Palestine: Part Three.
Two states, one state, none.
Summary: The final installment of our series on Israel/Palestine covers the Arab Revolts of the late 1930s through present day, highlighting the agreements, wars, uprisings and accords that explain how the chasm widened between Jews and Palestinians, and why every attempt at reconciling the two sides has failed. It’s a sweeping narrative that involves generational actors, imperial interests of neighboring countries and acts of violence, bravery and betrayal.
“I feel equally close to the wretched victims of the rubber plantations in Putumayo, or to the Negroes in Africa with whose bodies the Europeans play catch-ball… I feel at home in the entire world wherever there are clouds and birds and human tears.” -Rosa Luxemburg
The President of the United States and Congress were fixated on the situation in Russia. The invasion of a neighboring territory and the defiance of its people galvanized the nation. It was a tenuous time in the relationship between the American and Russian governments, and it was unclear how it would all play out. The U.S. offered support for the territory in its fight against Russian aggression and quest for independence. In this midst of it all came another surprise.
Israel, one of the staunchest U.S. allies, invaded a neighboring territory with an aerial offensive that caught most of the world, and certainly U.S. intelligence agencies, completely off guard. The dual conflict with intertwined and precarious alliances placed the U.S. President in a tight spot. The American people, and even those closest to the President, began to wonder if his advanced age was beginning to hinder his performance. There were even whispers among his staff whether he would make it through a re-election bid. And even if he did, could he make a second term? This sent chills down the spines of administration officials who were wary of the unpopular vice president assuming the presidency under such tragic circumstances.
This might read like the introduction to a future account of the times in which we are currently living. It’s not. This is an echo of history so loud, it reverberates in this time. The year was 1956. President Eisenhower was getting on in years, and growing increasingly agitated in a job that he never quite asked for; more like one he was thrust into. His vice president—Richard Nixon. The communist uprising in Hungary declaring independence from Moscow, and the oppressive Stalin regime had just broken out, when Israel sent fighter jets to bomb the Egyptian military, which had just occupied the Suez Canal. Eisenhower would soon learn that the British had encouraged Israel to invade Egypt and, in fact, sent troops to support the invasion, as the Suez was under the joint protection of Britain and France. Eisenhower was incensed.
Eisenhower biographer Jim Newton recalled a meeting in late October, “which began with a frustrated Eisenhower searching for ways to halt the fighting in the Sinai. ‘Let’s call it a ‘Bomb for Peace,’ he exploded at an emergency session that morning. ‘It’s as simple as this: Let’s send one of Curt LeMay’s gang over the Middle East, carrying an atomic bomb. And let’s warn everyone: We’ll drop it—if they all don’t cut this nonsense out.’ Aghast, aides let the remark pass in silence.”
I begin with this anecdote for a few reasons. One, history does repeat itself, and it’s amazing how little we learn from it. Two, the entanglements in this region are as intractable as they ever were. And, three—perhaps most importantly—we live in a nuclear age, and the people in charge really, really matter.
Suppose Eisenhower was surrounded by a bloodthirsty Congress and aides who held the worldview of modern day neocons? Maybe a comment such as this doesn’t pass so easily. The calls to “Free Palestine” and cries of “never again is now” by Jews all over the world are real and painful. To understand this conflict is to know the backstory completely. And, look—maybe a solution isn’t possible, and this will be fought to some tragic end that kicks off World War Three. But we have to at least try to learn from mistakes that have already been made to avert future horrors. It’s just about all we can do.
This show is guided by one fundamental principle. Everything that is done can be undone; good or bad. Time is a long thread, and our actions tie it in knots, and untying them takes time. Retrace your steps. Pull a thread here, a thread there. Reduce the tension until another knot loosens.
It’s why I talk about history being a conversation. Everything that happens is a response to what came before. How can we undo the evils of neoliberal capitalism, unless we understand the path we took to get here? How can we chart a successful path forward with democratic socialist values, unless we know how and where things fell apart along the way?
I’m not saying that there’s a solution to the conflict in the Middle East buried somewhere deep in our historical analysis of events. But I am heartened by a couple of things. Like learning that Jews, Christians and Muslims coexisted peacefully alongside one another until imperial despotism and land claims set them in opposition. Everything that has been done can be undone.
It’s also a good time to remind ourselves of the definition of insanity.
Chapter One: On the Precipice.
The Arab Revolts between 1936 and 1939 were raging against British imperial forces and the Zionist movements alike. Throughout Palestine and in Jerusalem, in particular, skirmishes were becoming routine. All the while, Jewish migration during the fifth Aliyah was intensifying, and Allied forces were confronted on every side during the war.
On the ground, the people of the Middle East were going through a renaissance of identity. Some Arab people began to see Islam as their nationality in the face of Zionist settlements and imperial forces. Others started to adopt their new nationalist identities, as the western colonial forces found themselves otherwise occupied during the war. Oil became more and more important to the developing world, especially in feeding the war machine. Arab states began pulling away from one another, as they sought to harden the borders and secure their futures in a post-industrial and modern world.
Still hanging in the balance were the Jews, Christians and Muslims of greater Palestine, the outlier consigned to a bizarre nation-state purgatory.
In Roger Owen’s paper we referenced in Part Two, he draws upon the work of historian Salim Tamari to describe the class and social dynamics of this period in Palestine. Tamari points to, “groups mobilized along non-factional and, in some cases, class lines.” His examples include the Qassamites (“peasant warriors” and “destitute laborers”), the Palestine Communist Party (unionized workers) and the Istiqlal Party (professionals and others of middle-class origin)... There was no Palestinian bourgeoisie strong enough to act politically on its own, as testified by the limitations of the Istiqlal Party. Only the landlords and their associated urban functionaries behaved politically as a class, and the patronage system was suited to their exercise of hegemony.”
Essentially, pre-industrial feudal relations persisted among different factions that had yet to organize into classes that had formed in western imperial societies. Therefore, no formal political movement had developed along class structures, and the absence of formal state borders meant that there were just pockets of ethnic groups from landowners and farmers to militant groups and laborers.
And yet, the imperial forces who were being ravaged during World War Two were attempting to impose a nation-state plan on a territory that not only hadn’t fully transformed along with the surging capitalist regimes of the time, but the territory itself was being flooded by Jewish refugees from the war.
Moreover, the new Jewish refugees were met by fellow Jews of the third and fourth Aliyot who were more capitalist and nationalist in character than the socialist-minded Jews of the first two. Confronted with the horrors of the Nazi Judenrein policy, the flood of refugees came imbued with a sense of urgency and Zionist fervor encapsulated by leaders like Weizmann, who sought to resolve what Jewish historian Avi Shlaim referred to as “ongoing dispute between the political Zionists and the practical Zionists. The political Zionists, following in Herzl's footsteps, gave priority to diplomatic activity to secure international support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The practical Zionists, on the other hand, stressed the organization of Jewish immigration to Palestine, land acquisition, settlement, and the building of a Jewish economy there.”
Another powerful Zionist leader named Ze’ev Jabotinsky emerged as the head of a group called the Irgun, which included a young Menachem Begin. Here’s Jabotinsky in his own words:
“We cannot promise any reward either to the Arabs of Palestine or to the Arabs outside Palestine. A voluntary agreement is unattainable. And so those who regard an accord with the Arabs as an indispensable condition of Zionism must admit to themselves today that this condition cannot be attained and hence that we must give up Zionism. We must either suspend our settlement efforts or continue them without paying attention to the mood of the natives. Settlement can thus develop under the protection of a force that is not dependent on the local population, behind an iron wall which they will be powerless to break down.”
Militant Arab resistance was now met with organized Israeli force in the Irgun, and other movements and clashes were commonplace. In 1937, another British invention called the Peel Commission declared that Palestine was to be carved into three distinct territories, with twenty percent allocated to a Jewish state, the balance being united with Jordan and a third zone that incorporated holy cities of Jerusalem and Nazareth into a British controlled protectorate. Every side rejected it, most especially the Arabs, who were tired of being stripped of self-determination.
Then, the British reversed their stance two years later and issued a white paper in 1939 that called for Palestinians to work it out among themselves, but set a limit on Jewish immigration at 75,000. This time, the Zionist leaders balked at the plan and were incensed that the British would just walk away.
As the war raged on, the Zionist movement decided to take matters into its own hands and called a meeting in New York at the Biltmore Hotel. The findings would become known as the “Biltmore Program.” The conference proclaimed the following:
“The Conference urges that the gates of Palestine be opened; that the Jewish Agency be vested with control of immigration into Palestine and with the necessary authority for upbuilding the country, including the development of its unoccupied and uncultivated lands; and that Palestine be established as a Jewish Commonwealth integrated in the structure of the new democratic world.”
David Ben-Gurion emerged as the recognized leader of the movement and the program, and he went on a campaign with the major world powers to champion statehood and to raise funds for an armed resistance. Interestingly, while the world was in complete disarray, Palestine was experiencing somewhat of an economic surge, as it served as a feeder system to the wartime economy of the other nations. As James Gelvin, author of The Israel-Palestine Conflict writes, “It has been estimated that by war’s end there was full employment in Palestine.”
The end of the war quickly became decision time. A weary Europe was anxious to settle the Middle East question and put the economy back together. The United States was instantly recognized as the lone superpower in the world for a couple of years at least, while Russia recovered from staggering losses during the war.
President Truman, on the advice of Earl Harrison, who was in charge of creating a plan for displaced persons of the war, urged the British to pave the way for 100,000 Jewish refugees to Palestine. The British seized on the opportunity to draw the United States into the mix, and the British suggested a joint commission to figure it out if the U.S. agreed to defray the costs of Jewish settlement in Palestine and to protect them. This time, the U.S. balked.
The Zionist movement was beginning to splinter at this time as well. The militaristic wing of the party and the paramilitary organization Irgun were pressing for revolution. In 1946, it even carried out the terrorist bombing of the King David Hotel, British headquarters in Jerusalem. The blast killed ninety-one people and sowed chaos into the discussions.
At the same time, the political Zionists such as Ben-Gurion knew they had the sympathies of a world that learned of the atrocities of the Holocaust, so they were in a solid position to push for the Zionist dream of statehood. The only question was who had the authority to make this happen, and could they secure the approval of the United States. Here’s Gelvin:
“In February 1947 the British threw up their hands and dumped the Palestine question on the newly founded United Nations. The United Nations General Assembly commission the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP), made up of representatives from Sweden, the Netherlands, Czechosloviaki, Yugoslavia, Australia, Canada, India, Iran, Guatemala, Uruguay, and Peru, to investigate the Palestine problem and make recommendations.”
The plan called for a termination of the mandate and a partition plan between the two communities that called for them to unite economically and to place Jerusalem under international control. As Gelvin notes, however, “For the record, the minority report recommended the establishment of a single federal state.”
As one can imagine, there was hardly a consensus on the 1947 partition plan. Interestingly, the United States military and intelligence communities were against it, predicting that it would lead to chaos and hurt relations with the newly established Arab governments. Neither the Jews nor the Arab Palestinians could claim any sort of victory, as the plan still didn’t call for official statehood. It was yet another plan to make a plan without the consent of the people who lived there. Another complicating factor was neighboring Jordan, under the rule of King Abdullah since the end of World War One. Abdullah played every side of the chess board. As Khalidi writes, “Both the king and the British opposed allowing the Palestinians to benefit from the 1947 partition or the war that followed, and neither wanted an independent Arab state in Palestine.”
This is surprising to most westerners, who assume that the Arab nations are all aligned. They’re not, and never have been. As we’ve stated before, once the Arab territories were formed and then quickly gained independence from their imperial masters, they had a lot of work to do to build their nations. Abdullah much preferred the 1937 arrangement that placed the West Bank mostly under Jordanian control. However, his duplicity only went so far, as we’ll see in the next section, when he opposed the Zionist army in 1948.
As Avi Shlaim noted, “it is hardly an exaggeration to say that the British colluded directly with the Transjordanians and indirectly with the Jews to abort the birth of a Palestinian Arab state.”
Chapter Two: No Turning Back.
Altalena was the pen name of Ze’ev Jabotinsky. It was also the name of a ship used to transport weapons to the coast of Palestine by the Jewish militant group the Irgun. The partition plan had sent the Palestinian people over the edge. The British were backing away, and the Americans were taking an interest. The Soviets were getting in bed with the Egyptians. The still fledgling Arab states of Syria, Iraq and Lebanon were forging tepid alliances with one another and trying to figure out the new world order. The Jordanians were playing everyone.
Tensions were bubbling below the surface, spitting fire from the ground and ready to erupt into flames. “Like a slow, seemingly endless train wreck, the Nakba unfolded over a period of many months,” writes Rashid Khalidi, author of The Hundred Years' War on Palestine.
The Nakba, or “catastrophe,” is what the Palestinians call the war that lasted from the fall of 1947 until May 15, 1948. There are two narratives that have emerged from this period. The Zionists accepted the partition plan and were willing to live in peace alongside their Arab brethren. But the Arab nations rejected the plan and instead chose to invade Israel. Vastly outnumbered and surrounded on all sides, the Zionist Davids beat back the Goliath Arab armies and fulfilled the prophecy of the Israelites. The Palestinian narrative claims the brave Arabs bested the colonial Zionist forces in the battles before imperial forces intervened with western firepower and corrupt neighboring regimes abandoned them in their darkest hour.
Let’s assemble the pieces of the puzzle that our main sources agree upon to get a clear picture of what transpired.
The UN created the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP), in May of 1947. The partition plan was offered at the end of August. Irgun militants bombed a police station in Haifa in September, killing British and Arab officers. The UN approved the UNSCOP plan on November 29. Palestinian militants killed seven Jewish civilians near Jerusalem the next day. The war had begun.
Let’s start with Gelvin:
“In 1948 the Arab states were divided into two rival camps: Jordan and Iraq, on the one hand, and, by default Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, on the other. Because Jordan and Iraq were ruled by two branches of the same Hashemite family that enjoyed a close relationship with the British, leaders of Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia feared a British-backed ‘Hashemite conspiracy’ intent on dominating the Arab world. Making matters even more complex, the leaders of Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq each had ambitions to lead the Arab world. As a result, there was no agreement on strategy or war aims in 1948.”
Avi Shlaim called the Arab coalition “one of the most divided, disorganized, and ramshackle coalitions in the entire history of warfare.”
The self-proclaimed “New Historians” note that while Arabs indeed outnumbered the Israelis of the Yishuv, what the Jewish part of Palestine was referred to prior to statehood, Palestinian Arabs had never fully recovered from losing 15% of the male population in the Arab uprisings. They characterized the newly formed Arab units of the neighboring states as closer to domestic police than trained military fighters and more interested in maintaining local rule than fighting someone else’s battles. Of all the states, Egypt and Jordan were the most prepared. Egypt had been independent for a while and had aligned with the Soviet Union. And Jordan’s military apparatus had the benefit of British training and weaponry. But, remember that their interests weren’t necessarily aligned. Here’s Khalidi:
“In the first phase of the Nakba, a pattern of ethnic cleansing resulted in the expulsion and panicked departure of about 300,000 Palestinians overall and the devastation of many of the Arab majority’s key urban economic, political, civic, and cultural centers. The second phase followed after May 15, when the new Israeli army defeated the Arab armies that joined the war. In belatedly deciding to intervene militarily, the Arab governments were acting under intense pressure from the Arab public, which was deeply distressed by the fall of Palestine’s cities and villages one after another and the arrival of waves of destitute refugees in neighboring capitals. In the wake of the defeat of the Arab armies, and after further massacres of civilians, an even larger number of Palestinians, another 400,000, were expelled and fled from their homes, escaping to neighboring Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and the West Bank and Gaza. None were allowed to return.”
Even former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak called it a “shattering exile of a whole society, accompanied by thousands of deaths and the wholesale destruction of hundreds of villages.” This was accomplished by Begin’s Irgun and Ben-Gurion’s Haganah, which crafted a campaign called Plan Dalet, or Plan D, to depopulate major urban centers prior to the close of the war. Zionist revisionist history claims that Arabs were allowed to stay if they didn’t resist and that many assumed it would be temporary. They weren’t, and it wasn’t.
A little more than half of the entire population of Arab Palestine became refugees. Approximately 720,000. That number is from the United Nations, and backed by historical records. The Arab armies of other nations entered a war that was already underway, due to pressure from Arab citizens alarmed by the flood of refugees and Arab leaders sitting on their hands. Israel was way more organized and prepared to battle on a large scale.
The only thing left to the international community was what to do with the refugees and Jerusalem.
The Soviet Union under Stalin was the first to recognize Israel, though historians are split as to his reasoning. Some say it’s because Israel’s labor Zionist movement was more familiar to him and the democratic socialist ideals of Communist Russia. Others believe that he believed the partition plan would distract the British and draw continued resources.
Gradually, the rest of the UN nations would recognize the state of Israel and its first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, had his work cut out for him. Arab hostility would be entrenched from this point forward. But first, he had to settle some internal affairs. The alliance between Ben-Gurion’s Haganah and Begin’s Irgun would shift to a battle for control. It’s a prelude to future battles between Israeli leaders that, in some cases, would turn deadly.
Shortly after declaring statehood, Begin made a deal to import more weapons on the Altalena. When the newly formed Israel Defense Force (IDF) that combined the Haganah and Irgun forces under state control discovered this side deal, the splinter Irgun group took the ship to the port of Tel Aviv where it came under attack by the IDF. Despite a call for a truce, the IDF bombed and sank the ship, killing several Irgunists and wounding 87 more.
Having established central command and authority over military affairs, Ben-Gurion and the newly formed parliament in Israel, called the Knesset, turned to domestic affairs. Of primary importance was the settlement of their newly acquired territory to prevent the possibility of Arab return to the countryside and cities. In 1950, the Knesset passed the Law of Return, sometimes referred to as “birthright,” which stipulated that, “Every Jew has the right to immigrate to the country.” According to Gelvin:
“The Israeli government took over approximately 94 percent of the property abandoned by the Palestinians who fled and distributed it to Jewish Israelis. Some Palestinians attempted to reclaim their property by crossing the armistice lines to harvest crops or carry away moveable property to their new homes. Others crossed the lines to commit acts of sabotage or murder. The Israeli government did not differentiate between the two groups. To deal with the problem of infiltration, Israel launched reprisal raids against the states from which the infiltration occurred… In1953, an Israeli raid into Jordan resulted in sixty-nine civilian deaths, mostly women and children. In 1955, an Israeli raid on an Egyptian military post in Gaza left thirty-eight Egyptian soldiers dead and about forty wounded. Both raids were led by future Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon.”
700,000 new immigrants arrived in the first four years of Israel’s existence. Another 700,000 arrived over the next 15 years.
Over the next several years, skirmishes continued, as the state of Israel steadily weaponized and gained more control over its newfound territories. The occupied parts of Palestine were fully under martial law at this time, but resistance forces remained. According to Palestine Nexus, in April 1956, “Palestinian militants infiltrated Israel from Gaza and attacked the Shafrir synagogue, killing six Israeli children.” In response to events like this, Israel doubled down on the occupied territories in an attempt to snuff out the resistance. In Gaza, its efforts were particularly severe, killing and executing thousands of resistance fighters, causing most of the remaining fighters to flee to the West Bank. In one of the more brutal incursions in the southern Gaza city of Khan Yunis, Israeli soldiers lined up refugees against a wall and executed 275 people, according to the United Nations. One of the survivors was an eight-year old boy named Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi, who would go on to co-found Hamas.
But long before Hamas came into being, another organization was founded by a Palestinian militant named Yasser Arafat. The organization was called Fatah, and Arafat would run it as a paramilitary group from exile, running raids and skirmishes and providing the spine of the Palestinian resistance. Because it found safe harbor outside of the occupied territories, Fatah was more difficult to pin down.
Within the occupied territories, the people attempted to organize politically and created the Palestinian Liberation Organization, a disorganized and toothless group that Arafat would eventually lead, particularly after the next defining war.
Chapter Three: Six Days in June, Nineteen in October.
“On 14 May, 1967, Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser placed Egyptian armed forces on maximum alert and sent the Egyptian army into the Sinai Peninsula,” writes Gelvin. “Egyptian newspapers reported that Nasser’s actions were a response to information provided by the Soviet Union that Israel was planning to attack Syria.”
To be clear, Syria had been provoking Israel in the Galilee region, and tensions were running high. But as Dennis Ross writes in The Missing Peace, Hafez al-Assad, defense minister of Syria at the time, “did not launch a major invasion of Israel. When the Israelis attacked the Heights and fought their way up them, the fighting was tenacious. But Assad was not going to see Syria’s army destroyed and ordered a retreat even before the Israelis had completed their conquest of the Heights.”
Most agree the Soviet report was false. Some believe that Nasser knew it was. Some believe that he gambled that Israel would strike first, thereby stripping away their diplomatic cover. As Gelvin writes, “If this was the case, it was a miscalculation. In the first hours of the war, Israeli air strikes destroyed 90 percent of the Egyptian air force, about 70 percent of the Syrian air force, and almost all of the Jordanian air force.”
They had taken over the Sinai Peninsula, Golan Heights, a strip of land bordering Jordan, the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. It took the Israelis six days, hence the name of the war.
In the wake of the war, the United Nations drafted the infamous Resolution 242. Once again, the British had a heavy hand in the language, as if they hadn’t drawn enough maps around this region. Resolution 242 stated that Israel must withdraw “armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict,” and called for the “termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgement of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace with secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.”
Israel, Egypt, Jordan and later Syria all agreed to these terms. But it’s worth pointing a couple of things out. First off, the Israelis would take a loose interpretation on the first note, the withdrawal of “armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict.” The Resolution didn’t say “the territories.” Just territories. The Israeli government would interpret this as territories essentially of their choosing, since it wasn’t specific.
The other part of the resolution was a no-go for Palestinians because it called for political independence of “every State in the area.” Palestine wasn’t a state. And, even though by this time it had representation in the form of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the PLO didn’t have a state to affirm in the negotiation. The only reference to Palestinians was that there should somehow, some way be a “just settlement” of the refugee problem. It would be twenty years before the PLO finally acquiesced to the framework, as set out by Resolution 242.
By now, the U.S. and the Soviets were involved to varying degrees. Selling arms into the region. Failed diplomatic attempts to bring all of the parties together; everyone eyeing the other with suspicion, but no one willing to take the first step among Arab nations and Israelis to negotiate around the 242 framework. Egypt started what President Anwar al-Sadat called the War of Attrition by shelling Israeli strongholds around the Suez Canal and initiating dogfights. Soon the Soviets were chipping in their support for Egypt, which led the Americans to amplify their support for Israel, which began forceful retaliation against Egypt, but without committing American troops, which everyone knew would be a disaster.
Arafat seized an opening in 1969 to formally take over the PLO and declared himself in charge of the organization, and spent the next several years both building a political apparatus and carrying out high profile attacks on Israeli infrastructure, conducting cross-border raids, hijacking airplanes and an event that put the concept of terrorism on the map forever.
Ten days into the 1972 Olympics in Munich, a militant splinter group of the PLO called Black September raided the Israeli athletic complex and took several people hostage. Black September’s goal was twofold. The first was a swap. The group was calling for the release of more than 200 Palestinian prisoners in Israel. The second was notoriety. When two Israelis fought back, Black September killed the two men, and all hell broke loose from there.
Both Black September’s plan and the German rescue plan were badly botched. Five of the eight terrorists were killed, the rest captured. But not before they executed all nine hostages. But it was the second objective that was achieved beyond the PLO’s wildest imagination. As NPR writes in a recollection of the events:
“When television networks finally switched to covering the hostage crisis, it created the aspect of the attack most notable today: It was the first time a terrorist incident had reached a global audience during a live broadcast…About 900 million people are believed to have watched the hostage crisis on television.”
The PLO was on the map, for better and worse. In the Arab world, the plucky band of resistance fighters under Arafat were doing god’s work and punching above their weight. The western world, however, understood that the PLO had changed the game and proven that it didn’t take a conventional military to strike fear in the hearts of millions of people.
In 1973, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel, resulting in thousands of casualties on both sides, in what is referred to as the October War. It is sometimes referred to by Israelis as the Yom Kippur War and by Arabs as the Ramadan War. A reminder of the increasingly religious significance of the fight between two Abrahamic religious states that were once allied as a people.
It also raised the Cold War stakes dramatically, drawing Brezhnev and Nixon to the diplomatic brink and putting nuclear options on the front burner. With tensions running extremely high, the great powers convinced all sides to reach an armistice, with the Israeli forces technically notching a victory, though it only served to harden the resolve of the Arab states against both Israel and the United States. The lines drawn in the sand by the French and the British were now being guarded by the Soviets and the Americans.
The Americans would eventually become the most staunch defenders of the state of Israel, though the relationship went through several ups and downs. The problem on the Palestinian side where its supporters were concerned was the lack of a state actor or recognized authority. That would change in 1974, when the United Nations recognized Arafat as the leader of a legitimate body that represented the people of the Palestinian territories. In addressing the UN for the first time he said, “Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter's gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.”
It was now state against quasi-state.
From an economic perspective, the occupied territories took on a new life. Israel’s defense ministry established a policy called “Open Bridges” to allow Palestinians in the West Bank the right to travel back and forth to Jordan and to work in Israel, though laborers were required to return to the occupied territories by nightfall. Then it made two critical infrastructure moves to take control of the water supply and electric grid of the territories. Moreover, it used its economic leverage to dictate the terms of trade. Again, Gelvin:
“The Israelis found a captive market in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. They enjoyed exclusive rights to export manufactured goods to the territories and, because Israeli farmers had access to subsidies denied residents of the territories, were able to flood the Palestinian market with cheaper agricultural products. Land-use restrictions, production and marketing quotas, Jordanian import controls, and access to the Israeli labor market all served to change the orientation of the Palestinian workforce away from agriculture toward employment in Israel. Within four years of the 1967 war, about half of all workers from the occupied territories regularly commuted to jobs in Israel.”
This created a subservient colonized workforce that was now entirely dependent on Israel for work, food, water and electricity. It’s important to understand the chasm between the intent behind these policies and the eventual market economic forces that would obliterate them. The intent was to actually make life livable in the territories by allowing them to work in Jordan and Israel, move about freely (during the day at least) and access a more mature Israeli infrastructure. But the subsidies and trade restrictions rendered many markets within the West Bank and Gaza unproductive and wholly uncompetitive, forcing workers to look elsewhere. And the hardened borders allowed the right leaning political surge in the late ‘70s to take a different approach to the concept of movement.
The Likud Party was a fundamentalist party on the right in Israel that ran on a platform that stated:
“The right of the Jewish people to the land of Israel is eternal and indisputable and is linked with the right of security and peace; therefore Judea and Samaria will not be handed to any foreign administration; between the sea and Jordan there will only be Israeli sovereignty.”
In 1977, Menachem Begin rose to power as the head of the Likud Party. The leader of the militant Jewish insurgency Irgun who had battled with David Ben-Gurion just thirty years prior, was now in charge, and Israel would take a hard right turn from this point forward. The Labor Zionist movement was over. The Land Zionists were now in charge.
In 1978, the new Likud government began closing the borders on a regular basis and started importing labor from other parts of the world to displace Palestinian workers. By the year 2000, it all but shut worker mobility down entirely and unemployment in the occupied territories would surge past 50%.
Chapter Four: The Politics of War.
Through researching this series, I’ve come to view the story of modern Palestine in three distinct chapters. The first takes us from the 1880s and the first Aliyah through the Nakba. The second stretches from the displacement of Palestinian refugees and recognition of the state of Israel in 1948 through the October War in 1973, when the UN reaffirmed Resolution 242 in Resolution 338. That was followed by recognition of the PLO as a legitimate governing body of the Palestinian territories, though not yet an official state. The third period ranges from ‘73 through October 7 of this year. But let’s go to the transition between the second and third period.
As Ross writes in The Missing Peace:
“Resolution 338 called for negotiations between the Arabs and Israelis to implement UNSC Resolution 242. Resolution 242 established the principles that should guide an agreement: withdrawal of Israeli armed focus from territories occupied in the recent conflict; termination of all claims of belligerency; respect for and acknowledgment of the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independence of every state in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized borders; a just resolution of the refugee problem.”
In an collection of essays from socialist activist Moshé Machover called Israelis and Palestinians: Conflict and Resolution, Machover contextualizes the PLOs evolving approach in the lead up to the resolution and after recognition as a governing body:
“From 1969 until 1974, the PLO unambiguously called for the liberation of the whole of pre-1948 Palestine—including not only the West Bank and the Gaza Strip occupied by Israel since 1967 but also Israel itself—and establishing in it a unitary secular democratic state. However, from 1974 the PLO began to shift its position, and by the 1980s accepted a ‘two-state solution:’ an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which would exist alongside Israel. Thus the PLO was resigned to giving up—at least for the foreseeable future—the Palestinian claim over 78 percent of the territory of pre-1948 Palestine.”
Gaining consensus and political control over the disparate occupied territories would be a puzzle that Arafat would never master. In the Six-Day War, for example, the Golan Heights were seized by the Israeli forces from Syria. A few years later, the Syrians attempted to reclaim this territory in the October war, but the Israeli forces beat back the incursion, leading to an armistice between the two nations. Then in 1981, Israel unilaterally annexed the Golan Heights and immediately began settling the region despite an outcry from the Arab Nations and the United Nations.
Amid the shifting strategy of the PLO toward a more serious diplomatic stance, the Carter Administration attempted to negotiate peace in the region that could eventually lead to statehood for Palestine and security for Israel. As we covered in our series The Carter Years, the Camp David Accords were notable for its ambition and lack of understanding of the players. For example, Jordan was excluded from the talks between then Prime Minister of Israel, Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
Furthermore, the most crucial element of the negotiations where the Palestinians were concerned was the encroachment of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories and the economic stranglehold over the infrastructure in these areas. While the Camp David Accords led to a settlement between Egypt and Israel that resulted in Israel returning the Sinai Peninsula to the Egyptians in return for recognition of Israel and normalization of trade relations, the settlement issue was negotiated in a side letter that Begin simply ignored. Within weeks of the agreement, which was lauded by the western world, Begin continued a policy of aggressive settlement expansion.
Egypt was seen as a traitor in the eyes of the Arab world, and Sadat would pay the ultimate price by being assassinated. The settlement expansion only hardened the resolve of militants in Gaza and the West Bank and challenged the legitimacy of the PLO. And, while the Carter team took its eye off the rest of the region, they underestimated sympathies throughout the Middle East with the Palestinian cause and U.S. interventionism. When the Iranian Revolution broke out in 1979 and U.S. hostages were taken in the overthrow of the embassy in Tehran, all the positive feelings from Camp David had all but evaporated.
Matters with Egypt might have been settled between Egypt and Israel and appear satisfactory to western powers, but it caused a huge rift among Arab Nations. Moreover, Jordan was still smarting from being snubbed during the negotiations. Others such as Syria and Lebanon remained opposed to Resolution 242, with Lebanon providing safe harbor and a headquarters for the PLO.
Using the pretense of an assassination attempt of Israeli ambassador Shlomo Argov, IDF forces launched an assault against Beirut. Though it was known that the attempt was carried out by forces loyal to Abu Nidal, a former member of Fatah who had been expelled, Israel conflated Nidal with the PLO and set out to destroy Arafat and those who shielded him in Lebanon.
This was yet another bloody turning point that would come to characterize the doublespeak between the PLO and the Likud Party in conflicts going forward. Though the conflict didn’t last long, the casualties were extraordinary, and caught many world agencies by surprise. To this day, there is no consensus on the total number of casualties from Israel’s invasion with the support of western allies. At the time, Lebanon was experiencing tremendous internal strife and was already growing wary of the PLO presence.
In other words, it had no real army to put on a battlefield, which didn’t matter much since Israel took the battle to the heart of Beirut, where Catholic relief agency Caritas placed the “‘minimum established figures’ of 14,000 dead, 25,000 severely wounded and 400,000 totally homeless.” By the next year, many agencies had revised the number of killed to around 48,000, though these numbers remain uncertain due to poor reporting from Lebanese police and the inability to identify Lebanese civilians under the rubble. It’s estimated that 80% of the casualties were civilians. At the time the initial figures were released, Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, future prime minister, stated that there were only around 2,000 casualties and that they were mostly military.
Though it would ultimately lend its support to Israel and even commit troops in support of the IDF, according to the U.S. state department:
“The Reagan administration was divided over how to respond to Israel’s invasion. Secretary of State Alexander Haig argued that the United States should not pressure Israel to withdraw without demanding that the PLO and Syria do likewise. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, Vice President George Bush, and National Security Advisor William Clark wanted the IDF to withdraw immediately and to sanction Israel if they did not.”
The PLO would wind up on its back foot and completely disorganized, though Arafat remained in tenuous control. But the attack on Lebanon produced a different result that would come back to continually haunt Israel to this day. In the book Hezbollah, author Augustus Richard Norton writes:
“The invasion gave Ariel Sharon…carte blanche to pursue his own dream of destroying the PLO as a political force in the region and putting in place a pliant government in Beirut that would become the second Arab state, after Egypt, to enter into a formal peace agreement with Israel. Within the Israeli government at the time—as within the American foreign policy establishment—there was little understanding of the developments underway among the Shi’i Muslims of Lebanon and no analysis was made of the impact of this invasion on them.”
Future Israeli prime ministers would eventually grapple with the ramifications of the invasion. Ehud Barak said, “When we entered Lebanon...there was no Hezbollah. We were accepted with perfumed rice and flowers by the Shia in the south. It was our presence there that created Hezbollah.” Yitzhak Rabin said Israel had “let the genie out of the bottle.”
The Reagan administration may have misunderstood the dynamics of Islam and the alliances in the region, but they understood the disaster that would come if Arafat was martyred. Thus, they actually wound up helping Arafat flee Lebanon for Tunisia, where the PLO would set up camp, though still in exile and away from the Palestinian people. As much as Arafat enjoyed the support of the Palestinian people, they weren’t exactly waiting for him to save them. Beginning in December of 1987 and lasting through 1993, Palestinians organically rose up against the IDF in a series of ongoing skirmishes and campaigns designed to destabilize the military control over the territories. This period became known as the first Intifada.
Dennis Ross, who came to know Arafat well, said, “The first Intifada…took Arafat by surprise. Here were Palestinians in the territories resisting Israeli occupation and capturing the attention—and sympathy—of the world. Here were the Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem organizing, planning, and guiding the resistance. Where was Arafat? Where was the PLO?”
Arafat the military leader, in his trademark fatigues, needed a makeover. Building upon the newfound sympathies for the Palestinian people, Arafat tried his hand at diplomacy and, as Ross writes, “engineered the PLO’s adoption of the Algiers Declaration, which called for a two-state solution to the conflict with Israel. Forty years after rejecting the partition plan, the Palestinians were now ready to accept a Jewish state alongside an Arab state.”
Hard liners in the Arab world, in Israel and among Palestinians weren’t pleased, but there was enough support and war weariness that this approach would take center stage over the next few years. Below the surface, however, anger grew among the far right on both sides. Just like 1982 was the birth of Hezbollah in Lebanon, 1987 marked the beginning of Hamas in Palestine. For as much as this was an inspired period for the resistance and urged Arafat to get more involved in finding political solutions, IDF forces would exact a heavy toll on the young members of the uprisings. Here’s Gelvin:
“Between 1987 and 1993, Israeli soldiers killed between 900 and 1,200 Palestinians and injured about 18,000. About 175,000 Palestinians passed through Israeli jails and aIsraeli human rights organizations estimate that about 23,000 Palestinians were subjected to‘harsh interrogation; (read: torture). The Israeli army destroyed about 2,000 Palestinian houses as punishments. And it is estimated that by the end of the intifada the standard of living in the territories had declined 40 percent.”
One of the architects of the Israeli response to the intifada was defense minister Yitzhak Rabin, who created and oversaw the “Iron Fist” policy to break the arms of any child who threw stones at Israel’s military.
Rabin was elected Prime Minister of Israel in 1992 and, like Arafat, took a more diplomatic turn as the head of the Labor Party and heading into the Oslo Accords. Two former militants who made their bones in brutal ways would be facing off under the diplomatic eyes of the world.
The Oslo Accords, the first in 1993 and second in 1995, was a political detente of sorts, but it served to exacerbate tensions among hard liners in Israel and the Occupied territories. Though Gelvin notes that 60% of Israelis were in favor of the accords; and the PLO, which was desperate for legitimacy at this point, attempted to put forward a softer approach, it further fractured the far right of both parties.
The PLO accepted Resolution 242, while Rabin put a pause on Israeli settlements in the midst of a flood of Jewish immigrants from the crumbling Soviet bloc. This took a huge swath of the pre-1948 territory off the table for Palestinians and pressured the Israelis to both absorb new settlers at the same time they halted settlement expansion. Again, Ross:
“Dr. [Baruch] Goldstein, a settler from Kiryat Araba, just outside of Hebron, saw the peace process with the PLO as a historic mistake, and the prospective turning over of land to the Arabs as sacrilege. On the morning of February 25, 1994, in the city of Hebron, he entered the Tomb of Abraham in an army uniform, walked into the adjacent Ibrahimi Mosque, and gunned down twenty-nine Arabs while they prayed—an act of murder designed also to kill the Oslo process.”
Palestinians were enraged by this event and the notion that Arafat had given away too much in the negotiations. This led to the increasing popularity of Hamas, which had gained credibility in the eyes of Palestinians who were increasingly hemmed in. In 1995, a young Israeli militant named Ben-Gvir hoisted the hood ornament from Yitzhak Rabin’s car, declaring to cameras, “We got to his car. We’ll get to him, too.” This took on some importance on two levels. The first is that Rabin was assassinated just a few weeks later. More presently, Ben-Gvir was part of the conservative bloc of politicians last year that made an alliance with Netanyahu and surged the Israeli government to the far right. In his office he prominently displays a picture of Baruch Goldstein.
The Oslo Accords marked the beginning of the end of any serious attempt to reconcile Resolution 242. The Likud Party once again took over the Knesset, ushering in the first of the Netanyahu administrations. Entering the 2000s, Israel would continue to isolate the occupied territories economically and continue with settlement expansions, leading to the second Intifada that lasted from 2000 to 2005. This led to the construction of Israel’s defensive shield, known as the Iron Dome. The Palestinian cause would be all but forgotten in the western world after the attacks of 9/11, and Israel strengthened its diplomatic and personal relationship with the United States as its chief ally in the region.
In the mid-aughts, things shifted politically once again. Yasser Arafat, who was outmaneuvered on the diplomatic front and was never able to align the factions within Palestine, died in 2005. Mahmoud Abbas was elected as the head of the PLO, and Israel pulled all of its settlements from Gaza, leaving it completely open and unguarded. Abbas was to rule over both Gaza and the West Bank as Arafat had done prior under the umbrella organization called the Palestinian Authority, established and recognized by the United Nations as the political body of the territories. Below the surface, however, another political movement was bubbling thanks to the support of the Israeli government. Here’s an excerpt from The Intercept to explain:
“Brig. Gen. Yitzhak Segev, who was the Israeli military governor in Gaza in the early 1980s…told a New York Times reporter that he had helped finance the Palestinian Islamist movement as a ‘counterweight’ to the secularists and leftists of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Fatah party, led by Yasser Arafat (who himself referred to Hamas as ‘a creature of Israel.’)
“‘The Israeli government gave me a budget,’ the retired brigadier general confessed, ‘and the military government gives to the mosques.’
“‘Hamas, to my great regret, is Israel’s creation,’ Avner Cohen, a former Israeli religious affairs official who worked in Gaza for more than two decades, told the Wall Street Journal in 2009. Back in the mid-1980s, Cohen even wrote an official report to his superiors warning them not to play divide-and-rule in the Occupied Territories, by backing Palestinian Islamists against Palestinian secularists. ‘I…suggest focusing our efforts on finding ways to break up this monster before this reality jumps in our face,’ he wrote.”
In an attempt to divide and conquer the PLO by funding Hamas, the Israeli military helped foster the organization, which by this time was receiving aid from other Arab allies in the region. Hamas was a militant organization at its core, but it also understood the importance of building credibility beyond insurgency. And so, it used foreign funds to build both a military infrastructure as well as schools and hospitals in Gaza mostly. Thus, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise—though it certainly did to outsiders as well as Abbas—that when the PA called for elections in the territories, Hamas won a majority of seats and used this capital to take over Gaza.
Though the Palestinian Authority was granted status of non-member observer state in the United Nations in 2012, it’s no closer to being recognized as a formal state. Netanyahu was re-elected again in 2009, and but for about 18 months beginning in 2021, has served in the role since this time as the longest tenured prime minister of Israel. Despite attempts in 2014 to reinvigorate Oslo, it barely came to fruition, as Palestinian fighters continued to resist the occupation and Israel furthered its stranglehold on the territories.
On May 30, 2018, Gazans organized a march to the border wall to protest the occupation. On the order of the Israeli government, the IDF opened fire on the gathering, killing 14 Palestinians and wounding hundreds. This act led human rights organizations to condemn Israel’s actions as a violation of international law. In that same year, President Donald Trump unilaterally moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem saying “the Jewish people appreciate it but the evangelicals appreciate it more than the Jews.”
In 2021, the long simmer was coming to a boil. Human Rights Watch, a New York based NGO, formally declared Israel an apartheid state. Arab led attacks on Israeli Jews in Jerusalem inflamed tensions in the holy city. Israeli police then restricted Palestinians from entering the Old City during the month of Ramadan, followed by Israeli demonstrations by “a group called Lehava, whose supporters chanted ‘death to the Arabs,’ writes the Council on Foreign Relations which continues saying, ‘at the same time Israel’s courts paved the way for the evictions of six Palestinian families from a neighborhood in East Jerusalem called Sheikh Jarrah, and for Jewish families to move into those homes.’”
Pew Research in 2016 found that, “Most Jews across the religious spectrum agree in principle that Israel can be both a democracy and a Jewish state.” But it also unearthed profound disagreement among Jews as to what the nature of democracy even looks like. For example, we’ve seen images of Jews entering the al-Aqsa mosque and taunting Palestinian worshipers. But just the very action of entering the mosque is forbidden by Orthodox Jews, who are often in complete opposition to the right wing Likud Party. Orthodox Jews in other parts of the world are even staunchly opposed to the Zionist movement, claiming that the Torah calls for Jews to remain in Diaspora to specifically spread wisdom to non-Jews of the world. The youth in Israel are split as well between agitating for peace and fighting against conscription and calling for the destruction of all Palestinian territories.
In the United States, positions are just as complicated. As we covered before, there is no such thing as a monolithic position on the issue of Israel/Palestine. Young progressives take a hard line stance against Zionism. Hard stop. Black and Brown Americans tend to feel the same sense of outrage against the state of Israel, recognizing it as a colonizing force against an indigenous people. Jewish Americans predominantly support the rights and actions of Israel as proud Jews and supporters of Birthright. Some secular Jews of the left wing, however, have called for an end to the occupation. Perhaps the most bizarre alignment, of course, is between right-wing evangelicals and the state of Israel as Trump inelegantly noted. But there’s truth and logic to this sentiment.
In their reading of the Bible, the Abrahamic covenant basically says that Israel’s children will return, a battle will ensue and the Rapture (a term not found in the Bible) will begin, and God will call his true children to heaven. The important piece for evangelicals is that the Jews must be in place in Israel for this to happen. Of course, they don’t mention the second part, which is that they will be forced to accept Jesus Christ as savior or be vanquished with the rest of the heathens on earth.
In other words, it’s a mess. A mess of imperial design. In the end, the only people who matter in all of this are the Jews and Palestinians of this region. As we’ll talk about in a brief epilogue to the series, October 7, 2023 might mark the next and perhaps final turning point in the history of this region.
My hope with the three parts of the series was to lay out as much context as possible to help you draw your own conclusions about the events that have recently transpired. I’ve tried to limit any emotion or personal feelings so as not to distract from the narrative. In the epilogue, I will talk more about the horror unfolding in Gaza, options for peace that were never fully pursued or were made impossible, and I’ll return to the thesis of this exercise: Palestine is the land imperialism left behind.
- Kyle Taylor from London, 84 Countries, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Changes were made.