Imagine, God forbid, that you and a friend are being rushed into a hospital emergency room by a life-support ambulance team. One of you is still living; the other died at the scene.
The horrific event that brought you both to this point was perpetrated in broad daylight, creating a public and angry outcry. The public has gathered in the parking lot of the hospital, its anger growing by the second. Inside, the health professionals do their job in a cold, systematic manner, as trained. The first decision is to take the still-living victim to triage and prepare them for a life-saving operation. The cadaver is immediately sent to the morgue with an order for a fast-track autopsy, in order for the growing crowd outside to be addressed with facts to suppress the gossip spreading like wildfire as the media arrives to witness the mayhem.
The two lead medical professionals inside the emergency room have vastly different duties. The physician overseeing the operation cares less about the circumstances that created the mutilated body in front of her. She is laser-focused on all the vital signs of the patient as she makes her first, of what will be many, incisions. The physician’s entire world is confined to the ecosystem of a single operating room, a single bed, with a single patient. Time is of the essence. Her team is an extension of her every move. The entire operating team has one goal: save the life of the patient. In parallel, and with the same urgency, another emergency room team member is questioning the patient’s family. The medical history of the patient is vital to the surgeon. Was the patient dealing with any disease, did he take any medications, etc. At this precise moment, the entire hospital team cares less about how this patient’s life may develop after recovery—will the patient be happy or sad, be successful or not, land their dream job or be unemployed, will marry or divorce, etc. Any consideration other than life, at this point, is totally moot.
On the other hand, the pathologist undergoing the autopsy is in no rush. His focus is to make sure a full set of data is compiled from the corpse. Every nook and cranny of the corpse is meticulously registered, starting from the appearance and reaching to each individual inner organ. The science of this profession is as amazing as that applied by the surgeon engaged in the life-saving operation. The pathologist can reach concrete evidence. The knife entered here, in the back, it severed this specific artery, it then twisted upward at a 30-degree angle, puncturing this organ before slicing the heart down the middle, causing severe hemorrhaging, which brought about a massive stroke and death. The cause of death was not the stroke, per se, it was the stabbing, which triggered a series of events that ultimately led to a stroke that was the straw that broke the camel’s back, or in this case, the first organ to fail.
This was the imagery that first came to mind while reading Decolonizing Israel, Liberating Palestine. The bifurcation of this book’s title reflects its structure, two-thirds of this book is about how Historic Palestine has been colonized, the work of a skilled pathologist. The last third about how Palestine and Israel can be liberated from the horrendous outcome of this colonization process, the work of a skilled surgeon operating, however, in the parking lot of the hospital, not in the required operating room.
The author, Jeff Halper, is a long-time friend, a thought partner, a fellow activist, and someone for who I have the utmost respect. Jeff is a global social justice activist at heart and in action. After many conversations and joint activities with him over decades, I can attest to the fact that he really does want to change the world for the better, not just Palestine and Israel. As every serious activist, he thinks globally and acts locally. He wants to solve global problems through the lens of Palestine: militarization (he wrote War Against the People: Israel, the Palestinians and Global Pacification), nation-states (he questions this “central organizing principle” in this book), marginalization of civil society (he is a co-founder of The People Yes! Network (TPYN)), and more. Noble desires for sure, but one that may place too much burden on the patient on the operating table, a battered people facing a slow ethnic cleansing.
The first two-thirds of this book makes it to my top recommended readings on Palestine/Israel. The last third gets filed into my growing filing cabinet of grand ideas to get all stakeholders past their pasts and engaged in building a joint future worth living between the River and the Sea.
Sadly, and painfully, Historic Palestine is the corpse under review in the first two parts of this book. With the skillful mind of the anthropologist that he is, Jeff does an amazing job in a very condensed space and using easy to read language in dissecting the corpse. He is spot on in identifying the ultimate culprit, Zionism, but does not lose sight of the ecosystem that this political movement emerged from. I argued this a decade ago in reviewing another book, Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism. It is as if Zionism was a gang member and the gang it joined were all much older and much more experienced in the efforts of colonization.
Slicing and dicing history
In describing “Zionism As Settler Colonial Project,” which is the name of Part I of the book, Jeff names the book’s sections and chapters in a very logical and descriptive manner. Part I is divided into two sections: “Analysis Matters: Beginning with Settler Colonialism,” and “Zionism: A Settler Colonial Project”.
Part II is named “Three Cycles of Zionist Colonial Development” and surveys the macro time frame of the issue at hand, “The Pre-State Cycle (1880s–1948),” “The Israeli State Cycle (1948–67),” and “The Occupation Cycle (1967–Present): Completing the Settler Colonial Project”.
Each of these historic periods is analyzed using a new framing developed by Jeff. It should be noted that he is extremely skilled at labeling particular phenomena, as he did decades ago when he introduced the now widely used concept of the “Matrix of Control” which he touches on in this book as well. I attempted to give interested readers a taste of that matrix when I wrote Israel’s Mockery of Security: 101 Actions Israel Could Take.
In this book, the lens he analyses through is linked to his “Cycles”. “The Pre-State Cycle” employs “Foundational Violence,” “Population Management,” “Land and Management,” “Economic Management and Consolidation,” “The Management of Legitimacy,” and “The Arab Revolt and the Transition to State-Level Security Organization”.
“The Israeli State Cycle” employs “The Management of Security,” “Population and Land Management,” and “The Management of Legitimacy”.
The last cycle is “The Occupation Cycle” and employs “Foundational Violence/Management of Security,” “Population and Land Management,” “Economic Management,” “Hasbara: The Management of Legitimacy,” and “Inching Towards Decolonization”.
Throughout all these cycles, Jeff is keen on documenting and rightfully placing a premium on the multitude of forms of resistance that have saved Palestinians from extinction, although I am unsure if I would “appreciate” them all.
As for substance, it must be noted that this book is well referenced. Adding to the many well-known quotes from Zionist, Israeli, and a slew of global thought leaders, Jeff adds some choice, yet less often used but extremely revealing, quotes made throughout the years. One such quote was from Yosef Weitz, the Director of the Jewish National Fund’s Land Settlement Department, who wrote before Israel was even established:
“It must be clear that there is no room in the country for both peoples… The only solution is a Land of Israel without Arabs…. There is no way but to transfer the Arabs from here to the neighbouring countries, to transfer all of them, perhaps with the exception of Bethlehem, Nazareth and the old Jerusalem. Not one village must be left, not one tribe.” [Diary, December 20, 1940]
To witness the trajectory of Israeli actions over time, one can only be left stupefied at the boldness this Zionist effort demonstrated as it set out to replace the indigenous population. I challenged this Israeli clarity of purpose when I wrote The Galilee First, if the world is serious about Israel and Palestine!
A good deal of the book is engaged in all the various framings, those serving the project of a colonial Israel, as well as those which need to be reframed to bring resolution of this conflict. The use of the word “conflict” itself is addressed in the book.
For starters, Jeff frames himself as “an anti-Zionist Israeli Jew, a settler/immigrant from the US, a White cis-male, whose political commitments were forged in the 1960s. […] a ‘colonist who refuses.’” It is such an Israeli “settler” I would have no problem living beside. Actually, I’d be desirous of having Jeff as a neighbor, not living with me between the River and the Sea, but living next door to me, in my neighborhood in Al-Bireh/Ramallah, each of us enjoying full equality as citizens of our respective states.
The project of Israel is accurately described as an act of colonization, settler colonization to be exact. Despite its accuracy, moving forward, this may be a helpful starting point, or not, depending on one’s vantage point. Jeff is aware of this and states that “We cannot forfeit the truth – in this case the fact of Zionist settler colonialism – simply to render “peace-making” easier. For in so doing we lose the power of our analysis to address the underlying causes of the ‘conflict.’”
The book argues that the only sustainable way forward is to engage in the “decolonization” of Greater Israel. As such, a thorough definition of settler colonization and its tools are explained for a “map” to be drawn on what needs to be dismantled to resolve this conflict, namely the “Regime of Population Control,” the “Regime of Land Control,” the “Regime of Economic Control,” the “Management of Legitimacy,” and the current “Security” apparatus.
It is this sense of analyzing both patients noted at the outset as if they were one and the same, the corpse and the life-threatened patient, that I take issue with. Assuming the clock of time and history can somehow be rewound to reinstate Historic Palestine, or some version thereof, speaks more to emotions and an unattainable absolute justice, than to realpolitik and a possible restorative justice.
The book also deals with some very deep theoretical issues such as the concepts of victimization and indigeneity. While writing this book review, a video clip came across my desk. It was a Yom Kippur 5781/2020 message from Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, the first Asian-American to be ordained as a rabbi and now serving at the Central Synagogue in New York City, and was titled, “We Are Family: Rethinking Race in the Jewish Community”. Jeff’s insights, as well as Rabbi Angela’s, make one reflect deeper on some of the underlying issues that are assumed to be non-issues but may be the issues that need addressing to open new doors moving forward.
The book addresses many taboo issues head-on, including how Palestinians and illegal Israeli settlers must find a framing that they can both live with to be able to realize a joint future. For Palestinians, this seems far-fetched until after our emancipation.
Likewise, the failures of the Palestinian leadership and its inability to strategize to win is addressed. This is a live issue as I have argued in many venues, such as in my first Open Letter to Chairman of the PLO and President of the State of Palestine, Mahmoud Abbas (in Arabic in Al-Quds Newspaper and Al-Hadath and WATTAN), and in another Open Letter (my second) to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Leadership (in Arabic at Wattan News and Al-Hadath News), and in a piece titled, Make the PLO Great (Central and Relevant) Again (in Arabic at WATTAN and Al-Hadath).
Leadership aside, scattered throughout the book is a keen focus on the all-important (and most times missed) issue of agency, both that of the colonizer and that of the Indigenous Palestinians, required to bring about the suggested resolution of the conflict. A section on Palestinian agency is included, titled, “The Progression of Agency from Resistance to Summoning Power”. It is not an easy task to imagine the concepts floated here crystallizing in the current Palestinian polity.
One person, one vote, period
The book covers a lot of ground. At heart, it is an appeal for the latest political effort that Jeff co-founded, the One Democratic State Campaign (ODSC). As is self-explanatory by the campaign’s name, Jeff has given up on any form of partition of Historic Palestine. The last third of the book lays out a plan on how to achieve such a singular state, noting the many gaps and acknowledging that “The one-state movement is still tiny.”
Although I totally understand where the ODSC is coming from, where the Palestinian movement (not to mention myself) started, as noted in the book, I feel the one-state vs. two-state debate today is little more than a red herring that serves Israel illegally entrenching itself even further. I’ve had this conversation with Jeff at length, many times, so I will suffice to note my reflections by referencing past writings, such as my 2016 policy paper titled, Asynchronous and Inseparable Struggles for Rights and a Political End-Game (Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, in Arabic here). I also addressed this notion that the two-state solution is dead in another book review, also back in 2016, titled ‘The Two-State Delusion,’ a well-researched but mistitled saga of a failed peace process.
Nobody in their right mind, including former U.S. presidents and secretary of states, believe Israel is serious about accepting the existence of the state of Palestine on the ground, based on the Green Line. Equally accepted is the political fact that Israel would never accept its own demise as a state through absorption into a unitary state. So, the question arises, what can be done while still respecting the Palestinian national movement’s (no matter how weak) self-proclaimed definition of self-determination by way of statehood. Well, that too was addressed in a 2014 piece I co-authored with my British Jewish colleague, Dr. Tony Klug, titled, If Kerry fails, what then? (Le Monde diplomatique, in Hebrew at Local Call). In essence, we proposed that the international community should call upon Israel either to recognize a Palestinian state by an imminent fixed date (we suggested the 50th anniversary of the inception of the Israeli occupation!) or extend equal rights to everyone living under Israel’s jurisdiction until there is a solution.
I was intrigued to read the title of the book’s last chapter, “A Last Word: Being Political”. This was the exact same message in my conclusion of the above-mentioned 2016 policy paper where I wrote:
“We must get political. Civil society must build the necessary alliances to bring Palestinian rights to the forefront of the international agenda on Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution. Today, we have no choice but to accept the apartheid one-state reality that we are living in now, and keep the two-state door open, while simultaneously bringing the issue of rights to the forefront of our demands. Our strongest ally is international civil society, but we cannot stop at civil society; it would be stopping short of affecting change. Instead, we must leverage the widespread support of civil society in all corners of the world to get states to act, politically and otherwise, to support our just and internationally aligned struggle for freedom and independence.”
This is our challenge. How to not change the game in the last inning, but how to strategize to free the internationally recognized State of Palestine from Israeli military occupation. At that point, Jeff, the ODSC, and all the others, including myself, should bring forth their suggestions on how we can build a joint future together. Then and there, they would have moved from the parking lot of the hospital to a proper operating room to save a new patient, that of Siamese twins.