by Azmi Beshara | Al-Ahram Weekly | 8-14 January 2004
Land is at the heart of the drama unfolding in Palestine. But it is not the only thing, argues Azmi Beshara
Rhetoric about demography so dominates Israel's political discourse that one might be tempted to assume that Israel has abandoned its preferred designation as the Jewish democratic state in favour of the Jewish demographic state. The condition has reached the stage where it might be diagnosed as an advanced case of demographomania. The mania, of course, is rooted in Zionist principles, in the need to maintain a Jewish majority capable of implementing a democracy that will absorb the Diaspora, accommodate pioneer settlement and the assumption of a common history, and that allows for the fetishisation of military service. For without any of the above Israel would have to practice government by the minority, which inevitably leads to apartheid or racial segregation, to government by a national minority that sees the state as the embodiment of its legitimacy. Such practices demand dual sets of legality.
Because a state with a Jewish minority in Palestine was never on the cards displacement always lay at the core of the Zionist project for a Jewish state located in a country with an Arab majority and in the midst of an Arab region. It is no coincidence that the portion of land that was initially supposed to host the Jewish state was "ethnically cleansed" early. Along the once flourishing Palestinian coast only two Arab villages remain today.
The first task, then, was to cleanse the areas of the Jewish state -- as defined in the partition resolution -- of Arab inhabitants. This was followed by the displacement of Arabs from the Galilee and other parts of the presumed Arab state. The result: a large Jewish majority made it possible to impose the democratic sovereignty of the Jews, albeit in a non-liberal manner and with military and settler values. Thus did Jewish democracy turn religious commitment into a tool of national formation while it pillaged the Arab Palestinian people. The uprooting of Palestinians in 1948 was an exercise in demographic separation through displacement.
Today's plans for demographic separation -- now called peace initiatives -- invariably acknowledge the impossibility of repeating that particular process. That much, at least, was acknowledged by Igal Allon in the Allon plan following the 1967 War. He then suggested that populated areas be returned to Jordan. Ehud Olmert spoke in similar vein in defending his recent initiative on separation, or unilateral disengagement. "Transfer is no longer possible. It is neither morally defendable, nor realistic to start with."
So long as transfer is impossible, then, it becomes necessary to find another model of segregation. Which is why Israel's Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon has no qualms describing the current phase as "the second half of 1948".
The displacement of 1948, and the post-1967 occupation -- an occupation that shirks annexation by preferring a formula that includes "the application of Israeli law in the West Bank and Gaza" though without, of course, granting citizenship and political rights to the occupied -- are two cases of demographic segregation undertaken on behalf of a Jewish majority.
The ugliness of the contradictory ideology of the Israeli right may have been thrown into greater relief by Sharon's statements of last year but the truth had been there for all to see since Likud came to power in 1977.
The Palestinians, apparently, live beyond the pale of citizenry and political life. They dwell beyond a political system based on a Jewish majority, and this without the benefit of a wall. Once this society that lived -- and still lives -- under occupation evolved its struggle for national sovereignty and for separation in an independent state comprising Palestinian citizens Israel responded with plans to separate from the Palestinians on its own terms. What Israel wants to separate itself from is the largest possible number of Palestinians living on the smallest possible area of land. The self-rule plans negotiated with Egypt in January 1980, the Oslo Accords, the Camp David proposals, the unilateral withdrawal schemes by Sharon and Olmert, the Geneva initiative by the Zionist Israeli left, and the separation wall, are merely different manifestations of such thinking.
The flaw at the heart of all such initiatives, the clear evidence that they are destined not to lead to any real peace, is that they are rooted in a process of separation made necessary by the demand to maintain a large Jewish majority in the Israeli political entity.
This is the demographic context within which Zionism deals with the question of land. For some reason Zionist political culture and symbols are steeped in an unwavering conviction that any unpopulated land is ripe for confiscation and annexation. This assumption is so blatant that Arabs feel guilty when they leave a plot of land vacant for any vacant land is threatened with confiscation, either to become part of a settlement, a road to a settlement or a natural protectorate.
Any uninhabited land is land fit for carving off. Here lies the iniquity of the demographic argument. On the one hand it is racist. On the other it has nothing to do with land. Segregation may take place without land, as in the case of displacement. Or it may take place on the smallest possible piece of land, as Sharon wants.
Some Arabs and Palestinians have internalised the logic of Zionist demographic scare tactics to the extent that they see the slur of "demographic bomb" as something good. They boast of the Palestinian woman's womb, for lack of anything better to boast. Is this what our unified strategy has come to? Aside from the primitiveness and backwardness of regarding women as wombs the demographic factor is not, in itself, conducive to righteousness. It embraces a racist vision that is not driven towards just solutions. Racism is the basic motive for separation.
"They are there and we are here," Barak's electoral slogan once announced. Struggle is being waged so that the terms of this separation are not overly comfortable for Israel, not terminally tragic for the Palestinians living under occupation.
That internalising the colonialist vision has led to the cult of numbers, of quantity not quality, is saddening. Often even progressive political and social forces, people who want a truly better future, such as a bi-communal state, use demographic scare tactics: unless withdrawal is implemented to the lines of 4 June 1967, and unless the Palestinian state is established within this border, we will become a demographic majority, and you will have no alternative but to agree to a bi-communal state.
Those who want to persuade people of the merits of a bi-communal state should not be scaring people with the demographic argument. The argument is embedded in racist soil. It can never sprout a healthy plant.
Perhaps many Arab leaders are unaware that the idea of racial segregation came first from the Labour Party. The first to call for Israel's unilateral separation from the Palestinians, under the highest possible wall, was Hayim Ramon. Likud adopted the proposal and went, literally, to the wall. The left is using the demographic threat to scare Israelis. It is trying to convince the Palestinians to abandon all other logic, through a virtual agreement that serves the segregationists. A worthier left would have sought peace in power and fought racial segregation in opposition. The left should fight the wall rather than draw up virtual agreements. This is the litmus test.
So long that the logic of any settlement remains demographic, so long that it all boils down to separation from the largest possible number of Palestinians, land remains a secondary issue in the creation of a Palestinian entity.
Zionist colonialism inhabits the space between two extinct models -- those provided by South Africa and French practice in Algeria. It is not a blend of the two, but rather a distillation of the worst in each.
In South Africa, that pioneer of apartheid, racial segregation was not absolute. It took place within a framework of political unity. The racist regime saw blacks as part of the system, an ingredient of the whole. The whites created a racist hierarchy within the unity, according to their own vision of the universe. They interpreted Christian religious texts accordingly. Blacks and whites, then blacks and whites and coloureds, were given different ranks and legal status within a frame of a unified system -- apartheid.
Apartheid is one system for whites and blacks. The whites did not think for a moment of creating separation walls running along entire provinces. Assaulting nature in such a pattern was unthinkable. What they did was circumvent entire black towns, ghettos, and squatter camps, and restrict the movement of their inhabitants. The only walls they created were those to their own private dwellings. Behind these walls they retreated, in their gardens, with their black servants.
The struggle for freedom in South Africa was a struggle against segregation and discrimination within the same political entity. Demographic segregation was not even considered. The entire logic of the struggle was to fight racism and segregation -- the goal to create one nation of blacks and whites, a South African nation, a single democratic and sovereign state. This endeavour is still underway and it is premature to judge its outcome. Yet such is the thinking behind it.
French colonisation presented an opposite model, replete with geographic, cultural and societal separation between two entities, the occupier and the occupied. Whereas the Boers saw South Africa as their home and fought a ferocious war against what they considered British occupation, the colonisers of Algeria had a "mother county", an offshore home to look to. The impulse of French colonialism was to achieve unity within the separation between France and Algeria, not separation within the unity, as was the case in South Africa.
This is why French colonialism was accompanied by the hectic quest to give Algeria, and its inhabitants, a French makeover. This is why the liberation movement adopted pure separatist dogma, with a stress on identity that still marks Algerian society. Even class conflicts and domestic politics in Algeria resemble a conflict of identity, one parodying the experience of the struggle against colonialism. The separation achieved through independence was a full one, of land and people. Over a million settlers left the country, even though they were given the choice of remaining as Algerian citizens.
The case of Palestine is not an attempt to achieve separation within unity, as was the case with apartheid, nor is it an attempt to unify what was originally separate, as was the case in Algeria. The Israelis identify with the land, but keep away from the locals. The Israelis want to stay in the country and deny citizenship to its inhabitants. Or they want to be separate but hold on to the settlements. Barriers and walls are the rule, not the exception.
This unique type of colonialism does not seek to "develop" the inhabitants, as other colonialists once did in homage to the "white man's burden". This colonialism displaces people, confiscates their land or bypasses them (the term, often applied to roads, is pertinent). It "develops" the land for settlement, but not for the inhabitants. Because of this Moshe Dayan and his aides adopted a policy of open bridges after the 1967 War. They wanted the Palestinians to have an economic and demographic outlet to Jordan, the Gulf countries, and other parts of the region, so as to free Israel from the economic and other responsibilities commonly assumed by occupying authorities. These open bridges helped the occupation endure, and helped the people endure it.
In all former colonies one comes across traces of French, English, Dutch, Belgian, or Muscovite architecture. One can find hospitals and administrative offices, prisons, railways, even universities built by the occupiers. Not in the areas seized in 1967. Not one Israeli building, not even a prison, is to be seen in Ramallah, Nablus or Gaza. Everything there was built by Arabs. There is not a trace of an Israeli building in Arab areas, apart from the settlements and their related infrastructure.
Separation, within separation, is the logic of Zionist colonialism, the thinking behind the wall of racial segregation, where Israel continues its crimes of barbarism. Separation is the logic underlying Sharon's recent proposals for further obstacles east of the wall, where Israeli forces will be stationed to oversee the outskirts of Palestinian towns and villages.
It is difficult to describe the maze of walls and barriers constructed around the villages in the vicinity of Jerusalem. It is difficult to imagine the ugliness brought about in the course of controlling people and land: gates and observation towers, double walls, barbed and electrical wires. What we have here is a wide-scale recreation of the detention camp which Giorgio Agamben called the essence of the modern fascist state. This is a place where the exception becomes the rule, and the state of emergency becomes permanent, to use the words of Walter Benjamin.