No Morality in Zionism – On the ‘Independence’ of Settler Minorities

By Jeremy Salt

In the Middle East and Africa there are two striking parallels to the Palestinian experience. The first is Algeria, where invasion and occupation began in 1830 and did not end until 1962. Until the implantation of the Zionist state in Palestine, Algeria was the worst example of colonialism in the late imperial world, but while the French took the land, introduced a racist two-tier legal system and eventually resettled large numbers of ‘rebellious’ Algerians, they did not drive them out of their own country.

Just as the First World War brought about the collapse of three empires (Ottoman, Russian and Austro-Hungarian), so the Second World War foreshadowed the end of two more. Bankrupted by the war, Britain could no longer afford to run an empire. It retreated from Palestine and the Indian subcontinent before Suez finally shattered imperial delusions in 1956. France was in no better shape. Its defeat at the hands of a Vietnamese guerilla army at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 encouraged liberation movements around the world. Meanwhile, a savage war fought between French troops and the National Liberation Front in Algeria was reaching its peak. At great personal risk to himself, Charles de Gaulle acknowledged that the game was up by announcing the end of the French presence. Given the liberation movement’s choice between the ‘suitcase and the coffin’, close to a million French settlers (pieds noirs) headed for a country, France, which they scarcely knew but now had to regard as home.

The second relevant case study is Rhodesia. Protectorates and chartered companies were integral to imperial best practice up to the 19th century and beyond. When Theodor Herzl approached the Ottoman sultan, Abdulhamid II, in the 1890s, it was to ask for his consent to the formation of a chartered company for the settlement of Jews in Palestine. In return he would mobilize Jews around the world to pay off the Ottoman public debt. As Zionism had little support from Jews at the time there was virtually no likelihood that Herzl could make good on his promise but the sultan said no anyway. In Rhodesia settlement began under the aegis of a chartered company. From 1889 to 1923 Southern Rhodesia was developed as a British colony by Cecil Rhodes’ British South African Company. The first settlers arrived in 1890. The exclusionary nature of white settlement in Southern Rhodesia was similar to Zionist settlement of Palestine. First of all, the white settlers were in a tiny minority, even smaller than the Jewish (and largely non-Zionist) population of Palestine at the time, growing from 1500 in 1891 to about 75,000 by the end of the Second World War. At no time did the white settlers amount to more than 5.4 per cent of the total population.

Just as the Palestinians were to be shrunk wherever and whenever possible, even during the British mandate, through their eviction from land bought by the Jewish National Fund and other agencies and their denial of work by the Histadrut, the Jewish labor federation, so the ground rules for white settlement in Southern Rhodesia were clearly set out. The first principle was to maintain absolute minority control over the majority. Under the 1923 constitution, property ownership and education were the principal determinants of who could vote, immediately disenfranchising almost all Africans: no Africans were ever elected under this constitution and by 1953 only 450 Africans were on the electoral rolls (with an African population at the time of close to four million people). Colonial legislation specifically provided for discrimination against Africans – ‘the natives may be liable to conditions, disabilities or restrictions not applied to Europeans’. Pass laws were introduced and even a law banning Africans from walking on footpaths: they were to walk only on the road. The segregation was similar to South Africa and the racist regulations governing life under occupation in Palestine.

Rhodesia went through numerous constitutional changes up to the Unilateral Declaration of Independence by the white-minority regime Prime Minister Ian Smith in 1965. In 1953 a federated state was formed, joining Southern Rhodesia and the protectorates of Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and Nyasaland (now Malawi). Federation disturbed the white minority because their numbers were now even more severely diluted amongst the African population. From the beginning of white settlement Britain’s African colonies were ordained to remain forever under white control as part of the empire and as part of ‘western civilization.’ The depth to which these ideas took root explains why Ian Smith remained unrepentant even when independence was being canvassed even by the British government. There should be ‘no independence before majority rule’ but as the electoral system was still based on the notion of property and ‘one taxpayer one vote’, then independence with majority rule was destined never to come.

Again there is a twisted parallel with Palestine: the attitude of the British government was that Palestine could not be granted independence until such time as the Jews became the majority. ‘The white man is master of Rhodesia’, Smith said. ‘He has built it and intends to keep it’. On other occasions he declared that ‘I don’t believe in majority rule ever’, while denying, at a time liberation movements were engaged in armed struggle, that he was against Africans: it was Marxism he was fighting and ‘western civilization’ that he was defending. Here again is an echo of Palestine in the declarations by early Zionist settlers that Jewish Palestine would act as a rampart of civilization against barbarism in the east.

On November 11 1965 Smith ended negotiations with the British government over the future of Rhodesia (the southern part) by issuing his UDI. No-one recognized it and within 24 hours it was subjected to condemnation and sanctions by both the UN General Assembly and the Security Council. As a country rich in minerals but lacking oil, Rhodesia would have suffered severely but for a loophole which the British government refused to close, allowing oil to reach Rhodesia from South African ports. However, with the collapse of Portugal’s African colonies in the 1970s, even South Africa was beginning to read the writing on the wall and was anxious not to be seen as giving too much open support to the Smith government. The end came in 1979 when Smith finally had no option but to bow to the combination of internal and external pressures and accept the result of elections which gave the country a new name – Zimbabwe – and African majority rule.

Smith’s UDI must be regarded as standing in close relationship to David Ben-Gurion’s declaration of the independence of the state of Israel in May, 1948. In both cases a minority had seized power, and in the case of Israel, was in the process of driving hundreds of thousands of people out of their homeland. Just as Rhodesia was to remain a white-settler dominated enclave forever, so Palestine was to be transformed into a Jewish state forever. From an estimated (non-Zionist) Jewish population of about four per cent in 1850, the Jewish presence had grown to about six per cent by 1912, to about 10 per cent by the end of the First World War and to about 31 per cent in 1940, while still owning only a tiny fraction of the land.

When declaring Israel’s independence, David-Ben Gurion pledged that it would remain ‘loyal to the principles of the UN Charter.’ On May 11, 1949, strongly supported by the US government, which had effectively pushed through the partition plan of 1947, and with the Norwegian Trygvie Lie, the UN Secretary-General, an ardent pro-Zionist, lobbying strongly from behind the scenes, Israel was admitted to UN membership, the UN having received assurances that it was a peace-loving state and ‘is able and willing to carry out the obligations contained in the [UN] Charter’. Israel also ‘unreservedly accepts the obligations of the UN Charter and undertakes to honor them when it becomes a member of the United Nations’. On December 5, 1949, speaking before the Knesset Constituent Assembly, Ben-Gurion declared that Israel was a member of the UN ‘not because of political convenience but because of its traditional, deep-seated commitment to the vision of world peace and the brotherhood of nations, as preached by our prophets and accepted by our prophets’.

In fact Ben-Gurion regarded the UN with contempt. He had been dissembling all along. It was important to get the partition resolution through the General Assembly, and important for Israel to be accepted as a UN member but Israel’s commitment on these occasions was tactical and completely devoid of any commitment to the UN’s ideals. Once the partition resolution had served Israel’s purposes it was abandoned. The UN commission on Palestine, established to oversee the partition of the territory into two states, never moved beyond words on the page. Israel seized as much of Palestine as it could and had no intention of respecting the clause in the partition resolution setting Jerusalem aside as a corpus separatum. Its seizure of West Jerusalem was followed by ethnic cleansing and the looting of Palestinian homes, but this was no more than part of a pattern followed across all of Palestine. The stone houses that were the pride and joy of Palestinian families were stolen by military commanders and politicians. Diplomats close to the Israeli leadership knew what was going on. Ralph Bunche, the UN emissary arbitrating armistice talks between Israel and Egypt on the island of Rhodes early in 1949, left them deeply disturbed by Israeli behavior. William C. Burdett, the US consul-general in Jerusalem, in the wake of recent Israeli military assaults in the Naqab, Galilee and against Syria, saw little to justify Israel’s claim that it was a peace-loving nation. It also showed ‘little respect for the organization she is now seeking to join.’

This was evident not just from Israel’s continuing military assaults but its continual stonewalling and/or evasion on all important issues. It refused to accept General Assembly Resolution 194 (1948) on the grounds that Palestinians could not be shown to be willing to live at peace with their ‘neighbors’ until there was peace. It caviled endlessly on the status of Jerusalem and borders. It refused to come clean on the assassination of the UN envoy, Count Folke Bernadotte. Although the names of the murderers were known, no-one was ever charged with the killing.

The numerous statements of Zionist leaders from the very beginning of colonization showed that they had no interest other than sequestering all of Palestine as a Jewish state. Their actions during the war of 1948 showed that they intended to destroy everything that was Palestinian in Palestine, with the living presence of the Palestinian people the foremost target. Despite the mountain of evidence showing that Israel already had no intention of abiding by the UN Charter, by international law or by anything that stood in the way of its ideological and territorial imperatives, it was still given UN membership. In May, 1948, Chaim Weizmann had worked on Truman to recognize Israel and in May, 1949, Truman again responded to Weizmann’s overtures by doing his best to ensure that Israel was admitted to the UN, irrespective of the reservations of his own diplomats and the belief within other governments (Britain’s for one) that Israel had no intention of complying with UN resolutions that did not suit its interests.

At the same time as Ben-Gurion was re-asserting Israel’s loyalty to the UN Charter in December, 1949, he and other members of the Knesset were making statements that openly challenged the peace the UN was trying to achieve in Palestine (having first breached its own charter by granting the ‘right’ of self-determination to a settler minority and creating the anomaly of a colonial settler state being established at the beginning of the era of decolonization). On the question of Jerusalem, Ben-Gurion said that ‘at the same time’ as his statement of fidelity to UN principles, ‘Jerusalem is an organic part of the state of Israel’. Menahim Begin, representing Herut, declared that ‘the world must be told that Jerusalem is ours, all of it, the Temple Mount, the Western Wall, Jerusalem inside and outside, and that it is our capital both in practice and theory.’ For others, also, Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was an ‘established fact’ that no-one had any right to question.

From the very beginning of the Zionist venture up to the present day Israel has been faithful to its own ‘principles’. In no way do they confirm to the principles of international law and indeed, Israel can only remain what it is by living permanently in breach of international law. In 1948 and again in 1967 it did its best to convert a land with people into a land without people so other people could settle it. Its barbaric treatment of Palestinians who managed to cling to their homeland has continued up to the killing of Hadeel al Hashlamun in Hebron on September 22: barbaric not just in the firing of ten bullets into her body but in the way she was left lying on the ground gravely wounded for half an hour and then literally dragged away from the scene by her feet like a piece of offal; and barbaric in the way settler onlookers grinned when they came upon the scene. Her murder follows the arson murder of three members of the Dawabshe family, an infant and both parents, by Jewish settlers whom the state refuses to arrest although it clearly knows who they are and where they live.

These are not anomalies but are rather entirely consistent with ‘practice and theory’ and twisted Zionist notions of law, justice and morality that have prevailed since the beginning of the Zionist colonization of Palestine. Ian Smith was punished for declaring UDI by having his country subjected to international condemnation, isolation and sanctions. If comparisons can be made, nothing Smith did even remotely compares with the gross crimes committed by Israel against the Palestinians over the past seven decades. Yet, whereas the full force of international law was applied against Rhodesia, Israel was admitted to the UN even though it had made it plain long beforehand that it had no intention of abiding by any law that did not suit it. Thus encouraged, this is the way it has behaved ever since.

– Jeremy Salt is an associate professor of Middle Eastern history and politics at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. He contributed this article to


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