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Born again apartheid

By Eqbal Ahmad , Dawn, 1998

"OSLO-111", just concluded at the White House, ought to be seen in a historical perspective. In the Middle East, ironies abound. But none is more replete with them than the recent history of Palestine.

The era of decolonization began in August 1947 with the independence of India and Pakistan. Less than a year later Palestine was colonized by a movement which aimed to establish an early form - settler colonialism, which caused the destruction of great civilizations and peoples in the western hemisphere: the Mayas, Incas, Aztecs and the Indian peoples of the western hemisphere. Later in Algeria and southern Africa this form of colonialism resulted in the dispossession and destitution of the natives.

Genocide or dispossession has been integral to this colonial form. So it followed that the Zionist leaders will seek to rid themselves of the native Arabs in Palestine. The point was lost on Arab, including Palestinian, leaders, and they made no real effort to prevent the expulsion in 1948 of an overwhelming majority of Palestinians from their homes. Zionism's primary goal - to establish an exclusionary Jewish state - was achieved.

Dispossession and exclusion of the native people and their separation from the settler population are among the common features of settler colonialism. The drive to dispossess - take away from the natives their land, water and other resources - often results in genocide as it did in the western hemisphere. In other places such as Algeria, Zimbabwe and South Africa it entailed extreme proletarianization of the native peoples whereby they are reduced to a life of poverty in the service of the settler state and people.

Which of the two fates befall the native population has in the past depended largely on settler demographics. If the settler state is able to attract enough immigration of the 'desirable' sort and does not need the natives' manpower, it tends largely to eliminate the natives as was the case, for example, in the US and Canada. If immigration slows down and the native manpower is needed to fuel a growing economy, then the colonized peoples survive in an impoverished, exploitative environment.

Separation of the settler from the native people has been a goal shared by all settler states. In the United States, surviving Indian tribes were finally "removed" to "reservations". In Algeria, the separation was effective but not formalized; the French was projected as an ideologically non-racist state. A combination of demographic advantage and highly organized resistance ended French rule and colonial domination of Algeria.

In South Africa, as the white population stagnated while the number of blacks continued increasing, the obsession with separation became so compelling that apartheid was imposed as the central feature of state policy. Three factors contributed greatly to the defeat of the white South African regime: it could not attract enough white immigrants to offset black demographics. As an overtly racist formulation, apartheid was deeply abhorrent to world opinion. The African National Congress and its supporters exploited these two weaknesses of the apartheid regime with intelligence, perseverance, and discipline of detail.

The Zionist may be the best organized settler movement in history, and throughout this century it has demonstrated, in Edward Said's apt phrase, an unusual degree of "the discipline of detail." At its inception, Theodor Herzl had anticipated "spiriting away" the native Arabs "slowly and circumspectly". In 1948, Zionist leaders did better. They displayed ruthless resolve in systematically driving out a majority of Palestinians from the areas that they declared Israel. Thanks mainly to a new crop of Israel's 'revisionist' historians, this fact has finally been documented with scholarly rigour. Thus Israel became the first settler state to have largely resolved its 'native problem' from the very beginning of its existence.

Still, its population was not large enough in 1949 to build a strong, economically viable state, and the Arab remnants were significantly large to pose a future challenge. The Zionist movement launched then a well organized campaign to obtain the migration of Arab Jews into Israel. The history of how this happened has yet to be written; but in the next 15 years an overwhelming majority of Jews, who had lived in the Arab world for more than a 1,000 years, left for Israel. I believe that history shall harshly judge Arab governments of the time for making it easy for Israel and the Zionist movement. They were unthinking and future generation of Arabs shall pay the price of their prejudice, greed, and incompetence. Israel's problem seemed to have been resolved.

But history had willed differently. In 1967, the self-styled "Jewish state" won another war and colonized a million more Arabs. It wanted to keep the land but not the people. Expulsion did not quite work this time; only 250,000 left the occupied territories in the aftermath of the war and a million remained. The PLO rose to prominence but mimicking wars of liberation, past and present - Algeria was behind it and Vietnam before - without paying attention to Palestinian and Israeli realities.

Its great achievements were twofold: it boosted for a while the badly damaged Palestinian and Arab morale, and it imposed the question of Palestine upon the consciousness of the world. Beyond that it failed. Now its failures are proving very costly indeed to the Palestinian, therefore Arab, future. It seemed to have no clue to its adversary's schemes, its strengths or vulnerabilities, and it showed no inclination to develop - so Edward Said kept telling them - "the discipline of detail." I am tempted to cite a personal experience.

When I first encountered Arafat, Israel and the Zionist organizations had already launched a well organized campaign to get the Soviet Jewry into Israel. This superbly orchestrated, multi-layered campaign began in earnest a mere two years after the 1967 war. I was appalled to note that Palestinian and official Arab circles were almost totally indifferent to this development. They paid no attention to it even though it had far-reaching implications for their future.

When I first met Yasser Arafat in 1979, I brought the matter up. He looked bewildered as though wondering what the hell did it have to do with Palestine. When I explained, he jotted something in a little notebook, told an aide to look into the matter, and said to me," Soviet leaders will not allow that to happen." There it was, an expression of faith in leaders, a disregard of politics, of organized militancy and the processes it can unfold. In fact, the Zionist campaign was already succeeding. In the United States, the Jackson Amendment had linked US-Soviet detente to the migration of Soviet Jews exclusively to Israel. The PLO and Arab governments did nothing to counter Israel's extraordinary campaign to offset the demographic burden of its 1967 conquest.

More than a million Soviet Jews poured into Israel, reinforcing its exclusionary agenda, and transforming its economic future. But the Arab problem remains. There are still enough Arabs in the conquered areas to pose a future threat to Israel's character as a Jewish state. Five decades more, and the Palestinians will become too big a lump to live with. At this point in time "transfer", which is a favoured euphemism in Israel for the expulsion of remaining Palestinians, is not a realistic option.

Israeli leaders are known to have considered it and concluded that without a major war this cannot be done on a meaningful scale. So there is, inevitably, the search for a mechanism of separating - spatially and juridically - a significant section of Arabs from Israel. But without relinquishing conquered land, at least not much of it. All settler roads lead to some form of apartheid. With a Palestinian leadership sunk in a quagmire of corruption and collaboration, the Arab states divided and dependent, and a most beneficent superpower as Israel's patron, the Oslo process offers an opportunity Israel cannot miss. Even the most hard-line expansionists like Benjamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon cannot afford to spurn it. So they must shape it the best way they can. Complaining, protesting, and playing hard to get is part of the game. A lot of it was on display along the river Wye in rural Maryland.

Yasser Arafat chose the site. He rejected Camp David because he did not wish to be linked to what he had once described as Anwar Sadaat's surrender. This was his only independent contribution to this 'peace agreement'. Otherwise he handed over the Palestinian future to President Clinton and his aides. The latter found their 'strategic ally' playing the game in an unusually crude fashion, and did not quite like it. But then what can one do with a tail that knows how to wag the dog? The timing - a few days after the Congress voted to impeach the President and less than two weeks before the congressional elections - was Clinton's, most unfavourable to the Arab side and most advantageous to Israel.

Israeli officials could not have walked into the conference room at Wye holding stronger cards. Bibi Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon played theirs to the hilt - sulking, pounding, threatening walk-out, feigning departure, and demanding even an American surrender of convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard. (Clinton has promised to review the matter, a precedence unique in US history.) Before coming late to Wye in Maryland, the venue of the Palestinian-Israeli summit, Sharon had already visited King Hussein in Texas hospital. He returned the favour with his helpful, and quite moving presence.

The document signed at the White House is not public at the time of writing this: only the outlines are known. The Palestinian Authority (PA) which had municipal control over three per cent of the West bank will now exercise it on another 13 per cent. Some 14.2 per cent will be under "joint control". The remaining 72.8 per cent will remain under Israeli occupation. In all of the 27.2 per cent of PA administered West Bank, Israel will continue to hold the occupier's sovereign powers. Israel will release a hundred Palestinian prisoners it holds, mostly without trial.

In return, the PA will deliver to Israel 30 Palestinians identified by Israel as "terrorists". PA will have its Executive Committee and the Palestine National Council publicly renounce a clause in its Charter which it had already renounced, and invite President Clinton to the re-renunciation ceremony. (The clause enunciates the goal of destroying Israel as an exclusionary state.) The PA will take systematic steps to nab terrorists, including those identified by Israeli authorities. Then there is this innovation: the American CIA is charged with the responsibility of supervising and monitoring the Palestinian Authority's anti-terrorist performance.

When Oslo-1 was signed, I had described it as a "peace of the weak." This one goes further. Readers may wish to withhold judgment. To me it looks like the rebirth of apartheid, midwifed by a superpower and legitimated by an international agreement.

(c) DAWN Group of Newspapers, 1998


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