Martin Whitlock - political writings 2001-2004

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The old realities of history

19 April 2004

The endorsement by George Bush of Ariel Sharon's self-serving plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip while retaining substantial sections of the West Bank is pure politics and will have little if any influence on whatever settlement is eventually reached in that region.

Politics is one thing, and history another. Generally speaking the two don't mix. Any settlement that sticks between the Palestinians and the Israelis will reflect the historical realities of the situation, and not simply what Mr Bush called the "new realities on the ground". This is because the historical realities are immutable, whereas the realities on the ground are relatively easy to change.

But that something is fixed does not mean that it is easy to read. To get a sense of the historical realities it is necessary to look at comparable cases, and the points of similarity and difference that they present. As a clash between two ethnically and culturally distinct peoples over the occupation of a piece of land, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has many precedents from which insight can be drawn.

A good starting point lies in the gross mechanics of what brings populations together and forces them apart. Identification, both ethnic and cultural, is the principle motor for this. It is easy to forget, for example, how recently Germany and Italy were loose assemblages of small states and principalities rather than distinctive nations. The sense of German-ness or Italian-ness pre-dated and helped to form the national identities that brought these nations into being.

Fissuring occurs when a group has been forced into such an assemblage without really belonging. The Basques and the Kurds are examples of such trans-national people who are not comfortable in any of the countries they find themselves part of. Places such as the Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia fissured off from the Soviet Union when they got the chance because their relationship with it had always been a shotgun affair. Czechoslovakia worked out a broadly amicable separation reflecting the two parts of its name. Belgium, a diplomatic creation of the early nineteenth century with two distinct populations, has retained its notional unity by celebrating its diversity and splitting, for most purposes, into two units.

But identity is only one part of this calculation. The other is territory, because fissuring only works when the distinctive identities are associated with distinctive bits of land. The examples of the Baltic republics, of Czechoslovakia and of Belgium reflect one form of imperialism; the sort that lumps pre-existing entities together without eradicating their distinctiveness. The collapse of the Iron Curtain has seen a large number of temporarily repressed identities re-assert themselves in this way.

The other sort of imperialism has seen the wholesale migration of populations to settle away from their places of origin, and the creation of new identities within these populations that necessarily differ from those of the people already there. What happens in these cases is predominantly a numbers game.

In the extreme examples of North America and Australasia, the rapid demographic success of the settler populations and their genocidal approach to the peoples they were displacing created completely new dominant identities in which small residual indigenous populations were tolerated but had no power. Elsewhere the pattern differed markedly. In South America, even though the large indigenous population was cut down by the diseases introduced with the Hispanic conquerors, the settlers did not succeed demographically in replacing them and the consequent intermingling gave rise eventually to a heterogeneous sort of unity. In Africa the settler populations remained small and distinct, if powerful for a time. When their power came to an end there was little doubt as to the dominant identifies to which these countries would revert. The experiment in South Africa, which had the largest settler population, of keeping the settler and indigenous populations separate, failed not least because there was no territorial basis for separation other than the arbitrary one created by the never accepted or legitimised Bantustans.

What lessons can be drawn from these disparate examples for the lands occupied by the Palestinian and Israeli peoples? For a start it is clear that, of the two forms of imperialism described, it is the second one that applies. Even if one disregards the negative associations of such terminology, it is quite evident that Israel is a colonial creation, its majority Jewish population, at least, created by migration and settlement. When, in 1948, the new state came into being, large numbers of indigenous people were displaced, but they did not cease to exist and are now to be found squashed into the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and living under nominal self-government.

The territorial separation between Israel and the Palestinian areas does not reflect an accepted cultural or political boundary. Not only do Palestinians lay claim to their former homes and land in what is now Israel, but Israeli Jewish settlers lay claim to much or all of the Palestinian areas and have occupied significant parts. It is not a case of their being disputed areas at the margins of the two zones, as has been the case, for example, between Ethiopia and the secessionist Eritrea. The pre-1967 boundaries, although they are the basis for most formulations of the two state solution to this conflict, have no cultural, political or even ethnic credibility. The concentration of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza strip reflects their refugee status, not their ingrained territorial associations.

In other words, the Israelis and Palestinians are two peoples occupying a single land, and no settlement will succeed that does not reflect this reality. From the Israeli point of view the numbers game has not been won; they have failed to get away with the sort of "empty space" colonialism that created the modern United States, and now have to find a way to live with the people in whose land they have arrived. For the moment they are in denial, unable to cope with this impediment to their distinctive national aspirations. They have been encouraged in this state of mind by generations of mostly U.S. political leaders, whose failure - amid the failure of the international community generally - to come up with a solution to the problem reflects the fact that there is no viable solution that gives Israelis and their supporters what they want.

It is this aspect of the situation that most strikingly reflects what was happening in apartheid South Africa. The point is not whether there may be parallels between the black people of the apartheid era and the Palestinians of Gaza, but to show how a society can become blind to change when its consequences challenge the very basis upon which the society was established. Like their contemporaries in North America, Dutch settlers in South Africa in the seventeenth century did not go there to integrate with indigenous peoples, and they have taken a long, circuitous and extraordinarily bloody path from that time to the day ten years ago when the prior political claims of indigenous South Africans were finally accepted.

Somehow or other, Israeli Jews have got to come to terms with the fact that they are living in a country that is also home to an approximately equivalent (and growing) number of Arabs. The numbers game is not so stark for them as it was in South Africa (where some eighty per cent of the population is indigenous) and consequently the process of change will be slower still.

But change will come, nonetheless, for although American money and political support can delay it for quite a long time, it cannot "disappear" the Palestinian population or win the numbers game decisively for the Jewish side. So, while the cosying up of Bush and Sharon last week may be helpful to both of them electorally in the short term, the agreement they reached says nothing whatsoever about the eventual shape of any peaceful resolution.

©Copyright Martin Whitlock 2004