The Fires of the Past: Israel

The Israeli regime continues, as Pilger points out, to set the international news agenda; ‘Israelis are “murdered by terrorists”, while Palestinians are “left dead” after a “clash with security forces”

  • Categories: Political Issues -

There is a sardonic humor amidst the tragedy of the new Arab-Israeli conflict. Across all the programs reporting and commenting on the war, representatives from both sides scramble for the moral high ground, usurped over and over again by Israel and her supporters. The most impious was perhaps Condoleezza Rice’s statement that cast Israel as the moral advocate and the injured party.

Her implication that whatever solution is brokered would have to be enduring is in and of itself a clearing of Israel from blame in the present state of affairs. Moreover, the insistence of other commentators -echoing Rice- that one cannot tolerate a return to the ‘status quo anti’ where a militant group could at any time launch rockets into Israel, again skews the origins of the conflict. The origin debate however is a pedantic wrangling over details, which at present are too clouded to deliver any decisive result, while any result that does come forward would merely add to a climate of point scoring. In fact, the debate over the origin of this conflict is a politico-ideological distraction. This war must not be seen in isolation but as part of a broader history. The Middle East has presented the world with the most volatile of subsystem in international politics, plunging the region -and often the world- into war with devastating effect. In fact the only other region that has had such sustained and recurring disputes over land has been that of the subcontinent, and in both cases there is a seminal link: colonialism. What we are witnessing today finds it genesis in the history of colonial misadventure, and the present episode further underlines the devastating repercussions of Western imperialism. Sadly, as one empire declined in the mid twentieth century another soon arose in its place, so that while the sun finally set on Pax Britannica, what replaced it was what Avi Shlaim has called, Pax Americana. But the story involves yet another empire, a less recognized player in the historic narrative of the Middle East: the Ottomans.
For more than five hundred years the Ottoman Turks had ruled the Middle East. The political state had been dynastic, Islamic, and multiethnic. Historians like Andrew Wheat croft recognize that within its borders ethnic groups remained largely autonomous, maintaining their laws, customs, and conventions, which was all afforded to them by the rulers. The Ottoman Caliphate had evolved over a long period of time and produced its own vibrant culture and forms of power relations[1]. The history of that part of the world which the Ottomans came to rule, is one typified by invasion and inner conflict. But the turmoil was always dealt with within the fabric of its own societies so that even the most devastating event in the region’s history -the Mongol invasion- did not stultify progress, rather the invaders were absorbed into the already existing framework, albeit one that had been brought to the brink of destruction. What history presents us then is not a utopia by any means but a region that stood the test of time, and continually fused old and new ways of organizing and managing the various societies in that area who saw the rise and fall of different empires. Between the 13th and 18th century it happened to be the Ottomans who provided a cog of cohesion to this region, which with their downfall opened a Pandora’s box, one of the contents of which was Israel.
With the German-Ottoman defeat in the First World War, the European victors carved out the territories that we recognize today. In fact, the British had made a pact with France that in return for their support against the Ottomans the two would divide the Ottoman territories into two spheres of influence. In what is known as the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 (See Appendix), the two powers set out the manner by which division and administration of the Ottoman territories would be conducted. The date incidentally betrays Britain’s promise to the Arabs whom they were enlisting for support during World War One against the Ottomans. Independence was further betrayed by another promise made in 1917 with the Jews for a national homeland in Palestine.
In a curious strategy of enlisting support, Britain criss-crossed its commitments and promises with several different players. In the end it was Balfour himself who had signed the recommendation petitioned to him by Lord Rothschild (a leading British Zionist) in 1917, who in retrospect said, ‘In short, so far as Palestine is concerned, the Powers have made no statement of fact which is not admittedly wrong, and no declaration of policy which at least in the letter, they have not always intended to violate’. Curious though it seems, Britain was following a shrewd Imperial logic and this was of effectively fragmenting that area which historically had posed such a threat. Having promised Sharif Hussayn, the chief of Mecca, an independent Arab state comprising of all the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf, in exchange for his assistance against the Caliph, Britain would have been entirely out of step with Colonial operandi if it had carried through its promise so straightforwardly. The criss-crossing of pledges was to keep the area divided with internal discord and to minimize the strength of the Muslims who had historically posed a great threat in that area through which of course runs the route to India[2].
Colonial attitude toward the natives of lands to which their expeditions led them can also be seen in practice in the case of Palestine. But the Imperial mindset was not restricted to the British, in fact the founding father of Zionism, Theodore Herssel, wrote in his book The Jewish State (1896):
We should there [in Palestine] form a portion of the rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism.
When we hear of Israel described in the media today as a bastion of democracy amidst a belligerent and totalitarian bloc of states, the terms of reference may be different but the outlook remains the same. In fact one can sense a degree of historic injustice simply because the two parties -the Palestinians and the Jews-  were unequal in their ability to vie for influence and self-determination. Lord Rothschild, from the mere fact of his title, was a figure that no doubt had a degree of influence over those in the echelons of power, while the Palestinians were without a voice. To this day such imbalance is overlooked so that when we hear news reports of a conflict between Israel and Palestinians, it is presented in the form of two warring rivals not as ‘an oppression of an illegal occupier and the resistance of the oppressed’[3]. The Israeli regime continues, as Pilger points out, to set the international news agenda; ‘Israelis are “murdered by terrorists”, while Palestinians are “left dead” after a “clash with security forces”‘.[4]
Palestinians were a silent, almost non-existent party in the eyes of the major (and rich) players. Rashid Khalidi, Director of The Centre for International Studies at the University of Chicago[5], makes this point in a film produced by MPI Studios in 2001[6]:
Britain had already decided in 1917 that it was going to support Jewish Nationalism/ Zionism…and it made sure that the terms of the mandate for Palestine were written so as to give the Balfour declaration pride of place…in fact the terms of the Balfour declaration are repeated in the mandate for Palestine; so there is the idea of a Jewish national home; the idea of Jews having national rights; the idea that the British are supposed to set up a Jewish agency which is supposed to be an international body that would represent this population: all these things are set out in the terms of the mandate, but the Arabs and Palestinians - the word “Arab” the word “Palestinian” is never mentioned in the mandate. So they do not exist; they are there but they are not entitled to anything…only [being] mentioned as the non-Jewish population. So, basically, the Arabs were [essentially] eliminated from the very terms of reference in the mandate.
For the Zionist forefathers of Israel, Palestine was seen ‘as an empty desert waiting to burst into bloom; such inhabitants as it had were supposed to be inconsequential nomads possessing no real claim on the land and therefore no cultural or national reality’[7]. The colonial echoes in this are not incidental; the Zionist movement was one that had begun amongst the wealthy Jews of Europe. Herssel had interpreted the hard history of the Jewish people as resulting from their lack of statehood and so wove into his argument modes of colonial thought. Indeed at the time of the Balfour declaration the Jewish presence in Palestine was merely ten percent and yet, to legitimize their claim, the Zionists of Europe resorted to narrativizing their right sometimes in terms of theology -that the land was the historic land of Jews as found in the bible- and often as being an outpost of civilization in that area.
In a trip to Palestine in 1922, Muhammad Asad (the then Leopold Weiss) notes in his autobiography that while the native Jews seemed to blend seamlessly with their surroundings, the Jews who had arrived from Europe were distinctly at odds in their chosen environment. He says at one point that ‘although the European Jews were obviously out of all harmony with the picture that surrounded them, it was they who set the tone of Jewish life and politics and thus seemed to be responsible for the almost visible friction between Jews and Arabs.’[8] Part of this friction lay in the fact that since 1917 the British authorities were allowing and assisting Zionist settlers to purchase land that had been communal farming space amongst the Arabs for centuries. These settlers were also sponsored emigrants as part of a policy to balance the number of Jews to Arabs. Asad had a revealing conversation in his 1922 visit to Palestine with Chaim Weizmann, one of the leading British Zionists who also happened to be visiting the area. When asked about the Arabs ‘who, after all, were in the majority in this country?’ Weizmann replied: ‘We expect they won’t be in the majority after a few years’[9]. Indeed the intention was only thinly veiled, because there was only one possibility in the minds of the Zionists at the time as revealed by Joseph Whites, Director of the Jewish Land Fund in the 1930s, who in his dairy wrote,
“It must be clear that there is no room for both peoples in this country; if the Arabs leave the country it will be broad and wide open for us [the Jews] and if the Arabs stay the country will remain narrow and miserable, and there is no way besides transferring the Arabs from here to the neighbouring countries…we must leave not a single village and not a single tribe. There is no other way.”
Israel then is not only born of colonialism but operates with a colonial mindset. One has only to look at the plight of the Palestinians who are within Israel’s borders and who at least by that fact alone are considered Israelis, to realize that there is in fact a policy similar to that administered by a colonial power over its colonial subjects. The wrongs of the present therefore must be corrected by correcting the wrongs of the past. We have in Israel and in America’s support of it a clear example of Imperialism by all but name, and so we must apply a postcolonial reading to the situation that we are being fed by the media. The aggressor cannot be cast as the aggrieved, what is happening in the Middle East is but the convulsions of history.
Soon after its birth in 1948[10], Israel had its first –inevitable- war with its neighbors, but the Arab states were poorly equipped and were not unified, failing even to coordinate their battlefield strategies[11]. Meanwhile, Zionists had been amassing a large number of arsenals since the 1936 Arab revolt, during which incidentally much of Palestinian leadership was exiled by the British. The Zionist also received ammunition bought and smuggled out of Europe[12].
The 1948 victory for Israel left a deep impression on Zionist psychology. Their conviction, as natural to the hawks as it was unpalatable to the doves, [was] that a state created by the sword will have to live by the sword.’[13] The American-Zionist leader, Nahum Goldmann, notes this in his autobiography when he says that the 1948 war ‘seemed to show the advantages of direct action over negotiations and diplomacy’.
The victory offered such glorious contrast to the centuries of persecution and humiliation, of adaptation and compromise, that it seemed to indicate the only direction that could possibly be taken from then on. To brook nothing, to tolerate no attack, cut through Gordian knots, and shape history by creating facts seemed so simple, so compelling, so satisfying that it became Israel’s policy in its conflict with the Arab world.[14]
If the embers that cause the fires of today are coming from somewhere else then putting out these fires will resolve little; we must put out the fire of a particular past that keeps shooting its embers into the present.
Syed Haider
[1] Another similarity with the Subcontinent is the ways in which the British also disrupted a historical linguistic balance there and exasperated the communal differences amongst the population, thus making language a significant factor in the partition. See “Gup-Shup Bund: The role of language in the partition of India.”
[2] Aeroplanes during this time were still in their infancy.
[3] John Pilger, The New Rulers of the World, (London: Verso, 2002), p143
[4] Ibid.
[5] Dr. Khalidi is the "Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies and Director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University. Previously, Dr. Khalidi was Professor of Middle East History in the Departments of Near East Languages and Civilizations and History, and Director of the Center for International Studies, at the University of Chicago.
[6] Tragedy in the Holy Land, produced by MPI Studios 2001.
[7] Edward Said, Orientalism, (London: Penguin: 2003), p286.
[8] Muhammad Asad, Road to Mecca, (New York: Dar Al-Andalus Ltd, 1985), p92.
[9] Ibid, p94.
[10] This was by any standards wholly arbitrary, since in the same month as the last British troops departed from Palestine, the Jews, who were still in a minority, announced independence, and among the first nations to recognize this pseudo-nation was America.
[11] T. E. Vadney, The World Since 1945, (London: Penguin, 1992), p130
[12] Efraim Karsh, The Arab-Israeli Conflict. The Palestine War 1948, (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2002), p25.
[13] Avi Shlaim, War and Peace in the Middle East, (New York: Penguin, 1995), p23
[14] Nahum Goldmann, The Autobiography of Nahum Goldmann: sixty years of Jewish life,(New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969), P289-90.
Asad, Muhammad, Road to Mecca, (New York: Dar Al-Andalus Ltd, 1985)
Chomsky, Noam, Deterring Democracy, (London: Vintage, 1992)
Goldmann, Nahum, The Autobiography of Nahum Goldmann: sixty years of Jewish life,(New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969)
Karsh, Efraim, The Arab-Israeli Conflict. The Palestine War 1948, (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2002)
Pilger, John, The New Rulers of the World, (London: Verso, 2002)
Said, Edward, Orientalism, (London: Penguin: 2003)
Shlaim, Avi, War and Peace in the Middle East, (New York: Penguin, 1995)
Vadney, T. E, The World Since 1945, (London: Penguin, 1992)
Electronic Media:
Tragedy in the Holy Land, produced by MPI Studios 2001