The Dying West Bank

February 4, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Robert Fisk, from Jiftlik

Area C doesn’t sound very ominous. A land of stone-sprinkled grey hills and soft green valleys, it’s part of the wreckage of the equally wrecked Oslo Agreement, accounting for 60 per cent of the Israeli-occupied West Bank that was eventually supposed to be handed over to its Palestinian inhabitants.

But look at the statistics and leaf through the pile of demolition orders lying on the table in front of Abed Kasab, head of the village council in Jiftlik, and it all looks like ethnic cleansing via bureaucracy. Perverse might be the word for the paperwork involved. Obscene appear to be the results.

Palestinian houses that cannot be permitted to stand, roofs that must be taken down, wells closed, sewage systems demolished; in one village, I even saw a primitive electricity system in which Palestinians must sink their electrical poles cemented into concrete blocks standing on the surface of the dirt road. To place the poles in the earth would ensure their destruction – no Palestinian can dig a hole more than 40cm below the ground.

But let’s return to the bureaucracy. “Ro’i” – if that is indeed the Israeli official’s name, for it is difficult to decipher – signed a batch of demolition papers for Jiftlik last December, all duly delivered, in Arabic and Hebrew, to Mr Kasab. There are 21 of them, running – non-sequentially – from numbers 143912 through 145059, all from “The High Planning Council Monitoring [sic] Sub-Committee of the Civil Administration for the Area of Judea and Samaria”. Judea and Samaria – for ordinary folk – is the occupied West Bank. The first communication is dated 8 December, 2009, the last 17 December.

And as Mr Kasab puts it, that’s the least of his problems. Palestinian requests to build houses are either delayed for years or refused; houses built without permission are ruthlessly torn down; corrugated iron roofs have to be camouflaged with plastic sheets in the hope the “Civil Administration” won’t deem them an extra floor – in which case “Ro’i’s” lads will be round to rip the lot off the top of the house.

In Area C, there are up to 150,000 Palestinians and 300,000 Jewish colonists living – illegally under international law – in 120 official settlements and 100 “unapproved” settlements or, in the language we must use these days, “illegal outposts”; illegal under Israeli as well as international law, that is – as opposed to the 120 internationally illegal colonies which are legal under Israeli law. Jewish settlers, needless to say, don’t have problems with planning permission.

The winter sun blazes through the door of Mr Kasab’s office and cigarette smoke drifts through the room as the angry men of Jiftlik shout their grievances. “I don’t mind if you print my name, I am so angry, I will take the consequences,” he says. “Breathing is the only thing we don’t need a permit for yet!” The rhetoric is tired, but the fury is real. “Buildings, new roads, reservoirs, we have been waiting three years to get permits. We cannot get a permit for a new health clinic. We are short of water for both human and agricultural use. Getting permission to rehabilitate the water system costs 70,000 Israeli shekels [about £14,000] it costs more than the rehabilitation system itself.”

A drive along the wild roads of Area C – from the outskirts of Jerusalem to the semi-humid basin of the Jordan valley – runs through dark hills and bare, stony valleys lined with deep, ancient caves, until, further east, lie the fields of the Palestinians and the Jewish settlers’ palm groves – electrified fences round the groves – and the mud or stone huts of Palestinian sheep farmers. This paradise is a double illusion. One group of inhabitants, the Israelis, may remember their history and live in paradise. The smaller group, the Palestinian Arabs, are able to look across these wonderful lands and remember their history – but they are already out of paradise and into limbo.

Even the western NGOs working in Area C find their work for Palestinians blocked by the Israelis. This is not just a “hitch” in the “peace process” – whatever that is – but an international scandal. Oxfam, for example, asked the Israelis for a permit to build a 300m2 capacity below-ground reservoir along with 700m of underground 4in pipes for the thousands of Palestinians living around Jiftlik. It was refused. They then gave notice that they intended to construct an above-ground installation of two glass-fibre tanks, an above-ground pipe and booster pump. They were told they would need a permit even though the pipes were above ground – and they were refused a permit. As a last resort, Oxfam is now distributing rooftop water tanks.

I came across an even more outrageous example of this apartheid-by-permit in the village of Zbeidat, where the European Union’s humanitarian aid division installed 18 waste water systems to prevent the hamlet’s vile-smelling sewage running through the gardens and across the main road into the fields. The £80,000 system a series of 40ft shafts regularly flushed out by sewage trucks was duly installed because the location lay inside Area B, where no planning permission was required.

Yet now the aid workers have been told by the Israelis that work “must stop” on six of the 18 shafts a prelude to their demolition, although already they are already built beside the road because part of the village stands in Area C. Needless to say, no one neither Palestinians nor Israelis knows the exact borderline between B and C. Thus around £20,000 of European money has been thrown away by the Israeli “Civil Administration.”

But in one way, this storm of permission and non-permission papers is intended to obscure the terrible reality of Area C. Many Israeli activists as well as western NGOs suspect Israel intends to force the Palestinians here to leave their lands and homes and villages and depart into the wretchedness of Areas B and A. B is jointly controlled by Israeli military and civil authorities and Palestinian police, and A by the witless Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas. Thus would the Palestinians be left to argue over a mere 40 per cent of the occupied West Bank – in itself a tiny fraction of the 22 per cent of Mandated Palestine over which the equally useless Yasser Arafat once hoped to rule. Add to this the designation of 18 per cent of Area C as “closed military areas” by the Israelis and add another 3 per cent preposterously designated as a “nature reserve” – it would be interesting to know what kind of animals roam there – and the result is simple: even without demolition orders, Palestinians cannot build in 70 per cent of Area C.

Along one road, I discovered a series of large concrete blocks erected by the Israeli army in front of Palestinian shacks. “Danger – Firing Area” was printed on each in Hebrew, Arabic and English. “Entrance Forbidden.” What are the Palestinians living here supposed to do? Area C, it should be added, is the richest of the occupied Palestinian lands, with cheese production and animal farms. Many of the 5,000 souls in Jiftlik have been refugees already, their families fled lands to the west of Jerusalem – in present-day Israel – in 1947 and 1948. Their tragedy has not yet ended, of course. What price Palestine?

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Controversial Bestseller Shakes the Foundation of the Israeli State

February 5, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Joshua Holland, AlterNet

What if the Palestinian Arabs who have lived for decades under the heel of the modern Israeli state are in fact descended from the very same “children of Israel” described in the Old Testament?

And what if most modern Israelis aren’t descended from the ancient Israelites at all, but are actually a mix of Europeans, North Africans and others who didn’t “return” to the scrap of land we now call Israel and establish a new state following the attempt to exterminate them during World War II, but came in and forcefully displaced people whose ancestors had lived there for millennia?

What if the entire tale of the Jewish Diaspora — the story recounted at Passover tables by Jews around the world every year detailing the ancient Jews’ exile from Judea, the years spent wandering through the desert, their escape from the Pharaoh’s clutches — is all wrong?

That’s the explosive thesis of When and How Was the Jewish People Invented?, a book by Tel Aviv University scholar Shlomo Zand (or Sand) that sent shockwaves across Israeli society when it was published last year. After 19 weeks on the Israeli best-seller list, the book is being translated into a dozen languages and will be published in the United States this year by Verso.

Its thesis has ramifications that go far beyond some antediluvian academic debate. Few modern conflicts are as attached to ancient history as that decades-long cycle of bloodletting between Israelis and Palestinians. Each group lays claim to the same scrap of land — holy in all three of the world’s major Abrahamic religions — based on long-standing ties to that chunk of earth and national identities formed over long periods of time. There’s probably no other place on Earth where the present is as intimately tied to the ancient.

Central to the ideology of Zionism is the tale — familiar to all Jewish families — of exile, oppression, redemption and return. Booted from their kingdom, the “Jewish people” — sons and daughters of ancient Judea — wandered the earth, rootless, where they faced cruel suppression from all corners — from being forced to toil in slavery under the Egyptians, to the Spanish massacres of the 14th century and Russian pogroms of the 19th, through to the horrors of the Third Reich.

This view of history animates all Zionists, but none more so than the influential but reactionary minority — in the United States as well as Israel — who believe that God bestowed a “Greater Israel” — one that encompasses the modern state as well as the Occupied Territories — on the Jewish people, and who resist any effort to create a Palestinian state on biblical grounds.

Inventing a People?

Zand’s central argument is that the Romans didn’t expel whole nations from their territories. Zand estimates that perhaps 10,000 ancient Judeans were vanquished during the Roman wars, and the remaining inhabitants of ancient Judea remained, converting to Islam and assimilating with their conquerors when Arabs subjugated the area. They became the progenitors of today’s Palestinian Arabs, many of whom now live as refugees who were exiled from their homeland during the 20th century.

As Israeli journalist Tom Segev summarized, in a review of the book in Ha’aretz:

There never was a Jewish people, only a Jewish religion, and the exile also never happened — hence there was no return. Zand rejects most of the stories of national-identity formation in the Bible, including the exodus from Egypt and, most satisfactorily, the horrors of the conquest under Joshua.

But this begs the question: if the ancient people of Judea weren’t expelled en masse, then how did it come to pass that Jewish people are scattered across the world? According to Zand, who offers detailed histories of several groups within what is conventionally known as the Jewish Diaspora, some were Jews who emigrated of their own volition, and many more were later converts to Judaism. Contrary to popular belief, Zand argues that Judaism was an evangelical religion that actively sought out new adherents during its formative period.

This narrative has huge significance in terms of Israel’s national identity. If Judaism is a religion, rather than “a people” descended from a dispersed nation, then it brings into question the central justification for the state of Israel remaining a “Jewish state.”

And that brings us to Zand’s second assertion. He argues that the story of the Jewish nation — the transformation of the Jewish people from a group with a shared cultural identity and religious faith into a vanquished “people” — was a relatively recent invention, hatched in the 19th century by Zionist scholars and advanced by the Israeli academic establishment. It was, argues Zand, an intellectual conspiracy of sorts. Segev says, “It’s all fiction and myth that served as an excuse for the establishment of the State of Israel.”

Zand Gets Slammed; Do His Arguments Stand Up?

The ramifications of Zand’s argument are far-reaching; “the chances that the Palestinians are descendants of the ancient Judaic people are much greater than the chances that you or I are its descendants,” he told Ha’aretz. Zand argues that Israel should be a state in which all of the inhabitants of what was once “British Palestine” share the full rights and responsibilities of citizenship, rather than maintaining it as a “Jewish and democratic” state, as it’s now identified.

Predictably, Zand was pilloried according to the time-tested formula. Ami Isseroff, writing on ZioNation, the Zionism-Israel blog, invoked the customary Holocaust imagery, accusing Zand of offering a “final solution to the Jewish problem,” one in which “No auto da fe is required, no charging Cossacks are needed, no gas chambers, no smelly crematoria.” Another feverish ideologue called Zand’s work “another manifestation of mental disorder in the extreme academic Left in Israel.”

That kind of overheated rhetoric is a standard straw man in the endless roil of discourse over Israel and the Palestinians, and is easily dismissed. But more serious criticism also greeted Zand’s work. In a widely read critical review of Zand’s work, Israel Bartal, dean of humanities at the Hebrew University, slammed the author’s second assertion — that Zionist academics had suppressed the true history of Judaism’s spread through emigration and conversion in favor of a history that would give legitimacy to the quest for a Jewish state.

Bartal raised important questions about Zand’s methodology and pointed out what appears to be some sloppy details in the book. But, interestingly, in defending Israel’s academic community, Bartal supported Zand’s more consequential thesis, writing, “Although the myth of an exile from the Jewish homeland (Palestine) does exist in popular Israeli culture, it is negligible in serious Jewish historical discussions.” Bartal added: “no historian of the Jewish national movement has ever really believed that the origins of the Jews are ethnically and biologically ‘pure.’ “ He noted that “[i]mportant groups in the [Zionist] movement expressed reservations regarding this myth or denied it completely.”

“As far as I can discern,” Bartal wrote, “the book contains not even one idea that has not been presented” in previous historical studies. Segev added that “Zand did not invent [his] thesis; 30 years before the Declaration of Independence, it was espoused by David Ben-Gurion, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi and others.”

One can reasonably argue that this ancient myth of a Jewish nation exiled until its 20th century return is of little consequence; whether the Jewish people share a common genetic ancestry or are a far-flung collection of people who share the same faith, a common national identity has in fact developed over the centuries. But Zand’s central contention stands, and has some significant implications for the current conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

Changing the Conversation?

The primary reason it’s so difficult to discuss the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is the remarkably effective job supporters of Israel’s control of the Occupied Territories — including Gaza, still under de facto occupation — have done equating support for Palestinian self-determination with a desire to see the destruction of Israel. It effectively conflates any advocacy of Palestinian rights with the specter of Jewish extermination.

That’s certainly been the case with arguments for a single-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Until recent years, advocating a “single-state” solution — a binational state where all residents of what are today Israel and the Occupied Territories share the full rights and responsibilities of citizenship — was a relatively mainstream position to take. In fact, it was one of several competing plans considered by the United Nations when it created the state of Israel in the 1940s.

But the idea of a single, binational state has more recently been marginalized — dismissed as an attempt to destroy Israel literally and physically, rather than as an ethnic and religious-based political entity with a population of second-class Arab citizens and the legacy of responsibility for world’s longest-standing refugee population.

A logical conclusion of Zand’s work exposing Israel’s founding mythology may be the restoration of the idea of a one-state solution to a legitimate place in the debate over this contentious region. After all, while it muddies the waters in one sense — raising ancient, biblical questions about just who the “children of Israel” really are — in another sense, it hints at the commonalities that exist between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs. Both groups lay claim to the same crust of earth, both have faced historic repression and displacement and both hold dear the idea that they should have a “right of return.”

And if both groups in fact share common biblical ties, then it begs the question of why the entirety of what was Palestine under the British mandate should remain a refuge for people of one religion instead of being a country in which Jews and Arabs are guaranteed equal protection — equal protection under the laws of a state whose legitimacy would never again be open to question.

Joshua Holland is an AlterNet staff writer.

Israeli Bestseller Breaks National Taboo : Idea of a Jewish People Invented, Says Historian

October 16, 2008 by · Leave a Comment 

Courtesy Jonathan Cook, antiwar.com

No one is more surprised than Shlomo Sand that his latest academic work has pent 19 weeks on Israel`s bestseller list – and that success has come to the history professor despite his book challenging Israel’s biggest taboo. Dr. Sand argues that the idea of a Jewish nation – whose need for a safe haven was originally used to justify the founding of the state of Israel – is  myth invented little more than a century ago.

An expert on European history at Tel Aviv University, Dr. Sand drew on extensive historical and archaeological research to support not only this claim but several more – all equally controversial. In addition, he argues that the Jews were never exiled from the Holy Land, that most of today`s Jews have no historical connection to the land called Israel and that the only political solution to the country’s conflict with the Palestinians is to abolish the Jewish state. The success of When and How Was the Jewish People Invented? looks likely to be repeated around the world. A French edition, launched last month, is selling so fast that it has already had three print runs.

Translations are under way into a dozen languages, including Arabic and English. But he predicted a rough ride from the pro-Israel lobby when the book is launched by his English publisher, Verso, in the United States next year.

In contrast, he said Israelis had been, if not exactly supportive, at least curious about his argument. Tom Segev, one of the country`s leading journalists, has called the book `fascinating and challenging.` Surprisingly, Dr. Sand said, most of his academic colleagues in Israel have shied away from tackling his arguments.

One exception is Israel Bartal, a professor of Jewish history at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Writing in Haaretz, the Israeli daily newspaper, Dr. Bartal made little effort to rebut Dr. Sand`s claims. He dedicated much of his article instead to defending his profession, suggesting that Israeli historians were not as ignorant about the invented nature of Jewish history as Dr. Sand contends.

The idea for the book came to him many years ago, Dr. Sand said, but he waited until recently to start working on it. `I cannot claim to be particularly courageous in publishing the book now,` he said. `I waited until I was a full professor. There is a price to be paid in Israeli academia for expressing views of this sort.`

Dr. Sand`s main argument is that until little more than a century ago, Jews thought of themselves as Jews only because they shared a common religion. At the turn of the 20th century, he said, Zionist Jews challenged this idea and started creating a national history by inventing the idea that Jews existed as people separate from their religion.

Equally, the modern Zionist idea of Jews being obligated to return from exile to the Promised Land was entirely alien to Judaism, he added.

`Zionism changed the idea of Jerusalem. Before, the holy places were seen as places to long for, not to be lived in. For 2,000 years Jews stayed away from Jerusalem not because they could not return but because their religion forbade them from returning until the messiah came.

The biggest surprise during his research came when he started looking at the archaeological evidence from the biblical era.

`I was not raised as a Zionist, but like all other Israelis I took it for granted that the Jews were a people living in Judea and that they were exiled by the Romans in 70AD.

`But once I started looking at the evidence, I discovered that the kingdoms of David and Solomon were legends.

`Similarly with the exile. In fact, you can`t explain Jewishness without exile. But when I started to look for history books describing the events of this exile, I couldn`t find any. Not one.

`That was because the Romans did not exile people. In fact, Jews in Palestine were overwhelming peasants and all the evidence suggests they stayed on their lands.`

Instead, he believes an alternative theory is more plausible: the exile was a myth promoted by early Christians to recruit Jews to the new faith. `Christians wanted later generations of Jews to believe that their ancestors had been exiled as a punishment from God.`

So if there was no exile, how is it that so many Jews ended up scattered around the globe before the modern state of Israel began encouraging them to `return`? Dr. Sand said that, in the centuries immediately preceding and following the Christian era, Judaism was a proselytizing religion, desperate for converts.

This is mentioned in the Roman literature of the time.` Jews traveled to other regions seeking converts, particularly in Yemen and among the Berber tribes of North Africa. Centuries later, the people of the Khazar kingdom in what is today south Russia, would convert en masse to Judaism, becoming the genesis of the Ashkenazi Jews of central and eastern Europe.

Dr. Sand pointed to the strange state of denial in which most Israelis live, noting that papers offered extensive coverage recently to the discovery of the capital of the Khazar kingdom next to the Caspian Sea.

Ynet, the website of Israel`s most popular newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, headlined the story: `Russian archaeologists find long-lost Jewish capital.`

And yet none of the papers, he added, had considered the significance of this find to standard accounts of Jewish history.

One further question is prompted by Dr. Sand`s account, as he himself notes: if most Jews never left the Holy Land, what became of them?

`It is not taught in Israeli schools but most of the early Zionist leaders, including David Ben Gurion [Israel`s first prime minister], believed that the Palestinians were the descendants of the area’s original Jews. They believed the Jews had later converted to Islam.`

Dr. Sand attributed his colleagues` reticence to engage with him to an implicit acknowledgement by many that the whole edifice of `Jewish history` taught at Israeli universities is built like a house of cards.

The problem with the teaching of history in Israel, Dr. Sand said, dates to a decision in the 1930s to separate history into two disciplines: general history and Jewish history. Jewish history was assumed to need its own field of study because Jewish experience was considered unique.

`There’s no Jewish department of politics or sociology at the universities. Only history is taught in this way, and it has allowed specialists in Jewish history to live in a very insular and conservative world where they are not touched by modern developments in historical research.

`I`ve been criticized in Israel for writing about Jewish history when European history is my specialty. But a book like this needed a historian who is familiar with the standard concepts of historical inquiry used by academia in the rest of the world.`

This article originally appeared in The National, published in Abu Dhabi.

http://www.antiwar.com/orig/cook.php?articleid=13569

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