Israel was established as a colonial settler state with the backing of the great powers, argues James Supple, and is still key to imposing Western control of the Middle East
Protests in support of Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah have spread across all of historic Palestine—drawing worldwide solidarity. The evictions there symbolise Israel’s ongoing land grab—a colonial effort at driving out the Palestinian population that began in earnest in 1948.
Israel’s foundation was a product of the Zionist movement that emerged in the 1880s and 1890s as a response to antisemitism in Europe. Vicious pogroms organised by the Russian government had seen thousands of Jewish people killed.
The Zionists argued that Jews would be safe only when they had their own state to protect them, and encouraged Jewish migration to Palestine, promoting Jewish religious and historical connections to the area.
But the land was already home to a significant Arab population. So from the beginning Zionist leaders like Theodor Herzl recognised that a Jewish state there was impossible without the backing of the imperialist powers.
The Jewish state would be a European colonial project, based on a process similar to the dispossession of Indigenous people in Australia.
Britain was the leading power of the day. Just before it took control of Palestine following the First World War, Zionist leaders negotiated with the British government and gained their support, through the infamous Balfour Declaration, for a “national home for the Jewish people” there.
The Zionists offered to do the bidding of British imperialism, with Chaim Weizmann, later Israel’s first President, writing that a Jewish state would “form a very effective guard for the Suez Canal”.
Then in November 1947, as British rule collapsed, the UN backed a partition plan to carve up Palestine between a Jewish state and an Arab state. Over the months that followed, armed Jewish militias organised a campaign of terror to drive around 750,000 Palestinians from their homes, in an act of ethnic cleansing designed to grab more land for Israel. Palestinians describe this as “the Nakba” or catastrophe.
Racism against the Arab population went hand in hand with Jewish colonisation. Zionist settlers sought to exclude Arabs from the economy. They bought up land from absentee Arab landlords and evicted Palestinian peasant farmers.
The Histadrut, the Zionist trade union, raised funds for pickets to exclude Arab workers from jobs and to boycott and destroy Arab products.
Seizing more land has been a continuing obsession for Israeli leaders, leading to ongoing efforts to dispossess and exclude Palestinians.
The residents of Sheikh Jarrah are far from the only ones fighting for their homes. Soon after the ceasefire with Hamas, an Israeli court ordered the demolition of buildings that are home to 1500 Palestinians in Silwan, also in East Jerusalem, to make way for an Israeli archaeological park.
“For years Israel has sought to expand illegal settlements in the area of Silwan, forcibly displacing more than 200 Palestinians from their homes,” Amnesty International noted.
Israel’s efforts at dispossession, and the replacement of Palestinians with Jewish settlers, are even more obvious in the West Bank.
East Jerusalem and the West Bank were seized in Israel’s war of 1967. It has controlled them through a military occupation ever since.
In the West Bank a state-sponsored process of land confiscation and settlement building has pushed Palestinians into an ever smaller and smaller area.
A landmark Human Rights Watch report in April said that Israel’s actions there add up to the crime of apartheid under international law. The report is significant because it comes from a mainstream US non-government organisation.
It found Israel had confiscated land equal to “more than one-third of the West Bank”.
The Jewish settlements are connected to Israel through roads and military checkpoints, and settlers live under Israeli law. But the Palestinian population live under military occupation, with few rights. Under the “peace process” established in 1993, 60 per cent of the West Bank forms part of “Area C”, under full Israeli control. Palestinians there are prevented from building homes without permits that are hard to obtain.
“Israeli authorities have razed thousands of Palestinian properties in these areas for lacking a permit, leaving thousands of families displaced,” the report says. At the same time, “Israeli authorities began construction on more than 23,696 housing units between 2009 and 2020 in Israeli settlements in Area C.”
This shows how Israel operates as a racist, apartheid state.
Across both Israel and its occupied territories in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, there is a roughly similar population of Jews and Arabs, Human Rights Watch points out.
As a result Israel’s leaders are obsessed about the “demographic ‘threat’ that Palestinians pose”. Outgoing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu admitted in 2019 that “Israel is not a state of all its citizens” but “the nation-state of the Jewish people and only them”.
Earlier, he had argued that if Palestinian citizens inside Israel “reach 35-40 per cent of the country, then the Jewish state will be annulled”.
His four immediate predecessors as Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, Ariel Sharon, Ehud Barak and Shimon Peres all made similar comments.
Even then Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin, often considered an advocate of peace with the Palestinians, argued in 1993 that “the red line for Arabs is 20 per cent of the population, that must not be gone over,” because “I want to preserve the Jewish character of the state of Israel”.
The Middle East’s oil reserves took on vital strategic importance for the world’s imperialist powers during the First World War—and have been the source of immense wealth and power ever since.
After 1945, uprisings against European colonialism saw a range of newly independent states emerge in the region, and the rise of an Arab nationalist movement. The new regimes attempted to nationalise assets controlled by the West, including the Suez canal in Egypt and the oil reserves in Iran. This presented new challenges for the Western imperialist powers who sought to control the area.
It also increased Israel’s importance as a reliable watchdog state for Western imperialist interests. As a colonial outpost, Israel has become a highly militarised society.
When the US became the world’s dominant power after 1945, it also became Israel’s key sponsor. The country has received around $190 billion in US aid since then, more than any other country. Increasingly this has taken the form of military aid, as part of a US policy designed to supply Israel with the latest in high-tech weaponry and ensure it maintains what the US calls a “qualitative military edge” over neighbouring states.
Since 1999 the US has provided 10-year agreements, through Memoranda of Understanding, that commit to ongoing aid payments. The most recent was signed by President Barack Obama in 2016 committing to $38 billion in aid for the financial years 2019-2028.
The scale of US support reflects the importance of the Middle East and its oil reserves to its strategy for global dominance.
And Israel has proven its importance to the US with a series of military victories over the Arab states—especially the 1967 war, when it defeated the combined strength of Egypt, Syria and Jordan, and the 1973 Yom Kippur war when it defeated Egypt and Syria again. These helped force the Arab regimes to accept US domination of the Middle East.
US President Joe Biden once summed up Israel’s importance to the US by saying: “If there were not an Israel, we would have to invent one to make sure our interests were preserved.”
As it began bombing Gaza in May, Biden pushed ahead with a further $950 million of weapons sales and personally stressed that Israel had a right to “defend itself”.
Australia, as a strong supporter of US power globally, is also a firm backer of Israel’s violence.
The liberation of Palestine relies on defeating Western imperialist power in the Middle East, in order to construct a democratic, secular state in Palestine where Jews and Arabs share equal rights.
It’s not anti-semitic to oppose Israeli
Opposition to Israel’s bombing of Gaza has produced growing sympathy for the Palestinians. In Queensland, the Labor Party state conference passed a motion condemning the “ongoing Israeli annexation by stealth of Palestinian land” and the “ethnic cleansing of Palestinians through the expansion of illegal settlements”.
The right of the party has reacted with fury. Adam Slonim, co-convener of Australia-Israel Labor, even claimed the motion was “moving from anti-Zionism to anti-Semitism”, because it “blamed Israel entirely for the recent conflict” without condemning Hamas for firing rockets into Israel.
But this is not a conflict between two equal sides. Israel has the world’s fourth most powerful military, backed by the US with the latest in high-tech weaponry. The Queensland Labor motion was quite right to recognise its “routine oppression and dehumanisation of Palestinian people … condemning them to live under perpetual Israeli occupation”. Palestinians have a right to resist this injustice.
A Facebook post by the Melbourne Uni ALP club echoing the popular chant at Palestine rallies “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” has also been denounced as “antisemitic” because, it’s claimed, it calls for the toppling of the Israeli state. Nine News papers claimed it sent a “major wave of panic through federal Labor”.
But as the widely respected NGO Human Rights Watch has argued, Israel is committing the crime of apartheid against Palestinians. Its actions have made any hope of a viable two state solution impossible.
This means the demand for a single democratic state, where both Jews and Palestinians live with equal rights, is growing in popularity. Such a state is incompatible with Zionism, the existence of a racially Jewish state based on the exclusion of Arab Palestinians. And that means the state of Israel must be dismantled and replaced.
There is nothing antisemitic about this aim—it is the only path to real peace and justice for the Palestinians.