The Agony of Palestine
Dilip Simeon, Hardnews Bureau
Historian Dilip Simeon in Delhi explores the history of the Holocaust of Jews by the Nazis, the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the origin of the bloody conflict and the Gaza carnage. Is peace, justice and reconciliation possible?
Israel's Operation Cast Lead in Gaza has ended (coincidentally?) just before President Barack Obama's inauguration. It has cost 1,300 Palestinian lives, half of them children and women. Over 5,500 have been wounded. Thirteen Israeli soldiers and civilians have been killed. Clinics, schools, cemeteries and UN buildings stocked with humanitarian supplies have been decimated.
John Ging, head of the UN Palestinian refugee agency in Gaza, has spoken of violations in international law. The Israeli military are accused of using powerful shells in civilian areas which they knew would cause casualties; using banned weapons such as phosphorus bombs; holding civilians as human shields; attacking medical facilities, killing 12 ambulance men, and killing policemen with no military role. The Red Cross protested after the army moved a Palestinian family into a building and shelled it, killing 30. The surviving children clung to the bodies of their dead mothers for four days while the army blocked rescuers from reaching the wounded. One extended family has lost 48 members.
Human Rights Watch has called on the UN Security Council to set up a commission of inquiry. Amnesty International says hitting residential areas with shells that send blasts and shrapnel over a wide area constitutes "prima facie evidence of war crimes". Two leading Israeli human rights organisations have written to the country's attorney-general demanding he investigate the allegations. Almost 540 Israeli citizens have announced that "Israel has returned to openly committing war crimes, worse than what we have seen in a long time", and called for "massive intervention by the international community", asking the world to "condem and not become an accomplice in Israel's crimes".
Despite all this, the West continues to give carte-blanche to Israel, and equates the colonised people of Palestine with a rampaging army which has always blocked all attempts to stop its expansionism. In extreme situations, the issue is treated as if it were one of two equal parties, one of whom - the Palestinians - are for no rhyme or reason, launching terrorist attacks upon the other, Israel, which we are repeatedly told, has "the right to defend itself".
When it comes to the substance of sovereignty, however, Israel insists on the right to deny statehood to the Palestinians, control its borders, seize its (remaining) territories, impose blockades at will, build a security wall on Palestinian land, control its water resources, impose collective punishments such as destruction of olive groves and homes, and refuse to recognise its own (Israel's) borders in preparation for further expansion. All that Israel seems to want of the Palestinian population displaced by it is to perform cheap labour or better still, to disappear.
We do not hear the mainstream media or western politicians ask whether the Palestinians too have a right to defend themselves or whether they must passively accept forced dispossession, encroachment and perpetual humiliation. Maybe, they should commit collective suicide?
Arab states have cynically exploited the Palestinians for decades. Most of these states have evolved as dictatorial or military systems, in some cases with overt American support. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia (with the acquiescence of the US) financed the infiltration of the resistance by fundamentalist organisations like the Taliban. It is true that Hamas has an extremist ideology that refuses to recognise Israel or to renounce violence. However, it also developed social roots against the backdrop of a corrupt Palestinian Authority. It was elected to run the Gaza administration, after initial encouragement by Israel itself, which was seeking to divide the Palestinian resistance.
It is ironic that Israel, a State founded on Biblical claims and that rejects the very idea of a secular, non-denominational Constitution, should object to the emergence of religious fanaticism among the people it violently displaced. It is often said that Israel is a democracy in a sea of backwardness. A democracy is known not only for institutions such as free elections, but also in terms of whom it defines as the ‘demos', or people. The South African apartheid regime also called itself a democracy. But this ‘democracy' was based upon exclusionist principles. In its foundational structure, Israel has more in common with Pakistan and South Africa than with India.
So it is not surprising that the supporters of the fascist doctrine of Hindu Rashtra have been Israel's most fervent Indian admirers. The ideal of a Jewish State at war with Muslims resonates with their aspiration for a Hindu State that will settle its ‘minority problem' with an iron hand. Unfortunately, these Nazi fantasies are likely to produce not a ‘final solution', but a permanent state of war and hostility.
The crisis in Gaza is not a ‘Muslim' concern. Sadly, this is how the mainstream Indian media insists on seeing it. The Palestine issue is an outcome of colonial occupation and settlement. Its origins are complex, yet Gandhi and India's national leadership were clear that the Zionist project was misconceived and essentially colonial. Gandhi set forth his views on the matter in his Harijan editorial on November 11, 1938, in the context of pressure on him from Zionist quarters. He began by saying that his sympathies were with the Jews, who had been subjected to inhuman treatment and persecution for a long time. "But", Gandhi asserted, "my sympathy does not blind me to the requirements of justice. The cry for the national home for the Jews does not make much appeal to me. The sanction for it is sought in the Bible and in the tenacity with which the Jews have hankered after their return to Palestine. Why should they not, like other peoples of the earth, make that country their home where they are born and where they earn their livelihood?"
Christianity, Nazism and Anti-Semitism
The origins of the never-ending crisis in West Asia lie in the long history of Christian anti-Semitism. For centuries, the Catholic Church and its offshoots called for the punishment of Jews for their mythical role in the murder of Jesus Christ. The myth originated in Biblical gospels, and was perpetuated by Christianity's greatest intellects, including Saint Paul, Saint Aquinas, Martin Luther and Calvin, not to mention the Papacy.
The story was that the Jews took upon themselves and all their children the onus of this crime. For centuries Jews were condemned as the devil's sensual offspring, money-worshipers who deserved to be enslaved, their property confiscated, their synagogues burnt, their homes destroyed. They were to live separately, forbidden from owning land, and marrying Christians. They were held responsible for the Black Death in the 14th century; they were the special targets of the Spanish Inquisition.
After the Russian Revolution, a section of the Church began to see a link between Judaism and Communism - Hitler's favourite theme. In 1933, Hitler reportedly assured Church functionaries that he would "take no steps against the Jews that the Church has not taken in 1,500 years". This noxious tradition attained its apogee in the Nazi genocide of six million European Jews between 1941 and 1945, known as the Holocaust, or Shoah.
It was only a matter of degree, of elevating murder into an industry that marked the difference between Nazism and Christian anti-Semitism. The thundering silence of Pope Pius XII in the 1940's, despite the appeals of Catholics, Allied governments and Jewish organizations, was a logical outcome of this theologically ordained ‘enemy system'. The man who acquired the informal title Hitler's Pope, is currently in process of being conferred sainthood by the Vatican.
Notably, the Nazi murder of between 700,000 to 1.5 million Romanis, or gypsies, is barely mentioned in our media discourses regarding the Holocaust. Of Hindu origin, the Romanis have been a nomadic population within Europe for centuries. They were typically regarded as dirty, mentally deficient and sub-human, and they continue to be persecuted in Europe, most recently by the Italian government. Himmler ordered their extermination in December 1942. Despite the fact that they lost such a great proportion of their numbers to Nazi exterminism, no reparation has been made to the gypsy population by the German government. Nor do we hear Western or Indian politicians express anguish at their plight.
Meanwhile, the burden of Christianity's sins against the Jews has been transferred to the shoulders of Palestinians. And Europe's remaining Jews have been shoved yet again into yet another ghetto, albeit a privileged one named Israel, to displace their collective trauma upon a people who were never anti-Semitic in the first place.
The Colonisation of Palestine
Originally part of the Ottoman Empire, Palestine was entrusted to the British government under a League of Nations mandate. In November 1917, the British announced the Balfour Declaration favouring the Zionist ideal of a Palestinian home for the Jewish people but promised to protect the political rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine. After World War II, the Zionist movement launched a concerted campaign to establish Israel. Groups such as the Irgun and the Stern gang launched actions described as terrorist even by Israelis. Along with the underground Israeli Army, they committed atrocities such as the Dir Yassein massacre of 120 villagers to enforce the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. They even assassinated the UN envoy Count Bernadotte.
The UN Plan for the Partition of Palestine in 1948 (supported by the USSR, but opposed by India and many Third World countries) awarded 55 per cent of Palestine to Israel and 45 per cent to Palestine's original inhabitants. Israel captured more land in the 1948 war. Thousands of Palestinian families were forced to migrate to the West Bank (Jordan) and Gaza (Egypt). In the 1967 war, Israel captured up to 78 per cent of Palestine, seized East Jerusalem and unilaterally declared a unified Jerusalem to be its capital. The Security Council's Resolution 478 condemned this violation of international law, but the United States Congress declared its intention to recognise the annexation. Resolution 242 mandated Israel to return to its earlier borders, but to no effect. (The US and UK invaded Iraq in 2003 on the ground that it had flouted UN resolutions).
Now the Palestinians have much less than the 22 per cent of historic Palestine that the UN mandated for them after 1967. Further Israeli expansion has taken place via the Separation Wall built on Palestinian land, a structure deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice. Palestine now consists of enclaves surrounded by illegal Israeli settlements, military outposts and checkpoints.
The simple fact that is always suppressed is this: Palestine is a land under occupation. Of the total Palestinian population of 10.5 million, only 1.3 million live in Israel as citizens. Nearly 4.5 million Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza have lived under occupation since 1948 - at first under Egypt and Jordan; since 1967 under Israeli rule. The partition of Palestine and the enforced exodus of 750,000 Arabs from their ancestral lands is known to Palestinians as Al Nakba, ‘the catastrophe'. It was and remains a gross injustice.
The US-Israeli strategic alliance is not a secret. Military co-operation has progressed to mutual preparation for urban warfare. Recently, the US Army helped construct an ‘Arab' town, known as Baladia, in the Negev desert in terrain similar to Gaza. This place functions as Israel's National Urban Training Centre. The mock town includes mosques, markets, densely‑packed housing, narrow alleyways and a fake refugee camp. These facilities are used to train infantry in the type of combat expected in Gaza and Lebanon. It was opened in mid‑2007. Many of the Israeli troops currently in Gaza will have spent time there.
The Indian media these days is intoxicated with Israel's "war against terror". They should remember what the Mahatma had to say on the subject of Zionism, despite his close friendship with Jewish intellectuals and Zionists. In 1946, Gandhi had no doubt that "the Jews have been cruelly wronged by the world;" but he re-iterated the position he had taken in 1938. He was categorical that "they (the Jews) have erred grievously in seeking to impose themselves on Palestine with the aid of America and Britain and now with the aid of naked terrorism. Why should they depend on American money or British arms for forcing themselves on an unwelcome land? Why should they resort to terrorism to make good their forcible landing in Palestine?"
A few months before his assassination, Gandhi noted that the problem had become almost insoluble. Yet, he advised Zionists to abstain from terrorism, to befriend the Arabs, and "not depend on British aid or American aid, save what descends from Jehovah."
The attitude of American politicians and (in great part) its media towards the ongoing bloodshed demonstrates the blatant prejudice by which they look upon the lives of Palestinian people. The double-standards are brutal. At the height of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in September 1982, a pro‑Israeli militia massacred between 2,000 to 3,000 Palestinians in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps with the knowledge of the Israeli Army. Defence Minister Ariel Sharon was found responsible for this in an official Israeli inquiry and had to resign. Had Europeans been the victims of such an atrocity at the hands of an Arab general, would the West have permitted the man responsible to occupy the position of Prime Minister? Not for nothing did Mahatma Gandhi say that western civilisation would be a good idea.
America's first black president has taken office. None of us can grudge America its moment of celebration, but let us spare a thought for those whose lives have been destroyed yet again, with American complicity. The Gaza operation was George Bush's parting gift to a dispossessed people. It would appear that all humanity deserves human rights, except the Palestinians. The pain and humiliation wreaked by Israel once more upon a refugee population will create another bitter generation.
All fundamentalists, Christian or Jewish, Muslim or Hindu, must understand that there are no "final solutions". No one, neither Jews nor Muslims, nor any community whatsoever should be forced to live in ghettos any longer, not in this day and age. Perhaps it is time for the Palestinians to pay heed to Gandhi's ahimsa - the only possible riposte to the violence of the Zionist project. Evil does not exist by itself, he had said, it feeds upon the good. It will collapse of its own accord when the support given to it by good is withdrawn. And the Israelis might learn from Gandhi this singular truth: "What is obtained by fear can be retained only as long as the fear lasts". Maybe one day the world will pay attention to that frail man who sought so hard to counter hatred with love.