Israel’s Moral Burden

We are all pained by the recent violence in Palestine. Palestinian youths have been injured or killed in the hundreds by an army of occupation, which has shown little or no restraint when it comes to confrontation with civilians. Recently, heavy weapons such as rockets, tanks, and helicopter gunships have been used by Israel in an attempt to cow the Palestinians into servitude. Despite the huge disparity in loss of life, the media in the United States seems far more preoccupied with Israeli military casualties than the deaths of Palestinian children.

At the end of the day however, the Israelis cannot win. There are too many Palestinians, and they are so fed up with Israeli rule, that Israel cannot hope to carry out its dream of seizing all of Palestine. The Israelis will have to settle this conflict in some manner, and to do so will require them to finally confront their moral obligation to the Palestinians.

It is a clearly established fact in international law that war refugees have a right of return to their property and land that they may have fled during a time of fighting. No other nation in the world rejects this basic principle of human rights except Israel, which has stonewalled on the issue of the Palestinian refugees of 1948 for over 50 years. These refugees were created during the war of 1947-1949 when the Israelis seized all the territory that the UN allotted them plus half the land that was allotted to be a Palestinian state. Although the partition plan was fatally flawed in the first place (the population of the land allotted to Israel was half Palestinian, and to force them to be part of a country that was going to deny them any political rights was ridiculous on its face), the Israelis had no serious intent of abiding by it. If Israel had not ethnically cleansed itself of the Palestinians, once the war was over the majority of Israel’s population would have been Palestinian, a result that was unacceptable.

Actually, Zionism understood quite clearly that, to be blunt, Palestine had to be stolen from the Palestinians. Theodore Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism (he wrote the manifesto “The Jewish State” in the 1890’s) gave thought to the question of how Israel could be established in an Ottoman province populated by Arabs. When it came to the Palestinians, as recorded in his diary, he was merciless, “We shall have to spirit the penniless population across the border�the process of expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discreetly.”

In the end, the Zionists got a gift from the Allied victory in the First World War. Britain took over control of Palestine from the Ottomans. The British opened the door to Zionist immigration from Europe, and the Jews got the opportunity to create the basis for their state.

On the eve of the British withdrawal in 1947, the Jews numbered about 750,000 while the Palestinians were over 1.3 million, and in the land that would fall under Israeli control, there were over 800,000 Palestinians. The Jews had been buying some land, often from absentee landlords, but still owned only 7% of the land of Palestine in 1947. However, the Zionists have often put forth the claim that they bought the land of Israel, which is preposterous.

Once the British pulled out, the Zionists quickly tried to grab as much land as they could. But they also needed to depopulate the region of its non-Jews. A deliberate policy of ethnic cleansing was the result. The records of this are easily obtained, but even if one does not believe the actual refugees or neutral observers, there is the evidence provided by the Israeli leadership. Yitzhak Rabin, in his memoirs, describes what was called “Plan Dalet”. This was a scheme ordered by David Ben-Gurion to cleanse the Palestinian villages along the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway. Rabin describes how his men forced villagers from their homes at gunpoint. Menachem Begin describes in his autobiography how his men mortar shelled the city of Jaffa. Mortars are an inaccurate weapon that, used against a city, are strictly meant to induce terror. They worked, and Begin put to flight the inhabitants of Jaffa. Begin also led his men into a small village called Deir Yassin near Jerusalem, where over two days, his men massacred about 250 women, children, and old men. Begin bragged that the terror and fame of this incident was worth several battalions to the Zionist cause. One massacred village was convincing enough to put to flight many others before they waited to find out what Israeli rule would mean for them.

At the end of the war, 700,000 of 850,000 Palestinians were expelled from Israel. Over 1 million acres of farmland and orchards were confiscated by the state and put into a special status, which bars any non-Jewish Israeli from purchasing or using that land. The refugees had their homes and property confiscated and turned over to the state. When the fighting was over, they were barred from returning to their homes.

Over time, the Israelis were embarrassed by the presence of these refugees in their wretched camps. They blamed other countries for not taking them in and making them citizens of some other land where people also speak Arabic. They concocted ridiculous stories about how the refugee flight was a planned military maneuver to get the civilian population “out of the way” so that the Arab armies could in some weird way be more effective. Clogging the poor roads of 1948 Palestine with refugees is not exactly a military maneuver.

The residual Palestinian community that stayed behind in Israel has grown almost 6 fold since 1948, and now numbers almost 900,000. It makes up just under 20% of the population, but is subject to a variety of apartheid-style restrictions. Their plight is one of the dirty little secrets of Israeli society, with little or no coverage in the US media.

Israel clearly has a moral obligation to restore what it took by force and terror in 1948 and refused to return. The Palestinian refugees in the camps now number over 3 million, and it is unlikely that the Israelis would ever agree to allow them all to return. But if there is to be real peace in the Middle East, then real justice must be done. The Israelis should clearly and openly acknowledge their ethnic cleansing of 1948. They should return as much property as they can, and pay compensation at market prices for what they will not. Israel should also allow, as part of any deal, 700,000 Palestinians to return into Israel, a number equal to what was expelled. Finally, the apartheid system that is in place must be dismantled. Full and equal rights for all citizens, even in issues of land ownership, should be enforced. The United States must not provide aid to Israel as long as it discriminates on the basis of religion. Without a just settlement of the refugee issue, there cannot be real peace in the Middle East.