The fact that Israel was born in the sin of dispossession of another people has never been seriously laid out for public discussion in the West. Moreover, this has occurred despite an abundance of irrefutable facts about Israel’s culpability, even from its own “revisionist historians,” many of whom now refuse to accept moral and legal responsibility. In fact, the mere thought of such a discourse is certain to cast the issue as questioning the very existence of the state of Israel, a forbidden and profane exercise.
How, therefore, can restitution or atonement to the Palestinian people even be raised as issues if the genesis of the problem must remain outside the parameters of discussion? Additionally, the anti-Semitic label would be readily invoked if a non-Zionist narrative of Palestinian dispossession and corresponding Israeli usurpation were to come to the fore.
The undeniable fact, however, is that had there been no Israel, there would have been neither Palestinian displacement, nor dispossession, and dispersion. And yet, that simple and logical connection must be expurgated from the discourse about Palestine/Israel, and a phony and distorted historical narrative inserted, otherwise the suppressed taboos would be disastrously unleashed for the whole world to see. Thus, the excision of such concepts as moral responsibility for the Palestinian catastrophe (Al-Nakba) was and remains essential for the success of the Zionist colonial project. 1948 was the year of Palestinian catastrophe and, at the same time, the year of Israel’s “independence,” the making of Israel. Neither event would have happened without the other.
Until today, Zionists have not made it convincingly clear from whom that “independence” was wrested, and how their ethnic cleansing of the indigenous Palestinians-occurring largely during the first half of 1948, while Britain was still responsible for law and order-by paramilitary Jewish forces, produced independence. The indigenous population was neither self-governing, nor ruling over the Jews in Palestine. Independence from Britain, on the other hand, is an oxymoronic conceptualization given that Britain’s Balfour Declaration had provided the first justification for a Jewish national home in Palestine. Indeed, it was the British Mandate authorities that provided privileges, empowerment, and protection for the Jewish settler minority.
Despite that inextricable connection between the Palestinian Nakba and Israel’s creation on the land of Palestine, no Israeli official has ever ventured to call for atonement. The less Israel needs moral and legal justification, the more potent it appears. Trying to marshal legal and moral justification for its existence would be seen as a clear sign of weakness, self-doubt, and lack of moral resolve. Indeed, Israel’s leadership perceives an offensive strategy as the best form of defense. Israel’s verbal strategy turns history on its head. The indigenous Palestinians are declared non-existent, the victims became victimizer, colonization is development, resistance to occupation is terrorism, and the refugees’ right of return is a threat to Israel’s demographic security and Jewish character.
Israel’s current offensive strategy towards the Palestinians under military occupation is trumpeted as a defensive war, much like the “war against terrorism” declared by the United States. The fact that it is launching an all-out attack against a predominantly civilian population struggling to end an illegal military occupation is being obscured by a pernicious public relations campaign in which the U.S. media plays a complicit role. The daily horrendous war crimes do not merit even meager attention in the same media. The fact that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s long political-military career was stained in blood since the early 1950s massacres in Gaza, Sinai, Qibya, Sabra, and Shatila never surfaces in the United States, despite his pending war crimes suit in the Belgian judicial system.
As the Palestinian uprising (intifada) enters its sixteenth month, U.S. leaders parrot Sharon’s call on the Palestinians under occupation to “stop the violence” and “end the terrorism,” while his government persists in assassinating Palestinian leaders and other non-combatants with U.S.-supplied arms, and tightening the siege on more than 3 million Palestinian civilians in the Occupied Territories.
The new rules of international conduct:
In a world in which the international balance of power has completely vanished, the rules of the international order are clearly being set by the mighty. The latter alone define rogue states and terrorist groups with world reach, and they alone determine how and when such deviants are punished. No longer does the younger President George Bush need a legal basis, such as his father’s Security Council resolution to justify a war on Iraq. A destabilized world was caught up in a guessing game as to who would be America’s next target, until Bush defined his “axis of evil”: Iran, Iraq, and Korea. This is certainly not an exhaustive list given his promise that the “war against terrorism” would be ongoing for a long time.
In such a world order in which the United States, Israel, and even India are setting the rules of international conduct, there seems to be little room, if any, for the grievances of weaker parties to be raised. Such offensive strategies have clearly emerged as the best pre-emptive measures against such things as “root causes,” justice, restitution, or atonement. It is the victim who now has to atone and pay compensation. The powerful can only decide whether the victim and the disempowered have been adequately compliant and sufficiently intimidated.
Israel’s strategic alliance with the United States and its current piggy-backing on America’s “war against terrorism” will not only shelter Israel from any and all Palestinian and Arab grievances, but has effectively enrolled it among the few privileged participants in the virtual redefinition of the rules of international conduct and international law.
Expecting Israel to now acknowledge its wrongdoing in 1948 is not a likely prospect, and yet the prospects for a genuine reconciliation and an historic compromise are unlikely to succeed without such an acknowledgment.
Acknowledgement and restitution: The marginalization of international law and the corresponding ascendancy of the Israeli role, promoted and protected by the U.S.’s virtual diplomatic monopoly, have combined to create a situation in which culpability for the Palestinian catastrophe is reassigned to the victim. Unlike other indigenous people, the Palestinians received neither apologies nor acknowledgments of responsibility for displacement, dispossession, massacres, legalized torture, home demolition, ethnic cleansing, and other atrocities.
The Palestinians have experienced the historical process of conquest, dispossession, and domination and never, contrary to other colonized people, experienced de-colonization. A South African-style commission of truth and reconciliation is not in the offing, given that the Palestinians have not yet reached the stage of emancipation.
The Palestinians in the current context have to look away from restitution from established governments and conventional means, and look toward building an international grassroots movement toward that end. The structure of inequality is global, and thus reparations and restitution have emerged as central issues separating the affluent North from the poor South, with the United States leading the anti-reparations camp.
For the Palestinians, redress and restitution have been impeded by having to confront a powerful enemy, fortified by a strategic alliance with the world’s only superpower. Moreover, an inept leadership and complicit Arab “allies” have proven disastrous to the cause, while the Palestine question itself remains deliberately surrounded by fog. Any efforts, therefore, towards restitution and reparations have to be creative, innovative, and directed toward building an international solidarity movement whose goal is to force the hands of states and international institutions of justice.
Naseer Aruri is Chancellor Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Darmouth.