Mike Phipps reviews Decolonizing Israel, Liberating Palestine: Zionism, Settler Colonialism, and the Case for One Democratic State, by Jeff Halper, published by Pluto
Jeff Halper emigrated to Israel from the United States) in 1973, seeking to find his Jewish roots in the Zionist state. Although on the left and committed to peace, it was not until he saw a Palestinian house being demolished in Jerusalem that he began to fully understand the character of the Zionist project.
In 1997, he co-founded the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. Israel has demolished some 55,000 homes in the Occupied Palestinian Territories since 1967, and more than 130,000 in historic Palestine since 1948. The Committee rebuilds Palestinian homes as an act of political resistance, rather than a humanitarian gesture. Halper has been arrested on several occasions for attempting to stop demolitions, as well as for other activities, including sailing with the Freedom Flotilla to break the siege of Gaza.
Halper’s activism, as well as the trajectory of recent Israeli governments, led him to the conclusion that the issue in Israel-Palestine is not fundamentally a “conflict of nationalisms” which can be resolved by the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. As he notes in the Introduction to this persuasive book, Israeli Premier Netanyahu’s plan to annex up to 30% of the West Bank has forced liberal Zionists to doubt the ability of Israel to exist alongside respect for the national rights of the Palestinian people. He quotes one, Peter Beinart, who recently wrote, “It is time for liberal Zionists to abandon the goal of Jewish – Palestinian separation and embrace the goal of Jewish–Palestinian equality.”
Such sentiments reflect a fundamental shift in the views of young Jews abroad towards Israel, argues Halper. He points to the Jewish Voice for Peace, one of the largest and fastest-growing Jewish organisations in the United States, which issued an explicitly anti-Zionist position paper in 2019.
Yet, in Israel itself, the idea of one democratic Israel-Palestine state is dismissed as utopian, if it is entertained at all. In fact, Israeli Jews rank the occupation and the conflict with the Palestinians seventh out of eight among the political issues that most concern them.
The fact that Israel has succeeded in reducing one of the world’s great conflicts to a “non-issue” domestically does not mean that it is any less urgent, however. “The suffering of the Palestinians calls out for our intervention,” asserts Halper – and not just in the country: there is a diaspora of 7.2 million refugees.
More broadly, Israel is exporting not only weaponry, surveillance systems and tactics of militarised policing throughout the world, technologies which it fine-tuned in its repression of Palestinians, but also a fully developed model of a security state, a “militarized democracy”, to be rolled out elsewhere. Thus “this untenable and repressive hybrid regime of settler colonialism, occupation and apartheid… threatens us all.” Yet it fears no international sanctions from any quarter.
Describing Israel as “settler colonialist” is not an empty allegation and Halper makes a cogent case as to why this is the most accurate framework to understand what has taken place – comparable to other external conquests, resulting in a similar dispossession and marginalisation of the native people. It seems strange that this explanation has to be made anew, given that many of the original Zionist nationalists fully accepted that settler colonialism was the essence of their project.
“The 1948 war had more to do with ethnic cleansing and territorial expansion than it did with meeting existential threats,” says Halper. It was also a war on the very idea of a Palestinian nation: “If they could be defined merely as ‘Arabs’, part of the wider Arab world, transferring them out of the country would carry with it no trauma or difficulty.”
The 1967 war was a further leap forward for the colonial project. Palestinians fled and the vast majority of those who sought to return to their homes were refused by the Israeli authorities, despite having an absolute right under international law to do so. Along with home demolition, imprisonment and deportation, this was all part of an ongoing ‘de-Arabisation’ campaign.
More than 250 settlements have been constructed in the Occupied Territories, home to around 750,000 Israeli settlers. The Israeli state has expropriated about 24% of the West Bank for infrastructure to sustain its settlements. In Jerusalem, Palestinians constitute 38% of the population, yet have access to only 7% of the urban land for residential and community purposes.
“The fragmentation of the West Bank is most graphically illustrated by the 26 major Israeli highways that crisscross its length and breadth,” observes Halper. “Lined on both sides with ‘sanitary’ margins three to four football fields wide, they eliminate all Palestinian homes, fields and orchards in their path. Some are ‘apartheid roads’ in that they have walls down the middle separating Israeli and Palestinian drivers. On others, Palestinians cannot drive.”
Mass arrests and administrative detention enforce the Occupation. Staggeringly, around 40% of the total male population of the Occupied Territories have been detained at some time by Israel between 1967 and 2014. Meanwhile the economic stranglehold Israel exerts has led to unemployment at over 30% in the West Bank and over 50% in Gaza. Seventy percent of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories live on less than $2 a day. “Not only is the Palestinian economy prevented from developing, but it is unprotected from an Israeli economy 60 times its size.”
But if colonisation is indeed the name of the game, then nothing short of decolonisation will be necessary. This requires “a complete transformation. New institutions must be created that ensure collective as well as individual equality. Each citizen must enjoy equal access to the country’s land and resources. Membership in society, civil rights and access to economic resources must be deracialized. A new civil identity must be forged.”
Halper believes that key lessons can be drawn from another experience of settler colonialism, that of apartheid South Africa. “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white,” were the opening words of the African National Congress’s Freedom Charter. It went on communicate the vision of a common future upon which political negotiations could be built: “Our country will never be prosperous or free until all our people live in brotherhood, enjoying equal rights and opportunities; that only a democratic state, based on the will of all the people, can secure to all their birthright without distinction of colour, race, sex or belief.”
Labelling Israel an apartheid state seems less controversial than it once was. The country’s largest human rights group, B’Tselem, issued a report earlier this year using this very designation. Writing in the Guardian, its executive director declared: “There is not a single square inch in the territory Israel controls where a Palestinian and a Jew are equal.”
Of course, the idea is considerably older. Ben White wrote Israeli Apartheid: A beginner’s guide in 2009, highlighting the shared features of the Israeli and South African regimes: colonisation, territorial fragmentation, restrictions on people’s movement and military brutality – based on the aim of consolidating and enforcing dispossession and securing the best land control over natural resources for one group at the expense of another.
Returning to Decolonizing Israel, Liberating Palestine, Jeff Halper advocates a one-state solution. A single state already exists in Palestine, he argues: the task is to transform it from an apartheid state to a single, pluralistic democracy. As broad principles, these ideas seem sound. But as the experience of post-apartheid South Africa underlines, declaring a nation of different communities based on equal rights is fine on paper, but it does not address the huge economic and social inequalities that were created by the colonial set-up. South Africa may have enjoyed black majority rule in recent years but it has not addressed the ownership of capital and land, despite promises in the Freedom Charter, which proclaimed “The Land Shall Be Shared Among Those Who Work It!” Consequently the new South Africa has entrenched neo-colonial exploitation.
Halper to his credit recognises that economic justice must be a key plank of any lasting settlement. Deracialising the economy and enshrining equal access to resources is vital, and this will not be compatible with existing neoliberal models. But he is vague on the idea of a “proper balance” between a market-based economy and the sustainable, egalitarian eco-socialism he favours.
A single democratic state of Israel Palestine is not of course the position of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. In Halper’s view, the PLO’s move to a two state ‘solution’ constituted a “self-defeating shift in the Palestinian struggle from that of liberation and decolonization to conflict resolution.” It accepted Israel’s framing of the issue as a “conflict” of two nationalisms. It plunged the PLO into futile negotiations with a state that claimed exclusive entitlement to the entire country. Yet Halper recognises the PLO was under extreme international pressure to do so.
And its options were – are – limited. Halper is critical of a ‘rights-based’ approach to Palestinian liberation, on the grounds that it is “inconceivable that the US and Europe would sanction Israel in any meaningful way for its violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention or other bodies of international law” – probably true – but also on the more dubious basis that human rights are often a front for Big Power hegemony. But while it’s true that the US and other states manipulate the issue of human rights for their own purposes, the recognition of universal rights in key statements of international law remains a vital safeguard for the world’s disempowered.
Still, if Halper’s lack of detail on the socioeconomic basis of a future single state might lead to a replicating of the existing inequalities, a two-state solution would without doubt fix these same inequalities in stone. A Palestinian state based on the existing overcrowded and fragmented Occupied Territories would be little more than a Bantustan reservation, with little connection to historic Palestine and addressing none of the injustices of 1948.
What are the prospects for Halper’s vision of a democratic single state? He is optimistic: despite the poor quality of Palestinian national leadership compared to the moral strengths of anti-apartheid leaders, the Palestinian issue has achieved the same global proportions. And because the Israel-Palestine conflict is more geo-strategically disruptive, it is more likely that world powers will work to resolve it.
I’m not so sure. The regional importance of Israel has also meant greater intransigence from the US in tackling the injustices at stake, whatever the mood of global public opinion. Certainly the Trump Administration worked hard to get Arab states to normalise relations with Israel, at the same time as green-lighting its annexation of vast swathes of the West Bank. Additionally, it stopped US funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East and closed the PLO office in Washington.
Analysts are not optimistic about this changing under Biden. The deadlock began before Trump took office, with little serious pressure mounted on Israel by the Obama Administration. No more than cosmetic changes to the traditional US line are expected under Biden, who unlike many previous presidents-elect, has not announced any initiatives to address the conflict. There is general agreement that the Israeli-Palestinian issue and renewal of negotiations are unlikely to feature prominently on his agenda anytime soon.
International grassroots pressure is of course unlikely to abate. But while the Boycott, Divestment Sanctions campaign, for example, may have made great strides forward in recent years, Halper is nonetheless critical of its “rights-based” approach and feels its main demands reflect a two-state approach. Armed with the right ‘endgame’, however, “international civil society is eminently mobilizable.”
This is a thoughtful book. And it’s not just about liberating Palestine. As suggested earlier, we are all feeling the effects of the militarised environment on which neoliberalism increasingly relies. So as the author concludes, “Liberating Palestine is but a step towards liberating Global Palestine.”
Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at https://lists.riseup.net/www/info/iraqfocus. His book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.
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