The same malign intent by Israel towards the Palestinians is stamped through its history like the lettering in a children’s stick of seaside rock. But despite the consistent aim of Israeli policy, generation after generation of Western politicians, diplomats and journalists has shown a repeated inability to grasp what is happening before its very eyes.
The Palestinian historian Rashid Khalidi once noted that the first goal of Israel’s founders as they prepared to establish their Jewish state on a large swath of the Palestinian homeland in 1948 was to empty Palestine’s urban heartlands of their educated elites.
Even before Israel’s Declaration of Independence on 15 May 1948, most Palestinians had been terrified away from the two wealthiest cities in coastal Palestine, Jaffa and Haifa. Other Palestinian cities soon fell during the war of 1948: Israeli forces mostly cleansed Lydda, Ramle, Acre, Safad, Tiberias, Baysan and Bir Saba of their native populations. Today all these cities have been repopulated with Jews — as well as renamed.
Khalidi has written: “These refugees from the urban areas of the country generally tended to be those Palestinians with the highest levels of literacy, skills, wealth, and education”. Or, in other words, the small number of Palestinians allowed to remain in their homeland by Israel were peasant families living in isolated rural communities.
These Palestinians posed little threat to the new Jewish state: they lacked the education and tools to resist both the wholesale dispossession of their people and their own personal loss as their farm lands were expropriated by the state to establish the Jewish farming communes of the kibbutz and moshav movements.
And so history repeats itself. As Israel’s violent siege of Gaza continues, the Associated Press reported this week that dozens of Palestinians with American passports have left Gaza, escorted out of the Strip in a convoy of United Nations vehicles. One Palestinian American mother said she and her children could no longer stand the terrifying sonic booms produced by Israeli aircraft flying overhead during the night.
These fleeing Palestinians have two things that most of their kin in Gaza lack: they have lots of money that they might have invested in rebuilding Gaza’s economy were Israel not intent on destroying it; and they are familiar with a language and ideas that might have conveyed very effectively to Western audiences the horror currently being endured by Gaza’s civilian population.
They are also among the least radicalised elements of Gaza’s population and might have been the ones most willing to start a dialogue with Israel — had Israel shown any interest in negotiating.
But of course their absence from Gaza, and flight to America, will not be mourned by Israel.
How much Israel fears the presence in the occupied territories of Palestinians who have lived in the West — those who have money and influence, and speak in a language the non-Arab world can understand — was highlighted in another piece of news this week that went mostly unnoticed.
According to the Haaretz newspaper, Israel’s interior ministry has been quietly implementing a new rule since April that allows it to refuse entry to Palestinians holding foreign passports to Israel and the occupied territories. Most of those affected are Palestinians who today have citizenship in America or Europe.
Israel has this power over these Palestinians’ lives because, since its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, it has usurped control of the borders of the Palestinian territories. In another sign of how mistaken Western observers are in believing that the occupation of Gaza somehow ended with the withdrawal of Jewish settlers last year, Israel is still able to prevent Palestinians with a foreign passport (as well as those from the West Bank) from entering Gaza.
This new policy of exclusion affects thousands of the wealthiest and most educated Palestinians, some of whom have been living in the occupied territories for a decade or more investing in the economy as entrepreneurs, teaching in the universities or establishing desperately needed civil society organisations.
In another irony, many of these Palestinians have a foreign passport only because Israel stripped them of their rights to residency in the occupied territories in violation of international law. Using its control of the area’s borders since 1967, Israel revoked the residency of these Palestinians while they were studying or working abroad.
As the Israeli journalist Amira Hass has documented, some of these Palestinians eventually came back to the occupied territories after marrying a local Palestinian resident but were refused rights of residency they should be entitled to according to the normal principles of family unification.
Instead most Palestinians with foreign passports have remained in the occupied territories at Israel’s discretion: as long as they renewed their tourist visa every three months by crossing the border into Jordan or Egypt, they were left in relative peace.
But Israel is now unilaterally changing the rules (as it always does), even if it has been too embarrassed to declare the fact openly. Apparently the US embassy has been aware of the change for some time but does not think it should intervene in the “sovereign decisions” of another country — or, more accurately, in the decisions of a sovereign country, Israel, in violating the rights of an occupied people, the Palestinians.
Palestinians with US passports have been told by Israel that, when their three-month visas expire, they will no longer be entitled to enter the occupied territories to visit their families — except in rare “humanitarian cases” such as a close relative dying. Some will be separated from their spouse and children, while others will lose their businesses and everything they have invested in them.
With these foreign passport holders forced to leave the occupied territories, the pressure is sure to grow on their families left behind in Gaza or the West Bank to seek ways to emigrate abroad to be with them again.
The purpose of Israel’s current bureaucratic obscenity is the same as it was in 1948 when its highest priority was the clearing of the Palestinian cities of their elites to make way for the establishment of the Jewish state.
This time Israel needs to empty the ghettoes it is crafting for the Palestinians of the most educated and well-connected of their number so that it can more credibly claim that there is no one “moderate” to talk to. Any Palestinian with a stake in an Israeli-imposed peace, even one that damages Palestinian national interests, will have been forced out by Israel’s policies long before.
Those who remain behind, trapped by walls of concrete and steel, will be powerless to resist the unilateral and illegal expansion of Israel’s borders explicit in Ehud Olmert’s convergence plan.
When the only noise heard from the Palestinians in their cages is the occasional whine of a home-made Qassam rocket flying out of the ghetto into the Jewish state, we will be told by Israel and its US ally that terror is the only language the Palestinians know.
But, in truth, it will be the only language we have left the Palestinians to speak.