Colonial power predictability, native surprises

When the British empire hired the services of Lt Col George Gawler to look into the feasibility of establishing Jewish colonies in Palestine, he issued a lengthy report in 1845 titled ""Tranquilization of Syria and the East: Observations and Practical Suggestions, in Furtherance of the Establishment of Jewish Colonies in Palestine, the Most Sober and Sensible Remedy for the Miseries of Asiatic Turkey" His main conclusion was that there maybe two obstacles to this enterprise: resources and convincing enough Jews that it is good for them. The obstacle not anticipated or appreciated was the native people in Palestine (at the time 95% were not Jewish).

This underestimation of the Palestinian people and their will to hang on to their lands seems to have been a recurring theme in the 160 years that followed. The first Zionist colony in Palestine in 1880 occurred with Ottoman rulers acquiescence. Palestinian representatives in the Ottoman parliament complained repeatedly and warned that this is dangerous. During WWI, Britain and France issued declarations and made secret agreements to not only divide the Eastern Mediterranean region after the war but also cater to the Zionist aspiration of establishing Jewish colonial presence in Palestine (The Balfour and Jules Declarations of 1917). Balfour, an anti-Semite. wrote in in a memo in 1919 to his successor that "we do not go the form of consulting the wished of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit this ancient land". His estimate of numbers notwithstanding, his was the classic underestimation of the power of people. Initially, the mandate was intended to take areas both East and West of the river Jordan for a colonial state to serve British imperial interests. Due to stiff resistance, that had to be scaled back. Then there was the massive Palestinian uprising of 1936-1939 against both British occupation and Zionist colonization. This took the British empire by surprise. The army put down the resistance brutally demolishing whole sections of towns and villages in the process.

Israel and the US learned these tactics of "urban warfare" and applied them later including in Vietnam, Iraq and Palestine. Palestine’s best fighting men were lost and its leadership devastated. But the fierce resistance caused the British elites to rethink their support of Zionism (cost/benefit analysis) and the result was a "white paper" that attempted to allay Palestinian fears by speaking of restricting Zionist immigration and clarifying that the Balfour declaration was speaking of a Jewish homeland not a Jewish state. But WWII and its atrocities cast the die. Ethnic cleansing between 1947-1949 resulted in dispossessing half of the population (Christian and Muslim; 80% of the population in the area that was declared Israel by end of 1949). Without resistance (many times by simply hiding in caves rather than be driven out), more Palestinians would have been removed. Nearly half of the refugees were driven out before May 1948 when Arab armies intervened.

After 1949, Palestinians were dismissed from the political discourse. Their problems reduced to a humanitarian issue of "Arab refugees." The areas of Palestine not occupied by Israel were controlled by Egypt and Jordan (Gaza and the West Bank). Arab rulers conspired to benefit their rules on the back of the Palestinian people. Avi Shlaim’s book "Collusion across the Jordan" explores some of these issues (in this case about the Hashemite collaboration with the Zionists). But Palestinians were to surprise people again. Fatah was established in 1959 by a group of Palestinian refugees. Arab states tried to control the PLO (established 1964) only to find a strong Palestinian leadership determined to keep its independence. Arafat election to head the PLO in 1969 was seen as an example of this assertion of independence. It was only made possible because of another surprise: Palestinian stiff resistance (aided by Jordanians) to the Israeli invasion of Karamah in Jordan in 1968. Coming at the heels of the defeat of Arab armies by Israel in 1967, this was a lesson to all that resistance is possible.

The Israeli attack and military victory of 1967 redrew the map of the Middle East. But Palestinians did not leave these areas like they did in Al-Nakba of 1947-1949. Only 300,000 Palestinians left the West Bank and Gaza in 1967. Arab regimes who stood in the way of Palestinian national interests while clklaing defending them lost credibility. Future historians may judge 1967 as a classic Pyrrhic victory for colonialism. Israel was left with a so called "demographic problem" (?Democratic problem) of acquiring and wanting land for a "Jewish state" but stuck with millions of people (Christians and Muslims) who were not successfully removed. But even those successfully removed and dismissed as irrelevant proved very relevant (sometimes with surprising acts of infiltration, plane hijackings, etc). This forced Israel to spend billions (most of it American money) on its military and secret service. But the tactics remained the same: more assassinations, more occupation, more killings, more walls and fences, more sophisticated weapons etc. More surprising was that most of the resistance was non-violent. The stories of mass non-violent resistance are considered taboo in Zionist influenced US mainstream media. However, its intensity and power is not to be underestimated.

Another Palestinian surprise was the success of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) started when Israel, as expected (again predictable for colonial powers), rejected foreign monitors. This non-violent ISM movement is but another unexpected Palestinian innovation. Predictably Israel tried to restrict and prevent them from going in. But they continue to come. Some ISM members were even able to go using free tickets provided by the Zionist movement in the Birthright Israel program (Jewish students sent to be indoctrinated). Despite millions of dollars spent on PR campaigns (called hasbara in Hebrew) Israeli apologists were surprised at how much the Palestinian cause is becoming the main rallying rod in progressive circles around the world. They were surprised at how a few activists with meager resources can challenge an empire of lies and distortions. More Zionist lies and distortions had to be invented to cover up other lies and distortions. Some truths later came out: Zionist collaboration with the Nazis, the Lavon affair (Israeli mossad planting bombs at American interests in Egypt to blame Egyptians), the Iraq bombing to scare Iraqi Jews into leaving (see Naeem Giladi’s book "Ben Gurion Scandals"), the Iran Contra affair, the targetting of the USS Liberty in 1967, the Pollard affair and countless others.

Any observer of human history would have predicted the course of Israel colonial activities, the failed attempts at crushing of Palestinian aspirations for freedom, the political assassinations, collective punishment, use of superior arms, the torture, etc. They follow the classic story of all colonial powers (remember Vietnam and Algeria). This includes the all familiar pitfall of getting intoxicated with power. Here unfortuately, the "light unto the nations" was reduced to being the shining example of the last remaining ethnocentric colonial state (South Africa shared that distinction with Israel until Apartheid was dismantled in 1989).

The predictable excesses based on logic of power and deception, were however met with more surprises. US elected officials who dared to speak out (See Paul Findley’s "They Dare to Speak Out") and by more surprises from the Palestinian victims. For example, Israeli leaders were surprised by the stiff resistance in Lebanon in the early 1980s. Israel went into Lebanon killing over 100,000 Lebanese and Palestinian civilians with the explicit aim of creating an Israel-friendly regime in Lebanon. They failed. Israel and its US backers negotiated exit of PLO fighters from Beirut to Tunis. When asked where they were going, Arafat answered "to Palestine." He was in Palestine a few years later. After the tragic events of 9/11, we were told the Palestinians are finished. The Zionists predictably pushed for and succeeded in getting the Bush administration to engage ina war on Iraq. In policy papers, these neo-cons argued that the subjugation of Iraq a closer US and Israeli ties that will ensure surrender of any remaining Palestinians resistance. Today $150 billion later, Iraqi resistance is growing. The killing of tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians (estimates by a medical journal put it at 100,000) only fuels more resistance as relatives seek revenge. We predicted all of that. What those in power predicted was "pacification", oil profits, and Pax Americana/Pax Israeliana. One government after another pulled out from the "coalition of the bribed and pressured". Spain, Brazil, Turkey Venezuella, Korea, Japan, and other countries showed backbones. But to go back to Palestine, the desired fruits of 9/11 did not materialize except in increased atrocities in places like Jenin and Nablus done under the foggy "war on terrorism". Jenin refugee camp is being rebuilt and its residents are more defiant than ever. Another surprise.

Israel is predictably building an apartheid wall to gobble up the natural resources like water wells and agricultural lands and confine Palestinian to ghettos. Predictable. For creative Palestinian responses see but even if the wall is not stopped, his colonial venture, like others before it will fail. Again native unpredictability.

When discussing what would happen after Arafat, Israeli and Zionist pundits predicted chaos and a civil war among Palestinian factions. Again they were surprised. They were caught of-guard by showing of unity. Even in places like Australia and America, people and groups came together when before they had their differences. Under one umbrella, they started planning intensified efforts. Apologists for Israel did not predict the growth of the divestment movement. They even were surprised by Palestinian birthrates (thinking of babies as threats!). They were surprised by those who came to Israel under the racist "law of return" (any Jew or convert getting automatic citizenship) and who later turned out to be non-Jewish (e.g. 40% of Russian immigrants) or even more surprising Jews who were ardent opponents of Zionism and its racist excesses.

These surprises (and more to come) ensure that the Palestinian cause is more than an issue of providing humanitarian relief to "Arab refugees" and gives us the confidence that justice will prevail. The surprises will not cease as Palestinians refuse to be limited by the artificial and unfair boundaries placed on their discourse as they struggle against a ruthless colonial power. To be sure there are mistakes of Palestinian leadership (e.g. signing Oslo accords which fail to protect human rights), treachory of Arab leaders, onslaught of colonization, US governmental animosity and vetoing of UN security council resolutions, and the Israeli lobby in the sole remaining superpower, all helping the massive military and PR campaign to destroy Palestinian society and culture. But, in my debates and dialogue with those who still support Israeli apartheid, I am always surprised at how predictable they are and am always struck by how they do not see the hole they are digging themselves into. Just look into the use of language of things like "fighting terrorism". "we made generous offer", "teaching children to hate", "the violence of Islam" etc. This is expected because such language and the military power that go with it are the only two fig leafs left to cover racism and injustice (especially land theft). The Achille’s heel of colonial powers are easily understood if one asks British historians about the occupation of Iraq in 1919, US historians about Vietnam, or French historians about Algeria. But it seems such greedy politicians fail to learn the lessons of history. For those who naively support them (because on the time tested use of fear and narrow nationalism), they always later come to understand that these are losing ventures: if you are in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.

By contrast a people struggling to survive and clinging to their lands always surprise others and even themselves. Short of being annihilated a la native Americans, such people always triumph. If you want to understand this, I ask you to visit a Palestinian refugee camp and speak to some of the children. I did. Endless are the surprises and keys the young hold in the palm of their hands and in the deep corners of their hearts and minds. Ben Gurion’s prediction that the "the old will die and the young will forget" is only partly right: the old die but the young never forget.

The jig is up: only justice and equality bring peace and peace in Palestine is key to peace elsewhere (the neo-con assault on Iraqi cities is but one example). The only remaining question is how quickly this nightmare will end and how many more surprises until then.