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The World Looks on Ineffectually

Vanishing the Palestinians

by GHADA KARMI

When the Zionists decided in 1897 to establish a Jewish state in Palestine, the Jews of Vienna despatched a delegation to examine the country for its suitability. The delegation reported back as follows: "the bride is beautiful but she is married to another man". They had found that Palestine to their dismay was already inhabited by another people. And this has been Zionism’s central problem ever since. How to "vanish the Palestinians" and get an empty land? The latest manifestation of this imperative is the barrier wall, which Israel is currently building to separate and enclose Palestinian towns and villages in the lands it occupied after 1967. There are those who rightly point to the wall’s illegality and infringement of human rights. And the International Court of Justice has just affirmed this view resoundingly in its ruling, passed on 9.7.04 by 14 of the 15 judges, that the wall was an illegal structure when in the occupied Palestinian territories and that Israel would have to tear it down and make restitution for the damage it has caused to thousands of Palestinians. This position is entirely valid, but critics, in my view, have missed one crucial aspect of the wall’s purpose, which is, to "vanish" the Palestinians, to make them so invisible that Israelis can go on pretending that there is no "other man".

Observers of Palestinian history have long been familiar with Israel’s position on this issue. But few realise how successful, subtle and far reaching this Israeli policy has been. Arriving in Haifa recently I could see how hard Israel had tried to make that wish to send the Palestinians into oblivion come true. Haifa prides itself on being the best example of a ‘mixed’ Arab-Jewish city in Israel, practising a much-vaunted mutual tolerance and cooperation. In fact, it is overwhelmingly Jewish, the Arabs forming less than ten per cent of the population. Haifa is a picturesque city; its famous Carmel Mountain, where the city’s Arab notables used to live before 1948, overlooks a beautiful harbour.

Today, Jews inhabit those houses and the Arab minority that remained after the 1948 expulsions lives in a rundown district by the port below, segregated in all but name. The old Haifa street names have been replaced by Jewish ones. To me, an "original" Palestinian exiled in England since 1948, the place was ineffably depressing. Beneath the phoney friendliness in public there was no disguising the unequal relationship between the two sides: the menial jobs in which Arabs are concentrated, the discrimination in housing, jobs and education, implicit rather then legislative, and the aversion to meaningful social contact. One woman described her struggle to buy into the exclusive Carmel district. People had said Arabs in the neighbourhood would depress property prices, rather as blacks are said to do in some Western countries.

Israeli Jews look down on Arabs. Even recently arrived Ethiopian "Jews", themselves fighting discrimination, affect to despise Arabs. Walking along Haifa’s streets, a disturbing hybrid of modern European and old Arab, I had a sense of a city gutted and soulless, its true past barely discernible beneath the new constructions. People showed me where my uncle’s house had once stood; it is now a municipal car park, demolished by the authorities in 1983. The vanishing process I could see was well advanced here. It had started with the Zionist slogan of Palestine as ‘a land without a people’, to which end the Israelis expended much effort. In 1948, a majority of Palestine’s population was expelled (my family amongst them) and was never allowed to return. A campaign to eradicate the Palestinian presence swiftly followed. Over 500 Palestinian villages were demolished and replaced with Israeli settlements; Hebrew place names were substituted for the previous Arabs ones; the country’s history was re-written to claim that Palestine had been a wasteland, home to a few wandering Bedouin tribes. Israeli schoolchildren were reared for decades on this mythology. Palestinian customs were appropriated as "Israeli", and the minority of Palestinians that remained became invisible.

This was the narrative I grew up with in Britain. It was so effective that no one here doubted its truth for decades and Israelis themselves were astonished to "discover" the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza after 1967. However, in occupying them, Israel was back to the old problem of how to keep the new land without the people. Since physical expulsion was no longer an option, the alternative has been to make the Palestinians disappear as a nation by destroying their society. The history of the last 37 years of Israeli occupation can perhaps be best understood in this context. The Israeli colonisation of land and resources has strangled the Palestinian economy and made statehood unviable. At the same time, the destruction of Palestinian history proceeds unabated. One of the least noted aspects of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon was the removal to Israel of truckloads of crucial Palestinian archives and documents from the PLO Research Centre in Beirut. The Israelis did the same in 2002 when they invaded Ramallah. Vital statistics, computer hard drives, population statistics and land registers were taken out with the aim of destroying the Palestinian collective memory, history and national existence.

Israel had meanwhile denigrated the PLO, which threatened to give the Palestinian cause international stratus, as terrorists. In 1969, Golda Meir, Israel’s prime minister, made the now notorious statement that "there was no such thing as a Palestinian people". The world was supposed to understand that, even if there were Palestinians, they did not amount to a separate people with national rights. Our route from Haifa to Jerusalem took us past the barrier wall, which is the subject of the ICJ’s preoccupation and snakes its way down to Jerusalem; it is obscenely high in some places ­ up to eight metres ­ clearly on the principle that what you don’t see does not exist. When we reached East Jerusalem and saw the shrivelled Palestinian community there that tries to survive in this truncated part of the original homeland, I saw another kind of vanishment. So-called Arab Jerusalem now consists effectively of three main streets and is surrounded by Jewish settlements. Israel considers the city "Jewish forever" and the previous Arab population preponderance has been deliberately overturned from 72 to 28 per cent by vigorous Israeli colonisation.

I was born in Jerusalem and yet I hate to see it now, The Old City, with its magnificent Islamic architecture, once the glory of Jerusalem and beyond into the Arab and Islamic worlds, is now a place of aggressive competition for ownership. Extremist religious settlers harass the Arabs, aiming to evict them, and threaten openly to build the Jewish Temple in place of the Aqsa mosque. Sad shopkeepers tell a story of poor business, encroaching Jewish settlement, unfair competition from Israeli traders and tourist guides who warn visitors against buying from "cheating Arabs", and high taxes imposed by a state of which they are not citizens. It is an unnatural place, but not yet a ghost town like Haifa, though with Israeli strictures against Jerusalemites, I wondered for how long? Friends who worked in Jerusalem were now barred from entry there (or anywhere else). Visiting them in Ramallah one night, I left later than I should, forgetting that the checkpoints close at arbitrary times in the evening. I just made it to the no-man’s land beyond the second checkpoint and stood waiting for a taxi to take me on. None came, and in the eerie stillness with the shapes of heavily armed Israeli soldiers just discernible in the night gloom, I felt I was in a war-zone. But what war and with whom? With a poor people whose only crime is that they are not Jewish?

The wall, the stifling restrictions on movement, the impoverishment, and the daily killings are all designed to encourage flight. Unconfirmed reports say that 200,000 West Bank people have already left. The deliberate targeting of Palestinian leaders, (Sheikh Yassin, the head of Hamas and his replacement were both killed within weeks of each other earlier this year and Arafat is threatened with a similar fate), aims to create a chaotic people incapable of articulating their case. The constant reiteration that "there is no one to talk to" on the Palestinian side, when such interlocutors have been effectively eliminated, is another tactic towards the same end. These extreme antics bespeak an Israeli desperation to preserve the Jewish state "pure", perhaps understandable in those who perceive, however wrongly, that without it their very survival is at stake. But what continues to baffle and frustrate is America’s unwavering support for Israel and thereby its collusion with this campaign to render the Palestinians invisible ­ President Bush backed Ariel Sharon’s unilateral plan for the Palestinians in April of this year and would be expected to veto any Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s wall. The US of course is only following on British precedent when, in 1917, the Balfour Declaration decided the Palestinians’ fate over their heads and cancelled their identity by re-defining them as "non-Jewish communities".

The world, meanwhile, looks on ineffectually, as if there were a tacit consensus to see the Palestinians vanish. Of course the rhetoric is beguiling; it speaks of a Palestinian state that even Bush supports. The ICJ’s condemnation of Israel’s barrier wall has encouraged Palestinians to feel hopeful. But the facts speak otherwise. Compare the treatment of the Kosovans in 1999. Then every effort was made to safeguard their integrity as a people; NATO, the EU and the US strove to return them to their homes. Compare also the case of the Iraqi Kurds, protected since 1991 by US and British no-fly zones, and now given special status by the Coalition in Iraq. So why are the Palestinians denied the same treatment? Why are their national identity, aspirations and right of return to their homeland under such vicious, concerted attack? They have retaliated by largely standing their ground, refusing to repeat the tragic exodus of 1948 and 1967, though for how long they can withstand this multi-pronged attack on their society is anyone’s guess. As for Israel, racing against time to hold back the Arab "demographic" tide, it is also anyone’s guess how long it can put off its inevitable absorption into the Arab world by such antics.

GHADA KARMI is a Palestinian writer and academic living in London. Her latest book is a memoir, "In Search of Fatima" (Verso). She is Research Fellow at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies. Her forthcoming book, ‘Married to a man: Israel’s dilemma and the one-state solution’, will be published by Pluto Press next year.