Israel and the occupation of Palestine

Map of Middle East with Israel and Palestine circled

Israel and its founding ideology – political Zionism – are unique in today’s world for several reasons. Israeli historian Ilan Pappé argued in 2016 that “Zionism is the last remaining active settler-colonialist movement or project”. One South African diplomat insisted in 2018, meanwhile, that “Israel is the only state in the world that can be called an apartheid state”. In January 2021, Israeli human rights group B’Tselem seemed to agree. It wrote:

The Israeli regime enacts in all the territory it [controls] (Israeli sovereign territory, East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip) an apartheid regime. One organizing principle lies at the base of a wide array of Israeli policies: advancing and perpetuating the supremacy of one group – Jews – over another – Palestinians.

One of the state’s biggest acts of brutality in recent years came in 2014. The Israeli military ravaged Gaza, murdering around 1,492 civilians and displacing roughly 500,000. But the staunch support of its Western allies meant its long stretch of impunity continued.

***Key points***

    • The birth of political Zionism, British rule in Palestine, and settler-colonialism.
    • Arab anti-colonialist resistance before and after 1948.
    • Israel moves further and further right, becoming an important ally for anti-communist regimes during Cold War.
    • Western support despite ethnic cleansing, apartheid, and war crimes.

British colonialism in Palestine

Political Zionism as a movement grew in Europe in the late 1800s. It followed on from the recent rise in nationalism throughout the continent. After over 2,000 years of antisemitic persecution, a number of Jewish figures pinned their hopes on a nationalist mission of unity and freedom in a new homeland. The area they’d seek to colonise would be where their ancestors had lived historically – the Palestine region that was largely in Ottoman Syria at the time. Between 25,000 and 35,000 Jewish people moved to this territory from 1882 to 1903.

During the First World War, Russian scientist Chaim Weizmann (later the first president of Israel) helped to convince Britain that it needed to do something to ensure Jewish support for its war efforts. The British foreign secretary in 1917 soon penned a letter that would allegedly pave the way for the 1948 foundation of the state of Israel. He insisted that the government backed the idea of a “national home for the Jewish people in Palestine”. And this statement informed British colonial rule of Palestine after the Ottoman Empire fell.

Britain saw how useful a potential “client state” could be. And when it took control of historic Palestine after the war, it allowed supporters of Zionism into the territory. The colonial rulers also understood the negatives of such a plan, though. And in 1939, Britain released a White Paper stressing that an independent state with Arab and Jewish power-sharing was the best path forwards. Some more progressive Zionists (like HaShomer HaZair) shared this belief of a “mutual accommodation”, along with “class and political solidarity”. But their views weren’t dominant.

Tensions between Arab and Jewish communities

As they entered the territory, many Jewish people bought land and evicted the local peasants. This dynamic helped to spark riots in 1920, 1921, and 1929.

Palestinian journalist Muhammad Achtar argued in 1930 that “Zionists did not care whether or not the Arabs understood” what “their needs, their rights, their claims” were in the territory.

Prominent Zionists, meanwhile, had extreme views on achieving their goals. Menahem Ussishkin, for example, said Jews “must take over the land” and Palestinians “must be transferred to some other place”. David Ben-Gurion (later Israel’s first prime minister) argued that “it is impossible to imagine general evacuation without compulsion, and brutal compulsion”. And he stressed:

Let us not ignore the truth among ourselves… we are the aggressors and they defend themselves

Events in Europe also added to tensions. When Nazis made German Jews stateless in 1935, many people fled to Palestine. This influx helped to spark a long Arab general strike in 1936. An Arab Revolt, meanwhile, lasted from 1936 to 1939. Protests and attacks on Jewish communities tried to push Britain to limit large-scale immigration and land sales. Palestinians also demanded self-government. Zionist ‘terrorists‘ Irgun responded by killing around 250 Arab civilians during this period.

The immense brutality of the Nazi Holocaust from 1941 onwards pushed militant Zionists to increase violence in the run-up to the end of British rule. This mass collective trauma would also harden many people’s resolve for many decades.

Creating the state of Israel through ethnic cleansing

In 1946, Irgun attacked the King David hotel in Jerusalem. It killed 91 people. British colonial rulers were feeling the pressure.

Without British backing for partition, it was clear that US support for creating a Jewish state was key. And in 1947, the UN (which had only 56 members, rather than the 193 of today) successfully voted to split Palestine in two. Middle Eastern members opposed this. The UK abstained. Expecting conflict, Zionist forces prepared themselves militarily for independence.

Israel came into existence in May 1948. Because Arab powers immediately invaded Palestine, though, the UN plan didn’t come to fruition. (Britain had allegedly encouraged this invasion.) And when Israel won the war in 1949, it had taken more territory than it got under UN partition. This meant expelling whole communities from their land in a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Palestinians would call the creation of 700,000 refugees during this period the Nakba (or catastrophe). Today, these people and their families number around seven million refugees.

A Palestinian state, meanwhile, never formed. And due to Israel’s failure to respect the 1948 partition plan, the borders of both territories are an ongoing topic of dispute.

Israel moves further and further to the right

Many Zionist migrants in the early 20th century held certain socialist principles. ‘Labor Zionism‘ was the philosophy that represented these people. And it dominated Israeli politics until 1977. But the movement didn’t put Jewish and Arab workers on an equal footing. So it was essentially a case of ‘socialism for some, not all’ – a mindset that would be complicit in allowing the development of apartheid.

Revisionist Zionism‘ was even more ethnocentric and militaristic, though. Its right-wing followers had connections with Irgun, for example. And after 1977, it became the most powerful political force (largely under the Likud party). Privatisation reportedly became “the most significant, comprehensive and consistent policy” in Israel from the mid-1980s onwards. And new, illegal, settlements on occupied Palestinian land increasingly sprang up.

Neo-Zionism, meanwhile, has benefited from the dominance of Revisionist Zionists in recent decades. Supporters of the former, Stephen Shenfield wrote at Mondoweiss in 2014, “no longer try to deny that the Nakba took place; rather they defend it as necessary and therefore justified”. The school of thought, Prof Gilbert Achcar said in the same year, is “the ideological accompaniment to the right-wing drift of Israel’s society and polity”. From the 1980s onwards, the prominence of the violently racist far-right kahanist movement has increased.

Israel’s Cold War conflicts that made it useful to the West

During the Cold War, the Israeli state’s position among nations which had opposed its creation would be a useful tool for the West. Because the growth of Arab nationalism – and particularly the schools that favoured nationalisation and were happy to interact with the USSR – was a threat to imperialist interests in the region.

Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser would emerge as the big worry for the West early on when he nationalised the important Suez Canal in 1956. This had been under British and French control since 1869. And the fading colonial powers weren’t about to accept the full compensation Nasser offered. So Britain, France, and Israel hatched a plan to invade Egypt and overthrow its leader. They failed, in part due to the US decision not to support them. Israel’s aggression reportedly had a devastating impact on the 50,000-strong Jewish community in Egypt.

While European influence in the Middle East would decrease following the Suez invasion, Israel’s position only grew. And its neighbours weren’t getting any more comfortable with its existence. So having built up its military (and developed a nuclear programme), it suddenly invaded Egypt again in 1967. And this would mark a key moment in Israel’s history.

The six-day war of aggression not only killed around 20,000 Arabs from Egypt and elsewhere, but it also saw Israel occupy the West Bank (previously under Jordanian guardianship), Gaza (under Egyptian control), and other areas. Ethnic cleansing would increase, with illegal settlers entering the West Bank in particular. And the suffocating, humiliating military occupation would gradually build an apartheid system that would last long beyond the end of the Cold War.

A post-Nasser Egyptian-led assault on Israel in 1973, meanwhile, had little success. But it paved the way for Egypt to normalise relations with Israel and come under Washington’s wing.

The official Palestinian opposition

The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) brought different resistance groups under one umbrella in 1964, but only became prominent after the 1967 war. With neighbouring Arab states having failed to end Israel’s occupation, the PLO came to dominate Palestinian resistance in the following years. It pushed for the creation of a secular democracy including both Palestine and Israel. And after a series of guerrilla attacks on Israeli targets around the world, the PLO sought to moderate its strategy in search of international recognition.

Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 to push PLO forces out of the neighbouring country. It achieved this goal. But it also sparked the creation of Hezbollah – a Shia Islamist group that got support and inspiration from the Iranian government. One of Hezbollah’s key goals was to end Israeli interference in Lebanon. A guerrilla conflict against occupying Israeli forces in the south of Lebanon continued until 2000.

The tremors of grassroots resistance

With the shift further rightwards from 1977 onwards in the Israeli government, the illegal settlement of Palestinian territories under occupation increased. And the strengthening nationalist sentiment in Israel would make any plan for partition of land into Israeli and Palestinian states less and less realistic or feasible. The allusion to socialist principles in the early decades of the colonising project had made sense; it had fostered both self-sufficiency and cohesion which helped to form strong national foundations. But by the late 70s, there was no real question of the state being at risk. So many minds were now turning to expansion.

In this environment, a long period of mass Palestinian resistance was not far away. Amid rising dispossession and Israeli repression (following protests against the invasion of Lebanon), there were also many Israelis who wanted peace. So there was cause for anger, and a window of possibility for progress. And when an Israeli vehicle killed four Palestinian workers in late 1987, this sparked the First Intifada (‘shaking off’ or uprising). Protests and riots erupted, and Israeli occupation forces responded with brutality – killing hundreds of Palestinians. This spiralled into greater violence, and the conflict would continue until 1993.

Israeli repression would also contribute to the creation of more violent and less secular groups. Just as the PLO was embracing pragmatism in the search for peace, one Sunni Islamist organisation – Hamas – quickly rose to prominence with its violent tactics. Attacks from such groups would help (along with continuing settlement of occupied territories) to derail efforts to achieve peace during and following the First Intifada, with dozens of Israelis dying as a result.

The Second Intifada and the Apartheid Wall

Peace talks fell apart in 2000, having failed miserably to achieve meaningful progress. Anger and tensions were high as the occupation continued, and a more violent second period of conflict soon began. Israeli forces responded to non-violent protests with extreme violence, and the situation escalated. Britannica notes:

more than 4,300 fatalities were registered, and again the ratio of Palestinian to Israeli deaths was slightly more than 3 to 1.

This period would see Israel build a West Bank “separation barrier”, supposedly to curb Palestinian violence. But it was one of the clearest signs yet of a growing apartheid. It was also a massive land grab, helping the Israeli state to annex illegal settlements on territory under occupation. According to B’Tselem, it “broke up contiguous Palestinian urban and rural blocs”, dividing communities and cutting people off from their land. The International Court of Justice said it was in violation of international law.

Gaza and Hamas

+972 Magazine detailed in 2019:

The idea that Hamas is an Israeli creation is nearly as old as Hamas itself. Researchersjournalists, high-ranking Israeli military and government officials — even Americans — have found substantial evidence to that effect.

In 2009, the Wall Street Journal reported that Israel, “during the Cold War, looked to Islamists as a useful ally against communism”. It explained how Avner Cohen, a former Israeli official, saw how the Israel occupation forces in Gaza “tolerated and, in some cases, encouraged” Islamists there “as a counterweight to the secular nationalists” of the PLO. Rather than cracking down hard as usual, the Israeli military would reportedly step back in the 1980s as “Islamists and secular nationalists” clashed. One Palestinian Islamist said Israel “hoped we would become an alternative to the PLO”. And following the Second Intifada, Palestinians would indeed see Hamas as an alternative.

One of the main results of the Second Intifada was Israel’s withdrawal of settlers from occupied Gaza, and the subsequent blockade of the territory which turned it into what Noam Chomsky has called “the world’s largest open-air prison”. The Israeli pullout from Gaza ended in 2005, but the occupation forces still controlled its airspace and borders. The Palestinian Authority, a product of the peace talks in the early 1990s, soon entered into turmoil as Hamas won elections in 2006. The PLO’s main group, Fatah, had lost popular support and Hamas was the bold newcomer that attracted people with promises of change and resistance.

The blockade and collective punishment of Gaza

Because of Hamas involvement in violence in previous years, Israel and its US and EU allies placed sanctions on Gaza. Fatah managed to take back the West Bank in 2007 but Hamas continued to rule Gaza. Then, Israel ramped up its attempts to strangle the territory with border closures, power cuts, import restrictions, and military attacks. Hamas and other forces in Gaza resisted in different ways, including with the limited weaponry available to them. And Israeli forces would periodically punish the territory with massive shows of force.

The blockade, Vox said in 2014, “helps produce a climate that is hospitable to extremism”. It added that the popularity of Hamas and violent resistance had grown from people’s “hopelessness and distrust in Israel and the peace process”, which had failed to ensure any meaningful progress.

As Chomsky explained in 2012, the Israeli state broke a truce with Hamas in 2008 “for no good reason” in what was “one of the most cowardly and vicious exercises of military force in recent memory”. The attack inflicted immense damage on the already besieged Gaza, and killed around 1,400 Palestinians – mostly civilians. It injured thousands more. Three Israelis died. Numerous organisations condemned apparent war crimes during the offensive.

After serving as prime minister from 1996 to 1999, Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power in 2009; and he wasn’t prepared to compromise, rejecting peace efforts from the Barack Obama administration.

Another massacre in Gaza

Both in Israel and neighbouring countries, there was an increasing view between 2013 and 2014 that peaceful co-existence between Israel and a Palestinian state was not possible. And in 2014, Israel attacked Gaza again, killing around 1,492 civilians and injuring around 11,000 people. Five Israeli civilians also died. Again, the occupying power devastated the territory indiscriminately and disproportionately. It was collectively punishing Gaza, with impunity for alleged war crimes..

According to +972 Magazine in 2019, “keeping Hamas in power has become a central policy of the entire Israeli right”. This was largely because it helped to divide the two blocks of Palestinian land under occupation – undermining the prospect of one Palestinian state and one collective body of opposition to the Israeli state’s colonial project. And the ‘security’ excuse for attacking Gaza also allowed frequent opportunities for the Israeli military to test its latest weapons on a real battlefield.

As Mehdi Hasan outlined in 2017, such military offensives were just the brutal tip of the iceberg. Because five decades of occupation had meant consistent:

  • “Dispossession and ethnic cleansing”
  • Demolition of property
  • Severe restrictions on movement
  • Torture
  • Discrimination and a “two-tier justice system”
  • “Humiliation and subjugation”

2018-2019 protests on the Gaza border

Around 70% of people in Gaza are refugees from the Nakba. And in the Great March of Return protests from 2018 to 2019, Gazans marched to the Israeli separation fence every Friday to demand “the right to return to their ancestors’ homes” within modern-day Israel. The protests were largely peaceful, though a small handful of people also threw Molotov cocktails and stones at Israeli soldiers or sent burning kites over the fence. The Israeli military faced accusations of using excessive force against the protesters.

The UN reported that:

214 Palestinians, including 46 children, were killed, and over 36,100, including nearly 8,800 children, have been injured.

One Israeli soldier died.

The UN also described the “widespread mental health and psychosocial consequences” of the violence.

2021 attack on Gaza

The Israeli military launched a new offensive on Gaza on 10 May 2021. By 17 May, it had reportedly killed around 200 people there, including at least 58 children. Israel had reported 10 deaths, including two children. Occupation forces bombed numerous civilian buildings, including one housing several media organisations. B’Tselem stressed on 15 May that, by “killing blockaded civilians and destroying infrastructure on a massive scale”, the Israeli state “is committing war crimes in the Gaza Strip”.

As with previous attacks, the Israeli state used ‘self-defence‘ arguments to justify its actions. But numerous academics have pointed out that, as the occupier, Israel does not have the right to ‘self-defence’ against occupied Palestine. Instead, it has a legal obligation to ensure and prioritise Palestinians’ wellbeing. The mainstream Western media, however, continued to insist that Israel has a right to defend itself while shying away from giving Palestinians the same right. This is in spite of the UN previously recognising the legitimacy of struggles for “liberation from colonial and foreign domination and foreign occupation by all available means, including armed struggle”.

The development of apartheid

Human rights group BADIL explained in 2012:

Consecutive Israeli governments have discriminated against its Palestinian minority since the establishment of the State of Israel until this very day. Palestinians in Israel are collectively treated as second class citizens.

This lower status extends from education to housing, and from employment to land ownership. In Jerusalem, the state can ‘easily revoke‘ the “permanent residency” of Palestinian inhabitants. And Palestinian writer Jalal Abukhater stressed in 2014:

tax-paying Arab residents of the city receive little to none of the services they pay for and deserve, while Jewish neighborhoods are almost always lavishly serviced.

He also mentioned the refugee camp of Jerusalem’s Shuafat. This, he said, was a “blatant example” of “institutional racism and segregation”. He also described the violence that Palestinians and Christians face from ultra-nationalist Jewish mobs.

The city of Hebron, meanwhile, is one of the clearest examples of settler-colonial apartheid. It is in the occupied West Bank. And it’s “the only Palestinian city that has internal Jewish settlements”. Israeli soldiers restrict Palestinian movement, suffocating both “social and economic life”. B’Tselem explains:

The extreme restrictions on Palestinian movement together with violence by settlers and security forces have made life intolerable for Palestinians, leading to a mass exodus and the economic ruin of the downtown area.

It also describes how:

Israeli authorities impose a regime intentionally and openly based on the “principle of separation”, the result of which is legal and physical segregation between the Israeli settlers and the Palestinian residents.

In April 2021, Human Rights Watch released a report finding that “Israeli authorities are committing the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution”.

Ethnic tension between settlers?

There have also been historic accounts of European Jewish settlers in Israel receiving preferential treatment over non-European Jewish settlers. The latter, for example, have reportedly:

long complained of discrimination by the European-descended elite that traditionally dominated the government, military and economy.

Jewish and non-Jewish opposition to the Israeli state

There are many anti-Zionist Jews (both secular and religious). Anti-Zionists from the ultra-orthodox community, for example, have long come into conflict with the Israeli state. The Neturei Karta movement in particular reserves very harsh words of criticism for political Zionism. Many Israeli citizens, meanwhile, have refused to join the Israeli army on grounds of conscientious objection or pacifism. Others have protested against Israel’s military attacks on Palestine; and they’ve faced violence from nationalist mobs as a result.

Jewish survivors of the holocaust and their descendants have also spoken out. Over 200 of these condemned the 2014 massacre in Gaza, for example. They opposed “the ongoing occupation and colonization of historic Palestine”. They also criticised US funding and arming of Israel. And they chastised the West in general for ‘protecting Israel from condemnation’. They added concern about the “extreme, racist dehumanization of Palestinians in Israeli society”. Then, they called for “the full economic, cultural and academic boycott of Israel”, stressing:

Genocide begins with the silence of the world….

“Never again” must mean “Never again for anyone”.

Other holocaust survivors have also compared Israeli state actions to those of the Nazis.

The absence of meaningful international pressure

Amid massive US support for the Israeli state despite its ongoing colonial violence (and arms sales from other Western nations like the UK), it’s clear that there will be no meaningful international pressure on Israel to change its behaviour any time soon.

Without the ethnocratic state feeling such pressure, it seems very unlikely that it will ensure the democratic rights of everyone in the lands it occupies. Instead, the opposite is likely. Greg Shupak wrote in 2014:

Israel strives to balance its desire to maximize the territory it controls against the imperative of minimizing the number of Palestinians living in the territories it seeks to use for its own purposes. …

This doesn’t just mean denying refugees the right to return, but also creating an inhospitable environment that pushes people to leave. The mass destruction of civilian infrastructure in Gaza is a key example of this apparent tactic.

Shupak also suggested that US imperialism benefits from having an ally which supports its interests (and is willing to kill to help secure natural resources) and whose actions foster instability which it can use as an excuse to intervene in the Middle East.

With Western allies (and establishment media) unlikely to act, and Israel less likely to do so without real pressure, grassroots global action has become a necessity.

Trump boosts Netanyahu

When Donald Trump became US president at the start of 2017, he did his best to please the far-right extremists among his support base. And one way of doing this was to back the Israeli government to the hilt. One of the most controversial decisions he made was to recognise occupied Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the US embassy there. Countries around the world, including US allies, condemned this. Presidents before Trump had delayed such a decision (since a US Congress vote in 1995), because they knew how provocative it would be. Trump didn’t care.

Trump also recognised the annexation of the illegally occupied Golan Heights. And doing his best to help prop up his ideological bedfellow Netanyahu amid corruption allegations, his administration eventually came out with a ‘deal‘ that Palestinians didn’t agree to and that gave the Israeli state all it wanted.

Trump also managed to ‘normalise’ some relationships between Israel and countries in the Middle East – with the help of arms deals. And by controversially recognising Moroccan claims over occupied Western Sahara, he got Morocco to establish normal relations with Israel too.

One more aspect of Trump’s time in power was that he tried to smear his opponents as antisemites. To sidestep allegations about him being antisemitic, meanwhile, he just highlighted how much support he’d given to Israel. The fact was, however, that most Jewish-Americans disapproved of his rule; and most felt less safe than they had previously.

Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS)

As the BDS movement website says, the campaign “is a Palestinian-led movement”:

Inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement, the BDS call urges action to pressure Israel to comply with international law.

“Unions, academic associations, churches and grassroots movements across the world” now support the campaign, which launched in 2005.

Historian Ilan Pappé is one of the most prominent Israeli supporters of BDS. He has stressed that in order to spark change among Israeli elites, such a shift in international tactics is essential. He explained that:

As long as the international community waits for the oppressed to transform their positions, while validating those upheld by the oppressor since 1967, this will remain the most brutal occupation the world has seen since World War II.

He also slammed cynical attempts by pro-Israeli lobbyists to smear BDS supporters as somehow antisemitic.

Many other Jewish-led groups have also backed BDS.

The BDS movement calls for people to:

  • Support current campaigns
  • Learn about which companies benefit from the Israeli occupation
  • Join local BDS groups


Music against the occupation

Check out our playlist of music opposing the occupation below:

Note: The opinions expressed in the lyrics of the songs above do not necessarily represent the principles of Phoenix Media Co-operative.

Lead contributor Ed Sykes

Main article image via Ktrinko