So there's this image I have seen floating around Facebook the last few days because of the fighting in Gaza right now, trying to demonstrate why the Palestinians in Gaza have a legitimate beef with Israel.
I fear that this post will make me sound like a defender of Israel in the current crisis. I'm not. The Palestinians in Gaza do have a legitimate beef with Israel. I am mortified by the turn which Israel has taken in recent years, with this attack on Gaza as the exemplar of ruthless oppression of the Palestinian people.
This map bothers me. I find that I cannot let it pass without comment. The map is not a lie, exactly, but perhaps worse than a lie it is bullshit, fact presented in a way designed to mislead and confuse.
This collapses a notoriously complex historical process into a simple measure of territory. By only showing the region which is now Israel it excludes history essential to understanding what happened. And most significantly, it has this green region labeled “Palestine”.
What does that label mean, exactly? If you don't know the history well — a category which includes most people — one would assume that there was once a nation-state of Palestine has progressively been displaced by Israel. And that's not what has happened.
To understand what did happen, it's useful to roll back the clock to about half a century before the first map in that series. What is now Israel was part of the vast Ottoman Empire. European Jews were looking at the development of the modern nation-state — a wrenching consolidation of power which produced such bloody conflicts as the Civil War in the US a generation earlier — and many came to the conclusion that Jewish ethnic survival required the creation of a Jewish nation-state. The proponents of this idea, that there should be a nation-state which serves as the homeland for Jews, called themselves “Zionists”. These Zionists debated where such a state could be founded. In the deserts of the Great Plains states in the US, as the Mormons had done? Somewhere in Europe? Where? Some Zionists bought land in or near the places of Biblical stories and early Jewish history, which was then part of the vast, decaying Ottoman Empire. Those communities would become the germ of what the first map calls “Jewish land”.
Between early Zionism and 1946, when the story of the maps begins, we have the two World Wars which focused Zionist energies on the land that would eventually become Israel.
The First World War shattered the Ottoman Empire, with the nations of Europe dividing it up between them; Britain controlled not just what is now Israel but also what is now Jordan, Israel's biggest neighbor to the East (plus of course much more).
At that point the Zionist Jews living under Britain's Palestinian Mandate had nationalist ambitions but the Arab Palestinians mostly did not; their political consciousness was mostly focused around local leadership. (That wasn't true of Arabs everywhere; a nationalist movement resulted in Egypt's political independence in 1922, for example.) The British Balfour Declaration at the end of the First World War expressed British interest in seeing part of this territory devoted to a Jewish homeland as the Zionists wanted.
Then in the wake of the Second World War the old European colonial empires around the world began disintegrate and the Nazi concentration camps gave credence to the Zionists' claims that a Jewish nation-state was necessary and justified. The UN discussed how the territory of British Palestinian Mandate would be converted to independent nation-states.
Looking at the map above you can see why some Israeli hard-liners say that there already is a two-state solution the conflict they face, apportioning both a Jewish Israel and an Arab Palestine; they say that the Arab Palestinian state is called Jordan.
There were great population migrations immediately following the founding of Israel: Jews throughout the Middle East moved to Israel, and Arabs in Israel moved elsewhere. Critics of Israel — like me — rightly remind us that Arabs leaving their homes in Israel often did so in the shadow of Israeli guns. At the same time, the converse was often no less true of Jews who moved to Israel fleeing oppression elsewhere in the Middle East.
The second panel shows us a 1947 map with a proposed Palestinian nation-state in green. But that state never actually existed, and was not regarded as legitimate by Arabs (Palestinian or otherwise). The following year, 1948, Israel faced an invasion by all of its neighbors, who sought to destroy the new nation. The places marked “Palestine” on that map would not know independence; most of the territory in the West Bank would become part of Jordan, the Gaza Strip would become part of Egypt, the rest part of Israel, without any nation-state of Palestine at all.
The ’50s and ’60s saw an endless series of border clashes. The third map shows the borders of Israel as they stood on the eve of June 1967, when Egypt, Syria, and Jordan (supported by troops from several other Arab countries and the PLO) would make their biggest attack on Israel. The brief war which followed ended with Israel having captured more territory than they held before the attack.
Israel would go on to return the big Sinai Peninsula to Egypt under the Camp David Accords in 1978, but retain the other occupied territories, including the Gaza strip.
I don't want to dismiss or diminish the injustices experienced by the Arab Palestinians living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. They have been under Israeli military occupation since 1967, with all of the application of force which that implies. Israel has created numerous settlements of Israeli citizens in the West Bank in the intervening years; in places there is now a third generation of Israeli Jews living on the West Bank in violation of international law. But I notice that we hear a great deal about the Palestinian people disenfranchised by the Israelis, but almost nothing about the Palestinians disenfranchised by the Egyptians and Jordanians.
When the Oslo Accords of 1993 (followed by the Gaza-Jerhico Agreement of 1994) gave (partial) sovereignty to the Palestinian National Authority, the interleaving of the Israeli settlements into the disputed territory produced the fragmentary territory of the Palestinian National Authority which you see in the final map in the sequence.
What we see in Israel is the process of the nation-state of Israel being born from a place where there was no nation-state before. I don't want to blink from the often bloody injustices which this process has produced. But I also don't want to pretend that Israel is unique in this kind of history. Nation-states are always born of injustice, always dismiss the interests of peoples who do not recognize the legitimacy of the newborn states. When we look at the land held by the peoples who lived in these United States before the coming of the nation-state of the USA, we see the same pattern.
I recognize the injustices which the Palestinians have faced, the oppression they experience today, and I call for their liberation. But let us not pretend that the Palestinians have been dispossessed of a nation they once had. Let us not pretend that this is a special injustice, in which the Israelis have a kind of blood on their hands that no other nation has.