The Palestinians Must Just Be

By Issa Khalaf

Even in the face of overwhelming evidence that Israel deliberately undermines peace and is single-mindedly pursuing the Palestinians’ socio-political extinction and national erasure, liberal supporters of Israel, who may acknowledge that Zionism’s historical and legal claims to Palestine do not hold up, insist on the “existential threat” rationale—the murderous historical persecution of Jews and its potential recurrence.  This to them encapsulates Zionism’s and Israel’s justification.

This argument constitutes a variation of what one might call “saving a drowning man” analogy.  That is, the ethical justification that European Jews, drowning in raging water (Nazi genocide), are not acting unethically in grasping to and taking possession of the Palestinian house unaffected by the currents.  Force is ethically justified, an existential necessity, even if the goal of that force, as it was with Zionism, is not sharing the house, but replacing its occupants for the “good” of a moral imperative against which Palestinian injustice pales.  To object that the Palestinians are not morally obligated to give away their house or even parts of it, much less die (drown), leave, and suffer to save others, more so because they are an innocent party, does not morally deter the existential threat argument.

I can understand the emotion, but the empirical and historical evidence and logic for all such contentions whose purpose is to support Zionism’s core argument are not borne out.  For a number of reasons, which I will not detail here, the survival of the Jewish people in the mid-20th century hardly depended on or required a sovereign “Jewish state” in others’ land.  To argue that Israel was inevitable by 1948 in light of the Holocaust does not constitute a moral justification for its creation.  Actually, the supreme guarantor against anti-Semitism and persecution is living in liberal democratic, pluralist societies, which the West constructed.  It certainly does not require Zionism’s vicious brutalization of the Palestinians. 

One can also understand Israeli fear and trauma as cause for their irrationality.  While this explanation—and the psychological need to neatly separate between a good pre-1967 Israel and an Israel corrupted by occupation—reassures well-meaning Israeli and American Jews, the nagging reality is of a proto-state Zionism and post-1948 Israel clearly aware of its military superiority and driven to colonize all of historic Palestine.  It’s not clear at all that Zionism is compatible with a citizenship-based liberal democracy. 

Israel’s behavior, like that of Washington’s, is neither accidental nor reluctant.  Palestinian oppression and disappearance is Zionism’s precondition for its existence.  Their displacement, dispossession, and the theft of their land—even their culture—continue remorselessly unabated.  This, colonization, is a century’s long process, the remainder of historic Palestine, the occupied territories, cut and swallowed in whole swaths, given impetus since the early 1990s under cover of Oslo, Camp David, and the Quartet’s fictitious two-state “roadmap.”  True sovereignty in the 1967 frontiers, coexistence, governance sharing of Jerusalem, refugee return will not be.  Neither one state nor two, neither bi-national nor unitary secular democratic; instead, deliberate strangulation.  The Zionists by ideological design have made living together in any form impossible.

The Palestinians’ current situation is in shambles.  Their spatial fragmentation by Israel hardly leaves room (literally) for rebellions or Intifadas, not to mention the nationally exhausted West Bank Palestinians seem to want only to live their mundane lives, while those in refugee camps in surrounding states seem lost, leaderless, forgotten, isolated and unwanted, without national compass.  Yet their self-appointed leaders, at least those in the occupied territories, continue to pretend they’re engaged in something worthwhile, even while Israel takes and takes and atomizes and walls, eventually annexing between 60 and 70 percent of the West Bank, leaving the Palestinians their few cities and towns in which to live and govern.

Jeff Halper, reminding us that Israel is in the process of annexing “Area C,” some 60 percent of the West Bank, dubs the Palestinians’ current situation as “warehousing,” a condition beyond occupation, beyond apartheid.

“…we’re finished.  Israel is now from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River, the Palestinians have been confined in areas A and B or in small enclaves in East Jerusalem, and that’s it. …

“Warehousing is permanent.  Apartheid recognizes that there is another side.  With warehousing it’s like prison.  There is no other side.  There is us, and then there are these people that we control, they have no rights, they have no identity, they’re inmates.  It’s not political, it’s permanent, static.  Apartheid you can resist.  The whole brilliance of warehousing is that you can’t resist because you’re a prisoner.”

Anthropologist and lawyer, Darryl Li, looking at Gaza, offers a more illuminating and contextualized conceptualization.  He argues that Israel’s historic strategy of “managing” the Palestinians evolved from Bantustan to internment camp to animal pen (“whose denizens cannot be domesticated and so must be quarantined”), under an overarching policy of what he terms “controlled abandonment.”  Writing in 2008, he says:

“Since its beginnings over a century ago, the Zionist project of creating a state for the Jewish people in the eastern Mediterranean has faced an intractable challenge: how to deal with indigenous non-Jews—who today comprise half of the population living under Israeli rule—when practical realities dictate that they cannot be removed and ideology demands that they must not be granted political equality.  From these starting points, the general contours of Israeli policy from left to right over the generations have been clear: First, maximize the number of Arabs on the minimal amount of land, and second, maximize control over the Arabs while minimizing any apparent responsibility for them.

“As Israel has experimented with various models for controlling Gaza over the decades, the fundamental refusal of political equality that undergirds them all has taken on different names, both to justify itself and to provide a logic for moderating its own excesses.  During the bantustan period, inequality was called coexistence; during the Oslo period, separation; and during disengagement [from Gaza in 2005], it is reframed as avoiding “humanitarian crises,” or survival.  These slogans were not outright lies, but they disregarded the unwelcome truth that coexistence is not freedom, separation is not independence and survival is not living.

“Disengagement, however, is not merely the latest stage in a historical process; it is also the lowest rung in a territorially segregated hierarchy of subjugation that encompasses Palestinians in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and within the Green Line.  Half of the people between the Mediterranean and the Jordan live under a state that excludes them from the community of political subjects, denies them true equality and thus discriminates against them in varying domains of rights.  Israel has impressively managed to keep this half of the population divided against itself—as well as against foreign workers and non-Ashkenazi Jews—through careful distribution of differential privileges and punishments and may continue to do so for the foreseeable future.  Of course there is always the possibility of occasional, dramatic acts of resistance…But…the inexorable governing logic of controlled abandonment seems likely to remain intact.”

There is another, lower rung to “controlled abandonment,” and that is genocide, which is happening on many levels anyway.  The Israeli state has no plan, no vision of coexistence, certainly no intention of recognizing Palestine’s politico-moral equality or making peace other than to manage a population that it desperately wishes to make vanish.  Israel’s apparent brilliance in implementing its will and getting its way is not about brilliance at all—it’s really self-destructive and stupid—but about the sheer, conscience-devoid application of violence against defenseless people, in all its forms, supported by unconditional imperial American power and disgusting self-righteous Western hypocrisy. 

Mindful of the differences, the American Indian encounter with European settler colonists essentially offers the closest historical comparison to what is happening to the dispersed Palestinians, including the denuding of their national cohesion and identity. 

Despite the persistently lamentable trajectory of their history, the abject failure, autocracy, corruption, rapacity, and incompetence of their leadership and the Arab regimes, the hopeless socio-cultural divisions of Arab societies, including the factionalized Palestinians, the unremitting hostility of Washington, the Israeli state’s prime directive of sustaining mayhem, division, and demoralization among them, the Palestinians, if nothing else, must merely be.  Their reality, their existence in their homeland, forever an uncomfortable, unnerving reminder to their ethnic cleansers of their fact; they will not recede or vanish or be erased from history.

In historic Palestine and in exile, in the Arab world and farther afield, the Palestinians are in many ways a unique people.  They never enjoyed an independent state or a constituted legitimate government, have no such reference, many of their educated segments perhaps even incapable of great love of country, construed in its menacing nationalist, hidebound, insular sense, for their condition is precisely that of the rootless, world wise, and transnational. 

These powerless and forsaken people must insist on telling and retelling their story, despite being pushed aside, their authentic history denied and suppressed, by the Israeli-Zionist historical narrative, for that is the thin thread holding together their existence and identity.  Jews understand this well.

At the same time, they must always reject violence and persist in engaging the Israeli opposition: the dissidents, humanist thinkers, leftists, human rights activists.  The Palestinians must not “negotiate,” for there is nothing for which to do so.  Their role is that of reminders to Zionist Israelis of their own humanity, despite the latter’s fear, hatred, and greed.  Neither Israeli nor Palestinian people will disappear, the resolution of whose claims can only be based on democratic citizenship and human rights, on recognition of sins and suffering.

Zionism, unlike the Palestinians, of course is nowhere near this moral space, the eventual cause of its undoing.  Nothing is finished, as nothing is permanent. 

– Issa Khalaf has a Ph.D. in political science and Middle East Studies from Oxford University. He contributed this article to

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