/ 25 October 2023

The long taproot of Hamas violence

Coetzee Listens, Learns In Palestine
Horrifying as they were, the events of 7 October were the latest twist in a violent cycle triggered in the distant past

“I’ve been hearing the phrase ‘unprovoked attack’ in the American media. What more is required to make it ‘provoked’ than what Israel has done to the Palestinians for three quarters of a century?” former Saudi intelligence chief and diplomat Turki Al Faisal said.

For Israelis the scope, suddenness and ruthlessness of the Hamas cross-border incursion made it seem almost unparalleled, a bolt from the blue. But Arab leaders — even conservatives like Al Faisal — see it as the latest twist in a deadly spiral triggered in the 1920s and fuelled by the nakba (catastrophe) of Israeli independence, rather than an isolated event.

The Israeli fatalities in the Hamas attack may be among the highest since the 1948 Civil War, but are dwarfed by the deaths of Palestinians/Arabs in the 1948 conflict (10 000), the First Lebanon War (21 000) and the current carnage, among others.

Indeed, statistics suggest at least 100 000 Palestinians and other Arabs have died in 10 major clashes from 1936 to the present. About 24 000 Jews/Israelis were killed over the same period.

Since Hamas won legislative elections in Gaza in 2006 and started firing rockets at Israel, there have been four large-scale blitzes on the Strip, marked by disproportionate Palestinian losses, particularly among civilians.

Contrary to the claim that Palestine was “a land without people” and Jews “a people without land”, as per 19th century Zionist propaganda, there were half a million non-Jews in Palestine in 1900 — principally Muslim — and just 24 000 Jews, about 5% of total.

Palestine had been an insignificant enclave in the Ottoman Empire, and violence between Jew and Arab was unknown. But the regional demographics, and with them, inter-communal relations, began to shift after World War I. 

“Perfidious Albion” had sought to win both Jews and Arabs to the Allied cause during a faltering war effort by pledging support for the political ambitions of both sides.

In correspondence in 1915-16 between Sir Henry McMahon, British high commissioner in Egypt, and the Emir of Mecca, Husayn ibn Ali, Britain effectively promised the Arabs a post-war state that included Palestine in return for a revolt against the Ottomans.

Meanwhile, conservative politician Lord Arthur Balfour announced in a statement in 1917, “as brief as it was fateful”, that Britain would support the creation of a national homeland for Jews in Palestine.

The declaration pointed Jews decisively to Palestine for the first time. Other options, including Argentina and Uganda, had been considered. In a meeting with Italy’s King Victor Emmanuel in 1904, Zionist pioneer Theodor Herzl proposed Tripoli in Libya; in a telling riposte, the king said: “Ma é ancora casa di altri! [But it’s already a home of other people!]”

Balfour provided no clarity on whether a state was envisaged and its boundaries, and although the need to protect the rights of non-Jews was touched on, no attempt was made to canvass Arab opinion. 

In Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning, Nigel Biggar quotes Balfour as saying: “In Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants … Zionism is of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of 700 000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.”

In fairness, Balfour’s frankly racist dismissal of Arab interests was not universal in British ruling circles. 

Biggar quotes cabinet member Lord Curzon as asking in 1918: “What would happen to the present Muslim population? They will not be content either to be expropriated for Jewish immigrants or act merely as hewers of wood and drawers of water for [them]”.

General Sir Walter Congreve, commander of the Egyptian expeditionary force, remarked of British support for a Zionist project based on alleged ancient Jewish rights:  “We might as well declare that England belongs to Italy because it was conquered by the Romans.” High commissioner Sir John Chancellor later called Balfour’s declaration “a colossal blunder”.

Spurred by the declaration, the settler influx gathered pace. Intergroup tensions rose: anti-Jewish riots erupted in 1920 in Jerusalem, 1921 in Haifa and 1929 in Hebron, climaxing in a general uprising in the late 1930s over demands for an Arab national government and limits on Jewish immigration.

Every investigation that followed highlighted Arab fears of the economic power and political domination of the intruders. Fears were also expressed — citing Balfour — that the British were pro-Zionist.

(The 1939 uprising contradicts the oft-repeated myth that there are no Palestinians, as they have no culture, history or independent identity. Savagely put down by the British with Jewish support, it was a nationalist rebellion.)

Spooked by the uprising and the failure of an Arab-Zionist conference, the British tried to restrict Jewish arrivals. But it was too late — during the mandate, which ended in 1948, Jewish numbers rose to about 630 000.

Remarks Biggar: “Had the rate of Jewish immigration been moderated earlier, had Jewish immigrants been less inclined to segregation… had Zionists been more willing to settle for something short of a fully Jewish state, and had … Arab resentment at their displacement not exploded into violence, a peaceful political compromise might have been possible.”

The interwar years were the cauldron in which the State of Israel and the world’s most intractable crisis were shaped. 

The New Yishuv — an aggressive Zionist settler-colonial enterprise that succeeded the tiny “Old Yishuv” of long-established orthodox Jews — had grown steadily and was gearing for a showdown. 

Soon to be Israel’s first premier, David Ben-Gurion accepted the United Nation’s offer of partition and in 1948 proclaimed Israeli independence. Ben-Gurion apparently understood, but was indifferent to, Arab grievances. “No solution! There is a gulf, and nothing can bridge it,” he said. “We, as a nation, want this country to be ours; the Arabs, as a nation, want this country to be theirs.”

“Transfer” — a euphemism for the expulsion of Arabs — had been in the air since Herzl. One of Israel’s “New Historians”, Benny Morris, argues that under Ben-Gurion an unspoken consensus around the need for it coalesced among Zionist leaders.

Ben-Gurion spoke grandly of “purity of arms”, but in the civil war that followed he allegedly sanctioned tactics intended to precipitate Arab flight, including intimidation, psychological warfare and war crimes including massacres and the destruction of villages.

Nearly three quarters of a million Palestinians fled, many to Gaza. 

According to moral philosopher Michael Prior, no hard evidence has ever been produced to back the official Israeli version, propagated in 1953, that Palestinian Arabs were incited to flee temporarily by Arab leaders seeking to spare them collateral damage from the fighting. “Even a report of the intelligence branch of the Israeli Defence Force ascribes the flight of 72 percent of [the] refugees (some 371 000 people …) to military force,” Prior writes.

Regardless of what spurred the exodus, Israel’s underlying intention was made crystal-clear by the fact that the refugees were barred from returning. And in July 1950, the Knesset passed the Law of Return, enabling Jews worldwide to settle in Israel as full citizens.

The Holocaust and Israeli independence powered a new surge of arrivals. From 1948 to 2013, when large-scale immigration had stopped, the Israeli population rose to 6.2-million and the proportion of world Jewry resident in Israel from six to 46%.

Land and demographic reversal have always been the core of the Zionist project. Some believe Hamas’s main concern is the continuing erosion of Palestinian territory on the West Bank through the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements, winked at by Benyamin Netanyahu’s government and security forces.

The ruling ultra-right believes Palestinians have no claim on land given to Israel by God. Tzipi Hotovely, Israel’s egregious UK envoy, argues that Israel should annex not just Gaza and the West Bank but also Trans-Jordan, independent since 1946.

Indications are that the plan is to force further “transfers” by pressuring Egypt to accept fugitives from shattered Gaza.

The Hamas atrocities show that 16 years of blockade and violent reprisal have failed. As another New Historian, Ilian Pappé, has said, Hamas is not simply a movement that can be defeated by military action and collective punishments. It is an ideology.

Sidestepping the Palestinians and seeking accommodation with “moderate” Arab states, former United States president Donald Trump’s ploy, is pointless. Only talks about Palestinian statehood and territorial concessions, including an end to settler violence and land-grabbing on the West Bank, has any chance of making a difference.

In 1948 the Israeli terror group Irgun, led by future premier Menachem Begin, abducted two British soldiers and held them hostage to force the dropping of death sentences against Irgun militants. When the British were unmoved, the soldiers were hanged and left dangling in public, hooded and booby-trapped. 

Begin coldly justified this barbaric act by saying it stopped further executions of Israelis and hastened the British exit from Palestine.

Israel’s response to Hamas has been the indiscriminate bombing of crowded Gaza that has flattened whole street blocks and killed an estimated 1 700 children.

It embodies the Begin “principle” — that only the suffering of Israelis counts. While such inhumanity holds sway, while Palestinians are viewed as “human animals”, to use the vile formulation of the Israeli defence minister, Yoav Gallant, only further turns in the spiral of violence are possible.

Drew Forrest is a former political editor and deputy editor of the Mail & Guardian.