If there is one subject that causes the leaders of the state of Israel and their supporters in the United States establishment to erupt in anxiety and anger, it is the right of the Palestinian people to return to their homes and homeland.
After demonstrations in New York and other cities on the issue in 2001, the Chicago Sun-Times outlandishly compared the Palestinian right of return to Hitler’s mass murder of Jewish people during World War II. “Let’s not mince words,” wrote the editors. “The ‘right of return’ is nothing more or less than Arab radicals’ final solution for the Jewish state.”
“Like it or not, wars settle boundaries,” the editorial continues. “Ignoring such reality only brings grief.” It goes without saying that this was not the Sun-Times’ stance when Iraq occupied the U.S. dependency of Kuwait in 1990.
The tenor of the Sun-Times editorial is more blunt than most, but its point is typical in regard to Israel and the Palestinians: The past is the past, Israel must be defended, the Palestinians just have to accept the situation and move on.
The right of expelled and excluded Palestinians to return to their land has been repeatedly upheld in international legal rulings and resolutions for more than a half-century, beginning with United Nations Resolution 194.
Nevertheless, even many anti-war, labor and other progressive organizations in the United States have declined to support what is really a basic democratic right, one not difficult to understand. When a people are made refugees, deliberately driven off their land or forced to flee by war, they have an indisputable right to return and reclaim their homes, farms, shops and so on when the fighting is over.
Beginning in 1947, millions of Palestinians were forced to leave their homes.
The war that established the state of Israel in 1948 also led to the expulsion of more than three-quarters of the Palestinian population, or close to 750,000 people. Israel’s “Six Day War” in June 1967, when it seized the remainder of historic Palestine, the West Bank and Gaza, created 300,000 more refugees, many of them second-time exiles.
None of those driven out in 1948 and 1967, nor their descendants, now numbering more than 5 million people, have ever been allowed to come back or been compensated for their loss.
Adding insult to injury, the new Israeli state proclaimed that any person living anywhere in the world who could prove that he or she had one Jewish grandparent regardless of whether they or their family ever stepped foot in the Middle East, had the “right of return” to Israel and would be granted citizenship in the new exclusivist state.
Today, 57 years after “Al-Nakba” (The Catastrophe), as it is known to Palestinian and other Arab people, the right of return remains a central demand of the Palestinian people’s struggle.
The right of return: a key demand
It is obvious why this issue is so vital to the Palestinian cause. If a people are deprived of their land, their very existence as a people is threatened. Defending the right of return is a key element in the struggle to maintain the unity of the Palestinian people between those who remain inside historic Palestine and those who have been illegally and unjustly expelled.
Why the Israeli leaders and their U.S. backers are so irreconcilably opposed is another matter altogether.
It is not because there is “no room” for the Palestinians in Palestine. That argument is blatantly racist. It has been debunked by the Palestinian demographer Dr. Salman Abu-Sitta, who has pointed out that most of the more than 500 demolished Palestinian towns and villages remain unoccupied today. They were destroyed and their residents driven away for mainly political purposes—the creation of an exclusivist state.
Nor is this some long-resolved issue buried in the sands of time. Hundreds of thousands of people forcibly exiled in 1948 and 1967 are alive today. Many hold among their dearest possessions keys to their homes in Palestine. Some of those houses, particularly in the demolished villages, were bulldozed into the ground. Many others, especially in cities like Haifa, Jaffa, Jerusalem and elsewhere were expropriated and turned over to Israeli settlers.
Today, 88 percent of the more than 5 million Palestinian refugees live either inside of historic Palestine—46 percent in 1948 Israel, West Bank and Gaza—or within 100 miles of its borders, the 42 percent living in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria. (Roane Carey, ed. The New Intifada, Versa, 2001)
Put another way, nine out of ten Palestinian refugees could be home in the time in takes many people here to commute to work.
Hundreds of thousands of Palestinian families live in extreme poverty in 59 refugee camps. For them especially, the right of return is a vital everyday issue. The situation is especially dire in the camps of Lebanon and Gaza, which are home to more than a million people.
The return of the exiled Palestinians would not mean, as is commonly claimed by the supporters of Israel, that the Jewish population would be forced to leave.
But it would mean that Israel could not continue as an apartheid-style state, with special rights for one group. This goes to the heart of why Israeli and U.S. ruling circles are so adamantly opposed to basic justice for the Palestinians. Understanding why requires a historical perspective on the creation of Israel, its defining ideology, Zionism, and the relationship of both to imperialism.
Political Zionism creates ‘a land without people’
Since the beginnings of political Zionism more than a century ago, its central leaders have shared a common objective: the establishment of an exclusivist Jewish state. To create such an entity would require displacing the indigenous inhabitants of the territory where it was to be constructed. Their first choice of place was Palestine.
Years later, when Israel was established as a state by the U.S.-dominated United Nations in 1947, this concept was incorporated into Israel’s creation myths. Palestine was “a land without people for a people without a land,” said the early Israeli leaders. Israel “made the desert bloom,” ignoring the fact that most of Palestine was neither desert nor unpopulated. Who, after all, had planted the 100-year-old olive trees already there when the Zionist settlers arrived?
From its beginnings, political Zionism was a consciously colonial project. European Jewish settlers had begun arriving in Palestine in the 1880s. At the time, Jews comprised about 5 percent of Palestine’s population. But early Zionist leaders like Theodore Herzl and Chaim Weizmann knew that settlement alone would not produce an Israeli state.
After years of debate, the British Empire became the sponsor of the Zionist project with the issuance of the Balfour Declaration in 1917. It stated: “His Majesty’s Government views with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people … it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”
As the Palestinian scholar, Dr. Ismail Zayid, said: “It is interesting to note that the four-letter word ‘Arab’ occurs not once in this document. … To refer to the Arabs who constituted 92 percent of the population of Palestine and owned 89 percent of its land, as the non-Jewish communities, is not merely preposterous but deliberately fraudulent … Palestine did not belong to Balfour to assume such acts of generosity.” (Ismail Zayid, Palestine: Fifty years of ethnic cleansing and dispossession, in Dossier on Palestine, Halifax, Nova Scotia, 2002)
The Balfour Declaration spoke of national rights for Jewish people, but only civil and religious rights for the “non-Jewish communities.” When it became public, it provoked rebellions in Arab Palestine.
Palestine was still part of the Ottoman Empire in 1917, but the British took it over as part of the spoils of World War I.
‘Transfer’ and the Zionist project
Photo: Epa/Alaa Badarneh
With British sponsorship and new sources of funding from the United States, the Zionist project took off after World War I. Jewish settlements and land acquisition rapidly grew. Though now a British colony, a de facto government was set up in the Zionist-controlled areas, and began building its own militia.
Following the British and European colonial-settler pattern—like that already established in the United States and South Africa—when the Zionists acquired an area, their aim was generally to make it exclusively Jewish. Zionist settlements or businesses were urged or required to hire only Jewish labor.
As the settler population increased from about 10 percent in the early 1920s to nearly 30 percent by the end of the 1930s, the discussion of “transfer” intensified. “Transfer” meant moving the indigenous Palestinian Arab population out of Palestine to make way for the future Israeli state.
None of what was going on was lost on the Palestinian population. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s there were numerous revolts against both British colonialism and Zionist settlement. In 1936, Palestinians launched a general strike that lasted six months, the longest general strike ever, followed by three years of guerrilla warfare. It was not until 1939, that the British Army succeeded in crushing the uprising.
As a result of these developments, by the time World War II broke out the Zionist forces had been greatly strengthened while the Palestinian forces were decimated.
In the course of the war, Hitler and the Nazis carried out the mass murder of six million Jewish people in the fascist death camps. Millions more—Roma people, trade unionists, lesbians and gays, communists, socialists—died in the camps. Twenty-seven million Soviet citizens were slaughtered by the Nazi war machine.
The capitalist governments of the United States and Europe had paid scant attention to the persecution of Jews and other peoples in the 1930s. Riddled with anti-Semitism themselves, they saw Nazi Germany as a club against their main enemy of the time, the Soviet Union.
Even after entering the war against Germany, the U.S. high command was so indifferent to the suffering of those in the Nazi death camps that they refused to approve the bombing of the rail lines that brought the boxcars crammed with victims into the camps. It was not “expeditious,” the military planners stated.
After the war was over, however, the U.S. leaders hypocritically channeled world sympathy for the suffering of the Jewish people into support for the creation of the Israeli state—at the expense of the Palestinians. The Palestinians had nothing to do with the Nazi atrocities.
The great majority of Jewish survivors of Nazi genocide who wanted to leave Europe after WW II wished to emigrate to the United States, as many as 80% according to a New York Times poll. (Rita Freed, War in the Mideast, New York, Worldview, 1972) It would not have been difficult for the U.S. to absorb 400,000 Jewish refugees, particularly given the fact that the U.S. mainland had suffered no damage during the war and its economy was booming. U.S. corporate and government leaders opposed opening the doors to the survivors of the Nazi persecution, fearing that many were influenced by communist and socialist ideas. The Zionist leaders were well aware of the desire of the European Jewish survivors to come to the U.S. and they were equally opposed. As Chaplain Klausner, a Zionist organizer put it: “I am convinced that the people [the Jewish refugees] must be forced to go to Palestine.” (Peoples Press Palestine Book Project, Our Roots Are Still Alive, Boston, People’s Press, 1977)
Plan Dalet and the expulsion of the Palestinians
Under intense U.S. pressure, the United Nations passed a resolution on Nov. 29, 1947, allocating 56 percent of historic Palestine to Israel, with 44 percent to go to the creation of a Palestinian state. Palestinians comprised 70 percent of the population at the time.
Fighting broke out immediately. In January 1948 the Haganah and the Irgun, Zionist paramilitary forces, began to carry out “Plan Dalet.” Under this plan, they staged nighttime attacks on “quiet” Palestinian villages—those not involved in fighting.
Haganah and Irgun units would typically plant explosives around houses, drench them with gasoline and open fire. The point was to terrorize and drive out the Palestinian population.
Villagers left their homes, but typically went only as far as the next village, a situation unacceptable to the Israeli leaders.
Massacre as a means of transfer
The April 9, 1948, massacre of the entire village of Deir Yassin by the Irgun raised “Plan Dalet” to a new level of brutality. When it was over, more than 200 children, women and men lay dead.
It was meant as a warning to all Palestinians. While the Jewish Agency “condemned” the Deir Yassin massacre in words, on the same day it brought the Irgun into the military Joint Command.
Twelve days after Deir Yassin, joint Irgun-Haganah forces launched a lethal attack on the Palestinian areas of Haifa. They rolled barrel bombs filled with gasoline and dynamite down narrow alleys in the heavily populated city while mortar shells pounded the Arab neighborhoods from overhead.
Haganah army loudspeakers and sound cars broadcast “horror recordings” of shrieks and screams of Arab women, mixed with calls of: “Flee for your lives. The Jews are using poison gas and nuclear weapons.” The Irgun commander reported that many Palestinians cried “Deir Yassin, Deir Yassin,” as they fled. (Peoples Press Palestine Book Project, Our Roots Are Still Alive, Boston, People’s Press, 1977)
Within a week, similar tactics led 77,000 of 80,000 Palestinians to flee the port city of Jaffa. Similar operations were repeated many times.
By May 15, 1948, when Israel’s independence was proclaimed, 300,000 Palestinians were living and dying in abominable conditions of exile in Lebanon, Gaza, Syria and the Jordan Valley.
By the end of that year, the number of dispossessed Palestinians had grown to 750,000.
In the 1948 war, Israel, with its superior economic and military resources and its support from the Western powers, ended up conquering 78 percent of Palestine. The Israeli military strategy was not just to conquer land, but to drive out as much of the Palestinian population as possible from that land.
Nearly 90 percent of the Arab population was forcibly “transferred” to make way for the new Israeli state. Their farms, work places and homes were stolen, forming an indispensable foundation for the new Israeli economy and state.
Serving western imperialism
From its beginning, Israel required vast amounts of outside economic and military aid to survive. In 1951, an editorial appeared in Ha’aretz, a leading newspaper, outlining how the new state would repay the aid extended to it: “Therefore, strengthening Israel helps the Western powers to maintain equilibrium and stability in the Middle East. Israel is to be a watchdog. … If for some reason the Western powers should sometimes prefer to close their eyes, Israel could be relied on to punish one or several neighboring states whose discourtesy toward the West went beyond the bounds of the permissible.”
An early opportunity to show Israel’s “watchdog” role came in 1956. That year, the nationalist Egyptian government of Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, the strategic waterway connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean. Under Nasser, Egypt was seen as the leading force in the decolonization struggle in the Middle East.
Nasser’s “discourtesy” enraged Britain and France. Britain wanted to regain control of the Suez Canal. France saw Egypt as the key ally of the National Liberation Front, which was fighting to free Algeria from French rule.
In October 1956, Israel launched a surprise attack on Egypt. A few days later, British and French paratroopers landed in the Suez Canal zone and elsewhere in Egypt. The aim was to overthrow the Nasser government and return the Suez to British control. As its reward, Israel would keep Gaza and the entire Sinai Peninsula.
Nothing could have made Israel’s role clearer than the 1956 war. But the results of the war did not stand. Worldwide outrage opposed this blatant imperialist intervention. The Soviet Union threatened to intervene on the side of Egypt. And the U.S. government opposed the attack, though for very different reasons. The United States did not want to see its imperialist rivals, Britain and France, strengthened in the Middle East.
In the late 1950s and 1960s, U.S. military aid poured into Israel. With invaluable assistance from the U.S., Israel developed nuclear weapons.
Palestinian refugee camps like this one in Jenin, West Bank, have become centers of resistance to Israeli occupation.
Photo: Saif Dahlah/AFP/Getty Images
With a lightning strike in 1967, Israel conquered the remainder of Palestine—the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza—along with Egypt’s Sinai and Syria’s Golan Heights. After 1967, U.S. aid flowed like a river. Israel began receiving an average of $3$4 billion per year in official aid, more than any other country. The U.S. built Israel into the fifth-ranking military power, despite having a population of about 5 million people.
Israel repaid this aid in many ways. In the mid-1970s, Israel intervened to support the fascist elements in Lebanon’s civil war. In 1978 and 1982, it invaded Lebanon, and in 1982 occupied Beirut. In 1981, Israel destroyed an Iraqi nuclear power plant.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Israel gave key support to the apartheid government in South Africa, particularly at times when it was “inconvenient” for Washington to be seen openly supporting the racist regime.
Israel helped train and arm the Guatemalan army when it was carrying out genocide against the Indigenous peoples of that country, and when the U.S. Congress had cut off direct aid to Guatemala.
The Israeli secret police helped to train the torturers in Chile and other countries of Latin America after CIA-coordinated military coups in the 1970s.
U.S. opposition to Palestinian return
Most important from the U.S. leaders’ point of view is Israel’s role in the oil-rich and strategically vital Middle East. The fact that the U.S. military is stretched thin by the intensity of an Iraqi popular resistance that it did not anticipate only serves to highlight the importance of Israel’s role in the U.S. strategy of global domination.
How Israel is actually viewed inside the ruling establishment here has nothing to do with sympathy or friendship for Jewish people.
While Israel is a relatively small state, the Pentagon views it as a gigantic military base, an “unsinkable aircraft carrier,” as one commentator put it.
Israel is seen as more reliable than even the most compliant of reactionary Arab regimes, like those in Egypt or Jordan or Saudi Arabia. Washington policy makers are highly aware of the fact that the masses of people in all the Arab states governed by U.S.-dependent regimes are opposed to both their repressive regimes and U.S. domination of the region. They know, moreover, that those regimes are all living on borrowed time, though no one knows how much is left. These governments can be overthrown by their own people as happened when the Iranian revolution deposed the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran. Israel is a safer bet for Washington. As a settler regime it is completely dependent on the United States.
The return of millions of Palestinian refugees and the replacement of the present racist, exclusivist system with a democratic, secular state would compromise Israel’s reliability in Washington’s eyes. Washington’s “special relationship” with Israel is predicated on its existence as an apartheid-style state.
That was the also the case with South Africa in an earlier time. It was only when the settler regime was in power that the U.S. could count on South Africa to serve as a reliable bastion of imperialist domination in southern and central Africa.
The reasons for the Israeli and U.S. leaders’ virulent opposition to the Palestinian struggle are not identical but congruent. The Israelis want to maintain their domination of Palestine and its land. The United States wants to maintain Israel as an instrument of imperialist domination in the entire Middle East region. Both see denying the most elementary rights of the Palestinian people, including their right of return, as essential to their respective aims.