The following is a heavily redacted version of a lecture delivered by Dr. Micaela Sahhar at Monash University in April 2017 as a guest lecturer in a course titled ‘the Arab-Israeli Conflict’ coordinated by the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation. The lecture delved into key issues in our understanding of Israel/Palestine, the so-called conflict and the significance of historical narration and (mis)representation. The lecture was accompanied by a powerpoint presentation of which we bring you a few slides. With the author’s permission, below are sections from the lecture that focused on the occupation of 1967, and critical issues in the discussion of two states:
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“…An idea prevalent in Israeli national narrative is that there is a significant and ultimately devastating shift between the creation of the State in 1948 and the Six Day War in 1967. In many conventional narratives, 1967 is the date to which Occupation is attributed, and serves as the axiomatic moment in which it is said that Israel ‘lost its way’.
… I will talk about 1967, but with my qualifications in mind, I will in particular demonstrate why, although I am beginning with 1967, the extent to which it is arbitrary, both as a date for Occupation and as a date which marks fundamental shifts in the ideologies which have produced the seemingly intractable scenario of the Israel-Palestinian conflict today. I would say that for Palestinians, while there are material changes created by the Six Day War, and while it is the date at which an idea of Occupation commences, in fact this is a date that forms part of a continuum of processes that crystalise in the creation of the Israeli State in 1948. Subsequently, the borders (unstable and undeclared as they are) acquired in 1967 have been cited by a succession of Israeli statesmen as central to an idea of Israel’s secureability and defensibility. Israel’s New Historian Ilan Pappe notes that there is an irony to this rhetoric, as the apparent securability of the post-67 borders is based on a boundary with the Jordan River. Yet, as Pappé point out, even a frail old man could leap over the Jordan River in places. More critically even than this however, is I think the mythology around which 1967 stands in Israeli society as the moment at which Israel starts to lose its moral authority in terms of relations with the Palestinian population. That in 1967 Occupation commences and that this slowly undermines the character of relations between Israelis and Palestinians in the new dynamic that it creates of Occupier and Occupied. To the contrary, and again this is an argument that has been made by Ilan Pappe, it is of great significance to note that in 1963, four years before the actual Occupation, the Israeli military was ready with a judicial and administrative structure for ruling the lives of one million Palestinians. This is highly significant in so far as it indicates that the relations of Occupation created in 1967 were not only anticipated but that they were planned for. Moreover, that the Occupation that commences in 1967 was seen as a companion strategy to ensure certain needs of the Israeli State as envisaged in the Zionist plan enacted in 1948. In this regard, Pappe views 1948 as an incomplete project, which is more or less completed, albeit in a different form, in 1967. Pappe has argued for this reason as I do now that 1967 is hardly a central date but that the so called completion of the State project in respect to the Palestinian population might have been executed at an earlier time and particularly in the four years in which an infrastructure for Occupation had been established between 1963 and 1967. But of course, the plan does not take the same form as the earlier ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Palestine or even quite the same form in terms of land expropriation and dispossession that occurs at this earlier date either. Pappe explains why this is the case…”
“…So from a Palestinian view, and perhaps what I would describe in Pappe as the post-Zionist view of 1967, this date is just one part of the Zionist colonisation project, crystalised in a material sense in 1948 but for which the foundations are laid much earlier. They are certainly laid, although perhaps they seem unlikely at the time, long before the rise of Adolph Hitler between the World Wars, or his genocidal attempt to enact the ‘Final Solution’ by way of the Holocaust, which undoubtedly affected an enormous number of Jewish people. But in this account, what the Holocaust explains in terms of the contemporary Israel-Palestinian conflict is hardly why the creation of Israel was necessary or inevitable; rather it explains why the Western conscious found the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, their expropriation and dispossession from their home land, to be an acceptable exchange for Eurocentric guilt around the horrors of the Holocaust.”
“…1967 remains a date of considerable psychological significance to Israel. Indeed the Six Day War is considered to be a great military success for Israel; yet as a result of this, it seems it has created a particularly problematic and psychologically deforming legacy for subsequent generations of Jewish-Israelis. As Ghassan Hage has argued, Israel’s success in 1967 tragically heralded the birth of the kind of hyper-militarism on display in Operation Cast Lead (which I will come to later in this lecture), since Israelis started to believe ‘that omnipotence was not just a fantasy but an actual possibility’. He continues that the promise of omnipotence has since become ‘the standard that various Israeli governments use to legitimise themselves to their population’, which has led many Israelis to believe ‘that this is the very function of Israel’, and produced ‘an inability to live with another that constitutes even a minimum danger to me’.”
“…A particularly iconic image of what Israel has described as the liberation, recapturing or reunification of Jerusalem, portrays three paratroopers at the Western Wall. The photograph is considered a ‘defining image of the conflict’ and one of the ‘best known photographs in Israel’s history’, while the photographer, David Rubinger, was later anointed by former Israeli President Shimon Peres, ‘the photographer of the nation in the making’. The central figure in the image has removed his helmet, revealing his blond hair (truly a model Sabra!) and looks upwards in a pose reminiscent of religious artworks of the last millennia – a visual embodiment of what Hage describes as Israeli’s moment of omnipotence realised in the Six Day War. As in the photography of Capa, there is no trace of the enemy; rather, they must be inferred in the representation of IDF success. This photographic representation of 1967 is echoed in international headlines of the event. The New York Times, for example, ran a story entitled ‘Israel Rules Out Return to Frontiers’, in which Israel’s Minister for Information, Yisrael Gailille [sic] states that ‘Israel could not live with arrangements that were supposed to have served as a preliminary to peace, but that have been stretched out for two decades’.
So this is the beginning of Occupation, although as I am suggesting to you, a continuation of the effects of 1948 and the geopolitical machinations that make this possible, of which you are no doubt aware, notwithstanding that I may have narrated such events with a different inflection; but it also sets up a series of narratives for Israelis about Israel, and entrenches the Western amnesia or disinterest in the condition of Palestinians from the time of the Nakba.”
“…Since Oslo, there has been a vacuum of any decolonization agenda. Rather, the project of an ‘economy for peace’ has been paramount, in which Palestinians ‘still reside under the Israeli colonial project, yet at the same time are meant to feel liberated under the reign of the postcolonial Palestinian Authority (PA) “state” project’ (Toukan 2014, 225). Yet for all of this, it seems important to recognise that an ‘economy for peace’ and the limited social imaginary it has defined, occurs under the conditions of 227 separated cantons which comprise the West Bank Areas A and B as determined by Oslo. While these two Areas were designated as a kind of Archipelago of the PA, Israelis continue to control borders, economy and natural resources in both these Areas (in addition to their control of the West Bank Area C) which, as the sheer number of sections so defined suggests, create often insurmountable disruption to Palestinians, not only through discontiguity but the way in which Occupation itself prevents Palestinians from using or connecting space (Toukan 2014, 215-216, Handel 2009, “What, 181). This creates what Handel describes as a decreasing affinity by Palestinians to ‘“distant” areas’, notwithstanding that these may not be more than a few kilometres away (Handel 2009, 184). Thus at a purely practical level, as long as any section of Palestinian territory is not only permeable but controlled as it currently is by Israel, ‘Israel should still be considered sovereign in Palestinian territories, if only because it is Israel itself that can declare the exception that would allow it to annul the legal status of this ‘border’’ (Weizman 2007, 218).
Ariel Handel contends that in fact Israeli Occupation has been ‘refined to the point of maintaining [a] situation of continuous disaster’ (Handel 2009, 194). This generation of uncertainty, which creates a particular affinity with one’s own city and decreasing affinity with places nearby, shrinks the traversable horizon of a Palestinian in the West Bank, such that the restriction of a West Bank identity card does not secure face value access to the West Bank as a whole, but rather has a highly restricted ‘use value’. Taking use value into account, one may find it impossible to move from different sections designated as Area A, due to the role of Occupation in obstructing passage: the distance of a journey itself might become infinite when obstruction renders it impossible (Handel 2009, 188). It is clear that spatial control as it pertains to Palestinian movement, (an inadvertent but highly effective byproduct of the infrastructure of settlements) (Handel 2009, 209) entrenches both geographical and psychological dissonances.”
“…I should also draw attention here to my use of terminology as ‘the 48 territories’. This is what Palestinians often refer to Israel as. Whatever problem you may have with that language, what it does draw attention to, I think, is in the first place Palestinian connection to the entirety of the geography of historic Palestine, but secondly, it underlines the fact that when we are talking about the Israel-Palestinian conflict we are not simply talking about Palestinians in the West Bank and Jewish-Israelis in Israel. To the contrary, Palestinians who remain in 48, a group which Israel often refer to as the Arab-Israelis, now constitute around 20% of the population of Israel proper. I am not addressing you today about possible solutions for the conflict, although in many ways my research is very interested in how narratives are told and how we could tell them better in order to acknowledge the position of every stake holder in the conflict. But even so, I hope in problematizing the narratives attached to so called key historic events, that you can also see that, for example, a solution based on the West Bank and Gaza Strip would exclude not only the 48-ers but also the diaspora, such as myself. For anyone who is Jewish in the audience but does not hold an Israeli passport, you might like to consider that it is simpler for you to take up residence in Jerusalem, the city my grandparents and father are from, than it is for me. That might seem ok to you too – privilege is a wonderful thing for those who have it and privilege is hard to recognise, much less give up. But if nothing else, what I am trying to underline here is that we all do ourselves a disservice when we imagine the conflict can be compartmentalized. Compartmentalised for example by removing West Bank settlements or saying to Palestinians here, in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip you can establish your homeland, or in separating Palestinian issues between the West Bank or Gaza from the issues faced by Palestinians in the 48 territories or in refugee camps in Lebanon or in middle-class suburbs of Michigan.”
“…In November 2012, the United Nations General Assembly put a bid for recognition of Palestinian statehood to the vote. The only material right which attached to that recognition as far as I can see, was that it would entitle the Palestinians to membership of the International Criminal Court (ICC). This would afford them legal recourse against Israel in future military operations such as Operation Cast Lead or Operation Pillar of Cloud, an operation that had been concluded in Gaza not eight days earlier. At the time, and even though the US and Israel were not going to support that bid, both states nevertheless tried to insist that the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, agree to waive the right to become a signatory to the ICC. At the very least, this says a great deal about how current Palestinian leadership is an entity easily intimidated. At the very least it speaks to the great disparity in negotiating parties, which is increasingly acknowledged, although in practical terms a fact difficult to adequately redress.
Similarly, after Protective Edge, first Sweden and then the British Parliament indicated that they were prepared to throw their weight behind the principle of recognizing a Palestinian state – moves that were received as something momentous. But once we consider what recognition of a Palestinian state signifies symbolically, that is, a magnification of Palestinian struggle in the international imaginary, we should be careful to consider substantively and not just symbolically, what such recognition actually means. Beyond the victory of awareness, recognition of a Palestinian state seems to me an unfortunate continuation of the dead-end thinking that poses the inevitability of a two state solution. It is a recognition that acts as a white wash, circumventing the fundamental issues of Palestinian rights and grievances, which can never be accommodated within this framework of two states. To bring into focus the reasons why I think we should be wary of state recognition let me pose some additional questions. What difference does this recognition make? What does recognition of a Palestinian state actually avail the Palestinians of? And why now?
Discussing this with Palestinian friends in 2014 I was somewhat astonished to find that they were more buoyant about the news than I. Explaining why he welcomed the move, one friend suggested that in the case of Britain (a non-binding motion), it drew attention to Israeli racism, and could act as an important conceptual signal in isolating that. He also felt that in the case of Sweden, we would increasingly see an effect in how states relate to Israel’s clear breaches of international law within the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Palestinians know, if nothing else, that ours is a long road to justice, and so perhaps these are shifts in which we should take heart.
But it was the comments of an Israeli friend who declared ‘it feels like a lot of rhetoric’, that I found I could relate to most. Over the last few years commentators and negotiators have increasingly declared that a two-state solution is dead. So in this respect, it seems like a peculiar moment to try and revive that model through recognition of Palestinian statehood. She expressed concern about the lack of cohesion to a Palestinian state – a Palestine without access to water resources; carved up by Israel’s separation wall – which recognition such as this simply can’t address. She also noted that recognition could have the effect of absolving Israel of its responsibility to the non-Jewish citizens of Israel (predominately Palestinians) whose citizenship is widely documented to be of a second-class kind. But most of all, she felt that recognition was complicit in a politics of deflection, one that replaces substantive issues with trivialities, the proverbial band aid to remedy a shark bite. Is this the best you can do? She asked. She argued this initiative seemed to be a disengagement from the Boycott Divestment and Sanction movement which has applied real pressure on Israel to date in a way that state recognition cannot. Finally, she made the connection, which is one I think we should all be making, between Operation Protective Edge and this initiative – as if recognition was a rhetorical reward to Palestinians still reeling in the aftermath of such horror – deeming it a truly inadequate response.”
“…While these all these developments have positively influenced conceptualisation of the conflict, they engage in kinds of thinking that have an intermediate value only. This is in part due to their function as strategies, rather than ends in themselves, but additionally because, if viewed as ends, they will circumscribe the kinds of change which are both necessary and possible, for example, by de-politicising Palestinian claims in the case of legal approaches, which reduces the Palestinian issue to a humanitarian problem. Without insistence on progress beyond these strategies, they will become complicit in perpetuating a technique of conservative governance by which the ongoing dynamic of the conflict is treated as ‘a state of permanent crisis’ and utilised to ensure that the stasis of the situation is perpetually reproduced (Hage 2015, 34-6).
But ultimately I think we need to ask what could we replace a system of repression – concrete and psychological, legal and narrative – with, to enable us to think about productive future relations between Israelis and Palestinians, less invested in denial and more invested in a whole network of acknowledgements. Change will be inevitably slow because it requires the conversation to be entirely re-routed. To strip back assumptions and make space for listening to perspectives that have not been visible and more than that have been actively undermined, discredited and ignored. [Rashid] Khalidi, in thinking about the pathway to change says: ‘it took generations to establish the myths Israel was built on, and it will take years to deconstruct them, as well as for the generations who believe in them to lose their influence’. To conclude I want to mention the work of Israeli political scientist Marcelo Svirsky who argues that ‘Israel’s nationalist and militarist projects should not be taken at face value but as productions concomitant with the evolution of specific Israeli subjectivities and modes of being’. Much as Edward Said urged us to peel back the facts of colonialism to imagine new futures, Svirsky argues that nothing short of cultural transformation is required. I think in conclusion this is the point worth asserting. That nothing less than the struggle to transform our subjectivities, both as an internal struggle and an ‘external struggle to defy social institutions’, will do.”
Hage, G., & Gaita, R. (2010). “On Narcissistic Victimhood” in Gaza: Morality Law and Politics, Perth: UWA,101.
Hage, Ghassan (2015) Alter-Politics: Critical Anthropology and the Radical Imagination, Melbourne: MUP.
Handel, Ariel (2009) “Where, Where to and Where in the Occupied Territories: An Introduction to Geography of Disaster” in A. Ophir, M. Givoni and S. Hanafi (eds) The Power of Inclusive Exclusion, Anatomy of Israeli Rule in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, New York: Zone Books, 179-222.
Khalidi, R. (2011) Palestinian Dispossession and the US Public Sphere. The Goldstone Report: The Legacy of the Landmark Investigation of the Gaza Conflict, London: Nation Books, 376.
Pappe, I. (2013). “Revisiting 1967: the false paradigm of peace, partition and parity”, Settler Colonial Studies, 3(3-4), 341-351.
Svirsky, M. (2014). After Israel: Towards Cultural Transformation. London: Zed Books Ltd..
Toukan, Hanan. (2014) “On Delusion, Art, and Urban Desires in Palestine Today: An Interview with Yazid Anani.” Arab Studies Journal 22(1) (2014): 208-229.
Weizman, Eyal (2007) Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation, New York: Verso.
Read more from Just Voices #13, June 2017 – Israel/Palestine