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April 9, 2001
Understanding Israel and the Palestinians

By Will Youmans


It is not an even-handed conflict between two sides with equal but opposing claims. It is about a classic colonial competition between power and control, which the Israelis have, and the assertion of rights and a return to pre-colonial lifestyles on the Palestinian side. Israel dictates the lives of the Palestinians, not the other way around. We are dealing with the historical interaction between an occupying modern state and a dispossessed and marginalized native people.

Zionism, the founding ideology of Israel, was based on the idea of establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Palestine's native population went from 90 percent Arab in 1895 to 20 percent in 100 years. The establishment of Israel entailed the exodus of over 900,000 Palestinian refugees. This happened because of a considerable amount of premeditated violence, and a continued program of systematic institutional maneuvering to allow the influx of European Jews.

However, many work to deny, downplay or justify the colonial character of this. Perhaps because as one pro-Israeli activist here in Berkeley said at a panel, "the word colonization has negative connotations." That statement is emblematic of a voice powerful enough to dictate descriptive terminology not on the basis of its applicability but on the negativity of the PR points attached to it.

The power of these voices aggrandizes the percieved complexity of a common colonial script. I think it is intentional to paint the situation as deeply ethnic, religious, or dating back thousands of years, because such descriptions imply an insolvability to it. That benefits the status quo, in which Israel is the heavily advantaged power. If Americans, who have the most important public opinion in the world, concieve the situation as so complex and nebulous, it precludes attempts to even think about it. Change will only come if we look at the material terms of the conflict: what actually happened.

While some claim the first Israelis wanted peace and the Arabs rejected it, Jewish leaders then held no such pretenses. In 1937, David Ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, frankly stated, "We must expel Arabs and take their places." In 1948, prior to the establishment of Israel, he planned to "smash the Arab Legion's strength and bomb Amman, we will eliminate Transjordan too, and then Syria will fall. If Egypt still dares to fight on, we shall bomb Port Said, Alexandria and Cairo."

Jospeh Weitz, head of the Jewish Agency's Colonization Department in 1940, wrote about the need to "transfer the Arabs from here (Palestine) to the neighboring countries" without sparing "one village, not one tribe should be left." Any state developed with a "Colonization Department" deserves critical attention. The fact that these statements were prophetic speaks to the pre-existing power imbalances as well as the premeditative character of events in Israel's history pro-Israeli scholars sell as incidental.

Some of the native Palestinian population and their children remain. Many live in squalor, refugee camps and under the rule of Israeli occupation forces in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Their lives are so controlled and in such destitute that they resort to rock-throwing against a modern army. Others whither away in refugee camps, serving as statistical columns of the largest and oldest refugee population in the world.

The Palestinian situation is the direct offspring of the Zionist success of taking Palestinian territory and sovereignty. The native population continues to be controlled by the settler population. Israeli forces occupy Palestinian land and people, not vice versa. The best way to understand Palestinian reactions is explained by Edward Said. He writes, the "Palestinians have behaved as all colonized people in history have behaved towards the colonizer: they rebelled in protest." Israeli actions, conversely, are best understood as the actions of the colonizer.