War by other means

Saleh Abdel-Jawad, Tuesday 16 May 2023

Israeli policy since 1948 has, explicitly or implicitly, been designed to force the Palestinians into exile. Sometimes this has taken the form of war, sometimes of measures designed to make daily life for the Arab population as difficult as possible. Its single aim, however, has always been Palestinian "sociocide”

Former mayor of Jerusalem Ruhi Al-Khatib, and his wife who was exiled to Jordan
Former mayor of Jerusalem Ruhi Al-Khatib, and his wife who was exiled to Jordan



From Al-Ahram Weekly archives: Fifty years of dispossession 1948-1998*

Issue: 8 January 1998


Judaising Palestine has always been the aim of the Zionist movement. The 1948 war produced devastating results: 85 per cent of the Palestinian villages that fell under Israeli control during the war were entirely destroyed, while their inhabitants were forced to flee beyond the borders of the newly declared state of Israel. These villages, constituting 50 per cent of the Palestinian villages within the former historical borders of Palestine, were demolished one after the other, though most of them had suffered little damage from military operations, that is if they had engaged in military operations at all.

Some of these villages were only demolished many years after 1948, and this despite the Israeli urgent need to provide housing for the million Jewish immigrants who arrived in Israel in the few years following the war. Palestinians in the cities fared no better.

Cities such as Beir al-Sab' (BeerSheba), Bisan, Tiberius and Safd were entirely evacuated of their original inhabitants. Others such as Jaffa, Acre, Lod and Ramla were partially evacuated, leaving only a few thousand in each. For weeks following the fall of their cities, the remaining inhabitants watched in horror as hundreds of Palestinians were subjected to summary executions.

These drastic measures, employed in 1948, to expel the indigenous population, have been refined over time, and have given way to a policy which I shall call "sociocide", that is the gradual undermining of the communal and psychological structures of Palestinian society in order to compel the Palestinians to leave by other means. The use of the June 1967 war to achieve this aim is a case in point.

The Israeli government had already, before the outbreak of war, undertaken a comprehensive survey of Palestinian society in the West Bank and Gaza. Once occupied in June 1967, Israel imposed its military rule and, through this, it set out to achieve four main aims: firstly, to destroy the Palestinian economy; secondly, to decimate Palestinian national spirit and identity; thirdly, to deprive Palestinians of their political and civil rights, and fourthly, to transform Palestinian daily life into an endless chain of hardship.

Over the years, the Israeli government has stripped the Palestinian people of their land under a variety of pretexts. They have been told that their land was actually government property, that the land they lived on no longer belonged to them, since they were no longer physically present in the country (naturally, since they had had to flee Israeli troops in 1967, some for the second time...), or that their land was needed for 'public welfare'.

Bassam Al-Shaka'a, former mayor of Nablus and the victim of an assassination attempt that cost him both legs.


But, after the signing of the Oslo accords, the Israelis have come to feel that that they do not have to give any notification at all for their decision to confiscate Palestinian land. Israel now owns or controls over 70 per cent of the land on the West Bank and approximately 30 per cent of the land area in Gaza. In addition, it has gained total control over Palestinian water resources.

As Palestinian farmers' crops have withered, Israeli settlers on Palestinian land have been able to sunbathe around their newly installed swimming pools.

Palestinian markets have been flooded by Israeli products. There are no customs controls, and no form of protection is afforded to Palestinian products. 92 per cent of imports into the West Bank come from Israel, and 22 per cent of Israeli exports are destined for Gaza. As a result, the majority of Palestinian farmers, who constitute about 65 per cent of the population, have found themselves without land, without water and without safeguards against the influx of Israeli agricultural products.

Palestinian industry is stagnant. Already the victim of British colonial policy and Jordanian rule, the latter concentrating all Palestinian industry on the East Bank when the West Bank was under Jordanian control, the Palestinian economy has now been subjugated to the Israeli, not only in terms of the dependency of the periphery upon the centre, but also as part of Israel's policy to de-develop the Palestinian economy.

According to Sara Roy of Harvard University, "de-development not only distorts development, but forestalls it entirely by depriving the economy of its capacity and potential for rational structural transformation and preventing the emergence of any self-correcting measures." De-development, therefore, is not merely a form of political control and economic exploitation, it also has the long-term aim of thoroughly dislocating Palestinian society and development.

Once again the original land owner -- the Palestinian farmer -- has been the victim of these policies. As was the case both before, and in the wake of the 1948 war, Palestinian farmers have had no alternative but to put themselves on the Israeli labour market under very singular conditions in which political, rather than economic factors, have prevailed.

Palestinian labourers have been forced to work at rates varying from 40 to 60 per cent of the pay of Jewish workers doing the same jobs. They have been confined to areas in which opportunities for career and personal advancement are limited, such as fruit-picking, cleaning and janitorial services, and construction. These have absorbed some 51 per cent of the Palestinian labour force.

As was the case with cheap Arab labour at the time of the first Zionist settlements in Palestine in the late 19th century, Palestinian workers today are forbidden to sleep near their work places, which are frequently located near the areas their forefathers had lived in. They are therefore obliged to travel an average of 100 kilometres a day, to work like machines, and to return home exhausted so that their families can "enjoy" the fruits of Israeli production.

They have also been forbidden to set up Palestinian labour unions, and, deprived of any opportunity to defend their rights at the workplace, and forced to accept discriminatory wages, they have been denied the kind of protections commonly accorded workers elsewhere. Palestinian workers have also been forced to pay a portion of their salaries into a fund, the volume of assets of which remains a mystery, and from which no Palestinian has ever received any benefit.

These circumstances have not been solely dictated by the nature of the Israeli economy. Beyond the opportunity for exploitation signaled by a mass of cheap labour, there has been, among Israelis, the very conscious fear of developing a Palestinian working class, which could generate polarisation between a Jewish bourgeoisie and a Palestinian proletariat.

At all events, as a result of industrial stagnation, a decline in tourism and a decline in the Palestinian agricultural sector, there has evolved in the West Bank and Gaza a malignant dependency on the Israeli labour market. More than 50 per cent of the per-capita income in Gaza is derived from this source. The proportion is less for the West Bank, although it is still significant and has had a profound social, economic and political impact.

When Israel blockades the West Bank on the pretext of security precautions, it effectively commits a major crime and one that can not be equated to blockades which Western European countries, under the strains of unemployment, have imposed in an attempt to stem the influx of foreign labour. Fifty years ago, Israel dispossessed these workers of their land and the land of their children, who now live in refugee camps.

It has pillaged the economic foundations of the people whose land it occupied in 1967. It has destroyed their entire social structure with the aim of converting them into a source of cheap labour to serve the Israeli economy and the state's long-term political aims. It has made no gesture of remorse for the crimes it committed in 1948, felt no moral obligation to make redress for the rights it has usurped and made no attempt to alleviate the suffering inflicted by its racist policies.

Parallel to its economic policies, Israel has also targeted, from the outset, Palestinian civic institutions. It dissolved the municipal council of East Jerusalem, and among the first to be expelled following the occupation were the head of the council, Ruhi al-Khatib and Sheikh al-Hamid al-Saih of the supreme Islamic commission. It has also routinely closed down universities for extended periods of time. Beir Zeit university in the West Bank, for example, had been closed 15 times since it was founded in 1974 for periods ranging from several weeks to several months, and this does not include the innumerable de facto closures intended to disrupt university life by setting up military barricades.

The last closure of Beir Zeit lasted four years. And the closure not only interrupted studies: No one --professors, cleaning staff, lab technicians -- were permitted to enter the university, and this disruption of education, research, and the maintenance of the university and its facilities has taken an incalculable toll. It is also seldom appreciated that the libraries these universities contain are the only libraries available to citizens of the West Bank and Gaza, and closure has meant that for years Palestinians have been deprived of access to sources of information and cultural stimulus.

Schools, including nurseries, have been routinely shut down, if for shorter duration, causing disastrous disruption to the curriculum and children's education. Other institutions such as cultural centres and youth clubs have been closed down permanently.

Freedom of travel for the purpose of cultural and educational exchanges within the Arab World, long a primary stimulus to Palestinian cultural life, has been curtailed. After thirty years of occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, Israel, the so-called "democratic oasis of the Middle East" can boast that it has transformed generations of Palestinian young people, once a major tributary of the Arab intelligentsia, into a mass of undereducated, overworked labourers.

Democratic institutions, such as municipal councils, have also been subjected to systematic destruction. The last municipal elections in the West Bank were held in 1976 and in Gaza in 1967, when the Israeli government dismissed the popularly elected representatives and replaced them with corrupt Israeli officers.

The councils themselves were then replaced by committees, most of which were run by appointees, individuals with criminal records, or individuals who had dubious connections with the Israeli authorities. Four Palestinian municipal leaders from some of the West Bank's larger cities were dismissed or banished during the period 1969 - 1981. In a single day in June 1980, three other municipal leaders were the target of assassination attempts. Two of these suffered severe and permanent injuries.

Exile has long been the Israeli government's main weapon for depriving the Palestinian people in the occupied territories of their popular leaders. Up until the Madrid peace conference in 1991, the Israelis had exiled more than a thousand Palestinian figures.

To put this figure into some kind of perspective, even under the emergency laws in force under the British mandate, laws which Menachem Begin himself described as more horrendous than Nazi ones, exile was exceptional, and even then subject to specific time limitations.

Under these circumstances, the only explanation for Israel's policy is to drive home to the Palestinians that they are aliens on their own land, a perception that today is being forced upon the Arabs of Jerusalem, Muslims and Christians alike. All individuals who do not hold an Israeli passport find themselves divested of their natural right to citizenship; Palestinians have been transformed into 'permanent residents', and even that status is open to question.

Two years ago, the Arab population of Jerusalem, whose ancestors lived in the city for hundreds of years, suddenly found themselves at risk of losing their "permanent resident" status, if one of three instances could be said to apply.

Firstly, if they left the country and obtained a foreign nationality, then the occupation authorities would consider them aliens, who would have to obtain a visa to "visit" their native country. The law, of course, is discriminatory, as most Israeli Jewish citizens are permitted to hold dual nationality. Secondly, if a Palestinian from Jerusalem resided for more than six years outside the city's boundaries, then, according to the new law, they would lose their residence status.

This provision has been applied to thousands of young Palestinian couples, whom, by virtue of Israel's racist housing policies, have been unable to find housing inside Jerusalem. Thirdly, if a Palestinian resided outside the country for a period beyond that specified in his exit permit and was unable to obtain an extension from an Israeli consulate abroad, he would also forfeit his resident status. Little wonder, then, that the expression "silent transfer" has been coined to describe this phenomenon of exile by other means.

One of the worst aspects of Israeli policy (unique, it might be thought, in colonial experience) is the use of prisons as instruments of sociocide. Throughout the world, prisons are used to punish offenders, but, in Israel they have other purposes. Since 1967, more than a quarter of a million Palestinians have been imprisoned, many more than once and for periods of up to 12 years.

Many have languished in prison for years on end without charges being brought and without prospect of trial. To imprison a quarter of a million people out of a total population of two million is in itself extraordinary. And the philosophy underlying this extends beyond combating Palestinian resistance. In fact, Israeli prisons have been transformed into large-scale means of control and investigation, designed to enable the Israeli authorities to tighten their control.

Palestinian prisoners have routinely been subjected to various forms of torture, often for the most innocuous reasons such as being members of student unions, or participating in peaceful demonstrations. Since 1976, however, prison authorities have relied primarily on psychological torture, or forms of physical torture that do not leave visible marks, such as covering the victim's head for several days.

Interrogations are conducted with the aim of furnishing an in-depth profile of the individual concerned. Interrogators compile data on their victims' political leanings, family life, personal strengths and weaknesses, sex life, leadership capacities, powers of endurance, and so on, so as to weaken his or her resistance.

In addition to instilling fear and degradation, Israeli prisons are also recruiting grounds for thousands of informers, a further instrument for psychologically breaking the prisoners and destroying their confidence in themselves and in their society.

In spite of the fact that Israel had inherited dozens of British prisons, built in virtually every town and city in order to subjugate Palestinians during the 1936 revolution, the Israeli occupation authorities have built many more. Some, such as Ansar-2 in the Negev, can accommodate several thousand detainees.

Another unique phenomenon that sets the Israeli occupation apart is the excessive, deliberate use of administrative measures to dominate the Palestinian population. Every detail of the Palestinians' day-to-day life is subject to bureaucratic controls, creating enormous psychological pressure upon the individual.

Even the simplest concerns, concerns that should constitute natural individual rights in every country of the world, must pass through Israel's apparatus of military rule. This includes obtaining a work permit, travel abroad, marriage to a person from abroad, being reunited with one's relatives, forming cultural societies, establishing hospitals, obtaining an identity card, obtaining a building permit, taking driving lessons, obtaining a driving license and obtaining a birth certificate.

Of course, many of these permits require a certain amount of red tape in all countries. However, approval there can generally be expected, and the paperwork is routine. In Israel, on the other hand, every request for a permit must be put through the security mill, even those that could not possibly have security implications. Moreover, a large number of requests are turned down with no explanation. After all, what logical justification could be offered for refusing dozens of applications to build hospitals in an area where public health services have seriously deteriorated since 1967?

At a time when Zionist propaganda has succeeded in projecting the Palestinian struggle as a terrorist movement, two million people are suffering under a deliberate policy of state terror. The constant threat of harassment and even of murder, of curfews, arbitrary arrest and road blocks plague Palestinian daily life, and have gradually forced the population to retreat behind closed doors as soon as night falls.

As the occupation has grown more arrogant, people have been forbidden to go to the seaside, to pray in holy places, to take walks in mountains which had once belonged to them. The few cinemas and amusement parks have vanished.

All these and other measures have generated a climate of fear, anxiety, and unbearable depression and frustration. Simply to go on living under these conditions demands a high degree of personal sacrifice and commitment to the national cause.


*Saleh Abdel-Jawad is a Palestinian historian

This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly’s special pages commemorating 50 years of Al-Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe when Israel was created on 15 May 1948. These pages, published in 1998, were part of a year-long series of articles documenting the history and nature of the Arab-Israeli struggle, as well as that of Palestinian dispossession and exile.

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