gaza the nakbah and occupation

Would you like Maccabees with that? — i

Thursday 8 February 2024 7:06 PM

You know all those memes and opinion pieces that have been flooding the internet linking the 2023-4 Gaza war with the second century BC Maccabean revolt? Neither do I. No one seems to be writing them. I think someone should. And whilst I (a) can't claim any expertise on the political history of the intertestamental period and (b) don't have a profile to speak of, I'm going to start. 

Well actually, I won’t. Not immediately, that is … I’ll return to the Maccabees later in Part 3. Here I’ll begin with a brief historical and reflective sketch of the beginnings of modern Israel, including Zionism.

From an Israeli or Zionist perspective, the 1948 creation of the modern state of Israel is a just cause deserving of the world's favour. And indeed without doubt the Jewish people have suffered a raw deal from the world and history, over millennia. But at least for observant (or 'religious') Jews, the ancient faith of Israel, grounded in the faith of Abraham, has sustained them. Theirs is a faith that says they are God's, that God hears them, and that God will preserve and deliver them as in the past. And for many (importantly not all), that faith has brought with it a hope of literal, physical restoration to the land God had promised in perpetuity to Abraham and his descendants. And just to add to the flavour, some sectors of the Christian community have come to share in that hope on behalf of the Jews’, finding in that 1948 moment a sign pointing to nothing less than the longed-for return or second-coming of Christ.  

From a modern political perspective alone, regardless of religiosity, as the dawn of the twentieth century approached, it became increasingly clear to the leaders of Britain, continental Europe and the US at least, that a homeland should be found for the Jewish people. What better way could there have been for assuring the lasting security and freedom they had long deserved? (And note, this was decades prior to the rise of Hitler in Germany, and the ensuing Nazi Holocaust or genocide). Several parts of the world were seriously considered for what was an essentially political project. Among them were Uganda, Madagascar and (later) even north-west Australia. What was required was an uninhabited region, or at least one not significantly populated.

But from a Zionist standpoint, only one location was ever worth considering. It must be that land, the land God gave to Abraham and his descendants in ancient biblical times. Palestine in other words was the land to which the Jewish people were entitled, as it were, by divine right. The Zionists envisioned a Jewish homeland, in Palestine, inhabited exclusively by Jews. This was at once a political solution and a religious one. And in time that solution would carry the day, aided to some extent by a minor but influential undercurrent in nineteenth century British thought, sometimes identified as British Israelism.

But how do you bring about an exclusive homeland for a newly-created modern political entity in a piece of land already inhabited by another people group, who've lived, farmed and buried their dead there, for millennia? However you describe it on paper, massaging it as you will, it can only happen by dispossession in one form or another. As with the original envisioning of the 'project', so with the implementation, there were essentially two visions of the new entity: the British-then-UN vision, and the Zionist one. The former (the UN) would finally be monitors and observers, the latter (the Zionist leaders of Israel) would be the implementers.

The creation of the state of Israel in Palestine was essentially set in concrete, becoming a fait accompli, with Britain's 1917 Balfour Declaration. From the following year Palestine became a region governed and managed by Britain under a 'Mandate'. What Britain envisaged was an Israeli state on land cohabited by Jews and the existing inhabitants, who came to be known as Palestinians. The arrangement was to involve division of the land into territories for each. When in 1947 Britain announced an end to their Mandate in Palestine the following year, the mantle of overseeing the establishment of the new state passed to the newly formed (post World War II) United Nations. The UN 'inherited' the plan, issuing a fresh map delineating the respective territories. The UN's expectation was that come 15 May 1948, with the final withdrawal of British troops the previous day, all existing Palestinian inhabitants of the land would become full citizens of the new State of Israel.

And so it happened, over the space of about a year, commencing formally on that date. “It” being for the Zionist leaders the culmination of a dream, the formation and establishment of their Jewish state, incorporating progressively control and settlement of as much as possible of the land known as Palestine; indeed ideally all of it. That meant however that “it” was something very different indeed for the existing Palestinian inhabitants. For them it has gone down in history as “the Nakbah”, an Arabic term meaning simply “catastrophe”. That's what it was for the Palestinian people then. And that, for their descendants, is the historical backdrop to all that's happened in that land in the 76 years since.

My contention, in company with a great many academics and commentators far more expert than I, is that the world community can only effectively respond to the present war in Gaza, and the wider ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, by first coming to terms with the character of the initial implementation of the state of Israel, that event known by Palestinians as the Nakbah. And so my coming Part 2 will address this, largely by way of an overview of an important book.