“In Safsaf, after the inhabitants had hoisted the white flag, the soldiers gathered the men and women into separate groups, bound the hands of 50 or 60 villagers, shot them, then buried them all in the same pit.”
Yosef Nahmani, a senior officer of the Haganah, wrote these words in his diary on 6 November 1948, recounting the mass slaughter of Palestinians by the armed force of the Jewish Agency six months earlier. The atrocity was part of the larger operation of what became known as al-Nakba (“the catastrophe” in Arabic).
Another Israeli veteran, Amnon Neumann, described how the army drove Palestinians off their land. “We burned their houses”, he said. And when villagers tried to sneak back to tend to their crops during the night, “We would shoot and kill them”.
Eighty-seven-year-old Palestinian Ebtihaj Dola later recounted the horrific scenes she witnessed in Jaffa during al-Nakba. “We would see the dead bodies on the ground”, she said. “They [Zionist militia members] would move around the streets in their cars and shoot randomly. People walking would just drop dead.”
From 1947 to 1949, at least 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes. During al-Nakba, Zionist forces razed 530 villages and slaughtered at least 15,000 Palestinians.
This is how the state of Israel was born.
Zionism is the ideological base on which Israel was created. It emerged among a small section of the European Jewish middle classes in the late nineteenth century in response to anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish pogroms. They concluded that the persecution of Jews was an inevitable product of Jewish existence in gentile societies. Consequently, some of them began a campaign to establish a Jewish homeland.
In August 1897, the first Zionist congress began in Basle, Switzerland. The founding father of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, declared: “We want to lay the foundation stone for the house which will become the refuge of the Jewish nation”.
Palestine became this foundation stone.
Early Zionist leaders argued that the indigenous population had to be uprooted to establish a Jewish state. In 1895, Herzl wrote in his diary that Zionists would need to “spirit the penniless [Palestinian] population across the border by denying it any employment in our own country ... Both the process of expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discreetly and circumspectly”.
Under the umbrella of the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency and the Jewish Colonial Trust were established to facilitate Jewish emigration and the colonisation of Palestine. The National Fund bought large chunks of land for kibbutzim, cooperative Zionist settlements. From 1922 to 1941, more than 150 settlements were established across 1,604,800 dunams of land (about 160,000 hectares).
The leading Zionist trade union federation, the Histadrut, spearheaded twin goals of creating an exclusively Jewish economy and evicting Palestinian labour. In the 1930s, the Histadrut led roaming pickets of Jewish workers, who travelled to different workplaces to forcibly expel Palestinians from their jobs.
Coercive control underpinned every initiative of the Zionist movement. Brute force was necessary both as a means to ethnically cleanse the indigenous population and to instil in their minds a fear that would keep them from returning. Revisionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky shared this outlook in his infamous 1923 Iron Wall speech. “Zionism is a colonisation adventure and therefore it stands or falls by the question of armed force”, he wrote. “[I]t is important ... to speak Hebrew, but, unfortunately, it is even more important to shoot.”
Military and paramilitary bodies like the Haganah, the Irgun and the Stern Gang carried out at least 44 massacres from 1937 to 1947. This was partly in reaction to an insurgent wave of Palestinian resistance. But it also reflected the growing ambitions of the movement. According to a 1948 report on the Deir Yassin massacre, filed by the British delegation to the United Nations, the Haganah killed “some 250 Arabs, men, women and children in circumstances of great savagery” near Jerusalem.
The creation of Israel also proved to be a victory for Western imperialism. The Middle East was at the centre of European great power rivalry in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The region was considered vital to the European powers because it connected trade from Western Europe to Asia. The ruling classes of Europe viewed control of the Middle East as key in vying for global dominance.
Zionist leaders saw in this an opportunity. Possessing neither the military power nor the diplomatic clout to colonise Palestine on their own, they looked to European powers to help them. In his 1896 pamphlet The Jewish State, Theodore Herzl laid out a strategy to win European support. A Jewish state in the Middle East would “form a portion of the rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilisation as opposed to barbarism”, he wrote.
In 1917, the British issued the Balfour Declaration, a statement backing the Zionist state-building project. They forged an alliance with the Zionist movement to bolster the power of the British crown. Winston Churchill made this clear in a 1920 article, “Zionism Versus Bolshevism”. He wrote that a Jewish state under the protection of the British “would from every point of view be beneficial ... in harmony with the truest interests of the British empire”.
With the support of Britain, the Zionist project gained momentum. In 1882, there were only 24,000 Jewish people in Palestine. By 1914, the number had increased to 85,000. From 1919 to 1923, another 85,000 Jewish people immigrated to Palestine. Waves of immigration were either implicitly endorsed or directly sponsored by the British state. So too was the violence meted out to Palestinians who resisted colonisation.
In response to the 1936 Palestinian revolt, the British unleashed a wave of terror. Workers were massacred and their villages razed. The brutality of the British emboldened the Zionist paramilitaries to consolidate their strength on the ground. This led to a marked increase in anti-Palestinian pogroms in the years before al-Nakba.
The post-World War Two order was shaped by the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, the Middle East becoming a key battleground. Israel offered itself as a regional “watchdog” to the West, acting as a bulwark against the growing Arab nationalist movement and Soviet influence.
In 1951, Israel’s leading newspaper, Haaretz, articulated what Israel was to become in the coming years: “The watchdog ... to punish one or several neighbouring states whose discourtesy to the West went beyond the bounds of permissible”.
The watchdog proved itself more of a pit bull. In 1956, in response to Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalising the Suez Canal, Israel teamed with the British and French to invade Egypt. Eager to prove itself a trusted ally of the West, and eyeing territorial expansion, Israel used the Suez crisis to mark itself out as a key player in the Middle East.
Israel showed itself to be America’s key ally in the Middle East following its victory in the 1967 Six-Day War. The Israeli army crushed Syrian, Jordanian and Egyptian forces, capturing the West Bank, the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip, the whole of Jerusalem and the Sinai peninsula. This was called the Naksa (Arabic for “setback”).
In the West Bank, more than half of the land and two-thirds of the water were seized for Jewish settlements. In Gaza, 2,200 Jewish settlers got 40 percent of the land, while half a million Palestinians were forced into enclaves. The seizure of these territories shaped the oppression and resistance of Palestinians in the coming decades.
America’s support for the Zionist project is based on a cynical assessment of its imperialist interests in the Middle East. Israel was moulded into one of the world’s most powerful military powers with the help of the US. Israel is the largest recipient of US aid; its military is funded to the tune of US$3.8 billion every year.
While Israel and the West have a happy marriage, the Zionist project is not simply a vessel for Western imperialism. Israel’s drive to expand and the Zionist vision of “Greater Israel” were the impetus for its invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
At times, the actions of Israel have grated against the interests of the US. But the relationship remains steadfast. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken earlier this year visited Jerusalem. In a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he described US-Israeli relations as “ironclad”.
Zionist leaders looked to the ruling classes that oppressed them, and much of the world, as their partners. While millions of Jewish workers heroically fought and died for their liberation throughout the twentieth century, Zionist leaders pursued the dispossession of Palestinians in a bid to rule. This was a huge betrayal of the colonised and oppressed everywhere.
Today Israel is headed by the most right-wing government in its history. Fascist ministers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir believe that Palestinians are an invention of the past, that disloyal Palestinian citizens of Israel should be expelled and that entire towns should be wiped out. For this they have been denounced by the traditional political establishment.
But, contrary to liberal Zionist narratives, Israel’s far right is not an aberration. It is a result of dynamics intrinsic to Israel as a settler-colonial state. Israel’s founding laws are rooted in this logic.
Discriminatory migration policies like the landmark 1950 Law of Return granted the right of every Jewish person in the world to immigrate to Israel, while denying expelled Palestinians the right of return. Official institutions such as the Jewish National Fund facilitated the dispossession of Palestinians through purchasing large areas of land in the West Bank.
Official laws and practices that oppress Palestinians dovetail with overt forms of state violence. This is intended to resolve the “demographic threat” that Palestinians pose (that is, their existence as a growing minority of the population). In the Gaza Strip, 2.1 million Palestinians live under a state of permanent blockade. Israel rules its borders and airspace, restricting the importation of essential goods such as food and fuel.
In 2003, Netanyahu warned of the danger posed by the growing Palestinian population inside Israel. He oversaw the construction of a 700km wall to curb this “demographic spillover” of Palestinians from the West Bank. The separation of Palestinians between the occupied territories dovetails with the policy of “Judaisation”—the expansion of settlements to maximise Jewish Israeli control over land.
There is a symbiotic relationship between the official policies of colonisation and ethnic cleansing, and the grassroots Jewish settler movement in the West Bank. Settlers are protected by the Israeli military and politically supported by fascist ministers when they go on rampages in Palestinian villages. This was the case in Huwara earlier this year. Settlers are a strategic tool in the hands of the state to create “facts on the ground”—to steal land and to expel Palestinians.
In 2018, the Knesset passed the Nation-State Law. This further solidified the second-class status of Palestinian citizens of Israel. The Nation-State Law affirmed what has always been at the core of Israel: the supremacy of the “Jewish” over the “democratic” character of the state.
While the law was a definitive entrenchment of Jewish supremacy, a sober examination of Israel’s history reveals that it has always been an apartheid state founded on Palestinian oppression.
Israel colonised and ethnically cleansed Palestine in 1948. It soon became Western imperialism’s pit bull in the Middle East. The hardline colonisers in power today sit atop more than a century of Palestinian dispossession, ethnic cleansing and genocide.