Israel’s Politics of Fragmentation

Palestinian refugees leaving Galilee, 1948 (Fred Csasznik)
Palestinian refugees leaving Galilee, 1948 (Fred Csasznik)

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If the politics of deflection exhibit the outward reach of Israel’s grand strategy of territorial expansionism and regional hegemony, the politics of fragmentation serves Israel’s inward moves designed to weaken Palestinian resistance, induce despair, and de facto surrender. In fundamental respects deflection is an unwitting enabler of fragmentation, but it is also its twin or complement.

The British were particularly adept in facilitating their colonial project all over the world by a variety of divide and rule tactics, which almost everywhere haunted anti-colonial movements, frequently producing lethal forms of post-colonial partition as in India, Cyprus, Ireland, Malaya, and of course, Palestine, and deadly ethnic strife elsewhere as in Nigeria, Kenya, Myanmar, Rwanda. Each of these national partitions and post-colonial traumas has produced severe tension and long lasting hostility and struggle, although each takes a distinctive form due to variations from country to country of power, vision, geography, resources, history, geopolitics, leadership.

An additional British colonial practice and legacy was embodied in a series of vicious settler colonial movements that succeeded in effectively eliminating or marginalizing resistance by indigenous populations as in Australia, Canada, the United States, and somewhat less so in New Zealand, and eventually failing politically in South Africa and Namibia, but only after decades of barbarous racism.

In Palestine, the key move was the Balfour Declaration, which was a colonialist gesture of formal approval given to the Zionist Project in 1917 tendered at the end of Ottoman rule over Palestine. This was surely gross interference with the dynamics of Palestinian self-determination (at the time the estimated Arab population of Palestine was 747,685, 92.1% of the total, while the Jewish population was an estimate 58,728, which amounted to 7.9%) and a decisive stimulus for the Zionist undertaking to achieve supremacy over the land embraced by the British mandate to administer Palestine in accordance with a framework agreement with the League of Nation. The agreement repeated the language of the Balfour Declaration in its preamble: “Whereas recognition has thereby been given to the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and to the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country”(emphasis added). To describe this encouragement of Zionism as merely ‘interference’ is a terribly misleading understatement of the British role in creating a situation of enduring tension in Palestine, which was supposedly being administered on the basis of the wellbeing of the existing indigenous population, what was called “a sacred trust of civilization” in Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations, established for the “well-being and development” of peoples ”not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world.”  The relevance of the politics of fragmentation refers to a bundle of practices and overall approach that assumed the form of inter-ethnic and inter-religious strife during the almost three decades that the mandate arrangements were in effect.[1]

At the same time, the British role was not the whole story by any means: the fanatical and effective exploitation of the opportunity to establish a Jewish homeland of unspecified dimensions manifested the dedication, skill, and great ambition of the Zionist movement; the lack of comparable sustained and competent resistance by the indigenous population abetted the transformation of historic Palestine; and then these  developments were strongly reinforced by the horrors of the Holocaust and the early complicity of the liberal democracies with Naziism that led the West to lend its support to the settler colonial reality that Zionism had become well before the 1948 War. The result was the tragic combination of statehood and UN membership for Israel and the nakba involving massive dispossession creating forced refugee and exile for most Palestinians, and leading after 1967 to occupation, discrimination, and oppression of those Palestinians who remained either in Israel or in the 22% of original Palestine.

It should be recalled that the UN solution of 1947, embodied in General Assembly Resolution 181, after the British gave up their mandatory role was no more in keeping with the ethos of self-determination than the Balfour Declaration, decreeing partition and allocating 55% of Palestine to the Jewish population and 45% to the Palestinians without the slightest effort to assess the wishes of the population resident in Palestine at the time or to allocate the land in proportion to the demographic realities at the time. The UN solution was a new rendition of Western paternalism, opposed at the time by the Islamic and Middle Eastern members of the UN. Such a solution was not as overbearing as the mandates system that was devised to vest quasi-colonial rule in the victorious European powers after World War I, yet it was still an Orientalist initiative aimed at the control and exploitation of the destiny of an ethnic, political, and economic entity long governed by the Ottoman Empire.

The Palestinians (and their Arab neighbors) are often told in patronizing tones by latter day Zionists and their apologists that the Palestinians had their chance to become a state, squandered their opportunity, thereby forfeiting their rights to a state of their own by rejecting the UN partition plan. In effect, the Israeli contention is that Palestinians effectively relinquished their statehood claims by this refusal to accept what the UN had decreed, while Israel by nominally accepting the UN proposals validated their sovereign status, which was further confirmed by its early admission to full membership in the UN. Ever since, Israel has taken advantage of the fluidity of the legal situation by at once pretending to accept the UN approach of seeking a compromise by way of mutual agreement with the  Palestinians while doing everything in its power to prevent such an outcome by projecting its force throughout the entirety of Palestine, by establishing and expanding settlements, the ethnic cleansing of Jerusalem, and by advancing an array of maximalist security claims that have diminished Palestinian prospects.  That is, Israel has publicly endorsed conflict-resolving diplomacy but operationally has been constantly moving the goal posts by unlawfully creating facts on the ground, and then successfully insisting on their acceptance as valid points of departure. In effect, and with American help, Israel has seemingly given the Palestinians a hard choice, which is tacitly endorsed by the United States and Europe: accept the Bantustan destiny we offer or remain forever refugees and victims of annexation, exile, discrimination, statelessness.

Israel has used its media leverage and geopolitical clout to create an asymmetric understanding of identity politics as between Jews and Palestinians. Jews being defined as a people without borders who can gain Israeli nationality no matter where they live on the planet, while Palestinians are excluded from Israeli nationality regardless of how deep their indigenous roots in Palestine itself. This distinction between the two peoples exhibits the tangible significance of Israel as a ‘Jewish State,’ and why such a designation is morally and legally unacceptable in the 21st century even as it so zealously claimed by recent Israeli leaders, none more than Benyamin Netanyahu.

Modalities of Fragmentation

The logic of fragmentation is to weaken, if not destroy, a political opposition configuration by destroying its unity of purpose and strategy, and fomenting to the extent possible conflicts between different tendencies within the adversary movement. It is an evolving strategy that is interactive, and by its nature becomes an important theme of conflict. The Palestinians in public constantly stress the essential role of unity, along with reconciliation to moderate the relevance of internal differences. In contrast, the Israelis fan the flames of disunity, stigmatizing elements of the Palestinian reality that are relevantly submissive, and accept the agenda and frameworks that are devised by Tel Aviv refusing priorities set by Palestinian leaders. Over the course of the conflict from 1948 to the present, there have been ebbs and flows in the course of Palestinian unity, with maximum unity achieved during the time when Yasser Arafat was the resistance leader and maximum fragmentation evident since Hamas was successful in the 2006 Gaza elections, and managed to seize governmental control from Fatah in Gaza a year later. Another way that Israel has promoted Palestinian disunity is to favor the so-called moderates operating under the governance of the Palestinian Authority while imposing inflicting various punishments on Palestinians adhering to Hamas.

Forget what you think you know about the Israel-Palestine conflict

Richard Falk

Richard Falk is an international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for forty years. Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. From 2008 until May 2014, he was the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967. 

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  • Fred Skolnik

    You are really eating this Falk stuff up, so I will pitch in again:

    No matter how many times you use the terms “historic Palestine” and “indigenous Palestinian population” you will not alter the fact that there is no historic Palestine and there is no indigenous Palestinian population, and certainly not one that predates the Jewish population, which has been continuously present in the Land of Israel for at least 3,5000 years and forged its national consciousness and identity there, unlike the Arabs. Such a spurious argument is not even necessary since Israel recognizes the legitimacy of Palestinian national aspirations and is willing to negotiate a two-state solution. The argument therefore has no other purpose than to delegitimize Israel, which is a state like any other and has the same right to exist.

    You also refuse to recognize the fact that the Arabs living in Israel are not an ethnic minority like the Jews, Latinos and blacks in America but a national minority like the Basques in Spain and the Kurds in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran and that Israel is a Jewish state in the same way that Spain is a Spanish state and Turkey is a Turkish state and Iran is an Iranian state. Whatever discrimination Arabs experience in Israel is a direct result of the Arab-Israel conflict and the identification of Israel’s Arabs with an Arab world that is hostile to Israel and has refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of its existence. Under these circumstances, Israel’s Arabs nonetheless enjoy the highest degree of economic well-being and political and civil freedom in the Arab world.

    With regard to the refugee issue, it seems to me that anyone actively promoting a wholesale return of Arabs to the State of Israel is in effect signing a death warrant to the entire idea of a peace settlement, and certainly understands that such a return is not feasible, for the simple reason that it would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state and therefore, as Amos Oz pointed out long ago, deny the Jews the right to self-determination in the Land of Israel in accordance with the resolutions of the United Nations itself. Therefore even if such a right existed in law and precedent, Israel would not permit it, and therefore, knowing this, whoever seriously argues for a return is simple engaging in rhetoric whose only aim, in plain English, is to make Israel look bad, without any regard to the real probem of ending the conflict.

    But the right of return is not clearcut in law and precedent. I am certainly not going to argue international law with you. Israel’s legal arguments have been made by Israeli legal experts. The are summarized by Ruth Lapidoth and can be seen on the Jewish Virtual Library site:

    or even on Wikipedia under “Palestinian Right of Return.”

    I will mention only that the status of descendants of refugees is debatable, and the fact is that all but 30-40,000 surviving refugees were born outside Israel. Secondly, the Arab refugee issue is no different from refugee issues in dozens of other wars, most notably between India and Pakistan where 15 million Muslims and Sikhs were displaced with no internationally recognized claims for resettlement and compensation. In fact such claims have never been recognized and wholesale “returns” of populations in such circumstances have never taken place. But Israel’s argument goes beyond this, because a similar number of Jews were displaced from Arab countries in the same period and there has been a de facto exchange of populations. I will not review the conditions under which Jews were living at the time under vindictive Arab regimes. That Israel wanted them to leave is totally irrelevant. They are no different from the Arab refugees, they lost everything they had, and arrived in Israel penniless. The problem of the refugees will therefore have to be solved in the Arab countries, just as Israel solved the problem of Jewish refugees displaced from those same Arab countries. The Palestinians are of course free to make any claims they like in negotiations, and no doubt, will, but I think it would be fair ro say that those who are not committed to the destruction of the State of Israel understand and accept the fact that there will be no large-scale return. The question is whether they have the courage to stand up and say so in explicit terms. Ultimately they and their supporters will have to decide whether they want a real national life or an unresolved conflict.

    As for the security fence I am sad to say that in a macabre twist to Justice Holmes’ famous remark that he would rather see a hundred guilty people go free that one innocent person imprisoned, you are in effect saying that you would rather see 100 Israeli civilians murdered by terrorists than one Palestinian farmer kept from his land. The fence is there to keep terrorists out, and it has pretty much succeeded. Blame the terrorists and not Israel for Israel’s security measures. You do not cease to be a terrorist organization by winning an election. You cease to be a terrorist organization by refraining from acts of terror, which Hamas has not done.

    I will not reply to each of your arguments. You are falsifying more than you should, even in a polemical context. It hardly needs to be said that you have nothing really constructive to offer, which calls into question your entire stance as an advocate of justice. What “perpetuates Palestinian misery” is the wild dream that Israel will somehow vanish and all you are accomplishing is to encourage extremist elements in their refusal to come to terms with Israel’s existence.


    • No matter how many times you proclaim that “there is no historic Palestine and there is no indigenous Palestinian population”, you cannot change the facts that there is a historic Palestine and an indigenous Palestinian population.

      As for your statement that “Israel recognizes the legitimacy of Palestinian national aspirations and is willing to negotiate a two-state solution”, the truth is Israel since its founding has rejected the Palestinians’ right to self-determination and has sought to prevent implementation of the two-state solution, in favor of which there is an international consensus based on UN Resolution 242 calling for Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories.

      Israel does not have a “right to exist”. No state does. This is a meaningless concept. The correct framework is the right of people to self-determination, which is not denied by the Palestinians to Israel, but vise versa.

      As for the discrimination in Israel against its Arab population, I would merely observe that you acknowledge it and try to excuse it.

      I would also merely observe that you reject the internationally recognized right of refugees to return to their homeland, including Palestinian refugees ethnically cleansed from Palestine by the Zionist forces in 1948 in order to create the demographically “Jewish state”.

      Israel’s illegal wall in the West Bank does not exist for Israel’s “security”, but to further Israel’s illegal colonization with a mind to annexation of Palestinian land.

      • Fred Skolnik

        Dear Jeremy

        You are making categorical statements that have no foundation in fact. Repeating them does not make them true. Invasion and conquest does not make a people indigenous. No one, except you maybe, would think to call the Romans who conquered and settled in England indigenous and no one would think to call the Europeans who conquered and settled in North America indigenous. Likewise the Arabs who conquered and settled in the Middle East, North Africa and Spain. But it is not even from the 7th century conquest that the current Palestinian population is constituted. Even you can find and read the official reports and demographic studies that show how the Arabs moved into the region from the 19th century on. Most Palestinian Arabs are descendants of the 1845-1947 Muslim migrants from the Sudan, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria as well as from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, Morocco, Bosnia, the Caucasus, Turkmenistan, Kurdistan, India, Afghanistan and Balochistan. I’ll be more than happy to summarize specific migrations for you if you like. As for the rest, you are just putting a no in front of reality and calling it an argument.

        • It is absurd to claim that Arabs only moved into Palestine from the 19th century on. But how long Arabs had lived in Palestine before the Zionist movement began is really irrelevant to the point, which is the injustice that was done to them in dispossessing them and denying them their rights, from the Zionist ethnic cleansing to the continuing occupation and theft of their land today.

          • Fred Skolnik

            As you have nothing of substance to say other than repeating catchwords, I’ll sign off here.

          • How instructive that you consider the ethnic cleansing of Arabs from Palestine to make way for the “Jewish state” to be “nothing of substance”.

        • Mike Thompson

          Actually Fred, most Palestinian Arabs in 1947 were the descendants of the Kingdom of Israel.

          Most converted from Judaism to Christianity, then to Islam.

          Abraham was an Arab, from Iraq, setting up a Jewish only State of Israel is akin to making water flow uphill, or indulge in time travel!

  • Javed Mir

    After going through this article one is easily convinced that whatever portion of Palestinian land is occupied by the Palestinians is in fact a prison for the original inhabitants.