By Irene Gendzier, Israeli Occupation Archive – 25 Aug 2014


Irene Gendzier

William R. Polk, former US diplomat and author, wrote in August 2014, “the events of today were preordained,” adding that “only if we understand the history can we hope to help solve this very complex, often shameful and sometimes dangerous problem.” Gaza was directly affected by that history in 1948-1949, when its population was vastly increased as a result of the influx of Palestinian refugees.

Whether or not Gaza was ‘preordained,’ or the Israeli invasion inevitable, Polk’s pointed reminder of the connection between the present Israeli invasion and the events of 1948-9 was but one of a number of assertions about the very same connection. Suddenly, it was 1948 all over again.

The connection between Gaza and 1948 was made by others, including activists who pointed out that “the heart of the problem is not Hamas or who the Palestinian leadership is, it is the Israeli occupation, beginning with the expulsion of the Palestinians from their land in 1948 (what the Palestinians term the Nakba or ‘catastrophe’).

Erlanger expressed the same view in The New York Times on August 16, 2014, when he reported that “Israelis can feel as stuck, in different ways , as the Palestinians themselves. Because of course this is really just another round in the unresolved Arab-Israeli war of 1948-49.”

It is worth recalling that in June 1945, that is nearly three years before Israel declared its independence, Ben-Gurion, Chair of the Executive Committee of the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem who would later become Israel’s first Prime Minister, along with several associates, met with the top US officials of the Near Eastern Affairs Division of the State Department. Their purpose: to make their demands clear. They were not interested in piecemeal solutions of the Palestine problem. ”Their position was well known and they had come to the point where they could no longer accept anything less than the granting of all their demands, including the immediate establishment of a Jewish State.”   As far as the Arab reaction was concerned, they were not overly concerned. “Mr Ben-Gurion said that he knew the Arabs well and that they would not really put up any kind of a fight. The Bedouins of the desert were, of course, good fighters, but it was well known that they had no interest in the Palestine problem and so the leaders of the Arab states would not be successful in rallying their people to support of the Arab position on Palestine.”

It is no surprise, then, that by 1948-9, the US felt ‘stuck,’ as it confronted its failed efforts to resolve the conflict whose origins they clearly understood. By then, moreover, they had also understood that without addressing the core issues at stake, there would be no solution to the conflict. Those core issues consisted of the repatriation of Palestinian refugees, the determination of internationally accepted boundaries, and the fate of Jerusalem.

Despite its avowed support for consensus between Arab and Jew as the essential prerequisite for a resolution of the conflict in Palestine, US officials supported the policy of ‘transfer,’ which in effect meant the coercive expulsion of Palestinians from their towns and villages to assure Israel a homogeneous population. Moreover, despite Washington’s recognition of Israeli responsibility for the Palestinian refugee problem and its repeated endorsement of UNGA Res 194, whose recommendations included the repatriation of Palestinian refugees by Israel, by 1949 the US government moved to defer to Israel policies. Why?

There was no conspiracy involved. There was no wavering at the top. The US was not ambivalent about what policies to pursue. On the contrary, the decision to stop pressuring Israel to take action on the refugee question, and to lay low in opposing Israel’s territorial expansion, were unmistakable signs that there was a shift in priorities.

US officials understood the Israeli reliance on force to expand and control territory, which they criticized while recognizing Israel’s military superiority as compared to that of surrounding Arab states. It was on the basis of such force that Israel altered the balance of power in the Middle East in 1948. And it was on the basis of such developments that Washington calculated that Israel could be useful in the protection of US regional interests. The result was a corresponding lessening of pressure on the Jewish state to repatriate Palestinian refugees and to clamp down on its territorial expansion. There was no contradiction in US policy; the move corresponded to priorities in which Palestinian rights had no place. Yet successive administrations continued to recognize the importance of the core issues while not moving to implement them.

This is not to ignore the acceleration of US military and financial support for Israel that increased exponentially after the 1967 war. It is simply to draw attention to early US recognition of the role that Israel would play in US regional policies, those dedicated to the protection of its interests in oil and defense, and to the containment and repression of radical and nationalist forces across the Middle East. US support for Israel’s repeated invasions of Gaza and its continued occupation of the West Bank are part of this, as is the indispensable US role in providing military support that has allowed Israel to pursue its destruction of Gaza in 2014.

In short, it’s important to make the connection between Israel’s war on Gaza in 2014 and the events of 1948, but it is no less critical to confront the US role.

Irene Gendzier was a long time member of the Boston University faculty, having taught in the Departments of History, African Studies and Political Science. She is the author of the forthcoming book, Dying to Forget: Oil, Power, Palestine, and the Foundations of U.S. Policy in the Middle East, Columbia University Press, Nov. 2015; and she is also a member of the IOA Advisory Board.