Injustice from its foundation

June 30, 2010

Israel's murderous assault on a flotilla of ships carrying solidarity activists and humanitarian aid to break the U.S. and Israeli-imposed siege of Gaza spurred outrage around the world--and catapulted the international movement in support of the Palestinian people to a new stage.

At the Socialism 2010 conference in Chicago, four voices from that movement discussed the future of the struggle for a free Palestine and a free Middle East at a forum attended by nearly 1,000 people.

Gilbert Achcar is a Lebanese writer and veteran of the socialist movement. His books include The Clash of Barbarisms: The Making of the New World Disorder and The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives.

WE ALL agree here on this platform on the fact that Israel is beginning to lose the battle for public opinion. This is a very important change that started happening over the last few months and increased recently with the aggression against the Freedom Flotilla.

What is striking is that Israel is beginning to lose this battle at a time when, as Tariq mentioned, the Palestinian political scene is certainly not attractive. The image that the Palestinians are presenting to the rest of the world is really a very bad one. This is a really low point from the point of view of the ability of the Palestinian movement to attract sympathy through its struggle. If you compare this to the period of the first Intifada, especially at its peak in 1988, the difference is huge.

So the reason why Israel is beginning to lose this battle for world public opinion--and more specifically, Western public opinion--is related to Israel itself, of course. With the increasing--or at least increasingly obvious--cruelty of its behavior, the fact is that Israel is going more and more beyond what is acceptable to dominant world hypocrisy.

Israeli tanks near the Syrian border during the Six Day War in 1967
Israeli tanks near the Syrian border during the Six Day War in 1967

Now, when you say this, you'll usually find people trying to outsmart you who explain that, well, Israel wasn't any better before. So let me put it this way: They weren't better before, but they are getting worse!

This is actually genetic, one could say--genetic in the state of Israel and its very constitution as a settler colonial state based on forced expulsion of the native population. Such a state could not but develop into a racist, militarist expansionist kind of state.

THAT WAS obvious in the nature of the Zionist project from the start. Let me just read a little quote from a famous text of 1923 by Vladimir Jabotinsky, a leader of the far right wing of the Zionist movement--the wing that the other sections, the so-called Laborites--would describe as fascist. This is what he had to say in 1923:

Zionist colonization, even the most restricted, must either be terminated or carried out in defiance of the will of the native population. This colonization can, therefore, continue and develop only under the protection of a force independent of the local population--an iron wall which the native population cannot break through. This is, in toto, our policy towards the Arabs. To formulate it any other way would only be hypocrisy.

Now, Jabotinsky's competitors, would say the problem wasn't that he was less hypocritical, but that he was less astute--and wanted to say things that they preferred not to say openly. But the fact is that the very nature of the Zionist movement and the statist Zionist project included this inexorable, inevitable slide toward the right. And this is exactly what we've seen in the history of the Israeli state.

It was only over the first two decades when the state of Israel could claim the image of the socialist kibbutz. That stopped when Israel continued its expansion over Palestinian territory by invading the West Bank and Gaza in 1967. That's the time when the kibbutz moved from being, in the minds of people, a socialist project and into being what it had actually always been from the start--a military settler colonial outpost. That's exactly what the kibbutzim built on the West Bank became very clearly in the eyes of everybody.

Also in 1967, the occupation of the other part of Palestine from which the native population this time did not move, created an occupational situation, and this increased the dynamics--this shift to the far right by the Israeli state. And indeed, 10 years later in 1977, the Likud party--the heirs of Jabotinsky, the fascist who I just quoted--rose to power.

In 1982, the Israeli invasion of my country, of Lebanon, was also a landmark in the shift, and also in the deterioration of the image of Israel in the rest of the world--it's the beginning of this evolution that reached a really qualitative point with the recent events. There was the occupation of Lebanon for 18 years, from which the Israeli army only left because of the resistance--the armed resistance--by the Lebanese people.

Within this timeframe, you had a very short interregnum around the Oslo Accords. This was the moment when there were some illusions about a possible peaceful stance by the Israeli state.

But very quickly, any kind of illusions dissipated. It was quite clear from the start that the real project behind Oslo from the Israeli point of view was separation. This was symbolized by the building of the wall of separation in the West Bank. Israel started building this wall in 1994, immediately after signing the Oslo Accords, and it was Yitzhak Rabin's government that actually started the construction. And, of course, the interregnum was exploited to double the colonization of the West Bank from 1994 to 2000, compared to the whole period between 1967 and the signing of Oslo.

Then in 2001, after Oslo had failed, the second Intifada started, and Israel elected Ariel Sharon, who until then was considered to be on the far right of the far right in Israeli politics--the most extreme politician within the Likud. He arrived in power in 2001 at the same time as George W. Bush, and you had the two most reactionary administrations in both countries converging at the same time. That was a terrible convergence for the region of the Middle East. The region has paid a very, very dear price for that.

YOU KNOW the rest of the story. The reoccupation of the parts of the West Bank that the Israeli army had vacated. New massacres. And all during this time, the construction of the wall continuing. With Ariel Sharon, who believed that even Oslo was too much of a concession, and that Israel should decide unilaterally which areas it would evacuate, which turn out to be a minority of the territories it occupied in 1967.

Then in 2006, there was Israel's very violent 33-day war against Lebanon. That was a failure for the Israeli army, but of course, the cost for Lebanon was huge. This was the cruelest war of all Israeli wars until then with regard to the intensity. Even in 1982, we didn't see that concentration of violence--the flattening of whole areas of the country.

2006 was also the year when Gaza was attacked again--before Israel in 2007 began the blockade of Gaza. This was the re-strangulation of Gaza, with absolutely terrible consequences--and all the more when Israel launched, at the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009, a brutal assault that destroyed over 15 percent of the buildings in the Gaza Strip. The war destroyed industry, destroyed infrastructure, destroyed water facilities, electricity, everything.

The blockade prevented the Palestinians from rebuilding--they weren't allowed to import any materials for that. The result has been, according to the United Nations, that the number of Gazans who live in what is described as "abject poverty"--that is, in desperate need of help--is 300,000 people out of a population of 1.5 million.

So what is the outcome of all this? What we get now is, again, the most reactionary government in the history of Israel--breaking a new record after Sharon. The founding party of the Israeli state, the so-called Labor Party, is now number four in the Israeli Knesset. Number one and two are two fractions of the Likud, the wing of Israeli politics that used to be called fascist, and number three is an openly racist organization, the head of which is the foreign minister of the state of Israel.

This is a total scandal, but this drift was, as I said, something that was built into the very Constitution of the Israeli state and the way that it evolved historically.

Now, due to the cruelty and brutality that Israel is displaying more and more, there are fewer and fewer people willing to defend the behavior of the Israeli state. We are seeing more and more of the traditional friends of Israel distancing themselves. Even Justice Richard Goldstone, a devout Jew and Zionist, could not but, with some intellectual honesty, criticize the crimes against humanity--to call them by their real name--committed by Israel in Gaza. And you saw the kind of absolutely awful treatment he was exposed to.

So what is left is the last unconditional supporters of Israel--the likes of Alan Dershowitz and AIPAC [the American Israel Political Action Committee]. And more and more people are shifting away from that.

We should look to the fact that what has been achieved by the Freedom Flotilla--although at a huge cost, as Kevin pointed out--is the first real and major victory realized by the solidarity movement. Until then, there was a sense of impotence in the solidarity movement, faced with the reality of what is going on in Palestine. There was a sense that whatever we do will be just symbolic, but will not really accomplish anything.

But with this event, there has been a real first victory. We should consider that this is only a beginning and carry on the fight.

Transcription by Andrea Hektor

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