On Wednesday, professor and historian Shira Robinson delivered a lecture at the Palestine Center in Washington, DC, entitled “Citizen Strangers: Palestinians and the Birth of Israel’s Liberal Settler State,” that discussed many of the findings of her research included in her recent book of the same name. Dr. Robinson argued that study of the period in Israel between 1948 and 1966, during which time more than 90% of the Palestinian Arab minority within Israel lived under draconian military rule, firmly links this history to the wider trends of imperial history, such as in colonial Algeria, South Africa and North America.
Recognizing this history Robinson argues, is “why Jewish citizens in Israel today should be thought of as, and defined still as, settlers in the sense that the rights they have today were granted to them, were formulated in order to give a minority population, that is before the 1948 war, preferential status.” (This site recently published an in-depth interview with Robinson that included discussion of ethnic cleansing, the “War on Return”, the Law of Return of 1950, as well as the double standard within Israel that persists to this day, in which a weak definition of citizenship for non-Jews in Israel is subordinate to a privileged status linked to Jewish “nationality”.)
One of the motivations for Robinson’s research was her dissatisfaction with previous historical analyses of Israel that tended to skip over the period of military rule between 1948 and 1966, and that seemed to reinforce “the absolutely illogical notion that laws and practices that Israel used to control occupied Palestinians after 1967, that those institutions and laws emerged in a vacuum.” Instead Robinson drew a line from British emergency laws in Mandatory Palestine, which were rooted in anti-colonial rebellions in the British Empire starting in the mid-nineteenth century, to the similar laws and regulations adapted for use within Israel during the military regime from 1948 to 1966 (and during which time there was massive appropriation of Palestinian Arab land to the state of Israel), to the laws and practices used to control Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territories today.
Robinson said that the lack of historical attention to the period of military rule in the two decades after statehood in Israel denied historical reality, especially in the realm of land:
During the seven decades prior to statehood in 1948, Jewish land agencies and individuals had managed to purchase just under 6% of Palestinian land, the total land of British Mandate Palestine, for their exclusive use, for exclusive use by Jews. However after 1948, less than two decades later, the Israeli state clamed title not only to all the land that had been confiscated from refugees, that were no longer in the state, but to 65% of all the land holdings owned by Arab citizens inside the state…. The way that land was confiscated from Palestinian citizens of the state was that the military government basically set up a host of what it called “closed zones”. In fact, in the immediate aftermath of 1948 there were about 45 such “closed zones” that were set up.
During the military regime, the use of “closed zones” and other emergency regulations effectively criminalized the entire Palestinian population within Israel and facilitated the confiscation of Palestinian land, argued Robinson:
So one of the things the military government did is, it set up these military zones, and within them closed zones, and many other multiple zones, and then said, as soon as we hereby declare this zone closed, no one can move in or out of that zone without a special permit, and you can’t work land, you can’t look for a job, you can’t go visit your mother, you can’t go to the doctor, you can’t go to university, you need a permit to do absolutely everything. This was one of the main ways that the government managed to confiscate land, through a variety of legal mechanisms, but first and foremost using these military mechanisms.
During her talk, Robinson returned to her argument that recognizing the imperial roots of the laws and regulations of the Israeli military regime, during the two decades following statehood in 1948, explains not only the massive confiscation of Palestinian land during this time, but also helps to understand the basis of current laws and regulations discriminating against and targeting Palestinian citizens of Israel today, such as ongoing Israeli government efforts to divide Palestinian Christians, from Muslims, and Druze:
It bears repeating that the state acquired exponentially more Arab land for exclusive use by Jews during the first two decades of statehood alone, than the Zionist movement acquired through purchase in the previous seven decades. It did so, the state acquired this land largely through a governing apparatus of military rule that was based on British Imperial law, law which originated in places like India, Ireland, Jamaica, and South Africa during the Boer War. That’s number one. Number two, the government looked explicitly to colonial models, to French models, to British models, in Algeria and India, etc. for things like education policy, how are we going to educate the Arab population in such a way that they are loyal to us, that they don’t unite, that they don’t have sympathies with their Arab neighbors outside, with refugees, and they worked hard, looking to colonial models to institutionalize and deepen divisions between different ethnic and religious groups among the Palestinian population.
Robinson is currently Associate Professor of History and International Affairs at George Washington University, and specializes in the social and cultural history of the Modern Middle East, with an emphasis on colonialism, citizenship, nationalism, and cultures of militarism after World War I. Mondoweiss published an excerpt from her book last December. A video recording of her entire lecture at the Palestine Center yesterday can be found at this link.