Paradigmatic change in the 100 years of war against Palestine?

Israeli bombing of the Gaza Strip/ Reproduction Telegram


The Biden administration has plunged headlong into an abyss of moral depravity by providing material support to Israel in the massacre of Palestinians and the transformation of Gaza into an uninhabitable place.

This talk, six weeks ago, would have had a different title, with slightly different content. The historical context of the current situation would be exposed based on my book, The Hundred Years' War on Palestine: A History of Settler-Colonialism and Resistance [The Hundred Years' War against Palestine: stories of resistance and settler colonialism]. This book explains the events in Palestine since 1917, starting with the war waged against the original Palestinian peoples, throughout different phases, by different great powers that allied themselves with the Zionist movement — a movement that was both nationalist and colonization by settlement. . These powers later allied themselves with the Israeli nation-state that emerged from this movement.

This structure seems to me to be the best way to explain history from the last century onwards. This is not an ancient conflict between Arabs and Jews, and it has not happened since time immemorial. It is a new product of the irruption of imperialism in the Middle East and the rise of the modern nation-state and Arab and Jewish nationalism. This war, it is worth remembering, was not just between Zionism and Israel, on the one hand, and the Palestinians, on the other, sometimes counting on Arab and external support.

It has always involved the massive intervention of the great powers alongside the Zionist movement and Israel: Great Britain until the Second World War, the United States and other powers since then. These great powers have never been neutral, they have never been honest mediators, they are an active part of the Israeli side in this war. Considering these facts, far from an equivalence between both sides, it is a war between colonizer and colonized, between oppressor and oppressed, with a huge imbalance always separating the two sides in Palestine in favor of Zionism and Israel.

However, even if we believe that this scenario has been reinforced over the last six weeks, due to the muscular intensity of the North American participation and the very limited nature of the action of the Iranians and the Arab states, we may be witnessing, since October 7th, a change paradigmatic, product of the emergence of new elements. I will present something of a provisional nature. As a historian, I am reluctant to predict the possible evolution of events. But, in light of the meanings of this war conflict that has lasted more than a century, it is clear that new elements have emerged indicating a potential new phase in this war. I highlight four of these elements:

(i) The death toll in Israel, more than 1.200, is the third highest in the country's history. More than 800 Israeli civilians died, as well as more than 350 military and police personnel, all in the space of just over a day. 64 Israeli soldiers have been killed since then. This is likely to be the highest number of Israeli civilian deaths ever (719 civilians were killed over the course of the second intifada in four years; most of the 6.000 killed in Israel during 1948, its most violent war, were soldiers). Israeli military and police casualties, combined with those since the start of the ground invasion weeks ago, have already exceeded 400. This number will soon approach the number of Israeli soldiers (more than 450) who died participating, in 1982, in the invasion of Lebanon.

The current Palestinian death toll, more than 11.500, as well as that of Israelis, has not yet been defined and will increase with the rates of preventable deaths from disease, infant mortality and other reasons, as well as the likely increase in the majority of the 2.700 missing people . This is already the second highest number of Palestinian deaths since 1948, when around 20.000 people died, most of them civilians, and a higher number, apparently, compared to the Israeli war in Lebanon in 1982, when 20.000 people died, more than half were Palestinians and the rest Lebanese (during the second intifada, around 5.000 Palestinians were killed).

I recall these macabre statistics as proof of one element of what may indicate a paradigm shift. The number of Israeli victims, in particular the number of civilians killed, created a traumatic shock that reverberated in Israel, in Jewish communities around the world and throughout the West. Its long-term political effects are impossible to predict, but they have already greatly affected the decision-making of the Israeli and American governments, intensifying the aggressiveness and intransigence of both countries.

At the same time, the long-term political impact of the brutal number of Palestinian deaths in a short and compressed period of time is incalculable, not only among Palestinians, but also throughout the Arab world, with possible even more distant reaches. A situation that could very well affect the internal policies of the various Arab states, as well as the future of Israel in the region.

These numbers must be understood in the context of two other factors. First, Hamas' surprise attack and crushing of Israel's defenses, including the defeat of an entire division of the Israeli army (the Gaza division), the complete failure of Israeli intelligence and surveillance technology, and the massacre of so many Israeli civilians , the first time a war has been fought with this ferocity on Israeli soil since 1948. Israel has suffered serious attacks on its civilian population before, from rockets and suicide bombers, but since 1948, every major Israeli war – 1956, 1967, the War of Attrition of 1968-70, 1973, 1982, the second intifada and all the wars in Gaza – were in practice fought on Arab soil. Nothing like this has happened to Israel in 75 years.

(ii) The second factor is the temporary collapse of Israel's security doctrine represented in this war. This is often mistakenly termed “deterrence,” but it is in fact the product of the aggressive doctrine first taught to the founders of the Israeli military by British counterinsurgency experts such as Order Wingate. According to this doctrine, when attacking preventively or retaliatoryly with overwhelming force, the enemy will suffer a decisive defeat, a permanent intimidation that forces him to accept Israeli terms. As far as Gaza is concerned, this has meant periodic attacks on the strip's inhabitants, killing large numbers of them to force them to accept a siege and blockade, which has now lasted 16 years.

I say the temporary collapse of this doctrine because, although the events of October 7th made its total bankruptcy clear, the Israeli security system learned nothing, doubling its bet. They seem to have forgotten Clausewitz's maxim, about war as a continuation of politics by other means. It is clear that the Israeli leadership has no clear political objective in waging this war, beyond revenge for the number of civilian victims and the humiliating military defeat of October 7th, while demanding the restoration of “deterrence”.

Instead of a precise political objective for the confrontation, the Israeli government and military postulated the impossible goal of destroying Hamas, a political-military-ideological entity that perhaps can be defeated in the military field, but which cannot be destroyed. The strengthening or weakening of Hamas will only become clear after the end of this war, but it will not be destroyed as a political force and ideology as long as the occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people continues.

(iii) Another possible new element in this paradigmatic change would be the initial shift from broad sympathy for Israel on a global level, to intense disapproval of the Israeli war in Gaza. This has occurred throughout the Arab world, most Muslim countries, and most of the world (or rather, the real world, excluding the US and some Western countries). Rejection has also been intense even among broad segments of the North American and European populations.

It is impossible to assess whether this reaction will have a lasting effect. It certainly had almost no discernible effect on the Joe Biden administration's policy of widespread support for Israel, the level of which is active participation in the war against Gaza. An involvement that could lead to the direct participation of US forces, God forbid, should this conflict escalate into a broader regional war.

The reaction in Arab countries at least proves the complete ignorance of Western and Israeli political authorities and experts, whose statements stated openly that “Arabs don't care about Palestine”. By asserting this with confidence, they confused the autocrats and kleptocrats who govern most Arab countries with their people, out of obvious concern for Palestine, organizing the largest demonstrations seen in most Arab capitals in a dozen years. As any serious historian would tell you, for more than a century, the Arab people demonstrated a deep concern for Palestine.

It is impossible to say whether this strong negative reaction to Israel will last, as well as if and when the anti-democratic regimes that plague the region manage to repress expressions of these feelings. In their future policies towards Israel, it is obvious that they will have to be much more careful than before, considering their people's convinced support for the Palestinian cause.

(iv) There is a fourth and final element in this possible paradigm shift. The unequal measures used by Western elites and politicians to devalue black or Arab lives, as opposed to valuing white or Israeli lives, produce a toxic atmosphere in places dominated by these elites, such as their political spaces, including large companies, media, and universities like Columbia.

These elites, and many others, consider the massacres of Israeli civilians to be of a different quality than the massacres of more than a dozen times greater Palestinian civilians. The suffering of Israeli civilians, and only theirs, was directly cited once again by President Joe Biden on November 15, while covering up the Israeli bombings of Gaza with typical incoherence, repeating routine Israeli speeches.

This obvious uneven approach is a double-edged sword: although it may serve Israel in the short term, the inherent prejudice and double standards are evident to the world and to growing segments of public opinion in the West, particularly among younger people. This generally applies to all those who are not intoxicated by the engaging exposures of the main media, which only publish what pleases Israel. The support of 68% of Americans, including a large majority of Democrats, for the ceasefire in Gaza, a measure vehemently contested by the Israeli government and its facilitator in the White House, is a relevant fact, if not a harbinger of the paradigm shift.

However, despite the unscrupulous political exploitation of the deaths and abductions of Israeli civilians, it is necessary to recognize that these issues constitute, in addition to a serious moral problem, legal and political problems for defenders of Palestinian rights. The moral element is obvious: women, children, the elderly and all unarmed non-combatants must be protected without question in times of war. The legal issue should also be obvious. You can choose not to apply the rules of international humanitarian law.

However, if we want to apply them, they must be applied to everyone. Israel lies when it claims that it adheres to international humanitarian law, despite having already publicly admitted, through its “Dahiya doctrine”, announced in 2007 by former general Gadi Eizenkot (a member of the current Israeli war cabinet) that it does not do so. Israel's leaders have repeatedly and openly declared that they do not comply with at least two of the key elements of international humanitarian law, proportionality, which requires that the loss of human life or property is not excessive in relation to the expected benefit of destruction of a military target, and distinction, which requires distinguishing between the civilian population and combatants. In its daily attacks on Gaza, as repeatedly in the past, Israel has demonstrated total disregard for these principles, destroying the lives of countless civilians, to allegedly seek out or kill one or a few guerrillas.

It is a fact that international law guarantees people under occupation the right to resist, and this applies, of course, in the case of the Palestinians. However, if we are to demand the application of international humanitarian law to Israel, it must also be applied to Palestinian forces. Without denying the flagrant violations of these laws by the Israelis, violations by Hamas and others must be subject to the same standards.

The political problem lies in the general approval given by the US and some Western governments to Israel's complete violations of international humanitarian law, while Palestinian violations of morality and international humanitarian law, linked to the killing and abduction of civilians, are exploited to defame and delegitimize the Palestinian cause as a whole, and not just its authors. As we can see in the political, media and institutional reaction in the USA and Europe since October 7th (as we saw at Columbia University and other campuses), whose relationship with these violations is umbilical, their true targets are the fight for the rights of Palestinians.

The developments in the hostile spaces we occupy in North American and Western politics, institutions and the press are of extreme importance. If we accept that Israel is a colonial (and also a national) project, then the USA and the West are its metropolis. Just as the liberation movements in Ireland, Algeria, Vietnam and South Africa understood, it was not enough to resist colonialism in the colony. It was also necessary to win over the opinion of the metropolis, often involving limiting the use of violence, as well as the use of non-violent means (however difficult it may be in the face of the monumental violence of the colonizer).

This is how the Irish won the War of Independence from 1916 to 1921, how the Algerians won in 1962 and how the Vietnamese and South Africans also won. In the hostile spaces of politics and the press in which supporters of Palestinian rights in the US and Europe operate, absolute clarity on these issues is necessary, not only for moral and legal reasons, but also for political reasons.

Although it is impossible to predict the results of this war at its current stage, it has at least resulted in the changes described above. Will this result in profound transformations of humanitarian and political paradigms? I see three main issues:

(a) Will the expulsion of one and a half million people from the northern Gaza Strip, including Gaza City, which is already a kind of new Nakba, lead to permanent ethnic cleansing of this northern region? (b) Will the international community, or the United States (which often acts as if it alone were the international community), present an original and innovative political resolution to the conflict based on the principles of equality and justice? (c) Or, more likely, will it just reestablish some form of oppressive status quo ante of occupying and sieging Palestinians in increasingly smaller spaces, while pumping more formaldehyde into the moldy corpse of the long-dead “two-state solution?”

It is impossible to answer these questions today, although my guess is that the answers could be, in practice, yes to the first, no to the second, and yes to the third.

However, we hope that one hypothesis can be excluded: the partial or total ethnic cleansing of the population of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and their expulsion from historical Palestine to the Egyptian Sinai and Jordan. During his first visits to the region after the outbreak of war, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, apparently acting as an Israeli messenger, pressured the rulers of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia to accept the measure. Everyone rejected him without hesitation. Thus, these governments acted based on the national interest of their states and the interest of preserving their regimes, but also in the interest of the Palestinians, who know, thanks to 75 years of bitter experience, that Israel has never allowed anyone who has been expelled from Palestine returning.

Full evidence of the evil intentions of Joe Biden's White House can be found in the budget project sent by the Office of Management and Budget on October 20, 2023, to Congress, requesting billions of dollars for military aid to Ukraine and Israel. This includes a funding request entitled “Migration and Refugee Assistance” aimed at “possible needs of Gazans fleeing to neighboring countries”, “cross-border movement” and “assistance requirements outside Gaza”.

The Joe Biden administration's shortsightedness in slavish alignment with Israeli war efforts, encompassing multiple probable war crimes, without any discernible or achievable political outcome, must be added to the failures in domestic politics. He completely ignored the growing opposition to his unfettered support for Israel's war in Gaza from many of his own staff, as well as key elements of the Democratic Party base. Composed largely of young voters, liberal and progressive elements from the Jewish and Christian communities, Arabs, Muslims and leading elements from black communities and other minority communities. As Israel's attack on Gaza continues with the government's full support, it is increasingly difficult to see how large numbers of these groups, particularly those located in key swing states, will be able to vote for Joseph Biden in 2024.

In addition to American support for Israel in the expulsion of more than a million people from the northern Gaza Strip, if it were not for the resolute opposition (so far) of some Arab governments, the shameful participation of the United States would have included a new phase in the process 75 years of ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in their homeland by Israel. We haven't reached that point and I hope we never do. However, although it has thus far been prevented from being complicit in this particular atrocity, the Biden administration has already plunged headlong into an abyss of moral depravity by granting material support to Israel in the massacre of thousands of Palestinians and the transformation of Gaza into an uninhabitable place. , tolerating ethnic cleansing within it.

*Rashid Khalidi is professor of Arabic studies at Columbia University. Author, among other books, of The Hundred Years' War on Palestine: A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917-2017 (Metropolitan Books).

Speech given on November 16, 2023 at Columbia University.

Translation: Sean Purdy.

Originally published on the website Mondoweiss.

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