Volume 6, No. 2, February 2024
Editor: Rashed Rahman
The recent outbreak of violence by the apartheid Zionist settler colonialist state of Israel against the Palestinians under its occupation reflects the hair-trigger state of confrontation for the last 54 years since the West Bank and Gaza were captured by the Israelis in the 1967 war through a sneak attack against the neighbouring Arab states of Egypt, Jordan and Syria (the last named lost the Golan Heights). Since then, the Zionist state has consistently conducted a creeping illegal annexation of occupied Palestinian territory in the West Bank. The Golan Heights have also been illegally annexed by the occupier Israeli state. The most recent clash referred to above was triggered by Israeli attempts to displace Palestinian residents in East Jerusalem, which quickly escalated into clashes in al Aqsa Mosque, in the West Bank and Gaza. The last named is the largest open air prison in the world, whose people’s very existence is dependent on the Israelis allowing access to the outside world.
How did this plight of the Palestinians transpire? Does the Zionist claim of Palestine constituting the home of the Jewish diaspora historically scattered all over the west and Arab world hold water? Why and how were the Zionists able to not only carve out a state for themselves on Palestinian soil, but to expand its territory since its 1948 founding at the expense of the Palestinians? These are complex questions with complex answers. But they perhaps require putting the history of Palestine in perspective to understand the present conjuncture of seeming helplessness, despite their heroic and courageous resistance, of the Palestinian people under occupation.
Palestine’s geographical location has proved both a blessing and a curse throughout its history. Strategically located between three continents, Palestine’s is a tumultuous history as a crossroads for religion, culture, commerce and politics. This location linked the land route to Asia with the maritime route to Europe and Africa (via the Mediterranean). Standing at this strategic crossroads, Palestine was conquered by almost every empire in the region, including the ancient Egyptian, Persian, Greek (Alexander), Roman, several Muslim dynasties, the Crusaders, the Ottomans and Britain.
Palestine was amongst the earliest regions to see human habitation, agricultural communities and civilisation. The Canaanites set up independent city states influenced by surrounding civilisations including Egypt, which ruled the area in the Late Bronze Age (Bronze Age circa 3300 B.C. to 1200 B.C). In the 12th century B.C., the Philistines occupied the area’s southern coast. The region’s name “Palestine” owes its roots to the Philistines, who were engulfed by the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires and by the 6th century B.C. had disappeared from written history. There are traces of the early Israelites about the same time as the Philistines. They inhabited the barren hill country from the Judean hills in the south to the Samarian hills in the north. In the 8th century B.C., the region boasted a population of 160,000 scattered over 500 settlements and split into two kingdoms: Israel in the north (more prosperous, a regional power) and Judah in the south (economically marginal, backward). The Assyrians conquered the area in the 8th century B.C. (734-645 B.C.). Israel was eradicated in 720 B.C. as its capital Samaria fell. In the 6th century B.C., Aramaic replaced Hebrew as the lingua franca in Palestine. These facts highlight the absurdity of the Zionist project in the 19th-20th centuries of reclaiming the ancient, lost Jewish homeland in Israel. Were this logic to be followed, not a singly country as constituted today would remain the same.
The Babylonian Empire captured Palestine circa 601 B.C. and were themselves conquered by the Persians in 539 B.C. Alexander in his quest to conquer the known world took the area in the late 330s B.C. In the late 2nd century B.C., the semi-independent Hasmonean Kingdom held sway, which gradually became a vassal of Rome, the latter annexing Palestine in 63 B.C. During Roman rule, there were a number of Jewish rebellions, which were crushed and the Jews’ Temple was destroyed. In the 4th century A.D., following Rome’s Christianisation, Palestine became a centre of Christianity.
The Muslim (Arab) conquest of Palestine occurred in 636-640 A.D. This conquest saw a succession of Muslim kingdoms, including the Rashiduns, Umayyads (who built the Dome of the Rock and al Aqsa Mosque), Abbasids, the semi-independent Tulunids, Ikhshidids, followed by the Fatimids and the Seljuks. In 1099, the Crusaders established the Kingdom of Jerusalem, which was taken by the Ayyubid Sultanate in 1187. The Mongols, who had conquered the Ayyubid Sultanate, were themselves defeated by the Egyptian Mamluks in 1260. The Ottomans captured Palestine in 1516, but ceded it to Egypt in 1832. In 1840, the British intervened and returned Palestine to the Ottomans.
During the 19th century, Palestine received waves of Druze, Circassian and Bedouin immigrants, as well as the beginnings of Zionist Jewish immigration from Europe. At the 1897 First Zionist Congress, the demand for a Jewish homeland in Palestine was framed. The 1917 Balfour Declaration in support of this demand created regional tension. At that time there was a small Jewish population growing through immigration. The defeat of the Ottomans in WW I allowed Britain to acquire through the League of Nations (the stillborn precursor of the UN) a Palestine Mandate in 1922. The Mandate included a binding obligation on the British government for the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people. This triggered conflict between the Jews and Arabs.
Finally, amidst growing conflict between the Palestinians and the incremental mass immigration of Jews from all over the world under the cover of the British Mandate (850,000 Jews from the Arab world alone), Britain announced the ending of its Mandate in 1947 when the UN General Assembly produced a partition plan for Palestine. This triggered the first war between the Palestinians and Zionists, accompanied by the Arab countries’ intervention in 1947-48. Despite these efforts, the Israel that emerged on the map was larger than the one envisaged in the partition plan. Of the Palestinian population, 700,000 or 80 percent fled or were driven out by Zionist armed gangs. This national catastrophe is what the Palestinians call the Nakba.
From its creation by armed force backed by western imperialism against the indigenous Palestinian populace, Israel has incrementally expanded through the 1956, 1967 and 1973 wars. For most of this period, the Palestinian voice was dependent on the surrounding Arab countries such as Egypt. Only in 1964 was the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) formed to allow the Palestinian struggle the degree of autonomy and independence it needed to conduct its national armed resistance. The PLO consisted of all the Palestinian resistance groups wedded to armed struggle against the Zionist state. They included Fatah, PFLP, PDFLP and some smaller groups. Yasser Arafat, the leader of Fatah at that time, analysed correctly the main dilemma of the Palestinian armed struggle: the lack of a certain, safe base area from which to operate. The PLO had no choice but to operate from the soil of Israel’s neighbouring Arab countries. Of these, Jordan held the greater attraction because its population was 40 percent Palestinian, putting pressure on Jordan’s King Hussein to host the PLO guerrillas. After the 1967 war debacle, Fatah emerged as a popular leading group amongst the Palestinians because of its success in repelling an Israeli military incursion into Jordan in 1968. This is known as the battle of Karameh. Amidst the gloom that had overtaken the Arab world after the massive 1967 defeat, the Palestinians’ success at Karameh raised not only their morale, but that of the Arab world as a whole.
In February 1969, the Palestine National Council (PNC) elected Yasser Arafat its Chairman, a position he occupied until his death by poisoning in November 2004 (Israel is considered the author of this dastardly assassination). Although Arafat had early spelt out the criticality of a safe base for operations, the history of the stifling Arab support and the manipulation of the Palestinians by their Arab allies had left a bitter legacy. That is why radical groups like the PFLP enunciated the slogan: “The road to Tel Aviv lies through Amman”. They followed this line in their hijackings, which culminated in the Black September 1970 defeat by the Jordanian army (helped by a brigade of Pakistani tanks commanded by a Brigadier Ziaul Haq) and their forced relocation to Lebanon.
The civil war in Lebanon between the Left and fascists inevitably drew the Palestinians into the fray on the side of the former. Israel’s 1982 military assault on the Palestinians in Lebanon (murderously assisted by the fascist Phalange) led to the ‘surrender’ of this last armed struggle base. What followed was the relocation (once again) of the Palestinian leadership (including Arafat) to Tunisia. This marked for all intents and purposes the end of the Palestinian armed struggle and the PLO’s turn towards diplomacy from a weak position. The Oslo Accords of 1993 put the seal on this turn, promising, but never delivering, a two-state solution. Instead, under cover of the PLO’s abandonment of armed struggle, despite the dissenting Resistance Front of PFLP, PDFLP and other groups, Israel, backed by the US-led west, has been allowed a virtually free hand to pummel the Palestinians in the occupied territories into further submission. It is a testament to the courage and commitment of the Palestinian people to their cause that they continue their struggle by any and all means despite this.
The PLO (one should really say Fatah) having turned to relying on the US-led west’s goodwill to produce an acceptable solution to the conflict, found an Islamist rival emerging in Gaza: Hamas. Today, it is Hamas that is in the forefront of armed actions (to the extent possible in forbidding circumstances) against Israel. Its critique of the alleged sellout of the struggle by the PLO (Fatah) has brought it repeatedly into confrontation with its ostensible ally (now led by Mahmoud Abbas). But Israel’s depredations and repression compel even these rivals to arrive again and again at a mutual truce in the interests of the struggle as a whole.
Diplomacy has failed the Palestinians because even a moth-eaten ‘Palestine’ was not going to be conceded by a settler colonialist expansionist Zionist project. Hence under the cover of ‘diplomacy’, Israel has illegally annexed the Golan Heights, annexed through Zionist settlements large parts of the West Bank, annexed East Jerusalem and declared the united city its new capital, and boxed in the people of Gaza on pain of death, sudden or slow.
The Palestinian people face incredible odds today. Their erstwhile Arab backers are rushing towards the recognition of Israel. Their diplomatic/political efforts are going nowhere. In the absence of an armed struggle, even their ‘peaceful’ intifadas are crushed time and again. Unless this, or a new, Palestinian leadership finds a solution to reviving the armed struggle, the Palestinian cause appears doomed.