IF we thought that colonalism is over and done with, think again.
The latest issue on the US shifting the capital of Israel to Jerusalem is a stark testimony to colonialism at work. Unfortunately, the Malaysian media describe the phenomenon as “Israeli occupation”, “Israel-Palestine conflict” or, ironically, “Palestine conflict”. And the Arabic-language Palestinian media in the West Bank and Gaza Strip — al-ihtilal — the occupation.
The fight between two unequal enemies cannot be described as a “conflict”.
Those descriptions are erroneous, denying political rights to a people and erasing Palestine and the Palestinians — the dispossession of knowledge, history and identity.
It is colonialism at its worst, a crime against humanity before our very eyes. Even the book, Enemies and Neighbours: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel, 1917-2017 (2017), cannot be entirely spared from that misrepresentation, although it attempted to give equal voice to the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Nevertheless, author Ian Black made a commendable effort at presenting a single narrative. Of interest is the terminology used in the book. In the section before “Preface”, titled “Language Matters: A Note on Terminology and Transliteration”, the author explained the “language” used in the book. Stating that the terminology reflected contemporary usage, the primary identities of communities living under the millet system of religious autonomy during the Ottoman times were referred in Arabic, Hebrew and English as Muslims, Christians and Jews.
The term “Arab” became more widely used in Palestine and beyond in the first years of the 20th century. The word “Zionist” first appeared in the late 19th century, but only became common currency in the British-mandate era. And before 1948, the term “Palestine” was less widely employed than it is today. That term made no distinction between Arabs and Jews.
In those days, people did not use the word “Palestine” so much, Black cited Yusif Sayigh from the book Arab Economist, Palestinian Patriot: A Fractured Life Story (2015). It was noted that there were many things called Palestinian, but official names usually had the word “Arab” , such as the Arab Higher Committee, not the Palestinian Higher Committee. This was because the Jews were Palestinians, too.
The Palestine Post, founded in 1932, was a leading English-language newspaper then. It was renamed Jerusalem Post when “Palestine ceased to exist”.
The use of “Israel” and “Israelis” followed the creation of Israel in 1948, but the word “Jews” (Yahud) continued to be commonly used, especially in colloquial Arabic.
The refugees who were driven out, fled and dispersed in the Nakba (catastrophe) were widely referred to as “Arabs” in the 1950s and 1960s.
In English, the term “Palestine Arabs” was common. Usage changed gradually after the creation of the Palestine Liberation Organisation in 1964, while Arab recognition of the PLO as the “sole legitimate representative” of the Palestinian people in 1974 reinforced that trend.
Israel’s post-1948 Arab minority were usually described in Hebrew as “Israeli Arabs”, though that term was later rejected by many in favour of the modern phrase “Palestinian Israelis”, in line with the growing salience of a Palestinian national identity.
Even the Arabic-language Palestinian media in the West Bank and Gaza Strip nowadays often describe Israel as al-ihtilal — the occupation.
Enemies and Neighbours looks back to the establishment of the first Zionist settlements in Palestine, then made up of several provinces of the Ottoman Empire, in the early 1880s, and proceeds chronologically, with thematic diversions, up to the present day. It brings, as the author tells us, “the big picture of what is widely considered to be the world’s most intractable and divisive conflict into sharper focus. It tries to tell the story of, and from, both sides, and of the fateful interactions between them”.
Black is former Middle Eastern editor of The Guardian, and for more than 35 years was the paper’s Jerusalem correspondent, diplomatic editor, European editor and chief foreign editorial writer. He is now a visiting senior fellow at the London School of Economics.
Working as a journalist and historian, Black uncovered such themes as the creation of a separate, autonomous Jewish society, the Palestinian flight, expulsion and dispossession, the shift to the right in Israel, the rise of Islamist views among Palestinians and the vast asymmetry between the sides.
He described the Israel-Palestine issue as having “a strong claim to be the most closely studied conflict on earth” — “voluminous” is an understatement. Noting that “now the topsoil has gone”, the battalions of researchers is hacking away at the bare rock underneath.
We have seen the growing academic interest in the issue. Enormous as it is, the discourse is closely related to political positions. There are dedicated (and separate) centres for Palestine and Israel studies at American and British universities.
In Malaysia, there is the Institute of Excellence for Islamic Jeru-salem Studies at Universiti Utara Malaysia formed in 2011. A proposal to have a similar centre, this time on studying the Jews and Israel, at a public university in the Klang Valley more than a decade ago was received with apathy.
According to the author’s preface, the last few decades or so saw the fundamentals of the conflict illuminated by the paradigm of settler colonialism — much like the US and Australia — when native populations are replaced rather than exploited by Europeans.
In the words of public intellectual Edward Said, of “having their territory settled by foreigners”.
There can be no peace except between equals, between two consciousness, to share the land decently and humanely. We see a slow demise of the two-state solution. The future should be the end of colonialism, and a return to crafting a one-state objective.
The writer is a professor with the Centre for Policy Research and International Studies (CenPRIS), Universiti Sains Malaysia