Reviewed by Kabir Altaf

NOW that Israel and Palestine have announced an indefinite ceasefire, it is important to remember that the root cause of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not Hamas, the blockade of Gaza, or even the Occupation. Rather, it is the Nakba — Arabic for “catastrophe” — which is how Palestinians refer to the formation of Israel in 1948, an event accompanied by the dispossession of approximately 750,000 Palestinians.

Though Israel was forced by international human rights norms to grant citizenship to those Palestinians who remained within its borders, these citizens remain subject to a host of discriminatory laws. For example, the “Law of Return to Zion” allows anyone of Jewish origin to immigrate to Israel, regardless of whether his or her family ever lived in Palestine. In contrast, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who marries a Palestinian from the Occupied West Bank cannot reside with his or her spouse inside Israel. These discriminatory laws belie the claim often made by Israel’s supporters that the country is “the only democracy in the Middle East.”

It is this claim that Shira Robinson debunks in her book, Citizen Strangers: Palestinians and the Birth of Israel’s Liberal Settler State. An associate professor of History and International Affairs at George Washington University, Robinson examines Israel’s history from its founding in 1948 till 1967. She argues that Israel is a liberal settler state, “a modern colonial polity whose procedural democracy was established by forcibly removing most of the indigenous majority from within its borders and then extending to those who remained a discrete set of individual rights and duties that only the settler community could determine. Jewish settler leaders seized the rights to the state, granting the new found Arab minority only a handful of rights within it.”

Israel is simultaneously a formally liberal state and a colonial entity. This structural contradiction arises in part because in order to gain recognition of its sovereignty, Israel was forced by post-World War II international norms to formally extend citizenship rights to the Palestinian minority within its borders.

Robinson notes that Israel was the first state in history to emerge from a settler-colony that extended citizenship and voting rights to its indigenous inhabitants in the midst of an ongoing quest for their land. She notes: “Whereas the United States, for instance, spent two centuries attenuating the land base of Native Americans before offering them citizenship in 1924, the norms of self-determination, republican citizenship and human rights that rose from the ashes and hypocrisies of the two world wars precluded the possibility that Israel would enjoy the same luxury.”

Citizenship in Israel has, however, been a tool of exclusion as much as the opposite; Robinson writes, “the juridical and social content of Israeli citizenship was determined not by an ideal vision of whom to include but rather by the stark imperative of whom to keep out.” At the time of Israel’s founding, the state faced a dilemma between its declared commitment to equality and its desire to provide for open Jewish immigration.

This dilemma was resolved by creating two different nationality laws: the 1950 Law of Return, for Jews, and the 1952 Nationality Law, for Palestinian Arabs. Robinson writes: “In December 1949, Israeli authorities had conceptualised the Law of Return as a way to quietly block the creation of a universal category of citizens. Their aim had been to entrench the legal divisions between Jews, who would enjoy exclusive national rights to the state, and all other residents — the ‘non-Jewish minorities’ — whose civic status they would eventually have to recognise therein. This distinction manifested itself most visibly in Israeli identity cards, papers that the population became required to carry at all times. Although state passports designated the citizenship of their holders as ‘Israeli,’ internal identity cards marked their holders’ nationality primarily as ‘Jewish’ or ‘Arab,’ the racial groupings built into mandatory law and endorsed by the League of Nations.” While the terms “nationality” and “citizenship” are interchangeable in most liberal democracies, they are not so in Israel where the two different nationality laws — one for Jews and the other for Arabs — continue to contribute to a system of racial segregation among citizens.

One particular incident that became emblematic of the fraught relations between the Israeli state and its Palestinian minority was the Kafr Qasim massacre and its aftermath. Kafr Qasim is located about 20 kilometers from Tel Aviv, close to the Green Line separating Israel from the West Bank (at the time part of Jordan). On Oct 29, 1956, on the eve of the Sinai War, the Israel Border Police murdered 49 civilians in the course of two hours. On the morning of the massacre, the IDF commander of Israel’s central district was ordered to take all precautionary measures to maintain quiet along the Jordanian armistice line. He received permission to move up the start of the evening curfew from10pm to 5pm. He then instructed his subordinates to “shoot to kill” everyone found outside his or her home after the curfew. When asked about those day labourers who would return home after 5pm, unaware of the curfew, he replied using the Arabic phrase for the deceased, Allah yirhamu, “May God have mercy on him.” Soon after, his subordinates passed on the orders to his platoon and company commanders, adding that it would be desirable to kill a few people in each village as a deterrent to any trouble during the war.

The massacre sparked great unrest among Palestinians, leading to strikes and protests in the villages of the Galilee and the Little Triangle. Though the policemen involved in the shooting were tried and sentenced to prison terms, all received pardons and were released within a year. The Israeli government conducted a sulha — named after the traditional Bedouin custom in which two tribes make peace over bread and salt — to heal the wounds caused by the event. Robinson writes: “The familes of Kafr Qasim participated in the charade of the sulha out of fear and in the absence of a viable alternative. Their practical decision notwithstanding, for them and for most Palestinians in Israel who personally remember the event or learned about it from others, it remains an indelible stain on the historical record, an assault on the dignity of the victims and the Arab community as a whole. Although the state, with the help of the dominant media, may have succeeded that day in dramatising its hegemony and imposing its own memory of the massacre, it did so only through the threat of force and the imagery of exoticism — a fact that few villagers or activists have forgotten.”

In conclusion, Robinson argues that the crisis facing Israeli democracy is not simply a result of the continuing settlement enterprise or the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza but is as old as the state itself. She writes: “Israel’s development as a liberal settler state was the outcome of the imperative to establish a colonial rule of difference within a liberal order imposed largely from the outside — to find a legal way to partition the population, and thus facilitate colonisation for exclusive Jewish use.”

This well-researched book thus provides essential context for current events in the occupied Palestinian Territories and is required reading for anyone interested in exploring the roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Citizen Strangers: Palestinians and the Birth of Israel’s Liberal Settler State


By Shira Robinson

Stanford University Press, US

ISBN 9780804786546



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