Halper’s Decolonising Israel, Liberating Palestine shows Israel as a settler-colonial state, but achieving a single democratic state requires international solidarity, argues Sybil Cock
The philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.
Karl Marx, 11th Thesis on Feuerbach.
Jeff Halper opens his worthwhile and very useful book with these important words. He does an excellent job of interpreting his subject matter, but the difficulty is, as always, pursuing the right strategy to achieve the change so desperately needed.
The book, especially its detailed analysis of settler-colonialism, is very timely. It arrived with me just as the Ramadan attacks on the Al-Aqsa Mosque were beginning and the world saw, again, the brutality and racism of the occupation as Israel slaughtered Gazans. Unlike in previous attacks, the organised resistance was not just in Gaza (too easily dismissed by the world as just Hamas terrorism) but throughout Palestinian communities in Israel, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The repercussions and brutal repression, imprisonment and shooting of Palestinians continue as I write. Add into the mix, the installation of the far-right ethnonationalist Naftali Bennet as the prime minister of Israel, and of course, the legacy of Trump’s ‘deal of the century’, as well as the endlessly unproductive ‘peace process’. A further factor which is propelling the Palestinian struggle into the centre of socialist activity is the gradual detachment of the US Liberal Zionists from the Israeli narrative.1
Halper’s main aim is to argue for a Single Democratic State (SDS) in historic Palestine; the area we know as ‘from the River to the Sea’. No socialist should argue with that idea. Halper is a US born academic who emigrated to Israel in the 1970s, and became disillusioned with the Promised Land. He is known best for the organisation he founded, the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions (ICAHD). ICAHD has in the past done sterling work in Palestine, bringing groups of international visitors over to reconstruct some of the more than 130,000 Palestinian homes that Israel has demolished, according to its own legal system, because the required building permits are not available to Palestinians either in Israel or in the Occupied Territories. Seeing Palestine with your own eyes is important.
A colonialist project
The first part of the book is well structured, professionally researched, and readable. Halper is clear throughout about terminology: this is not a ‘conflict’ or ‘war’ – this is a history of the colonisation of Palestine by Zionism, an ideology. Settler-colonialism is a form of colonialism in which the colonisers arrive in the country with the intention of taking it over. The phenomenon has existed on every continent, and perhaps most notably in Australia, Algeria, Southern Africa, and across the Americas. In many cases the colonialists give up and leave (leaving scars of course), are defeated, or accommodate the indigenous minorities.
Israel is different; the closest analogy is with South Africa. The significance of the recent reports naming Israel as an apartheid state cannot be underestimated here.2 The difference is simple: the Zionist national colonial movement is at heart rooted in the Bible and the experience of European Jews. The Jewish settler movement was intent on reclaiming its national space in Palestine as ‘returning natives’, although only 2% of the Jews who left eastern Europe up to 1914 went to Palestine. This meant making an absolute distinction between settlers and the actual natives, the Palestinians. The book is fascinating on this dual use of the term ‘native’. Jews became natives and ‘Arabs’ became recent immigrants.
As Halper points out, Jabotinsky, the forefather of Likud, made this clear in 1923:
‘Every native population in the world resists colonists as long as it has the slightest hope of being able to rid itself of the danger of being colonised. That is what the Arabs in Palestine are doing, and what they will persist in doing as long as there remains a solitary spark of hope that they will be able to prevent the transformation of “Palestine” into the “Land of Israel”.’3
The problem with this narrative is that Palestinians have persisted in attempting to rid themselves of the danger, despite the ethnic cleansing of the Nakba in 1948 when 720,000 were forced to flee and a further 150,000 were internally displaced within Israel, never to return to their lands. He notes that the Palestinian struggle has become emblematic: its recent adoption by much of the BLM movement is a significant move towards rooting Palestine in the international antiracist movement.
An apartheid state
Much of the book is concerned with the detail of the development of the apartheid state. First, we have the pre-state period, then the post-1948 Israeli-state period after the British cut their losses and left. After 1948 the militarism of Israel became entrenched, and the Israeli army was the primary tool of nation-building, along with a complex matrix of legal measures. The Jewish National Fund (JNF) was established to acquire lands and to Judaize Palestine.4
Halper describes the period from 1967 as the ‘occupation cycle’, after Israel conquered the remaining parts of historic Palestine. Coinciding with an upswing in Palestinian resistance, the Israelis have been able to portray themselves as a ‘democratic’ nation under constant ‘security’ threat, and this has determined its national and international policies.
The maze of laws, military orders, planning controls, settlements and infrastructure intended to normalise the occupation and marginalise Palestinians is enforced by constant low-level warfare. The ‘peace process’ and the imagined Two State Solution, so beloved of western politicians (including, it must be said, Jeremy Corbyn) was a smokescreen which enabled Israel to firm up its control; all of this without reference to international human-rights law or numerous UN resolutions.
The toll on Palestinian civil society is huge. Halper cites an estimate that around 5% of the Palestinian population have been recruited as collaborators (p.99). The Palestinian Authority (PA) set up by the Oslo Accords in 1993, is allowed to run Bantustans in the cities of the West Bank, while Israel controls all trade and tax revenues, and its army wanders into the cities at will to arrest and terrorise civilians. The PA has injected a good dose of neoliberalism and austerity but remains a major employer, so has some loyalty, and collaborates with Israeli security to keep the population in check.
The point is to change it…
Almost half of the book is devoted to the project for change, and this is where things become much less clear. What seem to be inchoate terms and phrases (‘Post-coloniality’? ‘Summoning power’?) dominate the headings and we begin to lose our way.
Halper pays good attention to the resistance of Palestinians: Sumud (or steadfastness) and the below-the-radar resistance that can be observed in every Palestinian community. He accurately describes the collapse of the PLO from an anti-colonial organisation into a poorly led advocate of conflict resolution, fatally compromised by its political relationship with the PA. He rightly acknowledges the need for its political revival.5 He, again accurately and in useful detail, dismisses reliance on international human-rights law as a road to justice for Palestine.
The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) call of Palestine civil society is addressed, but largely dismissed as a motor for change, in favour of a political program and ‘vision’ that will somehow ‘summon power’ (p.130) among both Israeli Jews and Palestinians for change. International solidarity movements are barely discussed, least of all the power of the Arab working classes and their mass support for the Palestinian cause.
Halper’s call for a single democratic state is of course welcome, although hardly new. He is decently modest in his expectations, recognising the unlikelihood of Israel voluntarily giving up its domination. The program for ODS has significant support, but unfortunately does not point a clear way forward. In the end, it is international solidarity with the cause of justice for Palestine which is needed to change the balance of the political scales.
Recently, we have seen a massive resurgence of the movement for justice for Palestine, with many young Muslims emerging into activism. It is important that socialists actively engage with this movement locally. It is important to build as broad a based movement as possible, and for this reason the Palestine Solidarity Campaign takes no view on a one-state or two-state solution; its project is international solidarity, and is one avenue in which the campaign for justice for Palestine can be pursued here in the UK. Nonetheless, socialists should continue to make the arguments for one democratic state, even while fully engaging with the wider movement for justice for Palestine.
2 See the Human Rights Watch report. Human Rights Watch and B’tselem, ‘A regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is Apartheid’. These significant organisations have both this year branded Israel and Apartheid state, according to the UN definition.
3 Jabotinsky (1923), quoted pp.38-9.
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