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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 9, March 2, 2024

Israel is reaping what it has sowed | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Friday 1 March 2024



The Shortest History of Israel and Palestine
by Michael Scott-Baumann

Picador India; Pages: 279; Price: Not given

After the killing of an Israeli woman and her two children in a Palestinian grenade attack, Israeli forces entered the West Bank village of Qibya in October 1953 and killed 69 of its inhabitants, most of them women and children. This was part of a policy Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion put in place to force Arab states into curbing raids by Palestinians-turned-refugees. If this meant unleashing disproportionate force, so be it. It is this audacious attitude, which Israel has internalized, that is responsible for the genocide now taking place in Gaza for the armed mayhem the Hamas unleashed on Israel on October 7.

The best thing about academic Michael Scott-Baumann’s book is its scholarly honesty and excellence. The Middle East expert charts the troubled region’s history — and one of the most bitter and enduring conflicts of modern times — from the late 19th century to the present day, presenting competing interpretations from both sides. It is no wonder one is able to link the Zionist ideology for the birth of Israel in 1948 as well as the brutal punishment now being meted out to innocent Palestinians in Gaza.

Scott-Baumann lucidly explains the crass British dishonesty in promoting Jewish migration from Europe to what was Palestine and the brutal manner the British colonialist crushed recurring Arab revolts. The mass arrests of Arabs (Palestinians), holding thousands without trial, imposing collective punishments in whole villages and destroying houses suspected of links with terrorists or weapons were tactics later adopted by Zionists and, after 1948, by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF). If and when the Zionists felt the British were acting neutral, they did not hesitate to resort to terrorism. In July 1946, a bomb attack by Zionists dressed as Arabs on a Jerusalem hotel housing the British military headquarters in Palestine killed 91 people.

By the time the first Israeli-Arab war ended in 1949, four lakh Palestinian Arabs were forced to flee a region that was to be supposed to be Palestine but which the better armed Zionists wanted to turn into a Jewish homeland. Those who took flight were never allowed to return to the areas where they had lived for centuries. This mass exodus became known in Arabic as the Nakba or disaster. “It seemed to show the advantages of direct action over negotiation and diplomacy,” noted an American Zionist, Nahum Goldmann. This is another tactic Israel has turned into a policy – until circumstances now created by the Hamas has forced Tel Aviv to go for diplomatic negotiations in a desperate bid to free the Israeli hostages its military has not been able to trace and free in Gaza.

The period from 1949 to the mid-1960s turned out to be “lost years” for Palestinian nationalism. But it was also the humiliation of Nakba that eventually gave impetus to the Palestinian struggle to regain their homeland. This gave way to a torturous history that saw the rise and fall of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and its founder-leader Yasser Arafat. Whatever may be Arafat’s minuses, by the time he died the idea of Palestine had gained global acceptability and isolated Israel greatly. The Israeli-Arab wars of 1967 and 1973 only further fuelled Palestinian resistance. To crush the Palestinians, Israel embraced steps that led to thousands of deaths over the decades and often found it violating international law. Earlier British chicanery and later support by the United States emboldened Israel to repress Palestinians in both West Bank and Gaza. It is no wonder that two Intifada or uprisings followed.

Israel’s refusal to compromise led to the collapse of the 1993 Oslo peace accord and the marginalization of Arafat. Israelis who rejoiced over Arafat’s decline did not bargain for the emergence of the Hezbollah and the Hamas, both fiercely anti-Israel. If the first Intifada was marked by stoning, the second saw the emergence of the suicide bomber. Hamas eventually managed to oust the late Arafat’s Fatah from Gaza. Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to weaken the Palestinian Authority, a successor to Arafat’s policies in West Bank, and to come to a tacit pact with the Hamas in the belief that the latter had been defanged saw the October 7 blitzkrieg and the widely condemned brutalities by the Israeli state in Gaza.

The author says that most Israelis learn little from their media of the daily life of the Palestinians. Opinion polls have suggested that they are less concerned than ever about the fate of the Palestinians. But Scott-Baumann is equally firm that whether Israel manages to eliminate Hamas as a military force or not, the idea of Hamas as a national liberation movement is unlikely to be destroyed. This is also the conclusion the IDF has painfully arrived at.

A just and lasting peace requires that the equal rights of Palestinians, particularly their right to self-determination, as acknowledged by the UN, are recognized by all countries around the world. The US, the UK and many European countries have not done so. Ironically, while the Hamas may have on October 7 done things it should not have done (there was no doubt great sympathy for Israel in the immediate aftermath), the punishing and indiscriminate Israeli aggression leading to the virtual destruction of Gaza and the killings of thousands of innocent civilians had led to a situation whereby a Palestinian state may finally become a reality. For once, mass sentiments even in Israeli-sympathetic Western countries have turned bitterly against Zionism and its criminal actions, further weakening an already unpopular Netanyahu domestically. If Israel has to shed the image of an apartheid and undemocratic state, it has no choice but to accept a Palestinian state. Israel’s moment of reckoning seems to have arrived. Seventy-five years after its birth in dubious circumstances, Israel’s arrogance and pride has been shaken up. Arafat may have died a long time ago but unending Palestinian resistance has proved that the state of Israel too is not infallible.

This eminently readable book could not have come at a more appropriate time.

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