Bart Moore-Gilbert. Interventions. Volume 20, Issue 1. 2018.
From the late 1940s to the late 1960s, Israel and its apologists succeeded in persuading much of world opinion that the country belonged to the anti- or postcolonial world. According to this narrative, Zionism was the liberation movement of the Jews, which had accrued additional legitimacy in the wake of the Holocaust; and that its ‘War of Independence’ to rid Mandate Palestine of British rule and ‘restore’ the Jewish homeland paralleled those of later anticolonial movements. Further, Israel successfully represented itself in this period as a beneficent alternative source of strategies and technologies for development to a West which all too often seemed reluctant to change its colonial ways in dealing with the newly independent nations springing up across Asia, Africa and the Americas. Such arguments, which I have detailed elsewhere (Moore-Gilbert 2013), were sufficient to persuade even some of those most bitterly opposed to western imperialism to support the establishment of the State of Israel, blinding them to what that entailed for the indigenous Arab population of Mandate Palestine. For example, Frantz Fanon, later hailed as one of the greatest ‘Third World’ anticolonial theorists and activists, and a foundational figure in postcolonial studies, lauded the creation of ‘the new Jew’ which Israel was allegedly making possible, without any reference to the Arab society destroyed to make way for it (Fanon 1952, 188).
For some in the postcolonial world, not even the 1967 War, which led to Israel’s conquest of the West Bank and Gaza, was sufficient to trouble this dominant narrative. For the most part, however, it marked a watershed in attitudes among ‘Third World’ constituencies and their anticolonial allies in the West. Thus, while Naipaul’s In a Free State (1973, 104, 172, 174) depicts Israeli development experts as a welcome presence in newly independent Uganda (where he was writer-in-residence at Makerere University in 1966), within a few years the situation had changed radically. The 1975 Organization of African Unity meeting in Kampala capped a series of increasingly strongly worded pronouncements on Israel’s conduct in the Occupied Territories with Resolution 77. This determined that
the racist regime in occupied Palestine and the racist regimes in Zimbabwe and South Africa have a common imperialist origin, forming a whole and having the same racist structure and being organically linked in their policy aimed at repression of the dignity and integrity of the human being. (OAU 1975)
Such developments were paralleled in the broader international community, notably as represented by the United Nations. In November 1974 the General Assembly conferred ‘observer status’ on the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in the wake of Resolution 3236 (‘The Question of Palestine’). This had affirmed ‘the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people … to self-determination without outside interference’ and to ‘national independence and sovereignty’ (UN 1974). The following year, Resolution 3379 determined that Zionism ‘is a form of racism and racial discrimination’ (UN 1975).
In the metropolitan West, however, it took a long while for such views to gain real traction. The 1956 Suez Crisis, an Anglo-French-Israeli conspiracy to invade Egypt in order to regain control of the recently nationalized Suez Canal (Israel’s reward was to be substantial territorial gains at Egypt’s expense), indicates how quickly the new state had become a key ally of the western powers, increasingly so as the Cold War intensified. Strong US disapproval of this episode of (neo)colonial adventurism led to all three aggressors quickly being forced to withdraw their forces. However, the Suez Crisis constituted only a brief hiatus in its generally unstinting support for Israel throughout the period since the Second World War. Guilt about the Holocaust; fears that the feudalistic regimes of the Arab world were committed to its destruction, if not to engendering a second Holocaust; Israel’s evident embrace of democracy; the ever more influential Zionist lobbies—all combined to deflect any substantial concern for the Palestinian victims of 1948. Largely invisible in the western public sphere during Israel’s first twenty years of existence, Palestine began to impinge directly on its attention again only after Israel’s occupation of the ‘West Bank’ and Gaza. However, the strategy of the PLO (founded in 1964) to present itself as equivalent to other ‘Third World’ anticolonial movements of the time had mixed results in the West. After a spate of aircraft hijackings and attacks on Israeli interests overseas (notably at the 1972 Munich Olympics), designed to bring their case to world attention, Palestinians were increasingly seen through the prism of ‘terrorism’—a discourse which has, of course, persisted well into the new millennium.
It was not until the 1980s that western perceptions of Palestine/Israel began to change substantially. This was partly the result of events like the Beirut massacres of 1982, when Israeli proxies slaughtered many hundreds, possibly thousands, of Palestinian civilians—the vast majority women and children—in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. Shocking newsreel of the immediate aftermath of the massacres was widely circulated among western television audiences. Equally important was coverage of the first Intifada in the Occupied Territories (1987-1991). Nightly footage of Israeli soldiers breaking the arms of protesting Palestinian youths with rocks, together with images of injuries sustained by women and children from live fire, tear-gas and plastic bullets, made increasingly substantial numbers of western viewers question hitherto dominant political narratives about Israel as a peace-loving democracy besieged by blood-thirsty Palestinian ‘terrorists’.
For scholars in the Anglophone world, more specifically, the late 1980s and early 1990s proved a watershed. Revisionist scholarship by leftist diasporic Jews (e.g. Chomsky 1983) and an ideologically diverse group of Israeli ‘new historians’ combined to undermine some of Zionism’s key mythographies—notably, its historic claims to a position in the anti- or postcolonial pantheon. Their accounts of Zionist strategic planning in the pre-State era, and of Israel’s behaviour during the 1948-1949 war, provided substantial evidence that the colonial dimensions of the Zionist project long pre-dated the Occupation and annexation of Arab lands in the 1960s (e.g. Flapan 1987; see also Flapan 1979; Morris 1994; Palumbo 1987; Pappé 1988; Shlaim 1988). These findings have been complemented by substantial further research from many of these figures, as well as newer voices (e.g. Piterberg 2008), several of whom have felt the necessity to quit Israel for ideological reasons. As Joseph Massad (2006, 155) argues, such scholarship corroborated perspectives long articulated in Palestinian historiography, which also began to impact on western academia in a more consistent manner in the 1980s, leading to a fuller understanding of colonialism’s place in the histories of the region (e.g. Khalidi 1984; Mattar 1988; Muslih 1988; Khalidi 1991; Masalha 1992; Said and Hitchens 1988; see also Said 1992).
Postcolonial studies was ostensibly slow to register such developments. The 1970s, when ‘Third World’ attitudes towards Palestine/Israel began to change radically, is when the contours of the subdiscipline as we know it today began to settle. And, as is generally acknowledged, this process was decisively shaped by the Palestinian exile Edward Said, who was himself clearly responding to the fast-changing international perceptions of Palestine/Israel. Following two relatively traditional monographs, Orientalism (1978) marked a sharp change of direction in terms of Said’s objects of study and the explicitness of his ‘Third Worldist’ political affiliations. This, his most influential text in terms of reorienting postcolonial studies, was quickly followed by The Question of Palestine (1979) and Covering Islam (1981). For a long time, however, critical attention to Said within the sub-field focused almost solely on the first book of his trilogy, the obvious attraction of which was its ‘modular’ applicability to the much wider range of contexts typically engaged by postcolonial scholars than those on which Said focused primarily—the Middle East, including Palestine/Israel.
Consequently, as postcolonial studies expanded exponentially in the 1980s and 1990s into a congeries of overlapping, sometimes competing, methodologies and political affiliations—each ‘school’, however, enlisting the authority of Orientalism to justify its particular emphases and orientations—Palestine/Israel continued to remain almost invisible. In its ‘poststructuralist’, ‘materialist’ and ‘left-liberal’ branches alike (I identify with the last), one finds no more than the most fleeting references to the region in the 1990s. Indeed, the seeds of this essay lie partly in the chastening response of Abdirahman Hussein in 2002 to my Postcolonial Theory: Contexts, Practices, Politics (1997). As was typical of Said’s rapidly accumulating band of followers, Hussein suggested, I had ‘bracketed off’ the implications of the fact that Orientalism situated its author openly and self-consciously as a scholar whose intellectual project was underpinned by his existential experience as a Palestinian in exile; and by his commitment to achieving redress for the historic wrongs done to his people. Hussein (2002, 231) concluded that the issues closest to Said’s heart, notably ‘the direct ideological transaction between Orientalism as a field of knowledge and Zionism as a specific program’, had—ironically—been overlooked in the rush to embrace other aspects of Orientalism.
Little surprise, then, that Salah Hassan (2001) should have complained that a state of ‘critical partitionism’ had come to characterize the (non-)relationship between postcolonial studies and Palestine/Israel. Hassan’s argument did not flatter the sub-field’s intellectual curiosity. Indeed, the new millennium brought a slew of publications—some summative of its often impressive achievements to date, others proclaiming new directions for a subdiscipline which their authors regarded as increasingly moribund—which seemed to confirm the pattern of non-engagement just described. The continuing avoidance of Palestine/Israel also corroborated a perception in some quarters that the field preferred to focus on (post)colonial conjunctures which were, typically, safely historical—rather than on more contentious and therefore more ethically and politically challenging contemporary problematics.
Yet this is not the whole story. The tardiness of the sub-field’s engagement with Palestine/Israel can be partly explained by the existence of certain redoubtable obstacles. An obvious one is the success with which Zionist apologists had for so long managed (and continue) to frame criticism of Israel, however constructively offered, as anti-Semitism. As Salman Rushdie observed in 1986: ‘The problem is that any attempt to provide a critique of Zionism is faced, particularly nowadays, with the charge that it is anti-Semitism in disguise’ (as quoted in Said 1994, 121). Said’s essays give a flavour of the enormous ad hominem hostility (this extended on occasion to death threats and having his office vandalized) which he consistently had to endure as a consequence of his intellectual and political work on Palestine/Israel. Little wonder that those with a less direct connection to the region and its conflicts might have thought twice before exposing themselves to such vituperation, especially in the United States, where academic critics of Israeli policy have sometimes seemed to find their careers suffer consequentially.
Other obstacles have proved equally formidable, even in places like Britain, where the power of Zionist lobbies is ostensibly less pervasive. In the first place, Palestinian literature has only belatedly and fitfully become available to interested readers, including postcolonial scholars. Much of the literary production to which Said referred in The Question of Palestine (1979) had not yet been translated into any European language. Indeed, the first English versions of such major texts as Emile Habiby’s The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptomist (1974) and Ghassan Kanafani’s Men in the Sun (1962) did not appear until 1985 and 1999, respectively. And the first substantial anthology of Palestinian literature in English translation was published only in 1992 (Jayyusi 1992). Relying on work in translation entails obvious risks which might further explain the reluctance of Anglophone postcolonial critics to ‘trespass’ on Palestine/Israel. Very few people based in English literature departments in the West, as most postcolonial scholars are, have a good command of either Arabic or Hebrew, let alone both—expertise which might be deemed essential for anyone seeking to analyse the cultural production of the region. Consequently, until relatively recently, it has been largely left to a bare handful of linguistically competent scholars with postcolonial affiliations to do this sort of work.
Being proficient in neither language, I’ve sometimes been rudely reminded of the perils of relying on English-language versions of works originally written in Hebrew and Arabic. For example, on first reading S. Yizhar’s novella Khirbet Khizeh (1949) in English, I became convinced that Yizhar must have read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and that he was self-consciously using it as an intertext. It was not simply the conjunction of the theme of colonial invasion, the often melancholically self-critical tone and the quasi-Modernist narrative form which encouraged me to make the association; one particular and unusual phrase seemed to link the two works definitively. Concluding a pained description of two elderly Arab women refugees, whom he is helping to expel from their ancestral village during the1948-1949 war, the narrator comments: ‘What could you do with them but spit in disgust, and gag, and not look, and run from here—the horror! The horror!’ (Yizhar 2008, 53; as translated by de Lange). That distinctive final phrase is the very one Kurtz so famously uses to express his epiphany about colonialism in Conrad’s text (1974, 100).
However, comparing Nicholas de Lange’s translation with the original in the company of Yizhar’s son, Professor Israel Smilansky, and his wife Nitsa, Professor of Translation Studies at Tel Aviv University, I realized that the truth was more complex. Yizhar in fact uses a single Hebrew word palatzut, where de Lange plumps for repetition; this is perhaps to emphasize the greater force of the original, which equates more with ‘awe’, a word which is perhaps somewhat too biblical/archaic to suit de Lange’s aim of providing a fluent, modern English translation (despite the often intensely biblical register of Yizhar’s Hebrew.) The Smilanskys further pointed out that Heart of Darkness was not translated into Hebrew at the time he wrote his novella (this didn’t happen until 1961); and even had Yizhar stumbled on Conrad’s text prior to writing Khirbet Khizeh, they doubted that his command of English was sufficient to have enabled him to make real sense of it.
Yet despite such persisting inhibitory factors, the ‘critical partitionism’ which Hassan identified in 2001 has rapidly eroded in the last decade or so. If there was far too long a hiatus following Barbara Harlow’s groundbreaking analysis of Kanafani in Resistance Literature (1987), there is now much greater willingness on the part of Anglophone postcolonial critics to address Palestine/Israel. The trend can be traced back to interventions like Joseph Massad’s (2000) ‘The “Post-Colonial” Colony: Time, Space, and Bodies in Palestine/Israel’, which appeared in one of the volumes plotting new directions for the subdiscipline mentioned earlier; and Joe Cleary’s (2000) Literature, Partition and the Nation State, which discussed selected works by Kanafani and Amos Oz, among others. Perhaps encouraged by further interventions from prominent figures in related fields of literary/cultural studies (e.g. Loshitzky 2002 ; Rose 2007; Shohat 2006; Butler 2012), these engagements soon bore fruit at a pedagogical level. In the UK, for example, in the mid-‘noughties’ Palestinian material began to ‘infiltrate’ mainstream postcolonial courses, for example ‘Postcolonial Cinemas’ and ‘Postcolonial Texts’ at Nottingham Trent University, and ‘Postcolonial Literatures’ at Goldsmiths College. The year 2007 saw the introduction of the first dedicated undergraduate course offered by an English department, Jacqueline Rose’s ‘Palestine/Israel, Israel/Palestine’ at Queen Mary, University of London, and the following year I introduced an MA module at Goldsmiths entitled ‘Palestine and Postcolonialism’.
Such developments fed into important new research outputs in the area. The year 2012 brought an issue of Interventions devoted to Mahmoud Darwish (Bernard and Elmarsafy 2012); 2013 witnessed the Journal of Postcolonial Writing’s issue on Palestine (Williams and Ball 2014); and in 2014 an issue of Wasafiri was also devoted to Palestine (Holmes 2014). Aside from an ever-increasing number of articles and chapters in books from a variety of figures within postcolonial studies, full-length works by two younger British-based academics, Anna Ball’s Palestinian Literature and Film in a Postcolonial Feminist Perspective (2012) and Anna Bernard’s Rhetorics of Belonging: Nation, Narration, and Israel/Palestine (2013), deserve particular mention. This is not just on account of the important ways in which they have pushed discussion of the cultural/political problematics of Palestine/Israel forward, but because their appearance suggests that a tipping point has been reached, whereby the region is now securely established as a legitimate field of enquiry within postcolonial studies—in the UK at least.
The reasons for this shift are both general and specific. At the general level, the issues of human rights and political justice raised by Palestine/Israel are becoming ever more ‘globalized’ (Collins 2011). Insofar as postcolonial studies attends increasingly to globalization as a new dispensation within which colonialism continues to manifest itself, it is thereby increasingly difficult to avoid. The geopolitical importance of the region has long been recognized, of course. For example, during a visit to Jerusalem in October 1947, Henry Wallace, Vice-President of the United States from 1940 to 1945, commented: ‘There is no peace for the world without peace in Palestine’ (Porath 1987, 11). Wallace’s pronouncement has proved prophetic. A third world war was briefly threatened by the tripartite invasion of Egypt in 1956 and the Israeli-Arab wars of 1967 and 1973 again emphasized the dangers to the wider world of superpower involvement in the region through their respective proxies. Indeed, in 1975, UN General Assembly Resolution 3375 warned ‘the problem of Palestine continues to endanger international peace and security.’ Such warnings did little to stop much of the world lining up on one side or the other of the conflict. In 1975, for example, the Organization of African Unity determined that ‘the cause of Palestine is an African cause’; meanwhile, the United States (supported by much of the rest of the West) has consistently vetoed UN Security Council Resolutions condemning Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and has made its client by far the superpower’s largest recipient of financial aid—and arms.
Far from declining with the end of the Cold War, the geopolitical importance of the region has, if anything, grown. In part, this is a function of the consolidation of new modes of transnational communication, notably the Internet, which has generated sites like the Electronic Intifada (started 2001), Zochrot (2002) and Mondoweiss (2006), Al-Jazeera’s English broadcasting service (started 2006) and an ever-increasing variety of social media. These have all provided powerful alternative sources of reporting to the West about the ever-deepening immiseration of Arabs within Palestine/Israel (all too often ignored by the mainstream media), despite the apparent diplomatic successes of the Madrid Conference (1991) and the Oslo Accords (1993-1995). Equally, the second Intifada (2000-2005) and Israel’s repeated military assaults on Gaza (notably in 2008-2009, 2012 and 2014) have thereby impinged with far greater immediacy and intensity on the consciousness (and conscience) of the world than did previous phases of the conflict. This, in turn, has underpinned the exponential rise of networks of international solidarity with Palestine in the new millennium. Notable examples include the International Solidarity Movement (founded 2001), Jews for Justice for Palestinians (founded 2002), the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (founded in 1982, relaunched in 2004), the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (founded 2005) and Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods (founded 2007). International solidarity with Palestine has also taken the form of a variety of volunteer humanitarian convoys to Gaza, including the overland-routed Viva Palestina! initiatives and flotillas across the Mediterranean. The most high-profile of these was the Turkish-organized expedition in 2010, which ended when the M.V. Mavi Marmara was stormed by Israeli forces (in international waters), leading to nine deaths among the unarmed volunteers.
The enhanced ‘global’ status of Palestine/Israel is equally evident in the role it is playing in the spread of international Islamism. While the perceived injustices and aggressions which Palestinians face have long played a political role in the Arab world (Rodinson 1973, 25ff), they are particularly prominent in the polemics of the Muslim Brotherhood (Allen 2007, 278-279) (founded 1928, to which Hamas is affiliated, and to which Israel accuses the organizers of the Turkish flotilla of having links); and they have also constituted a powerfully emotive recruiting sergeant for more recent and more militant groups such as al-Qaida and Islamic State in the Levant (or ISIS/Daesh). As the West confronts these new enemies, it has begun to recognize anew that its own peace and security are partly dependent on whether a just solution to the long-standing conflict in Palestine/Israel can be found. This perception is reflected in US President George Bush Jr.’s belated push for a two-state solution in 2002, reiterated in the ‘Road Map’ of 2003 (see below). Such developments have stimulated unprecedented interest in the conflict and a growing sense that its resolution involves everyone with a concern for ‘our’ future.
One further symptom of this is the proliferation in the new millennium of cultural work by western producers in a variety of media which has brought different aspects of the problematic to new audiences. John Berger and Linda Grant (UK), Jonathan Wilson (US) and Dervla Murphy (Eire) are literary representatives of this development. In the visual media, one might cite the graphic art of Joe Sacco (Malta/US) and two recent UK television series, ‘The Promise’ (dir. Peter Kosminski, Channel 4, 2011) and ‘The Honourable Woman’ (dir. Hugo Blick, BBC 2, 2014). All this supports John Collins’ argument that ‘the global importance of Palestine seems to be increasing in inverse proportion to the amount of territory controlled by Palestinians’ (2011, 1).
It is tempting to see postcolonial studies’ increasing engagement with Palestine/Israel at least in part as an academic form of the kind of ‘solidarity work’ described above, as might be inferred from Patrick Williams’ (2010, 91-92) description of ‘the seemingly utterly dystopian current situation of the Palestinian people’ and his consequent demand of academic colleagues: ‘How can we not be working on Palestine?’ Whether or not this is sufficient explanation in itself, there are more specific factors which account for the change since Hassan’s disobliging pronouncements in 2001. For example, there has been growing awareness within the field of the wide range of Said’s work since the mid-1990s on Palestine/Israel, notably Peace and Its Discontents (1993), The Politics of Dispossession (1994), End of the Peace Process (2000) and From Oslo and Iraq to the Roadmap (2004). Equally, far more Palestinian literature in translation has become available in recent years (Bernard 2014, 3-4). This has been accompanied by a steady growth of Palestinian cultural production in English. The diaspora, especially those elements based in North America and Britain, is primarily responsible; figures as diverse as Said himself, Susan Abulhawa, Selma Dabbagh, Ghada Karmi, Naomi Shihab Nye, Samir El-Youssef, Mischa Hiller and Ahmed Masoud (this list is by no means exhaustive) are among those driving a phenomenon which can be traced back at least as early as 1960, when the Cambridge-educated, Baghdad-exiled, Jabra Ibrahim Jabra published his English-language novel Hunters in a Narrow Street.
More remarkable still, perhaps, is the increasing volume of Palestinian writing in English from inside Palestine/Israel. Within the Occupied Territories, figures like Hanan Ashrawi, Raja Shehadeh and Suad Amiry have reached international audiences—and international recognition (for example, the award to Amiry of Italy’s Viareggio-Versilia Prize in 2004 and of the UK’s Orwell Prize to Shehadeh in 2008)—through work written in English. Similar developments can now be detected even in the even more constrained circumstances of Gaza. A significant example is Refaat Alareer’s collection of short stories, Gaza Writes Back (2014), which brings together more than a dozen young writers who have all chosen to express themselves in English rather than Arabic. None of this work, of course, involves the hazards of working with translations described earlier.
One State, Two States, Three or More?
The wind therefore seems set fair for further engagements between postcolonial studies and Palestine/Israel. If the perception that Israel is a colonial settler state is now well-nigh universal among academic postcolonialists interested in the region (as well as very many others), it also continues to be widely resisted, even by ‘liberal Zionists’, especially in Israel. Thus the prominent Israeli ‘dove’, Amos Oz (2012, 21), perhaps the most internationally famous living Israeli writer, has recently insisted ‘modern Israel is not a product of a colonialist enterprise.’ Yet some such figures have begun to accept (at least partially) the argument that colonial and racist dynamics operated in Zionist discourse and practice right from the beginning—and continue to shape Israeli attitudes and behaviour towards Palestinians today. For example, reviewing his British great-grandfather Herbert Bentwich’s exploratory expedition to Ottoman Palestine in 1897, the celebrated Ha’aretz journalist Ari Shavit (2013, 18) muses rhetorically:
Is this colonialism? If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck. The photographs are incriminating: white safari suits, cork hats. The language that my great-grandfather uses in his diary is incriminating, too. There is no ambiguity, no beating about the bush. His aim and that of his London circle is to colonize Palestine.
However, Shavit asserts this is by no means the whole story, pointing to other dimensions of the histories of Palestine/Israel which make it exceptional among, rather than typical of, the conjunctures generally addressed in postcolonial studies. Most importantly, he points out, his great-grandfather’s expedition was not inspired in the first instance by the desire to acquire new territory for the greater glory of the Queen-Empress (or resources for her businessmen to exploit, or new territories for her ‘surplus’ metropolitan population), as was the case in much of the British Empire, but by the desire to find a haven for the victims of European anti-Semitism. If they later seek the backing of different European imperial powers of the day to help realize this project, nonetheless Bentwich and his colleagues are exercised ‘on behalf of Europe’s ultimate victims’ (Shavit 2013, 19; cf. Halper 2013). Insofar as they subsequently align themselves with imperial interests in the early twentieth century (for example, by representing a substantial Jewish presence in Palestine as a bulwark against ‘Asiatic barbarism’ or the scheming designs of rival European powers), these remain secondary to securing the emancipation of European Jewry, only patchily achieved in Western Europe, barely begun in the East. Consonant with this, it is also often argued that the majority of Jewish settlement in Palestine in the crucial pre-State period of 1933-1948 was informed even less by the pioneering ideologies characteristic of European settler colonialism than by the desire to find refuge from Nazi persecution and its aftermath, a desire which brought the yishuv into increasingly direct and violent conflict with the imperial power, Britain.
It might be forcefully objected against Shavit that, from the point of view of Zionism’s Arab victims, the motives of Jewish immigrants to Palestine signify little in relation to the reality of mass dispossession and expulsion from their lands, homes and livelihoods which followed in 1948. However, as Said (2000, 206) repeatedly urges, it would be a serious error for postcolonial studies to underestimate the role that the histories of anti-Semitism, culminating in the Holocaust, have played—and continue to play—in Palestine/Israel. Even in the contemporary period, Israeli discourse—including its literature—is shot through with fears of annihilation which clearly have their origins in memories of the ‘final solution’ and anticipation that some version of it might be repeated in the future. The opening of Shavit’s My Promised Land: the Triumph and Tragedy of Israel (2013, ix) is a case in point: ‘For as long as I can remember, I remember fear. Existential fear … that a dark ocean would rise and drown us all.’ The ‘dark ocean’ is all the more frightening because of its unspecific nature, representing a powerful counter-current to the self-confidence, even self-congratulation, which so often characterizes Israeli discourse about the country’s achievements, Shavit’s included.
However cynically manipulated for political gain at times by some Israeli politicians, such histories of Jewish persecution bear on one of the more exceptional features of Israel as a settler-colonial entity. This is that it has no single metropole which performs the role historically undertaken by Britain as the source and guarantor of colonialism in Australia or Canada, for example. While the United States has provided colossal amounts of financial, military and diplomatic support since 1948, without which Israel might well not have survived in its present form, immigration from there to ‘the Jewish State’ has paled in comparison to that from other countries, particularly since the 1980s. Further, these histories help explain why, rather than being the state of all its citizens, Israel is exclusively ‘the state of the Jews’ wherever they are in the world—hence the ‘Right of Return’ enshrined in Israeli law since 1950 and partly amended in 1970 when the definition of ‘Jew’ was broadened to counter the ‘demographic threat’ posed by relatively low Jewish Israeli birth-rates (such definitions have very serious negative consequences for non-Jews in Israel, notably its Arab citizens, or those I call, following Said [1999, 51], the ‘Israeli Palestinians’).
Conversely, the Palestinian case is in some ways equally exceptional, not least because there is no longer a territory which can be designated uncontentiously as Palestine. It was not until the 1994 Cairo/Gaza-Jericho Agreement that any part of former Mandate Palestine could be said to have come under Palestinian control, in the guise of the Palestinian Authority (PA), and even then only to an extremely limited extent. Furthermore, in striking contrast to what was typical of the formerly European-controlled territories which decolonized between 1945 and 1975, the vast majority of Palestinians (some 750,000) were ethnically cleansed from their homes within those areas of the Mandate assigned to Israel in 1947 or conquered in the following two years. Consequently, the majority of Palestinians today are deterritorialized, and often stateless, living outside the borders of Palestine/Israel. On the other hand, equally exceptionally, international law and conventions have long recognized the rights of the refugees of 1948-1949 and their descendants to return to their homes (a position flatly rejected by Israel even as it enforces the Jewish ‘Right of Return’). Notably, Article 11 of UN General Assembly Resolution 194 (1948) stated:
the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.
Following the displacement of a further 200,000 to 300,000 Palestinians from the Occupied Territories after 1967, General Assembly Resolution 3236 (1974) reaffirmed ‘the inalienable right of the Palestinians to return to their homes and property from which they have been displaced and uprooted’, a determination which remains in force.
Across the decolonizing world in the period 1945-1975, sometimes substantial settler populations were forced to evacuate in order to effect self-determination for the colonized peoples in question—Algeria and Kenya being two obvious examples. However, decolonization of settler-colonial territories has tended to be achieved only in places where the indigenous population significantly outnumbered the settler cohort. Through its acts of mass ethnic cleansing in 1948-1949 and 1967, and by galvanizing mass immigration of Jews from around the world, Israel quickly achieved overwhelming Jewish demographic superiority in the area of pre-1967 Israel and, eventually, superiority (for the moment) in Palestine/Israel as a whole. This, combined with its overwhelming military advantages, soon rendered the PLO’s initial ambitions for the armed liberation of the whole of former Mandate Palestine, along the lines of the Vietnamese or Algerian revolutions, a chimera. Since the1980s, therefore, mainstream Palestinian politics has increasingly turned to diplomacy to achieve a compromise outcome, a two-state solution in which Israel and an independent Palestine exist side by side, the latter comprising the 22 per cent of Mandate Palestine which Israel failed to conquer in 1948-1949 but which it then occupied in 1967. First embraced at the 1982 Arab Summit, after the outbreak of the first Intifada (1987-1993), it became the explicit strategic goal of the PLO leadership, as articulated in the Declaration of Independence of November 1988 and supporting statements of the time.
The two-state solution has also, ostensibly, become the preferred outcome of outside agents seeking a resolution of the conflict. It was first (implicitly) articulated by the UN in November 1974, then embraced by the 1982 Arab Summit in Morocco (the ‘Fahd Peace Plan’) and reiterated at the 2002 Arab Summit in Beirut (the ‘Arab Peace Initiative’). Opposed by the United States until 1988, when it became convinced that the PLO would at last formally recognize Israel, the United States supported negotiations towards a two-state solution at the Madrid Conference, reiterating that goal during the Oslo Accords, the Camp David summit (2000) and the Taba summit (2001). During the second Intifada, the two-state solution was reaffirmed—again with US support—in Security Council Resolution 1397 (2002), which invoked ‘a vision of a region where two States, Israel and Palestine, live side by side within secure and recognized borders.’ This formed the basis of the Road Map subsequently engineered by the ‘Quartet’, a body representing the UN, the European Union, the United States and Russia. By contrast, as long ago as 1989, nearly one hundred states around the world (many of them former colonies) had already recognized Palestine as an independent entity and both the Arab League and Organization of the Islamic Conference had recognized it as a state. In 2011 the PA was accorded full membership of UNESCO and the following year the UN General Assembly upgraded Palestine to the status of ‘a non-member observer state’. By 2014, 135 out of the 193 member states of the UN had recognized Palestine as a state (in October of that year, Sweden became the first western European country to do so).
One might expect that, despite its obvious flaws, those working in postcolonial studies, too, would embrace the two-state solution as the best available outcome to the conflict. The sub-field has long invested in the goal of the self-determination of the colonized as the most just antidote to and outcome of colonialism. And Edward Said consistently lent his authority to the idea. Said claims to have been one of the originators of the idea in the early 1980s, earning the vituperation of many Palestinian colleagues before it was finally adopted as official policy by the PLO; and he reaffirmed it in 2002, the year before his death, as still the most desirable resolution of the Palestinian struggle (1994, xxv; 2004, 184). Partly influenced by Said, this was the approach I myself took until relatively recently, as evidenced by my 2007 response to Jacqueline Rose’s The Question of Zion (Moore-Gilbert 2007, 336-341). There I suggested that Rose’s scepticism about the desirability of a two-state solution implied a denial to Palestinians of the right to self-determination, however partial and compromised, of the kind deservedly achieved by so many other once-colonized peoples in the postwar period.
In since coming to recognize the greater wisdom of Rose’s position, I’ve been prompted primarily by the increasingly widely shared perception that while Palestinians have indeed made significant diplomatic gains in recent years, a genuinely independent Palestinian state (however truncated), foreseen by the Road Map as coming into being by 2005(!), remains as far from realization as ever. Indeed, Ali Abunimah (2006, 15) suggests that ‘clinging to the prospect of peace through a two-state solution becomes a valuable placebo against a painful reality, even if no serious effort is made to implement it’ (see also Halper 2013, 129; Shenhav 2012, xix, 1). In 2011, in the face of US threats to veto it (and after withholding funding from UNESCO as punishment for granting the Palestinian Authority membership), the PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas withdrew his planned application for full member-state status at the UN. Further US threats, including the suspension of financial support to the PA, have followed his stated desire for accession to the International Criminal Court (ICC, which came into effect in April 2015), which would allow Palestine to attempt to invoke the court’s jurisdiction to request investigations into Israel’s multiple, grave and persistent breaches of the court’s statute since it came into force in 2002 even if Israel, like the United States, has studiously refused to sign up to the court. In December 2014 the UN Security Council rejected a Jordanian resolution calling for the establishment of a Palestinian State by 2017—fifty years after the Occupation of the ‘West Bank’ and Gaza began. The two most powerful players in the conflict, Israel and the United States (aped by most of their western allies), continue obstinately to refuse to recognize Palestine as a state, although they recognize the PLO (but not equally democratically elected Hamas) as the (only) legitimate political representative of the Palestinian people; and the PA as an interim administration with (very limited) responsibilities for (very limited) parts of Occupied Palestine.
Within Israel it has been left largely to the apparently increasingly impotent constituency of ‘liberal Zionists’ to endorse a two-state solution. This includes Oz, David Grossman and A. B. Yehoshua. Lip-service is (very) intermittently paid by Israeli politicians to the idea that an independent Palestinian state, based on (heavily) amended 1967 borders and with many intolerably burdensome preconditions, might provide a solution to the conflict; however, as has been recognized for some time now, the ‘reality on the ground’ is that Israel, whatever the stripe of its government, has long done almost everything in its power to make such an outcome next to impossible. Thus Yitzhak Rabin, Labour Prime Minister at the time, made it clear that for him Oslo foretold not genuine independence for Palestine, but ‘an entity which is less than a State’ (Mearsheimer 2013, 139). The prime blocking instrument has been the strategy of relentless appropriation of Palestinian land for Jewish settlement in the Occupied Territories. In the first seven years after Oslo, according to Mearsheimer (2013, 141), Israel confiscated 40,000 acres of land, built 250 miles of settler-only roads (dividing the Palestinian-controlled territory into ever smaller, non-contiguous, Bantustan-style parcels), doubled the number of settlers and established thirty new settlements. This process has accelerated in the new millennium, resulting in the implantation of a colonial settler population which now numbers approximately 600,000 (if one includes the East Jerusalem colonies).
In Sharon and My Mother-in-Law (2004), Suad Amiry suggests that the blocking strategy long preceded Rabin. She records future Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s strategic thinking about the Palestinian Territories in 1973, four years after the Occupation began, as expressed to a British journalist:
We’ll make a pastrami sandwich of them. We’ll insert a strip of Jewish settlements in between the Palestinians, and then another strip of Jewish settlements right across the West Bank, so that in 25 years, neither the United Nations, nor the USA, nobody will be able to tear it apart. (Amiry 2004)
Laconically, Amiry (2003, 194) adds: ‘It ha[s] taken Sharon an extra five years to make a concrete wrapper [the ‘Separation/Apartheid Wall’] around the pastrami sandwich.’ His widely hailed ‘disengagement’ from Gaza in 2004 certainly involved the uprooting of small numbers of settlers from a territory which was becoming an ever-increasing burden on the Israeli tax-payer and army; but this was immediately ‘compensated’ for by the seizure of tracts of settlement land in the ‘West Bank’ significantly larger than those evacuated in Gaza (McGreal 2005). There was a further, even more cynical dimension to Sharon’s strategy, which was to offer this limited apparent enhancement of Palestinian autonomy in order to derail the larger peace process:
‘The significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process’, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s senior adviser Dov Weisglass has told Haaretz. ‘And when you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, and you prevent a discussion on the refugees, the borders and Jerusalem. Effectively, this whole package called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda.’ (Shavit 2013)
As Israel has lurched ever further towards the extreme right, Sharon’s political heirs continue to signal their willingness to stymie any real possibility of a two-state solution, in order to protect and promote Zionism’s settler-colonization strategy. This is increasingly presented, even in mainstream Israeli political discourse, in the messianic terms of the fulfilment of Jehovah’s covenant to the Jews. At the same time, the almost unbroken history of US bias in its dealings with the region does not inspire confidence that it will ever put sufficient pressure on Israel to enter serious negotiations towards the stated goals of its own diplomacy. Thus despite the humiliations heaped on him by Israel in pursuit of his peace plan in 2014, Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry recently warned the UN Human Rights Council that it risked irrelevance by its persistent attention to Israeli abuses of Palestinian rights. Behind Kerry’s wobbling position one again detects the formidable power of domestic US Zionist lobbies, whose malign influence on the country’s Middle Eastern policy has been so ably anatomized by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt (2007). Meanwhile Europe is too weak, too susceptible to (sometimes opportunistic) reminders of its responsibility for the Holocaust—and too divided—to offer any real alternative. And the feeble efforts of the ‘Quartet’ since 2003 have been further compromised by the fact that between June 2007 and May 2015 its ‘Special Envoy to the Middle East’ was Tony Blair, a figure tainted by both his unwavering Zionism and his role in promoting the disastrous second Iraq war.
Consequently, even those once committed to the two-state solution have come to recognize its redundancy. For example, Mearsheimer (2013, 135) concludes: ‘Regrettably [it] is now a fantasy.’ The ensuing hiatus in ‘the peace process’ has in turn provided the opportunity for observers to express increasing reservations about the two-state model on grounds other than a perception of the obstacles represented by Israel’s intransigence and the unwillingness of outside actors to make successive Israeli governments live up to their international obligations. For example, it has been argued forcefully by Shenhav (2012, 41) that a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders privileges developments since then in Palestine/Israel, whereas the true core of today’s problems remains the expulsion of the majority of the majority population in 1948-1949. For Shenhav (2012, xix), the two-state solution typifies the bad faith of ‘liberal Zionists’, a consistent target of his polemic. For him, their investment in it indicates a desire to absolve themselves (and Israel) of responsibility or guilt for the nakba in a move which complements the dominant Zionist narrative that the refugee problem was nothing to do with Israel but instead the responsibility of the Arab leadership or those who simply ‘abandoned’ their properties.
For many commentators, the focus on 1967 forecloses the possibility of redress for the injustices suffered by the external refugees of 1948-1949 by effectively abolishing their ‘right of return’ to pre-1967 Israel or compensation in lieu, as defined by bodies like the UN. Any such refugees wanting to return to ‘Palestine’ would have to do so within the 22 per cent of former Mandate Palestine in which a future independent Palestinian state would be housed, assuming no adjustment of borders of the kind consistently pressed by Israel and its US backers. Even if mere fractions of those displaced in 1948-1949 and their descendants (who came mainly from areas constituting pre-1967 Israel) wished to be resettled somewhere new and unfamiliar, it is extremely doubtful whether the new state could absorb them all (most of the best agricultural land in Mandate Palestine was given to the Jews in the 1947 Partition plan; more than 10 per cent of the best remaining Palestinian agricultural land has been stolen in the course of building the Separation/Apartheid Wall since 2003 (Makdisi 2010, 16); and even today a precondition persistently reiterated in Israeli negotiations over a two-state solution is continuing control over the last substantial fertile area of the Occupied Territories, the Jordan Valley).
Indeed, rather than expressing any real desire to enhance the well-being of (even a minority of) Palestinians (those living in the former ‘West Bank’ and Gaza), Shenhav argues the two-state solution is primarily designed to secure Israel’s future as a ‘Jewish state’ (Makdisi 2010, 28-29; cf. Abunimah 2006, 186ff). This is firstly because Palestinian self-determination will remove the ‘demographic threat’ potentially posed by Israeli annexation—whether de facto or de jure—of the large population of colonized non-Jews in the Occupied Territories, who might thereby be added to the existing population of ‘Israeli Palestinians’ within Israel. Secondly a two-state solution will supposedly supply a long-standing deficiency in Israel’s legitimacy by providing stable, internationally recognized borders (Israel has studiously avoided defining its borders since 1948, in order to pursue its expansionist territorial ambitions).
A further objection is that a two-state solution is likely permanently to divide the Palestinian people into at least three separate segments, those in the Occupied Territories, the refugees of 1948-1949 who are now scattered around the world, and the ‘Israeli Palestinians’. As Said (1993, xxix) complained of the Oslo negotiations: ‘For the first time in our recent past, we accepted the division of our people—whose unity we had fought for since 1948—into residents of the Occupied Territories and all the others.’ While acknowledging the damaging implications of this division for the refugees of 1948-1949 in the terms rehearsed above, the Nazareth-based journalist Jonathan Cook, writing in 2005, was more specifically concerned with the consequences for the ‘Israeli Palestinians’. He criticized negotiations being undertaken by Mahmoud Abbas with Ariel Sharon on the basis that ‘the Palestinian leadership has talked over their heads, obsessively pursuing a two-state solution based on a pre-1967 division of the land that would sever the Palestinian minority’s ties to the rest of its people forever.’ It would also, Cook (2005) went on, most likely permanently condemn the ‘Israeli Palestinians’ to the status of second-class citizens in the ‘Jewish State’ and remove from Israel the responsibility of addressing the grave and long-standing injustice of their marginalization on racial grounds.
Other aspects of the two-state solution have been increasingly questioned in recent times. For example, it seems extremely unlikely that any future Palestinian state would have the normal accoutrements of a properly sovereign and independent nation. As Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech at Bar-Ilan University in 2009, during which he briefly flirted with a very limited version of a two-state solution, spells out, Israeli ‘security’ considerations would allegedly require that the new entity was completely demilitarized. This would deprive it of any means of self-defence while living in the shadow of a neighbour with a vast military capability, not least its formidable arsenal of undeclared nuclear weapons. In such a scenario, a future Palestine’s diplomatic room to manoeuvre would inevitably be heavily compromised and it would likely find itself permanently subject to the influence of Israeli cajolement or threats. The economic consequences for the development of the putative independent state would potentially be deeply damaging if other Israeli preconditions were met, including continuing control of airspace, of exits and entrances to the new state (through which imports and exports would have to pass), and, crucially, of water, an increasingly scarce commodity both in Israel and, more so, in the Occupied Territories.
An equally grave problem would be posed by the 600,000-strong population of Israeli settlers currently living in the 22 per cent-remnant of Mandate Palestine (assuming no border adjustments) designated for a future Palestinian state. Even if they were willing to stay put and take on Palestinian nationality (if it was offered) or at least accept Palestinian sovereignty, it is difficult to see how, over time, they would escape being assigned a subordinate status in the new state comparable to that endured by the ‘Israeli Palestinians’ within Israel. Jonathan Cook (2005) argues ‘Israel has treated its Palestinian community as little more than temporary residents of a Jewish state, at best a demographic nuisance and at worst bargaining chips one day to be exchanged for a greater prize, such as a transfer of land from the West Bank to Israel.’ However, it is possible to envisage a far worse scenario, in which they might in future be ‘swapped’ not for land, but for the settlers of the Occupied Territories. Not only would this breed deep resentment—and almost certainly armed resistance—among many of those, on both sides, forced to surrender homes and livelihoods, but it would also repeat previous historical events, fatally compromising the chances of a new beginning for the region. Shenhav’s (2012, 32, 139) critique of the two-state solution is impelled partly by his desire to head off this eventuality. Arguing that it is impossible to envisage the human and financial costs of uprooting the settlers, he also insists ‘we cannot amend one historical wrongdoing [the expulsion of Palestinians in 1948-1949 and 1967] by creating a new one.’
Further important factors fuelling scepticism about the possibility of achieving the two-state solution include the performance of the PLO since it adopted the policy in 1988. Said (1994, xxiii) was among the first to question the strategies subsequently adopted by the PLO, notably its decision to back Saddam Hussein in his invasion of Kuwait in the run-up to the first Iraq War (a decision taken without any consultation beyond the tight circle of Yasir Arafat and his cronies). The results were predictably disastrous, both for Palestinians (300,000 were expelled from Kuwait after Iraq was defeated) and for the cause of Palestinian self-determination. Stripped of any credit accrued in international eyes for its renunciation of violence and recognition of Israel in 1988, the PLO—purely to safeguard its continuing role as a political player, according to Said—was forced to enter negotiations with Israel and its backers from a position of extreme weakness, which was readily exploited by its interlocutors.
Said’s (1993, 7; 2004, 94) accounts of the Oslo process reveal staggering ineptitude on the part of the Palestinian delegation. Hence, the catastrophic terms for which Arafat settled (there was no demand for an end to the Occupation; or for Israeli recognition of Palestinian sovereignty—as opposed to interim ‘authority’—over the tiny parcels of Palestinian land from which Israel agreed to redeploy some forces; and a cowardly deferment of other core issues, including the future of the external refugees and the status of Jerusalem). Again conducted in secret and with no popular mandate, little wonder that Said was quick to condemn the Accords as an abject abandonment of decades of struggle and sacrifice in a process he described as the Palestinian Versailles; and equally unsurprising that he was soon describing the future role of the PLO vis-à-vis Israel as one of Vichy-style collaboration (cf. Loewenstein and Moor 2012, 8; Halper 2013, 129).
Said and others have been equally scathing about the performance of the Palestinian Authority. The principal objections are five-fold. First, the PA has proved itself more concerned with fulfilling Israeli demands for ‘security’ (especially, ironically, for the settler-colonial population in the Occupied Territories) than with ensuring that of its own population (Said 1993, 14). Second, it proved itself undemocratic to the point of autocracy by concentrating power in Yasir Arafat and the small coterie surrounding him. Meanwhile, a plethora of different security agencies set up by Arafat harassed the growing opposition to his rule, ranging from Gazan Islamists all the way to secular diasporic intellectuals like Said himself, whose books—almost incredibly—it banned (Said 1999, 107). Third, it soon proved irremediably corrupt, with Arafat and his cronies profiting very substantially from the monopolies the PA instituted (on fuel, tobacco, etc.) and refusing calls for transparency in relation to their distribution of the very substantial inflow of donor money after Oslo—while the majority of the population of the Occupied Territories saw a rapid increase in their economic immiseration (Said 2004, 136). (The PA’s naked corruption was, of course, key to Hamas’s victory in the 2006 election in Gaza.) Fourthly, as the PLO’s dismal efforts to negotiate at Oslo might have led one to anticipate, the PA quickly proved itself incompetent as an administration, a problem exacerbated by an unwillingness to engage sufficiently the expertise of the Palestinian diaspora to help build the infrastructures of everyday life in areas under its control. Fifthly, the PA, like the PLO, has proved itself an irredeemably patriarchal body, failing to recognize adequately the rights of Palestinian women or their contribution to the liberation struggle, notably during the first Intifada. As Said complained:
Look, for example, at how badly Palestinian women—the real core of the Intifada—have been treated. They have been given no positions to speak of in the Authority, their needs and aspirations are not part of Mr Arafat’s agenda, and their situation has become worse. (Said 1999, 19)
For Makdisi (2013, 93), Said’s gloomy analysis has been vindicated by the subsequent lamentable record on gender issues of the ‘clique of unrepresentative and unelected middle-aged men’ who today make up the PA.
Less than a decade on from the first Oslo agreement, Said painted a picture of Palestinian morale which is deeply depressing to read. Battered by the overwhelming force mobilized by Israel in response to the second Intifada, their good will towards the PA exhausted, Palestinians in the Occupied Territories had reached their wits’ end, increasing numbers retreating to religion as the only remaining resource for survival. If anything, the disillusionment and cynicism which Said identified then has reached new heights. For example, the leak of the ‘Palestine Papers’ in 2011 demonstrated that the PLO negotiating team in the years between 1999 and 2010 had been prepared, in the defeatist spirit of Oslo, to make concession after concession to Israel (Roy 2012, 44; cf. Makdisi 2013, 91-92). Particularly scandalous in the eyes of many Palestinians was its apparent readiness to annul their ‘right of return’, thereby acceding to one of the most cherished ambitions of Israeli diplomacy since 1948. Even today, it is difficult to ascertain whether the attempts by Mahmoud Abbas (consistently and bitterly criticized by Said [1993, 153] in his writings on Oslo and after) to achieve recognition of Palestine at international bodies like the UN and ICC are a genuine assertion of resistance to Israel and the United States or another desperate attempt to retain a role for the PLO at a time when it is widely said that if there were free and fair elections in the ‘West Bank’ (none have been held since 2006, another illustration of the PA’s democratic deficit), Hamas would sweep away the old order (cf. Makdisi 2013, 91).
The records of the PLO and of the PA certainly severely shook Said’s faith in a two-state solution, even if he never abandoned it explicitly. As early as 1984 he had acknowledged that the model was ‘imperfect’ (1994, 266), but twelve years later, bitter experience of the ‘unreformable’ (1993, 65) Palestinian leadership, as much as Israeli intransigence, led him to register ‘a glimmering of the end of the two-state solution, whose unworkability Oslo, perhaps unconsciously, embodies’ (1995, 112). Before that he was questioning the fetishization of the independent nation-state as the best outcome of decolonization:
[We] should remind ourselves that much more important than having a state is the kind of state it is. The modern history of the post-colonial world is disfigured by one-party tyrannies, rapacious oligarchies, economic ruin … Mere nationalism is not, and can never be, ‘the answer’ to the problems of new secular societies. Potential statehood in Palestine is no exception, especially given so inauspicious a start. (Said 1993, 16)
The manifold failings of the Palestinian leadership from 1993, when he wrote these words, until his death ten years later, offered him little hope that even if a sovereign Palestinian state were to come into being, it would necessarily benefit its ordinary citizens to any greater extent than the ‘tyrannies’ and ‘oligarchies’ to which he refers—even if it doubtless promised a better future than the Israeli Occupation. The more likely outcome, on the evidence available to him, was that it would soon degenerate into the corrupt, autocratic, dismally patriarchal and inefficient ways of the plethora of neighbouring Arab regimes which Said held in such contempt.
As a consequence of such doubts, as well as the diplomatic stalemate in which the region has for so long been mired, there has been an increasing revival of interest in an alternative which Loewenstein and Moor (2012, 11) describe as ‘buried and forgotten for a long time’; namely, varieties of a one-state solution to the problem of Palestine/Israel. There is a long history of such imaginings. Until the Peel Commission (1937), there was little discussion of partition in Mandate Palestine and its recommendations were met with sufficiently little enthusiasm by either side, so that they were soon shelved. While the idea revived after 1945, and the UN decided in 1947 to divide the country, the plan was strongly opposed by a variety of parties, doubtless representing a gross majority of the actors involved (consistent with previous imperial policy, the ordinary Arab citizens of Palestine were given no voice in their future, in ironic contrast to US-client states at the UN as diverse as Guatemala, the Philippines and Liberia). However, the perceived injustice of giving 55 per cent of Mandate Palestine, including its best agricultural land, to the minority Jewish third of the population (most of whom had only arrived since 1933) was rejected out of hand by the Arab Higher Committee (and the overwhelming majority of neighbouring Arab states); it was also vehemently opposed by significant sections of the Jewish Palestinian community, ranging on one side from the quasi-Marxist-Socialist Ha’shomer Ha’tzair kibbutz movement, through small groupings of liberal intellectuals and artists such as the Ichud (Unity) party, successor to the Brit Shalom (Covenant of Peace) group of the 1920s (Rose 2007, chap. 2; Silberstein 2008, chaps 1-3), to the centrist ‘Canaanites’ and far-right organizations such as Begin’s Irgun and the Lehi (known to the British as the Stern Gang), the most formidable of the Zionist militias before 1948.
Contemporary versions of the one-state solution vary ideologically as much as their historical antecedents. On the one hand, right-wing Israeli pundits like Caroline Glick perpetuate the thrust of Begin’s thinking in the 1940s (McGreal 2005), claiming the whole of Mandate Palestine for ‘the Jewish State’, even arguing that formal annexation by Israel of the remaining Palestinian Territories would be in the best interests of its Arab population, despite the array of plainly racialized laws subtending definitions of the ‘Jewish State’ and Israel’s treatment of its existing Arab minority (see Glick 2014). And at the opposite extreme, Hamas has rehearsed the rejectionist position of Amin al-Husseini and the Arab Higher Committee in the years leading up to 1948 (as well as the PLO from 1968 to 1988). Thus Article 11 of its 1988 Covenant states:
The Islamic Resistance Movement believes that the land of Palestine is an Islamic Waqf consecrated for future Moslem generations until Judgement Day. It, or any part of it, should not be squandered: it, or any part of it, should not be given up.
While ostensibly committing itself to the protection of non-Muslim minorities, such a theological framing of the idea of political sovereignty has clearly uncomfortable echoes of the discourse that Palestine/Israel was promised to the Jews by Jehovah; and, were Hamas’s programme ever to succeed, is premonitory of the discriminatory legal-administrative structures which that discourse has entailed in Israel.
By contrast, this essay endorses those varieties of one-state thinking which have, as their minimum conditions, the creation of a single, binational, secular, democratic state, comprising the whole of Mandate Palestine, which guarantees equal status before a single system of law and equality of personal, social, political and economic opportunity for all its citizens. More specifically, it takes its cue from critiques of the privileged position of the ‘Westphalian State’, which emphasizes a model of national sovereignty based on ethnic homogeneity within a clearly bounded territory, in post-Enlightenment political thinking about nationalism and international relations. Rose (2007, 146) suggests Zionism’s conception of the Jewish state was seen by some observers, even before its realization, as ‘a strange anachronism … born at the very moment when Europe was witnessing the catastrophic failure of the modern nation-state’. Equally, arguing that globalization and mass migration have rendered the Westphalian model increasingly redundant in the contemporary period, Shenhav (2012, 38, 139-140) adumbrates a new model of ‘post-Israeli’ Jewish identities within a future Palestine/Israel comprising all its communities on an equal footing (cf. Silberstein 2008, 1-28).
Conversely, a growing number of Palestinians have similarly questioned whether traditional nationalist models of Palestinian identity have not been rendered at least partially redundant by developments since 1948. Thus Abunimah (2006, 170) argues ‘diaspora Palestinians no longer necessarily feel the need for a unidimensional identity embodied by a homogenous, nationalist state.’ Equally, in terms which closely resemble Rose’s account of suggestions that Zionism was anachronistic in its vision of the future, Makdisi writes of an increasing disjunction between
those Palestinians who cling to what is manifestly an outmoded form of political thought (one centred on the nation-state as Europeans defined it for their own purposes a couple of centuries ago), and those who are coming to embrace a new political logic, one in which identity is no longer seen as conferred by, or restricted to, the scale or apparatus of the nation-state; and hence one in which the traditional state form is no longer the ultimate objective of the Palestinian cause. (Makdisi 2013, 90)
Instead, he suggests, an ever-expanding cohort of Palestinians are now primarily preoccupied with achieving equal rights, opportunity and security within a unitary Palestine/Israel (90, 95; cf. Roy 2012, 58).
My analysis of cultural representations of Palestine/Israel is guided by these conceptual framings. To this extent, I suggest the case of Palestine/Israel requires postcolonial studies to rethink some of its traditional ideas and investments, if it is to adequately address the forms of (post)colonialism represented by this particular conjuncture. I am fully respectful of the histories and achievements of anticolonial liberation movements in the period from the 1940s to the 1970s (if not of all the post-independence regimes to which they led). However, my approach not only involves analysis of the colonial dimensions both of historical Zionism and of the practices of the Israeli state, but also interrogates the sub-field’s long-standing commitment to the model of an independent, ethnically and territorially coherent, nation-state as the most desirable redress for colonized peoples. If the historical evolution of Zionism into Israeli political policy points to some of the potential pitfalls that await Palestinians and their supporters who advocate a two-state solution, traditional models of cultural nationalism derived from previous ‘Third World’ history cannot logically be approved in the case of Palestinians while decrying them in relation to Jews in the pre-State period. What Said (1993, xxxiv; 1994, xlvi) describes as ‘sectarian Palestinianism’ is, therefore, likely to prove no more productive for the future of the region than its Zionist equivalents. As Abunimah (2006, 14) concludes: ‘Palestinian nationalism, like the Zionism to which it is a response, is too narrow to accommodate the present reality of two deeply intertwined people living on a small piece of land.’ Only by transcending traditional models of nationalism, and the Westphalian conception of the nation-state on which they are premised, he argues persuasively, can one begin to construct
an inclusive vision of future reconciliation based on real equality … one that addresses the fears and needs of Israeli Jews, preserves their identity, and allows their community to flourish, while restoring to the Palestinians the rights they have been denied for so long. (Abunimah 2006, 17)
‘Culturalism’ vs Realpolitik
It must be acknowledged there is considerable reason to suggest a progressive one-state solution might be seen as little more than a utopian pipe-dream. On the one hand, it is very difficult for the moment to see an Israeli electorate which has just voted in (yet again) a fundamentalist Zionist Prime Minister agreeing to commit ‘national suicide’ (Abunimah 2006, 171) in order to make it possible. On the other hand, as has been seen, the PLO, if not Hamas, remains committed to achieving a sovereign independent nation-state on (parts of) the pre-1967 Palestinian Territories, a strategy which has been winning increasing recognition of the state of Palestine in international bodies like the UN. Meanwhile, as has also been seen, powerful outside agents with vested interests in the region, ranging from the United States to the EU and the ‘Quartet’, also (ostensibly) remain committed to a two-state solution.
It might equally reasonably be objected that proponents of a progressive one-state solution are highly unrepresentative of the constituencies for which they appear to wish to speak, inviting scepticism about the appeal and credibility of their proposals. Thus, figures like Said, Abunimah and Makdisi belong to a relatively highly privileged class fraction of the Palestinian diaspora, for whom hybrid identities might be interpreted as something of an enjoyable luxury. It cannot be assumed that they speak for the diaspora as a whole (notably the millions eking out a bare existence in refugee camps around the Middle East) or for Palestinians on the ground in Palestine/Israel, particularly those who suffer the humiliations of life under a brutal military occupation. Similar objections might be raised against diasporic Jewish proponents of a post-Zionist one-state solution such as Silberstein, Rose and Mearsheimer. Even Israel-based colleagues who advocate such futures, for instance Shenhav and Halper, cannot be said to reflect the views of more than a tiny proportion of their fellow-citizens, as the contrary programmes adopted by every political party competing in the 2015 elections make plain.
In the same sceptical spirit, it might be further objected of the kind of engagement with Palestine/Israel attempted here that it is necessarily ‘culturalist’ and therefore has little hope of influencing established parameters of political debate about Palestine/Israel, let alone of offering any credible resolution to the problem. To this degree this essay might be interpreted as a particularly spectacular illustration of what has been identified by a range of hostile (mainly Marxist) critics as a key weakness in postcolonial studies—its alleged tendency to ‘textualize’ and thus domesticate and downplay the material realities of what is involved in the practice of anticolonial struggles (Ahmad 1992; San Juan, Jr. 1997; Dirlik 1998).
Perhaps the most powerful initial counter-argument to the hostility towards the alleged ‘culturalism’ of postcolonial studies is that anticolonial leaders and intellectuals in the classic phase of European decolonization (1945-1975 approximately) always recognized that culture lay at the heart of their struggles. For example, in his symptomatically-titled essay ‘National Liberation and Culture’, Amilcar Cabral, leader of the revolt against Portuguese rule in West Africa, insisted:
to take up arms to dominate a people is, above all, to take up arms to destroy, or at least to neutralize, to paralyse, its cultural life … whatever may be the material aspects of this domination, it can be maintained only by the permanent, organized repression of the cultural life of the people concerned. (Cabral 1973, 39; cf. Fanon and Sartre 1961; Thiongo 1986)
Conversely, the preservation of indigenous cultural traditions, and their adaptation as a source of survival and resistance following colonial invasion, was widely regarded as a key instrument in the mobilization of colonized peoples for self-determination. If, as has been argued, Palestine/Israel must be understood as a (post)colonial problematic, then serious attention must also be paid to the cultural domains, while fully acknowledging other modalities of both oppression and resistance. And in the absence of credible military options for Palestinians of the kind available to figures like Cabral, what Said (2004, 50) terms ‘cultural struggle’ becomes correspondingly important.
In this conjuncture, there is very considerable evidence to support the arguments of Cabral and others like him. On the one hand, it is no exaggeration to suggest that the Israeli state has not only long been engaged in ‘politicide’ (to use the Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling’s  terminology) against the Palestinian people, but has also pursued what one might call ‘culturecide’ as part of that strategy. Thus successive governments have enacted a wide series of measures to suppress or control Palestinian cultural production, within Israel, within the Occupied Territories and within the larger diaspora. To take the latter first; at its most extreme, Israeli ‘culturecide’ (the term has particularly chilling connotations in this context) has involved the (probable) assassination of major Palestinian artists, notably the novelist Ghassan Kanafani (in Beirut in 1972) and the cartoonist Naji al-Ali (in London in 1987). Within Israel, it has made conditions of life and work so difficult for even relatively privileged, internationally recognized, ‘Israeli Palestinians’ (all of them Israeli citizens), ranging from Mahmoud Darwish through Anton Shammas to Syed Kashua, that each has felt obliged to go into exile (Darwish to Egypt and Lebanon after a year’s study in the USSR in 1970, Shammas and Kashua to the United States in 1987 and 2014, respectively).
But it is in the Occupied Territories that ‘culturecide’ has been pursued most relentlessly, attesting to the colonizers’ recognition of the intimate relationship between cultural (re)production and the forces of Palestinian survival and resistance. A few examples must suffice: the confiscation of the only existing draft of Sahar Khalifeh’s first novel in 1971 (it was never returned) (Khalifeh 1989); the requirement that until well into the 1980s, all cultural work in the Territories be submitted to censorship by the Occupation regime, an Orwellian process described in chilling detail in David Grossman’s investigative volume of travels through Occupied Palestine, The Yellow Wind (1988, 158-160); the harassment of cultural workers—for example, the ‘administrative detention’ (i.e. indefinite detention without charge) in 2012 of the artistic director of the Jenin Freedom Theatre; the imposition of travel restrictions on Palestinian artists from the Territories wishing to go abroad—a recent example is the refusal of an exit visa to the poet Falestine Dwikat to attend the launch of Wasafiri’s special issue on Palestine in 2015; and denial of visas to artists wishing to visit the Occupied Territories, as happened in 2013 when five foreign cultural workers applied to work with the Freedom Theatre in Jenin.
There is an apparently less direct, but possibly more structural, dimension to the Israeli policy of ‘culturecide’. This is evident in, for example, the closure of universities in the Occupied Territories for long periods, the deportation of many key staff, the refusal or curtailment of residence visas for foreign academics wishing to work in them, and repeated physical violence towards both staff and students (Chomsky 1983, 134-137; Said 1994, 95; Amiry 2004, 93). Even when Palestinian universities (and schools) are open, curfews and the network of ‘security’ checkpoints and other obstacles often make attendance a lottery, severely disrupting the educational/cultural development of students. The destruction of the Palestinian cultural patrimony has also been a consistent feature of the Occupation. For example, the sacking of the Khalil Sakakini cultural centre in Ramallah during the second Intifada was a gratuitous act of vandalism by the Occupation forces with no pretence of a ‘security’ justification. Amiry (2004, 165-166) represents the Israeli razing of the Old Quarter of Nablus in the same period as in part a similarly wilful assault on one of the jewels of Palestine’s architectural heritage. Equally damaging in a different way was the Israeli theft of important archives from the PLO in Beirut in 1982 and from Orient House in Jerusalem in 2001 (Said 2004, 94), continuing a process of looting of Palestinian cultural (and other) resources which stretches back to 1948 (Mermelstein 2015).
On the international stage, the prominence of culture as site of engagement for both sides in the Palestine/Israel conflict is equally apparent, as the single example of the UK illustrates. On the one hand, Zionists pursue the strategy of ‘culturecide’ by interfering grievously in perfectly legitimate attempts to bring Palestinian culture to British audiences, for example the Palestine Literature Festivals held in London in 2011 and 2014, the latter involving physical assault on participants (see also the discussion above of their threat to academic freedom). Conversely, the export of Israeli culture has also become a battle-ground; witness the demonstrations outside the Globe Theatre against Tel Aviv’s Habima theatre company in London in 2012 or the refusal (later revoked) of London’s Tricycle Theatre to host the Jewish Film Festival during the most recent Israeli war on Gaza in 2014, because some of the work intended to be shown had attracted Israeli State subsidies. A bitter battle is currently being fought to persuade writers and artists not to visit/perform in Israel, with an equally determined effort by the Israeli state and quasi-state institutions in turn to encourage writers and artists to go. Meanwhile the academic boycott of Israel, orchestrated in part by the British Committee for Universities of Palestine, is gathering momentum, alongside the efforts of bodies promoting a cultural boycott, such as Artists for Palestine and British Writers in Support of Palestine.
Other dimensions of the Palestine/Israel conflict make a ‘culturalist’ approach appropriate. For example, it is arguable that the cultural producers of Palestine/Israel enjoy a more influential role, socially and politically, than is generally the case with artists in the West. In Israel, for example, the pronouncements of novelists such as Oz, Yehoshua and Grossman command public attention to a degree which their counterparts in Europe and the United States can perhaps only envy. Indeed, Yehoshua (in conversation with Tom Sperlinger in 2011) has described how he, Oz and S. Yizhar were summoned by a flailing Prime Minister Rabin at the outbreak of the first Intifada to advise him on its root causes and how best to deal with it. Further, as Makdisi (2010, 6) argues, such figures are often regarded in the West as having particular authority as commentators on the region. One might argue artists and intellectuals have similarly elevated status in Palestinian society and enjoy comparably privileged access to the corridors of power. For example, Kanafani, a spokesman for the PLO until his assassination, owed his official position in part to his profile as the author of such landmark narratives as Men in the Sun (1962) and Return to Haifa (1970). On his return to Ramallah in 1995, the Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish was able to fill the football stadium with his adoring public, signifying a respect for the social role of poetry and of the poet as social spokesman which is, once again, now almost unimaginable in contemporary western society. Further, because of his status as a cultural icon, Darwish was invited to co-write the Palestinian Declaration of Independence and continued to play a public role in the Palestine National Council until the Oslo Accords when, for similar reasons to Said, he resigned. Meanwhile, Suad Amiry was a member of the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid negotiations (1991) which preceded Oslo.
Gil Hochberg gives further legitimacy to the ‘culturalist’ approach in a recent book which has parallels to my own approach in terms of its critique of separatist thinking in representations of Palestine/Israel:
If there are plentiful publications on the relationship between Jews and Arabs, or on the various aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, these are predominantly historical, political, or social. Little attention has been directed so far to literary representation and to the manner by which it not only reflects historical and sociopolitical realities but further competes with them, introducing alternative actualities, which might find expression only at the level of cultural imagination, but which, as such, are nevertheless part of our times. (Hochberg 2007, 3)
Much of the cultural representation considered in our texts certainly ‘competes with’ established political discourses about the region, both those of international relations and of Zionism and Palestinian nationalism, not least because such discourses have transparently failed to bring peace, security and justice to the peoples involved. One first tentative step towards ameliorating this situation must be to imagine alternatives, a function which writers and artists are uniquely endowed to fulfil.
There is increasing evidence among artists on both sides of the Palestine/Israel divide, as well as those further afield, of what Haim Bresheeth has called ‘spaces of desire’ for a new dispensation in the region of the kind represented by a progressive one-state solution. As Bresheeth defines it, a ‘space of desire’ is one which ‘does not so much discuss the solution as it addresses the contours of the imaginative space in which a solution may grow’ (Hochberg 2007, 91). To this extent, I am particularly interested in texts which seem, if not to imagine explicitly a progressive one-state solution, at least to clear some of the conceptual ground necessary to its emergence. This might involve critique, implicit or explicit, of the models of nationalism which subtend both the two-state solution and regressive versions of a one-state solution. It also involves work which at least gestures towards a recognition of the commonalities—affective, cultural, historical and political—which bind Israeli Jews and Palestinians together, willy-nilly, in the tiny land they share.
While there may be plenty of reason to feel negative—even extremely so—about the future of Palestine/Israel, this essay invokes the more nuanced spirit of ‘pessoptimism’ first articulated by Emile Habiby (1974) in the 1970s, and since reiterated by figures as diverse as Edward Said (1994, 115) and Gil Hochberg (2007, 19). Despite the substantial obstacles already identified to the realization of a progressive future for the region, ‘pessoptimism’ is perhaps the most useful way in the first instance to approach the possibilities of what Hochberg (2007, 3) calls ‘a vision of an Arab-Jewish future [in Palestine/Israel] located beyond the limits of the separatist imagination’. After all, as Herzl himself expressed it in presenting his own critique of the Westphalian model of the ethnically homogenous nation-state in his futuristic novel about the region, Old New Land (1902): ‘If you will it, it is no fairy-tale.’