Masalha: Imperial Israel and the Palestinians
This timely book provides a history of Israeli colonization and expansion in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip since 1967. It provides a context for understanding the ideological forces behind the excessive use of force and the war crimes, as defined by major human rights organizations and international bodies, committed by the Israeli army during the al-Aqsa intifada. Based in large part on Hebrew sources and archival materials, the book demonstrates succinctly the existence of an ideological continuity that has characterized the attitude of the Zionist movement and later the Jewish state toward the Palestinian people. The most prominent leaders of the Zionist movement during the prestate period, for instance, advocated the idea of expulsion of the Palestinians from their homeland, an idea that continued after 1948 until the present.
Significantly, the proponents of conquering the land without the people have represented almost the entire spectrum of Zionist and Israeli politics, a theme Masalha has covered in his two previous books, A Land Without a People: Israel, Transfer and the Palestinians, 1945-96 (Faber and Faber, 1997) and Expulsion of the Palestinians: The Concept of Transfer in Zionist Political Thought, 1882-1948 (Institute for Palestine Studies, 1992). In this study, he focuses on the evolution of the theme of expulsion—what Zionists refer to euphemistically as “population transfer”—since 1967. He emphasizes two themes: the concept of Jewish historical rights in “Eretz Israel” and the issue of “demographic security,” i.e., insuring the indigenous Arab population could never approach a majority in the foreseeable or distant future. He demonstrates with clarity supported by rigorous documentation that most political parties and movements from Left to Right adhere to Israel’s imperialist tendencies and colonial-settler practices. Furthermore, he lays to rest the popular notion that there are doves and hawks in Israel and that the seemingly peripheral groups and zealots, who entertain the idea of Greater Israel, are to be dismissed as an irrelevant or a lunatic fringe. He concludes, after examining the ideologies, policies, and actions of the four major political movements in Israel—Labor Zionism; Revisionist Zionism (Likud); Jewish fundamentalist groups such as Gush Emmunim; and secular ultranationalists such as Tahiya, Moledet, and Tsomet—that expansion, transfer, and the “demographic problem” are central to each one.
The Whole Land of Israel Movement, for example, was established in the wake of the 1967 war to promote territorial expansion and was a “secular elite organization . . . almost entirely supported by prominent members of the Labour establishment” (p. 28). The Likud continued to subscribe to Jabotinsky’s “Iron Wall” concept, enunciated in a 1923 article, but this idea easily could describe the actions of Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak since the Oslo treaty was signed in 1993. Quoting from Jabotinsky, “In this sense, there are no meaningful differences between our 'militarists' and our 'vegetarians.' One prefers an iron wall of Jewish bayonets, the other proposes an agreement with Baghdad and appears to be satisfied with Baghdad’s bayonets—a strange and somewhat risky taste—but we all applaud, day and night, the iron wall” (p. 56). Thus, when Arafat finally said no at Camp David in July 2000, Israel moved away from conquest through diplomacy to conquest through “bayonets.” The application of “Jewish military might” in order to create despair among the Palestinians and make them leave is the lesson Barak and Sharon learned from Jabotinsky three-quarters of a century earlier.
Masalha’s examination of the third movement, Jewish fundamentalism, reveals how the “right to expel” is enshrined in interpretations of the Torah. Ethnic cleansing not only is divinely ordained, but it is also rationalized as being supported by a consensus in Israel and as a “way to avoid friction” (pp. 116-17). The political-messianic stream refers to the Palestinian Arabs in three stages: (1) reduction to the Halacha status of “resident alien”; (2) transfer; (3) “[t]he implementation of the commandment of Amalek . . . in other words, annihilating the Palestinian Arabs” (p. 131). In contrast, the secular ultranationalists of the far Right do not rely on the Old Testament to justify expansion and ethnic cleansing. Influenced by European fascism, most leaders justify annexation in terms of raison d’état. Many view transfer as the only solution to the perceived “demographic threat.” Shooting to kill, a method Barak and Sharon employed in 2000-2001 in the occupied territories, was advocated a decade earlier by Gen. Raphael Eitan, former chief of staff and leader of Tsomet: “We should be shooting them in the head. I have no doubt this will happen in the end.” His fellow army general, Rehava’am Zeevi, minister of tourism in Sharon’s cabinet, exposed how the mainstream Labor Party advocated the same kind of ethnic cleansing when he revealed that Ben-Gurion had set up a transfer committee in 1948 and Levi Eshkol, another Labor prime minister, had set up a similar committee after the 1967 war (p. 177).
Masalha’s concluding chapter offers a comprehensive study of public opinion polls and debates in Israel with regard to transfer, demography, and attitudes toward the Palestinians. His coverage, which includes the most prestigious institutes for the study of public opinion, produces rather ominous results, corroborating the policies and ideologies delineated in his previous four chapters and showing the ideological continuity in which the Palestinians are seen. Whereas prior to 1948 the issue of transfer was discussed behind closed doors, after the 1980s, the issue became a topic of discussion in the public arena. In fact, Sharon has been a catalyst in the process of keeping such debate going. Particularly alarming is the growing percentage of Israeli Jews that supports “transfer,” growing from 25 percent in 1967 to around 50 percent in the late 1980s (p. 197). The validity of Masalha’s argument is readily seen in all governments installed in Israel since 1967. Whether Likud, Labor, or unity governments, they have continued to expropriate Palestinian property, expand Jewish-only settlements, and use bureaucratic and more violent means to cleanse Palestinians from certain strategic areas.
This book is must reading for scholars and general readers with interest in Middle Eastern affairs. It should be of great value for policymakers, whose negotiators may benefit from the distinctions Masalha makes between long-term Zionist strategy and short-term tactics. According to Peace Now, Israel has succeeded in expanding its settlements in the occupied territories by 72 percent between 1993 and December 2000—all of that under the cover of pseudo-diplomacy.
Masalha’s book is profusely documented and is marked by intelligent and rigorous analysis. It is a welcome addition to a growing literature on a crucial subject and is nothing less than indispensable.
Naseer Aruri is Chancellor Professor (emeritus) of Political Science, University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth.