By Chandra Kumar
The central role of the Zionist movement in the establishment of Israel and in the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their land and homes from 1947-49 is often noted by Israel’s critics. But let us not blame it all on Zionism; in particular, let’s not pretend that the Western powers are somehow innocent bystanders, as the US often portrays itself. In Western media, even on those rare occasions when Israel is criticized for its oppression of Palestinians, the role Israel plays for the West, and the role of the West in Israel’s rise as superpower of the Middle East, is ignored or downplayed. While Zionism was a crucial factor in these historical developments, it is important to remember that no matter how dedicated, determined, or ruthless the Zionists were, they could not have achieved their aims without outside help. David Ben-Gurion, Chaim Waizmann and the rest of the Zionist leadership had no illusions about this.
The Zionists could not have achieved their dream of a ‘Jewish state’ in Palestine if Britain and the United States had strongly opposed them. The Zionists were not a global power. They were a group of dedicated ethnic nationalist militants aiming to establish a state in which Jews would be a dominant majority, in a region in which they were vastly outnumbered by Arabs and Muslims. They were able to gain their state only because key Western powers supported them at crucial junctures while abandoning the Palestinians.
Similarly, Israel’s development (and expansion) since 1948 cannot be understood in isolation from Western policies in the Middle East. Israel is a small country, with a population of only 8.2 million. If Israel did not have powerful Western governments on its side, it would not have become the dominant military power in the region.
Supporting Israel against Lebanon, Iran, and Palestine
Without Western support, Israel would not have been able to invade and occupy Lebanon repeatedly over a period of thirty years, causing immense damage to its civilian infrastructure – most notably, in 1982 and 2006 – while killing, either directly or through proxy forces, tens of thousands of Lebanese and Palestinian civilians (typically refugees) and displacing hundreds of thousands of people over this period.
Nor would Israel be able to threaten Iran – as it has been doing in recent years – because of Iran’s alleged program to develop nuclear weapons. Whereas Iran is subjected to international pressure and inspections simply because it has nuclear technology, Israel is permitted its estimated stockpile of 200 nuclear weapons without any murmur of protest from the ‘international community’ – a codeword for ‘the Western powers’ or simply ‘the US government’.
Without Western support, Israel would not be able to continue ignoring annual UN resolutions demanding it withdraw from the Palestinian territories (including East Jerusalem) which it conquered in June, 1967. It would not be able to reject the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes or receive compensation (UN Resolution 194), and it would not be able to keep on (illegally) expanding Jewish ‘settlements’ in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Without Western support, Israel would not be able to ignore the July 2004 advisory opinion of the World Court, constructing a long-winding ‘separation wall’ which effectively annexes valuable parts of the West Bank within an expanded Israel. And it would not be able to supplement this with a system of Israeli-only paved roads and highways (with separate dirt roads and paths for Palestinians) and countless military checkpoints and installations, which make it impossible for Palestinians to move freely within their own homeland.
Israel would not be able, without Western complicity and support, to effectively carve up the West Bank into a fragmented system of impoverished Bantustan-like ghettos in which Palestinians are supposed to be confined for the rest of their lives. Nor would it be possible for Israel, without any fear of international sanctions, to transform Gaza – one of the most densely populated areas in the world – into an ‘open air prison’, sealing its borders, controlling its airspace and patrolling its seashores.
Nor would Israel be able mercilessly to bomb Gaza into rubble twice in the last six years, indiscriminately killing civilians (women and children included), bombing residential areas, hospitals, ambulances, schools, mosques, trade union buildings, factories and other workplaces, a university, power plants, roads, parks, municipal buildings, police stations, and UN shelters and food distribution centers, while imposing a blockade (a criminal form of collective punishment) that prevents Gazans from receiving adequate medicine, fuels, food, and other necessary supplies.
Dying of Thirst, Western Indifference
Moreover, so long as Western governments do not raise a finger, Israel will have little trouble continuing its inequitable and illegal distribution of the water supply on which both Israelis and Palestinians depend. According to a 2009 World Bank Report on “Restrictions on Palestinian Water Sector Development”, as well as a 2014 report by the Palestinian Water Authority, Israelis consume 4-5 times per capita more water per day than Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.
The situation in Gaza is even worse because there the problem for Palestinians is not simply water shortage but water pollution as well, which poses a severe health risk. This is partly due to lack of sewage treatment and sanitation facilities as a result of Israeli bombing. To make matters worse, Israel’s blockade of Gaza’s borders has made it difficult to obtain sufficient quantities of chlorine for water treatment and spare parts required by water treatment facilities.
These problems could be addressed if the powerful Western countries cared as much about suffering and dying Palestinians as they seem to care about Israelis being attacked by primitive rockets fired from the OPT – rockets which almost never hit or hurt anyone. Western governments regularly express sympathy for Israel and indignation against Palestinians whenever Palestinians do anything violent, but they rarely utter a word of sympathy for Palestinians (let alone do anything beyond words), or indignation against Israel, when Israel imposes a water shortage on Palestinians, allows the water to become polluted, and then prevents them obtaining the necessary material for cleaning up the water, knowing full well the health risks this poses to Palestinians – not principally to Hamas militants, but to the population generally.
That asymmetry, one among many in Western attitudes, is worth reflecting on. Just think about it for a minute: Palestinians are deemed bad because some of them fire primitive rockets into Israel which almost never hit or hurt anyone; but Israel is not criticized when powerful Israelis prevent hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from having a sufficient amount of clean drinking water. What would Western attitudes be if it were the other way around?
Support for Anti-democratic Policies, War Crimes
Without Western support, Israel could not continue to refuse to negotiate with Hamas, the democratically elected representatives of the Palestinian people in the OPT since January, 2006. If Israel were alone in this refusal, standing in opposition to clear and persistent demands from the US and the European Union (EU) to negotiate, Israeli leaders would likely change their minds and declare Hamas ‘moderate’ and a worthy ‘partner for peace’. Israeli leaders know they are dependent on Western, especially US, support for their expansionist and colonial policies. They are not likely to bite the hands that feed them, even if they sometimes express resentment about their dependency.
Nor would Israel be able, without Western complicity and support, to commit blatant war crimes and violate almost every principle of international humanitarian law on a regular basis: laws against torture, kidnapping of civilians and hostage-taking, arbitrary arrest and detention, targeted assassinations, demolition of houses, restrictions on freedom of movement, indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas, collective punishment of civilian populations, the use of banned weapons such as phosphorous bombs which burn the flesh and deadly cluster bombs that rip the flesh to pieces, and even the use of Palestinians as human shields (an accusation commonly hurled at Palestinian militants by Israeli army officials, not known for objective reporting, and then repeated by a subservient media as if it were established fact).
All of these practices are well documented in the reports of UN Human Rights Commissions, eyewitness accounts of journalists, and various human rights organisations – including some Israeli ones.
During the 2008 Gaza assault, Amnesty International investigator Donatella Rovera commented to the The Guardian on the Israeli use of human shields:
“It’s standard practice for Israeli soldiers to go into a house, lock up the family in a room on the ground floor and use the rest of the house as a military base, as a sniper’s position. That is the absolute textbook case of human shields. It has been practiced by the Israeli army for many years and they are doing it again in Gaza now.”
On the question of home demolitions, Jeff Halper, co-founder of the Israel Commission Against House Demolitions, estimates that “some 48,000 Palestinian homes [have been] demolished since the start of the Occupation in 1967”. Typically the vehicles used for demolishing Palestinian homes are bulldozers bought from the US company, Caterpillar. Halper continues: “Israel’s ‘Civil’ Administration, the term it disingenuously gives its military government in the Occupied Territory so as to give the impression of a normal, proper, apolitical administration, routinely sends out demolition orders that themselves constitute violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and while Palestinians may appeal them in Israeli courts, they never succeed in overturning them.” And Western countries don’t bother with such ‘trivial’ matters, since Israel clearly is an oasis of Western civilization and values in the Middle East.
It must be remembered that Israel’s various and daily human rights violations, as well as its war crimes, are not secrets hidden from Western governments. They are often reported even in Israeli newspapers, the evidence is publicly available, and, again, these practices are clearly and carefully documented in the reports of mainstream human rights organizations. Western governments cannot plead ignorance.
Western Media’s Absurd Inversion of Reality
Without Western complicity and support (including the dominant Western media), Israel would not be able systematically to portray itself as poor innocent victim, besieged by terrorist, fundamentalist Arabs and Muslims. If one considers: (i) the extreme imbalance in the numbers of civilians killed on each side, (ii) the extreme imbalance in military power between Israel and the Palestinians, and between Israel and the other states in the Middle East, and (iii) the level of religious fundamentalism within Israel itself, and among the Israeli settlers in the OPT – the recurrent theme of a secular, liberal democratic Israel heroically ‘defending itself’ from terrorism and destruction at the hands of irrational, fanatical Arabs and Muslims is close to the theatre of the absurd; but no absurdity is too big for Western media and political culture.
The fact that Israeli officials can successfully portray Israel as the victim, or even as being on an equal footing with the Palestinians so that both sides are equally to blame, is a tribute to the pro-Israeli Western media. This illusion of Israeli victimhood, or the equally illusory position (which is called ‘balanced’ or ‘objective’ reporting) that there are two equally stubborn adversaries equally unwilling to compromise, filters into mainstream media in non-Western countries as well. The Zionist leadership in Israel cannot perform this ideological magic all by itself. Its ability to turn reality upside down would vanish in an instant without the systematic support of the Western powers and the Western media.
Israel’s Usefulness to the West in Africa and Latin America
Western support for Israel goes beyond Palestine and the Middle East. If the Western powers truly wished to, they could have made it impossible for Israel to be the staunch supporter of Apartheid South Africa that it was – though Israel tried to keep quiet about this in public. If they truly wished to, Western governments could make it very difficult for Israel to be such a key player in the arms and diamond trade in the DRC and other African countries today, fuelling conflicts that have led to millions of deaths in recent years. Moreover, if the US had been opposed to it, Israel would not have been able to provide technical, financial and military support to various dictatorships and right-wing paramilitary forces (such as the terrorist Contra army in Nicaragua) in Latin America during the 1970s and 80s.
It is important, therefore, to understand what role Israel plays for the West, particularly for the US. Recall that Zionism itself was born in the West, and the founder of political Zionism, Theodore Herzl, was openly on the side of the European imperialists against the ‘backward’ non-European peoples. Here are his words from his 1896 treatise on The Jewish State:
“There [in Palestine] we shall be a sector of the wall of Europe against Asia, we shall serve as the outpost of civilization against barbarism.”
The thinking hasn’t changed much from Herzl’s time, though the language may be less obvious and blunt. As the Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery wrote in 2004 (in an article from the Palestine Chronicle):
“[Herzl’s] sentence could easily be written today. American thinkers propound the ‘clash of civilisations’, with Western ‘Judeo-Christian’ culture battling ‘Islamic barbarism’. American leaders declare that Israel is the outpost of Western civilization in the fight against Arab-Muslim ‘international terrorism’.”
All of this may seem familiar to South Africans who recall that the ANC and Nelson Mandela were regarded as ‘terrorist’ by the Western powers (particularly the US) that were supporting the settler-colonial Apartheid regime. This racist regime was even regarded as a bulwark of Western civilization against ‘communism’.
Similarly, in the case of Israel, until the fall of the Communist regimes around 1990, one of the pretexts for Western support was that Israel was a bulwark against ‘communism’ in the Middle East; another was that Israel was defending itself against terrorism. Since 1990, Western support for Israel has continued without missing a beat. The usual pretext is the one Avnery mentions, that Israel is ‘the outpost of Western civilization in the fight against Arab-Muslim “international terrorism”’.
Imperialism and Hypocrisy
These ideas are taken seriously in mainstream media and academic institutions. Pseudo-intellectuals portray the Israel-Palestine conflict in terms of ancient ethnic hostilities between Jews and Arabs (as though there were no Arab Jews), usually with no mention of the role played by Western countries or Western imperialism – again, as if these countries were just innocent bystanders.
This would be like trying to understand why South Africa became a settler-colonial society, or why there was conflict between the white settlers and the indigenous peoples of South Africa (or similar conflicts in the Americas or Australia), without mentioning anything about European imperialism. But again, no absurdity is too great for Western ideologues to pass off as deep truth.
Imperialism has always relied on such ideological devices. It flourishes when the problems it creates can be blamed on anything but imperialism itself, and especially if they can be blamed on its chief victims, in this case, Palestinians – to be more precise, the vast majority of Palestinians, those not actively collaborating with Israeli and US officials in the repression of the Palestinian struggle for freedom and self-determination. The ones that collaborate with imperialism are usually called ‘moderates’.
In all these matters and more, the Western countries have used Israel to advance Western imperial interests, with remarkable levels of hypocrisy and racism. In A Passage to India, E.M. Forster wrote about the character traits of Orientals and Westerners, the former being consumed by ‘suspicion’, the latter over-flowing with ‘hypocrisy’. If it’s still possible to make such sweeping generalizations after Edward Said’s critique of orientalism, my feeling is that this generalization is pretty close to the mark.
- Chandra Kumar (PhD) is a Lecturer at the Department of Philosophy, York University, Toronto, Canada. His main area of research is political philosophy. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.