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Establishment of Israel involved a monumental injustice to the Palestinians: Avi Shlaim

Avi Shlaim. Image source: Wikipedia
Avi Shlaim. Image source: Wikipedia

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Avi Shlaim is a Fellow of St Antonys College and a Professor of International Relations at the University of Oxford. He was born in Baghdad in 1945 and grew up in Israel. He is one of the prominent ‘revisionist’ historians who critically analyse the establishment of the state of Israel from a different perspective. On the occasion of 76 years of Palestinian Nakba and the independence of Israel, Professor Shlaim talks to Asjadul Kibria in an interview through email. Here are the excerpts:

Financial Express (FE): Since Israel has launched all out strike on occupied Gaza to retaliate Hamas attack on October 7 last year, more than seven months have passed. Over 35,000 people in Gaza have been killed and around 13,000 among the dead are children. 70 per cent of homes and physical infrastructure of Gaza have been destroyed. Gaza residents are suffering from starvation. Many claimed that Israel has committed war crimes in Gaza. Against the backdrop, Palestinians are observing 76 years of Nakba or catastrophe and Israelis are celebrating 76 years of the independence of the country. How do explain the whole thing now?

Avi Shlaim: The only way to make sense of Israel’s cruel and self-defeating wars in Gaza is through understanding the historical context. From whatever perspective one chooses to view it, the establishment of the state of Israel in May 1948 involved a monumental injustice to the Palestinians. Three quarters of a million Palestinians became refugees, and the name Palestine was wiped off the map. Israelis call it “The War of Independence”; Palestinians call it the Nakba, or the catastrophe. The most horrific event in the suffering-soaked history of the Jews was the Holocaust. In the history of the Palestinian people, the most traumatic event is the Nakba, which is not in fact a one-off event but the ongoing process of the dispossession and displacement of Palestinian people from their homeland that continues to this day, in the unspeakable horrors being visited by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) on Gaza.

The United Kingdom (UK) was the original sponsor of the Jewish state, going back to the Balfour declaration of 1917. But by 1948, the United States (US) had replaced the UK as the principal backer. British officials bitterly resented American partisanship on behalf of the infant state, although they themselves had enabled and empowered the Zionist takeover of Palestine. The conditions that gave rise to the Nakba were made in Britain. Yet no British government has ever accepted any responsibility for the loss and suffering it brought upon the people of Palestine.

The year 1948, the establishment of the state of Israel and the first Arab-Israeli War was a turning point in the modern history of the Middle East. But, to me, the year for the beginning of the conflict is 1917. It is because, that is the year in which Britain issued the Balfour Declaration in support of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine. So, this is a really significant document in which Britain allocated to the Jews political right, the right to national self-determination, and denied it to the Arabs. In fact, the Balfour Declaration was a classic European colonial document. Its author, then-Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour, personified the colonial mindset: the national rights of the inhabitants of the country were not of the slightest interest to him.

In 1917, the Jews were only 10 per cent of the population, the Arabs were 90 per cent. The Jews owned only 2 per cent of the land, and yet Britain’s intervention enabled the Zionist movement to embark on the systematic takeover of Palestine which continues to this day. In other words, the British mandate in Palestine from 1922 to 1948 is what enabled the Zionist movement to establish itself, and [it also enabled them] to eventually, in 1948, proclaim and achieve independence. But there is no denying that the establishment of the state of Israel involved a monumental injustice to the Palestinians.

FE: In your essays, books, articles, speeches and interviews, you strongly assert that the Zionist claim to the land of Palestine was weak and distorted. Why?

Avi Shlaim: The Zionist claim to Palestine was based on exceptionally weak grounds and a misrepresentation of the reality in Palestine at the end of the 19th century. There was a very clever Zionist slogan: ‘a country without a people for a people without a country.’ The slogan implied that the Jews were people without a country, which they were. But it also implied that Palestine didn’t have a people, it wasn’t inhabited. But this was not true. There had been a well-constituted Arab society in Palestine for centuries. And the Zionist claim to Palestine was also not very convincing because Zionism was a secular movement, but it also invoked divine promise to the Jews of the Promised Land.

So, the Zionists were secular, they did not believe in God and yet they turned God into a land agent who promised them this particular plot of land. The weakness of the Zionist claim to Palestine is illustrated by the following episode.

The visionary of the Jewish state was Theodore Herzl, a Viennese Jew, who wrote a pamphlet outlining his idea for a Jewish state in Palestine, and the rabbis of Vienna got together, collected some money, and sent two of their members to Palestine to check out Herzl’s idea and the two rabbis sent a telegram which became famous. It said that the bride is beautiful but she is already married to another man. In other words, Palestine is beautiful but there were already other people living there.

FE: But, Jewish people have both historical and emotional link to the land of Palestine. Jews do believe that it is their biblical heritage, it is the land of Canaan where Judaism started. Therefore, they claim that it is the homeland of Hebrews or Jewish across the world.

Avi Shlaim: This claim is completely invalid in the modern era when there are international laws, there are international organisations, and there are international borders. A claim that goes back to two millennia ago is completely untenable in the modern age. Because any other people could resurrect claims that go back millennia ago, and if every person was able to assert historic rights to a land, then that is a recipe for never-ending conflict all over the world.

Having said that, I don’t deny the very strong emotional and historic link between the Jewish people and Zion. Zion is one of the many names for Jerusalem, so I don’t deny the association and of course, Jerusalem is particularly of huge symbolic and religious importance to the Jewish people.

Jews for centuries have been praying, Jews everywhere have been praying in Jerusalem. That was the ultimate aspiration to return to Zion, but that doesn’t make it a politically or legally valid claim to the land.

One also needs to be reminded that before Israel’s foundation, Zionism was an avowedly settler-colonial movement. Its ultimate aim was to build an independent Jewish state on as much of the territory of Palestine as possible, with as few Arabs as possible within its borders. Though Zionist leaders spoke about developing the country for the benefit of the two peoples who lived there, this was largely empty rhetoric. The reality was a relentless drive to acquire more and more land, and a systematic effort to take over the country. As Zionism is essentially a settler-colonial movement, so is its political progeny, the state of Israel.

In 1948, following the Arab rejection of the United Nations (UN) partition plan, they exploited the opportunity offered by an Arab military attack to extend the territory of their emerging state beyond the borders drawn by the UN cartographers, and to carry out large-scale ethnic cleansing of Palestine.

FE: For the last 76 years, despite many efforts from the international community, no peaceful solution has been devised to end the Palestine-Israel conflict and bloodshed. Rather Palestinians have been marginalised systematically. Who are mainly responsible for this?

Avi Shlaim: It is Israel who bears the largest part of the responsibility for dispossessing and oppressing the Palestinian people. The Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories is the most prolonged and brutal military occupation of modern times. But the West is also responsible for the present and past due to its massive and unconditional support for Israel. Western nations, the United States and Britain to be more accurate, supply arms and provide diplomatic protection to Israel. Britain and America use the veto at the Security Council to defeat every resolution that is critical of Israel. These two countries also opposed to the investigation by the International Criminal Court of war crimes in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Since 1967, Israel had a basic choice to make, land or peace with its neighbours, and in the case of the Palestinians, Israel has opted for land, in preference to peace. You need to keep in mind that since 1967, Israeli occupation of the Palestinian lands continues. When Israel withdrew from Gaza unilaterally in 2005, it effectively turned Gaza into a prison which is the biggest open-air prison in the world. Moreover, Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza which is illegal, which is a form of collective punishment. Now since October 7, Israel has intensified the blockade and committed war crimes by cutting off water, food, electricity, fuel, and medical supplies to the population of Gaza.

What many forget is that the conflict did not start on October 7. The main thing is that the attack did not happen in a vacuum. The backdrop was 57 years of Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. It constitutes daily violence against the residents of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and a daily violation of their basic human rights. Israel also systematically demonises the Palestinians, all Palestinians as terrorists, and the danger of dehumanising a whole people is that it paves the way to ethnic cleansing and genocide. What we are witnessing today, day after day, in Gaza Israel is moving towards ethnic cleansing of the population and genocide.

So, the action by Hamas has to be seen as an act of resistance to the Israeli occupation, and the history that I have mentioned earlier in brief. Though it doesn’t justify the attack of Hamas on October 7, but it surely gives us the necessary background to what has happened. I denounce the Hamas attack on Israeli civilians inside Israel. It is a barbaric attack.

Again, Hamas is not a terrorist organisation, as Israel and its western allies keep insisting. It is a political party with a military wing whose attacks on civilians constitute terrorist acts. Indeed, Hamas is more than a political party with a military wing. It is a mass social movement, a prominent part of the fabric of Palestinian society which reflects its aspiration to freedom and independence. It is the failure of the Palestinian Authority (PA) to achieve freedom and statehood that largely explains Hamas’s growing influence.

It is also to remember that the west isolated Hamas after it won a fair and free election in 2006. At that time, its political leaders might come to a deal saying that they would accept a Palestinian state if it was based on borders before the 1967 war. But today the Hamas leaders are very violent and uncompromising. Power has shifted inside Hamas from the sophisticated, moderate, political leadership to the military commanders. Hamas political leadership tried the diplomatic route and didn’t get anywhere. The military commanders say you can’t negotiate with Israel; you have to inflict pain on Israel. They use the example of Hizbollah, which drove Israel out of south Lebanon.

FE: You are labelled as a ‘revisionist’ historian by many and also face criticism by Zionists for supporting Palestinian cause. What is your position regarding the state of Israel?

Avi Shlaim: I have never questioned the legitimacy of the state of Israel within its original borders. These are the borders that were agreed upon between Israel and its neighbours in 1949 after the guns fell silent. These are the only internationally recognised borders that Israel has ever had and the ones that I still regard as legitimate. In the mid-1960s I also served loyally and proudly in the Israeli army because I felt at that time that the IDF was true to its name: it was the Israeli Defence Forces. After the 1967 war, its character gradually changed. It became the repressive police force of a brutal colonial power.

Nevertheless, as Former Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban once said nations are capable of acting rationally when they’ve exhausted all the alternatives. I remain hopeful that, after Israel has exhausted all the military alternatives, it will start to act rationally. 

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