What Hamas must do

Rashid Khalidi on the Palestinian Prisoners’ Document

In early June, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip (and the Golan Heights) entered its 40th year.[*] The Palestinians who inhabit these territories have lived under Israeli military occupation for two full generations; before that, between 1948 and 1967, they lived under Jordanian and Egyptian regimes. The overwhelming majority of this population of more than 3.5 million knows only Israeli military rule. Most Israelis do not remember a time when they did not dominate another people, and when their children did not have to serve in an army of occupation. This occupation differs in several respects from the colonisation that has been going on inside Israel since at least 1948. In every successful nation-state with colonial settler origins – the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – the indigenous minority that remained after surviving various forms of ethnic cleansing has been deprived of most of its land, but has been incorporated into the polity, although often as second-class citizens subject to discrimination.

The Palestinians of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem are in an entirely different situation. They aren’t citizens of a state. They are not represented internationally by a sovereign entity which they can control democratically, and which is responsible for the main laws and regulations by which their lives are organised. Since 1948, the only internationally recognised sovereign entity between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River has been the state of Israel. Since 1967 the most important aspects of the lives of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories have been governed by the military regulations of the Israeli occupation. The laws promulgated by the Palestinian Authority since 1995 deal only with marginal aspects of their lives. In the Occupied Territories, Palestinians have no say at all in the key decisions regarding land, residency rights, security, taxation or most other important issues.

If you are a Palestinian in the West Bank, East Jerusalem or the Gaza Strip, whether and where you or your offspring live in the Occupied Territories is not up to you; you may or may not be allowed to keep the land your family has owned for generations; you may or may not be allowed to move outside your village, town, city or refugee camp; what taxes, duties and customs you pay, to whom, and what is done with the resulting revenue, is again not up to you. For two generations, all of these decisions have been made by the military officers and security officials of the occupation regime. For two-thirds of its 58-year existence, Israel has denied the Palestinian people the right to make their own decisions about the crucial issues that face them as a society and as individuals.

It is this disproportion that makes so wrong-headed the assumption that the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is essentially symmetrical. The situation of the two groups is not comparable. In fact, it was never appropriate or even illuminating to compare the pre-1948 Jewish community in Palestine with the Palestinian Arab population of the country. It is even less appropriate to make such comparisons today, given the unequal relations between occupier and occupied, and between a people with an established state, and one that has never had a state. Such comparisons, and understandings of the conflict based on them, are particularly ludicrous given Israel’s status as one of the world’s greatest military powers, and one of only eight recognised nuclear powers. The United States, Russia, Britain and France, the oldest members of the ‘nuclear club’, each possess a degree of global influence as an echo or consequence of past and present imperial glories. However, among the second tier of China, India, Pakistan and Israel, Israel is in some ways pre-eminent. It is the oldest nuclear power among them, it has the greatest military reach, a world-class arms industry and uniquely privileged access to American military technology. Palestine’s poverty-stricken dwarf economy is dependent on Israel for almost everything, while Israel’s economy is as large as, and produces the same GDP per capita, as many members of the EU. To talk of an ‘Israeli-Palestinian conflict’ as if these are two states, or two equal entities, is thoroughly deceptive: one side has virtually complete autonomy and massive power, the other extremely limited autonomy and even more limited power.

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[*] Although Israel removed its settlements and troops from the Gaza Strip in August 2005, it continues to control the area, determining all entry and egress of goods, air-space and access by sea, and launching incursions and air and artillery attacks against it at will, with the result that many legal experts believe that Israel remains the occupying power.

[†] These were the results of a Jerusalem Media and Communication Centre poll in February 2006 that found 38 per cent expressing ‘trust’ in Hamas, and 30 per cent in Fatah, while 41 per cent would vote for Hamas in another election and 31 per cent for Fatah: www.jmcc.org/publicpoll/results/2006/no57.pdf. In another poll, 47 per cent said they would vote for Hamas and 39 per cent for Fatah if an election was called, while 75 per cent wanted Hamas to negotiate with Israel: www.pcpsr.org/survey/polls/2006/p19e.html.