One Annexation Among Many

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The proposed annexation of the West Bank is not the exception but the rule when it comes to Israel's decades-long dispossession of the Palestinians – the only difference is this time, they're not pretending.

ince his election to the U.S. presidency in 2016, Donald Trump has pushed an anti-Palestinian agenda: moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, cutting all funds to UNRWA, expelling Palestinian diplomats from Washington, and ending USAID to the occupied Palestinian territories. These, of course, are just part of Trump’s ‘Peace to Prosperity’ plan published in January. Its vision is consistent with the ultra-right settlement movement in Israel and evangelical ideologues in the U.S., a vision of Palestinians consigned to perpetual subjugation, stripped of all rights, and living either under endless occupation or enforced exile as refugees.

The most recent of these proposals is the annexation of the occupied West Bank, scheduled by Netanyahu for July 1st, but yet to be enacted. Annexation would entail a change in Israeli law to formally incorporate its illegal settlements in the West Bank – built on confiscated Palestinian land – into ‘Israel proper.’ These areas are already de facto incorporated: annexation would simply formalise the relationship in Israeli law, constituting a shift from ‘creeping to leaping’ annexation. The scale of the project put forward by Netanyahu remains unclear, but Trump’s plan calls for an annexation amounting to around forty percent of the occupied West Bank.

The announcement is regarded as exceptional, heralding an end to any lingering hopes that land Israel has confiscated and built upon might, one day, be returned to Palestinians, bringing about a two-state solution. More worryingly for Palestinians, is the likely acceleration of land expropriation and human rights abuses, while handing greater powers to Israel’s fanatical settler movement who outflank even Netanyahu’s various right-wing coalition governments.

But, others ask, if the West Bank is already occupied, and most of its land already confiscated, does it really matter whether or not Israel formally annexes it? Aren’t Trump’s policies simply an extension of previous U.S. administrations, here shorn of any pretence as an ‘honest broker’? Ought we not to welcome the public end of the two-state illusion, and Israel’s now undisguised contempt for international law and international consensus?

These questions go to the heart of how we understand, and confront the behemoth of Israeli expansionism. The basic paradigm for analysing the situation in Palestine, and what ought to be done about it, is undergoing something of a revision as a result of political pressures which socialists in Britain are well acquainted with. In this environment, it is crucial that annexation be appreciated as the threat that it is – but also as a chance to re-establish broad-based coalitions to fight for Palestinian rights.

Israel’s Settler Colonialism

Trump and Netanyahu’s policies in the region signify a break from a global pretence that international law was to be respected in Palestine. However, from an historical perspective, they are in keeping with longer-term trends in U.S. and Israeli policy which differ as to the intensity and pace of settler colonisation, but not its fundamentals.

This is evident in the unanimity of successive Israeli governments, on the right and left alike, in all their dealings with Palestinians, from denying refugees their right to return, to maintaining apartheid against Palestinians in occupied Palestine and continuing confiscation of occupied Palestinian land. Israeli policy follows a now familiar course: conquer land under the cover of war; expel the population either immediately or progressively; and eventually effect formal annexation of the territory. Israel has annexed the Golan Heights and Jerusalem in this manner, which is the same modus operandi utilised during the Palestinian Nakba of 1947-’49.

Led by the Israeli Labour Party, Israel’s ‘left’ advanced these objectives under the guise of a peace process, used as cover to accelerate settlement construction in the years directly after the Oslo Peace Accords were signed. The right, meanwhile, continue the same policies, but without pretending its goals are self-determination for the Palestinian people on their own land. Instead, they openly declare their intentions to retain Palestine in perpetuity while keeping the Palestinians dispossessed and subjugated. 

This dispossession continues for the simple reason that Israel is a settler colony, operating by the same logic that governs all settler colonies – acquisition of land and expulsion of its indigenous people. For all the rigmarole of international peace agreements, negotiations, claims of immense historical complexity, or the dozens of other avenues of diversion from what is on full view, what we witness is remarkably easy to appreciate.

Red Cloud, the leader of the Oglala Dakota and the veteran organiser against US colonisation articulated it perfectly: “They made us many promises, more than I can remember. But they kept but one – they promised to take our land, and they took it.” Palestinians are facing this same, seemingly inexorable process of ethnic cleansing, facilitated by Western political, military and financial support.

Reframing Israeli Policies

It is instructive here to examine how these discussions are unfolding in Israel, where debate is not about the rights and wrongs of expansionism but rather on its presentation. Neither Netanyahu’s coalition partners, nor the tiny remnants of the Israeli ‘left’ object to Israel’s occupation. They disagree only that de jure (legal) annexation is more desirable than de facto annexation, given the former makes too explicit Israeli intransigence and creates unnecessary geostrategic challenges. Better, they reason, to continue open and untrammelled colonisation while maintaining the facade of negotiations for Palestinian statehood, and placate any expressed concerns by Western leaders.

These narrow debates – essentially on PR strategies for colonisation – are also reflected in some discussions in Britain. A number of public letters and articles have criticised the proposed annexation primarily due to its damaging Israel’s image. Framed as an internal community ‘debate’, these interventions neglect to mention international law or the disaster being visited on Palestinian lives. There is no mention of the crippling siege of Gaza; the routine murder, house demolitions and wanton violence in the West Bank and Jerusalem; the millions of Palestinian refugees enduring extreme and precarious lives in forced exile from their home. Instead, their authors counsel Israel’s right-wing leaders that “annexation will make a principled global defence of Israel a near-impossible task,” advising them not to end their occupation, but simply not to formalise it.

These interventions have the curious effect of ignoring visible injustices and racist policies, while warning of their appearance in the future. For example, it has now become routine for former Israeli leaders to announce that if Israel undertakes this or that step, then it ought to be considered an apartheid state. But apartheid – permanent rule over another people based on institutionalised racial discrimination – has long been a reality. Israel’s ‘democratic character’, deemed threatened by annexation, is something that millions of Palestinians have no knowledge of and will never have experienced. Instead, they are entering their 72nd year of prolonged military occupation, enforced exile, or both. 

This degradation of political discourse on Palestine – restricting discussion to individual Israeli policies divorced from both structural and historical context – is the objective of the efforts of recent years to silence debate, and a central plank of the public relations strategy that accompanies the ‘Deal of the Century’. Focusing on Israel’s ethnic cleansing during the Nakba of 1948 or levelling criticisms that do not abide by Israel’s mischaracterisation as a ‘democracy’, are defined as racist by the increasingly entrenched IHRA definition. The result is that some challenges to Israel are channelled into ineffective routes, such as the aforementioned letters, that do not convey Palestinians’ current suffering, the precise nature of what Israel is doing to them daily, nor do they offer a means to practical solidarity that could stem this disaster engulfing the Palestinian people. 

Recentring Palestinian Rights

In light of these challenges it is essential to retain and revive a historically embedded understanding of the situation in Palestine, and bring about a recentring of Palestinian collective rights to freedom, self-determination and equality.

Over the past decades, and despite shifts in emphasis and strategy, core Palestinian demands have not changed. They have been and remain the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people recognised under international law: national self-determination and the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes.

These remain the starting point for Palestinian solidarity, its central two pillars, and ought to supersede the distractions of ‘recognising’ Palestinian statehood (which entirely ignores Palestinian refugees’ collective and individual rights) or the debates about the viability, or strategic relevance, of calling for one or two states.

We need to return, also, to an understanding of Israel’s colonial nature. Israel’s current plans are the culmination of a long process of colonisation that began with Britain’s 30-year long martial occupation of Palestine, reached its zenith in the Nakba of 1947-’49, and continues to shape virtually every Israeli policy towards the Palestinian people today.

Effective solidarity must be a concerted struggle against continuing colonial structures, and Britain’s support for them. Some of this language can be found in a letter from Palestinian civil society organisations in which they reiterate their call for action in the form of immediate sanctions against Israel. These demands reflect a widespread rejection of Israel’s actions – from governments, civil society, distinguished international legal scholars and more than 1,000 European parliamentarians alike.

Palestine’s prominence at global Black Lives Matter protests shows how this cause continues to connect all who struggle against overwhelming power, and remains emblematic of the very human demand for dignity and freedom. Palestine inherits this position from the national liberation struggles of the mid-20th century, where it formed one part of a global revolution calling for an end to racism, imperialism, and colonialism from Vietnam, South African and Algeria to the streets of Britain’s cities, where migrant groups and internationalists made the cause of Palestine inseparable from their own.

This tradition is carried through the broad and vibrant coalition of trade unionists, MPs, leftist organisations and institutions, student groups, public figures, anti-racist activists, faith institutions and all others who, in their multitude of ways, extend a deep solidarity to the Palestinian people.

To prevent annexation and sustain long-term solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, we need to build on such models of collaborative work and broad-based opposition. The renewed understanding of colonialism, and of Britain’s past and present role, offers an opportunity to educate others about the nature of what is occurring in Palestine, and refocus our solidarity work in the future.

Source: The article is originally written by Akram Salhab and published on Tribune, along with the cover photo.

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