Born Again Apartheid
by Eqbal Ahmad
"OSLO-111", just concluded at the White House, ought
to be seen in a historical perspective. In the Middle East, ironies
abound. But none is more replete with them than the recent history
The era of decolonization began in August 1947 with the independence
of India and Pakistan. Less than a year later Palestine was colonized
by a movement which aimed to establish an early form - settler
colonialism, which caused the destruction of great civilizations
and peoples in the western hemisphere: the Mayas, Incas, Aztecs
and the Indian peoples of the western hemisphere. Later in Algeria
and southern Africa this form of colonialism resulted in the dispossession
and destitution of the natives.
Genocide or dispossession has been integral to this colonial
form. So it followed that the Zionist leaders will seek to rid
themselves of the native Arabs in Palestine. The point was lost
on Arab, including Palestinian, leaders, and they made no real
effort to prevent the expulsion in 1948 of an overwhelming majority
of Palestinians from their homes. Zionism's primary goal - to
establish an exclusionary Jewish state - was achieved.
Dispossession and exclusion of the native people and their
separation from the settler population are among the common features
of settler colonialism. The drive to dispossess - take away from
the natives their land, water and other resources - often results
in genocide as it did in the western hemisphere. In other places
such as Algeria, Zimbabwe and South Africa it entailed extreme
proletarianization of the native peoples whereby they are reduced
to a life of poverty in the service of the settler state and people.
Which of the two fates befall the native population has in
the past depended largely on settler demographics. If the settler
state is able to attract enough immigration of the 'desirable'
sort and does not need the natives' manpower, it tends largely
to eliminate the natives as was the case, for example, in the
US and Canada. If immigration slows down and the native manpower
is needed to fuel a growing economy, then the colonized peoples
survive in an impoverished, exploitative environment.
Separation of the settler from the native people has been
a goal shared by all settler states. In the United States, surviving
Indian tribes were finally "removed" to "reservations".
In Algeria, the separation was effective but not formalized; the
French was projected as an ideologically non-racist state. A combination
of demographic advantage and highly organized resistance ended
French rule and colonial domination of Algeria.
In South Africa, as the white population stagnated while the
number of blacks continued increasing, the obsession with separation
became so compelling that apartheid was imposed as the central
feature of state policy. Three factors contributed greatly to
the defeat of the white South African regime: it could not attract
enough white immigrants to offset black demographics. As an overtly
racist formulation, apartheid was deeply abhorrent to world opinion.
The African National Congress and its supporters exploited these
two weaknesses of the apartheid regime with intelligence, perseverance,
and discipline of detail.
The Zionist may be the best organized settler movement in
history, and throughout this century it has demonstrated, in Edward
Said's apt phrase, an unusual degree of "the discipline of
detail." At its inception, Theodor Herzl had anticipated
"spiriting away" the native Arabs "slowly and circumspectly".
In 1948, Zionist leaders did better. They displayed ruthless resolve
in systematically driving out a majority of Palestinians from
the areas that they declared Israel. Thanks mainly to a new crop
of Israel's 'revisionist' historians, this fact has finally been
documented with scholarly rigour. Thus Israel became the first
settler state to have largely resolved its 'native problem' from
the very beginning of its existence.
Still, its population was not large enough in 1949 to build
a strong, economically viable state, and the Arab remnants were
significantly large to pose a future challenge. The Zionist movement
launched then a well organized campaign to obtain the migration
of Arab Jews into Israel. The history of how this happened has
yet to be written; but in the next 15 years an overwhelming majority
of Jews, who had lived in the Arab world for more than a 1,000
years, left for Israel. I believe that history shall harshly judge
Arab governments of the time for making it easy for Israel and
the Zionist movement. They were unthinking and future generation
of Arabs shall pay the price of their prejudice, greed, and incompetence.
Israel's problem seemed to have been resolved.
But history had willed differently. In 1967, the self-styled
"Jewish state" won another war and colonized a million
more Arabs. It wanted to keep the land but not the people. Expulsion
did not quite work this time; only 250,000 left the occupied territories
in the aftermath of the war and a million remained. The PLO rose
to prominence but mimicking wars of liberation, past and present
- Algeria was behind it and Vietnam before - without paying attention
to Palestinian and Israeli realities.
Its great achievements were twofold: it boosted for a while
the badly damaged Palestinian and Arab morale, and it imposed
the question of Palestine upon the consciousness of the world.
Beyond that it failed. Now its failures are proving very costly
indeed to the Palestinian, therefore Arab, future. It seemed to
have no clue to its adversary's schemes, its strengths or vulnerabilities,
and it showed no inclination to develop - so Edward Said kept
telling them - "the discipline of detail." I am tempted
to cite a personal experience.
When I first encountered Arafat, Israel and the Zionist organizations
had already launched a well organized campaign to get the Soviet
Jewry into Israel. This superbly orchestrated, multi-layered campaign
began in earnest a mere two years after the 1967 war. I was appalled
to note that Palestinian and official Arab circles were almost
totally indifferent to this development. They paid no attention
to it even though it had far-reaching implications for their future.
When I first met Yasser Arafat in 1979, I brought the matter
up. He looked bewildered as though wondering what the hell did
it have to do with Palestine. When I explained, he jotted something
in a little notebook, told an aide to look into the matter, and
said to me," Soviet leaders will not allow that to happen."
There it was, an expression of faith in leaders, a disregard of
politics, of organized militancy and the processes it can unfold.
In fact, the Zionist campaign was already succeeding. In the United
States, the Jackson Amendment had linked US-Soviet detente to
the migration of Soviet Jews exclusively to Israel. The PLO and
Arab governments did nothing to counter Israel's extraordinary
campaign to offset the demographic burden of its 1967 conquest.
More than a million Soviet Jews poured into Israel, reinforcing
its exclusionary agenda, and transforming its economic future.
But the Arab problem remains. There are still enough Arabs in
the conquered areas to pose a future threat to Israel's character
as a Jewish state. Five decades more, and the Palestinians will
become too big a lump to live with. At this point in time "transfer",
which is a favoured euphemism in Israel for the expulsion of remaining
Palestinians, is not a realistic option.
Israeli leaders are known to have considered it and concluded
that without a major war this cannot be done on a meaningful scale.
So there is, inevitably, the search for a mechanism of separating
- spatially and juridically - a significant section of Arabs from
Israel. But without relinquishing conquered land, at least not
much of it. All settler roads lead to some form of apartheid.
With a Palestinian leadership sunk in a quagmire of corruption
and collaboration, the Arab states divided and dependent, and
a most beneficent superpower as Israel's patron, the Oslo process
offers an opportunity Israel cannot miss. Even the most hard-line
expansionists like Benjamin Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon cannot
afford to spurn it. So they must shape it the best way they can.
Complaining, protesting, and playing hard to get is part of the
game. A lot of it was on display along the river Wye in rural
Yasser Arafat chose the site. He rejected Camp David because
he did not wish to be linked to what he had once described as
Anwar Sadaat's surrender. This was his only independent contribution
to this 'peace agreement'. Otherwise he handed over the Palestinian
future to President Clinton and his aides. The latter found their
'strategic ally' playing the game in an unusually crude fashion,
and did not quite like it. But then what can one do with a tail
that knows how to wag the dog? The timing - a few days after the
Congress voted to impeach the President and less than two weeks
before the congressional elections - was Clinton's, most unfavourable
to the Arab side and most advantageous to Israel.
Israeli officials could not have walked into the conference
room at Wye holding stronger cards. Bibi Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon
played theirs to the hilt - sulking, pounding, threatening walk-out,
feigning departure, and demanding even an American surrender of
convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard. (Clinton has promised
to review the matter, a precedence unique in US history.) Before
coming late to Wye in Maryland, the venue of the Palestinian-Israeli
summit, Sharon had already visited King Hussein in Texas hospital.
He returned the favour with his helpful, and quite moving presence.
The document signed at the White House is not public at the
time of writing this: only the outlines are known. The Palestinian
Authority (PA) which had municipal control over three per cent
of the West bank will now exercise it on another 13 per cent.
Some 14.2 per cent will be under "joint control". The
remaining 72.8 per cent will remain under Israeli occupation.
In all of the 27.2 per cent of PA administered West Bank, Israel
will continue to hold the occupier's sovereign powers. Israel
will release a hundred Palestinian prisoners it holds, mostly
In return, the PA will deliver to Israel 30 Palestinians identified
by Israel as "terrorists". PA will have its Executive
Committee and the Palestine National Council publicly renounce
a clause in its Charter which it had already renounced, and invite
President Clinton to the re-renunciation ceremony. (The clause
enunciates the goal of destroying Israel as an exclusionary state.)
The PA will take systematic steps to nab terrorists, including
those identified by Israeli authorities. Then there is this innovation:
the American CIA is charged with the responsibility of supervising
and monitoring the Palestinian Authority's anti-terrorist performance.
When Oslo-1 was signed, I had described it as a "peace
of the weak." This one goes further. Readers may wish to
withhold judgment. To me it looks like the rebirth of apartheid,
midwifed by a superpower and legitimated by an international agreement.