Peace is war: Israeli settler-colonialism and the Palestinians

Reframing war as a means to peace was and is an integral element of the Zionist project, writes scholar.

Nakba Day: The right of return
"Herzl's dual approach of declaring peaceful intentions for public consumption behind which he sought to hide Zionism's violent strategy of conquering the land of the Palestinians... continues to be the cornerstone of Israeli policy to the present," writes author [AP]

On the eve of the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, Columbia University Professor Joseph Massad explains how the reframing of the concepts of peace and war were at the core of the Zionist strategy in colonising Palestine.

Ever since its colonial project was set in motion, Zionism has insisted that it seeks to colonise Palestine “peacefully”, indeed that its colonisation of the country will not only not harm the native population, but that it would be of benefit to them.

The movement’s founder, Theodor Herzl himself, provided two visions of this future: A fictional, public vision, advertised in his futurist novel Altneuland, where Palestine would become a Jewish state allowing coexistence with the native Arabs who would be happy and grateful for being colonised and civilised by European Jews; and a secret, logistical and practical strategy to evict the Arab population out of the country, which he spelled out in his Diaries.

Herzl’s dual approach of declaring peaceful intentions for public consumption behind which he sought to hide Zionism’s violent strategy of conquering the land of the Palestinians would be adopted wholesale thenceforward and continues to be the cornerstone of Israeli policy to the present.

Waging war to achieve peace

Indeed, long before George Orwell popularised the expression “war is peace” in his 1949 novel, Zionism understood well that its colonial strategy depended on a deliberate and insistent confusion of the binary terms “war” and “peace”, so that each of them hides behind the other as one and the same strategy: “Peace” will always be the public name of a colonial war, and “war”, once it became necessary and public in the form of invasions, would be articulated as the principal means to achieve the sought after “peace”.

Waging war as peace is so central to Zionist and Israeli propaganda that Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, which killed 20,000 civilians, was termed “Operation Peace for Galilee”. War and peace, therefore, are the same means whose only and ultimate strategic goal is European Jewish colonisation of Palestine and the subjugation and expulsion of Palestine’s native population.

To bring about the expulsion of the Palestinians and the establishment of the Jewish settler colony, Herzl sought the patronage of the powers that controlled the fate of Palestine. Whereas his assiduous efforts to court the Ottomans and persuade them to grant him a charter failed, the Zionist leadership after him adopted his strategy and successfully secured the patronage of Britain, which became the master of Palestine after WWI, as well as Britain’s Hashemite clients, whom the British set up as rulers of Iraq and Transjordan.

The British, themselves, pledged in their infamous Balfour Declaration, that the European Jewish colonisation of Palestine would be conducted under their patronage peacefully, in such a manner “that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”. After WWII, the Zionists successfully secured US support for their colonial project

None of this, however, meant that the Zionists abandoned their public claims that their “peaceful” colonisation of the country would not be harmful to the Palestinians while employing, at the same time, the most violent means to evict the Palestinians off their land.

US support 

The Zionist leader, Vladimir Jabotinsky, following Herzl’s strategy of securing the patronage of major world powers articulated the Zionist position thus:

Zionist colonisation must either stop, or else proceed regardless of the native population. Which means that it can proceed and develop only under the protection of a power that is independent of the native population – behind an iron wall, which the native population cannot breach. That is our Arab policy; not what it should be, but what it actually is, whether we admit it or not. What need we, otherwise, of the Balfour Declaration? Or of the Mandate?  Their value to us is that outside Power has undertaken to create in the country such conditions of administration and security that if the native population should desire to hinder our work, they will find it impossible. 

None of this, however, meant that the Zionists abandoned their public claims that their “peaceful” colonisation of the country would not be harmful to the Palestinians while employing, at the same time, the most violent means to evict the Palestinians off their land. It was, in fact, this public Zionist commitment to “peace” with the Palestinians, whose land they sought to conquer, that provoked the ire of Jabotinsky. The Zionist leaders’ assumption that the Palestinians were bribable, that they could be bought, and that they would accept Jewish domination in exchange for nominal economic benefits was challenged by Jabotinsky on every count. He declared as early as 1923 that:

Our peace-mongers are trying to persuade us that the Arabs are either fools, whom we can deceive by masking our real aims, or that they are corrupt and can be bribed to abandon to us their claim to priority in Palestine, in return for cultural and economic advantages. I repudiate this conception of the Palestinian Arabs. Culturally they are five hundred years behind us, they have neither our endurance nor our determination; but they are just as good psychologists as we are …. We may tell them whatever we like about the innocence of our aims, watering them down and sweetening them with honeyed words to make them palatable, but they know what we want, as well as we know what they do not want. They feel at least the same instinctive jealous love of Palestine, as the old Aztecs felt for ancient Mexico, and the Sioux for their rolling Prairies.

Pitfalls of blind racism

For Jabotinsky, the racism of the Zionist leaders was blinding them to the pitfalls of their strategy. Understanding that no amount of money, and no amount of honeyed words have ever convinced a people to hand over their country to foreign conquerors, he understood that the Palestinians must be defeated militarily as the precondition to their acquiescence in the Zionist project of stealing their country. In this regard, he added:

To imagine, as our Arabophiles do, that [the Palestinians] will voluntarily consent to the realisation of Zionism, in return for the moral and material conveniences which the Jewish colonist brings with him, is a childish notion, which has at [its] bottom a kind of contempt for the Arab people; it means that they despise the Arab race, which they regard as a corrupt mob that can be bought and sold, and are willing to give up their fatherland for a good railway system …. There is no justification for such a belief. It may be that some individual Arabs take bribes. But that does not mean that the Arab people of Palestine as a whole will sell that fervent patriotism that they guard so jealously, and which even the Papuans will never sell. Every native population in the world resists colonists as long as it has the slightest hope of being able to rid itself of the danger of being colonised.

Talk peace, walk war

Hence for Jabotinsky the proper and correct way to secure the Palestinians’ acquiescence is to obliterate any possibility that they could ever stop the colonisation of their country or reverse it once it had been achieved. This will be carried out first by securing an imperial sponsor for the establishment of the Jewish settler colony and by creating, what he called, an “iron wall” defended by a Zionist army, which the Palestinians could not breach. Only then, he surmised, would the Palestinians be ready for a peaceful settlement with their colonial conquerors:

This does not mean that there cannot be any agreement with the Palestine Arabs. What is impossible is a voluntary agreement. As long as the Arabs feel that there is the least hope of getting rid of us, they will refuse to give up this hope in return for either kind words or for bread and butter, because they are not a rabble, but a living people. And when a living people yields in matters of such a vital character it is only when there is no longer any hope of getting rid of us, because they can make no breach in the iron wall. Not till then will they drop their extremist leaders, whose watchword is “Never!” And the leadership will pass to the moderate groups, who will approach us with a proposal that we should both agree to mutual concessions. Then we may expect them to discuss honestly practical questions, such as a guarantee against Arab displacement, or equal rights for Arab citizens, or Arab national integrity …. And when that happens, I am convinced that we Jews will be found ready to give them satisfactory guarantees, so that both peoples can live together in peace, like good neighbours.

Jabotinsky’s views would guide all branches of the Zionist movement after him, not least the dominant Labour Zionism, led by David Ben-Gurion.

Like Herzl, Ben-Gurion would advocate peace with the Palestinians publicly, claiming that the interests of the colonists and the natives were not contradictory, while strategically planning war against the Palestinians in the meetings of the Zionist leadership. However, it would be the logic of Jabotinsky’s arguments that would guide him.

In 1936, amid the Great Palestinian Revolt against Zionist colonisation and British occupation, Ben-Gurion declared: “It is not in order to establish peace in the country that we need an agreement. Peace is indeed a vital matter for us. It is impossible to build a country in a permanent state of war, but peace for us is a means. The end is the complete and full realisation of Zionism. Only for that do we need an agreement.”

For only after total despair on the part of the Arabs, despair that will come not only from the failure of disturbances and the attempt at rebellion, but also as a consequence of our growth in the country, may the Arabs possibly acquiesce in a Jewish Eretz Israel.

by - David Ben-Gurion

Echoing Jabotinsky, Ben-Gurion understood that a “comprehensive” peace agreement with the Palestinians was inconceivable in the 1930s, when the Jewish colonists remained an armed and bellicose minority in the land of the Palestinians. He concluded: “For only after total despair on the part of the Arabs, despair that will come not only from the failure of disturbances and the attempt at rebellion, but also as a consequence of our growth in the country, may the Arabs possibly acquiesce in a Jewish Eretz Israel.”

Capitulation, one state at a time

Elaborating on the idea that peace is war, Ben-Gurion explained clearly to his fellow Zionists that any peace agreement with an Arab party must be designed to formalise their capitulation to Zionist colonisation. This he declared as early as 1949, following the military triumph of the Zionists and their establishment of the settler-colony: “Egypt … is a big state. If we could arrive at the conclusion of peace with it – it would be a tremendous conquest for us.” Israeli scholar Avi Shlaim has documented much of this in his book The Iron Wall.

That “conquest” would have to wait thirty years, but when it was realised through the Camp David Accords with Anwar Sadat in 1978, it formalised Egypt’s recognition of the legitimacy of the Jewish settler-colony, the denial of Palestinian sovereignty or rights, except in some deferred “autonomy” plan, and Egypt’s acquiescence in never re-establishing its sovereignty over the Sinai peninsula, which Israel would return to Egyptian partial control without sovereignty.

The “conquest” of Egypt, of which Ben-Gurion spoke in 1949, was completed at Camp David. At the time, the Palestinians, represented by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had not yet come around formally to accepting that the colonisation of their country was irreversible and continued to seek its liberation from European Jewish colonialism.

As the idea of peace as a means to establish more colonial conquests continued to be entrenched in Zionist considerations, it would be pursued alongside formal war even after Camp David, as evidenced by the multiple invasions of Lebanon in the 1970s, 80s, 90s, and in the new century. These wars would be waged explicitly as part of Israel’s pursuit of “peace” to achieve its colonial aims.

The US convening of the 1991 “peace conference” in Madrid, to which they invited Israel and all the Arab protagonists, excluding the PLO, would not inaugurate a new phase in Israeli strategy as much as formalise its new approach since 1977 – namely concluding “peace” deals with Arab and Palestinian leaders who, in the words of Jabotinsky, had “given up hope”, capitulated completely to Jewish colonialism, and promised not only not to resist Israel but to help it along, while continuing the war against those Arabs and Palestinians who continued to resist Zionism’s colonial logic.

This is part one of a two-part series. Part two will be published on Saturday, November 2.

Joseph Massad teaches modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University in New York. He is the author of ‘The Persistence of the Palestinian Question’.