The last colonialist: Israel in the occupied territories since 1967.

Author:Reuveny, Rafael

With almost prophetic accuracy, Naguib Azoury, a Maronitc Ottoman bureaucrat turned Arab patriot, wrote in 1905: "Two important phenomena, of the same nature but opposed ... are emerging at this moment in Asiatic Turkey. They are the awakening of the Arab nation and the latent effort of the Jews to reconstitute on a very large scale the ancient kingdom of Israel. Both these movements are destined to fight each other continually until one of them wins" ([1905] 2004, 53). So far, it seems that Azoury has been correct. As noted by the late Israeli prime minister (PM) Yitzhak Rabin in the 1993 ceremony in Washington, D.C., that launched the Israeli-Palestinian talks, Israelis and Palestinians have been traumatized by a "hundred years war" (qtd. in Reuveny 1999, 659). However, Azoury apparently did not consider all the possibilities. Some observers and policymakers believe that Israelis and Palestinians can also end their age-old conflict by dividing Palestine among them, forming two states. Others believe that only a shared, binational state can solve the conflict. Still others sec no solution in our times. (1) These views are cogently stated, but it is difficult to evaluate them without an empirical backdrop for comparison.

How will the Israeli-Palestinian conflict end? Will the two parties create a Palestinian state, side by side with Israel? Can they form a binational state in Palestine? Will Israel be victorious, forcing the Palestinians to give up their national aspirations, or will the Palestinians win the struggle? I analyze these questions here against a backdrop that has rarely been used before: historical colonialism and decolonization. Although colonialism is today the subject matter of history books, I argue that it has not disappeared completely. The Israeli control since 1967 of the West Bank and (until recently) the Gaza Strip, hereafter referred to as "the Territories," is essentially colonialism. The state of Israel, then, is the last colonialist.

The benefit of using a colonial framework is that it places the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a historical comparative setting. This conflict has too often been viewed as unique in nature. Although caution is needed when using history as a model, we will see that there are enough similarities with the colonial scenario to cause an observer to make the connection. When Israel's presence in the Territories is placed within a colonial context, it is often done using an antagonistic tone, so that any attempt to be reflective is immediately paralyzed. My approach is empirical, not polemical.

Because colonialism is a loaded term, a colonial interpretation of this conflict--in which Israel is the colonial ruler, or metropole, the Territories are the colony, and the Palestinians are the native or colonial people--must first be substantiated. If this representation is correct, at some point in time Israel expanded beyond what were considered its borders, established a colonial arrangement in lands it occupied, and the inhabitants of these lands, the Palestinians, came to reject this arrangement. It is thus best to conduct the inquiry chronologically. Recalling Rabin's remark in 1993, I must begin my inquiry at the point when Zionists first encountered Palestinians in the late nineteenth century. I do not seek to document this history, as many have done, but rather to establish its colonial characteristics. After substantiating my framework, I employ it in contemplating the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Partition and Creeping Colonialism

The first Zionists, or Jews seeking to establish and support a Jewish state in Palestine, arrived in Palestine in the 1880s. (2) A that time, a few Jews lived in cities in Palestine, the Negev Desert, and the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, along with a much larger Arab population, the Palestinians. Because Palestinians lived on much of the habitable land, the Zionists faced a dilemma: How would they obtain land for settlement? Of three options to obtain land--purchase, expropriation, and conquest--they decided that only purchase was acceptable. It was also the only feasible option because the Zionists did not have an army to back their endeavor and thus could not have seized lands even if they had wanted to do so (e.g., see Ussishkin [1903] 1964). In 1897, they organized politically and declared their intent to build a Jewish state in Palestine. Conflict became imminent.

In 1916, Great Britain and France agreed to divide control of the Middle East after World War I, allocating Palestine and Trans-Jordan to the British. In 1917, the British declared their support for a Jewish home in Palestine, and shortly thereafter the Zionists began to lobby the British for a state in Palestine and parts of Trans-Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. However, the Palestinians and other Arabs argued that the British had promised Palestine to the emir of Mecca in return for his support of the British in the war, and in 1922 the British granted Trans-Jordan to them. Most of the Zionists accepted that decision, seeking a compromise with the Palestinians, but a minority group of Zionists called the Revisionists continued to demand a state on both banks of the Jordan River. Tensions mounted as the growing Zionist migration to Palestine enraged the Palestinians and led to many clashes, and the Zionists argued bitterly over how to deal with the Palestinians. In 1936, the Palestinians rebelled against the British and demanded independence. The 1937 British government-appointed Peel Commission called for a division of Palestine between the Zionists/Jews and the Palestinians. The mainstream Land of Israel Workers Party (MAPAI) Zionists accepted the idea of partition, but the Palestinians and the Revisionist Zionists rejected it.

In 1939, Britain rejected the Peel plan and decided that in the next five years only seventy-five thousand Jews would be allowed to immigrate to Palestine. Jewish immigration would be forbidden thereafter, and Palestine would be granted autonomy based on the Jewish and Palestinian population shares, which favored the Palestinians two to one. The Zionists protested this determination and rebelled in 1945. Unable to contain the revolt and facing growing sectarian violence, Britain decided to leave Palestine and submitted the issue to the United Nations (UN). In 1947, the UN called for a division of Palestine between Palestinians and Jews, allocating 45 percent of the land to the Jews. Once again, MAPAI Zionists accepted the plan, but the Palestinians and the Revisionists rejected it. The conflict grew into a regional war shortly thereafter, as Egypt, Jordan, and several other Arab states sent forces to assist the Palestinians. During the war, the Zionists proclaimed independence, founding the state of Israel and gaining control over 78 percent of Palestine. Jordan occupied the West Bank (Judea and Samaria), Egypt occupied the Gaza Strip, and approximately seven hundred thousand Palestinians left Palestine and became refugees in several Arab countries.

In 1949, the state of Israel signed armistice accords with the Arab states, but not with the Palestinians, instituting a de facto partition of Palestine. More broadly, the conflict discussed so far was about partition, which most Zionists, henceforth referred to interchangeably as "Israelis," accepted and almost all Palestinians rejected. Many writers argue that the conflict has in fact always been about partition of Palestine between two opposing groups that claim the same land (e.g., Alpher 1995; Klieman 2000; Newman 2002; Shavit 2005). I argue that the nature of the conflict changed fundamentally in 1967, when Israel occupied the Territories. At that time, Israeli colonialism began to appear.

It is important to employ historical colonialism as a means of comparison. Most colonies were historically established overseas from the expanding states (metropoles). The metropoles deemed some colonies critical for their security and world status, and they valued other colonies for their resources or labor forces. Theology and ideology also played a role in colonial expansions: Spanish settlers believed they had a divine mandate to bring salvation to the natives; British settlers in North America and the Boers and Afrikaners in South Africa believed that God gave them the lands they colonized; and Frenchmen claimed Algeria as their historical heritage. (3)

The colonial situation in the Territories belongs to two smaller sets of historical cases, involving arrangements established in nearby areas and arrangements initiated almost accidentally as a result of a war. (4) With MAPAI in power after 1948, most Israelis came to accept the de facto partition of Palestine by the late 1950s or early 1960s, and most officials believed that conquest of the West Bank was not in Israel's interest (Oren 2002; Segev 2005a, 2005b). In the 1950s, only the Revisionist Zionist Herut (Freedom) Party continued to strive for all of Palestine and parts of Jordan, but in the 1960s it, too, essentially gave up this goal. If before June 1967 the Arab nations had offered to sign a peace treaty with Israel on the basis of the pre-1967 border, defining what is hereafter referred to as Israel proper, Israelis would most likely have accepted it. (5)

In 1967, however, Israel again went to war with its neighbors, conquering the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights, and the Sinai Peninsula. The decisive victory shocked Israelis; overnight, Israel had become a regional power in control of vast lands. Led by the Labor Party (an offspring of MAPAI), its government could not decide what to do next. A center-left camp wanted to give the Territories back for peace, but a right-wing camp--including an activist section of the Labor Party, the Gahal Party (a bloc of parties led by Herut), and the religious Zionists in the National Religious Party (NRP), whose members consider the formation...

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