Misreading history - James Debono

Zminijietna – Harga Jannar - Marzu 2009


Many people's reaction to the destruction of Gaza was a resigned silence in front of what they perceived as a tragedy in which both Israelis and Palestinians are victims of a sort of "misfortune" or "curse." In fact the impunity which rewards Israeli war crimes is based on a misreading of history which considers Israel as continuation of uninterrupted Jewish presence in Palestine and the Palestinians as a "people without history".

This reading of history ignores the fact that Jews were an integral part of Europe for thousands of years before a "a homeland for the Jews" was artificially transplanted by Bristish colonialism on land which already belonging to the Arabs. Surely the pretext for this unprecedented act in history was the pogroms, expulsions and genocides perpetuated against the Jewish people by obscurantist European governments and institutions throughout the past millennium.

Yet equating Jewish identity with identification with a state set in the Holy Land is an ideological creation dating back to the nineteenth century. Not all Jews identified with the sort of zionism which defied any distinction between politics and religious belief. Therefore any reading of history which ignores the fact that a massive injustice was committed in 1948 when thousands of Arabs were driven from their homeland is fundamentally unjust. As the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said observed "I see no way of evading the fact that in 1948 one people displaced another, thereby committing a grave injustice" and that since than "the Palestinians, has borne a disproportional share of the pain and loss."

It was this misreading of history which led to an unbalanced peace agreement in Oslo in which the Palestinians were given token authority over two geographically separate entities: an over crowded strip of land called Gaza and the West Bank which also contains most Jewish settlements. In 2000 Ehud Barak came to the point of offering the Palestinians an independent state on 20% of the total land of Palestine. After being humiliated in Oslo, Arafat had the dignity of saying no to this indecent proposal and to call for the second intifada. Arafat died still branded a terrorist by Israel and George Bush but with his dignity intact.

Instead of rewarding the Palestinian leadership for accepting an unequal peace, Israel continued enlarging the settlements and proceeded with building an illegal wall passing through Palestinian lands. The humiliation of the secular Fatah contributed to the growth of the intransigent Hamas who were originally tolerated and promoted by Israel as a counter weight against secular and socialist Arab nationalism. The current war in Gaza represents the end of the Oslo illusion; the end of humiliating agreements in which Palestinians are segregated in enclaves just as the black south Africans were set apart in Bantustans (homelands) as part of the policy of apartheid. For in the Bantustans the Zulu chiefs were rewarded by the trappings of royalty in return for their allegiance to the racist state.

Surely there can be no peace if the Palestinians do not give up on a full restoration of Arab Palestine, which is an unrealistic option. Because they are the weaker party, the losers, doing this is giving up on their own history. But ignoring the reality of millions of grand sons and daughters of the original Jewish migrants who today live in Palestine would create a new injustice. For they are not to blame for the sins of the British colonialists.

Yet acknowledging this reality does not mean accepting the limited controlled sovereignty offered by Israel today. The problem with accepting limited symbolic authority in Oslo back in the mid 1990s was that the Palestinian leadership had given up the two options which restore dignity to Palestinians. These are either the demand that the country and its resources be divided equitably, in proportion to two populations that are equal in size - not 80% to one and 20% to the other, "a dispossession of such iniquity that no self-respecting people will ever submit to it in the long run" according to Tariq Ali. The only other acceptable alternative favoured by Said is a single state for Jews and Palestinians alike, in which the exactions of Zionism are repaired. There is no other way. For it makes no sense for Israel to continue defining itself as a racial community. It already contains a Christian and Muslim Israeli Arab minority. If Arab refugees are granted the right of return, they will want to go back to Jaffa and Telaviv not Gaza.

In a modern state, all its members are citizens by virtue of their presence and the sharing of rights and responsibilities. Citizenship therefore should entitle an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian Arab to the same privileges and resources. A constitution and a bill of rights thus become necessary for getting beyond Square 1 of the conflict because each group would have the same right to self-determination; that is, the right to practice communal
life in its own (Jewish or Palestinian) way, perhaps in federated cantons, with a joint capital in Jerusalem, equal access to land and inalienable secular and juridical rights. Neither side should be held hostage to religious extremists.

Whether such an enlightened solution is still realistic following the war against Lebanon and the brutal attack on Gaza which left Israel with a lot of blood on its hand is very doubtful. In such a scenario a durable truce enforced by UN peace keepers following Israel's full withdrawal from all the land occupied in 1967 (including East Jerusalem) seems to be the most realistic solution. Whether a Palestinian state set on two separate and third world enclaves standing next to a prosperous first world Israel remains doubtful. What is sure is that terrorism and indiscriminate rocket attacks directed against Israeli civilians have only helped to normalize the occupation, enabling the Israeli government to transform an occupation that has always been about settlement into one premised on security needs.

Palestinians should heed the example of the anti apartheid movement in South Africa which succeeded in "de-normalizing" the South African regime
despite its strong ties with the US and the UK mainly but not exclusively through non violent resistance and without using the military wing to hurt
"white" civilians. Yet unfortunately following the mass killings in Gaza and the latest demonstration of Israel's impunity, I suspect that instead of re-evaluating a failed strategy, many more Palestinians will be lured by the prospect of death and glory.


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