‘Hurl’d headlong flaming’ into Hell, Milton’s Satan finds himself amid ‘sights of woe, regions of sorrow [and] doleful shades’, in a torrid pit ‘where peace and rest can never dwell’, where ‘hope never comes that comes to all’. If some transmundane dictator were to toss him out today, our fallen angel might, on Milton’s description, land instead in one of the occupied Palestinian territories. Inside and about them, a conflict continues to seethe and divide. It has no immediate end. Few issues in world politics quicken so many to the pitch of fury, and few are — or appear to be — as intractable.
What follows here shall add but a whisper to the chorus of views on this most incendiary of matters. The level of detail required necessitates a division into two parts. This first section attempts to cast light upon the early history of the conflict.
There exists an unfortunate myth that Zionism arose as a direct consequence of the Nazi holocaust. In fact, the Zionist ideology had crystallised long before Adolf Hitler entered politics. Its progenitor, the journalist Theodor Herzl, put forth a rationale in Der Judenstaat (1896):
Is it true that, in countries where we live in perceptible numbers, the position of Jewish lawyers, doctors, men of science, teachers, and officials of all descriptions, becomes daily more intolerable? True, that the Jewish middle classes are seriously threatened? True, that the passions of the mob are incited against our wealthy representatives? True, that our poor endure greater sufferings than any other proletariat?
In short, then, Herzl and others thought — largely correctly — that wherever Jews lived in appreciable numbers, they were ‘more or less persecuted’. Such persecution prompted the Jewish Question, which, expressed in the ‘curtest possible form’, was this: ‘[a]re we to get out now? And if so, to what place? Or, may we yet remain? And if so, how long?’
The answer was to lie in Palestine, a land to which European Jewry had only the most tenuous of connections. The aim was to establish a Jewish state there; the problem was that it was inhabited predominantly by another people, and had been for rather a long time. Zionist leaders were fully aware of this, but nevertheless hoped and strove to create a Jewish majority in the region. For instance, Ze’ev Jabotinsky noted in “The Iron Wall” (1923) that ‘[t]here will always be two nations in Palestine’, adding that this ‘is good enough for me, provided the Jews become the majority’. Elsewhere, he asserted that ‘the term “Jewish state”… means a Jewish majority’. Much later on, in 1947, the more moderate David Ben-Gurion stated that ‘[t]here can be no stable and strong Jewish state so long as it has a Jewish majority of only 60 per cent’.
Indeed, it was Ben-Gurion—an atheist—who told the Peel Commission in 1937 that ‘[t]he Bible is our Mandate’. Presumably, he was alluding to the moment when some fictive tyrant ‘appeared unto Abram, and said, Unto thy seed will I give this land’. Presumably he was referring also to the Mosaic covenant, contained in the equally fictive Book of Exodus. Perhaps these were what the Israeli statesman Abba Eban had in mind when he talked of the ‘promised homeland’, which he averred had ‘never became the cradle of another independent nation’. And Eban surely spoke for others as well as himself when he declared that ‘the association of [Palestine] with Jewish history was never obscured or superseded’. These religious or poetical attitudes were captured well by Max Nordau all the way back in 1902. He explained that ‘Zionism is a new word for a very old object, in so far as it merely expresses the yearning of the Jewish people for Zion.’ According to Nordau, the Jewish people had not, since Titus razed the Second Temple, ‘ceased to long intensely, and hope fervently, for the return to the lost land of their fathers.’
All this led Norman Finkelstein, among others, to observe that the Zionist claim to Palestine was essentially predicated on the ridiculous belief that ‘the Jewish people’s bond with the land… was sui generis’. Such belief deserved little respect, grounded as it is in religion and Romance, and draped as it was in poetical language.
Finkelstein goes on to state that the claim to Palestine was additionally based by Zionist leaders on the following so-called ‘fact’:
[T]he Arab inhabitants of Palestine, even if they did constitute a nation, were not a separate nation, but, rather part of a greater Arab nation, for which Palestine had no distinctive resonances…
In light of this, certain of Jabotinsky’s affirmations assume a greater clarity. In “Ethics of the Iron Wall” (1923) he intimated that those Arabs resident in Palestine could and should relocate to some other place within the spacious Arab world:
It is said that we Jews number 15 million people scattered throughout the world… The number of Arabs totals 38 million. They inhabit Morocco, Algeria, Tunis, Tripoli, Egypt, Syria, Arabia and Iraq – an area that apart from desert equals the size of half Europe. There are in this vast area 16 Arabs to the square mile. It is instructive to recall by way of comparison that Sicily has 352 and England 669 inhabitants to the square mile. It is still more instructive to recall that Palestine constitutes about one two hundredth part of this area
It is interesting to note that, in a passage attributed to him by Finkelstein, Hitler attempted to justify colonisation with an appeal to numbers, just as Jabotinsky did:
It cannot be tolerated any longer that the British nation of 44,000,000 souls should remain in possession of fifteen and a half million square miles of the world’s surface… Likewise the French nation of 37,000,000 souls owns more than three and a half million square miles, while the German nation with 80,000,000 souls only possess about 230,000 square miles…
But this is not nearly the most striking similarity between the writings of the pair. In the aforementioned essay, Jabotinsky wrote:
The soil does not belong to those who possess land in excess but to those who do not possess any. It is an act of simple justice to alienate part of their land from those nations who are numbered among the great landowners of the world, in order to provide a place of refuge for a homeless, wandering people. And if such a big landowning nation resists which is perfectly natural – it must be made to comply by compulsion. Justice that is enforced does not cease to be justice. . . .
Self-determination means revision – such a revision of the distribution of the earth among the nations that those nations who have too much should have to give up some of it to those nations who have not enough or who have none, so that all should have some place on which to exercise their right of self-determination.
These same themes of justice and necessity and compulsion find expression in Volume I of Mein Kampf (1925):
[I]t certainly cannot be part of the dispensation of Divine Providence to give a fifty times larger share of the soil of this world to one nation than to another. In considering this state of affairs to-day, one must not allow existing political frontiers to distract attention from what ought to exist on principles of strict justice. If this earth has sufficient room for all, then we ought to have that share of the soil which is absolutely necessary for our existence.
Of course people will not voluntarily make that accommodation. At this point the right of self-preservation comes into effect. And when attempts to settle the difficulty in an amicable way are rejected the clenched hand must take by force that which was refused to the open hand of friendship.
It would be difficult for the uninformed reader to discern which passage was penned by whom, so eerily similar are they.
Thus far, certain features of Zionism’s theoretical face have been explored. It has been shown, for instance, that the Zionist claim to Palestine consisted in the religious — or, at best, poetical — belief that Jewish people had a sui generis connection to the land. This was to be used as the justification for colonisation. Secondly, it has been made clear that the aim of Zionism was to establish a Jewish majority in the area. It is almost time to investigate how such a majority was brought about, and how the State of Israel came to be.
But before doing so, one should do well to take a moment to extol the virtue of Dr. Finkelstein, who, by way of his meticulously researched book, Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict, is the steadfast telamon of this and many other inferior works on the matter. The shrieking, fell shedim enveloped him and drove him into exile, but his books and lectures are the limpid glass through which many have come to see beyond the bilge. From his sad alcove, he continues, in his slow and gravid tones, to stand alongside truth and next to reasonableness. Finkelstein, the grinder, the scholar, is surely the Spinoza of our age.
And it is he who can tell us most authoritatively about the way in which the Zionists accomplished their aim of a Jewish preponderance in Palestine. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 emboldened the would-be colonisers, whose ‘main obstacle’ after its issuance became the indigenous population. The Arabs, like any other people, were never going to leave their homes voluntarily, and so the Zionists knew that they would have to dispossess and expel them by force, while interlopers descended in their droves. Jabotinsky, as ever, offered some sort of a justification:
The world has become accustomed to the idea of mass migrations and has almost become fond of them. Hitler — as odious as he is to us — has given this idea a good name in the world.
United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 — the Partition Plan — was momentous in the wider scheme of population transfer. Promulgated in late 1947, it recommended the creation of an Arab and a Jewish state in the British Mandate of Palestine. By that time, the area was thirty-five per cent Jewish, significantly up from seven-and-a-half per cent in 1918. At any rate, the vitally important point is this. In the eighteen or so months following the adoption of the Partition Plan, well over 700,000 Palestinians fled their homes in what is called the Nakba: the catastrophe. They did not do so on the orders of the Arab states around them; such a myth was, as Finkelstein notes, smashed as early as the 1960s. In fact, in a great many cases, they were expelled or impelled to flee by the Zionists, who acted as per Plan Dalet. This brutal policy consisted, among other things, of massacres, mortaring and crop destruction.
It is important to consider here the role of David Ben-Gurion, whose thinking and actions, Finkelstein notes, ‘informed… the unfolding of events’ above those of any other Zionist leader. ‘I support compulsory transfer,’ Ben-Gurion had said in 1937. ‘I don’t see in it anything immoral.’ This sentiment was borne out by his reputed exclamation on seeing Arabs fleeing Haifa: ‘What a beautiful sight!’ And when asked about the lack of ‘Jewish-owned land in strategic areas of Palestine’, Ben-Gurion responded thus: ‘The war will give us the land. The concept of “ours” and “not ours” are only concepts for peacetime, and during war they lose all their meaning.’
In May 1948, Ben-Gurion declared the establishment of the State of Israel. Immediately afterwards, four Arab states joined the existing conflict on the Palestinian side, with Lebanon following in June. The numerically superior Israeli forces triumphed. In victory, Israel retained the land allotted to it by the Partition Plan, but also acquired over half of that which was allotted to the Arabs. Even more significantly, the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees were not allowed to return — contrary to UN resolutions.
The next really major event in the history of Israel was the June 1967 war. In order to explore it, we must necessarily consider the occurrences which led to it. All quotations are from Finkelstein’s Image and Reality.
Firstly, in November 1966, an Israeli brigade of four thousand men descended on the town of Samu, where they razed to the ground a hundred homes and killed eighteen Jordanian soldiers. The ostensible and illegal purpose of the attack was to punish Jordan for allowing Palestinian infiltration into Israel to occur. In fact, the Kingdom had been doing a rather good job of preventing such infiltration, which makes the attack appear even more repugnant.
Secondly, in April 1967, a border incident between Israel and Syria culminated in the shooting down of six Syrian planes. In the wake of this confrontation, high-ranking Israeli officials issued a spate of threats against Syria. These, understandably, were taken seriously by Arab countries and condemned by the UN and the United States.
Gamel Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian President, had entered into a military pact with Syria only months before. He received criticism from Jordan for failing to rise to its defence after Samu, and once more felt pressured to act following the skirmish between Israel and his nearest ally. Moshe Dayan stated that
the nature and scale of our reprisal actions against Syria and Jordan had left Nasser with no choice but to defend his image and prestige in his own country and throughout the Arab world…
And so the Egyptian President moved to take a number of preparatory actions. For instance, he closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping and ordered the deployment of Egyptian troops to the Sinai.
In spite of all this, Nasser, who never truly wanted to attack, was willing to scale down the hostilities and did indeed make efforts to try to douse them. Israel, on the other hand, did not. It ignored what Finkelstein calls the ‘repeated entreaties’ of numerous governments, and refused to consider the UN Secretary-General’s specific requests to ameliorate the situation. U Thant wondered in his memoirs whether ‘the course of history could have been different’ had Israel acceded to his pleas. Instead, it was, as Finkelstein says, ‘bent on war’. In the same week that Nasser’s deputy was due to go to Washington for talks, Israel attacked. A rapid victory ensued, and much territory was captured.
But why were the Israelis so determined to wage war? Finkelstein notes that the ‘central rationale adduced [by Israel] for pre-emptively attacking Egypt was that it faced imminent destruction’. He then examines the three threats to ‘national existence’ that were enumerated by statesman Abba Eban, who preposterously and hysterically claimed that
Israel’s defensive action was taken when the choice was to live or to perish, to protect the national existence or to forfeit it for all time.
The first of these threats was ‘Syrian-based terrorism’, which took the forms of ‘bombardments’ and ‘raids’. The former ‘had its provenance in the Israeli-Syrian armistice agreement that ended the 1948 war’. Such agreement established demilitarised zones. Control of these was gradually and unduly seized by the Israelis. Syrian bombardments ‘aimed to deter… Israeli encroachments’. But the shelling was ‘largely symbolic’, especially in light of ‘punishing Israeli ‘retaliatory’ strikes’. There were no Israeli civilian casualties from the shelling in the six months leading up to the 1967 war. So far as the commando raids are concerned, Israel suffered from them only fourteen casualties in the thirty months leading up to the war. Thus the threat from Syria was totally illusory.
The second threat named by Eban was the concentration of Egyptian troops in the Sinai. Yet Finkelstein remarks that
the only two issues in the otherwise highly contentious literature on the June 1967 war on which a consensus seems to exist are: (a) there was no evidence at the time that Nasser intended to attack; and (b) even if he did, it was taken for granted that Israel would easily thrash him.
In support of the first of these points, Finkelstein adduces none other than the chief of Mossad, who declared that ‘Egypt was not ready for a war; and Nasser did not want a war’. In support of the second, he notes that ‘the CIA estimated in late May that Israel would win a war against one or all of the Arab countries… in roughly a week’. Of course, the war was done and dusted in six days. Thus we can say that ‘the mortal threat that Nasser allegedly posed to Israel in 1967 is as chimerical as his intention to attack it’.
The third threat named by Eban was the blockade of the Straits of Tiran. The first issue surrounding such blockade was its legality. Finkelstein cites Roger Fisher, a Harvard Law Professor who, at the end of a ’lucid and authoritative exposition of the legal questions at issue’, declared that
I, as an international lawyer, would rather defend before the International Court of Justice the legality of the U.A.R’s action in closing the Strait of Tiran than to argue the other side of the case, and I would certainly rather do so than to defend the legality of the preventive war which Israel launched.
The second issue surrounding the blockade was Israel’s claim that it ‘had come to be mortally dependent on trade through Eilat’, access to which port was contingent on passage through the Straits. Eban asserted that Israel was being ‘strangled’ by the blockade; in actuality, ‘not a single Israeli-flagged vessel had used the port in the previous two and a half years’, and only 5 per cent of Israel’s trade passed through the port’.
Thus the official rationales for waging war ring utterly hollow. They consist of the hysterical nonsense that has come to characterise most of the Israeli government’s fulminations. The real reasons were economic and territorial; furthermore, the Israelis wanted desperately to ‘destroy Nasser’s prestige’.
After the war, the UN Security Council adopted UN Resolution 242. It emphasised ‘the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war’ and urged the armed forces of Israel to withdraw from ‘territories occupied in the recent conflict’. Moreover, the resolution affirmed the necessity ‘for achieving a just settlement of the refugee problem’. There are no ambiguities in this language. The adoption of the resolution was unanimous, with even the United States declining to support Israel’s conquest of land by war. But Israel defied the international consensus.