Whither Palestine? (Part One)

Whither Palestine? (Part One)

RONNIE KASRILS ponders the way forward for Palestine as he pays tribute to the late Egyptian scholar and writer Abdelwahab Elmessiri, an authority on English literature and the Palestinian cause, in excerpts from a commemorative lecture at a Middle East Monitor (MEMO) event in London.

As an eminent scholar of English literature, Abdelwahab Elmessiri, who loved paradox and metaphor, would I think approve of my referencing Lewis Carroll’s Victorian classic Alice in Wonderland.

Alice wanders along a river bank and falls down a deep hole. She finds herself at a crossroad in a topsy-turvy land. She asks a caterpillar seated on a toadstool the way. But Alice does not know where she is going. The caterpillar, puffing on a hookah, answers: “If you do not know where you are going any road will do.”

Certainly the Palestinians seem to find themselves in a quandary. And who can blame them, with the myriad of obstructions on their arduous journey in search of freedom and independence. Unlike Alice there is a Road Map, but one shared with another traveller (a veritable road-hog) whose intentions are by no means honourable – not to mention a Quartet of uneasy bedfellows who try to play traffic cop. In fact we observe that our Palestinian Alice is in the company of somebody akin to the Queen of Hearts yelling “off with her head”. The analogy is replete with bizarre likenesses down to a grinning Cheshire Cat reminding one of a former British prime minister of recent times meddling in the process and taking fat cheques in return – grinning all the way to the bank. Like the disappearing Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carroll’s story all that remains is a disembodied grin gradually fading into thin air.

The situation is far worse than a mere stalemate for Alice’s people are in dire straits to say the least. And many in their ranks have lost all faith in a Road Map and a two- state idea they regard as a farce; and express the view that indeed a viable strategy does not exist.

Palestinian writer Ramzy Baroud articulates this in forthright terms: “What is the Palestinian strategy?” he asks, “The painful reality is well known to many, although few take on the moral responsibility to confront it. And the posing of the question is telling in itself. It wouldn’t be asked if there was a strategy in place, being implemented, and regularly revisited and modified. The question is a testament to all the failures of past strategies, and the political disintegration of any credible Palestinian leadership, currently represented by Mahmoud Abbas and his circle of wealthy businessmen and politicians.” (Ramzy Baroud (2015), “The Nakba and the Question of a Palestinian Strategy” in Counterpunch, May 21. For more details see here.)

Already in 2006 when I met Elmessiri such questions were long in his mind and that of many others. Politeness has often inhibited friends of the Palestinians from speaking of this elephant in the room. We are willing to demonstrate our solidarity and don’t wish to interfere. But with all due respect does not solidarity also require one to make ones thoughts known more particularly when Palestinians themselves constantly wish to tap one’s experience?

The extensive works of the late Egyptian scholar Abdelwahab Elmessiri, coupled with lessons he believed could be learnt from the South African struggle, shed some light on the way ahead.

In 1976 he wrote Israel and South Africa: The Progression of a Relationship, one of the earliest works to compare Zionism with Apartheid. (Abdelwahab M. Elmessiri (1976), Israel and South Africa: The Progression of a Relationship, (New Brunswick, NJ: North American).

He observed: “Despite differences between Israel and South Africa from the perspective of their initial formational period subsequent historical developments ensured that the similarities between the two settlement enclaves outweighed the differences and gave them a higher explanatory power.”

He pointed out that both began from different origins as settlement enclaves. These were to serve Western interests on multiple functional levels in exchange for support and protection.

He compared Britain’s aims in creating the Union of South Africa in 1909 and the Balfour Declaration of 1917: “The Zionist state is a settler enclave like any other. It is by no means a coincidence that the Balfour Declaration and the South Africa Act of Union of 1909 [was] affected in large part by the same handful of politicians (including) … and General Smuts. In implanting and backing white settlers in South Africa and Zionist settlers in Palestine, the British Empire was founding two little pockets of settler-colonists who would owe allegiance to the imperial metropolis and would serve as bases of operations when the need arose.” (Elmessiri (2007), “From functional Jewish communities to the functional Zionist State,” p. 153.)

Zionism was able to seize the upper hand, with the complicity of the departing British who had ruthlessly crushed a Palestinian revolt of 1936-39 leaving them leaderless, and weakened in the face of the poorly organised response from corrupt Arab states in 1948. The British, shrugging off Jewish terrorism, had left the Zionist militia vast supplies of arms and equipment. Many had served in Britain’s war time forces; and they numbered more than the combined Arab armies despatched to protect the 45% territory apportioned to the Palestinians by the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan. Arthur Koestler summed up Balfour’s perfidious legacy as follows: “One nation promised a second nation the land of a third nation.” And that was grabbed with ferocious barbarity in 1947-48.

The year 1948 was one of the darkest for both the Palestinian and South African people; truly an annus horribilis. For South Africans May 1948 marked the election of the apartheid government and the prelude to a 46-year maelstrom for the African people. For the Palestinians May 1948 marked the Nakbah – the catastrophic dispossession and ethnic cleansing at the hands of the rampant Zionist project. (Ilan Pappe (2007), The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, (Oxford: Oneworld).

Over 750,000 Palestinians were forcefully expelled from a land they had inhabited from antiquity; with some 500,000 managing to remain behind in spite of the terror unleashed by Zionism. Whilst apartheid South Africa has been replaced by a democratic unitary state, the suffering endured by the Palestinians worsens year by year.

The apartheid character of Israel was noted by Dr (Hendrik) Verwoerd in 1961: “The Jews took Israel from the Arabs after the Arabs had lived there for a thousand years. Israel like South Africa is an apartheid state.” (Rand Daily Mail, Johannesburg, November 23, 1961.)

Both states were based on colonial dispossession of an indigenous people’s land; preached and implemented a policy based on racial ethnicity – the sole claim of Jews in Israel and whites in South Africa to exclusive citizenship; monopolised rights in law regarding the ownership of land, property and business; enjoyed privileged access to education, health, social, sporting and cultural amenities; superior municipal services at the expense of the indigenous population; exclusive membership in the security forces enabling generous pension and other benefits; even marriage laws protecting race purity. Israel’s institutional racial discrimination fits the United Nations definition of apartheid which defines that form of segregation as “inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group … over another racial group … and systematically oppressing them.” (International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid, United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3068 (XXVIII) of 30 November 1973 – entered into force 18 July 1976.)

Although Verwoerd died prior to the occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, he would have admired the machinations that enclosed the Palestinians in ghettoised prisons. This was after all his grand plan, and the reason why Jimmy Carter identified the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) as being akin to apartheid where “a horrible example of apartheid is being perpetrated against the Palestinians who live there”. (Jimmy Carter (2007), Palestine – Peace not Apartheid, (New York: Simon and Schuster).

In fact the Bantustans comprised 13% of apartheid South Africa, uncannily comparable to the fragmented territories that Israeli military occupation, security grid system, Jewish-only roads, apartheid wall, water appropriation and illegal settlements, has reduced Palestinian living and farming space in the West Bank to which is half the 22% Green Line border of 1967. 1967 Green Line border estimated as having shrunk in this way to under 12%.

The remote Bantustans represented dumping grounds for the apartheid system’s reserve army of labour. This explains the crucial difference between South Africa and Israel. In the former the colonial settlers institutionalised racist exploitation; in the latter it institutionalised racist exclusion. Apartheid depended on black labour; Zionism never depended on Palestinian labour in the same way and attempts as far as possible to reduce such dependency. This naturally militates against Palestinian resistance compared to the dynamic role the black working class could play in South Africa and needs to be compensated in other ways particularly through the solidarity of the likes of the Egyptian and Arab working class of the region and international solidarity (to be discussed later).

What Verwoerd admired too was the impunity with which Israel exercised state violence to get its way, without hindrance from the West. An imperialist Israel was permitted to annexe territory by force against the rising tide of Arab nationalism in the region.

An unholy alliance developed and the two rogue states connived in secret arms deals and military cooperation. (For more details of the secret relationship between Israel and Apartheid South Africa, see: Sasha Polakow-Suransky (2010), The Unspoken Alliance – Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa, (New York: Pantheon Books). For a critical review of Polakow-Suransky’s book see: Aslam Farouk-Alli (2011), “Apartheid Alliance,” in Journal of Palestine Studies, vol. 14, no. 1 (Autumn), pp. 113-115.) Israel helped South Africa upgrade its jet fighter squadrons, supplied war ships and missile systems and assisted in the development of seven nuclear bombs undermining international sanctions. The arms industries of the two states became closely interlocked with billions of dollars of profits generated. Israel empowered Apartheid South Africa to crush its black population, carry out aggression against neighbouring African states and helped to perpetuate the racist system.

Solidarity between the ANC and Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) strengthened over the years supporting one another at the United Nations and elsewhere. Following Israel’s invasion of the Lebanon in 1982, and the Sabra and Shatila massacres, Oliver Tambo, the ANC president, declared before the UN General Assembly:

The parallels between the Middle East and Southern Africa are as clear as they are sinister. The onslaught on the Lebanon, the massive massacre of Lebanese and Palestinians, the attempt to liquidate the PLO and Palestinian people, all of which were enacted with impunity by Israel have been followed minutely and with unconcealed interest and glee by the Pretoria racist regime which has designs for perpetrating the same kind of crime in southern Africa in the expectation that, like Israel, it will be enabled by its allies to get away with murder.” (Oliver Tambo speech, 9th November 1982. For more details see Ronnie Kasrils (2015), “Birds of a Feather,” in Peoples Apart: Israel, South Africa and the Apartheid Question, edited by Ilan Pappe, (London: Zed Books). [To be published in October 2015]. )

The classical form of colonialism was a system where the colonised were dispossessed of their land and rights and were ruled, oppressed and exploited by a distant metropolitan power (Algeria, Burma, Ceylon, Ghana, Indonesia, Kenya, Zambia etc).

Another form Elmessiri referred to was where sufficient settler populations existed – Palestinian Jews, White South Africans, Rhodesians – and where rule over the indigenous people was handed to them. The South African Communist Party (SACP) had a similar concept to that of Elmessiri’s functional model, which was termed “Colonialism of a Special Type” (CST) in its characterisation of South Africa under white rule. Israel embodies similar features although the Zionist settler enclave has unique traits setting it apart – particularly in the origin of its settler population, its measures of de-population and consequently deliberate non-use of indigenous native labour. The racist capitalist system in South Africa depended on the labour power of the conquered indigenous masses and therefore needed their reproduction at minimal cost. To quote from the SACP programme:

The conceding of independence to South Africa by Britain in 1910 was not a victory over the forces of colonialism and imperialism. It was designed in the interests of imperialism. Power was transferred not into the hands of the masses of people of South Africa, but into the hands of the White minority alone. The evils of colonialism, insofar as the Non-White majority are concerned, were perpetuated and reinforced. A new type of colonialism was developed, in which the oppressing White nation occupied the same territory as the oppressed people themselves and lived side by side with them. (italics added). On one level, that of White South Africa, there are all the features of an advanced capitalist state in its final stage of imperialism But on another level, that of Non White South Africa, there are all the features of a colony. The indigenous population is subjected to extreme national oppression, poverty and exploitation, lack of all democratic rights and political domination …The African Reserves (later to be termed Bantustans) show the complete lack of industry, communications and power resources which are characteristic of African territories under colonial rule throughout the Continent. Typical too of imperialist rule, is the reliance by the state upon brute force and terror Non-White South Africa is the colony of White South Africa itself. It is this combination of the worst features of both imperialism and colonialism, within a single national frontier, which determines the special nature of the South African system and has brought upon its rulers the justified hatred and contempt of progressive and democratic people throughout the world.” (Programme of the South African Communist Party, The Road to South African Freedom, 1962. For more details see here.)

Replacing the words – “South Africa” with “Israel” or “Palestine” depending on the periods; “White South Africa” with the “Jewish settlers”; “Non-White” with “Palestinians”; and “African Reserves” (ie Bantustans) with “Gaza” and “West Bank” – we find a striking comparison between South African CST and that of Zionist Israel notwithstanding their different traits.

The conceding of independence by Britain to the white minority in South Africa in 1910 is comparable to the 1947 partition deal which paved the way for the handing over of power in Palestine to the Jewish minority which they violently seized in 1948 not only taking the 55% of territory allotted to them but seizing 78% by 1949.

The early Zionists did not hide this colonial agenda.

(Theodor) Herzl stated at the onset in 1896, once a Jewish state was established the aim would be to “spirit the penniless population (the Palestinians) across the borders and be rid of them”. (Theodor Herzl (1961), The Complete Diaries of Theodor Herzl, 5 vols., edited by Raphael Patai; translated by Harry Zohn. (New York and London: Herzl Press and Thomas Yoseloff).

The neo-fascist (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky, whose 1930’s radicalism has triumphed in Fortress Israel, argued that Zionist colonisation had to be “carried out in defiance of the will of the native population”. He added: “This colonisation can therefore continue and develop only under the protection of a force of … an iron wall which the native population cannot break through.” [Nur Masalha (1992), Expulsion of the Palestinians: The Concept of “Transfer” in Zionist Political Thought, (Washington DC: Institute for Palestine Studies). ]

Secretly admitting Zionism’s intentions, Ben Gurion confided in 1938: “After we become a strong force, as the result of the creation of a state, we shall abolish partition and expand into the whole of Palestine.” (As revealed by his confidant Nahum Goldmann in The Jewish Paradox). (Nahum Goldmann (1978), The Jewish Paradox, Weidenfeld and Nicolson.)

Three decades later General Moshe Dayan triumphantly recounted the milestones: “Our fathers had reached the frontiers which were recognized in the UN Partition Plan of 1947 (56% of the land). Our generation reached the frontiers of 1949 (78% of the land). Now the Six Day Generation [of 1967] has managed to reach Suez, Jordan and the Golan Heights. This is not the end.” (The London Times, June 25, 1969.)

Such statements contextualised Zionism’s objectives and provide the clues as to why Israel has not been interested in real peace terms; cannot be a faithful negotiating partner; and that behind any short term or pragmatic objective is the coloniser’s quest for a Greater Israel from the Mediterranean to the River Jordan.

Given the consistency of such statements through to (Ariel) Sharon and (Benjamin) Netanyahu, it becomes obvious that Israel’s existence has been based on colonial conquest, annexation (whenever the time is ripe), ever expanding colonial settlements, and as had been the case in apartheid South Africa the reliance by the state upon brute force and terror.

The question arises: does the CST analogy assist in understanding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and point to its resolution by assisting in formulating a realisable strategy and vision? CST demolishes the charade that Zionism is itself a national liberation movement, and that consequently both the claims of Israel and the Palestinians should be treated in a balanced and even-handed manner holding out the ultimate promise of a phoney two-state solution. It is this mantra that has counter-acted against the Palestinian cause and contrived to make the strategy and vision so elusive. This deception has reduced Palestine’s natural allies, South Africa foremost among them, from playing the leading role of boycotting and isolating Israel that is urgently required. The reasoning goes: if the Palestinian leadership accepts the “two-state” option then who are we to disagree?

CST lifts the veil on the true nature of this historic struggle which requires full national self-determination and independence for the Palestinian people before all else. This is fundamental and the basis for solving the national question, which among other key elements calls for the Right of Return of the Palestinian refugees as per United Nations resolutions, and handing back their homes and property; and rejecting the Law of Return, which allows any Jew anywhere in the world to claim a place in Palestine and supplant the indigenous populous.

It is only on the basis of the freedom, independence and equality of the colonised nation that the settlers and their descendants will find security. The consequences for the strategy required is that it neither side-lines the refugees nor marginalises the internal 1948 Palestinians within Israel; nor ignores those in the diaspora whilst only focusing on the right to national self-determination of those living under occupation and fobbing them off with Bantustans. It demolishes Israel’s attempts at divide and rule. It unites all contingents in their millions in a clear vision for their undivided land and with correct leadership and action can dramatically alter the balance of forces, so long stacked against the Palestinians. It provides a powerful vision and incentive for all. And by being inclusive it ultimately allays the existential fears of the settler community. It helps to construct a vision of ultimate commonality of existence along the lines of South Africa’s Freedom Charter. While there will be those who fear that Palestinian rights and hopes will be swamped by Zionist domination the space opened up in the struggle for equality and democracy could offer far greater opportunities for Palestine’s Alice of reaching home than the defunct Oslo route. DM

Note: Kasrils, a former government minister, has provided reference notes for all the quotes and figures referred to above. This is abridged from his Abdelwahab Elmissiri commemorative lecture for the London based Middle East Monitor this year. A follow-up extract on lessons of the South African struggle to break the impasse follows.

Photo: Ronnie Kasrils (Greg Nicolson)


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