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2017: Palestine’s Three Dark Commemorations

16 Jan

 

 

 

Increasingly, Palestinians seem doomed to become subjects, or at best second-class citizens, in their homeland. Israeli expansionism, United States unconditional support, and UN impotence. These factors are combining to create dismal prospects for Palestinian self-determination and for a negotiated peace that is sensitive to the rights and grievances of both Palestinians and Jews.

 

Recalling three notable commemorations to be observed in 2017 may help us understand better how this distressing Palestinian narrative unfolded over the course of the past hundred years. Perhaps, such remembrances might even encourage the rectification of past failures, and encourage flagging national and international efforts to find a way forward even at this belated hour. The most promising initiatives are now associated with a growing global solidarity movement dedicated to achieving a just peace for both peoples. For now, neither the United Nations nor traditional diplomacy seem to have much leverage over the play of social and political forces that lies at the core of the Palestinian struggle. Only the nonviolent resistance of Palestinians to their prolonged ordeal of occupation and transnational civil society militancy seem to have any capacity to exert positive leverage over the status quo and to sustain hope.

 

At the same time, legitimacy and visibility remain important, and here the UN and international society have important roles to play, especially to reaffirm the legitimacy of Palestinian goals and grievances, the importance of political compromise, and the persisting refusal of Israel to show respect for international law, the authority of the United Nations, and the world public opinion.

 

 

1917

 

On November 2, 1917 the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, was persuaded to send a letter to Baron Lionel Rothschild, an influential supporter of the world Zionist project, expressing the support of the British government, for the aspirations of the movement. The key language of the letter is as follows:

 

His Majesty ‘s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use its best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

 

An obvious initial observation is why was Britain moved to take such initiative in the midst of World War One. The most plausible explanation is that the war was not going so well, nurturing the belief and hope by British leaders that siding with the Zionist movement would encourage Jews throughout Europe to back the Allied cause, especially in Russia and Germany. A second motivation was to further British interests in Palestine, which Lloyd George, then Prime Minister, regarded as strategically vital to protect the overland trade route to India as well as safeguard access to the Suez Canal. An apparent third motivation was as an expression of gratitude to Chaim Weizmann, a Zionist leader, for his contributions as a chemist to the British war effort. And finally, there were many Europeans, including Balfour himself, who agreed with Zionism that the only lasting assurance of an elimination of anti-Semitism was for Jews to migrate to Palestine.

 

The Balfour Declaration was controversial from the day of issuance, even among some Jews. For one thing, such a commitment by the British Foreign Office was a purely colonialist undertaking without the slightest effort to consider the sentiments of the predominantly Arab population living in Palestine at the time (Jews were less than 10% of the population in 1917) or to take account of rising international support for the right of self-determination to be enjoyed by all peoples. Prominent Jews, led by Edward Montagu, Secretary of State for India at the time, opposed the Declaration, fearing that it would fan the flames of anti-Semitism, especially in the cities of Europe and North America. Beyond this, the Arabs felt betrayed as Balfour’s initiative was seen both as breaking wartime promises to the Arabs of postwar political independence in exchange for joining the fight against the Turks. It also signaled future troubles arising between the Zionist promotion of Jewish immigration to Palestine and the agitation of the indigenous Arab population, as well as producing in the midst of the Arab world a country with great military capabilities in relation to the surrounding region.

 

It should be acknowledged that even Zionist leaders were not altogether happy with the Balfour Declaration. There were deliberate ambiguities embedded in its language. For instance, Zionists would have preferred the word ‘the’ rather than ‘a’ to precede ‘national home.’ Also, the pledge to protect the status quo of non-Jews was seen as inviting trouble in the future, although as it turned out, this assumption of colonialist responsibility was never taken seriously. Most importantly, the Zionists received support only for the ambiguous reality of a national home rather than a clear promise of a sovereign state with full participatory rights in international society. On this latter point, informal backroom British diplomatic chatter agreed that a Jewish state might emerge in the future, but it was believed that this could happen only after Jews became a majority in Palestine, which happened only by way of the permanent dispossession of hundreds of thousands of Arab Palestinians in the course of the violent establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, which was also shadowed by the recent confirmation of the magnitude of the Holocaust.

 

It is worth this backward glance at the Balfour Declaration to realize how colonial ambition morphed into liberal guilt and humanitarian empathy for the plight of European Jews after World War II, while creating an endless nightmare of disappointment, oppression, and rightlessness for the Palestinian population.

 

 

 

1947

 

After World War Two, with strife in Palestine rising to intense levels, and the British Empire in free fall, Britain relinquished its mandatory role and gave the fledgling UN the job of deciding what to do. The UN created a high level group of diplomats to shape a proposal, resulting in a set of recommendations that featured the partition of Palestine into two communities, one for Jews, the other for Arabs. Jerusalem was internationalized with neither community exercising governing authority nor entitled to claim the city as part of its national identity. The UN report was adopted as an official proposal by a large majority of UN members in the form of General Assembly Resolution 181.

 

The Zionist movement purported to accept 181, while the Arab governments and the representatives of the Palestinian people rejected it, claiming it encroached upon rights of self-determination and was grossly unfair. At the time, Jews formed less than 35% of the population yet were given more than 55% of the land. It seems also that the Zionist acceptance of 181 was tactical rather than a principled commitment to confine border to the territory granted to Jews. This interpretation is reinforced by Israel’s refusal to withdraw from the land allocated to Palestine by 181 after fighting ceased in 1948, and instead Israel became a state based on ‘the green line’ borders that greatly enlarged the territorial expanse set aside for Jews in the UN plan.

 

As is widely appreciated, a war ensued, with armies of neighboring Arab countries entering Palestine being defeated by well-trained and armed Zionist militias. Israel won the war, obtaining control over 78% of Palestine at the time an armistice was reached, dispossessing over 700,000 Palestinians, and destroying several hundred Palestinian villages. This experience is the darkest hour experienced by the Palestinians, a continuing occasion of mourning, being known among Arabs as the nakba, or catastrophe.

 

 

 

 

 

1967

 

The third anniversary of 2017 is that associated with the 1967 War, which led to another military defeat of Arab neighbors, and the Israeli occupation of the whole of Palestine, including the entire city of Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. The Israeli victory changed the strategic equation dramatically. Israel that had been previously viewed as a strategic burden for the United States was now appreciated and acknowledged as a strategic partner with impressive military capabilities, and thus deserving of unconditional geopolitical support.

 

In famous Resolution 242 UN Security Council unanimously decided on November 22, 1967 that the withdrawal of Israeli forces should be negotiated, with certain agreed border modifications understood to be minor, in the context of reaching a peace agreement that included a fair resolution of issues pertaining to Palestinian refugees living throughout the region. There was no expectation that Israel would avoid withdrawal, and immediately obstruct diplomacy by embarking on the unlawful settlement undertaking.

 

During the next fifty years we have come to realize that 242 has not been implemented. On the contrary, Israel has further encroached on Occupied Palestine through the continually expanding settlements and related infrastructure of roads and security enclaves, including the separation wall found unlawful by a near unanimous majority of the International Court of Justice in 2004.

 

A point has now been reached where few believe that an independent Palestinian state co-existing with Israel is any longer feasible or even desirable, making further reliance on ‘a two-state’ solution delusional, playing into Israeli hands by giving additional time to carry forward a hybrid approach that mixes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem a de facto pattern of gradual annexation with an apartheid structure of occupation. Despair follows because no plausible alternative to the two-state solution enjoys political traction, except possibly an Israeli one-state solution imposed upon the Palestinians at the cost of effectively relinquishing Israel’s lingering pretensions of democracy. Whether the alternative political form of an ethnocracy enjoys political legitimacy is questionable from either a human rights or global public opinion perspective.

 

 

Conclusion

 

These dark remembrances reveal three stages in the steadily worsening Palestinian reality. They also reveal the inability of the UN or international diplomacy to solve the problem of how Palestinians and Jews should share the land. It is too late to reverse altogether these strong currents of history, but the challenge remains acute to find a humane outcome that somehow finds a way to allow these two peoples to live peacefully and securely together or in separated equal political communities that do not trample upon Palestinian rights. Let’s fervently hope that a satisfactory solution is miraculously found or achieved before another dark remembrance commands our attention.  

 

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General Golan’s Holocaust Remembrance Day Speech

15 May

The Holocaust Remembrance Day Speech of Major General Yair Golan

 

There are many reasons to lose sleep over the kind of leadership that has risen to the surface in almost every important sovereign state, and this dark generalization pertains as much to democracies as to authoritarian polities. As an American confronting the almost certain presidential choice in November between Clinton and Trump, the issue has assumed an immediacy that is not limited to what happens to the country after Americans voters choose between evils. This election affects the entire world. It should not be overlooked that the United States is the first global state in history. As such, it projects military, diplomatic, cultural, and political power globally, and yet the people impacted, sometimes protected but often victimized, have no vote. Those several billion foreign residents are disenfranchised from an election that may be as important as votes cast within their homeland, and thus if America goes badly wrong in coming years the price will be paid globally.

 

The problem posed extends beyond the morbidity of declining empire, and beyond the alarming prospects of further global warming and even the nuclear catastrophe that has waited decades to happen. This global embrace of disastrous governmental leadership exhibits the unleashing of self-destructive passions of peoples throughout the world in the form of wild-eyed support for demagogues and aspiring autocrats. We seem to be experiencing a global nihilistic mood that is engulfing politics in our time, causing widespread despair and alarm. This political trend is abetted by massive displacements brought about by masses of people fleeing from war torn and drought-stricken countries, especially in the Middle East and Africa. For this reason alone when voices shout bravely into the winds of disorder and depravity, we should listen intently, and respond with expressions of solidarity and gratitude.

 

The anti-democratic trends and leadership failures cannot be associated with the United States alone. Similar negative tendencies toward the militarism, corruption, and the autocratic consolidation of power are evident in Russia, China, Brazil, India, Japan, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and elsewhere. In effect, there is a looming crisis of legitimacy pertaining to governance throughout the entire world, as particularized by crises of legitimate political leadership and of democratic governance.

 

I write these words as background for an expression of appreciation for the Holocaust Remembrance Day Speech earlier this month of Major General Yair Golan, Deputy Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Speaking at Tel Yitzak Kibbutz, where the Massuah Institute for Holocaust Studies is located, General Golan urged that this very special day of observance in Israel be treated as an occasion for soul-searching. He placed this call in an extraordinary context by suggesting that conditions in Israel were disturbing in ways relevant to the Holocaust, horror of horrors. In Golan’s words, “[i]t is scary to see horrifying developments that took place in Europe as a whole, and in Germany in particular, some 70, 80 and 90 years ago and finding evidence of those trends here among us, in 2016.” With obvious reference to the abuse of Palestinians the general observed: “It must bring us to some soul-searching as to responsibility of leadership and the quality of our society. It must lead us to fundamentally rethink how we, here and now, behave toward the other.” This barbed thought is reinforced with the observation, “[t]here is nothing easier than hating the stranger, nothing easier than to stir fears and intimidate.”

 

Golan concretized these abstractions calling for self-scrutiny through a reference to the recent incident in Hebron involving an IDF soldier, Elor Azarya, who shot in the head at point blank range a young Palestinian, Abd al-Fattah Yusri al-Sharif, who was lying helpless on the ground after having been already shot, allegedly in reaction to have attempted a stabbing. Even more disturbing than this extra-judicial execution itself, has been the upsurge of grassroots support for Azarya in Israel based on the claim that he did the right thing.

 

General Golan made clear in his speech that he was speaking as a loyal Israeli who was intent on reviving a sense of higher national purpose that he felt to be in jeapardy. As he put it, “[w]e believe in the justice of our cause but not everything we do is just.” And more grandiosely, “[m]ost of all, we should ask how is that we are to realize our purpose as a light unto the nations and a model for our own people.”

 

Despite these closing assertions General Golan was immediately slammed by prominent leaders and in the mainstream media, including by Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett, a rightest party leader and Minister of Education who was in the audience. Netanyahu called the remarks of General Yalon ‘outrageous’ with an effect that ‘cheapened’ the Holocaust. Miri Regev, Minister of Culture and Sport, insisted that Golan should resign his commission as it was unthinkable to have the “deputy chief of staff, a uniform-wearing officer, be a part of the delegitimation against Israel.”

 

It is important to acknowledge that up until now Israel remains enough of a democracy that a prominent military leader like Golan can raise serious concerns about deeply distressing national trends, specifically a failure to treat Palestinians with due regard for law and their dignity, and the uncomfortable reminder to the Jews of Israel that this was how the Nazis treated Jews in the period leading up to the Holocaust. Of course, such a comparison is obviously meant to be provocative, especially so I would suppose on the day of solemn remembrance set aside to recall Jewish suffering and victimization, as well as given the still raw memories of the grotesque behavior of Nazi Germany. General Golan’s basic ‘wrong’ was to invoke the wider resonance of such a past in the context of Israel’s own disregard of law and morality with respect to the Palestinian people, with particular emphasis on the victimization of those who have endured the draconian occupation for almost 50 years or have led wasted lives in refugee camps in neighboring countries.

 

It is encouraging to those of us that believe that the only tolerable future for both Israelis and Palestinians is a just peace that someone of General Golan’s profession and stature can engage so deeply in this treacherous work of self-scrutiny. The hostile reaction of Israeli leaders is to be expected given their extreme rightwing outlook. I found more disappointing and somewhat surprising the totally unconvincing statement of General Golan that his remarks never intended a comparison with Nazi Germany nor did he mean to criticize the current leadership of Israel. Considering the unmistakable meaning of his remarks, elaborated in ways that left no reasonable doubt in his audience as confirmed by the immediate high-level denunciations that his speech received. It is a great pity that pressures and critical reactions apparently led him to make this retreat. It is also surprising as the Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev noted that General Golan would have spoken as he did without anticipating a hostile reaction. As Shalev put it, either Golan was “brave or stupid or possibly both.”

 

As often is the case, the original understanding and plain meaning of General Golan’s speech will generate debate and reflection, and his retraction will be properly discounted as backing down in the face of aggressive pushback by the powers that be In Israel. Those in Israel most angered by General Golan oppose the slightest undermining of the Israeli remembrance of the Holocaust as challenging the Zionist portrayal of the Jew as eternal victim. Any words of critical self-scrutiny are unacceptable, especially if made by the country’s second most important military officer.

 

The question presented is whether this kind of commentary on Israel should be viewed as some serious crack in the Israeli establishment, considering that

remarks of this nature have come from dissident Israeli intellectuals and journalists for some years, including those who have emigrated in despair such as Ilan Pappé and Daniel Levy. Other Israel military officers and retired intelligence chiefs have said harsh politically incorrect things in recent years.

 

And on the government side there have been many signs of rightest extremism Perhaps none is more relevant than the rise of the Ayelet Shaked to prominence by being named Minister of Justice in the Netanyahu cabinet. It was Shaked who endorsed, if not advocated, a genocidal approach to the Palesetinians in a long Facebook posting during the 2014 Israeli attack on Gaza, a notorious posture that received over a thousand ‘likes’ before being withdrawn. Shaked is also a staunch advocate of moving toward the formal designation of Israel as ‘a Jewish state,’ fostering ethnocracy at the expense of democracy through its disempowering of its 20% non-Jewish minorities.

 

What this pattern cumulatively expresses is the outcome of Israeli settler expansionism and prolonged occupation that has become calcified as an instance of apartheid, as well as severe and lengthy reliance on collective punishment in the aftermath of the 2005 disengagement from Gaza. The widely admitted collapse of Israeli-Palestine diplomacy, within the Oslo framework, is part of Israeli turn toward militarist unilateralism in addressing Palestinian claims. I would contextualize General Golan’s remarks as a desperate outburst of concern, perhaps not consciously intended, as to what has become of the Zionist project, and fright as to where Israel is heading given trends in the treatment of Palestinian and their rights. Regardless of intentions, this is a message worth heeding.

 

In contrast to General Golan’s call for self-scrutiny, was the display of the dominant Israeli mood conveyed by the remarks made by Netanyahu, also on Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem. As is his usual point of departure, Netanyahu insisting on Israeli identity as eternal victim. He went on to consider the recent rise of anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe. With typical hyperbole, Netanyahu compares current European anti-Semites to “Nazis who slandered Jews before destroying them.” Not content with such a frightening arousal of fear among Jews, Netanyahu lays the blame for this development on radical Islam without even a reference to the Christian neo-fascist resurgence in Europe, mainly reflecting nativist, xenophobic, and Islamophobic sentiments. Instead, Netanyahu, without naming the offenders, blames “British parliamentarians, senior Swedish officials, and opinion-makers in France” for entering into “odd pairings” with “barbaric fundamentalists, the persecutors of gays, destroyers of cultural treasures.” This is truly inflammatory rhetoric that exhibits total refusal to recognize the degree to which anti-Semitism, to the extent that it is genuinely increasing in Europe, derives not from radical Islam but from the perceived abuse of the Palestinian people and a denial of their rights. At the core of Netanyahu’s diatribe is an effort, now common among Zionist militants around the world, to act as if any serious criticism of Israeli policies and practices should be automatically treated as an embrace of anti-Semitism. Such an outlook has practical goals, especially to demonize the BDS campaign, and even to criminalize BDS and enact punitive measures against those that take part in this nonviolent transnational movement seeking justice and sustainable peace. It is shocking that United States politicians at the state and federal level are playing Netanyahu’s game, and thereby using the muscle of state power to weaken, if not destroy, the moral impulses of people of good will and active conscience who are seeking to oppose injustice and the denial of human rights by recourse to nonviolent initiatives.

 

There are two intertwined domains of radical concern: (1) the worldwide trend toward autocratic government in various forms, coupled with antipathy toward strangers and ‘others’; (2) the particularization of this trend as it is unfolding in the United States and Israel. There are nationalist variations that will be considered in future commentaries, as well as systemic explanations for why at a time of unprecedented global challenges, creative and progressive political energies are mainly in retreat, and being marginalized. It would seem that the kind of political imagination that would generate hope for the future of humanity is currently on life-support.