“If you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with ‘secondly’.” — Palestinian writer Mourid Barghouti
The importance of context
The most dangerous threat Palestinians face in their struggle for freedom and human rights, besides the Israeli war machine, is the absence of historical context, or any context for that matter, in political discussions and media coverage of the conflict. This deliberate omission is demeaning, demonizing and dehumanizing.
When people talk about the current state of unrest, “the Third Intifada,” they typically start the conversation with Palestinian stabbings of Israelis. There rarely is a discussion of what might have triggered such anger. Likewise, when the media covered Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza, they started their reporting with Hamas “militants” firing rockets at Israel, omitting the inhumane, seven-year Israeli blockade of Gaza, and positioning Israel as merely defending itself.
Even when talking about the rise of the Palestinian Liberation Organization or the emergence of Hamas, or when the “O-word” is finally used, people naively believe the conflict between the two peoples started in 1967, when the Israel military occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip. They ignore altogether the Nakba and the refugee crisis the Zionist creators of Israel orchestrated.
This narrow focus not only is careless, it is dangerous–making impossible a full understanding of the nature of the conflict and its causes and factors, as well as the negotiation of a just and lasting solution to the impasse.
What the absence of historical context does—intentionally or unintentionally—is lead people to believe that Israel is merely responding to provocation, that Palestinians are only those living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. So when talking about the causes of the conflict, it is easy to reach the conclusion that “merely” the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is the cause and ending it would be the ultimate solution. But what about Palestinians who live in Israel as second-class citizens? What about Palestinians living in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria in degrading conditions, often without the basic right to work in many types of jobs? What about the internationally recognized right of return to their lands that were unilaterally annexed by Israel in 1948? And finally, what about Palestinians who have been accepted as citizens in countries like the United States, but who are denied the ability to visit their ancestral homeland?
Root causes and understanding Zionism
I recently wrote a piece titled “It’s the occupation, stupid!” explaining Palestinians’ position on the current state of unrest. The conflict is not an independent action, but rather a reaction to institutionalized violence and harassment by Israeli settlers and soldiers, expanding illegal Israeli settlements, the segregation wall and military checkpoints—all which play a vital role in dividing Palestinian communities and ruining their social and economic structure. But in that commentary, I only scratched the surface. I didn’t explain the conflict; rather, I described the forces driving Palestinian frustration and desperation.
We could aimlessly argue back and forth about the so-called “Palestinian incitement,” or “Israeli security necessities,” or how “Palestinians teach their children to hate” (a supremacist, demonizing and dehumanizing statement in itself), with total disregard to Palestinian lives and Israeli policies. However, to truly understand the conflict, one must recognize and comprehend the ideology behind it: political Zionism. Today, political Zionism is woven into the very fabric of Israeli society. It is a leading force, significantly shaping the Israeli mindset and policies on all levels.
Political Zionism emerged as a movement in the late 1800s, with Theodor Herzl its founder. Herzl created the movement as a reaction to anti-Semitism, which was swamping Europe at the time. For Herzl and political Zionist leaders who came after him, the answer to anti-Semitism was not integration or a homefront fight against racism, but expulsion—the expulsion of Jews from Europe to a “Jewish homeland,” and the expulsion of the non-Jewish indigenous population from that homeland (which explains the cooperation and transfer agreement between Zionists and the Nazis during the 1933 international boycott of Germany). However, what is interesting is that political Zionism was not the only form of Zionism that emerged as a reaction to anti-Semitism. A competing movement also started called “cultural Zionism.” While both types concurred on the necessity of creating a Jewish homeland, they disagreed on the nature, structure and methods of creation.
For political Zionists, a homeland meant a political state where Jews must hold an absolute majority. For such a state to be created, the land had to be cleansed of its non-Jewish indigenous people. On the other hand, cultural Zionism sought the revival of a universal Jewish spirit, Hebrew language and Judaic culture. It desired a cultural homeland with intellectual centers, not a political state with borders and a Jewish army to enforce those borders. Cultural Zionists were dissidents within political Zionism and urged equality between Palestinian Arabs and Jews in Palestine, mainly through the formation of a binational state. The source of this dissention was the bleak future that would inevitably result from political Zionism, which unfortunately has become today’s reality: a heavily militarized, undemocratic Jewish state driven by blind chauvinism.
Abuse, exploitation and blind nationalism
Political Zionists abused Jewish suffering to appeal to and impose their ideology on Jews so they could carry out their colonial project in Palestine without much fuss. Many Jewish intellectuals, such as Albert Einstein, recognized that if political Zionists succeeded in creating a “Jewish state,” they would do so at the expense of the non-Jewish inhabitants of the land, who would be forced out. In addition, he understood that Jews in a Jewish state would naturally develop blind nationalism, which ultimately would result in the suffering and abuse of Palestinians, who were in fact the majority inhabitants of historic Palestine.
In April 1935, Albert Einstein addressed the National Labor Committee for Palestine, stating:
“If Palestine is to become a Jewish national center, then the Palestinian settlement must develop into a model way of life for all Jewry through the cultivation of spiritual values.
Under the guise of nationalist propaganda Revisionism [right-wing branch of Political Zionism] seeks to support the destructive speculation in land; it seeks to exploit the people and deprive them of their rights…
Furthermore, the state of mind fed by revisionism is the most serious obstacle in the way of our peaceable and friendly cooperation with the Arab people, who are racially our kin.”
Past and present
Indeed, the destruction of land, the exploitation of people and the deprivation of rights are what followed and still is happening. In 1948, Zionist militias expelled more than 750,000 Palestinians from their homes and erased more than 530 Palestinian villages and towns from the face of the earth, ethnic cleansing at its best. Near the end of the 1948 war, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 194, which stated that Palestinian “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property.” Israel has yet to comply.
Resolution 194 was passed to recognize the efforts of UN peace mediator Folke Bernadotte, who had helped save Jewish lives during the Holocaust. He was assassinated by the Zionists in September 1948.
In 1967, when Israel won the Six-Day War, it occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and annexed East Jerusalem, which is also considered an occupied Palestinian territory under international law. The UN Security Council then passed Resolution 242, calling on Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian territories. Israel has yet to comply.
Desmond Tutu, who fought apartheid in South Africa, compared Israel’s oppression of Palestinians to the abuse of black South Africans under apartheid. “I have witnessed the systemic humiliation of Palestinian men, women and children by members of the Israeli security forces,” Tutu said in a statement. “Their humiliation is familiar to all black South Africans who were corralled and harassed and insulted and assaulted by the security forces of the apartheid government.”
This is today’s reality in historic Palestine (Israel and Palestinian territories): apartheid. There are three classes of citizens: Jews, with all privileges and entitlements; Palestinian second-class citizens of Israel, who have some rights but are institutionally discriminated against; and stateless Palestinians living in the Bantustans of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, who are deprived of virtually all rights.
Noam Chomsky went even further, calling Israeli policies toward Palestinians “much worse than apartheid” in South Africa.
The path to peace
Therefore, it is no surprise to see Israelis sitting on top of a hill, drinking beer and cheering as they watch their army bombing Gaza and lighting the night sky; to see Jewish youths full of hate, taking to the streets and chanting “Death to Arabs!” (even when they wish us death, they cannot bring themselves to call us Palestinians); and to see Israeli ministers calling for genocide against Palestinians, from Interior Minister Eli Yishai urging people “to send Gaza back to the Middle Ages,” to Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked declaring “the entire Palestinian people is the enemy” and calling for the destruction of Palestine’s “elderly and its women, its cities and its villages, its property and its infrastructure.” To top it off, she called for the death of Palestinian mothers, who give birth to “little snakes.” Should you be surprised to hear Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asserting the “need to control all of the territory for the foreseeable future,” to “forever live by the sword”? This is blind nationalism, blind chauvinism. This is political Zionism.
Political Zionism is an ideology that is inherently racist, supremacist, and exclusivist. If you seek to understand the conflict, if you believe in and strive for a just peace in Israel-Palestine, this is where your fight starts. Ultimately, until Israelis break away from the chains of Zionism, until Palestinians regain their dignity, humanity, and civil, political and human rights, this land will see no lasting peace.
Originally written for We Are Not Numbers.