Brutal depictions of violence in Palestine have shocked the entire world. Videos of Palestinians being arrested, beaten, expelled from their homes at gunpoint, tear gassed out of a mosque during Ramadan, and bombed have gone viral on the internet. For many, this is the first time the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is front and present in their minds’ eye. More than ever, international support for Palestinians and their cause is strong, but significant push back from Israel and politicians around the world is also firm, arguing that Israel is simply defending itself against the “big, bad Arabs.” Unfortunately for the narrative of Israeli victimhood, history is not a kind judge. For almost a century, Israel and Zionists in Israel have executed a targeted campaign to displace, exile, and disenfranchise Palestinians, a native people of Palestine. Thankfully, the Palestinian struggle has come to the forefront of the American conscious at a time of renewed activism.
Palestine’s Struggle For Independence
The story of Palestine today is inexorably linked to the state of Israel. To understand the current conflict, a brief history is necessary. Israel is a state founded on the principle of Zionism, the idea that the Jewish people have a right to self determination in their historical homeland, the area known as Palestine. The British government encouraged various waves of immigration made by European Jews to the area in the late 1800s, although until WWI Britain did not formally control the land. European Jews’ motivations were manifold, ranging from escaping mounting anti-semitism in Europe, economic opportunities, to spiritual fulfillment.
Nonetheless, the British government had only one motivation: to expand the British Empire. Joseph Chamberlain, the colonial secretary at the time, saw Jews as a “ready-made group of European Colonizers” who would establish British control over the region when the Ottoman Empire ultimately fell. Chamberlain’s efforts to encourage immigration to Palestine were supported by the British Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour, because the pogroms in Eastern Europe were causing an unwanted rise in Jewish immigrants into Britain. During WWI, Zionist leaders met with British officials and both parties agreed that a British protectorate would be the best way to proceed. By the time they signed the Balfour Declaration, Britain had de facto control of Palestine. When the dust settled after the war, the agreed-upon version of the mandate was substantially similar to what Zionist leaders had advocated for. Significantly, it lacked any input from Arab Palestinians. In 1922, the British attempted to start a legislative body under the mandate, but it ultimately failed because Jews in the region did not consent to any hegemonic-rule institutions while Arabs were still the majority.
Due to Nazi Germany’s persecution and mass extermination of Jews, many chose to immigrate to Palestine during this time, inflaming tensions in the region with a shrinking Arab majority. Britain’s position was precarious as its other commitments in the region became compromised by the Zionist conflict. As a result of this, Britain agreed to restrict some immigration and ultimately handed over control of the region to the UN. In 1947, the UN decided to partition Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab with a shared economy. The problem for Zionists at this point was the Arab majority that still existed in the territory. In 1947, Palestinians represented over two-thirds of the population and owned over 90% of privately owned land. Palestinians rejected the partition plan because Israel claimed 55% of historically Palestinian land, including many large Arab-populated cities. The partition plan also granted Israel strategically important, extensive coastline while depriving Palestinians of needed arable land and important sea ports.
When Israel declared independence in May of 1948, surrounding Arab nations attacked. An important fact to note is that the Zionist forces had been given significant military training by the British army that the Palestinians and Arabs did not receive. Israel resoundingly defeated its enemies and the effects of the war on Palestinians became known as the Nakba, or “the Catastrophe.” Between December of 1947 and May of 1948, Zionist militias exiled 440,000 Palestinians from their homes. By 1949, 750,000 Palestinians were displaced by force or chose to flee the violence. Of the 150,000 Palestinians remaining on Israeli land, 35,000 were internally displaced. The displaced Palestinians were not able to return, and many of their descendants are still refugees today. This conflict and the resulting catastrophe was never about religion, it’s about land. Many Palestinians are Christian, Druze, even Jewish, but Zionists needed land and strategically important territory that Palestinians lived on.
Since 1948, Israel has made it a policy to sell “absentee” land – land that Palestinians fled or were expelled from – to the Jewish National Fund, a supposed charity. The JNF is responsible for leasing land back to citizens to help foster economic growth, but it only leases to Jewish citizens. Some of this land is still owned by the JNF but is administered by the Israeli government, again only being leased to Jews. Since 1967, the JNF has funded settlements in East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank. But the JNF is just one cog in the Israeli machine designed to disempower Palestinians. This continued campaign of ethnic cleansing was and is unjust, and Palestinians must be allowed to return to their ancestral homeland.
During the war in 1967, Israel went even further, occupying the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights – a region of Palestine that is now considered Israel proper. Today, Israel controls 85% of historical Palestine and the war in 1967 resulted in 430,000 newly displaced Palestinians. Since 1948, 1 million Palestinians have been arrested and 100,000 Palestinian homes have been demolished within the region. No new Palestinian villages have been built, but 600 Jewish settlements were created. With the ongoing occupation, not even Palestinian territory is truly free.
Palestine can only loosely be defined as a nation and is currently a Non-Member Observer State in the United Nations divided into two separate geographical territories: Gaza and the West Bank. These territories straddle the state of Israel and do share neither a border nor a common government, with the West Bank under the control of the Palestinian Authority and Gaza under the control of Hamas, a terrorist organization. Israel controls the borders, airspace, and natural resources of both regions, and has completely blockaded Gazan ports and exports. Other materials such as food, medicine, electricity, and industrial supplies are severely limited and supplied almost exclusively by Israel.
Within Israel and its occupied territories, Palestinians face oppression and humiliation around every corner. Two of the biggest challenges Palestinians face are the questions of citizenship and residency. Israel exists at the crux between a functioning democracy with laws to fairly determine citizenship status and a Jewish ethnostate with a political incentive to disenfranchise Palestinians. Palestinians and Arabs can and do have Israeli citizenship, but the laws are far from egalitarian. The Right of Return is a principle of law that gives Jews all around the world the right to live in and eventually become citizens of Israel, but this law does not extend to Palestinians (excluding Jewish Palestinians). Furthermore, Palestinians who marry Israelis and reside in the country do not qualify for citizenship when people of other ethnicities would, and dual citizenship with many Arab nations is not permitted. The same law that prevents Israeli citizens from having dual citizenship with some “enemy” Arab countries also establishes a process to revoke the citizenship of people who leave Israel illegally to go to “enemy” Arab nations, a process that has only been used to target Arabs. The simple fact is that “Israel privileges its Jewish citizens over non-Jews, and has officially created two different designations for the two groups: le’um (nationals), which only Jews qualify for, and ezrahut (citizens), a larger category, which includes Jews and non Jews”. Nationals have more rights and privileges, another way Israel has codified its aparteid.
Palestinians are viewed as part of the larger Arab milieu rather than as part of Israeli society, contributing to the legal double standards that Palestinians consistently face in Israel and its occupied territories. “The Palestinian Arabs in Israel are officially part of [the] society, yet structurally they are isolated into enclaves and weakened by domination, exclusion, and disempowerment, the end of which does not appear to be in sight.” For Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, the discussion turns from citizenship to residency.
Many Palestinians were forced out of their homes or chose to flee the threat of violence begginning in the lead up to the 1948 war and continuing in subsequent decades, resulting in many Palestinian refugees and IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons). Israel controls who can legally reside in Gaza and the West Bank, basing its decisions on a population registry of Palestinians established in 1967. Today, many Palestinians displaced before 1967, as well as their descendants, do not have the legal right to live in occupied Palestine or the right to return to Israel. Displaced Palestinians must apply to be put on the population registry, a process that takes months or years and the results of which seem to be arbitrary. Freedom of movement is also restricted, as residents of the West Bank cannot necessarily travel to Gaza and vice versa. Officially residency status is required to get identification cards and passports that let residents of the West Bank travel internationally as well as pass through the numerous checkpoints the IDF controls within the West Bank itself. These checkpoints arbitrarily detain Palestinians for hours at a time and cut off areas of Palestine from one another.
Since the Second Intifada, Israel has severely limited freedom of movement for Gaza residents, classifying it as illegal for those residents to be in the West Bank along with non-registered Palestinians despite the cultural, political, and economic ties that exist between the regions. Israel insists that these measures are necessary to maintain its national security, but the Human Rights Watch found that these restrictions are disproportionate to the security threat posed, are unjustifiable under international law, and “have dire consequences for Palestinians’ ability to enjoy such basic rights as the right to family life and access to health care and education facilities.” One study of Israeli-Palestinian violence suggests that both sides respond to violence with violence; however, 100 times as many Palestinians were killed during the 2008-2009 Gaza War. Asymmetry exists in other places as well: Israel controls Palestine’s access to food, water, and medical care while Palestine has no such control over Israel. Furthermore, the IDF is one of the most advanced militaries in the world, but Palestine has no formal military, only a myriad of small militias.
While Palestine may or may not be a state, Israel practically controls the freedom of movement of all Palestinians in occupied territories. The struggles that Palestinians face living in Israel, in occupied territories, and around the world are different but related. While some Palestinians left in Israel proper after the Nakba were granted citizenship, millions of Palestinians today are classified as refugees displaced by the conflict in 1948. Refugee camps exist in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and there are many Palestinians who were displaced from Israel proper now living in occupied territories who qualify as refugees. The total number of refugees exceeds 5 million, with over 1.5 million Palestinians living in refugee camps. Within the camps, conditions can be dire. There is widespread poverty, a lack of basic infrastructure such as roads and sewers, and high population density. They are the most visible monuments to Palestinian suffering. Israel denies the right of Palestinian refugees the right to return, whether it be to occupied territories or Israel proper, a staggering offense. Israel argues that such a large influx of refugees into the small country would upset the demographic balance, a clearly anti-Arab stance with purely political motivations. The Palestinian Right to Return was settled by the UN in 1948, yet Israel continues to flout international law by not allowing Palestinians to return to their homeland.
Where Does the US Come Into Play?
The United States is a major supporter of Israel and since 1967 has supplied arms to the nation. The United States provides money and arms, and in return Israel complies with US preferences and is the biggest supporter of the United States’ UN proposals. The United States has supported Israel in its fight against surrounding Arab nations, but this support has ultimately been at the expense of Palestinians. Palestine also faces threats from surrounding Arab nations seeking territory as well as from Israel itself. The US has refused to recognize “internationally recognized Palestinian claims,” and the recent Trump administration pushed for complete Israeli control of Jerusalem. Theoretically, the United States favors a two-state solution, but the United States has made no substantial effort to hold Israel accountable for its continued occupation of Palestinian territory or its discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel. Israel has continued to build and defend settlements in Palestinian territory while Palestinian resistance is not supported by the US. In recent years younger and more progressive Americans have pointed out that Israel and the United States refuse to acknowledge basic human rights for Palestinians while at the same time the United States partners with brutal autocratic Arab regimes. Here in Louisville, Kentucky, there have been dozens of protests against a harsh Israeli crackdown in Gaza and the building of new settlements in Jerusalem and the West Bank.
What Must Be Done?
Palestine must be freed.
In a recent Pew Research study, half of Jewish Israelis were in favor of expelling all Palestinians from the country and establishing a homogenous Jewish state. For Palestinians living in Israel and in occupied territories, the future looks grim. Israel should allow for freedom of movement between Gaza and the West Bank as well abolish the arbitrary checkpoints within the territories themselves. Gaza and West Bank residents should not be forced to move from one region to another, and Palestinians should have a right to family unification. Palestinians should not be subject to collective punishment for the actions of terrorist groups, and Palestinians should not be kicked out of their homes and villages. Internally displaced refugees as well as those who are part of the Palestinian diaspora should have the Right to Return as stipulated by the United Nations in Resolution 194, and should have the right to a national Palestinian identity. Palestinian civilians of Israel also should not be subject to discrimintation based on their national identity.
The United States must stop protecting Israeli war crimes immediately, and Israel should stop committing war crimes. Israel has consistently argued that it needs to take these measures in order to protect its safety, but it is painfully obvious that what it wants to protect is a Jewish political majority. Human Rights Watch has found that current restrictions are disproportionate to the threat Palestinians pose, as Israel is a nuclear power and Palestine lacks financial and international support.
For the short term, a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel has been agreed to, and talks to make it permanent are currently taking place. However, a cease-fire is only a short term solution, further reforms and actions need to be taken to create a lasting peace that provides justice for Palestinians. Israel should stop building new settlements on Palestinian land and bombing civilians in Gaza. Hamas took control of Gaza through force and the blockade there has exacerbated socioeconomic and political tensions that allow Hamas to retain power. Innocent civilians in Gaza should not be subject to trauma, injury, and death because ultra-right-wing Zionists want a new house in the West Bank, and settlements ultimately inflame tensions that are already high. The rise in settler violence, as well as the continued blockade of Gaza, is heading towards another intifada that could destabilize the Palestinian Authority and peace agreements with Israel for decades.
Palestine has suffered under the colonialist yoke for far too long, passed between the Ottoman Empire, Britain, and Israel. The Palestinian people deserve basic human rights as well as the Right to Return. Israel and the United States are both instrumental in denying Palestinians these rights, a stain on their names. Right-wing politicians will try to distract from the truth by declaring that Israel is the most democratic state in the region and must be protected, but Israel’s democracy relies on the continued disenfranchisement of Palestinian voices through population control tactics that are despicable and are literally war crimes. The IDF and the Israeli government have sophisticated media strategies that play into the colonial narrative that Israel needs to “civilize” the Palestinian people, portraying Palestinians as homophobic and suicide-bomb loving. Israel uses these orientalist tropes to distract from the constant violence it carries out against Palestinians. Palestinians need support in order to climb the steep hill ahead, and that starts with activism. People in the United States anxious to see these injustices repared should rally around the cry for freedom and participate in elections, protests, and other forms of political activism. Even if one supports Israel’s right to exist, one must unambiguously condemn the inhumane treatment Palestinians face. There is no room for indifference towards a regime violently upholding a Jewish hegemony at the expense of Palestinians.