As Gaza burns – once again – an important essay turns up in the New York Book Review. It happens with this conflict: a piece of writing that penetrates the hopeless evil. Last time it was Rachel Corrie’s emails; this time its Nathan Thrall’s One man’s quest to find his son.
Nathan Thrall is a journalist who has been based with a human rights organisation in Jerusalem and who has gradually realised the hopelessness of monitoring abuses in the West Bank and Gaza. Instead he has written this long essay, based around the death of a kindergarten-aged boy on a school bus which suffered a head on collision with a settler-driven vehicle driving on the wrong side of the road. When the news of the accident reaches his father, Abed, a tortuous journey begins involving detours, checkpoints, confusion as to possible hospitals the boy may have been taken to, ID problems of access, until he eventually discovers the charred corpse of his son.
The author uses the incident to unpack the dense bureaucracy of the apartheid regime that Israel has imposed on Palestinians. We can forget that (as in South Africa) the running of an apartheid state requires bureaucracy at every level of society: ID cards, residence permits, travel permits, work permits, building permits, school systems, health systems, policing, tax, roads, walls and borders, checkpoints, judicial and prison systems… it becomes immensely complex, absurd and oppressive.
But as well as revealing this, the essay articulates the history of the desire behind the system: the desire to rid the land now called Israel of Palestinian Arabs, a desire, in fact, for ethnic cleansing. In 1948, four out of five Palestinian inhabitants were made refugees. In 1967 one in four of those remaining were expelled. Nevertheless, the higher Palestinian birth rate means half the population are Arab. The Israeli dilemma becomes then, ‘ On one hand the inability to erase the Palestinians; on the other, the unwillingness to give them political and civil rights.’ The compromise solution to this dilemma has been the building of Jewish settlements, walls and roads, in order to fragment the Palestinian population, so that it lives in scattered pieces and cannot organise as a collective. And then to impose various decrees, laws and restrictions onto these Bantustans. And the contrast of wealth and infrastructure between the settlements and the Palestinian fragments is huge. Anger and despair builds. In a final irony, the task of administrating daily life in these areas of extreme oppression is given to a local Palestinian ‘authority’.
But the traditional task remains: Jews must take over the land and while that task is being achieved, international efforts to resolve the conflict must be ‘parried and delayed’. As Thrall relates, there is now a historical narrative to the attempts to realise this desire, expressed by the 19th century Zionists as follows: To take possession in due course of Palestine and to restore to the Jews the political independence of which they have been deprived for two thousand years. This entailed firstly an infiltration of settlers and then the lobbying for a state. But how to justify a small number of Jews, mainly from the Russian Empire, taking over Palestine against the will of the majority? Jews may have deserved a safe haven , but that does not give a right to dispossess, and even so, the original Zionist agenda was not a response to persecution but rather a resisting of the assimilation of Jewish identity.
Partition was accepted as a step toward obtaining the whole of Palestine and after the establishing of Israel the project of colonisation really began. Land and houses were confiscated, curfews imposed, political parties banned and Palestinians constantly humiliated. Because it had become an absurd contradiction, there was a change from a secular, semi- socialist vision of ‘Jewish redemption within the salvation of humanity’, to a religious nationalism based on the bible. And this vision had to be fundamentalist for it would be undermined by any acceptance of a Palestinian right to self determination, which would also mean the acceptance of the refugees’ right to return and that a minority has not the right to impose on a majority.
The basically fantastic claim that the bible constitutes a land deed and that a group has the right to reclaim a territory after a two thousand year absence has to be maintained at all costs. All the secular ethical arguments have to be rejected. Accordingly, the state of Israel has never recognised the existence of an Israeli nationality. Israel is, instead, the state of the Jewish people, viewed as a single nation and spread throughout the world. The children of a non Jewish mother and a Jewish father are not Jewish, are not citizens, and whoever disconnects Jewish nationality from its religious foundations is a traitor. Israel cannot therefore entertain a liberal, secular, democratic agenda. It is necessarily an apartheid state, financed by the US government
And Abed mourns for his son.
The essay can be read at: https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2021/03/19/a-day-in-the-life-of-abed-salama/