Israel at 75: A Colonial Project Unmasked
By: IDA AUDEH
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June/July 2023, pp. 8-11
By Ida Audeh
ISRAEL MARKED ITS DIAMOND JUBILEE in May, and although 75 years is a mere hiccup in the history of nations whose people are actually rooted in a geography, it provides sufficient time to get a handle on the nature of a fabricated state. On its 75th birthday, Israel stands unmasked as an apartheid regime, an anachronism in the 21st century. Its Palestinian victims have known its true nature all along—after all, Israel took its place in the United Nations only after sweeping ethnic cleansing and imposition of military rule on the indigenous population it could not expel. South African and Black American visitors to the country and its occupied territories detected the stench of apartheid and Jim Crow decades ago, but now the world knows it as well: Israel’s current government proudly and unapologetically parades its thuggish nature for the world to see.
It has always been thuggish, but it eluded meaningful censure because it had orchestras of enablers obfuscating the obvious. What did it hide? For starters, it is the only unregulated nuclear power in the world whose arsenal is not even acknowledged publicly, let alone subject to international inspection, and this at a time when North Korea and Iran are sanctioned for possibly having or planning to have nuclear bombs. It gets away with claiming to be a Jewish democracy, clearly an oxymoron, when it has more than 65 laws that discriminate directly or indirectly against Palestinians, whether they are citizens of Israel or residents of the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967.
People pray during the last days of the holy month of Ramadan at the al-Aqsa Mosque Compound in Jerusalem, on April 17, 2023. Days before, on April 5, Israeli police stormed the mosque, one of Islam’s holiest sites, using stun grenades and rubber bullets, beating worshippers with batons and arresting hundreds of Palestinians. In response, Palestinians flocked to the mosque, making it their second home.
(MOSTAFA ALKHAROUF/ANADOLU AGENCY VIA GETTY IMAGES).
From 1948 until 1966 Palestinians in Israel were under military rule, unlike Jewish citizens, who enjoyed what we think of as the typical rights of citizens everywhere. In the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967, two legal systems govern the lives of Palestinians and Israeli Jews who choose to live on confiscated West Bank land—the former military law, the latter civil law. It is the textbook definition of apartheid, and more people are using that label to describe Israel. The fiction of Jewish democracy is a hard sell these days after the Knesset passed the Nation-State Law in 2018, which makes Jewish colonization a national value, explicitly privileges Jews over non-Jewish citizens of the state, and strips Arabic of the status it had as an official language of the state.
What else does it hide? It is a colonialist project, an army masquerading as a state. It has no end game other than perpetual rule over and control of the indigenous population who remain in Palestine, those who stubbornly refuse to leave despite every measure Israel implements to make their lives unliveable.
On the list of enablers, pride of place must be given to the United States, and those of us who live in it have a duty and a responsibility to understand what the government that ostensibly represents us does with our tax dollars (and perhaps of secondary interest, how it squanders the country’s prestige). Years from now, students of U.S. foreign policy will struggle to explain why the United States allowed itself to become a vassal of what is ostensibly a client state. It is a curious thing when the only superpower in the world develops such an imbalanced relationship with its “ally” that it does not dare express disagreement with it: the ally’s foot soldiers—in Congress, in the media, Israel’s lobbyists—will simply not stand for it.
The U.S. expresses its love in many ways. The monetary form is impressive: Israel gets $10.5 million dollars a day in military aid, courtesy of U.S. taxpayers. Congress pleads poverty when proposals are made to fix the country’s crumbling infrastructure and finds that guaranteeing clean drinking water to citizens is prohibitively expensive, but Israel is always assured that it will get a handsome share of taxpayers’ money, with no real strings attached.
Israel is a colonialist project, an army masquerading as a state.
The months leading to presidential and congressional elections provide especially nauseating examples of candidates’ groveling to Israel, and they are never asked why fealty to a foreign country should endear them to U.S. voters. To date, the country tolerates criticism of U.S. government policies but not those of Israel. Stifling dissent is foreign to U.S. political discourse, but there is an Israel exception, it would appear, and it is enforced in true Stalinist manner by both political parties, both of which are eager to retain AIPAC’s seal of approval.
If the U.S. government and the U.S. Congress are Israeli-occupied territories, it is a real shame that U.S. citizens can’t expect the media to do its job and shed light on a foreign government’s machinations in the country’s affairs. Alas, the media is no less loyal to Israel than the U.S. government. Its obfuscation, capitulation to Israel, and censorship of news unfavorable to Israel would take several articles to explore. Consider a recent example of a news item that never really caught traction: the Haaretz report of an undercover unit that has been involved in hacking into, sabotaging and spreading misinformation in 33 presidential elections, including in the U.S. Considering how quickly and energetically the U.S. media has repeated vague claims about Russian interference in U.S. elections as facts (generated by the Democratic Party to explain Hillary Clinton’s humiliating loss to Donald Trump), one might think news organizations that pontificate regularly about the importance of free and fair elections and the peaceful transfer of power should look into credible reports of Israeli interference in U.S. elections. But the fourth estate is generally silent, an indication of how thoroughly it has been tamed by Israel and its minions—donors and foot soldiers alike.
Not leaving anything to chance, Israel’s enablers succeeded in subverting the language to shield it from criticism. The recent redefinition of “anti-Semitism” to include language that is critical of Israel has to be recognized as an example of Israel’s power. Israel at 75 is in desperate need for such linguistic sleights of hand. Since its policies cannot stand scrutiny, better to criminalize speech altogether.
The implications of these moves became apparent in late February, when the small village of Huwara was the site of Israeli Jewish rage. Crazed Jewish settlers swarmed into the village, terrorizing Palestinian residents, shooting one and preventing the ambulance from treating him (he subsequently bled to death), and torching homes and cars. An Israeli minister, recently elected by the democratic population of Israel, calls for the village to be wiped out. Israeli media describes the barbaric assault on Huwara as a pogrom. Can U.S. citizens be critical of this savagery paid for by their tax dollars, or will their speech be criminalized because the actors are Jews acting with (Jewish) government support?
With U.S. (and other) government support assured, public criticism of Israeli policy criminalized, and a mighty army with global reach, the argument that Israel at 75 is not really sitting as securely as it wants to be might seem like a stretch. But the evidence is all around us.
Seventy-five years after expelling Palestinians from their homes, creating conditions that made it dangerous for them to remain, and making it impossible for those who left to return—in total, about 750,000—Israel has still not finished with them. They continue to demand the right to return, a right that international law guarantees everyone who leaves their home during violence for whatever reason. Israel bombs them repeatedly—in Gaza, in Lebanon, elsewhere—and their demand remains the same. They want to go home.
The Palestinians who managed to remain in what became Israel in 1948 are now a sizable percentage of the population. They know their presence is barely tolerated; they listen as their fellow citizens discuss the advisability of expelling them beyond the state’s (undeclared) borders. In Israel, property of non-Jewish citizens can be confiscated by the state, where it becomes the property of Jews.
ISRAELI-STYLE JIM CROW
Israeli forces pile on top of a Palestinian protester at a demonstration to mark Palestinian Land Day in the West Bank town of Huwara on March 31, 2023. (ISSAM RIMAWI/ANADOLU AGENCY VIA GETTY IMAGES)
Israel has its own version of Jim Crow, which is no less repulsive and unsustainable as the U.S. version has been and which, like the U.S. version, is being fought in the streets. The daily body count of Palestinians is matched only by the daily body count of Black men. Palestinians and Blacks make the connection. It should come as no surprise to anyone that the killers of Palestinians are training officers from the most aggressive police forces in the United States.
Israel has massive military might and substantial governmental support no matter what it does—international law remains elusive where Israel is concerned—yet the Jewish state comes across as insecure, even neurotic. It demands that the world, but especially those it bombs, assert that it has a right to exist. The statement itself is meaningless, yet Israel is obsessive on the subject. Did a slave-owning America have a right to exist? Did Nazi Germany or Apartheid South Africa have a right to exist? States exist, but the idea that people have to endorse states as lawful entities irrespective of their policies and treatment of their inhabitants places the state above the people who live in it. Unjust systems must be transformed. That’s just common sense.
But in fairness, Israel’s insecurity did not come from thin air. People are responding to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement which Israel correctly perceives as aimed straight at the heart of the Jewish supremacist state.
Israelis might look at the international support that Palestinians receive and feel dismayed. In the recent World Cup games in Qatar, Palestine was not competing but it won anyway. Every Israeli reporter who tried to interview attendees about the game was lectured about Palestine and dismissed as unwelcome in an Arab country. In demonstrations throughout the United States in recent years demanding accountability for Black and Indigenous victims of trigger-happy cops and denouncing the system that treats their community with colonial disregard, it is impossible not to see a Palestinian flag somewhere in the crowd. Activists in Palestine advised activists in Ferguson on ways to minimize the effects of tear gas. On U.S. campuses, student groups that promote BDS face organized, well-funded opposition designed to muzzle them, and in every case U.S. courts rule in their favor: the courts are not yet ready to gut the First Amendment, not even to please Israel.
PALESTINE HAS THE STREETS
Israeli authorities uprooted Palestinian-owned olive trees to build the apartheid wall in Bethlehem, in the West Bank on Aug. 17, 2015. (ISSAM RIMAWI/ANADOLU AGENCY/GETTY IMAGES)
Israel has the governments, but Palestine has the streets. For struggling people around the globe, the question of Palestine resonates, and its outcome is interconnected with their own struggles.
But there is a more fundamental reason for Israel to be uneasy, and it is related to the Palestinians themselves. For 75 years, Israel has been saying that Palestinians don’t exist, and that even if they do, they are terrorists and thus of no account. It has done what it can to make life unliveable by exerting maniacal control on their movements and requiring that they carry the right permit to move even trivial distances between towns. It denies them a life with dignity. To humiliate them further, it enters into “security coordination” arrangements with the Palestinian Authority, using it to quell popular unrest. The PA’s willingness to do Israel’s bidding enrages all Palestinians.
Israel claims God gave it the land, which would be a hard sell even if they were worthy stewards. But when you look at how it ravages that land—destroying farmland, erecting the apartheid wall, setting up watchtowers and checkpoints, constructing ugly cookie-cutter settlements, in general scarring the landscape to facilitate their control of it—that claim is hard to support. They even burn fruit-bearing trees. Who does that?
The failure of Israel’s 75-year-old project is plain to see. The Palestinian poet Tamim Barghouti said it best in comments he made on the assassination of Al Jazeera correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh. Barghouti noted that Abu Akleh was killed covering the story of Israel’s assault on Jenin refugee camp, a camp she was very familiar with because she had covered previous Israeli assaults on it. When Israel repeatedly attacks the same camp over and over and continues to meet resistance each time, any sane observer should conclude that it is following a failed policy. For 75 years it has been trying to convince Palestinians that they are a defeated people, but Palestinians are not buying it.
An example of Israel’s policy and Palestinian resistance to it is provided by Jerusalem, now off limits to most Palestinians. It is a city under high-tech surveillance, a city that Jerusalem’s city planners have managed with the goal of ensuring a decisive Jewish majority. Palestinians in the suburbs Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan are resisting active settler attempts, supported by the state, to expel them. In Silwan, children as young as 8 and 9 are arrested by Israel to induce the parents to relocate, but families stay put. In response to Israel’s attempts to isolate the al-Aqsa Mosque, Palestinian Jerusalemites made it their second home.
Palestinians in Israel, whose existence as a community is threatened like it hasn’t been since 1948, know their fate is linked with Palestinians in the occupied territories, and they flock to the mosque to defend it from Jewish hooligans who have dreams of blowing it up. When Israel stormed al-Aqsa Mosque, firing ammunition and tear gas inside the mosque, the Gaza Strip rose up and responded to the attack with a barrage of rocket fire, knowing that it was risking retaliation but unwilling to sit idly while Jerusalem was under attack. This past Ramadan, on the holiest night of the month, when Muslims believe that the skies of heaven are open to the prayers of believers, the Waqf estimated that 280,000 Palestinians spent the evening in worship there. Nablus and Jenin, home to the Lion’s Den of resistance fighters, have been under siege for months and their defenders have been killed, but other fighters take their place. The generation born after the signing of the Oslo accords seems unfazed by Israeli bullets.
Palestinians throughout historic Palestine, from the river to the sea, know that their power is limited in comparison with Israel—a nuclear power controlled by overt fascists who are indifferent to international public opinion (which they have learned has little muscle in any case) and whose ideology justifies genocide of non-Jews. Palestinians are well aware that Israel can put them all at the mercy of the brownshirts who stormed Huwara in February. The example it has made of the Gaza Strip—placed under siege and blockade and periodically bombed whether to ensure compliance, exact revenge, or boost domestic government ratings—is not lost on them.
But we are not a defeated people. We refuse to succumb to a supremacist ideology so foreign to a land that has cradled three monotheistic religions, so alien to basic decency. Our history is much longer than 75 years, and we recall that would-be conquerors of Palestine from foreign lands eventually had to call it quits. We know that Israel and the philosophy it espouses will join other discredited 19th-century European colonialist distortions in the dustbin of history. Whether we never left Palestine or spent our lives in the diaspora, Palestine is
our north star. For people around the globe, the Palestinian struggle against Israeli settler colonialism is a just cause, a moral cause. It inspires freedom-seeking people around the world.
Israel at 75 remains what it always was, a European settler colonial outpost in the Arab world that has tried, through its military, its surveillance technology, its cruel system of control, and its prisons, to beat a proud people into submission. But today it is Palestinians who are writing the legends that resonate around the world.
Children not yet born will learn about the six prisoners who dug a tunnel out of an Israeli prison and made their way to freedom. It was shortlived, true, but it shook the colonial prison system to its core. They will learn about Khader Adnan, a baker and father of nine whose repeated incarcerations without charge or trial prompted seven hunger strikes, the last ending with his death, on day 86, waged to assert a demand that he be left to live with his family. They will learn about the awful price paid by the people of Gaza, under siege and blockade for more than 17 years, periodically bombed and always droned but still defiant. And about the people of Jerusalem and Hebron, who are at the mercy of rabid settlers and under constant surveillance yet remain constant in their demand for a life with dignity, a demand heard by oppressed people around the world that states and armies have been unable to silence. We know the future is ours.
Ida Audeh, who grew up in the occupied West Bank, is a contributing editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.