The roots of Israeli apartheid

Israel’s assault on Gaza during the summer shocked millions around the world, but, argues Sølvi Goard, terror is built into the very foundations of the Israeli state.

When Ed Miliband finally came out and challenged Cameron on his enthusiastic support for Israel’s attack on Gaza during the summer, his argument was based on how awful Hamas were and how an attack would only undermine Israeli security: “I am a supporter of Israel and I believe in Israel’s right to self-defence”, he reminded us.

Even when Western politicians feel the need to politely raise their concerns about the fact that Israel is committing war crimes, they always add that they, of course, support Israel’s right to defend itself. Yet, for some reason, the right of the Palestinians to defend themselves is never even raised. Israel’s violent occupation and colonisation of Palestine is ignored.

This wilful distortion of history is key in dehumanising Palestinians. What follows is an attempt to show that Israel’s “right to defend itself” is based purely on ethnic cleansing, theft and terror. The recent attacks on Gaza, and calls for genocide in Israeli society, are not exceptional, but are linked fundamentally to the racism and apartheid that are integral to the Israeli state.

From Balfour to Ben-Gurion: The Zionist project latches itself to British imperialism

Despite what modern politicians might have you think, Palestine, a part of the Ottoman Empire, which was annexed by Germany and then Britain, was never a “land without a people” as the Zionists declared. Jews lived there at the turn of the 20th century, alongside Muslims and Christians. Palestinians lived on and cultivated the land.

Yet for the Zionists, a movement of Jews convinced that the antisemitism of Europe meant that there was no choice but to found a new Jewish nation, this was an irrelevant detail.

The Zionists planned to annex land in Palestine in order to create the material basis for a Jewish state. Theodore Herzl, the so-called “father of Zionism”, considered their project a colonial one – inspired by the ‘civilizing’ colonial projects of the European powers. They were fully aware that the survival of their project would mean land grabs, resource acquisition and the repression of the inhabitant population.

The labour organisation that helped Jews find work – the Histadrut – excluded non-Jews from membership, setting up from the very beginning, a means by which a racialised, two-tier workforce wage system, could be established. It led “conquest of labour” campaigns years before 1948 to force Arabs out of work. The annexation of land continued throughout the 1920s and 30s.

All of this was aided by Britain. The Balfour declaration in 1917 gave British backing for a Zionist project. When the Palestinians rose up organising the region’s first general strike in 1936, the British sought the support of violent Zionist guerrillas. The Zionists acted on behalf of imperialism by repressing Palestinian attempts to win political rights and fair wages from their colonial rulers.

Bathed in blood: Plan Dalet and the Nakba

Perhaps the most significant thing justifying the creation of Israel is the Holocaust.The industrial and systematic murder of millions of Jews, Communists, Roma, disabled people and homosexuals was certainly a historically unique event, less in terms of numbers than the qualitative nature of what happened. Certainly, we should be wary of making rash equations between what happened in Nazi Germany and what is taking place against Palestinians now.

However we do need to be critical of the idea that the Israeli state was a legitimate and victimless response to it. Really, the Holocaust was a catalyst – an added component to a machine that was already hurtling along the tracks. The support from the West for Zionism may have been related to the guilt they felt at having done next to nothing to give Jews refuge or to stop the Holocaust. But their willingness to support the partition of Palestine, was fundamentally linked to their desire for a friendly partner in the Middle East.

The Jews who were successfully silenced were those who had fought with unparalleled ferocity and bravery against Nazism – the anti-Zionist communists and Bundists in places like the Warsaw ghetto, who demanded the right to live in Europe. Their story was erased and the Zionists were granted the right to speak on behalf of all Jews.

The Zionists began to form serious paramilitary groups. The Haganah, headed by David Ben-Gurion, began sourcing weapons to prepare for a major insurrection. They began a campaign of violence against the British mandate government, as well as Palestinians.

The United Nations proposed a partition of Palestine that would give Zionists and Palestinians half each, despite the fact that Zionists were only a third of the population. Palestinians, understandably, refused the partition, but a half wasn’t enough for the Zionists either. They planned a military action designed to seize 80 percent of the land. Their desire to own this supposed “land without a people” would culminate in what Palestinians call Al-Naqba (catastrophe), and the Zionists “Plan Dalet”. The Israeli historian Ilan Pappe has effectively demonstrated that this operation was intended to kill and injure Palestinians in an attempt to force them to flee their homes. In the wake of massacres like the brutal slaughter at Deir Yassin more than 750,000 Palestinians did just that, fleeing to the West Bank, Gaza, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, as well as other Arab states. The Zionists used this terror to seize more land than was agreed by the UN. These Palestinians, and their descendants, have been denied the right to return to land stolen from them until this day.

Eretz Yisrael: America’s watchdog consolidates

In the decades following the Nakba Israel was extremely successful in consolidating its position. They systematically and aggressively campaigned to harass and cleanse the Palestinian population, while engaging in assaults against neighbouring states in order to demonstrate their capability – making themselves indispensable to US imperialism.

The World Zionist Organisation, a lobbying group that helped co-ordinate international campaigns for Israel, was shrewd enough to recognise that the centre of imperialist power was shifting from London to Washington. Actually gaining US support, however, was more complex. In the Cold War era Israel’s significant purchase of Czechoslovakian arms meant the US was not immediately endeared to Zionism.

In 1956 Israel assisted in the British and French invasion of Egypt, which sought to prevent president Gamal Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal. It was an attempt to demonstrate their seriousness as a military force. However, for the US, the entire Suez operation was a brash mistake – fostering “dangerous” Arab nationalism rather than weakening it.

Israel began setting itself up as a useful middleman to sweeten the Americans up. It helped act as a conduit for US interests in Africa by offering military training and support to African regimes that could not be seen to be cooperating with either East or West. The US began granting money to Israel to build their military power.

It was the Six Day War of 1967, however, that proved to the US that Israel could be their principal partner in crime in the Middle East. Equipped with far superior firepower, Israel was able to swiftly rout the combined forces of Syria, Jordan and Egypt. Not only did this win the sponsorship of the US, it also facilitated their seizure of most of Palestine, as well as parts of Egypt and Syria. In Palestine this meant a significant acceleration of the settlement programme, building villages that would soon encircle Palestinian towns, cutting them off from one another. Water sources and natural gas were seized and pumped towards Israeli towns. Arab nationalism had been humiliated. US confidence in Israel blossomed, and a proliferation in military spending soon followed.

Building on this new-found trust, Israel proudly established itself as the state that would sell weapons to dodgy regimes on the US’ behalf – Lebanese fascists, Nicaragua, and especially apartheid South Africa. Their watchdog status empowered them to continually ignore UN resolutions, most importantly Resolution 242, which demanded Israel give right of return to Palestinian refugees. Israeli parties, not just the conservative Likud but also Labour, were united in their belief that a Greater Israel (Eretz Yisrael), with borders far beyond their current position, had to be built.

The ruling classes of the Arab world largely reconciled themselves with the sea change, especially after the failed attempt to recapture territory in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, and were soon making themselves amenable to US imperialism again. With the death of Nasser, alongside the Jordanian and Saudi royalty, the US felt more comfortable and therefore less reliant on Israel in the first half of the 1970s. However, the Iranian Revolution in 1977 would reignite their fear of losing Middle Eastern oil fields and cheap labour.

Nasser’s funeral in October 1970

By the 1980s Israel would be receiving an unparalleled, mind-boggling volume of US aid, with no conditions attached. It had successfully shown itself ruthless enough to be useful to American imperialism – a watchdog for an uppity region.

Hubris gets a shock

The sheer volume of ‘aid’ sent Israel’s confidence soaring. The Israeli-born socialist Moshe Machover showed that it made the settler-colonial state unique in the region – “financed by imperialism without being economically exploited by it.” In 1982 Israel launched an attack on Lebanon, ostensibly for ‘security’, but in reality to intervene against the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), who were based in Beirut.

A bloody civil war had been raging since 1975, with the fascist Phalange and nationalist Tigers Militia uniting against the Palestinians that had been forced to seek refuge. Both Syria and Israel were sponsoring sides in the conflict, with the Palestinians suffering from both. Invading in 1982 to attack the PLO, Israel bombed and besieged Beirut, leading to thousands of civilian casualties. Having done so, Israel co-operated with the Phalange to oversee the slaughter of Sabra and Shatila refugee camp, which left over 1700 dead.

This aggression caused an international outcry. The US invaded Lebanon in order to maintain their interests. The Israelis were, unsurprisingly, never called to account for their war crimes. As an intimidating show of force, the invasion certainly strengthened Israel’s geopolitical position. But strengthening the colonial project came at a cost – incensing and angering Palestinians and Lebanese. It was in these years that Hezbollah, the Islamist guerrilla party that would defeat Israel in 2006, was born.

The attempted elimination of Palestinian organisation in Lebanon was reflected in the Occupied Territories. All political organisation was illegal – even flying a Palestinian flag was a criminal offence.

The PLO, especially Yasser Arafat’s Fatah party, had garnered huge support, in spite of their illegality, throughout the 1970s. However their inability to make any significant steps toward Palestinian liberation widened the gulf between elites and Palestinian masses. Denying any serious political representation for Palestinians, either through the PLO or other means, created a time bomb for Israel – there were no means whatsoever of absorbing anger. In 1987 this anger found expression.

The First Intifada, the most intense uprising of Palestinians since 1936, demonstrated to Israel that ethnic cleansing came with a price. Faced by thousands of youths with stones and Molotov cocktails, the Israeli state was neither able to make concessions, nor defeat Palestinians by force and repression. While the strikes, protests and riots of the Intifada were unable to bring the Israeli state, funded by billions of US dollars, to its knees, they contained the seeds of its destruction. In the last years of the 1980s, copycat intifadas rose up against ruling classes in Algeria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The US was shrewd enough to recognise the threat to the region’s stability that these strikes and stone-throwers represented – the potential for Arab revolution.

From Oslo to Al-Aqsa

A section of the Israeli ruling class recognised the contradictions this created for the colonial project. Tactically, it required trapping the PLO into agreements that would absorb the rebellious spirits of the Palestinian masses.

While attempts at talks weren’t new, it was at this point in the early 1990s that they became a constant feature of Palestinian and Israeli politics. The books written on this could fill libraries, but the role the ludicrously-named “peace process” played is quite simple. Far from representing an attempt for the international community to broker a “just peace”, the talks were an attempt to restore social order in the region, without ever forcing Israel to renounce its program of ethnic cleansing.

The signing of the Oslo accords

While the PLO made huge concessions in return for the merest sliver of autonomy and potential statehood, Israel have never fulfilled their commitments. In fact, settlement building increased exponentially during the “peace process”. The whole charade was a fig leaf for a proliferation of social cleansing. Having demonstrated to the world that (despite never conforming to UN resolutions 242 and 358) it was making steps towards peace, a foul lie perpetuated by Clinton, Blair and the two Bushes, Israel accelerated its destruction of Palestinian homes, purging them from East Jerusalem.

The deep cynicism of Israel, and its desire to destroy all Palestinian autonomy, was exemplified in their brief sponsorship of Hamas, who had been founded by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood during the intifada, solely to undermine the support for Fatah. But this was not enough to prevent the Second Intifada in 2000, sparked by a massacre of Palestinian protestors at Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.

This Intifada, bloody and notable for the first major use of suicide bombing, showed the depths of desperation and anger the Palestinians felt about the “roadmap to peace” and just how much the legitimacy of the PLO, now the Palestinian Authority, was shattered. The international media lamented the Palestinian resistance for undermining the peace process chastising them for having the gall to oppose an illegal and brutal occupying force. Yet it was Israel, its imperialist backers and the Arab ruling classes too wealthy to care, that bore the real responsibility for any political breakthrough.

This period arguably saw the beginning of a lurch to the right in Israeli society. In 1995 the prime minister that had overseen the Oslo accords, Yitzhak Rabin, was assassinated. The assassins were linked to extreme right-wing settler groups but their view, that Oslo was a betrayal to Israel because it conceded too much, was not fringe. Israeli extremism stepped up a gear, with individuals and groups going beyond the role of the IDF to commit massacres off their own back. It was a new crescendo – one that still hasn’t abated – but it was intrinsically related to the very foundation of the Israeli state.


Israel finds itself in the same quandary today. Having withdrawn from Gaza, to leave it an open-air prison, Hamas have been able to launch rockets and operations into settlements and Israeli cities. The scale of this resistance is nonetheless small – the rockets have killed less than twenty people in the last thirteen years. As yet another focus of media hysteria however, devoid of any real context, it has served to galvanise the Israeli ruling class to engage in major operations. Since Operation Cast Lead in 2008/9, thousands of Palestinians have been killed.

While it is crucial that international solidarity has grown in response to these operations, it is crucial to recognise that, after the supposed “ceasefires” have been called, the effects of occupation continue daily.

Palestinians are still denied basic rights. Their water is stolen. They are denied the right to free movement and to access education. Gazans have been unable to travel to West Bank for decades. They are subject to military law. The percentage of Palestinians in prison is one of the highest in the world. They are humiliated daily at checkpoints. They are subject to drone bombings. Millions of Palestinians are denied the right to return to land stolen in war. Their houses are destroyed in the thousands. The level of trauma and mental ill health, especially amongst children, is unparalleled.

As Israel’s society has moved further to the right, the dehumanisation and racism towards non-Jews has proliferated. Open calls for genocide against Palestinians are common, in the tweets of teenagers and the speeches of Knesset members. This systematic racism has overflowed, leading to street movements in Israel that violently attack African immigrants, even Ethiopian Jews. The government has in the last few weeks admitted to a sterilisation programme of Ethiopian women.

All of this stems from the endemic racism that is rooted in the colonial project and ethnic cleansing.

Weakening this imperialism is then in the interest of those who would hope for an alternative and there signs of change in resistance from Palestinians and international solidarity by means of the expanding boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. For the purpose of space this article has focused on Israel’s acts, yet it is vital to recognise that Palestinians are not merely victims. They have constantly been agents of their own resistance, and have inspired millions with their actions. Palestinian liberation, which requires the end to the ethnic cleansing of the apartheid Israeli state, is key to unravelling the contradictions of imperialism in the Middle East.


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