New Internationalist

Dangerous illusions

Issue 348

Differing versions of recent history continue to cloud the future of Israel and Palestine. NI examines some of the myths that maintain division and conflict.

‘Zionism is racism’

Zionism is the Jewish movement started in the 19th century that promised Jews a homeland. It is a complex movement with many political tendencies – Left and Right, secular and religious. It was the belief system that motivated those who fought for the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. The original movement was made up of those who wanted to drive the Palestinians out and those who wanted to make common cause with them in their fight against British colonialism. While Left Zionism was the dominant force in the early days of Israel today the Right and the religious Right are top dogs. Still many people who think of themselves as Zionists are active in trying to end the occupation of the West Bank, supporting Palestinian rights and agitating for peace. To condemn all Zionism as racism is to isolate those who identify with Israel but are trying to change it from within.

‘There was no-one here’

There is a common myth in Israel that when the waves of Jewish immigrants arrived after World War Two (1946-49) the land was more-or-less vacant. A variation on this is that the Palestinian population left voluntarily because they did not want to share the land with others. The fact is that some 700,000 Palestinian Arabs ended up as refugees due to attacks or fear of attacks on their cities and the conscious destruction of many of their villages. Massacres by Israeli paramilitaries like Irgun and the Stern Gang were not uncommon. Many Palestinian families left to escape the fighting, planning to return in a few weeks. In the event the Israeli military stopped them from returning at all. Most refugees ended up in neighbouring Arab states or in the West Bank and Gaza. This population today numbers some four million – the root of the refugee problem that haunts any potential peace deal.

‘The Oslo Agreement means a Palestinian state’

The currently contested ‘territories’, or Palestinian land on the West Bank and in Gaza, fell to Israel during the June 1967 Six Day War. Every Israeli Government since 1967 has expanded or allowed the expansion of settlements and the military infrastructure needed to protect them on this territory. The Oslo Agreement (1993) was the first time the Israelis and Palestinians recognized each other as peoples with legitimate rights and interests. But each party to the agreement had very different interpretations of what it meant. For the Palestinians it was the first step towards Israeli withdrawal and having their own state. For Israeli negotiators it was a step towards giving the Palestinians very limited local control so they could police themselves. Israel would preserve settlements and complete military domination. Even this moderate agreement was resisted by the Israeli military establishment, right-wing politicians and religious fundamentalists who ran a campaign of vilification against Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin who engineered it. This culminated in his assassination by a young Israeli law student Yigal Amir on 4 November 1995.

‘Israel is a creature of the US’

It would be hard for Israel to prosper without US economic and diplomatic support. But Israel is a complex society with its own political dynamic that often clashes with US views and interests. To reduce Israel to a US surrogate is to misunderstand the determination of Israelis to continue to exist as a homeland and refuge for the world’s Jews. Any long-term effort for a just peace needs to take this on board. The continued attempts by religious fundamentalist groups in Palestine, such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, to challenge Israel’s right to exist only strengthens reactionary tendencies amongst Israelis.

‘Ehud Barak’s was a generous offer’

The notion that Ehud Barak, the former Prime Minister of Israel, offered the Palestinians everything they wanted at Camp David in 1999 has been a powerful weapon against the Israeli peace movement. The confusion goes back to the interpretations of the Oslo agreement. The Israeli side convinced itself that limited autonomy under Israeli military surveillance was acceptable to the Palestinians – an offer was never actually made or refused. The ‘generous offer’ that was mooted meant no territorial contiguity for the Palestinian state, no control of external borders, only limited control of water resources, the continued presence of fortified Israeli settlements and Israeli-only roads through the heart of the Palestinian territory and the perpetual right of the Israeli Defense Force to be deployed in Palestinian territory at short notice. Some 80 per cent of the settlers were to remain in place and there were to be no return or compensation rights for any Palestinian refugees.

‘Israel’s ethical army’

It is a cherished belief among many Israelis that the Israeli Defense Force is a noble guardian of the nation that stands above politics. It is further held that the army carries out its operations in as humane a fashion as possible in difficult conditions. Indeed the IDF is remarkable for its openness and internal debate, but the reality of military occupation in hostile territory – widespread civilian casualties, intimidation of the Palestinian population, selective assassination, vandalism, torture, using civilians as shields, even theft – is undermining this reputation for anyone who cares to look. The upper levels of the army, represented by Chief-of-Staff Mofaz and his deputy Ya’alon, are hostile to any reasonable peace process and are bent on further reoccupation, destroying the Palestinian national movement and if possible ‘transferring’ the Palestinian population elsewhere. Instead of merely responding to civilian authority they are actively attempting to shape policy themselves.

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