Daniel Orenstein

Using maps to whitewash a massacre

Recep Tayyip Erdogan gives a history lesson to his political party in Ankara on October 11, 2023. (Adem ALTAN / AFP)
Recep Tayyip Erdogan gives a history lesson to his political party in Ankara on October 11, 2023. (Adem ALTAN / AFP)

Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, recently made an impassioned speech to his political party expressing his support for Hamas, whom he defined not as terrorists, but as freedom fighters. He did so while waving a set of maps of Israel and Palestine – the same maps that appear profusely as an infographic across the internet and which are standard fare in the propaganda war against Israel.

The narrative that the maps tell is that the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is one of creeping annexation of Arab Palestine by Jewish Israel. As such, across the four plates, green Palestine slowly dissolves into beige Israel. They systematically ignore Israeli territorial withdrawals, while obfuscating the context of any of the maps.

The maps, taken individually, are illustrative of four snapshots in time, yet their selection and juxtaposition create an effective myth of history proceeding in a single, intentional direction. Jews/Israelis stole Palestine from their legitimate Palestinian owners.

Unfortunately, for anyone desiring any nuanced and balanced understanding of the historical conflict, crucial details and maps are excluded – details and maps that would ruin a good story.

The series starts with a map from around 1946. That may well be when the Palestinian narrative begins (I’ll let them decide), but a map series representing competing territorial claims could have started when the Jewish narrative begins (thousands of years prior to 1946). Or the map series could have started with any number of foreign occupations that characterized the land all the way through British mandate Palestine. By selectively starting in 1946, much of Jewish history is already erased from the region.

The ubiquitous infographic of the Israeli takeover of Palestine (creator: Dale Spencer, under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License)

The first map likely (none of the maps are attributed to source material) represents the land that Jews had purchased in Ottoman and British Mandate Palestine up until 1946. The limited amount of Jewish land is surrounded by a sea of green, which gives the allusion of some sort of established borders of a state of Palestine or suggests that all of the region was owned by Palestinians. At this juncture in history, there was no state, and although no one argues that fact, the map gives that exact impression. It was a colonial territory with borders worked out by colonial powers, similarly to much of the Middle East and Africa.

The second map shows the UN proposal for the partition of Palestine into a Jewish and Arab state – approved by two-thirds of the voting members of the United Nations in 1947.

The third map shows the outcome of the 1948 war, when the Arab states attacked the newly-established Jewish state and the Jewish state used to opportunity to conquer more land than was granted in the original partition. The map is of armistice lines agreed upon to conclude the 1948 war. Notably, the green areas marked “Palestine” on the map never became a Palestinian state, but were rather occupied by Jordan (the West Bank) and Egypt (Gaza).

Then there is a gap in the historical timeline – a map is missing which should show the areas conquered in the 1967 war (also initiated by Syria, Jordan, and Egypt), when Israel conquered the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank and the Golan Heights. While Israel grew nearly three and half times its size as a result of those conquests, in 1977 Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt in a peace agreement (an act that including uprooting settlements). The map is missing because, again, it would ruin a good storyline of a constantly growing Israel. The status of Gaza and the West Bank were not agreed upon and Israeli settlement has continued there since the 1970s.

The final map shows the results of the 1993/95 Oslo Accords, a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in which Israel agreed to leave areas in the West Bank and Gaza that were formerly occupied. Again, the maps conveniently ignore the Israeli withdrawal from areas in the region, because that would ruin the unidirectional storyline. The green area in that map is where (for the first time in their history) Palestinians had political authority over Palestinian land.

A decade later, in 2005, Israel unilaterally withdrew from additional areas of Gaza, uprooting Jewish settlements and leaving the entire strip to the Palestinians. Once again – a withdrawal glossed over by the selective and manipulative use of maps. Two years after that, Hamas took over Gaza from the Palestinian Authority and began their brutal regime over their own people and began stockpiling weapons to use periodically against Israel over the next two decades.

Erdogan’s maps purport to tell a story of a systematic and planned takeover of Palestine, but they actually illustrate a century of diplomacy, land purchases, politics, war, population transfers and expulsions, and occupation – reflecting well and badly on Israelis and Palestinians, according to your political disposition.

By presenting these facts, I have no intention of negating the Palestinian narrative. Even in the depths of grief over what we have witnessed these past two weeks, I still believe that the path to a future peace lies in mutual recognition and acceptance of one another’s narratives. But in today’s political climate, it is imperative that we prevent propagandists from distorting and eliminating the Israeli narrative.

Erdogan is attempting to eliminate the Israeli narrative, and he chosen one of the darkest moments in Jewish history to do so. Waving these maps at this particular time is an attempt (shared, unfortunately, by thousands of university professors, students, and activists across Europe and the US) to whitewash the 7 October massacre of 1400 Israelis, even before we have had the chance to bury our dead or retrieve our 200+ hostages who remain captive in Gaza. Contesting their propaganda is one way through which we will not let that happen.

About the Author
Daniel Orenstein is an associate professor in the Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. His research interests include human-nature interactions, environmental issues in Israel and globally, and public engagement in environmental policy. His general interests are much broader.
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