How Israel tried to recast Palestinians as strangers in their own land

If anyone still believes that the apartheid label applies only to Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and not to present-day Israel itself, they need only read Shira Robinson’s Citizen Strangers: Palestinians and the Birth of Israel’s Liberal Settler State (Stanford University Press) to be disabused of the notion.

Robinson is an associate professor of history at George Washington University, and her scholarship in this work is impressive, drawing extensively on Israeli state archives, oral history interviews with Palestinian citizens of Israel, and numerous other primary sources. Citizen Strangers joins a host of studies focusing on Palestinian citizens of Israel, including Ilan Pappé’s The Forgotten Palestinians (2011).

What distinguishes Robinson’s study is her in-depth look at the period of military rule over the largely rural Palestinian population from 1948 to 1966 and her analysis of the settler-colonial mentality that guided the Israeli state’s attempt to recast Palestinians as strangers in their own land.

Robinson sets out to examine the contradictions that emerged from Israel’s foundation as a colonial state that had to expel hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in order to establish a “democracy” for the new Jewish majority. Her thesis is that “Israel’s attainment of sovereignty did not alter the fundamental status of the local Jewish population as settlers.”

Facade of democracy

She defines Israel as a “liberal” settler state because it had to grant voting rights and other limited rights to those Palestinians who escaped being forcibly expelled. The need to gain admission to the United Nations and present a façade of liberal democracy to the rest of the world was behind this.

But Robinson makes clear that the “handful of rights” Palestinians with Israeli citizenship did enjoy could only be determined by the Jewish settler community, which at the same time guaranteed an “array of social and political privileges” for themselves alone.

Roughly 100,000 Palestinians remained within Israel after the 1949 armistice. Having achieved his stated goal of at least an 80 percent Jewish majority to prevent the potential inclusion of any Palestinian political parties in a coalition government, David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, set about confiscating Palestinian land, razing approximately 500 Palestinian towns and villages, and placing 90 percent of Palestinians under a draconian military regime.

As early as May 1948, when Israel declared its independence, the Provisional State Council had adopted all the laws inherited from the British Mandate, including the 1945 Defense Emergency Regulations which allowed military commanders to suspend all civil liberties, including property and habeas corpus rights. Jewish settlers had chafed under these same laws during the Mandate, regarding them as traits of “a police state” and “worse than the Nazis.”

In February 1949 the Council expanded on these regulations, adding a provision that enabled the Israeli defense minister to designate virtually every Palestinian village and town “a closed zone” from which Palestinians could not leave without a permit. Military commanders were also allowed to create “security zones” along the borders that resulted in the destruction of another eleven Palestinian villages.

The result, according to Robinson, was that “virtually every aspect of daily life required a military pass.” Its purpose was to make the Palestinians utterly dependent on the regime for “their basic means of survival.”

Zionist leaders repeatedly charged that the Palestinians represented a dangerous “fifth column” that posed a security risk to the new state. But through an analysis of charges brought against Palestinians for violating the pass laws, Robinson shows the political purpose of the system. Some 60 percent of offenders were merely fined and 30 percent could choose between fines or detention.


“It was precisely because the authorities did not view those convicted on administrative violations as security risks,” Robinson observes, “that parents were permitted to serve out the jail sentences of their children, and young adults often sat in detention on behalf of their elderly parents.”

An advisor to Ben Gurion candidly admitted in 1957 to the political purpose of military rule, saying that if it had not been for the restrictions, the Communist Party, which Palestinians viewed as their main political advocate, “would invite Arab refugees to squat on their ruins, demand their lands back … [and] the return of the refugees. They will form organizations, parties, fronts, anything to make trouble.”

Israeli military rule was brutal, particularly in the border security zones where Palestinian refugees attempting to return to their homes or just to tend their fields were slaughtered under a free-fire-zone policy. Thousands were killed in this way, but the most notorious incident was the massacre in October 1956 of 48 Palestinian farmers and day laborers at the village of Kafr Qassem, who were not notified of an emergency curfew imposed on their village and were summarily executed when they returned from their work.

One of the more original elements of Citizen Strangers is the depiction of government attempts to get Palestinian citizens of Israel to acknowledge not only that they had “internalized their defeat” but also that “they were grateful for it as well.” Thus, the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, passed laws that coerced Palestinians to publicly celebrate Israel’s Independence Day. Even more cruelly, Israeli authorities organized a sulha (reconciliation) in Kafr Qassem a year after the massacre.

Contradictions remain

That public relations stunt only served to further inflame Palestinian resistance, which Robinson ably documents, showing how over the years Palestinians had created a kind of “underground railroad” to enable refugees to return. They had also found other ways to organize in their defense, including civil disobedience, mass protests, petitions and ultimately a general strike.

One of the drawbacks of the liberal settler state for Israel was that Palestinians could take advantage of the limited rights they had to resist their ongoing dispossession and curtailment of freedoms.

Robinson concludes that military rule ended in 1966 only because Zionist leaders determined that Jewish colonization had basically succeeded, particularly after the passage of the 1960 Basic Law that prohibited Palestinians from owning, leasing or working on 97 percent of state-owned land.

Moreover, Israel’s security forces believed they “had the Arabs well covered” and could target individual activists effectively without punishing the Palestinian citizens of Israel collectively.

The contradictions of the liberal settler state remain. They have long made Israel inherently unstable, Robinson argues. And that instability, she writes, is now greater than ever.

Rod Such is a former editor for World Book and Encarta encyclopedias. He is active with Americans United for Palestinian Human Rights, Jewish Voice for Peace-Portland Chapter and the Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign.