Western folly and the continuous Nakba

Toufic Haddad argues that the West’s blinkered support for Israel can only escalate disaster.

Credit: Montecruz Foto/Flickr
CC BY-SA 2.0

This May marked the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the state of Israel. As its leaders and allies celebrated the country’s jubilee, Palestinians commemorated their Nakba – the disaster that saw two-thirds of their compatriots displaced at the hands of Zionist militia in an ethnic cleansing campaign which made possible the Jewish demographic majority that Israel strives to maintain today.

In congratulatory remarks to Israel on the occasion, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen sounded as if she had just witnessed the second coming. Israeli independence was, in her words, a ‘dream’ realized in ‘the promised land’ – a ‘vibrant democracy in the heart of the Middle East’ and a font of dynamism, ingenuity and ground-breaking innovation. ‘You have literally made the desert bloom’, she pontificated.

Such regurgitation of Zionist tropes and gushing displays of pro-Israel sentiment from Israel’s Western allies are difficult to fathom when the daily flow of news from Palestine depicts unapologetically racist developments that border on genocidal.

Onward and downward

Since the beginning of the year, the OPT has witnessed a horrific rise in violence, with at least 153 Palestinians killed and 400 built structures demolished. The Israeli army stages daily raids deep into the hearts of Palestinian cities (nominally under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority (PA)), causing widespread civilian casualties and property damage. They also routinely deploy undercover assassination squads dressed as Arabs.

This April saw the death of a Palestinian prisoner after 86 days on hunger strike protesting his repeated incarceration in ‘administrative detention’ – the purportedly legal practice of imprisoning Palestinians without trial or charge for indefinitely-renewed periods. Simultaneously, Israel’s air-force recently re-activated its aerial-borne assassinations of Palestinian figures accused of resistance activity, targeting homes in the middle of the night and wiping out entire families.

Among the most shocking of recent developments, were the pogrom-like scenes witnessed in the Palestinian village of Huwara, where 400 settlers accompanied by Israeli army personnel rampaged through the town. The marauders torched eight homes, smashed windows in 35 others, and set fire to 250 vehicles.

This deteriorating human rights situation speaks to the near-total collapse of even the pretence of liberal principles on Israel’s part – an image its leaders were once at pains to project.

Indeed, the coalition of religious, ultra-nationalist and fascistic ideologues comprising the current Israeli government make no bones about their profoundly reactionary anti-Palestinian, anti-LGBTQ+, and anti-democratic worldview and agenda. So confident is this coalition in its mission that it is institutionalizing new bodies including the ‘Jewish Identity Authority’ and a new militia-like ‘National Guard’, each budgeted hundreds of millions of dollars. The unapologetic manner with which many Israeli leaders describe their enemies in biological and pathogenic terms marks them as virulent exemplars of new-old right-wing hate groups, combining settler-colonial militarism with Jewish messianic supremacism – all in a nuclear-armed state.

A fruitful friendship

So what accounts for the paucity of meaningful international rebuke of Israel’s government and its crimes from the self-anointed Western exemplars of liberalism and human rights? Why are Western governments instead doubling down on their ‘pro-Israel’ bets, while taking extraordinary measures to criminalize and censor Palestinians and their supporters, even when Jewish?

The answer cannot be reduced to a media soundbite, nor to incantations of ‘the Jewish lobby’ often heard within pro-Palestine circles and beyond. It instead lies in a combination of factors that have resulted in the ‘plumping-up’ of Israel’s significance in the strategic calculus of the region. Simultaneously, a robust conflict-management system has arisen over the thirty years since the Oslo process, resulting in a delicate containment of the Palestine question.

Israel has always been organically linked with the West, in so far as its establishment came as the cynical solution to the ‘Jewish question’, amid the rising European nationalism and deplorable antisemitism of the 19th Century. By supporting Zionist aspirations at the time, the UK and the West more broadly today, killed multiple birds with one stone: eliminating the Jewish question in Europe; tipping the balance within Jewish movements in favour of reactionary, colonial ‘Jewish nationalism’ (at the expense of more progressive/radical socialist alternatives); and using colonization to dominate the Arab world.

This linkage with the West, and the US in particular since 1967, has enabled Israel to grow from strength to strength. Today, Israel leverages this Western dependency in the form of diplomatic, economic, military and research support – backing that has totalled approximately USD 158 billion since Israel’s establishment.

This support has enabled Israel to develop into the regional military juggernaut it is today, relied on to protect Western interests while ensuring no other state or power bloc threatens this regional hegemony.

Brave new world

The ‘post-Covid’ world has witnessed the heightening of competition between the great powers with the emergence of the so-called New Cold War and rise of ‘multipolarity’. Accordingly, the eastern Mediterranean acts as a geostrategic transitional zone incorporating trade routes, choke points and sources of carbon-based fuels, with Israel as a connecting point between Africa and Asia.

While Israel has long been central to Western-held turf on this chessboard, it has also been flaunting its regional significance to other powers in recent years, including China and Russia. For example, in 2015 Israel sold China rights to operate parts of its Haifa port, striking an additional deal to develop an Eilat-Ashdod high-speed rail line, which could function as a future alternative route to the Suez Canal. In a nod to Russia, Israel has repeatedly failed to supply Ukraine with advanced air defence systems while equally allowing pro-Putin oligarchs to continue to operate out of Israel.

While Israel is not about to ‘flip’ against the West, it understands that its traditional allies are under pressure amid global competition and shifting regional sands. This enables Israel to court various contending players, while also working to improve the terms of its relations with existing allies.

Russia’s occupation of Ukraine has heightened European anxiety about energy security, with the EU looking to significant quantities of Eastern Mediterranean gas as a means to diversify its energy supply. By June 2022, the EU had already cut a deal with Israel and Egypt, to supply 10 per cent of its lost Russian supply. Germany has meanwhile repeatedly sold Israel cutting-edge submarines since 2009, in an effort to ensure it retains regional military supremacy over gas-rich waters.

So too, Western actors increasingly rely on Israel to manage competition between larger regional players (Turkey, Iran, Egypt) while protecting their monarchic allies in the Gulf – all the more important in the aftermath the US’ catastrophic Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns and the Arab revolutionary waves from 2011. Both quickly proved the nightmare true – that the West has few regional allies, with even the closest amongst the Arab states liable to be overthrown in the blink of an eye.

In this context, it is clear that moralistic appeals by the West about Israel’s trajectory are not on the cards any time soon. Even the Biden administration, which built its electoral and presidential candidacy on a strong departure from Trumpist populism, has failed to reverse any of its predecessors’ policies on Israel-Palestine, including the radical relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem.

An inconvenient accountability

Against this backdrop of shifting global pressures and power dynamics, the Palestinian question is little more than a nuisance for the West. Thirty years on from the Oslo process, a robust conflict management system has arisen across the OPT, lubricated by some $35-40 billion in foreign aid since 1993.

The creation of the PA and charade of the peace process have enabled Israel to ‘separate’ from Palestinians, erecting a massive Orwellian infrastructure of surveillance and power that commentators have likened to a ‘matrix of control’. Within the archipelago of nominally ‘Palestinian-controlled’ spaces (totalling 165 across the West Bank), Western donor aid has helped establish forms of local government that have been cynically likened to ‘state-building’. But in truth, these non-contiguous, economically dependent zones, surrounded by walls, checkpoints and over 700 road obstacles, are more akin to apartheid South Africa’s Bantustans, created in a perverse ruse to grab land and resources, and establish white supremacy across the entire country.

Behind the spectacle of the ‘peace process’, Israel has engaged in uninterrupted settlement building for thirty years, increasing the total number of settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem from 269,000 to more than 700,000 today.

Independent human rights groups have rightly deemed the system that has emerged between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea a regime of apartheid. International law meanwhile regards the establishment of Israeli settlements in occupied territories as war crimes. Yet Western donor states have stuck their heads in the sand, sipping from their cups of ‘carry on, nothing to see here’, while Israeli fascists run rampant and the OPT burns.

These are dangerous and horrifying times, and if left unaddressed, will not end well. In the current global climate, Palestinians must tread carefully and work hand-in-hand to build broad, effective movements with their allies, especially in the West. It is here where the contradictions of Western states’ shameful facilitation of Israeli apartheid and human rights abuses can be exposed and challenged.

Toufic Haddad is a Palestinian academic and author of Palestine Ltd: Neoliberalism and Nationalism in the Occupied Territories. He currently lives in East Jerusalem, where he directs the Council for British Research in the Levant's Kenyon Institute.