by Fatima Ali, student of International Relations at King’s College London.
The Israel-Palestine conflict is one of the most enduring conflicts in the contemporary world. The struggle for a land believed to be sacred to all three Abrahamic faiths does not appear to have an end. Both sides are deeply divided in terms of any peace settlement, this division is aptly manifested in the 723km long Apartheid Wallcreated by Israel. When discussing this conflict we often focus on the illegal settlements, Jerusalem, the right of return and Israel’s ‘security’ decisions. However I have chosen to focus on the history from the Palestinian lens, because only when we have understood the roots of this conflict can we fully fathom the actions of those involved in the struggle against occupation.
The First Catastrophe-Al Nakba:
In a cabinet meeting last year Netanyahu made the absurd statement that the commemoration of the Nakba is incitement against Israel. Ridiculous statements like this don’t change the fact that the Nakba did take place, its painful memory is alive in every Palestinian today and it will be commemorated. What is the Nakba? It is too often described as the exodus of some 750,000 Palestinians from their homes in 1947-1949. However I don’t believe this does justice to what is one of the greatest humanitarian disasters to have ever taken place. The word Nakba translates to ‘catastrophe’ and what a catastrophe it was. Referring to the Nakba as an exodus conjures in one’s mind the mass emigration of a population. That is not what the Nakba was, not essentially. The Nakba was a period in time when Palestinians fled their homes and all that they knew in fear of persecution. Norman Finkelstein stated “According to the former director of the Israeli army archives, ‘in almost every village occupied by us during the War… acts were committed which are defined as war crimes, such as murders, massacres, and rapes’”. This is the terror they sought to escape from. The Nakba fundamentallyconsists of a myriad of heart-rending stories that depict the human and very raw face of the first of many catastrophes that the Palestinian people have endured. George Agha Janian fled from Haifa with his family in 1948 and as a young boy he was under the impression that they would return, that their journey to Lebanon was like any other summer vacation. George is now 77 and is still not able to go home. He said ‘the right of return is important because my roots are there like the tree planted in a garden’. George’s poignant expression of his desire to return to his home not only induces tears (in me anyway) but proves that there is a whole generation who witnessed the Nakba who are alive today and remain ever hopeful. Let’s imagine for a second we are all George. We are forced to leave our homes because we fear for our life, we fear for the lives of our loved ones. Now let’s fast forward a few decades. How painful it must be to know you can never return to the place you called home, the place you never gave a proper farewell to because you thought your separation was temporary…
The Arrival of Zionists
Some early Zionists claimed that when they arrived in the apparently ‘barren’ land, they were faced with a small population of Arabs. These Arabs apparently harboured anti-Semitic sentiments and that that was the reason their arrival was opposed. This blatantly ignores a few simple facts. Firstly, there was a small population of Jews (Yishuv community) living in Palestine before Zionist arrival and were not in conflict with the Arab community. Secondly, opposition to the arrival of Zionists could simply have been rooted in fear, fear of dispossession and displacement. Don Peretz wrote ‘[they] purchased land from absentee Arab owners, leading to dispossession of the peasants who had cultivated it’. In fact early Zionist leader Ahad Ha’am wrote in 1891 that the Arabs ‘understood very well what we were doing and what we were aiming at’ (John Quigley). Taking into account the lack of opposition Arabs had towards the Yishuv community, does this reasonably justified fear not appear a more likely reason for opposition than anti-Semitism?
The Creation of Israel
From the continued illegal belligerent occupation of the West Bank to the disproportionate destruction of civilian life, there are many ironies associated with coining Israel the ‘only democracy in the Middle East’ and sympathising with it because it is constantly fighting ‘terrorism’. One that is often overlooked is the terroristic actions that actually helped create this ‘democracy’. The violence of underground Zionist paramilitaries like the Irgun and Stern gangs drove Palestinians out of their homes; however it wasn’t just the Arabs they targeted. In July 1946 the Irgun planted a bomb in the King David Hotel which served as a military headquarters for the British. 91 people were killed and 46 injured. Israel ironically (it’s that word again) refuses to accept Hamas as a legitimate governing body (despite them being elected) on the basis that it deems Hamas a terrorist organisation. Using this same logic one can argue the state of Israel is illegitimate since its creation was aided by terrorist groups such as Irgun and Stern and even today the IDF commit terroristic actions. The phrase ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ though extremely clichéd, fits perfectly here, many Zionists may see the actions of Irgun and Stern as necessary for the outcome they wanted (the creation of Israel). Similarly Palestinians may see the actions of Hamas (whether defensive or offensive) as necessary to fight occupation and oppression. That the UK/US fail, or rather refuse to draw parallels between the two doesn’t surprise me. You can’t help create and maintain a state and then acknowledge its terrorist tendencies without being disgraced can you?
Where is this conflict today? Where it was at the beginning? Perhaps. Israel continues to expand illegal settlements in the West Bank much like the early Zionists land-claiming. Palestinian civilians and Hamas continue to oppose and resist, much like the Palestinians did when they were faced with the first settlers and later the Zionist paramilitaries. During the Nakba Palestinians were condemned for owning guns to protect their families and oppose their evictors whilst the Zionist paramilitaries were somehow able to infiltrate British armouries and steal a considerable number of weapons. Likewise today, Hamas’ creation and ownership of rockets is strongly opposed, whereas Israel’s ever expanding military is aided ($3.1 billion from the US in 2014). The double standards are ever present.
Nevertheless some things have changed. The tiresome rhetoric that Israel is a beacon of light amidst stifling darkness in the Middle East (not as exaggerative as you may think) is being challenged-by its own actions actually. The horrific bombardment of Gaza last summer met a critical response from many in the international community despite Israel’s attempts to justify the murder of over 1,000 Palestinian civilians. You can’t really justify the murder of 4 little boys playing football on a beach claiming they were mistaken for Hamas operatives when you have a military spending of 6% of the GDP and the ability to create the likes of the Iron Dome. The continuation of violence and occupation isn’t the only thing Palestinian people endure. They also endure representatives who don’t really represent them at all and deeply fragmented authorities. Political commentators argue Abbas’ popularity is dwindling (is there any room for it to dwindle any further?) and although it seemed like Hamas and Fatah finally got over their differences they seem to be divided again, this time over support for Egyptian groups and the Egyptian dictatorship. What can we expect now? Many welcomed the Swedish recognition of Palestine as a state. That may be a start–recognition, of a people and of their right to statehood.