As Israelis and the country’s friends marked the 70th anniversary of its founding, British journalist and historian Ian Black offered some reflections last month as he introduced ideas and themes in his new book, Enemies and Neighours: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel 1917-2017 (Atlantic Monthly Press, 606 pages, $43.50)
To understand the long-standing stalemate to reach some kind of permanent accommodation if not peace between Israel and Palestinians and neighbouring Arab states, Black emphasized that to understand the conflict is to accept that “Israel’s independence was the Palestinian catastrophe.”
In his book, Black, a veteran reporter and editor for The Guardian, and now a visiting senior fellow at the Middle East Centre, London School of Economics, tells the story from both perspectives.
In his talk, Black referred to Palestinian-American historian Rashid Khalidi who has concluded that Zionism was not just another European colonial enterprise but was simultaneously the national movement of the Jewish people and one that achieved it goals at the expense of his own people.
While it is fashionable in some academic circles to see Zionist history in a “settler colonialism” framework, where Europeans “create their own society and ignore the natives,” Black says this approach fails to acknowledge that Zionism was aimed at achieving the “national liberation of the Jews.” The colonialist argument ignores the “historic, religious and spiritual connection between Jewish people and the land of Israel long before modern Zionism was created.”
“If you want to understand the story, you’ve got to see how both peoples see themselves and their own history as well as how they see each other,” Black told the audience of about 100 people who attended the book launch at the Gelber Centre. It was co-sponsored by the Labour
Zionist History Alliance and Canadian Friends of both Rabbis for Human Rights and Peace Now.
Black documents how a key characteristic of the Jewish return, spurred by the Balfour declaration of 1917, in which the British government pledged support for “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, was the separation from non-Jewish residents. When it comes to the Balfour Declaration, “The Arabs felt they were cheated. They felt the British had no right to offer Palestine to the Jews.”
From the first settlements of the late 19th century, the Zionists wanted to create “a new society, a new economy, did not want to exploit the natives and have them work on their farms and plantations. They wanted to create Jewish labour – avodah ivrit – and revive the Hebrew language. It was a different model from the conventional settler colonial experience.”
“That separation is what still lies at the heart of the two-state solution.”
After the 1967 war and until the Second Intifada of 2000, there was plenty of interaction between Jewish Israelis and Arab-Palestinians, who commuted from the West Bank and Gaza and worked in such areas as construction, restaurants, and gas stations. There were hopeful signs, even as a substantial wage gap between the Palestinians doing the menial work and Israeli Jewish managers became evident.
As a result of the “catastrophic consequences” of the terrorism unleashed by the Second Intifada, that interaction came to an end.
As for the two-state solution, Black outlined why it is in such bad shape. He mentioned 600,000 Israelis living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the lack of negotiations, Hamas in Gaza is committed to armed resistance while Fatah and its leader Mahmoud Abbas are politically weak in the West Bank, even as its security services cooperate with their Israeli counterparts. The country is ruled by its most right-wing government. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces many legal problems, and in all likelihood will be replaced by someone even more to the right, he said.
Polling of Palestinian attitudes indicate there is broad support for a two-state solution, and Black told questioners that Palestinians understand that Israel is strong and is not going to disappear. Facing the inability to achieve two states, he expects West Bank Palestinians will push for equal rights to their Jewish Israeli neighbours, with the right to vote in Israeli elections, which would lead to the eventual disappearance of a Jewish majority state. If that happened, Israel’s response could be to unilaterally withdraw from areas where it has no strategic or demographic interest.
“The two-state solution is stuck,” he said.
Speculating, he said there is no reason why there should not be a “shared homeland” – two states in which the citizens of one could live in the other. This could be a way to accommodate the Israelis living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and possibly also Palestinians who live in refugee camps in Gaza.
As for the Israeli response to March of Return demonstrations in the Gaza Strip that led to 45 Palestinians being killed by the Israeli Defense Forces, Black said he was not there, but observed that the Israelis responded, as they often do when feeling threatened, with excessive force.
“The Israelis are panicked because the focus of that issue, of return, is so symbolic, and so highlights the core of the conflict … in the context of the intolerable conditions on the Gaza Strip.”
He noted that an estimated two-thirds of Gaza residents are descendants of refugees from the 1947-48 war that led to Israel’s independence as a sovereign state.
“I’m not trying to paint Hamas as a bunch of Boy Scouts, they’re clearly not. Life (in Gaza) is intolerable … Hamas is a political movement with its own ideology and goals and is trying to exploit it. Hamas has brought misery to the people of Gaza, and Israel is spooked by it,[responds with] excessive use of force because of the resonance of the issue, and of course Israel always does well in domestic terms when it invokes the sense of security. But there is much more to it than that.”