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The Real Origins of the Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine Began Long Before 1948

Historian Zachary Foster discusses the history that has delivered us to this moment.

An excavator works on destroyed buildings after Israeli airstrikes in the Southern Gaza Strip city of Khan Younis, on October 25, 2023.

Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said on Monday that Israel may have a “diplomatic window” of two to three weeks to continue its assault on Gaza. “From a diplomatic point of view, we recognize that pressure has begun to bear on Israel. The pressure is not very high [now], but it is increasing,” Cohen said.

When asked about the chances of a ceasefire at a November 9 press conference, US President Joe Biden said, “None. No possibility.”

Meanwhile, mass marches, shutdowns, and other disruptions have continued around the world, as Palestinian organizers, Jewish anti-Zionist protesters, and other allied groups demand an immediate ceasefire and an end to Israeli apartheid and the occupation of Palestinian lands.

An estimated 11,240 Palestinians have been killed during Israel’s ongoing attacks on Gaza. Of those killed, 4,630 have been children. More than 3,000 Palestinians are missing, most of whom are believed to be buried under the rubble of buildings destroyed by Israeli airstrikes. The UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) has warned that its aid operations in Gaza will cease within the next 48 hours unless fuel is allowed into the besieged territory.

According to ActionAid International, an international aid organization, 22 of Gaza’s 35 hospitals are no longer operational due to damage caused by airstrikes or because the facilities have run out of fuel. Israeli tanks reached the gates of Shifa Hospital on Monday, where patients, including premature infants, have been dying due to a lack of electricity and medical supplies. An estimated 50,000 people have been sheltering on the hospital grounds amid ongoing attacks. Unable to bury the dead, due to the threat of airstrikes and sniper fire, Palestinians on the ground have reported seeing stray dogs eating dead bodies in the vicinity. Israel claims that there are tunnels used by Hamas under the hospital but has produced no evidence to support these claims. Israel defended its bombardment of a convoy of ambulances attempting to evacuate patients from Shifa Hospital last week, claiming that there were Hamas fighters in the vehicles.

Amid such horrors, protesters and others who are seeking to raise awareness and increase international pressure for a ceasefire have faced intense repression. But in spite of firings, arrests, and efforts to ban expressions of solidarity, supporters of Palestinian liberation are continuing to pressure world governments to demand a ceasefire. One stumbling block that organizers face, particularly in the US, is a general lack of awareness about the history of Israeli aggression against Palestinians. While raising awareness about the atrocities that are presently unfolding is crucial, educating the public about the history that has delivered us to this moment is also essential. In the following interview, I discuss some of that history, as well as the politics of the present moment, with historian Zachary Foster. Foster has a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies and is the creator of the newsletter Palestine Nexus.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Kelly Hayes: While the events we are presently witnessing are devastating in scale, the attacks Israel is waging are grounded in a long history of ethnic cleansing. Can you share some of that history with our readers?

Zachary Foster: I think the real origins of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine began long before 1948. I think every Zionist leader, and every Zionist thinker from the late 19th century to 1948 all struggled with the same question, which was, “How is it that you establish a Jewish state in a land that is majority non-Jewish, in a land that is majority Palestinian Arab?” Different Zionist leaders took different positions, but I think that the dominant position was that the Palestinian people are not willing to subject themselves to Jewish domination. They have strong roots in the country. They have a strong national identity.

The position for most Zionists was that, “We’re going to probably have to expel them.” That was the position of Theodor Herzl. That was the position of Yosef Weitz, Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Many, if not most of the Zionist leaders leading up to ’48 believed that. And then, in 1948, when the British decided to pack up and leave, to abandon this colonial enterprise, this British mandatory government, war broke out between the Palestinians and the Zionists. Over the course of the 1948 war, the Zionist forces expelled something like 750,000 Palestinians from their homes. Of course, some of those Palestinians left on their own, some were expelled by force. But the reason I would call it ethnic cleansing is because in the aftermath of the war. The Israeli military prevented Palestinians who were trying to return to their homes after the war. They prevented them from coming back, and they had a shoot to kill order.

In the year and a half after the war ended, from late 1948 to 1949 and 1950, the Israeli military shot and killed more than a 1000 unarmed, defenseless Palestinians. That’s why I think most historians, pretty much all historians, would acknowledge that this was a mass expulsion, and I would say the ethnic cleansing of half of the Palestinian population.

That was really the first and most traumatic case of the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people. I would say the second major instance of ethnic cleansing took place in 1967, during the June 1967 war and in its aftermath, during which time the Israeli military expelled another 250,000 to 300,000 Palestinians from their homes in the occupied territories, when they conquered Gaza on the West Bank. 70,000 of those were expelled from Gaza, and then the remainder of that 250,000 to 300,000 were expelled from the West Bank.

Once Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, roughly 2,000 more Palestinians were expelled from 1967 to 1987. It’s of course much harder to expel people during times of peace, or let’s say relative peace, than it is during times of war, and so obviously, the expulsion slowed during that 20 year period, but they continued even after 1987. I would say the character of those expulsions shifted. It became obvious during the First Intifada that Israel could not maintain permanent military control over millions of Palestinians forever. Instead, it engaged in this process that became known as the Oslo Peace Process, during which it signed a series of agreements with Yasser Arafat and the PLO, in which it began to gradually transfer over some amount of autonomy within small cantons of the West Bank, as well as Gaza.

I would say that Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians shifted. Instead of pushing the Palestinians out of the West Bank and Gaza, like it did from ’67 to ’87, from the 90s onwards, the policy became pushing Palestinians from primarily area C to areas A and B. Because in the course of these Oslo agreements, the West Bank was carved up into three areas, areas A, B, and C. The largest 60% of the West Bank, that was area C. That’s the area Israel wanted to maintain control over, because it was the area of the West Bank that was least densely populated. It was the most sparsely populated, and the majority of the non-urban areas of the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley and the border with Jordan, Israel wanted to maintain permanent control over that area. So for the past two to three decades, Israel has engaged in an ongoing process of pushing Palestinians out of those regions.

Just in the past month, since October 7, the Israeli military together with Israeli settlers have expelled 900 Palestinians from area C of the West Bank. Before that, in the year or two before that, so we’re talking 2021, ’22, something like another thousand Palestinians were expelled from area C of the West Bank. And there are many villages in the West Bank that face a threat of expulsion. Masafer Yatta is the biggest one. You’re talking about 1,800 Palestinians in Masafer Yatta, which is in the south Hebron Hills of the West Bank. Those Palestinians have been under threat of expulsion for more than a year now. In the Jordan Valley, in places like Hamsa, I bore witness myself, you have settlers setting up outposts around area C of the West Bank, and harassing the Palestinian shepherding communities in the Jordan Valley, as well in places like Khan al-Ahmar, and in Beita as well.

In various places of the West Bank, you have this ongoing effort to push Palestinians out of their villages. Again, pushing them into areas A of the West Bank, where you have the large Palestinian urban centers. I would say there’s another ongoing effort to push Palestinians out of Gaza, and this has been a trend that I think is relatively under-reported over the past few years. If you go to Gaza and ask people… And I was in Gaza about five weeks ago, just shortly before the outbreak in violence, and the attacks on October 7th, every single Palestinian in Gaza knows someone who has left. It’s the same thing that has been happening in North Africa over the course of the past decade and a half, Palestinians from Gaza are getting on boats and leaving, and braving the high seas, and hoping for a better life in Turkey or Greece, and beyond.

That is another worrying trend. Now, of course, in the past month or so, in Gaza, 1.5 million Palestinians have been pushed out, have been told to leave their homes. We saw, of course, the report that came out, an Israeli military report, that basically said the Israeli military intends to, or hopes to try to expel every single resident of the Gaza Strip, we’re talking 2.3 million people, and push them all towards Sinai, a complete ethnic cleansing of the Gaza Strip. That is now, I think, at least the goal of the Israeli military. It’s unclear that they’ll be able to achieve that goal, but make no mistake about it, that is the goal. That’s how I would characterize the past 75 years of ethnic cleansing efforts on the part of the state of Israel towards the Palestinian people.

KH: One common refrain we have heard during the last few weeks is, the Palestinians need a Gandhi. Such people have insisted that the Palestinian people simply haven’t mounted a sufficiently powerful nonviolent liberation movement. Such critiques overlook decades of Israeli oppression, including violent attacks on protestors, and targeted assassinations. Can you speak to some of this history?

ZF: There were many attempts at Palestinian nonviolent resistance, and in most of those attempts, the Israeli military resorted to lethal violence. The first real, I would say nonviolent attempt to resist military occupation was during the first uprising, known as the First Intifada, from 1987 to 1993, during which Palestinians spontaneously broke out into open protest, daily strikes, daily protests. In the first year of that revolt, the Israeli military slaughtered 142 Palestinians in Gaza, and in response, Gazans killed zero Israeli soldiers and zero Israeli civilians, because it was a nonviolent revolt. It was Palestinian kids throwing stones at Israeli tanks. I think Palestinians saw up close and personal what happens when they resort to nonviolent resistance. They get slaughtered. They learned that lesson in 1988.

I would say the same has been true in the Oslo process. You saw the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, sign these Oslo Accords with Israel, which is a peace process, and that’s a nonviolent process. In return, what did the Palestinians get? Over the course of the seven years during this Oslo process, from ’93 to 2000, Israel dramatically expanded its settlement enterprise, confiscating more Palestinian land, destroying more Palestinian property. Israel also imposed lockdowns and closures, devastating the Palestinian economy. During a period when Israel is supposed to be building trust with the Palestinians, it’s actually eroding that trust. During peak closures and peak lockdowns, in which the Israeli military prevents Palestinians in the occupied territories from leaving their towns and villages and cities, you had unemployment rates that reached 70% in places like Gaza, which led to total impoverishment. Entire communities lost their sources of livelihood, and this is what the Palestinians got for engaging in a peace process with Israel.

And then of course, in the 2000s, after Israel decided to build a wall, which the international criminal court declared illegal because it was primarily built on Palestinian land, in the occupied territories, you had many villages, Beit Sira, Bil’in, Nil’in, Nebi Saleh, throughout West Bank, villages whose lands were confiscated to construct this wall, to construct this security barrier, and they protested week after week, in some cases for years and years, and in almost every case, Israeli military killed innocent protestors. They killed protestors in Nabi Salih and Bil’in and Ni’lin, they killed protesters in places like Sheikh Jarrah which also saw many protests in places like Beita, which saw many protests. Again, nonviolent protests that the Israeli military responded to with lethal force.

And then you could also… I would say the other few examples I would bring up would be the BDS movement, which is of course, a nonviolent movement to boycott and sanction and divest from companies that profit from the Israeli occupation. And in response to that movement, which began, I believe in 2005 by Omar Barghouti, supporters of the movement were declared antisemitic. The leader was threatened with expulsion, and he was threatened with his residency status being revoked. And in general, Israel has engaged in a campaign to delegitimize precisely that non-violence that it claims that Palestinians should resort to.

And then the final example I’ll give is in Gaza in 2018, Palestinians and Gaza organized protests. They were called the March of Return protests during which many thousands of Palestinians protested peacefully against the siege on Gaza demanding the right of return, and they were slaughtered. 256 Palestinians were slaughtered over the course of that protest movement. And at the same time, the Israeli snipers that gunned down those hundreds of Palestinians, they experienced zero casualties. No Israeli experienced any major harm at all. And so if you look back to the history of the nonviolent movements in Palestine, they’re delegitimized, they’re dealt with extreme violence, and disproportionate force. And so I think the question is not so much, “Where’s the Palestinian Gandhi?” The question should be probably, “Where’s the Israeli Gandhi?”

KH: Raz Segal, an associate professor of Holocaust and genocide studies at Stockton University, has referred to Israel’s attacks on Gaza as a “textbook case of genocide unfolding in front of our eyes.” But there has been a lot of pushback in recent days against people using the word genocide to describe what’s happening in Gaza. Can you explain why you believe it is appropriate to use that word to describe Israel’s ongoing actions toward Palestinians?

ZF: So I think I would first of all defer to scholars of genocide who understand the legal implications and the legal understandings of that term better than me. So that’s the first point I would make. And it wasn’t just Raz Segal, you had a petition already in the first week of this war, waged on Gaza, in which 800 academic scholars, PhDs who study ethnic cleansing and study genocide, they came out and basically said, there is a risk of genocide. And we can debate whether or not we’ve crossed the threshold. We can debate whether or not genocide is the right word, or whether mass indiscriminate slaughter of innocent civilians is the right term. I think at the point where we’re debating whether or not genocide is appropriate or is not appropriate, I think we’ve already established now that what is happening is totally unacceptable and it’s unlawful and it’s a crime against humanity.

And so I wouldn’t get too bogged down on whether or not we choose to use this specific word or not. I think reasonable people can fall on both sides of that debate. But what I think is unequivocal is that the statements coming out of the Israeli political establishment, the most senior Israeli political and military officials in charge of this war have demonstrated in multiple, in dozens of statements, we’re not talking about one or two statements, we’re talking about dozens of statements that they make no distinction between the civilian population of Gaza and Hamas. Even just recently, Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, in a speech to soldiers going into battle, quoted the Bible, Deuteronomy. He quoted the verses in which the nation, the Israelites in the Bible, are told to destroy the people of Amalek. And if you go into the Bible and read those passages, it says that you go in and you kill every man, woman, child, and cattle and goats, because they’re all your enemy – [so that means] every single last person in Gaza.

So when you add up these statements from Israeli leaders declaring that we are cutting off all food, all water, all electricity to all 2.3 million people, so there’s a full blockade, full siege, Israel has prevented something like three to four percent of the humanitarian aid that is needed is being allowed in. So, 96 percent of people are essentially without water and without food.

Then when you add that up, when you add up the indiscriminate bombings, dropping bombs on civilian areas and refugee camps, 10,000 plus people die. How many more innocent civilians need to die before we say it’s a genocide? Is it 20,000? Is it 50,000? Is it 500,000? And so we can debate the exact number of people that need to die before we call it a genocide. But I think at that point, you’ve already essentially acknowledged that what we are talking about is a grotesque crime against humanity, and it’s incumbent upon all of us to call for an immediate ceasefire and end to the hostilities, because otherwise we’re just headed down a path that is either already genocide or will be genocide very soon.

KH: You recently stated that the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) can no longer be considered an organization that defends the Jewish people. Can you elaborate on this?

ZF: Historically, and to this day, the mission of the ADL is to prevent the defamation of the Jewish people. It’s to prevent discrimination against Jews. And yet it published a report just this past summer, basically outlining and documenting criticism of Israel, what it calls anti-Israel behaviors and statements and actions. Now, let me ask you this. Why is an organization that is focused on preventing discrimination against Jews publishing reports, talking about criticism of Israel? What does criticism of Israel have anything to do with discrimination against Jews? These are literally unrelated historical phenomenon. You have many raging antisemitic Zionists, and you have many Jews who are anti-Zionists.

So it is no longer an organization that I think can plausibly be said to be an organization that is dedicated to preventing discrimination against Jews. It’s completely politicized itself, and it’s not just that one report. Look at the tweets of, what is his name, Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of ADL. A huge percentage of what this guy is saying has nothing to do with discrimination against Jews. So I think it has really lost a lot of legitimacy in my eyes, and I imagine the eyes of many Jews who are critical of Israel.

KH: There has been a great deal of repression reminiscent of McCarthyism and the aftermath of 9/11 in which many people who have questioned the violence being perpetrated by Israel have faced professional consequences such as the cancellation of events or the termination of their employment. Can you speak to this repression and why you believe people should continue to speak out in spite of it?

ZF: First of all, let me just say that repression is most severe inside the borders of the state of Israel. You have, I think by now, over a hundred Palestinian citizens of Israel who have been fired from their jobs, from their places of work for coming out in solidarity with the people of Gaza. We’re not even talking about people writing in messages, talking about their support for Hamas or their support for attacks. We’re talking about messages in solidarity with the victims. Those people are being fired from their jobs in Israel. University students in Israel are being suspended. You have police in Israel walking into shops demanding that Palestinians open their phones to see what Facebook or Instagram posts they’ve liked, and if they like the wrong posts, they’re being arrested. You have dozens of cases of arrests. Again, all for just speaking out for condemning the violence being committed by the Israeli military. So I think it’s most severe right now in Israel, which is really becoming, I would say, a police state.

And then of course, it’s happening all around the world as well. We saw in Europe protestors being arrested for waving the Palestinian flag. It’s happening in the United States. You have people coming out, sharing their solidarity with Palestinians being fired, being forced to step down. Their invitations are being rescinded. It’s incredibly troubling and worrying, and I think it’s incumbent upon all of us to speak out against it and to continue to share our thoughts about what kind of country we want to live in.

If speaking out against a “textbook case of genocide” is now illegal or is now leading negative consequences, that’s a horrible society that I don’t think any of us want to live in. I think it’s absolutely horrifying to see these incidents, and I think it’s now more important than ever for those of us who care about human rights and who oppose genocide to speak out, because it’s our government that is implicated in this. We are not sitting on the sidelines here. We are an active participant in this conflict. So, it’s worrying and it’s distressing, and I think we all need to speak up on behalf of people who are facing pressure and losing their jobs because of this.

KH: What are your thoughts on news that Israel has agreed to a four-hour humanitarian pause each day in their bombardment of Gaza?

ZF: Either you believe that the people of Gaza should be able to live in peace and security, or you don’t. The blockade and the siege need to end. You need to allow more than a few dozen trucks to enter Gaza every day. Before the war, you had 500 trucks entering Gaza every day. Now, I believe in the past 24 hours, there were maybe a few dozen trucks allowed in, and in total, there have only been a few hundred trucks allowed to enter Gaza since October 7.

So you’re talking about a trickle, you’re talking about a trivial percentage of people’s needs being met. It’s insane. You’re letting people starve to death and dehydrate to death. So this concept of humanitarian pause, it makes no sense to me. Either you believe that the people of Gaza are innocent and deserve to have food and water and electricity and fuel, or you don’t. And if you believe that, then you need to support an immediate ceasefire and a cessation of hostilities and opening up the border completely, and allowing humanitarian organizations in the UN to deliver the necessary aid that the people need.

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