Critical reflections on Israel’s claim to land in Palestine

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In November 2017 US president Donald Trump announced that his country’s embassy would move to Jerusalem to give effect to the US’s conviction that Jerusalem should be the capital of Israel. This created a furore. Almost all the states belonging to the United Nations (UN) condemned the announcement. Although Israel laid claim to West Jerusalem during the 1967 war, the prevailing position in the international community has been that East Jerusalem would eventually become the capital of a Palestinian state upon its establishment.

Trump’s announcement, in the year of the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the State of Israel, and amid uncritical arguments by Jews and Christians that Israel is the Promised Land of the Tenakh /Old Testament, with Palestinian Arabs therefore having no legitimate claim to the territory, prompted the writing of this article. The aim of the article, which is based partly on the observations of one of the authors during a fact-finding mission to the West Bank, is to critically assess Israeli claims to Palestine, and to contextualise these claims in light of colonial and imperial histories.

Israel came into existence in 1948 after the UN had accepted a resolution during the previous year that the British mandate over Palestine be divided into two sections – one for Jewish people and one for Arabs. Although Jews owned less than 7% of the country, and Arabs outnumbered Jews by two to one in 1947, the UN assigned the greater part of the mandate to Jews. However, it recommended that Jerusalem should be assigned to neither of the groups, but remain a “neutral city”. Apart from all Arab states, most other UN member states approved the partition plan. Arab states emphasised that the UN was trying to solve one problem (the threat to Jewish survival in the wake of the Holocaust) by creating another one (endangering Arab survival in Palestine in the face of a Jewish state).

Soon after Britain withdrew its personnel and forces from the mandate area in May 1948, and before the UN partition plan could be implemented, the Zionist movement in Palestine unilaterally established the State of Israel. Zionists also laid claim to more sections of the mandate than had been assigned to Israel in the original UN partition plan. War broke out between the newly declared State of Israel and its neighbours Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. The Zionist forces were well prepared and succeeded in fending off the attacks. However, at the time Zionists also attacked and demolished a large number of the Palestinian villages. Some 700 000 indigenous Palestinians fled to neighbouring countries. Today Israelis refer to the 1948 war as the War of Liberation, while the Palestinian Arabs refer to it as the Catastrophe (al-nakba). Peace was eventually established, but none of the neighbouring states officially recognised Israel as a legitimate state. Subsequently, the original UN partition plan was shelved for many years, and Israel has been in constant conflict with its neighbouring states.

The US soon assumed the role of peace broker not only between Israel and its neighbours but also between the Israelis and the Palestinian Arabs. However, a long-lasting peaceful settlement has been elusive. Israelis are adamant that the land has belonged to them since the days of Abraham. Palestinian Arabs argue that their forebears have lived in that region for centuries, that they are also descendants of Abraham and that the “land promise” therefore applies to them too.

The authors did a historical-critical reading of the so-called land promises in the Pentateuch and critically studied the history of the occupation of this region since 1200 BCE. The following became evident: (1) The biblical text does not give a clear indication of where the borders of the so-called Promised Land would run. Moreover, the land was promised to Abraham’s descendants, who evidently cannot be only Jews. Abraham had two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, and Isaac had two sons, Esau and Jacob. All their descendants can claim to be heirs to the promise. Furthermore, the stories in the Pentateuch are human creations, written with specific interests and ideological perspectives. (2) The history of the occupation of this part of the globe evidences that the Israelites, Jews and Israelis occupied this region for almost 500 years: 930–587/6 BCE, 142–63 BCE, and 1948–2018. Notably, in comparison, Muslim groups occupied the region for more than 1 400 years. This leads to the conclusion that Israel’s purported right to the territory cannot be legitimised through claims of occupancy.

The promise of a national territory for “the Jews” never involved the same geographical boundaries. Similarly, settlements in the area consisted of different competing groups over time, rather than a seamless presence of “the Jews”. Arab people have been in control of the region for a notably longer period than Jewish people. Indeed, despite the efforts to substantiate the Israeli claim with reference to biblical, religious and historical justifications, the analysis reveals that the Israeli occupation is a new and modern phenomenon that cannot be read through the same lens as previous settlements and movements of people in that region.

Misrepresentations about borders and the occupants of land are not accidental. The purpose is the legitimation of identities that are contingent products of contemporary conditions. Zionist representation of Jewish occupation of the Palestinian territory as stretching back to biblical times creates a national identity that originates in the mists of an ancient history. In reality, this ancient history is fabricated and the identity – “the Israeli” – is completely new, having been produced through the recent occupation of Palestine. However, the occupation is not purely of a nationalist variety. Rather than looking for ancient origins, it should be read in its historical context of two millennia of anti-Semitism and five centuries of colonialism that culminated in the 20th-century abomination of the Holocaust. The European phenomena of anti-Semitism and colonialism have contributed to the formation of a national identity as a basis for the State of Israel.

Disconcertingly, given the history of Jewish persecution, a number of colonial elements can be discerned in this formation. Firstly, the erasure of the millennia-long reality of Palestine as a territory where people with different religious and ethnic backgrounds – including Muslims, Christians and Jews – have lived. The Bible is used to create the myth that the territory is the God-given promised home of the Jews, baptised “Israel” to confirm this claim. This myth, as reflected in a present-day adage about Israel as “a land without people for people without land”, draws on the colonial invention of an empty land that the Zionists purportedly found upon their arrival. This invention has also been used elsewhere, for example in South Africa and Australia, to justify settler invasion.

Secondly, Israel depends on colonial and Orientalist stereotyping to validate the expulsion and devastation of Palestinian people. In a hierarchical dichotomy typical of these discourses, Palestinians are presented as innately inferior, with the attendant co-production of Israelis as superior. It is a historical irony that, after millennia of European racist persecution of Jewish people, Zionism draws on a mode of colonial “whiteness” to elevate Israeli Jews at the expense of Arabs. Thus, the unfolding destruction of Palestinians becomes normalised as something of their own making as “lesser human beings” who do not qualify for land or citizenship, and against whom violence is acceptable. The biblical narrative obscures the violence and privation that Israeli methods of conquest, oppression and eradication have unleashed against Palestinians. The insistence on a biblical justification is again aimed at presenting Israeli violence as God-given and natural. It purports that Israel carries the blessing of the Jewish-Christian God. Hence the Palestinians’ struggle to survive – even their mere presence – is delegitimised.

Therefore the Israeli occupation amounts to colonialism similar to those forms that European states had been perpetrating from the 16th century onwards. In Israeli colonialism the seizure of land is a central element. It is a reciprocal process: as more land is seized, with concomitant political, military, economic, social and ideological processes, the identity is affirmed. The converse is also true, as the territorial claims and expansions are made possible through the ongoing reiteration of this new modern national identity. Zionism cultivates a nationalist ethnic identity, based on religious and historical inventions, that stands in the service of a colonial project that creates and maintains “Israel”. A balancing trick is achieved between the apparently contradictory positions of Jewishness as European identity and Jewishness as Semitic identity. The latter is necessary to claim territory in the Middle East for an ethnic-religious state. The former speaks to the colonial character of this state, with Israel fitting into a global neo-imperial schema driven by the USA with the support of the EU. In an unlikely pact, the persecution of Jewish people over millennia, culminating in the Holocaust, is ameliorated with the West’s embrace of Israel. The dehumanisation of Jews is redirected to Muslims and Arabs. Jewish identity is granted parity with European whiteness, in return for Israel’s serving as a proxy to advance Western white geopolitical control over the Middle East.

Keywords: anti-Semitism; apartheid; Arabs; British mandate; Canaan; Christians; colonialism; history of occupation; Islam; Israel; Israelis; Jerusalem; Jews; Judaism; Muslims; Nazism; Old Testament; Orientalism; Palestinians; post-colonialism; Promised Land; Zionism; whiteness

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Kritiese besinnings oor die Israelse eiendomsaansprake op Palestina

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  • Daar sal altyd verskil word oor die presiese betekenis van God se belofte aan Abram.
    Lees 'n mens bv 'n verklaring in die Jewish virtual library, sal jy die volgende vind:
    Al die navorsing beteken niks as 'n mens Jesus Christus se bestaan en verlossingswerk ontken. Dit maak nie saak hoe groot of hoe klein 'n mens die 'beloofde land' beredeneer nie, wat belangriker is, is dat jy Christus as die beloofde Verlosser aanvaar en dat deur Hom al God se beloftes vervat in die Bybel in vervulling sal gaan.
    Doen jy dit, maak dit nie saak waar die grense getrek word nie, want daaroor sal daar altyd verskille wees, afhangende hoe jy die skrif en geskiedenis vertolk.

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    Johnnes Comestor

    Die artikel is ingeklee in die hedendaagse retoriek van anti-kolonialisme. Israel se aanspraak op Jerusalem in sy geheel is gebaseer op grondgebied wat hy wettig in 'n oorlog verower het nadat hy homself suksesvol teen invallers uit die buurstate verdedig het. Israel kan op baie meer grondgebied aanspraak maak as wat hy tans beset, bv die hele Sinai-skiereiland as verowerde gebied..

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