spiritual homeland for the Jewish people in ancient Palestine would could be maintained, but not the current Jewish state with its preferential ethnically framed nationality laws, making Israel what the Jewish leader Henry Siegman perceptively identifies as an ‘ethnocracy’ rather than a ‘democracy.’
Let me acknowledge, without delving into the matter, that the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the formal representatives of the Palestinian people in international venues, has been partly responsible for the confusion about these fundamental points by seeming to go along with both a territorial definition of the conflict and a solution based on the Oslo process despite it being tainted by the United States acting in the role of intermediary.
The PA posits its primary goal to be the establishment of some kind of Palestinian state on the currently occupied territory of the West Bank, and indeed claims that such a state already exists, a position affirmed by the General Assembly in a resolution adopted on November 29, 2012. This also allows Israel and the United States to continue treating ‘the peace process’ as necessitating direct negotiations between the parties despite Israel’s multiple efforts to de facto annex portions of the West Bank at Palestine’s expense ever since the early 1990s.
By now it should be evident that these direct negotiations have given the Palestinians zero benefits for the last 20+ years while bestowing on Israel a golden opportunity to pursue its expansionist agenda in violation of international law.
The fact that Israel continues to lend rhetorical support to such a peace process sustains for many the illusion that its government favors a genuine effort to solve the conflict through diplomatic compromise. Washington does its part, going sheepishly along not only because it habitually defers to Israel, but because playing this particular diplomatic game enables the United States to continue portraying itself as patron of a process dedicated to producing peace.
Understanding Israel’s Recourse to Apartheid
At a conference at the National Press Club on April 10, 2015 in Washington devoted to assessing and depicting the Israel Lobby as it operates in the United States, the influential Haaretz columnist, Gideon Levy, painted a picture of the current Palestinian ordeal concisely with a few verbal brush strokes.
He emphatically told the audience what every follower of this ‘peace process’ should have understood long ago: “The two state solution is dead!” What does that mean?
According to Levy, neither Israeli motivation nor any practical possibility of moving toward Palestinian self-determination is present, even in that constricted and inadequate sense of territorial empowerment with respect to currently occupied Palestine. Israel’s main policies have long been subversive of the establishment of an independent and sovereign Palestine, the major presupposition of the ‘two state solution.’
The centerpiece of this subversion is, of course, the settlement phenomenon – the establishment and continuous expansion of 121 settlements authorized by Israel (along with 102 so-called ‘settlement outposts’ that are formally unauthorized but are nevertheless officially supported and subsidized) that now provide unlawful homes for between 700,000-750,000 Israeli settlers.
This massive encroachment on any future independent Palestine has been abetted by the multi-billion dollar construction of a network of settler-only roads, and by building a separation barrier of several hundred miles many segments of which cut deep into occupied Palestinian territory. This notorious wall was authoritatively declared illegal by 14 of 15 judges of the International Court of Justice back in an advisory opinion issued in 2004, endorsed by the General Assembly, and summarily rejected by Israel.
Although Levy didn’t explain exactly what he meant by using the word ‘dead,’ it can be interpreted in two distinct ways: first, as Benjamin Netanyahu himself proclaimed in the recent Israeli electoral campaign, as long as he and the Likud Party control the government, Israel will never allow the formation of a Palestinian state in historic Palestine.
This also seems to express the real views of a majority of Israeli citizens, and thus the utterance of views to the contrary by Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders for international consumption should be disregarded as a cynical move to placate public opinion; and secondly, even if the words were to be treated as sincere, the settlements, roads, and wall make a viable sovereign Palestinian state incapable of establishment even if Israel some day possesses the political will to bring it into being.
The two-state solution has long been what the NY Times columnist Paul Krugman calls a ‘Zombie Idea’, that is, a discredited idea that continues to be accepted as the way to solve a problem because it upholds the self-interest of some powerful political actors, thereby diverting attention from alternative solutions that could be burdensome for those who benefit from freezing the status quo; it is a zombie, as in being a ghost, which lives on beyond its natural death causing torment to those it haunts.
In ghostly respect the two state solution continues to be treated as the only solution for the convenience of the parties, including the United States, Europe, and the UN, despite their private awareness of its irrelevance.
During my period as UN Special Rapporteur I was often privy to corridor conversations that acknowledged the absence of any hope for a two state solution, but in public it was business as usual with these same individuals expressing their fervent hopes that talks would soon resume and finally find common ground.
In the contrasting theater of ‘reality politics’ the prospects are for further Israeli unilateralism.
This impression has been reinforced by the selection by the Knesset two years ago of Reuven (Ruvi) Rivlin as President of Israel. Rivlin is a rightest Likud figure long known for his unapologetic embrace of a one-state solution that envisions the Israeli incorporation of the whole of occupied Palestine. Netanyahu, a wily politician, differs from Rivlin in fundamental respects, and despite both men belonging to the same political party, they disagree on key issues and are personal antagonists: Netanyahu has previously given lip service internationally to a diplomatic process built around bilateral negotiations, as well as expressing his provisional support on behalf of Israel to a two-state solution; somewhat surprisingly Rivlin, unlike Netanyahu, strongly opposes an apartheid approach to internal Israeli security.
In its place, Rivlin offers the Palestinians a Faustian Bargain, if Palestinians agree to live in an orderly manner while foregoing self-determination they deserve to be treated as fully equal citizens within a Jewish state comprising Greater Israel, including a guaranty of unrestricted political participation that might even include a Palestinian victory someday in national elections. [Elaborated in by David Remnick, “The One-State Reality,” The New Yorker, Nov. 17, 2014.]
To obtain this equality of treatment, the Palestinians would be expected to accept this consummation of the Zionist Project in a form that was originally proposed by Ze’ev Jabotinsky the Zionist visionary who inspired the founding of the Likud Party!
It should be obvious that the Palestinians will never agree to such an outcome of their national struggle, which would amount to the acceptance of a humiliating political surrender.
In the unlikely event that the Ramallah leadership of the PA ever dared to accept such a deal, perhaps disguised in its presentation by granting Palestinians some community and local rights of self-government, the Palestinian people are almost certain to reject it. Such an arrangement would not bring peace, but at most it would be seen as nothing other than one more ceasefire to be broken by a further cycle of renewed resistance.
In effect, combining the physical encroachment on any Palestinian expectations of a viable sovereign state of their own with the rightward drift of internal Israeli politics, makes the apartheid solution a near certainty whether in the form of a perpetuation of the present condition of irresolution or by adopting a version of the Israeli one-state outcome within which discriminatory structures will have to be maintained to uphold public order.
In light of such futures, robust Palestinian resistance can be anticipated, and for Israel to contain and suppress it will require police and paramilitary structures of control at least as strong as has has long been operative in the West Bank, and in different modalities in Gaza, ever since occupation commenced in 1967.
Again referring to Levy’s Washington talk, he regards the cumulative impact of the occupation as having produced the “systematic dehumanization of the Palestinians.” Collective dehumanization is an almost sure sign of the presence of apartheid when those experiencing abuse are ethnically and territorially distinct, and have a sufficient demographic weight as to consider themselves as ‘a people’ rather than a victimized minority.
My own experience with Palestinians has certainly confirmed this dynamic of dehumanization, but it has also been coupled with shining instances of Palestinian humanization despite everything as well as with Israeli dehumanization associated with forcing its will by brute force on a totally vulnerable people being denied their most elemental rights.
A glance at history
At this point, a glance at history helps us appreciate the perversity of this emergence of apartheid in Palestine. It needs to be remembered that the Zionist project received its first decisive international endorsement in a strictly colonialist form, by way of an assurance in 1917 given by the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Alfred Balfour, to Lord Rothschild, the head of the Zionist Movement in Britain, that the British government would “view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”
At this initial stage, a Jewish state, as distinct from a national home, was neither endorsed in the text nor envisioned as an overt goal, although Zionist leaders seemed to have had this in mind from the beginnings of the movement in the late 19th century.
Even the limited idea of a Jewish homeland was qualified by the clause “it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done to prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”
The Balfour promise of a Jewish national home was intended to be fused with the British plan to govern the whole of Palestine primarily in pursuit of its strategic goals of safeguarding trade routes to India, and especially the Suez Canal.
Britain resorted to its habitual colonial tactic of ‘divide and rule’ with respect to its administration of relations between Jews and Arabs. But as the peace diplomacy unfolded after World War I, the British were forced by the United States to roll back their overt colonial ambitions, and operate within the mandate system that entailed an international commitment to grant Palestine eventual national independence as a single independent state but also contained the Balfour promise of a Jewish national home.
In actual fact, the British governed Palestine as a de facto colony during the mandatory period from 1920-1948, but their divide and rule approach backfired as the Jewish presence disproportionately increased and as Zionist statist ambitions became evident they began colliding with British policy.
In the end Zionist extremists resorted to systematic terrorism with the goal of inducing the British to abandon Palestine. Palestine became ungovernable, and the British shifted from their divide and rule tactics to the advocacy of a partition plan that would divide Palestine into two national entities, one for Palestinians, the other for Jews.
After World War II, when Britain could no longer handle the burdens of administering Palestine, the UN was given the job of addressing these conflicting claims, and in GA Resolution 181 of 1947 influenced by the British approach, a partition plan for Palestine was approved over the objection of Arab countries.
In the UN plan, 55% of historic Palestine was awarded to the Jewish claimants, and the remaining 45% to the Palestinians. Jerusalem was given to neither side nor split, but was designated as a corpus separatum to be administered as an international enclave by the UN with the Trusteeship Council given the assignment.
There was no attempt by the UN to implement, or even consider, self-determination by consulting the will of the resident population in Palestine, which was then overwhelmingly opposed to partition.
Partition was a paternalistic initiative of the international community that in effect ratified the settler colonialist approach of the Zionist movement as initially facilitated by Britain and later greatly strengthened due to developments in Europe, especially Germany.
Not surprisingly, partition was at the time rejected by the Palestinian majority population and accepted by the Zionists, resulting in the 1948 War, decisively won by the Jewish side.
This battlefield outcome shrank the Palestinian remnant from 55% to 22% of the land, and also de-internationalized the city of Jerusalem, putting West Jerusalem under the control of Israel and East Jerusalem under the administrative authority of Jordan. In the course of the 1948 war, there occurred the forcible dispossession of an estimated 750,000 Palestinians accompanied by the destruction and depopulation of as many as 531 Palestinian villages.
The Palestinians recall and observe these events as The Nakba, or catastrophe, a narration of national tragedy that combines the politics of dispossession with the tactics of massive ethnic cleansing.
Subsequent consequences, associated with refugee camps in neighboring countries, the 1967 War that resulted in Israel’s occupation of the rest of Palestine, and intensifying hostility toward Gaza, especially after 2006, are viewed by Palestinians as a continuation of the Nakba, conceived now more adequately as a process through time rather than as a circumscribed event.
If we consider the sweep of developments over the course of the century a pattern emerges that continues into the present:
Put simply: Ever since the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the Palestinians have survived within a steadily diminished horizon of expectations, while the Zionist Movement was continuously widening its horizons. The unfolding of this dual process can be crudely expressed by reference to three periods:
• the first, lasting from 1917 to 1947, the mandate period during which the demographic balance of Palestine started shifting due to Jewish immigration, a dynamic accelerated by the emergence of Nazism that also increased international attention to and support for a Jewish homeland, and later, Israeli statehood;
• the second, from 1948 to 1967 during a state-building period in Israel, with the West Bank and East Jerusalem administered as occupied territory in the aftermath of the 1948 War by Jordan and Gaza by Egypt;
• the third, from 1967 to the present when these Palestinian territories (as well as the Syrian Golan Heights) were shifted from Arab occupation to Israeli occupation, during which de facto annexation of portions of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Golan Heights took place. Gaza was first occupied and settled, with Israel ‘disengaging’ in 2005, but continuing to exert effective control over Gaza through its total regulation of borders, air space, and shoreline.
The UN is typically criticized for devoting too much attention to Palestinian grievances while overlooking other issues where the humanitarian urgency is as great or greater. This criticism that is frequently invoked by political leaders in Israel and the U.S. completely overlooks the degree to which the UN, and the League before it, have a special responsibility for the failure to resolve the conflict over Palestine.
Nowhere else in the world can such a humanitarian fiasco be laid so directly at the feet of the UN making it seem more appropriate to blame the Organization for doing too little or doing what it did ineptly, rather than blaming it for being obsessively focused on Israel’s wrongdoing with respect to Palestine and Palestinians.
The Politics and Ethics of Naming – Apartheid
Calling the Israeli domination of Palestinians within the various governmental zones of Israeli domination apartheid is one facet of the wider controversy. For ardent defenders of Israel the mere allegation of apartheid is inflammatory and viewed as so totally inaccurate as to suggest that anyone calling Israel an apartheid state is an anti-Semite.
Israel defends its policies toward Palestinians in Israel and under occupation by invoking the democratic character of Israel in which Palestinians vote, form political parties, and enjoy membership in the Knesset. For Palestinians who live outside of Israel under occupation in the West Bank or Gaza, Israel justifies its policies by security considerations. And for the Palestinian refugees, Israel shifts blame to the Arab countries in which they are resident.
As the accusation of Israeli apartheid has become more and more mainstream, pro-Israeli responses have become harsher. Even revered and eminent figures such as Jimmy Carter and Archbishop Desmond Tutu after expressing their opinion as to the actual and potential apartheid character of Israel have been defamed. Despite this effort to intimidate the use of the terminology of apartheid to describe not only the occupation of the West Bank but also the discriminatory regimes operative in Israel itself and East Jerusalem, as well as the oppressive securitization of Gaza, is increasing.
Apartheid as the descriptive label of Israeli policy toward the Palestinian people has been gaining acceptability throughout the world, including within the UN. It has also captured the imagination of many campus groups in the West that organize Palestinian solidarity efforts and justify the BDS campaign under the banner of ‘Israel Apartheid Week,’ believing that the idea of apartheid now better expresses the essential character of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinian people than any other descriptive language. In retaliation, Israel and its NGO global network of support are seeking to criminalize civil society initiatives that flow from the apartheid analysis.
It is important to distinguish the political use of the terminology of apartheid in expressive and impressionistic modes from its legal usage in international law, although the two types of usage overlap.
The legal conception of apartheid has evolved via the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid adopted in 1973. This treaty criminalized apartheid and made clear that the essence of the crime involved maintaining systematic regimes of extreme discrimination based on race or ethnicity, and although derived from the South African experience the crime was not limited to that particular type of discriminatory separation.
The Rome Statute of 2002 that underpins the operations of the International Criminal Court categorizes the crime of apartheid within its broader classification of crimes against humanity in Article 7(1)(j). Article 7 provides a clear definition of apartheid as an: “..institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination of one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of managing that regime.” It is understood that ‘race’ is used here in a broad sense to encompass diverse ‘ethnicities’ or ‘religions.’
The political use of apartheid in relation to Israel does not attempt to pass legal judgment. It is rather an assessment based on the systematic character of structures of domination and discrimination that cannot be convincingly rationalized as either non-discriminatory or by reference to the reasonable requirements of Israeli security.
In the background of the apartheid debate is the overarching idea of international humanitarian law as mainly set forth in the Fourth Geneva Convention to the effect that an occupying power has as its primary obligation the protection of civilians living in a society under occupation, subject only to the right of the occupier to adopt measures necessary to uphold security. The apartheid perception with respect to Palestinians is diverse and fragmented. This corresponds to the sub-regimes of control that Israel has established to deal with different segments of the Palestinian resident population.
The most clearly delineated apartheid structures are maintained in the West Bank where there is a pervasive subjugation of the Palestinian population by a regime of rightlessness as administered by Israeli military authorities, and to some extent since 1993 delegated to the Palestinian Authority.
This regime gives rise to contrasts between the Palestinian experiences of everyday abuse and uplifting Israeli experiences of the rule of law and the stable life circumstances enjoyed by unlawful settlers. This bright line of discrimination is reinforced by the checkpoints, house demolitions, settler-only roads, an intrusive separation wall, settler violence, and epitomized by the grossly unequal allocation of Palestinian water resources.
The 1.8 million Palestinians living in Gaza, especially since the Israeli ‘disengagement’ of 2005 followed by the Hamas electoral victory in 2006, have been subjected to the most severe sub-regime of discriminatory domination.
The Gazan civilian population has been locked within the borders of Gaza and subject to periodic military attacks, chillingly described in Israel as ‘mowing the lawn.’
Jerusalem and pre-1967 Israel are administered by the government of Israel, and here discriminatory laws are based on nationality and administrative rulings limiting Palestinian rights and stability of residence, denying family unification, restricting employment and education opportunities, and imposing the domination of a Jewish state, creating a situation of pervasive human insecurity for the Palestinian minority.
There are also about 1.6 million Palestinians living behind the Green Line within Israel’s 1967 borders as Israeli citizens, while being denied real equality due to this wide variety of nationality laws that blatantly privilege Jewish nationality.
In its totality, the Israeli apartheid system can be compared to the colonial governance approach of the British. The British derived security by ‘divide and rule’ tactics while the Israel approach can be summarized as ‘divide, dominate, and discriminate.’ In the first case, we have the traditional format of a colonial power, while in the second, the most obvious label is that of ‘settler colonialism,’ yet it must be particularized in relation to Palestine to be fully understood.
The Palestinian National Movement
The Palestinian struggle has gone through a series of overlapping stages during the course of almost a century. There was an early period of a building internal resistance by the native population to continuing Jewish immigration during the mandate period coupled with growing Zionist influence and militancy in Palestine.
The British colonialist approach tended to support this buildup of the Jewish presence in Palestine, initially feeling more kinship with Jews as mainly fellow Europeans. This widening cleavage eventually led the British and then the UN to seek stability and conflict resolution via partition, dividing the two peoples territorially, with the hope of creating separate polities. The British reached the conclusion, which was endorsed by the UN, that Jews and Palestinians would never peacefully live together, and that separation was the only viable approach.
This idea of partition, eventually accepted as a goal by many world leaders, including those representing the Palestinian people, has since the 1990s morphed into ‘the two state solution.’ Among its original flaws, aside from the arrogance of imposing a solution from without and above, was the dispersion of the native Palestinian population throughout all of Palestine, whereas the Jewish population was confined to certain portions of the country. This meant that even with dispossession many Palestinians would find themselves captive in the incipient Jewish state, and consigned to the status of a subjugated minority in what had been their homeland for countless generations.
The failure of partition led to a phase of Arab belligerency in relation to the Palestinian struggle. In wars waged in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973, it was the goal of neighboring Arab countries to liberate Palestine and Jerusalem by joint military action. These efforts were unsuccessful, resulting in a series of Israeli military victories, coupled with territorial expansion, and belligerent occupation.
The failure of such liberation from without was followed by a period of resistance from within, the formation of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, PLO, under the leadership of Yasir Arafat.
This rise of national resistance activity was especially pronounced in the years following the 1967 War, a period of nationalist resurgence by the Palestinian people. It was in this period that Palestinian armed resistance activity began being portrayed in the West as ‘terrorism’ and its suppression by Israel was welcomed, especially in reaction to internationalizing the Palestinian struggle through the staging of shocking violent incidents at the Munich Olympics, hijacking, exploding planes, attacking airports and passenger ships.
Armed struggle by Palestinians also was discredited and defeated by Israel’ effective counter-terrorist tactics and by its ability to tilt in its favor the media treatment of the conflict. In a spontaneous show of civil society activism, the Intifada of 1987 created a new previously unexpected challenge to Israeli dominance. In a show of populist unity and courage, ‘the war of the stones’ was defiantly waged by the Palestinian people. It communicated to the world the dramatic refusal of the Palestinian people to allow the occupation to be normalized.
The inequalities in weaponry and suffering between the two sides began to shift the balance in the war of ideas and images, especially giving enhanced credibility to Palestinian narratives of victimization.
In response, the conflict once again became internationalized. The United States playing a leading role, culminating in the formulation of the Oslo Framework of Principles solemnized by Itzaak Rabin and Yasir Arafat with a historic handshake on the White House Lawn in 1993.
Oslo diplomacy reflected the power disparity that exists between Israel and Palestine, and the naively bewildering trust of the Palestinian leadership in the good offices of the U.S. Government to deliver a decent agreement. It should not have been surprising that the diplomacy over these many years was of a one-sided variety that relied on fruitless periodic negotiations between the parties, with the United States serving as intermediary and wrongly assigning blame for failures to find an agreed solution to the inflexibility of the Palestinians.
The unwillingness of Israel even to stop settlement expansion during the negotiating sessions both exhibited the one-sidedness of the process and the underlying absence of political will in Israel to reach a fair settlement.
Of course, there is an element of subjectivity with respect to the content of ‘fair,’ but international law could have offered guidelines had it been allowed to be relevant. And what is objectively clear was translating Israel’s unlawful ‘facts on the ground’ into new negotiating positions that continuously diminished Palestinian prospects.
In retrospect, the Oslo diplomacy was based on the relative bargaining power of the two sides, combined with the intensity of their respective political will. It was also shaped by the American deference to Israel’s policy priorities, above all, its refusal to give ground on the right of return of dispossessed Palestinian refugees or to accept shared governmental authority in Jerusalem.
The intifada was the basis for what later became the legitimacy war strategy of struggle.
The energy of Palestinian resistance shifted from top down to bottom-up, that is, to the agency of civil society. The formal authority or top-down Palestinian leadership is being bypassed. There is a rejection under existing conditions of both armed struggle and inter-governmental diplomacy, including via the UN. Major mobilization efforts are directed at delegitimizing Israeli policies and practices, as well as stimulating militant forms of nonviolent coercive support for Palestinian empowerment and liberation.
This Palestinian version of a legitimacy war has been deeply influenced by the successful anti-apartheid campaign in South Africa, and has centered its actions in relation to a comparable BDS Campaign that responded to an appeal from a coalition of Palestinians NGOs in 2004, and has been gaining global momentum, including within the United States, especially, in the aftermath of the massive military onslaughts carried out against Gaza in 2008-09, 2012, and 2014.
Many sympathetic commentators believe that the Palestinians are winning this Legitimacy War, including the important Palestinian founder of the Electronic Intifada, Ali Abunimah. It is also the thesis of my book Palestine: The Legitimacy of Hope. I take note of the international experience since the end of World War II in which the side that prevailed in a Legitimacy War generally controlled the political outcome of conflicts, despite being militarily inferior.
Recourse to a Legitimacy War strategy usually reflects two kinds of developments: a societal sense of moral outrage that combines with the refusal of governments and international institutions to promote a just solution.
This unfolding of the legitimacy discourse has definitely moved in a direction favorable to Palestinian hopes.
In the years following World War II, Israel was seen as the David battling the Arab Goliath, with Israel scoring unexpected military victory after military victory against hostile larger neighbors accused of seeking to throw the Jewish people into the sea. The Palestinians were portrayed as ‘rejectionists’ that defied the UN’s plan widely deemed at the time in the West to be a reasonable compromise. This negative image of Palestinian political behavior was further strengthened by the portrayal of Palestinian resistance as ‘terrorism.’
This violence was widely perceived as unacceptably threatening the Jewish people, and reminded the world of the Holocaust and the fate of Jews during the Nazi period. Such a link between Jewish victimization in the Holocaust and the Palestinian/Arab struggle was strongly promoted through intense Israeli propaganda efforts. (hasbara)
This image, which remains strong in the West, and certainly is powerful in the United States where Israel is viewed not only as the most admirable and dynamic country in the region, but also as the most important strategic partner Washington possesses and a recipient of intense support in Christian evangelical circles. This strategic bonding was greatly facilitated by Israel’s military prowess as revealed in its victorious wars, especially the 1967 War, and given additional reinforcement through its long experience of counter-terrorism that was treated as a major Israeli contribution to American security policies in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
The basic drift of my argument is as follows:
• UN authority was not able to obtain a solution;
• Armed struggle and international statecraft were tried, but both failed to resolve the conflict or improve the Palestinian position;
• What this leaves is either Israeli unilateralism, carrying out the Zionist endgame of incorporating the whole of Jerusalem and the West Bank into Israel, and claiming to be the state of the entire Jewish people, or a Legitimacy War victory by the Palestinian people that induces a cycle of ‘new diplomacy’ on a level playing field;
• In the interim, any further attempts to revive the Oslo diplomacy, even enjoying should they enjoy the cynical of the Netanyahu government should be resisted as a dead end that is more harmful to the Palestinian struggle than is facing the realities of Israeli expansionism.
Given this understanding of the conflict, and considering the extraordinary record of military assistance given to Israel by the United States government, the American people have an increasingly dishonorable connection to the conflict.
The American indulgence of Israeli exceptionalism includes issuing a free pass to Israel when it secretly became a nuclear weapons state.
American citizens have a special responsibility for the long ordeal of the Palestinian people. The Jewish philosopher, Abraham Heschel observed “[f]ew are guilty, but all are responsible.”
The Legitimacy War scenario gives each of us ample opportunities to exercise our individual responsibility.
We owe the Palestinian people and ourselves nothing less.