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David E. Weisberg

No, Ms. Chazan, it isn’t colonialism

Ms. Naomi Chazan has a featured post, “From Breaking Dawn to rising sun.”  As we know, “Breaking Dawn” was the I.D.F.’s pre-emptive attack on Palestinian Islamic Jihad leaders and assets in Gaza, which was ended with a cease-fire agreement just a few days ago.

Ms. Chazan asserts that, now that the shooting has subsided, “[t]he real test lies in translating the temporary calm into a diplomatic process that can yield a lasting accommodation. This is the key challenge facing Israelis and Palestinians.”  I think every person of good will wants to see an end to violence and a lasting accommodation.  But, with great respect, I think the diagnosis that Ms. Chazan offers is off the mark and therefore cannot achieve the desired result.

She asserts that the Palestinians have been conducting a “national liberation movement” against Israel, which is a “colonial power” occupying Palestinian territory and oppressing the Palestinian people.  In this respect (according to Ms. Chazan), the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is like the American Revolution, or the national liberation struggles in Vietnam, South Africa, Ukraine, and even with regard to modern Israel.  She warns: “[N]o force can withstand the demand for freedom and self-determination forever. Israel, too, however much it attempts to do so, cannot defy this pattern.”

The truth, however, is that Israel is not attempting to defy any such pattern, because the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians, from the perspective of the majority of Israelis (certainly not including Ms. Chazan), is not an instance of colonialism.  Rather, it is an instance of self-defense.

In the American Revolution and in Vietnam, people were fighting to free themselves of governments and armies that were controlled from capitals thousands of miles away from the contested territory.  In South Africa, an indigenous majority ethnic group (black South Africans) sought to throw off the rule of an indigenous minority ethnic group (white South Africans).  And today in Ukraine, an internationally recognized sovereign nation is seeking to repel an unlawful, criminal invasion from the armed forces of a neighboring country.

None of these patterns fits the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.  From 1948 to 1967, Egypt controlled Gaza and Jordan ruled over (and claimed to annex) the West Bank and East Jerusalem.  In that period, no one seriously claimed that there was a Palestinian nation, or a State of Palestine, whose territory was being occupied by Egypt and Jordan.

Israel conquered those territories in a pre-emptive war in 1967.  It was (and is) Israel’s contention that the 1967 war was commenced in self-defense, because Israel was about to be attacked by its Arab neighbors.  Both Egypt (which controlled Gaza) and Jordan (which controlled the west Bank and East Jerusalem) were, of course, combatants against Israel in the war.  The capture of those territories amounted to the spoils of war.

In 2005, Israel unilaterally withdrew all its citizens and troops from Gaza.  The end result was Hamas, an Islamist terrorist group, seizing control of Gaza and using it as a base and launching pad for attacks on Israel.  Because those attacks have never fully ceased and Hamas has explicitly refused to recognize Israel’s legitimacy or right to exist, Israel has a fortified border with Gaza and tightly controls checkpoints into and out of that territory.  Again, the great majority of Israelis view these measures as necessary for Israel’s self-defense, and not as part of any enterprise to “colonize” Gaza (which Israel effectively conveyed to Palestinians in 2005).

With regard to the West Bank, Israel has used both police forces and the I.D.F. to combat what it says are terrorist activities.  Does Ms. Chazan believe that there is no justification for Israel to take such steps?  She does not say.  But, again, there is little doubt that a majority of Israelis believe that there is a continuing need for Israeli forces to operate in the West Bank as a matter of self-defense.

In the West Bank and East Jerusalem, it is true that Israelis have moved into areas Israel gained control over in 1967.  With respect to East Jerusalem, Israel has said it has formerly annexed that land and made it part of Israel.  Much of the international community refuses to recognize that annexation.  Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine that Israel would ever relinquish sovereignty and control over that part of East Jerusalem that encompasses the Old City, in which the Temple Mount is located.

In the West Bank, the bulk of Israeli settlers live in relatively compact areas close to Israel proper, and several Israeli governments have expressed a willingness to enter into land swaps that would convey equivalent parcels of land to Palestinians in the context of a final agreement.  There is no reason why Israeli settlements in the West Bank should be an insuperable obstacle to that final agreement.

The Palestinians strive to present themselves to the world as an oppressed nation suffering under the settler-colonial yoke of a cruel, law-breaking Israeli colonial power.  They have found a receptive audience in the governments of many countries.  And, of course, more than a billion Muslims world-wide are ready to listen to the Palestinian narrative with sympathetic ears.

Still, there remains a difference between steps taken to colonize another people or nation, and steps taken self-defensively to protect against terrorist attacks perpetrated by groups operating from within that other people or nation.  I think most Israelis believe that Israel’s policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians fall within the latter category.  Ms. Chazan obviously disagrees.  Does she know something that the majority of Israeli citizens have missed, or is it the other way around?

About the Author
David E. Weisberg is a semi-retired attorney and a member of the N.Y. Bar; he also has a Ph.D. in Philosophy from The University of Michigan (1971). He now lives in Cary, NC. His scholarly papers on U.S. constitutional law can be read on the Social Science Research Network at: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/cf_dev/AbsByAuth.cfm?per_id=2523973