The Gaza conflict is not over. It did not begin with the latest Israeli assault on Gaza that killed more than 2000 Palestinians, including well over 400 children. Nor does it end with the latest cease-fire agreement. For this war is not simply about the present and future but also about the past, and about a stubborn, even insidious, refusal to acknowledge a basic, fundamental injustice that is at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Long before Hamas was created, Zionist Israel was a settler-colonial enterprise. It remains one today. The justifications for Zionism have been many: a so-called Jewish “right” to the land because of a Biblical narrative; the alleged superiority, as Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann intimated to Lord Balfour in 1918, of the honest and modern European Jew over what he described as the backstabbing and sinister oriental Arab; the real suffering of European Jews that culminated in a German genocide against them, and finally, a Western-dominated UN partition of Palestine in 1947 into an “Arab” and a “Jewish” state, despite the overwhelming opposition of the overwhelming majority of the indigenous population of the country.
The point is not simply that colonial Zionism in Palestine was morally and politically outrageous to the Palestinians. Nor is it simply that Europe and the United States were directly responsible for the protection of this colonial enterprise that led ultimately to the creation of the state of Israel built on the ruins of Palestinian villages and towns. Nor that a war occurred in 1948 or that a population was displaced. Nor that Arabs were made to pay the price for European anti-Semitism and an exclusionary Jewish nationalism.
The point is that this basic, fundamental history of the violence of colonial Zionism remains until now not only unacknowledged by Western nations, but violently rejected. The self-righteousness with which Israel pursued its most recent assault on Palestinian civilians is based on far more than the crude propaganda generated during the current conflict. It is rooted in a continuing denial of Palestinian history. The initial historical injustice of 1948 has been compounded by the constant Israeli representation of Palestinians as anti-Semitic, and by the fanatical determination of Israel and its supporters worldwide to carry on trying to build an exclusionary Jewish state in a multireligious land despite the obvious massive moral and human costs of such an enterprise.
Palestinians resist Zionist Israel because they continue to be wronged—whether through patently racist laws in Israel that discriminate between Jews and non-Jews, unending occupation in the West Bank, the overt Judaization of East Jerusalem, or the creation of a truly extraordinary ghetto in Gaza that has imprisoned nearly two million Palestinians who are given no prospects of a better future.
Every European and American affirmation of Israel’s “right to defend itself” at a time of its wanton bombardment of Arab civilians constitutes a denial of Arab humanity and history. It reinforces the fundamental moral depravity at the heart of the question of Palestine by which the West has consistently privileged in Palestine Jew over non-Jew, European over Arab, and settler-colonialism over self-determination. The language of an Israeli right to defense functions to deny the Palestinians a right to resist their dehumanization. It effectively incites Israeli violence against Palestinians at the same time as it feigns concern for Palestinian civilian casualties.
Virtually every genocide in the modern world begins with a discourse of self-defense: be it the Ottoman CUP against the Armenians or German Nazis against the Jews. We are not yet at the point of genocide in Palestine, but we may not be as far from one as we think. It matters, of course, that Hamas indiscriminately fires rockets on Israel. But the root cause of this current crisis is neither Hamas nor its rockets. The root cause is, rather, what David Hirst once referred to as “gun Zionism” and its enablers in the West. They commenced an ever-escalating spiral of violence that can only have one of two final outcomes: the extirpation of the Palestinian people or the redefinition of Israel. At the funeral of one of his comrades, an Israeli admitted that he hated Hamas, but he added ominously that he wanted to kill “all the people in Gaza.” It is plain to see that there is a basic choice in the decades ahead. Israel must be divorced from gun Zionism. Or it will continue down the path of becoming an ever more belligerent state that will turn to ever more desperate and inhumane measures to defend its indefensible historical transgression against the Arabs of Palestine.
Makdisi is a professor of History and the first holder of the Arab-American Educational Chair of Arab Studies at Rice University.