Israel and Palestine in 2018: Decolonisation, not peace

Seventy years after the creation of the Israeli state, we can no longer talk about an Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Apartheid in Paletine [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]
Israel has become an apartheid state, writes Ilan Pappe [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]

The founders of the state of Israel were mainly people who settled in Palestine in the very beginning of the 20th century. They came mostly from Eastern Europe, inspired by romantic national ideologies rampant in their home countries, disappointed by their inability to assimilate into these new nationalist movements and excited by the prospects of modern-day colonialism. 

Some were veterans of socialist movements hoping to fuse their romantic nationalism with socialist experiments in the new colonies. Palestine was not always their only option, but it turned into the preferred one when it became clear that it fits well with the strategies of the British Empire and the world view of powerful Christian Zionists on both sides of the Atlantic.

Since the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and throughout the British Mandate period of 1918-1948, European Zionists began to build the infrastructure for a future state with the help of the British Empire. We now know that these founders of the modern Jewish state were aware of the presence of a native population with its own aspirations and vision for the future of their homeland. 

The solution to this “problem” – as far as the founding fathers of Zionism were concerned – was to de-Arabise Palestine to pave the way for the rise of the modern Jewish State. Whether socialist, nationalist, religious or secular, the Zionist leadership contemplated the depopulation of Palestine since the 1930s.

Close to the end of the British Mandate, it became clear to the Zionist leadership that what they imagined as a democratic state could only exist on the basis of an absolute Jewish presence in its territory.

Seventy years of sustained ethnic cleansing

While officially accepting the partition-enforcing UN Resolution 181 of 29 November 1947 (knowing it would be rejected by the Palestinians and the Arab world), they regarded it as disastrous, as it envisaged almost an equal number of Palestinians and Jews in the Jewish state. The fact that only 54 percent of Palestine were accorded to the Jewish state in that resolution was also deemed unsatisfactory.

The Zionist response to these challenges was to embark on an ethnic cleansing operation that expelled half of Palestine’s population and demolished half of its villages and most of its towns. An insufficient and late pan-Arab response could not prevent a Zionist takeover of 78 percent of the Palestinian territories.

However, these “achievements” did not solve the “Palestine problem” for the newly founded state of Israel. At first, it seemed manageable: The Palestinian minority left inside Israel was put under a harsh military rule, while the world did not seem to mind or question the Israeli pretence to being the only democracy in the Middle East. Moreover, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) was only founded in 1964 and was slow to affect the reality on the ground.


Then, it seemed as if leaders of the Arab world, such as Gamal Abdel Nasser, would come to Palestine’s rescue. This historical moment of hope, however, was brief. The defeat of the Egyptian army in the June 1967 war and its partial success in the October 1973 war diminished the Egyptian official commitment to Palestine. Ever since then, no Arab regime has taken a genuine interest in the fate of Palestine, despite the fact it has been fully embraced by Arab societies.

The June 1967 war allowed Israel to take over the whole of mandatory Palestine, but that only deepened the settler conundrum it was already facing: More space brings more native population.

The war also transformed the core leadership of the Jewish state: the pragmatic Labour party was replaced by the right-wing revisionists and nationalists who cared less about Israel’s external image. Instead, they were determined to keep the occupied territories as part of the state of Israel, while continuing the 1948 ethnic cleansing by other means: transferring, enclaving the local population and robbing it of any elementary civil and human rights, and at the same time institutionalising a new legal framework for the Palestinian minority inside Israel that perpetuated their status as second-rate citizens.

Palestinian resistance in the form of two intifadas and civil protests inside Israel did not deter the Jewish state from establishing at the start of this century an apartheid Jewish state all over historical Palestine. The Palestinian resistance – ignored by the Arab countries and the rest of the world – evoked harsh and barbarous Israeli actions that eroded Israel’s moral status in the world.

However, the “war on terror” after the 9/11 attacks and the bitter fruits of both the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring allowed Israel to maintain its strategic alliances with the political and economic elites in the West and beyond (with China and India, and even Saudi Arabia).

This ambiguous international status so far has not undermined Israel’s economic realities. It is a high- tech country, with a neo-liberal economy that did well in the 2008 crisis, but that has one of the highest wealth gaps and polarisation among members of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. This volatile socioeconomic reality generated a popular but rather ineffective protest movement in 2011. However, the potential for another major protest wave is still present, and could be triggered if there is another Palestinian uprising or a war due to the present reckless policies of US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Both are currently doing their best to drag Israel into a war with Iran and Hezbollah.

From decolonisation to peace

Seventy years after its establishment, Israel stands as a racist, apartheid state, whose structural oppression of the Palestinians remains the principal obstacle to peace and reconciliation.

It has achieved a lot in fusing together Jewish communities from around the world into a new Hebrew culture and established the strongest army in the region. However, all these achievements have not legitimised the state in the eyes of many across the world.

Paradoxically, it is only the Palestinians who could grant full legitimacy to such a state or accept as legitimate the presence of millions of Jewish settlers by pursuing a one-state solution.


The peace process imitated and orchestrated by the US since 1967 completely ignored the question of Israeli legitimacy and the Palestinian perspective of the conflict. This disregard along with the diplomatic efforts that did not challenge the Zionist ideology informing the attitudes of most Israeli Jews are the main reasons for its failure.

In 2018, one cannot talk about the Arab-Israeli conflict any more. Arab regimes are willing to enter strategic relations with Israel, despite the objection of their citizens and while there is still a risk for an Israeli war with Iran, at this moment in time, it does not look like it is going to involve any of the Arab states.

It seems that from our vantage point it is useless to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict either. The correct terminology to describe the present state of affairs is continuing Israeli colonisation of historical Palestine, or as the Palestinians call it “al-Nakba al-Mustamera” (the ongoing Nakba).

Thus, 70 years on, one has to resort to a term that might seem outdated in order to describe what can genuinely bring peace and reconciliation to Israel and Palestine: decolonisation. How exactly this will occur is yet to be seen. It would require first of all a more precise and united Palestinian position on the political endgame or the updated vision of the project of liberation.

This vision will be supported by progressive Israelis and the international community, which will have to do their bit as well. They have to work towards the creation of a democracy for all from the river to the sea based on the restitution of the rights denied to the Palestinians in the last 70 years, foremost of which is the right of the refugees to return.

This is not a plan for the short term and would require sustained pressure on the Israeli society to give up its privileges and face the truth that this is the only way to bring peace and reconciliation to a country torn from within.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.