“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains at in impasse.” However weary this phrase has become over the years, it often seems to be the only incontestable claim we can assert in a context where all claims are intensely and passionately contested. Progress toward peace in the region, we are told routinely, has been yet again stymied by the actions (or inactions) of one or the other of the opposing sides, by a rocket launch from Gaza, a bombing raid from Israel, a roadside shooting in the West Bank, a house demolition in Jerusalem. For each step forward, a step back: stalemate. While we may react with outrage or empathy to such events, their overall effect is to deepen our sense of a region in stasis, trapped in a vicious circle of violence and counter violence.
Yet there is something profoundly distorted about the vision of Israel-Palestine seen through this lens. For while each action or reaction may be viewed as yet another obstacle in the way of an eventual accord between the opposing sides, they have nonetheless contributed to unmistakable and unwavering progress in at least one sense: the continuous and unabated transfer of land from one community to the other. Granted, there remains intense disagreement about how to characterize this process: its legality, the ethical claims marshaled in its defense or rejection, the morality of the methods and tactics employed along the way. But the process itself—the flow of land away from the control of one group and into the hands of the other—is uncontestable, a simple fact on the ground. This process has continued over the course of many decades, undeterred by stalemates or shifting political currents, under the Labor party as under Likud, under Arafat as under Mahmoud Abbas, before Hamas and after. While each new event on its own may appear contentious and indeterminate, add them up over the years—the legal and the illegal, the gentle and the brutal, the justified and the unjustified—and the result is a one-dimensional history of territorial expansion.
So last week, as has occurred on countless prior occasions, the municipal authorities in Jerusalem announced that they planned to raze 22 Palestinian homes, constructed illegally according to official statements, in order to build an archaeological theme park for tourists. How do we interpret such an announcement? Well, the defense minister, Ehud Barak, did criticize the timing of its release, and a spokesperson from the State Department did express concern that “this is expressly the kind of step that we think undermines trust.” Moreover, the Palestinians, at least a few of them, were not exactly working for peace: sporadic rocket-fire was still coming from Gaza into Israel, and just a couple of weeks earlier the Israeli Defense Forces had intercepted and killed “four Palestinian militants who were suspected by Israel of planning an attack by sea.” Seen in this context of these claims and counter-claims, violence and counter-violence, the announcement to raze the Palestinian homes falls off the radar, becoming one more gesture in the paralyzed world of Israeli-Palestinian political theater. However, relocate the announcement against the backdrop of the smooth and ceaseless process of land expropriation that has taken place over decades, and all ambiguity and paralysis dissolves.
When political analysts of the region have insisted on the importance of stepping back from the tit for tat of daily events in order to bring into the discussion this broader, more historical view, defenders of Israeli expansionist policies have usually responded in two ways. First, they have argued that the Palestinians themselves, by their refusal to accept the existence of Israel and give up violence, are to blame for whatever dispossession of lands they have suffered. By sabotaging each opportunity for peace put on the table by Israel, they argue, Palestinians bear the responsibility for their ever shrinking homeland. The claim that the victims of territorial expropriation deserve their plight due to their own treachery and aggression has a long historical pedigree. The dispossession of Native American lands by white colonists, for example, was justified on many occasions as an unavoidable consequence of the Natives’ refusal to remain within the generous territorial divisions allotted them, and by their continual recourse to violence and acts of terror against peaceful colonists. Today, from the vantage point of history, such claims appear only as window-dressing for brazen territorial conquest, and it is hard to think of any example where, with the hindsight of historical distance, we would not be led to a similar conclusion.
When pushed on this issue, defenders of Israeli settlement polices have often played what they see as their trump card: namely, that following the Holocaust, Jewish claims to a homeland have acquired the status of a moral absolute against which all other claims—those of the displaced Palestinians—are to be relegated to a backseat. While Palestinian loss and suffering, in accord with this vision, may be recognized, its cause is to be found not in the policies of the Israeli state but in the tragic structure of history, one which at times requires the sacrifice of one people to compensate for historical wrongs suffered by another. Needless to say, this argument takes us far from the nitty-gritty of political contestation and onto the smooth plane of historical determinisms, much as the notion of manifest destiny did in 19th century America and with similarly brutal consequences for those whose moral claims were made unrecognizable.
If we are to open up a space for a reasonable conversation on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, then we cannot afford to ignore the single-most consequential event in the region since the foundation of Israel in 1948: the ceaseless and undisturbed expansion of Israeli territories, the relentless disappearance of Palestinian lands, houses, and fields. The problem is not impasse, but this endless, uni-directional passage of territory from community to the other.
CHARLES HIRSCHKIND is an associate professor of Anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley.