Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Viewing the conflict: Occupation and dispossession or colonisation

The following is written in response to a discussion raised on the Khaldoun website (17 November 2008)

This issue of whether or not colonization is an appropriate word to frame the Palestinian-Israeli conflict comes up time and again.

Worldviews are an important factor in moving parties in conflict towards reconciliation and coexistence. Oscar Nudler refers to the “highest phase in conflict resolution” as restructuring the worldview. Such a situation involves both parties cooperating, transcending their old frames and creating new social relationships.

What lenses shape our worldview of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?

1. What is missing with ‘Next year in Jerusalem’?

I understand those who choose not to see the conflict through a colonial-post-colonial lens. Yes, Israel is the ancestral home of Jewish people. Yes, there is a powerful spiritual, cultural and political tradition that is expressed it through prayer and song (such as L'shanah haba'ah b'Yerushalayim! - Next year in Jerusalem! Sung at the end of the Pesach (Passover) Seder each year).

But what then about the spiritual, cultural, political and legal claims of the Palestinian Arab people? A claim that is made within the living generation of Palestinian people – unlike the Jewish nationalist claim separated in time by a period of two thousand years. True it is important to remember the indigenous Jewish community living in Ottoman Palestine. However, why not remember the indigenous Jewish community in 1851 was just 4 percent of the total population of Ottoman Palestine, that is there were just 13,000 Ottoman Jewish residents of Bilad al-Sham compared to 327,000 Ottoman Palestinian Arabs (Justin McCarthy, The Population of Palestine, 1990).

What rights do they have to land if they occupy a land for millennia? How is an average Palestinian Arab farmer or town dweller suppose to react when following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire they are told they must now make way for Russian, Yiddish, English, French, and Hebrew speaking Jews and the bureaucracy and military force of the British mandatory power. 87 percent of the population in 1919 was Palestinian Arab. What would it feel to see the only world that you knew and your parents before you had known be torn away by these new people from Europe?

Ostensibly the British as the mandatory power were not to prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine with the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people. But how was this possible given the obvious demographic, linguistic, religious, cultural and political differences.

I feel there is much to be missed without the use of the powerful analytical framework provided by the colonial-post-colonial lens. It is a Gestalt moment when you see it. For me seeing my ancestors to Australia not as settlers but as invaders has had a profound effect on my life. This happened to me during Australia’s Bicentennary ‘Celebration’ [Bicentennary of Colonisation] back in 1988. Our choice of lens for viewing the conflict can be incredibly empowering and conciliatory or disempowering and divisive.

Colonization is not a uniquely European act of human domination. It is not limited to one point of time in human history or one group of humans. Human beings in all shapes and forms throughout time have used violence at a local or grand scale to dominate other peoples for the purpose of appropriating resources from the land and people of that land or furthering a people’s spiritual, political or cultural practices. Colonization comes from the Latin colonia ‘settled land’ from colere meaning ‘to inhabit or cultivate’. Colonization does not necessarily imply the violent establishment of one people on another land, however, it almost invariably involves violence between human beings.

2. Viewing the conflict (I):

Occupation and dispossession - a general description

You may note that I did not actually use the word colonization in my reflection because I realize the tension such a word may produce. This is not to say I disagree with the choice of the term, colonization, merely, for the purposes of our discussion I wished to use more general terms as a way to take a first step into exploring what happened between Palestinian Arab and European Palestinian Jewish people between 1918 and 1948.

I chose to use the terms occupation and dispossession instead of colonization because I realize use of the term colonization is a loaded term and can be a communication block rather than a window to view a situation. Instead of using the word colonization I used occupation and dispossession as a more general way to evoke images in the mind of one way to view the conflict.

2.1 What was the occupation?

What was that occupation? The occupation of Bilad el-Sham (Southern Syria/Ottoman Palestine) occurred following the defeat of Ottoman forces by British and Allied military forces in 1918. This occupation was referred to administratively as Occupied Enemy Territory (1918-1920) and British controlled Palestine (August 1920-1922). This occupation was continued via the British mandatory power (July 1922-14 May 1948). Resistance to this occupation reached a climax with the Palestinian Arab revolt led by the Arab Higher Committee which was suppressed by British forces and Jewish paramilitary groups such as Haganah and (1936-1939).

2.2 What was the dispossession?

What was the dispossession? The dispossession of Palestinian Arabs occurred principally through their defeat by the Haganah, Irgun and Stern Gang (which became the IDF) in the wars of 1948. Specific examples of dispossession were part of Haganah’s Plan Dalet (10 March 1948) to depopulate Palestinian Arab villages. Dispossession was part of Irgun and the Stern Gangs plan as typified by the Deir Yassin massacre (a village on the strategic Jerusalem-Jaffo-Tel Aviv road) killings of 254 villagers by Irgun and Stern Gang, 9 April 1948 (Gilbert p. 199). Jaffa was a prime target for the Jewish military and was surrounded and defeated by Irgun (led by Menachem Begin) and Haganah on 12 May 1948 two days before the Jewish Agency declared the state of Israel (Lapidot).

2.2.1 A general perspective of Palestinian Arab expulsion

The following article in the LA times by Benny Morris is informative on one hand as it establishes that Palestinian Arabs were expelled either for military reasons or fled from fear.

However, there is a more chilling aspect to this article which hints at Israel’s uncertain demographic future given “[a]s it is, the populations [of Israel] remain intermixed, and Arab birthrates and violence threaten to overwhelm the Jewish state.” Morris goes on “[p]erhaps complete separation, a cleaner cut in 1948, would have benefited all.” My question is what is this ‘cleaner cut’ and how would this ‘cut’ have been made? I am saddened that Morris has the moral arrogance to suggest that the forced removal of all Palestinian Arabs from the Jewish State may have been a better option. Has he not learnt anything from the Nazi attitude towards the European Jewish community? Why does one ethnic group with no democratic majority in a region have the right to forcibly transfer the democratic majority ethnic groups? I am astounded and repulsed by such a notion.

2.2.2 Expulsion of Palestinian Arabs from Lod and Ramle
Palestinefacts; Ramla municipal council, Israel

3. Viewing the conflict (II)

Colonization - a specific description

(a) Terminology used by early Jewish nationalists (1897-1916)

The word colonization in the nineteenth and early twentieth century lacked the negative connotation it carries today and was innocently used by early Jewish nationalists.

The First Zionist Congress used the term colonization. For example at the First Zionist Congress in 1897 objective number 1 of the programme called for “the promotion, on suitable lines of colonization or settlement (besiedlung) of Palestine by Jewish agricultural and industrial workers” .

The Jewish Colonization Association (in Yiddish ICA) was the name of a Jewish organization founded for the purpose of settling Jewish emigrants to Ottoman Palestine. Edmond de Rothschilds was an influential contributor to this association (Parkes 1970) .

Justice Brandeis referred to Jewish colonization in his book – ‘The Jewish Problem, How to Solve it’ (1915).


(b) Current military support for Jewish settlers in the West Bank.

The act of members of the Jewish community acquiring possession of land within Gaza and the West Bank can be viewed as one of settlement and/or colonization. The act of building the West Bank barrier beyond the Green Line is a sign of the Israeli Government seeking to expand it’s influence in the region. Such acts follow the tried and tested expansionist approach of ‘getting facts on the ground’ a policy that dates back to the debates between Herzl and the practical Zionists whereby the aim was to put settlements on the ground so as to advance future bargaining power.

On my return from Israel I discussed the issue of settlements with a high profile Jewish representative who made the connection between the Israeli settlements and the squatters. Squatters took possession of land outside the settled districts of New South Wales known as the Nineteen counties. The limits of these were proclaimed by Governor Darling in 1829. Taree my home town was the northern most border which followed the Manning River.

Squatters sought British military support to retaliate from attacks by Aboriginal tribes. The consequence of which further established British supremacy of the land.

Theodor Herzl

Practical Zionism

Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Zionist Philosophies

The Nineteen Counties

Illegal occupation of land - Ticket-of-Leave Convicts - emancipists – pioneers

4. Viewing the conflict (III)

Obtaining title to land – Blackstone, Mabo and native title

What is the mechanics of obtaining title to land? Title to land is the legal term for referring to land ownership. Land title was extensively discussed in the 1992 High Court decision on Mabo. One principal commentator on land title referred to in this case was eminent British jurist William Blackstone (1723-1780). Blackstone cites there are three ways to obtain title to land:

(1) the consent of local people (e.g. through treaties, sale or gift);
(2) settlement of uninhabited lands; and
(3) invasion (i.e. military conquest).

My question is in which was the land title to the state of Israel obtained? My answer is a combination of two methods – consent and military conquest.

4.1 Was consent of the local population obtained?

The Palestinian Arab consented to the sale of no more than 15% of land to the Jewish community by 1945. According to Palestine Government (1945) in 1945 Jewish land ownership was 15%, Public land 19% and ‘Palestinian’ land 66%. Stewart (1972, p. 289) put Jewish land ownership at a much lower figure, about 7% in 1948. He summarised Jewish land ownership as follows “in the thirty one years from the Balfour Declaration to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the Jews were only able to increase the proportion of Palestine they owned through purchase from around 2 to around 7 per cent of the total”.

The process of obtaining consent for land had begun with the advent of the modern aliyahs in 1882. Groups that sought to buy land from locals and establish settlements (called Zionist colonies) included the Jewish Colonization Association. Theodor Herlz famous for his book the Jewish State went to extraordinary lengths to seek acquisition of land for the Jewish people through diplomatic means. He sought permission from the Ottoman sultan to sell land to European Jews who sought to flee Europe particularly Russia because of pogroms and discrimination and because of religious and cultural reasons. When he failed to obtain as much land as he hoped for from the sultan Herzl sought the influence of the Kaiser, the Ottoman’s strong European ally. Despite Herzl’s best efforts he realized that his dream would not occur through trying to obtain consent for Ottoman land in Bilad al-Sham. Herzl pragmatically sought to continue his dream of a Jewish state outside of the historic Hebrew homeland. A decision that alienated him within the Zionist Congress.

Stewart, Desmond, The Middle East: Temple of Janus, New York: Double Day and Co., London, 1971.

Palestine Government, 1945—as cited in Khalidi, Walid, ‘Village Statistics, 1945’ Before the Diaspora: A photographic history of the Palestinians 1876-1948. Institute for Palestine Studies. Washington DC, 1984 p. 237.

4.2 Was there settlement of uninhabited lands or was there invasion?

Were the lands uninhabited?

Raffe both you and I share a passion to see a day where Palestinian and Jewish people can live together in peace. To create such a future means coming to terms with a number of skeletons lurking in the closet. One of those skeletons Israel shares with Australia is the terra nullius one.

I remember a settler telling me there were 10,000 Arabs in ‘Israel’ in 1910. Another described how the Arabs only came after the Jews arrived. If either of these people checked their facts they would be surprised to find that 640,000 non-Jews and 60,000 Jews lived in the region in 1910. That means 91 percent of the population was Palestinian Arab in 1910.

Joan Peters infamous book ‘From Time Immemorial’ which was heavily used by Alan Dershowitz’s ‘The Case for Israel’ sought to push the argument that the land was uninhabited and therefore fair game for European Jewish colonists. A similar logic was used in the Australian nationhood story.

As a child I was taught that Australia was settled. Our legal system is based on this fiction. Mabo tells us this. As an adult I now recognize that Australia was invaded. That doesn’t mean I am going to pack my bags and head back to Scotland where my ancestors came. But it does mean I acknowledge the gifts I have today result from the dispossession of another people.

But I can hear you say the Jews have nowhere else to go, this is the only place on the planet where they had a home. Let us remind ourselves of Blackstone’s view. Did the Ancient Hebrew people obtain the land through consent, settlement of unihabited lands or invasion? Like Australia the Ancient Hebrews obtained their land through all three approaches. Abraham made treaties as did King David, Solomon and the like; areas of land were settled; and land was obtained through acts of war and invasion --even through genocide. Take for example Joshua who led the Hebrew people back from Egypt. Plain and simple genocide and invasion were key methods of obtaining control of the land. The Torah teaches us this and allegedly God demanded it so .

I am happy to substitute the word of colonisation for re-colonisation or for invasion or re-invasion if you prefer this to be the more appropriate term. Either way my choice for using either of these words is to identify that the land was taken on the whole without the consent of the local population. Yes there was a small fraction of land obtained by European Jews through the sale of land however, the main way that land was obtained was through the spoils of the 1948 and 1967 wars.

How would any of us feel we had been born as a non-Jew and heard that the British Government had made a promise to make the region a Jewish home (not a state) ? Remember in 1917 - 87 percent of the population was not Jewish. How would we have perceived the people who came from Europe speaking European languages or Hebrew, people who had cultural imperialistic views as was characteristic of the times?

5. Who has the right to the land? Drawing experiences from other conflicts.

Throughout the ages land has been bought and sold, conquered and possessed by different peoples.

Aboriginal people in Australia were dispossessed of their land by military conquest by the Europeans. The Aboriginal people are now only slowly reclaiming their right to land with the advent of State based land right legislation and federal based native title rights legislation

Native Americans were dispossessed of their land by Europeans by military conquest and broken treaties. They were put onto reservations and lost much of their traditional right to land.

Indigenous people of South Africa were dispossessed of land by the Europeans.

Years after the event people reap the benefits of these conquests in the relative comfort of their homes and can use the free market system to buy or sell land title.

However, when people or nations are at war, land is conquered, annexed and occupied. China conquered Tibet, Indonesia annexed East Timor and West Papua and the United States acquired Texas from Mexico.

6. Who has the right to the land…the Jewish or Palestinian people?

Both the Palestinian and Jewish people have historic claims to the land.

Palestinians would say that they have a right to the land because this is where they were born and where their ancestors came from. Many Palestinians have certificates to land or even keys to demonstrate their ownership of land that was taken after the war of 1948.

Jews might say that they have right to the land because this was the ancestral home of the Jews. This is the only place on the earth where Jews had their own state. This was the place that there grand parents would recite the prayer, “Next year in Jerusalem”.

How are we suppose to decide on these two competing claims? How would the wisdom of Solomon decide how to divide the land? When Solomon was confronted with the dilemma of who was the rightful mother of a baby, he ordered the baby to be cut in half and each woman given half a baby. In doing this the real mother cried out in alarm and offered to let the other lady have the baby so that it might live. The real mother chose life over death.

7. Hopes for the future

Is there a way that life can be chosen and not death in relation to the conflict between Palestinian and Jewish people? I realize the above reflection will be extremely offensive to many who have grown up with the belief that Jewish security is dependent on the presence of a Jewish nationalist state based in the historic region occupied by ancient Hebrew people. However, as difficult as it is to read please be assured that the purpose of writing this reflection is to help build a future where the 11 million human beings in the troubled region of Israel and Palestine may find creative and sustainable ways to live in peace. Peace is based on attaining fundamental needs such as justice, security, meaning, identity and autonomy. A balanced honest interpretation of the history of the region is essential for this. We need to allow space for each other to state our understanding of this history.