Norman Finkelstein's Mideast in 15 Minutes (Part I):
[Norman Finkelstein, professor of political science at DePaul University in Chicago, is the author of four books: Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict, The Rise and Fall of Palestine, A Nation on Trial: The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth, and The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering. The following remarks are from his presentation at a benefit for the International Solidarity Movement at Udi Aloni's gallery in New York City, on Saturday, 2003.10.04.]
Israel and Palestine in 15 minutes. That will be a real challenge, but I think we can get started. The Israel/Palestine conflict basically begins in the end of the 19th century, when the Zionist movement sets out to create what it calls a Jewish state in Palestine. And in their minds a Jewish state meant a state which was overwhelmingly, if not homogeneously, Jewish.
That's their goal, and their first breakthrough was when they got the backing of the British Empire in 1917, by virtue of what came to be called the Balfour Declaration. Once the Zionist movement had the backing of the British Empire, its main challenge was the indigenous population of Palestine. Because Palestine , not withstanding what Joan Peters, Alan Dershowitz, and others have said, wasn't empty at the end of the 19th century. It was overwhelmingly Christian and Muslim Arab. You could say roughly ten percent of the population was Jewish. And even the ten percent who was Jewish was overwhelmingly, in fact fanatically, anti-Zionist. They didn't believe that you should create a state before the Messiah comes, and so on and so forth.
So the Zionist movement's main obstacle at the end of the 19th century is: What do you do with the indigenous population? And you can conjure up in your mind a thousand different ways to resolve this dilemma, but in the real world there are only two ways to resolve the dilemma. And the two ways are, as the very good Israeli historian Benny Morris put it, either you create an Apartheid-like state—to use Benny Morris's formulation, where a settler minority lords it over and exploits the indigenous majority. That's one possibility, an Apartheid-like arrangement. And the other possibility is to expel the indigenous population.
That's it. You have two possibilities, two options: expulsion or Apartheid. And the Zionist movement, during the first period of conquest of Palestine, roughly the years 1917 to 1948 until the founding of the state of Israel, during that first period of conquest the Zionist movement was committed privately but not publicly to the expulsion of the indigenous population. Now, that particular claim I've made is not fully agreed to by all historians, but you can say there is a growing consensus that for the first period of the conquest of Palestine the Zionist movement was committed to what was called back then (they used euphemisms) "the transfer option": transferring the Arabs out.
Their only concern was to get the timing right, because Ben-Gurion, the main leader of the Zionist movement within Palestine during this period and later the Prime Minister of the state of Israel, said, " Their are certain things you can get away with in what we call revolutionary times that you can't get away with in normal times, and we have to prepare to strike while the iron is hot. When the time comes, when the moment is right, then we strike and accomplish our aim." So their main concern was to get the timing right.
The other thing which is important to keep in mind is that international morality and law, however much we are skeptical about those concepts—and rightfully so—we shouldn't forget that they do have a real impact on the real world. And during this period, what was called the inter-war period, the international community was not altogether hostile to population transfers to resolve ethnic conflicts. There were many examples. Without going into details, the most famous was the population transfer between Turkey and Greece in the 1920's. It was a very bloody affair, very ugly. Turkey expelled about 1.5 million Greeks and the Greeks expelled in turn about a half million Turks. But the international community came to regard it as, "OK, it was ugly, it was brutal, but probably it was for the better that we had this population transfer."
It's in fact the case that most of left-wing public opinion, not just mainstream elites, also supported the expulsion of the Arabs in Palestine and their replacement, or displacement, by the Zionist settlers. And that includes the British Labour Party which wasn't a radical party in say, 1944, but it wasn't the joke it is today. And if you were even like Bertrand Russell, who played roughly the same role in the first half of the 20th century as Professor Chomsky did in the second half of the 20th century, he was—a kind of exemplary moral figure—he supported the expulsion of the Arabs in Palestine in an article in 1944. So there was kind of an acceptance in the international community that population expulsions and transfers are, albeit extreme, nonetheless acceptable if circumstances warrant it.
Well, come 1948, during the first Arab-Israeli War, the Zionist movement uses the cover of war to carry out the expulsion of the indigenous population. It's more or less what the Serbs did in 1999 when they used the cover of the NATO attack to expel the Kosovars. And at the end of the first Arab-Israeli War the Zionist movement, now the state of Israel, conquered about 80% of Palestine. From the 80% that it conquered they expelled roughly 750,000 Palestinian Arabs, and about 150,000 remain. And, without going into all the history, that's where matters stood up until 1967.
For those of you who aren't familiar with the conflict, just very quickly, when you hear a discussion about the Palestinian refugees it basically, not entirely, but it basically refers to those 750,000 Palestinian Arabs who were expelled in 1948, who settled in the West Bank, Gaza, and places like Jordan and Lebanon and to a lesser extent Syria and elsewhere.
Thus the refugee problem arises after the 1948 war, and Israel conquers all of Palestine except the West Bank and Gaza. In June 1967 there is another Arab/Israeli war and Israeli again uses the opportunity of the war to complete the conquest of Palestine, and by the end of the war they have now conquered the West Bank, conquered Gaza, and they controlled all 100% of Palestine.
However, they now confront the exact same problem as they did at the beginning of the century. Namely, they wanted the land, here referring to the West Bank and Gaza, but they didn't want the people. And what do you do? Here it is quite interesting to watch how international law and morality do come into play. Because now we're talking about 1967 and international law and morality, at the theoretical level, has evolved. And the international community no longer is willing to acquiesce to population expulsions and transfers as a mechanism for resolving ethnic disputes.
Well, you may recall I said at the very beginning that you really only have two options. One is to expel, the other is to create an Apartheid-like settlement. Expulsion is no longer an available option to the Israelis, so they immediately switch gears and they attempt to create an Apartheid-like settlement in the West Bank and Gaza. And it's useful to recall that formula from Benny Morris: he describes the Apartheid-like settlement as, "A settler minority lording it over a large, indigenous, exploited majority." Well, as a thumbnail description of what did happen in the Occupied Territories in the next 30 years it's quite accurate.