an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Posts Tagged ‘colonisation

palestine 6 – the Nakba

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northern Israel, the long march to Lebanon, November 1948 – an Associated Press pic

On May 14 1948, Israel was unilaterally proclaimed as a nation by David Ben-Gurion, ending the British mandate in the region. US President Truman immediately recognised the new state in spite of the views of his predecessor, Roosevelt, who had argued that Arabs and other natives of the region should be consulted. According to the US ‘Office of the Historian‘: 

The British, who held a colonial mandate for Palestine until May 1948, opposed both the creation of a Jewish state and an Arab state in Palestine as well as unlimited immigration of Jewish refugees to the region. Great Britain wanted to preserve good relations with the Arabs to protect its vital political and economic interests in Palestine.

There’s no doubt some truth in this, but also by this time Britain was falling out of love with colonialism due to bitter and costly experience, and the post-war era experienced a re-emergence of general concern for oppressed people. 1948 was also the year of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, so it’s worth noting some of the Articles in light of the Palestinian situation:

Article 9: No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

Article 13 (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.
(2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

Article 15 (1) Everyone has the right to a nationality.
(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.

These are just some of the articles being drawn up at the time which have direct relevance to what was going on in Palestine, and it seems odd that the US, so heavily involved in the Declaration, was not particularly attuned to that relevance. Nevertheless it’s clear that the USA has been for decades the staunchest ally of the Zionists, and its arms and support have been vital to Israel’s imposition of an apartheid state in the region.

Going back to 1947, Palestine was in a world of tension, and the UN plan for partitioning the region, described in the previous post, only made matters worse. Neither the Zionist nationalists nor the Palestinian Arabs were happy with British control, and both sides – but particularly the never-consulted Palestinians – were unhappy with the partition as defined. The wider Arab region was becoming increasingly sensitised to the issues, as a sense of Arab nationalism grew. At the same time, the revelations of the Holocaust created greater sympathy for the Zionist cause, particularly in the US. Within Palestine itself, atrocities were committed on both sides, tit-for-tat killings, finally escalating to the point of civil war as the British were reluctant to intervene. It seems the Arab side was most active in the initial stages, as the Zionists began to organise for the long term, with increasing support for the paramilitary Haganah, and Ben-Gurion’s plan to have all Jewish men and women perform military service. Arms for the Yishuv (the aspirational and Zionist Jews within the Palestinian Mandate) were effectively smuggled from Europe and other regions. Meanwhile, upheaval and economic insecurity in Palestine disproportionately affected the Arab population. The displacement of the Arabs, a feature of Zionist tactics from the beginning, rose sharply in this period, leading to later evacuations.

It’s impossible, in a small blog piece, or a limited series of posts, to do justice to the events of 1948, before and after the declaration of Israeli statehood. Needless to say, these events, variously described as the Nakba (catastrophe), the Palestine War, or the War of Independence/Liberation, all depending on allegiance, left a legacy which has never been dealt with and continues to fester. Things started ‘small’, with car bombings, house bombings, indiscriminate grenade attacks, riots, and the mining of railways causing the deaths of scores of Arab and Jewish civilians as well as British military personnel. In February-March 1948, the charismatic Arab leader Abd al-Qadir al-Husayni organised a successful blockade of Jerusalem, using a force consisting almost entirely of volunteers. Although this was a blow to the Jewish leadership and the Haganah, who lost most of their armoured vehicles in trying to relieve the blockade, the Zionists were always better-funded than the Arabs, and the situation on the ground generally was such that an increasing number of Arabs and non-Jewish Palestinians, especially of the middle class, fled the region, always hoping to return.

Over time both sides became more organised and militarised. The Haganah in particular became more active, effectively relieving the Jerusalem blockade in mid-April 1948. The death of al-Husayni in battle at this time profoundly affected Palestinian-Arab morale.

The surrounding Arab nations provided some troops but were insufficiently organised to make a decisive intervention. The situation became increasingly disastrous for the Arab population. Hundreds of Palestinian villages were sacked, and the major cities of the region became void of Palestinians. Numbers are always in dispute, but the monoculturalist ambitions of many (but not all) Zionists were essentially achieved, as some 80% of the Arab population no longer resided in the new state of Israel by the end of the war. Many of them had understandable hopes of returning after the situation had stabilised. It took some time for the Arab population to realise that ethnic cleansing was always the aim of the Zionist monoculturalists. Not that all Zionists were monoculturalists, but the moderates in Israel were outmanoeuvred by the hardliners, and have been in the seven decades since.

In any case, the chaos on the ground during the early period of the war, with Jewish retaliation becoming increasingly heavy-handed, and the commission of such atrocities as the Deir Yassin massacre, led to panic flights of Arab populations. Arguments still rage, of course, as to whether there was a clear-cut policy (outlined in Plan Dalet) of what we would today call ‘ethnic cleansing’, but it’s clear enough that the Palestinian flights fulfilled most Zionist desires, and they were certainly encouraged by Zionist psychological warfare. The Palestinian flight from the city of Haifa, for example, was ‘facilitated’ by Haganah’s Arabic language broadcasts calling on Palestinian inhabitants to (irony of ironies) ‘kick out the foreign criminals’, and to evacuate the elderly, women and children. But these were more than psychological ploys, as Haganah battalions attacking Haifa had orders to shoot every male Arab on sight and to burn down Palestinian houses wherever they found them.

David Ben-Gurion, the Israeli leader and new Prime minister, was clearly the architect of the Nakba, insofar as there was one. He was more than willing to flout UN directives, and he clearly considered that Israel had to be a homogenous Hebrew state. It’s a repeat, in many ways, of the colonial enterprise here in Australia and in the United States. You either kick out the original inhabitants or you neuter them through overwhelming power and violence. Yet this was happening in the twentieth century, after all we’d learned about colonial injustice, and at the very time that the world was formulating a Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Expulsion of Arab populations became more standard, and more brutal, as the war entered its final stages. There were also (e.g. the evacuation of Nazareth) cases of outright deception, reminiscent of the US government’s dealings with its native population in the 19th century. Ilan Pappé, the expatriate Israel historian, writes of this period:

In a matter of seven months, five hundred and thirty one villages were destroyed and eleven urban neighborhoods emptied … The mass expulsion was accompanied by massacres, rape and the imprisonment of men … in labor camps for periods of over a year.

The expelled Palestinians were mostly forced to live in refugee camps in surrounding countries, most notably Lebanon, where they were often subject to extreme restrictions, raids and massacres by forces allied to the Israeli government, as described, for example, in Tears for Tarshiha, by Olfat Mahmoud. Those who tried to return were often shot. The right of return is of course guaranteed by the UN, for what that is worth.

Writing about these events, and reading about them, is one of the most unpleasant and demoralising tasks I’ve ever undertaken. So this will be the last historical piece. Instead I will focus on heroines and heroes in the dark world of Israel/Palestine, many of them largely unsung. Most of them have suffered for their humanist outspokenness. Israel today is very close to the bottom of my list of countries worth visiting, and what is most exasperating is that telling the truth about it is likely to get you into big trouble even in Australia, if you happen to be a politician or a high profile intellectual. Luckily I’m neither, so I can write what I like. I’ll try my best to tell the truth – and the truth does have a habit of coming out eventually, though I strongly expect that the truth about Israel’s anti-democratic democracy will be a long long time in coming. I mean the global acceptance of the truth, which is currently accepted by only a tiny beleaguered minority.

Some reading

Tears for Tarshiha, by Olfat Mahmoud

Goliath, by Max Blumenthal

The case for Palestine, by Paul Heywood-Smith

The Last Earth: a Palestinian story, by Ramzy Baroud

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1948_Palestinian_exodus

Written by stewart henderson

April 17, 2019 at 8:06 pm

who really discovered this land?

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a chart of early human migrations – and discoveries – based on mitochondrial DNA

I recently heard some rather absurd but unsurprising remarks by the conservative commentator Georgina Downer, defending an inscription on a statue of Captain Cook which states that he was the discoverer of Australia. Downer claimed that this is patently, unarguably true, since he was the first person to map the country (or part of it).

But let me be quite precise about the issue. The statue has the inscription: “discovered this territory 1770”. Unfortunately I can’t find video online of Downer’s words, but I’m pretty sure I got the gist of it: to her it was obviously true that Cook was the country’s discoverer – because he mapped it.

As a teacher of English and a person interested in linguistics and the meanings of words, let me just take a look at the verb ‘discover’. A quick googling brings up these two most pertinent meanings: find unexpectedly or during a search; be the first to find or observe. Three other less relevant meanings are given, but of course none of them mention mapping or anything like it. It would certainly be a shocker if mapping was mentioned, in defining the discovery of a territory. Having said that, ‘discover’ is ambiguous in this context. We can be enticed by adverts to discover the Greek Islands, or the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef. This is in line with one of the other definitions, which now maybe seems more relevant: be the first to recognize the potential of (or in this case the more personal to recognise the potential (or beauty) of something for the first time. That’s my own definition, but I think it’s generally acceptable). In this sense it would be fair to say Cook discovered Australia in 1770, but then it would also be fair to say my parents discovered Australia in 1962, when they first arrived here, just as I discovered David Bowie as a sixteen-year-old in 1972. Clearly that’s not the sense of ‘discovered’ intended by the inscription, or by Downer.

But before I continue down that rabbit-hole, let’s look at the inscription’s other keyword. The word ‘territory’ is a little ambiguous here. The statue is in Sidney’s Hyde Park – does the discovery refer to the whole of Australia, the territory in the neighbourhood of the statue, or the part of Australia that Cook mapped (less than a quarter of the country’s coastline, and none of the interior)? Dictionaries won’t be of much help here, so I’ll just hope to be on safe territory in assuming the whole kit and caboodle is intended, i.e. the land now known as Australia.

Downer’s comments added a tiny wind to the storm of controversy raised by the respected Aboriginal journalist and commentator Stan Grant. I find his essays (linked below) on the subject of our history and monuments to be thought-provoking and valuable. What he writes about the hubris of colonising Europeans in earlier centuries is undoubtedly true, though we only see it in hindsight, for what would my attitude have been as a good citizen of Europe from the 16th through to the 19th century?

But I’m not, I’m a more or less global citizen of the 21st century, painfully aware of the thoughtless arrogance of the terra nullius idea and the white colonisation system of the past, not confined of course to this territory. That’s not to say that I can put myself into the minds of those whose ancestors have been in this land for tens of thousands of years, when they read the above-mentioned controversial inscription. I can, though, see clearly that what happened in 1788 was a land-grab, as I’ve already written here and here, and I well understand why two High Court justices have described the consequent dispossession as ‘a legacy of unutterable shame’. So it amazes me that people like Downer can be so cavalier in claiming that Cook’s ‘discovery’ was unarguable. Cook did not discover this territory. The human who did discover it, that first person, will never be known to us. That discovery was made long long before records were kept. It was certainly a momentous discovery, though, for it brought many people to this vast territory, which may then have been very different from the parched land we know today. They spread throughout its vast extent, adapted to and interpreted its varied and changing climate and landscapes, created homes and tools and songs and stories and rituals and languages and knowledge, and endured here – more than endured – for some 60,000 years.

Cook was a very important, indeed decisive figure in Australian history, and he should be remembered as such, but not as the discoverer of this territory. As the cliché goes, if we don’t know our history we’ll be doomed to repeat it.

References

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-08-25/stan-grant-captain-cook-indigenous-culture-statues-history/8843172

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-08-23/stan-grant:-damaging-myth-captain-cook-discovered-australia/8833536

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-08-18/america-tears-down-its-racist-history-we-ignore-ours-stan-grant/8821662

Written by stewart henderson

August 30, 2017 at 9:01 am