18 November 2012

A deceptive map of the history of the Levant

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.

But.

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.

13 comments:

Lasara said...

JK - I respect you greatly, but your closing argument was weak.

Also, today is what we are all talking about. Not ancient history. Not even semi-recent history.

And no, it's not special war-mongering blood on the hands of the Israelis. We all share the stain, culture to culture.

But all we can do about any of it is what we can do NOW.

So I say, now, how can we help to eek a small corner of peace out of a shit-storm that's blown for millenia?

Daniel Marks said...

Perhaps, by comparison to the USA model, they should all get reservations and casinos?

eric katz said...

I agree that there was no Palestinian State, but there were people living on that land, whatever you want to call it. If, on that set of maps, you replace the word "Palestine" with the phrase "Non-Jews Living Outside of Israeli Governance", I think you will find that the maps hold true -- at least within the area that is not held by other modern nations. There has been encroachment.

The existence or non-existence of a former nation is irrelevant to the right of self-governance.

eric katz said...

...on the other hand, none of this would have happened if the Palestinians had chosen non-violent resistance. Such a mess!

Ken said...

Terrific piece. Thank you for writing it.

You write "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."

Culturally, I believe that Palestinians had more in common with Egypt and Jordan, and so they were able to be annexed by those states with much less friction.

Jonathan Korman said...

Point taken, Ken, but it's a mixed bag.

It's hard to argue that in 1964 (or 1994) that Palestinians in Jordan and Egypt were any more politically enfranchised than they were in Israel. That's not to mark the disenfranchisement in Israel as acceptable, but it does make the special attention it gets suspect.

Cobb said...

Excellent work, saves me a lot of digging. Of course your sympathy for the Palestinians does not quite merit what I could call a political complaint. It sounds merely properly polite and respectful. The supposition that they be 'liberated' or that they are horrendously oppressed is out of perspective of the entire scope of the violence done against them and on their behalf. The fact that it remains in the range of 3000-5000 casualties over 50 years remains in the category of low level tribal warfare. We have that many Americans who commit suicide every three months.

Which is to say that as conflicts go, the squabbles between Israel and various Palestinian entities represents one of the most overhyped in history. I think only the Spanish Inquisition, which killed no more that about 1200 individuals, has a more overblown reputation.

Within the context of civil rights and miscarriage of justice however, the magnitude of wrong is more aptly worthy of exclamation points. That is why 'heretics' who say there is already a two-state (Jordanian) solution are most correct. And since that is out of the question for the likes of Hamas and Fatah, what we essentially have is a property dispute within Israel proper.

I don't believe, and have no faith that any new provisional representatives of the various diasporal Palestinians will make themselves into a proper government. That is because they are too dependent on external sovereign forces and political entities. I think a good example would be those Kurds in Northern Iraq - having the most powerful military allies on the planet absolutely crush their opponents, and yet got no state out of it, even in a declared war. If you can't get a state out of the remains of a government crushed by international military coalitions, how can you expect to get one from the committees of the UN? It is for this reasons that all UN blue lines, green lines etc are just mental dotted lines of no use. Real borders are made of real fences manned by real soldiers.

Israel can rightly be seen as a violent bully. They have all the resources. But the best you can call the Palestnian question is a civil war, and all the hope for all the Palestinians lies in their finding their own Martin Luther King who will find in the hearts and constitution of Israel the full realization of Arab citizenship in Israel. Short of that, Israel has shown that they will play deathly whack a mole ad infinitum.

Unknown said...

The simplest "answer" I was able to find, after plenty of digging and refreshing of +20y/o Model UN rememberances, is this:

• UN Resolution 181 was proposed and agreed to, in 1947. It's plan was to put it's proposed sovereign & international borders into effect, August 1, 1948, that would have granted both Arab and Jewish peoples soveriegn land rights. Jews get peaceful safe holy-land, and Arabs do too. Compromise for all, but best plan for peace.

• May 14, 1948 a "Provisional Israeli Govt" declared independence, to/of an Israeli state that booted out all of the Arab peoples. UN agrees to recognize it, and Res 181 falls into obscurity.

• To drive the UN's recognition of the new, non-internatlional-community drafted land coverage of the nation of Israel, Pres Truman reluctantly agreed, against the desire of the UN's American delegates.

With the US Army behind them, Israel had power, and the +60yr war began.

Why did Truman agree to this hasty & crappy "new" plan that obliterated years of international cooperation that was motivated by interests for world peace *and* a secular solution for world peace that would offer sovereignty and homeland to two strong groups of non-secular people?

Not to bless the Jews with a holy land, but because of documented fears that without a "bought partner" (Israel), land with much of the world's oil reserve accessible beneath it, under soverign Arab ownership, could potentially come back to bite the US, later... as Arab nations at the time had demonstrated increasing alignment with Russia, a declared Allies enemy.

Money, Oil: not world peace. Sad, as Woodrow Wilson and Britain, imho, had worked very hard to do the right thing... and the U S instead decided to initiate it's bullyship of the world over oil, at the eleventh hour.

Unknown said...

The simplest "answer" I was able to find, after plenty of digging and refreshing of +20y/o Model UN rememberances, is this:

• UN Resolution 181 was proposed and agreed to, in 1947. It's plan was to put it's proposed sovereign & international borders into effect, August 1, 1948, that would have granted both Arab and Jewish peoples soveriegn land rights. Jews get peaceful safe holy-land, and Arabs do too. Compromise for all, but best plan for peace.

• May 14, 1948 a "Provisional Israeli Govt" declared independence, to/of an Israeli state that booted out all of the Arab peoples. UN agrees to recognize it, and Res 181 falls into obscurity.

• To drive the UN's recognition of the new, non-internatlional-community drafted land coverage of the nation of Israel, Pres Truman reluctantly agreed, against the desire of the UN's American delegates.

With the US Army behind them, Israel had power, and the +60yr war began.

Why did Truman agree to this hasty & crappy "new" plan that obliterated years of international cooperation that was motivated by interests for world peace *and* a secular solution for world peace that would offer sovereignty and homeland to two strong groups of non-secular people?

Not to bless the Jews with a holy land, but because of documented fears that without a "bought partner" (Israel), land with much of the world's oil reserve accessible beneath it, under soverign Arab ownership, could potentially come back to bite the US, later... as Arab nations at the time had demonstrated increasing alignment with Russia, a declared Allies enemy.

Money, Oil: not world peace. Sad, as Woodrow Wilson and Britain, imho, had worked very hard to do the right thing... and the U S instead decided to initiate it's bullyship of the world over oil, at the eleventh hour.

Sara Amis said...

The takeover of the North American continent is not ancient history. The Lakota are STILL fighting to get back the Black Hills, which they never agreed to let go of, and they turned down a $1.4 billion settlement because 1) it's a fraction of what the land is worth, and 2) they never agreed to sell it.

Any American forwarding that map around needs to dial back the indignation quite a bit.

Jonathan Korman said...

Sara, please don't misunderstand me as saying that the historical and current oppression of Native Americans in the US is irrelevant. Americans need to look at the last map and see an injustice which we must oppose.

The parallel does not make the example of the oppression of the Palestinians in Israel acceptable; it simply marks it as far from unique.

Ari said...

Here via Q...
Exactly how oil-rich is Israel, in its present borders? There seem to have been plenty of weak attempts at drilling; Israel's position is more of a US-friendly ground presence than an actual source.

If this infographic (it's not really a "map", is it?) is good for anything, it's educating people who still believe the Israeli right are remotely interested in any kind of 'two-state solution' within the present borders. We heard a lot about that in the early 2000s and it's easy for Americans to swallow that fiction of a compromise.

Lev Lafayette said...

As someone who has used the image several times, I must respectfully disagree.

It is true that Palestinians did not have control of the region prior to Israel; as you rightly say, it was part of the British Mandate and prior to that the Ottoman Empire. Nevertheless, there was nationalist aspirations (e.g., the Syrian-Palestinian conference of 1921) and the state of Israel was imposed by the United Nations contrary to will of the people that lived there.

This is not, of course, a "special injustice", as you point out. But it is nevertheless just as valid.