By Gary Fields
Professor of communication at the University of California,
February 22, 2004
In a 1923 polemic, Ze'ev Jabotinsky, pioneer of revisionist
Zionism, insisted upon the use of force to break Arab resistance to Jewish
settlement of Palestine, an imperative he cast in metaphorical terms as "The
Iron Wall." Written as a
challenge to Labor Zionism, the Iron Wall with its combative vision would
gradually emerge fully ascendant within the Israeli political mainstream. Today, Jabotinskyís prescient metaphor
has assumed a haunting reincarnation as the World Court in The Hague stands
poised to pronounce upon the legality of this apparition.
Rising upon the Palestinian landscape in a cloak of concrete
and concertina wire, the wall erected by Jabotinsky's modern-day political
progeny in Israel admits to a conflict over territory and rights of citizenship,
communicating a stark asymmetry of power between the conflictís two protagonists.
More than a physical barrier imposed by the powerful upon
the region's stateless and dispossessed, the wall expresses a collective psychology
of conquest articulated most succinctly by one of its leading proponents,
Moshe Yaalon, the Israeli army chief of staff.
He insists that "the Palestinians must be made to understand in the deepest
recesses of their consciousness that they are a defeated people."
How did a wall converge with this sentiment, and what is
likely to transpire from such convergence?
Among early 20th century Jews aiming to resolve
the ìJewish question,î there existed a now overlooked tradition of emancipation
highly critical of the bellicose vision linking Jabotinsky to Yaíalon.
As early as 1919, Julius Kahn, a Jewish congressman from
California, wrote a letter to President Woodrow Wilson that was signed by
299 rabbis and Jewish laypeople who opposed creation of a Jewish state in
Palestine because displacing Palestinians would be "contrary to the principles
of democracy." Others, notably Martin Buber and Judah Magnes, crafted
a vision of Jewish emancipation based not on conquest, but on cooperation
between Jews and Palestinians.
Regrettably, the ideas of Kahn, Magnes and Buber did not
prevail when history collided with calamity in 1947-48. In the aftermath of
the Holocaust and the cynically hostile response of allied governments to
Jewish efforts at resettling in Europe and the U.S., it was perhaps understandable
for Jews to conclude that only a Jewish state would resolve what appeared
to be the world's intractable anti-Semitism.
The fact is, however, Palestinians living in the territory chosen for this
experiment had nothing whatever to do with the anti-Semitic scourge inflicted
upon European Jewry. Sadly, they were the ones forced to pay compensation
for this European crime. And pay they did.
Mythical representations of Israeli state-building in 1948
depict a heroic, even miraculous struggle against an implacable Arab adversary.
Palestinians, in this narrative, deserted their homes at the behest of corrupt
Arab leaders in the expectation of recouping their losses through victory
over a supposedly beleaguered Jewish defense force.
Israeli historians themselves, from Anita Shapira to Avi
Shlaim, have discredited this founding myth. In its place is a more sober
account of Israeli military superiority and a more honest acknowledgment of
the forcible expulsion of between 700,000 and 800,000 Palestinians.
Historian Benny Morris of Ben-Gurion University, indeed
no friend of the Palestinians', has offered the most detailed scholarly accounts
of this population transfer. "Without the uprooting of the Palestinians,"
concedes Morris in a January interview in Haaretz, "a Jewish state would
not have arisen. There was no choice but to expel that population."
What the framers of the emerging state hastened to do after
this remaking of territory was to institutionalize what Israeli geographer
Oren Yiftachel refers to as an "ethnocracy," in which rights of
citizenship are allocated not on the basis of democratic principles but instead
on demographic ones. The clearest example of this commitment to demography
is the Law of Return by which Israel facilitated Jewish immigration while
denying Palestinians with centuries on the same land their legal right to
return to their homes.
If 1948 represents the politics of dispossession, occupation
of further Palestinian territory reveals a politics of immobilization, the
cutting of the routes whereby people, goods, and ideas circulate in providing
the means of communication at the core of any economy and society.
While the occupation consists mostly of settlements and the repopulation
of Palestinian territory with 435,000 Israeli settlers, the essence of the
occupation lies in the notion of control; in the construction of segregated
roads connecting settlements and disconnecting Palestinian towns, and the
prohibitions on movement of Palestinians and Palestinian goods through a system
of permits and checkpoints.
When communication is strangled and society is immobilized,
life itself becomes untenable. In such circumstances, human populations either
wither or migrate. It is this eventuality, a land emptied of Palestinians,
to which the occupation aspires--which brings us back to Jabotinsky and the
The wall is an escalation of immobilization. Indeed, what
Israeli leaders are doing with the wall inside occupied territory reveals
their true aims. One need only go to Abu Dis outside Jerusalem to observe
such politics of immobility.
Here on a stretch where the wall reaches 6 1/2 feet and
cuts the town in two, Palestinians, in order to go from one side of town to
the other, confront concrete. They can often be seen scaling the wall and
passing children over the barrier in full view of Israeli soldiers stationed
there to prevent such "incursions" but too ashamed to stop individuals
from trying to conduct their lives in conditions made humiliating and burdensome.
In Qalqilya, the wall performs a more onerous mission of
immobilization, literally keeping human beings caged.
"There is a big difference between a prison and what the wall
has done to us," insists Abdul-latif Khaled, a hydrologist with the Palestinian
Hydrology Group in Jayous, near Qalqilya. "In prison, the authorities
try to keep you in. Here, the Israeli authorities are trying to make us go
In these circumstances, the wall is creating a landscape
of unintended consequences. In seeking to separate Jews and Palestinian, the
wall is working paradoxically toward creation of a single territory. By seizing
additional Palestinian land and obliterating any remaining geographical contiguity
in the West Bank, it is undermining the territorial basis of Palestinian statehood
and redefining the political choices open to Palestinians for resolution of
While a separate state remains perhaps the option of choice
among most Palestinians, what was once considered a utopian idea--a secular
binational state in which Jews and Palestinian Arabs would share historic
Palestine on the basis of one person, one vote--is gaining currency as the
wall expands and further shrinks Palestinian territory, and as settlements
become irrevocable historical facts.
"The two-state solution is no longer in a coma,"
observed Omar Barghouti, a Palestinian political analyst, commenting on the
wall at a January conference of academics in Jerusalem. "It is truly
dead." Even Ahmed Qureia, prime minister of the Palestinian Authority
whose entire political fortunes rest on creation of a Palestinian state, has
conceded that the wall may force Palestinian society into seeking a single,
secular, binational state as a solution to the conflict.
In pursuing Jabotinskyís iron wall to its logical conclusion,
the Israeli leadership may have unwittingly forced its own hand.
Absent a viable territorial basis upon which a Palestinian state could
emerge, Israel seemingly has three alternatives.
It can continue the occupation and in five years become an apartheid-like
state ruling militarily over a majority Palestinian population; it can use
force in an apocalyptic-like transfer of the Palestinian population; or it
can reject as an historical failure Jabotinskyís militarism rooted in the
contradiction of a religious-based civil society, and embark upon an alternative
articulated by the likes of Kahn, Magnes, and Buber but not yet tried.
Legality aside, the wall stands as an affront to human dignity
and Jewish memory itself. In the spirit of rediscovering a lost tradition,
dismantling this oppressive symbol opens an opportunity to frame a vision
in which Jews and Palestinians have equally legitimate claims upon the territory
with equal rights of return in a truly democratic path to peace.
Gary Fields is a professor of communications at the University of California,
San Diego, who recently returned from Israel and the West Bank as part of
a delegation sponsored by Faculty for Israeli-Palestinian Peace.