Palestine: A Brief History of Imperialism

Abdul Rahman  

Yet again Israel
is bombing
This time too the number of dead Palestinians (till date) is as high as it was
the last time in 2009 during the Operation Cast Lead. The reasons of the
current attack is almost same if we are not bothered about the details, the
Israeli ‘right to self defence’ (whatever that means). Yet again the world
community namely the United Nations and leaders of the ‘big states’ are
‘worried’ about ‘the disproportionate use of violence’ by Israel. They all
agree that
Israel has the
‘existential threats’ and Hamas should not ‘attack’
Israel with its ‘rockets’.
Meanwhile, surprisingly common people in all these countries and some of their leaders
with their backbones intact have tried to stood up and argue differently.

Demonstration after demonstration have been organised
to show solidarity with the dying and suffering people of Gaza. Opposition of
Gaza killings on humanitarian
grounds is most welcome but can we or should we forget the history behind these
killings and the real reasons of persistence of the problem for so long? All
those world leaders who agree and support
Israel’s right to self defence are
doing so at the cost of Palestinian’s right to national self determination and
their right to fight for it. The world leaders and
are standing together not to defend
Israel per se but their imperialist
dream to control the region in whatever way possible and at whatever cost. This
article is an attempt to reiterate the history of the
and to argue that
has no ‘right to defend’ as it is an occupier. Killing at
Gaza is not only killing of humanity but it
is yet another episode in the long drawn history of imperialism in the region.

Palestinian struggle for self-determination and the Israel’s
so called ‘existential threat’ are the two central points in the so called Israel-Palestine
conflict. The world has seen the fall of old colonialism almost half a century
ago. Nonetheless, the Israel-Palestine conflict is very much a part of the
history of colonialism and imperialism. What was to be a war of liberation against
the Ottoman occupation; the First World War turned out to be a precursor of yet
another foreign rule in Palestine.
British Mandate did not only replace Ottomans but also within 18 years
facilitated the formation of a ‘Jewish Homeland’ as per its promises made to
the British Zionists in the Balfour Declaration of 1917 (complete text of which
can be accessed here
, The declaration is a classical example of
imperialist arrogance as it promises the land of Palestine
yet to be occupied from the Ottomans to a third party in exchange to the
support in the war efforts.
The Zionist movement, a reactionary movement against
the anti-Semitic Europeans discriminating and persecuting Jews for various
socio-economic and religious reasons, was formally started in 1892 by Theodor
Herzl with a conception of a utopia of a ‘Jewish Homeland’ to be created in the
biblical ‘Holy Land.” The problem, however, was to identify this ‘promised
land’ on the face of the earth. The ancient history came as a help to Zionists
to decide after a long period of uncertainty that the so called ‘promised land’
is Palestine.
This started different gradual phases of Aliyah (migration) of European
Jews to Palestine.
The Zionist propaganda dipped with religious believes justified the migration
on the basis of first, that Jews were once upon a time in the past (around 70
AD) expelled from this land and second, on the basis of a mythical slogan that
“people without land (Jews) are going to a land without people (Palestine).” As
we know this slogan is ridiculous and factually incorrect.        
Despite all the religious sloganeering and hullaballoo
the migration of Jews to Palestine
remained low till the beginning of the Second World War. In 1919 the Jews were
less than 10 percent of the Palestinian population which increased to around 30
percent of the total population in 1939. The increased persecution of Jews
under Fascist occupation in Europe at the time
forced more and more of them to migrate out in the 1930s. Still, majority chose
to go to the USA instead of Palestine. Nevertheless,
amidst the occasional riots, the biggest being the 1936-39 uprising against the
migrants, most of the Palestinians remained unaware of the promises of the Balfour
declaration and some of them even welcomed the coming of the Jews for economic
reasons. Meanwhile, Zionist established armed groups apparently to defend their
positions in Palestine.
These Zionist militias such as Irgun
and Haganah used all kinds of
terrorist acts to forcefully occupy land and throw the Palestinians out from
their villages. Even the British authority criticised this massive use of
violence by the Zionist gangs in the White Paper issued in 1939. In reaction to
the riots of 1936-39 British authorities had to restrict the migrants’ right to
own land in Palestine. It also tried to restrict the Jewish immigrant
population in Palestine
to one-third of the total population (see the White Paper issued by the British
mandate authorities in 1939 here This restriction was lifted only after
the horrors of holocaust became widely known and a sympathy wave was created in
favour of Jews all over the world. After the Second World War when the
population of Jews surged in proportion to the local population and the intents
of the British authorities became obvious the Arab leaders reacted. In order to
save their skins British authorities took the case of Palestine to the newly formed United Nations
(UN). After much deliberation UN passed a resolution 181 proposing partitioning
of mandate of Palestine
(see details here The Arabs rejected the partition plan
and revolted against the British.
The unrest provided Britain to wash its hands and it
withdrew its control over the Palestinian mandate territories. The uncertainty
created by sudden British withdrawal from the Palestine
played well for Zionist armed groups and using the opportunity on 14 April 1948
Ben Gurion and others proclaimed an Independent
State of Israel on the land proposed by the
UN partition plan. We should keep the fact in mind that despite a long history
of immigration Zionist had failed to attract majority of the Jews to Palestine. When the state
of Israel was created the Jews were in minority and only the fear tactics used
by Zionist militias and the 1948 war which forced majority of local
Palestinians to migrate and become refugees in the neighbouring countries (what
is called the Nakbah in Arabic) created a Jewish majority in proper
Palestine. This is a clear case of ‘ethnic cleansing’ forgotten by the world
only because of the hegemony over media and other sources of information
enjoyed by Israel and its
strongest ally the USA.
As expected, Arabs refused to recognise the new state of
and the first Arab-Israel war started. This war was used by the Zionist, as
mentioned earlier, as an excuse to exclude and force more and more Palestinians
out from their land. By the end of this war Israel
had control over all the Palestinian mandate territory barring the West Bank
and East Jerusalem (held by Jordan)
and Gaza (held by Egypt). 
The Palestinians are suffering the brutal oppression
and displacement from their land by the Zionist regime since 1948 onwards. The
successive Arab-Israeli wars did not end the occupation. They rather prolonged
it. The 1967 June War is a dividing line in the history of Arab-Israeli
conflict. At the end of the war remaining territories in the Arab hands (West
Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza) too were occupied
by the Israel along with
Golan Heights from Syria and
Sinai Peninsula from Egypt.
The loss of lands to Israel in the 1967 war made Arabs rulers, particularly
Abdul Gamel Nasser of Egypt realise that they cannot defeat the Zionist state
till it has the support of the US and European countries. The 1973 war
(initiated by Egypt and Syria) was an
attempt to bargain with the Israeli state and get their lands back. The
exchange of the lands post 1973 war and signing of 1979 Camp David accords won
first Arab recognition for Israel.
Palestinians were left alone to fight for themselves hereafter. Though
Palestinians could not end the occupation, their struggle under the leadership
of Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) was able to keep the issue alive.
The Palestinian movement was able to mobilise support of the people forcing the
world powers to do something to resolve the issue.
According the UN partition
plan, 23 percent of the historic Palestine
was allotted to future Palestinian state. In the 1948 war mostly those parts
remained in the Arab control which was assigned to Palestinians by the UN. In
1967, all these remaining lands also went under Israeli control. For next 36
years, these territories saw the establishment of numerous Jewish settlements
under the Israeli policy of ‘creating facts on the ground’ in order to
repudiate any future claim by Palestinians on these lands (Said 1992). After
the June war of 1967 UNSC adopted resolution 242, in which it asked Israel
to vacate the territories it has occupied during the war. It also recognised
the right of the existence of all the states in the region. UNSC resolution 338
accepts the right of Palestinian refuges to return to their homes. With the
acceptance of all these three resolutions PLO and Israel
started negotiations in 1990s for the establishment of an independent
Palestinian state leading to the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993.
Once the end of the Cold War became inevitable and
supremacy of the USA was
established in the global politics the Palestinian National Congress,
Palestinian parliament in exile, an organ of the PLO, in 1988 recognised the
state of Israel
in the hope of a peaceful settlement of the dispute and in a way accepted the
UN partition plan. Hereafter the PLO pitched for a two state solution as a fait
accompli. PLO’s acceptance of United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242
and 338 did not bring Israel
to end its occupation forcing Palestinians in the occupied territories to start
a peaceful but strong resistance commonly known as the first Intifada (1987-1990). These developments
finally forced the world community to intervene. The ‘mediating’ efforts of US
and other major powers led to the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993 by PLO
and Israel.
The US
mediation was not a benevolent act. It was an attempt to bully and make PLO
accept the humiliating terms of the Oslo.
US could think of this as the world situation was in its favour after the
weakening of the Soviet Union. Despite
drawbacks and advantages to Israel,
Oslo brought
the hope for a peaceful solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. However, PLO’s
surrender at Oslo as termed by Edward Said was
opposed by a substantial section in Palestine.
The Declaration of Principles signed in the Oslo
peace process, identified four core issues; borders of the future Palestinian
state, the status of Palestinian refugees, the status of Jerusalem and the
settlements inside the West Bank and Gaza to be solved in final stages. These
are the issues on which neither of the parties was willing to compromise. The Oslo accords created the
Palestinian Authority (PA) an interim elected body of Palestinians to govern
the territories identified to be transferred to future Palestinian state once
created. As Edward Said argues PA became a municipal authority which has all
the dirty work to do without much authority. Israel still controlled the borders
and all the settlements created deep within the occupied territories violating
every international convention and law. 
Oslo accords were never fully materialised for several reasons. One of
these several reasons was the unwillingness of the Israeli state to transfer
the essential resources to the PA so that it can have control over the assigned
territories. The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister of Israel
under whom Oslo accords were signed, in 1996 and formation of rightwing
government intensified distrust against the accords among the Palestinians.
The idea behind the acceptance of Declaration of
Principles and subsequent Oslo
accords was the gradual establishment of normalcy in the region and mutual
coexistence of both the people. However, by the time the agreements were signed
there were strong sections in Israel
and among Palestinians who did not share the belief in the principle of ‘land
for peace’ adopted by both the parties as the basis of talks. In Israel,
right wing parties like Likud had been reluctant to accept the ‘two state
solution’. For them Jordan is Palestine and Palestinians have no right on West
Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.* In the Palestinian side, intellectuals like
Edward Said opposed the Oslo
accords as a compromise of the Palestinian cause on the grounds that the PLO
conceded too much ground and got nothing concrete in response from Israeli side
(Said 2001).
Meanwhile, the resource crunched PA failed to improve
the conditions of the Palestinians mostly because Israel’s reluctance to transfer
important subjects and revenues to it as agreed in the agreements signed during
the peace process. Israel
transferred only its legworks to PLO in occupied territories without giving it
any authority. Israel
also restricted movement of Palestinians depriving them from sources of
employment. The result was the spread of widespread poverty and unemployment.
Within less than ten years period starting from 1994, the percentage of
Palestinians earning less than $2 a day in the West Bank and Gaza rose from 20
to 60 (Hilal 2006: 15). The decline in the living standards and increase in
unemployment among the youth in Palestine
made them attracted to the calls of radicalism.
We should keep this in mind that fight against
occupation and imperialism cannot always be united. The might of occupiers and
length of struggle might create demoralisation among one set of leadership and
can also create a sense of defeatism leading to compromise. In this situation a
new set of or sets of leadership emerges which keeps the militancy of the
struggle alive. According to Frantz Fanon for a colonized and subjugated people
“to break the mental shackles of despair, quiescence, or humiliation only [way
possible is] through armed struggle or active self assertion” (as quoted in
Sayigh 1997: 26). Hamas was not the first such entrant in the Palestinian
movement. There were Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine [PFLP],
PFLP-General Command, Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine [DFLP]
and others in the previous decades too. These organisations used “terrorist”
methods and Israeli civilians and military men were targeted both inside and
outside of Israel
irrespective of the brutality of the Israel retaliation. No matter how
much violent the opposition to occupation was it was never the only and central
method of resistance before the second Intifada starting from the year
2000 when Ariel Sharon, then the Prime Minister of Israel entered  Haram
al Sharif
just to provoke the Palestinians on 28 September.
Hamas is an acronym of the Arabic Harakat al Mokawama al Islamiya (Islamic
Resistance Movement) which also means zeal. It was founded in December 1987 in Gaza in order to give the
ongoing Intifada a leadership. An
outright opponent of the idea of a Jewish state on the Palestinian land Hamas
has religious nature unlike PLO which was considered to be a secular movement.
Hamas believes that Palestine
is a Pan Arab issue again unlike PLO, which is more committed to distinct Palestinian
nationalism. Leaders like Sheikh Yassin and Ismail abu Shanab were members of
Muslim Brotherhood before they founded the Hamas. Some sources talk about the
possible role of Israel
in creating the Hamas as a counter to PLO.
Hamas has a web of charity, armed and political wings
in the Gaza and the West
Bank through which it operates. Its actual strength lies in its
“political standing, social and charitable services, religious activities,
educational facilities and so on” through which it intervenes in the daily life
of Palestinians (Hroub 2004: 22-23). The rise of Hamas in the Palestinian
politics in the last three decades is more a result of its tactic-oriented
approach to the conflict. The major reason of its current popularity has been
the failures of Israel to
understand the gravity of the resentment among the Palestinians to its
backtracking on the commitments to PLO during the Oslo peace process. Failures of PLO to
establish an independent Palestinian state as it was expected in the aftermath
of Oslo, forced
people to look for an alternative. Hamas was waiting for the moment (Hilal
2006). The support base of Hamas in Palestine
rose from around 30 percent in 1999 to around 50 percent in 2006. While prior
to second Intifada in 2000 its main
support base were youth in the refugee camps in the Gaza. During and after the second Intifada
Hamas has gained support in all the major sections of the Palestinians
population (Hilal 2006). The victory in 2006 Palestinian elections has proved
the declining popularity of PLO particularly after the death of Yassir Arafat.
Still Hamas is more popular in Gaza than in the West Bank. The 2007 clashes between it and Fatah had
proved it very clearly. These clashes have virtually divided Palestinians along
the party and territorial lines.
The responsibility for the rise of Hamas in the
Palestinian politics also lies in the fact that Israeli establishments is
reluctant to respect even meagre relief and hope provided to the Palestinians
in Oslo Accord. Every subsequent change in the governments in Israel often has
strengthened the policy of non-cooperation with the PA using the excuse of
non-deliverance on the provisions in the Oslo Accords. For example, between
1994 and 2000 the number of Israeli settlers residing in the West Bank and Gaza rose by 70 percent
despite the commitment to stop the further settlement given by the Israeli
government in the DOP.
The implementation non-cooperation policy with PLO
has not only increased number of settlers in the Occupied Territories
but it is responsible for the derailment of Peace Process altogether. Ariel
Sharon, the man accused of 1982 massacre of more than 3000 innocent
Palestinians in Sabra-Shatila camp in Lebanon, after becoming the Prime
Minister of Israel in 2001 took the opportunity provided by the second Intifada to erect a ‘separation wall’
dividing the Arab and Jewish population within the Occupied Territories,
creating a web of security checks and barriers and restricting entry of
Palestinians in certain parts of their own territories. These steps were
supposedly an attempt to check the violent activities of Hamas and Islamic Jihad
but they created more trouble and hardships for the common Palestinians. It
divided Occupied Territories in small pieces making the
future Palestinian state almost look like Apartheid South African Bantustans. The
helplessness of PA to counter these steps made people disillusioned from its
leadership. At the same time Israeli withdrawal of all settlements from Gaza in 2005 even for
security reasons, gave more credibility to Hamas. It also gave it an open field
to operate.
Despite the fact that Palestine is a clear case of imperial
occupation the complexity of the issue lies in the fact that Zionist oppressors
themselves had been the victim of world’s worst oppression under the Nazi and
Fascist rules between the two world wars. Edward Said recognises the history of
anti-Semitism as the most peculiar aspect of Israel-Palestine conflict (1992).
After the Holocaust Jewish determination of ‘never again’ to let the community
face the same plight, made the rightwing Zionist among them popular. Subsequent
wars with the Arabs and terrorist attacks against Jewish population created a
substantial section of paranoids who could believe in the myth of ‘existential
threat’ coming from Arab demands of justice (Kimmerling and Migdal 2003). The
charters of PLO first and Hamas later and rhetorical speeches made by some of
the Arab leaders have been cited by Zionist propaganda machinery added by US’ as
examples of Arab resolve to throw the Israeli state ‘into the sea’ squeezing
any space for sensible argument. The sympathy created by such intelligent use
of rhetoric has strengthened Israeli occupation and in certain regions even
popular (one survey in the wake of current Gaza attacks says that even today
more than 60 percent youth in US support Israel’s right to defend) and has
given it the diplomatic power to resist any move to create a Palestinian state
which is a precondition of peace in the region. This propaganda and the
shameless support (both military and political) provided by USA and other European powers such as France
have been the biggest support of the Israeli rigidity and perpetuation of the

The dominance over the sources of popular information
has helped the imperialist powers to create what Chomsky says a “manufactured
consent” in favour of this illegal and immoral occupation.  It may be the success of this propaganda that
instead of talking about Palestinian right to self determination and getting
angry at the existence of longest surviving settler colonialism, ‘worries’ of ‘world
leaders’ are restricted to death of innocent children etc in Gaza. People
should be able to see through the hypocrisy.

*This is the
so-called ‘Jordanian option’ for the solution of the Palestine-Israel conflict
presented by the Israeli right and for a time was even acceptable to Labour
party. See Rolef, Susan Hattis (1997), “Israel’s
Policy toward the PLO: From Rejection to Recognition”, In Sela, Avraham and
Moshe Ma’oz (eds), The PLO and Israel: From Armed Conflict to Political
, London:
Hilal, Jamil
(2006), “Hamas’s Rise as Charted in the Polls”, Journal of Palestine Studies, 32 (3): 6-19.
Hroub, Khaled
(2004), “Hamas after Shaykh Yassin and Rantisi”, Journal of Palestine
, 33 (4): 21-38.
Baruch and Joel S. Migdal (2003), The
Palestinian People: A History
, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Said, Edward
(1992), The Question of Palestine,New York:
Vintage Books.
The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After, New
York: Vintage Books.
Sayigh, Yezid
(1997), “The Armed Struggle and Palestinian Nationalism” in Sela, Avraham and
Moshe Ma’oz (eds), The PLO and Israel: From Armed Conflict to Political
Solution, 1964-1994
, London:
Macmillan, PP-23-35.
The author is Assistant Professor at Gargi College,
Delhi University.

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