From Balfour to Obama: Colonial Thinking on Palestine

Nations that come into existence by dispossessing, imprisoning and slaughtering the indigenous population have two problems with history:

1. Its ugliness makes it hard to glorify.
2. Its shortness exposes the tenuousness of any claim that this is ‘our land’.

Paul Woodward, American and Israeli Exceptionalism (

By Roger Sheety

The phrase “British Mandate of Palestine” is as commonplace in Western and Zionist scholarship on Palestine as to be inoffensive and therefore barely given a second thought.  Indeed, a quick internet search of this seemingly innocuous term reveals some two million results of wildly varying quality and usefulness. 

There was, however, no such thing as “British Mandate” of Palestine; it was and remains a purely European/Western colonial construct, an abstraction with real and disastrous consequences.  In reality, the Palestinian people never consented to be occupied by British colonials, never agreed to have their ancestral land partitioned and given away to other Europeans, and never asked to be “civilized” by an imperial government which was completely ignorant of their language, culture and history.  The same could be said of “French Mandate” Syria and Lebanon or “British Mandate” Iraq.

The term “British Mandate” did have its uses, though. It allowed colonial historians and apologists to believe that Palestine was somehow destined for partition, which made it “legal” and thus sanctified.  You see, there was a mandate to Britain given by the League of Nations in 1922 and so Britain, the greatest nation on earth, the model of Western enlightenment and progressive thought, was obligated to carry out its mission—or so the argument went.  And what of the indigenous people of Palestine?  As summed up by Lord Balfour in 1917, their aspirations, their rights and even their very existence were of little or no consequence: 

“Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long tradition, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desire and prejudices of 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.  We do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country.” 

It did not matter that Palestinians were still the majority population in 1948, despite decades of British-supported Jewish immigration from Europe and Russia.  And nor did it matter that Palestinians were still the majority land owners in Palestine despite the fact that the Jewish National Fund, founded in 1901 in Basel, Switzerland, spent half a century desperately trying (and mostly failing) to buy land in Palestine for exclusive Jewish colonies.  In colonialist thinking in general and in Zionist ideology in particular, self-evident and mythological “age-long tradition” and grand, rhetorical flourishes always outweigh historical facts and realities.

The same colonial/racist thinking remains prevalent in much of current mainstream Western discourse on Palestine.  It is assumed, for example, that only the United States can somehow solve the Palestine “problem.”  It is self-evident that only the world’s remaining superpower can act as an impartial arbitrator and mediator between two (supposedly) intransigent sides.  Why?  Because of American exceptionalism of course, because America is unique, a shining city on a hill, the standard-bearer of democracy—or so the argument goes.  Never mind the fact that the United States government provides Israel with billions of dollars each year, arms it with the most advanced military hardware money can buy and excuses its continuing crimes against humanity with unlimited diplomatic cover and unconditional support.  Just as with Balfour’s words in 1917, facts are made irrelevant by magical, incantatory language.

As with the so-called British Mandate and American exceptionalism though, colonialist language and discourse are deeply tied to actions, however unjust, immoral and violent.  Take for instance Israel’s most recent plans to ethnically cleanse thirty thousand Palestinian Bedouin from their ancestral lands in the Naqab (Negev).  Here is how just one headline in the June 2nd edition of Haaretz, a major Israeli newspaper and mainstream media outlet, puts it:  “Netanyahu’s office promoting plan to relocate 30,000 Bedouin.”  The sub-headline reads:  “Plan aims to improve living conditions for Bedouins currently living in unrecognized villages lacking necessary infrastructure, which results in severe environmental and other problems.”  

A plan of dispossession and ethnic cleansing thus becomes a “promotion” of “relocation” for better living conditions and concern for the environment.  Buried deep in the story is the fact that the Bedouin are the actual owners of the land they are living on, an ownership which predates the Israeli state, but even this fact becomes a mere “claim.”  Nowhere in the article is a word about who the Bedouin really are:  a part of the indigenous people of historical Palestine.

Since the Bedouin are never Palestinian in Haaretz or in any Israeli mainstream media but simply “Arabs,” they can therefore be relocated (that is, ethnically cleansed) to wherever the Israeli state wishes; in other words they have no history, no connection to the land, and no relationship to other Palestinians throughout historical Palestine and the Diaspora.  With this one word (“Arabs”) all these realities are made to disappear.

This constant denial of the Palestinian Bedouin identity and history is in reality an echo of Golda Meir’s racist assertion that “there is no such thing as a Palestinian people” and Balfour’s equally odious characterization of Palestinians in 1917 as merely “the present inhabitants of the country.”  In such a manner, the Bedouins of the Naqab are pulled out of their historical context and separated from other Palestinians.  For how is the planned expulsion and dispossession of Palestinian Bedouin different from that of the majority of Palestinians expelled from Haifa, ‘Akka, Jaffa, Safad, Jerusalem or Beer al-Sabe’ (to name only a few examples) in 1948?  The answer is simple:  it is no different at all.

In fact, the shadow of the Nakba, the original expulsion of 1947-48, still looms large.  Here, for instance, is Yosef Weitz, one of the architects of Plan Dalet, musing in 1941 on how to “remove” the indigenous people of Palestine, as well as take over significant parts of Syria and Lebanon:

“The Land of Israel is not small at all, if only the Arabs will be removed, and if its frontiers would be enlarged a little; to the north all the way to the Litani [River in Lebanon], and to the east by including the Golan Heights…while the Arabs should be transferred to northern Syria and Iraq” (Nur Masalha, Expulsion of the Palestinians, 134).

Note how, just as with Balfour, the peoples of Palestine, Lebanon and Syria, do not count at all in Weitz’s repugnant vision; they are nonpersons, objects to be shifted about here and there according to the whims of the Zionist leadership.  Note as well the cavalier way in which Weitz ponders where to draw the borders of his future state with complete disregard for the peoples of the region, like some child drawing random lines on a piece of paper.

Now here is Tzipi Livni (one of the driving forces behind Operation Cast Lead), a supposedly moderate, progressive voice in current Israeli politics, in a speech to a group of high school students in 2008 on what might happen to Palestinian citizens of the state in the event of a two-state solution:

“My solution for maintaining a Jewish and democratic State of Israel is to have two nation-states with certain concessions and with clear red lines…And among other things, I will also be able to approach the Palestinian residents of Israel, those whom we call Israeli Arabs, and tell them, ‘your national solution lies elsewhere’” (Jerusalem Post, FM takes heat over Israeli Arab remark, December 11, 2008).

More than seventy years later and Zionist colonial thinking is unchanged—Palestinians are perceived as mere pieces on a game board that can be moved around in order to maintain the “Jewish and democratic State of Israel.”  It naturally never occurs to Livni that there is nothing democratic or Jewish about ethnic cleansing, so internalized is her own propaganda.  Perhaps she is more subtle than Weitz or Balfour in her choice of words, but the racism remains the same. 

Indeed, Israel’s entire historical narrative is built on such colonial fabrications of myth, erasure of historical facts, euphemisms, evasions and outright denial of reality:  Palestine was “a land without people for a people without a land,” “the Israelis made the desert bloom,” “Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East,” “the Israeli army is the most moral army in the world,” “Israel is the light unto the nations,” “we’re in a tough neighbourhood,” “we have no partner in peace,” “Arabs only understand the language of force” and so on. 

The almost daily attacks on Palestinians in both the Occupied Territories and in Israel itself, and the continuing theft of Palestinian land and culture are more often than not explained away using such linguistic evasions and blatant falsehoods, as has every Israeli war since the state’s inception.  It brings to mind Tacitus’ famous maxim:  “They plunder, they slaughter, and they steal:  this they falsely name Empire, and where they make a wasteland, they call it peace.”

In the hands of colonizers and conquerors, language is always a weapon used against the colonized and the occupied.  Within an imperial/colonial mindset, language is more often than not used by those in power to fabricate, confuse, dehumanize and dominate.  It is a tool used to justify past crimes and to excuse future ones.  With settler colonialism in particular, language is used to denigrate or even erase the history and culture of the indigenous population being usurped.

As the Israeli Professor of language and education Nurit Peled-Elhanan recently wrote, “[Israeli] apartheid is not only a bunch of racist laws, it is a state of mind, fashioned by education.  Israeli children are educated from a very tender age to see ‘Arab’ citizens and ‘Arabs’ in general as a problem that must be solved, eliminated in one way or another….Israeli education succeeds in building mental walls that are far thicker than the concrete wall that is being constructed to incarcerate the Palestinian nation and hide their existence from our eyes….[Israelis] don’t consider Palestinians as human beings like themselves, but as an inferior species, that deserve much less” (Independent Online/Daily News, How racist laws imprison a nation, November 3, 2011).

If Israeli Jews sincerely desire a just and lasting peace they would do well to first shed once and for all this pervasive and pernicious colonial mentality and its accompanying delusory supremacist language and learn to see Palestinians as their full equals, nothing more and nothing less.  On the other hand, do not expect Palestinians to accept their dispossession, their ethnic cleansing or their current occupied or second-class status on their own land as a final reality, for not only would this be unethical and unjust but—as this acceptance would be equivalent to surrender—it is also something that will never happen.

– Roger Sheety is a writer and researcher. He contributed this article to

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