Fifty years on, Palestinian peace is more than geography

Palestine Updates 48


Fifty years on, Palestinian peace is more than geography

It is  known as ‘The Naksa’, meaning setback or defeat. The June 1967 War, Israel delivered the biggest possible blow to the Palestinians who lost all that remained of their homeland. It only significantly worsened what began nineteen years earlier, in 1948, when Israel was born.

In 1948, Israel  went to war and ended up in control of 78 percent of historic Palestine. In 1967, Israel absorbed the whole of historic Palestine, as well as territory from Egypt and Syria. There was a human catastrophe too. 430,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes. In six days, Israel brought more than one million Palestinians under its direct control in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.

The humiliating defeat spurred Palestinians into a period of armed resistance. Israel had illegally annexed East Jerusalem and various parts of the West Bank, declaring them part of the state of Israel. Neither did the Palestinians nor did the international community recognize the takeover of territories. 5.1 million Palestinians are today under Israeli military control characterized by hundreds of military checkpoints, a color-coded permit system, and a Separation Wall that has divided families. Israel’s runs its occupation through a ruthless campaign of human rights and humanitarian atrocities.

There are mixed feelings about the future. The pessimist believes that the likelihood of Israel ending its occupation is low unless the international community holds Israel accountable for its violation of international law and human rights; and puts a premium on its recognition at the international level.

Today makes it precisely 50 years since the war began in June 1967. The Naksa continues to this day. People live in shock and defeat everyday of their life with Israel enforcing a violent military regime of  land grab/stealth, displacement, dispossession, illegal imprisonment, stunting access to livelihoods, to education, demolition of homes, imprisoning people in their thousands, including children and women. The separation wall prompts the question: “Who moved the Wall” – a veiled reference to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of the Separation barrier with little by way of any real protest.

In this issue we bring you a well analyzed perspective on 50 years of the occupation, a historical account by Alain Gresh , a French journalist and former editor of Le Monde Diplomatique. Alain Gresh was raised in Cairo and is currently editor of the online journal OrientXXI. Please read and disseminate. It is a must-read for anyone who wants insights and analysis into the ‘Question of Palestine’.

In solidarity,
Ranjan Solomon

A question of justice
by Alain Gresh

Fifty years after the June 1967 war, the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands continues. Whatever new plan is devised will concern the entire region and the wider Muslim world.

No man’s land: Palestinian women and children trucked from a village near Haifa walk to Arab lines in Tulkarem under Red Cross safe conduct (Bettmann · Getty)

This April a number of Republican congressmen set up an Israel Victory Caucus in Washington (1). Its co-chair Bill Johnson said: ‘We believe Israel has been victorious in the war and that this reality must be recognised for any peace to be achieved between Israel and its neighbours.’ Historian Daniel Pipes added that ‘victory means imposing your will on your enemy.’ As if in response, hundreds of Palestinian political prisoners acted on a call from their best-known member, Marwan Barghouti, to go on hunger strike, their way of saying loud and clear that the Palestinians’ resistance continues and all ideas of their destruction are illusions.

This was not the first time Israel and its allies had fantasised about the Palestinians’ capitulation or even disappearance. After the Arab-Israeli war of 1948-9, Moshe Sharett, the influential Zionist Labour leader and future prime minister, had prophesied a grim future for the 700,000 Palestinians expelled from their homes: ‘The refugees will find their place in the diaspora. Through natural selection, some will survive, others won’t. The majority will become the dregs of the human race and melt into the poorest strata of the Arab world’ (2).

The Palestinians had just suffered a heavy defeat. The territory designated for their state under the UN partition plan of 29 November 1947 had been divided in three: Israel had conquered one part (including Upper Galilee); Jordan had annexed the West Bank and East Jerusalem; and the small Gaza Strip was under Egyptian control, though with limited autonomy. Their institutions were in turmoil and political leadership was lacking.

This catastrophe — the Nakba in Arabic — followed another defeat, the crushing of the Arab Revolt of 1936-9, the civil and military uprising demanding British withdrawal and a halt to Jewish immigration. It was put down by British troops allied to Zionist militia, who acquired experience and UK-supplied arms that made possible their subsequent victory over the Arab armies in 1948-9.

With their people scattered in camps in neighbouring countries or under Israel’s control, the Palestinians seemed destined to disappear as Sharett had predicted, like the indigenous peoples exterminated in the conquests of North America, Australia or New Zealand. Perhaps they would be absorbed into the wider Arab world? After all, they shared the language, culture and often religion of the countries that had taken them in.

First act of resistance

Israel condemned the Arab countries’ refusal to assimilate the refugees. But it was the Palestinians themselves who, in a first act of resistance, rejected any attempt to settle them permanently in the host countries. Initially they even rejected the idea of building lasting structures in the camps. And though Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser signed an agreement with UNRWA (UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees) in July 1953 to settle tens of thousands of refugees in Sinai, Palestinians violently protested in Gaza against this. Going home remained the only dream.

Israeli peace campaigner Uri Avnery reported an exchange with a child when he was serving as a soldier during the 1956 war (3) and first, brief Israeli occupation of Gaza: ‘I asked a young Arab living in a refugee camp where he came from. “From Al-Kubab” he said. I was struck by this response because the boy was seven. So he had been born in Gaza after the war and had never even seen Al-Kubab, a village which had long ceased to exist’ (4). Now, 60 years on, most Palestinians have been born in exile but the response of adults and children remains the same: they belong to the village their family was expelled from. The Zionist movement, which turned a millennia-old prayer — ‘next year in Jerusalem’ — into a political slogan, should be able to understand this attachment.

Electioneering doesn’t seem to have stopped in the UK for over two years: Conservative candidate John Lamont canvassing with Rebecca Fraser in the Roxburgh and Selkirk seat this May
Mahmud Hams · AFP · Getty

After the Nakba, the Palestinian national movement built on this determination. And the regional context contributed to it. The creation of Israel shook the Middle East and hastened the collapse of pro-western Arab regimes. Nasser came to power in Egypt in 1952, revolutionary nationalism grew across the region, and Iraq’s monarchy fell in 1958. This ferment, and the rivalry between Arab countries keen to erase the memory of their humiliating defeat by Israel, led the Arab League to create the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in 1964, while, Fatah, a then unknown organisation, launched its first armed operations against Israel in January 1965. The Arab defeat in June 1967 (5) created the conditions in which the Palestinian struggle would become autonomous. In February 1969, Fatah leader Yasser Arafat was elected president of the PLO’s executive committee.

The Palestinian national movement became part of the international landscape with other wars of resistance: Vietnam, East Timor, Latin America, South Africa. The writer Jean Genet summed up these aspirations in his last book, Prisoner of Love (1986): Palestine, he wrote, was at the heart of ‘a great firework display of a revolution, leaping from bank to bank, opera house to opera house, prison to law court.’

More limited aims

These hopes have endured. For the Palestinians — caught up in internal Lebanese conflicts, targeted by Israeli operations in the occupied territories and Lebanon, and victims of divisions in the Arab world and regional meddling (by Iraq, Syria, Jordan) — had to learn to live with more limited aims, and accept the idea of sharing Palestine. They gradually abandoned the armed struggle and ‘external operations’ — especially plane hijackings — that had brought their cause to international attention and led western states to classify them as terrorists. Instead, they focused on diplomacy and political efforts, building relatively stable institutions such as youth organisations, trade unions and writers’ unions.

The PLO gained international stature, bolstered notably by the increasing mobilisation of the populations of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, all occupied in 1967. Arafat was invited to address the UN General Assembly in 1974, and the PLO was recognised by the vast majority of states — though not Israel or the US. (The latter changed its position in the 1990s.) In the 1980s, Europe, including France, helped establish two principles: the Palestinians’ right to self-determination, and the need for dialogue with their representatives, the PLO.

But it took the first intifada, which began in December 1986, and the end of the cold war, to reach the Oslo accord, signed in Washington on 13 September 1993 by Yasser Arafat and Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, sponsored by US president Bill Clinton. Arafat established the Palestinian Authority on 1 July 1994, initially in Gaza and Jericho. Despite the vagueness of the Oslo accords, there was to have been recognition of a clear principle: ‘the exchange of land for peace’, with the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel within the 4 June 1967 borders.

As we know, this ‘peace process’ failed. Though Palestinians were given limited autonomy, their daily life deteriorated, freedom of movement was increasingly curtailed by checkpoints, and settlement-building continued inexorably under Israeli governments of both right and left.

Which way to go?

Various explanations for this failure are possible, but the main one is the colonial nature of the Zionist project, which has fuelled a feeling of superiority over ‘indigenous’ peoples and encouraged Israeli leaders’ de facto refusal to recognise the Palestinians’ equality and right to self-determination. To the government in Tel Aviv, an Israeli’s security is precious. A Palestinian’s is worth little.

The quashing of the second intifada, which broke out in September 2000, led to a weakening of the Palestinian Authority, with a division between Gaza, under the control of Islamist Hamas, and the West Bank, under Arafat’s Fatah. But there were diplomatic successes, including Palestine securing UN observer status and diplomatic acceptance by around 100 states. Another achievement was the consolidation of a strong brand of nationalism that went beyond local allegiances and diverse experiences of exile. Neither internal divisions nor Israeli efforts have caused the Palestinians to give up. Not only have they held on to their homes, they have also proudly claimed their identity, under occupation and in exile. On the territory of mandatory Palestine, there are more Palestinians (seven million, counting those in Israel) than Jewish Israelis (six million), a nightmare for Zionist leaders who once dreamed of a ‘land without people’.

Even so, ‘reviving the peace process’ now seems an illusion, except in the eyes of President Mahmoud Abbas and the ‘international community’, which views keeping his administration going on life support as vital, to justify its own failure to act or to come up with any innovative proposal grounded in international law.

What new strategy can the Palestinians adopt? It will take time to construct a new plan, for the phase that began with the June 1967 war came to a definitive end with the failure of Oslo. The debate is divisive: should the Palestinians abandon the idea of sharing the land and demand a one-state solution? Or dissolve the Palestinian Authority? And what about the use of violence? Even Hamas, known for its discipline, has not escaped the debate, as seen in its new programme, which for the first time clearly accepts the idea of a state within the 1967 borders.

Meanwhile, in the words of two Palestinian academics, ‘in the absence of clarity about the ultimate political solution, the core goals must be the fundamental rights that are the essential elements of the right to self-determination of the Palestinian people and that, as such, must form part of any future political solution. These are freedom from occupation and colonisation, the right of the refugees to return to their homes and properties (6), non-discrimination and the full equality of Palestinian citizens of Israel. These three goals … were laid out in the Palestinian civil society call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions [BDS] against Israel’ (7).

New roads to freedom

The BDS movement, launched in July 2005 in response to calls from 171 NGOs, marked a new phase in Palestinian history: civil society has taken up the baton out of frustration with the impotence of political forces. This non-violent movement for equal rights, which some western governments have tried to criminalise, has had widespread support, from Latin America to Europe and Asia. This was seen during the war in Gaza in the summer of 2014. The question is why.

During the latter half of the 20th century, two main causes mobilised support beyond national borders: Vietnam then South Africa. The number of people killed was not the main cause of outrage; international public opinion is also sensitive to a situation’s symbolic resonance. At certain points, a conflict can go beyond the narrow confines of its own geography, acquiring universal significance and expressing the ‘truth’ of a period. Despite their dissimilarities, Vietnam and South Africa were both situated on a fault line between North and South, and both conflicts had a colonial dimension. This is also true of Palestine, though the context is different. The South African experience, with the African National Congress’s project of a ‘rainbow nation’ that integrated whites rather than pursuing theories of ‘black power’, showed that times had changed. Armed struggle was no longer the only way; there were new roads to freedom, and equal rights were central.

More than a question of land, Palestine is a question of justice, or rather of continuing injustice
With Palestine, the longest-running conflict of the present age, we go beyond purely territorial differences. More than a question of land, Palestine is above all a question of justice, or rather of continuing injustice. In the occupied territories, the population faces a phenomenon that has disappeared elsewhere: encroaching colonialism. Since 1967, Israel has moved more than 650,000 settlers to the West Bank and East Jerusalem, a practice that the International Criminal Court considers a war crime. Palestinians’ daily life is marked by the confiscation of their land, destruction of their homes, arrests (a majority of the adult male population has at some point been imprisoned), torture, an army that shoots on sight, and a wall that does not separate two populations but contributes to containing one of them. An archipelago of Bantustans is being created, bounded by roads reserved for Israelis, a form of segregation unknown even in South Africa. The Palestinian population is governed by special laws, a regime that resembles apartheid in many ways — two peoples on the same land (the West Bank and East Jerusalem), Palestinians and settlers, subject to different laws and courts.

Millions of people worldwide can empathise with the Palestinians’ struggle, relating it to their own revolt against discrimination and for equal rights. A young person in the West who feels marginalised can imagine himself in the situation of a Palestinian, as can an Indian expelled from his land or an Irishman proud of past struggle against British colonialism. Even if this solidarity does not guarantee the victory of their cause, it remains one of the Palestinians’ major advantages, ensuring that beyond their own determination, their cause will live on.

On 2 November 1917 Lord Balfour signed a letter declaring that the British government ‘view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’ (a first draft mentioned ‘the Jewish race’) and ‘will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object.’ As Arthur Koestler, who fought for Zionist organisations, later wrote, ‘one nation solemnly promised to a second nation the country of a third.’ This colonial enterprise initiated a long century of instability, wars, bitterness and hatred. It fed and continues to feed all the frustrations in the region (see Exploiting Arab anger). Resolving the Palestinian situation will not instantly bring peace, but for as long as the occupation lasts, there will be no peace or stability in the Middle East.

Alain Gresh
Alain Gresh is editor of the online journal His many publications include Un chant d’amour: Israël-Palestine, une histoire française (illustrated by Hélène Aldeguer), La Découverte, Paris, 2017.