Palestinians inspect a mosque in Gaza City destroyed by Israel during its 22 days of attacks on the Gaza Strip that killed more than 1,300 Palestinians, 18 January 2009. (Wissam Nassar/MaanImages)
Common Western political wisdom has it that when Western countries support Israeli military action against Arab countries or the Palestinian people, they do so because they support Israel’s right to defend itself against its enemies.
This has always been established wisdom in Israel itself, even before the colonial settlement was established, wherein its predatory army is ironically named the Israel Defense Forces, not unlike the South African apartheid army, which was also known as the South African Defense Forces. This defensive nomenclature is hardly exclusive to Israel and South Africa, as many countries rushed after World War II to rename their Ministries of “War” as Ministries of “Defense.” Still, Israel’s allegedly defensive actions define every single war the colonial settlement has ever engaged in, even and especially when it starts these wars, which it has done in all cases except in 1973.
Thus the war of 1948 which Zionist militias started against the Palestinian people on 30 November 1947, a day after a Western-controlled United Nations General Assembly issued the Partition Plan, is presented as “defensive,” as was its expulsion of about 400,000 Palestinians before 15 May 1948, i.e. before the day on which three Arab armies (the Egyptian, Syrian, and Iraqi armies) invaded the area that became Israel (Lebanon hardly had an army to invade with and hardly managed to retrieve two Lebanese villages that Israel had occupied, and Jordanian forces only entered the areas designated by the UN plan for the Palestinian state, and East Jerusalem which was projected to fall under UN jurisdiction).
Yet until this very day, Israel, its Western and Arab and Palestinian allies, seem to agree with the major Israeli lie that the refugee “problem” resulted from the 1948 war which Israel fought as a “defensive” war and that the responsibility of the refugees lies with the Arab governments who “started” the war. While the remaining 370,000 Palestinians Israel expelled were driven out after 15 May 1948 and before the end of January 1949 (when armistice talks began), they could ostensibly be included in the argument that their expulsion was a result of the war, but it remains unclear why the first 400,000 would be included in that category. The thousands of Palestinians who would be expelled after the armistice agreements were signed, especially those of the city of Majdal, now Ashkelon, whose population was loaded onto trucks and expelled to Gaza, does not even enter these calculations.
The argument in fact must be extended to the post-15 May refugees. After all, it was Zionist expulsions of the Palestinians for over five months prior to the Arab armies’ intervention in May 1948 that was used as a casus belli for the Arab armies whose intervention was carried out under the banner of defending Palestine and the Palestinians against Zionist aggression. None of this however seems to matter and Zionist aggression against the Palestinian people and their UN-designated state continues to be presented as part of “Israel’s right to defend itself.”
Ironically, Israel’s unprovoked invasion of Egypt in 1956 and occupation of Sinai also seems to fall under the category of Israel’s right to defend itself as far as the Israelis were concerned, although United States President Dwight Eisenhower and the Soviet Union thought otherwise at the time, which forced Israel to withdraw. Israel’s massive invasions of three Arab countries in 1967 was/is also presented as another defensive war, wherein if it is ever admitted that Israel is the party that started the war, the admission is quickly followed by the “explanation” (hasbara in Hebrew, which is also the word for “propaganda”) that it was a “preemptive” war in which Israel was “defending” itself. This also applies to Israel’s 1978 and 1982 and 2006 invasions of Lebanon, its continued occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, its siege of Gaza, and its massacres against the Palestinians there in the last three weeks.
The logic goes as follows: Israel has the right to occupy Palestinian land, lay siege to Palestinian populations in Bantustans surrounded by an apartheid wall, starve the population, cut them off from fuel and electricity, uproot their trees and crops, and launch periodic raids and targeted assassinations against them and their elected leadership, and if this population resists these massive Israeli attacks against their lives and the fabric of their society and Israel responds by slaughtering them en masse, Israel would simply be “defending” itself as it must and should.
Indeed, as The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, the best friend of Israel and the Saudi ruling family, has argued recently, in doing so, Israel is engaged in a pedagogical exercise of “educating” the Palestinians. Perhaps many of the Arab businessmen’s associations who regularly invite Friedman to speak to their organizations in a number of Arab countries and pay him an astronomical speaking fee can invite him back to educate them on Israel’s pedagogical methods and on The New York Times’ war propaganda on behalf of Israel.
The major argument here is two-fold, namely that while Israel has the right to defend itself, its victims have no similar right to defend themselves. In fact, the logic is even more sinister than this and can be elucidated as follows: Israel has the right to oppress the Palestinians and does so to defend itself, but were the Palestinians to defend themselves against Israel’s oppression, which they do not have a right to do, Israel will then have the right to defend itself against their illegitimate defense of themselves against its legitimate oppression of them, which it carries out anyway in order to defend itself legitimately.
This is why, not only does Israel have the right to arm itself and to be a nuclear power and to have a military edge over the combined militaries of the entire region in which it lives, but it also must ensure that the military power of its neighbors is used to quell the Palestinians and not Israel, indeed to help Israel lay siege to the resisting Palestinians. When and if Palestinians try to arm themselves to defend their lives against Israeli invasions and slaughter, Israel makes every effort to prevent them from doing so and considers this “illegal smuggling.”
The recent signing of an agreement between Israel and its US sponsor and the volunteering of European countries (France, Britain, Germany, Italy, and Spain) to police the waters and borders of Gaza with Egypt to prevent the Palestinians from “smuggling” arms to defend themselves is the most recent application of this understanding. Israel’s US sponsor and European allies are horrified by the Palestinians’ attempts to arm themselves (to which they have no right) in order to defend their very lives against Israel’s right to slaughter them in order to defend itself.
Indeed, Israel has included the erstwhile Palestinian leadership for the last 15 years in its efforts to repress all Palestinians who resist its right to defend itself by oppressing them. This is precisely why the Palestinian Authority (PA) was created in the first place. The PA that the Oslo Agreement established on paper in autumn 1993 and came to life in the form of institutions and a collaborating Palestinian elite in 1994 has finally, however, come to an end in the winter of 2009. While the PA tried its best to be a repressive force on behalf of Israel and has killed scores of Palestinians who resisted the occupation and PA collaboration since 1994, its ability to control the surge of Palestinian resistance was checked by its failure to win the last elections and its failure to defeat Hamas militarily. Fifteen years after its establishment, the PA has run its course. In Gaza, Israel destroyed all the bureaucratic and administrative offices of the PA run by Hamas and thus has returned Hamas by default to its erstwhile status as the major Palestinian guerrilla group resisting Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Israel’s criminal siege of Gaza, and Israel’s ongoing ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people.
In the West Bank, the process of finishing off the PA has been more gradual. While an ambivalent war against the PA started with Israel’s reinvasion of West Bank cities and towns (around which it had redeployed earlier) in 2002, a reassessment occurred after Yasser Arafat’s death and after his successors promised to collaborate with Israel as much as Arafat used to before the Camp David talks in the summer of 2000. Israel’s kidnapping of Hamas officials elected in January 2006 to the Palestinian Legislative Council and its government ministers, followed by the war launched against Hamas officials and rank and file members by the Fatah leadership who lost the elections, and by the illegal coup d’etat staged in collaboration with the US and Israel against Hamas with success in the West Bank and with utter failure in Gaza by Mahmoud Abbas and his cronies, have sealed the fate of the PA. The final coup de grâce came in the last few days when the term of Abbas in office ended on 9 January 2009, his ongoing illegal attempts to extend his term for one more year notwithstanding.
Abbas was the only member of the collaborating group in the West Bank that still had any legitimate and legal status given to him by the elections. Today, as a result, there is no longer a Palestinian Authority as a legal entity or as one that has any popular or juridical legitimacy. The PA was born by Israeli fiat and a collaborating Palestinian elite and has died by Israeli fiat and the actions of the collaborating Palestinian elite. Mahmoud Abbas’s absence from the Arab summit in Qatar a few days ago, which convened to support the resisting Palestinians in Gaza, and his characterization of the summit as an “ambush” to divide the Palestinians have exposed him further in the eyes of the Palestinian people as an unrepentant collaborator with the Israeli occupation and with the Arab dictators allied with Israel and the United States. His subsequent attendance of the Sharm al-Sheikh summit with European powers that seek to help Israel decimate the Palestinian people is therefore hardly surprising.
As the PA continues to usurp political power in the West Bank, it remains clear that nothing short of a third Palestinian uprising there will end the illegitimate rule of the PA whose collaborators continue to refuse to pack up and leave. Indeed, the new move by the US and European allies of Israel is to shower money on the PA in the form of reconstruction funds slated for Gaza in the hope of seducing the Israeli-impoverished, -butchered, and -devastated Palestinians in Gaza to stop supporting Hamas and switch allegiance to the illegitimate and collaborationist PA whose European funds will be dangled before them as bait.
If a generation of Palestinian and Arab intellectuals came to believe since the 1970s that armed struggle would not be able to end the Israeli occupation and that negotiations would be the only way to do so, a whole new generation of Palestinian and Arab intellectuals (some of whom are liberal) now understand that negotiations with Israel have only served to intensify the occupation and will only serve to do so in the future. The benefits of 18 years of negotiations with Israel, as is evident for all to see, has been not only more Jewish colonial settlement and more massacres and more confiscation of land, but also the destruction of the Palestinian national movement through imploding it from within. It is true that negotiations have enriched the Palestinian business class in the West Bank and Gaza as well as the comprador intellectuals and the bureaucratic and military class that were inducted in the PA game of non-governmental funding via the so-called peace-process, but these benefits have been delivered to the few by taking away the livelihoods of the many.
What has ended then with Israel’s ongoing butchery in Gaza is not only the Palestinian Collaborationist Authority but also negotiations as a viable or a credible path to ending the occupation. This is the situation that the incoming rabidly pro-Israeli American President Obama will be facing soon. The half-white and fully Christian Obama, who, when denying the accusation of being a Muslim assured Americans that not only was he raised by his white Christian mother and her family but also of his belief that the blood of Jesus Christ will “redeem” him, and that he prays to Jesus every night, will continue, along with his pro-Israel operatives, to support Israel’s war crimes and to buttress the illegal authority of the Palestinian collaborators in the West Bank.
Israel destroyed the PA in Gaza because it could no longer ensure its collaboration there after Hamas was elected and assumed political power there. After Hamas won the free elections, Israel arrested the majority of Hamas elected officials to ensure that the Fatah leadership continues to collaborate unhindered. The PA survives as an illegal entity in the West Bank today, because Israel still banks on its collaboration, most evident in PA police repression of demonstrations across the West Bank which sought to show solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza. Injecting the illegitimate and illegal PA with more funds with which to torture the Palestinian people and stuff the pockets of its collaborators will hardly make it a more attractive choice to the majority of poor Palestinians who have been the ultimate losers of PA rule and the Oslo Accords.
In the meantime, the West and Israel will continue to defend Israel’s right to defend itself and to deny the Palestinians the right to defend themselves. While some call this international relations, in reality it is nothing short of inter-racial relations wherein Jews, who since World War II have been inducted into the realm of whiteness, have rights that the Palestinians, like their counterparts elsewhere in the non-European world who are forever cast outside the realm of whiteness, do not. Thomas Friedman is right; Israel has been trying to educate the Palestinians that it will punish all their attempts to check its white colonial power to oppress them and that they must understand that they deserve to be punished and defeated for not being white.
The problem is that the Palestinians, students of a universal humanism in which they consider themselves equal to everyone else, keep failing Israel’s racial lessons and tests. What the Palestinians ultimately insist on is that Israel must be taught that it does not have the right to defend its racial supremacy and that the Palestinians have the right to defend their universal humanity against Israel’s racist oppression. Will Israel and its allies ever learn that lesson? Israeli history tells us that as students of racial supremacy, Zionists have always failed the test of universal humanism.
Joseph Massad is Associate Professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University in New York. He is the author of The Persistence of the Palestinian Question (Routledge, 2006).