This year will mark the 70th anniversary of the United Nations partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish regions, and the anniversary of the first Middle East War of 1948. In the West, these are commemorated as the events which paved the way for the founding of Israel, “the return of Jewish rule to the land of Zion”. For the people of the East however, they have a very different meaning. There, 1948 is known as the “Year of the Disaster”, the year of the destruction of Palestine, and the dispossession and dismemberment of its people.
As a result of the “1948 Disaster”, hundreds of thousands of the indigenous people of Palestine were forced into exile becoming stateless refugees waiting to return to their homes, while others were reduced to aliens in their own country living under Israeli military rule. The Israeli conquest of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1967 further compounded this national tragedy of the Palestinian people — creating almost a half-million new refugees and at the same time, placing more than an additional million Palestinians under Israeli military rule.
While these events have produced a nightmare for the Palestinian people they have, for the most part, been ignored in the West. Repeated Palestinian appeals for recognition and justice have not been heard, especially in the United States, above the din created by those who noisily celebrate the “joys of the Jewish homeland” and the military victories that have made that “homeland” possible. That this Jewish “homeland” (and the 1967 expansion of it) was based on the displacement of the Palestinian people and the denial of their human and legal right to self-determination is ignored, as is the intense suffering that this displacement and denial of human rights has caused. Palestinians have been victims — but in the US, they have been invisible victims.
Americans know Israelis as people, as Jewish people who have suffered. But Americans do not know Palestinians as people. On the contrary, Palestinians (and Arabs, in general) have been subjected to years of defamation, campaigns of disinformation and negative stereotyping. Consequently, Palestinians are not seen in the US as human beings with equal rights. When Palestinians are considered at all, they are referred to as the “Palestinian problem” confronting Israel, the “problem” that must somehow be resolved so that Israelis can have peace.
With this in mind, over four decades ago I wrote a book Palestinians: The Invisible Victims. It was not a catalogue of Israeli acts of repression against Palestinians. Rather, it was an examination of the ideology and practice of the movement of Political Zionism and its patron, British imperialism, that together were responsible for the denial of Palestinian rights and the subsequent campaigns of disinformation and the repression against the Palestinian people.
Political Zionism, the dream of some Jews for “national liberation”, denied the humanity of the Palestinian people. It was Political Zionism that created the conditions that resulted in the victimisation of Palestinians. To the extent to which Westerners view the Palestinian-Israeli conflict through the lens of this ideology, they cannot see the nightmare it has created for the Palestinians — they cannot see the Palestinians themselves.
This story of how Political Zionism dealt with the Palestinian people is not ancient history. Rather, it sets the stage for what is happening in Palestine today and it helps us better understand both Israel’s systematic efforts to dispossess the Palestinian people of their land and rights and the West’s continued failure to address these Israeli violations. Palestinians remain invisible — their personal stories have been ignored. Or they have been objectified and are seen merely as threat to be neutralised or a problem to be solved in order to ensure Israel’s security.
In the intervening years, since I first wrote Palestinians: The Invisible Victims much has changed, but much has remained the same. The Oslo Peace Process, which was once a source of hope, is now dead. Israeli politics has decidedly moved to the Right with members of the current government saying and doing things that echo the harshest and most racist statements and policies of the early proponents of Political Zionism.
In recent decades, Palestinian citizens of Israel have faced down enormous challenges and have emerged as a political force fighting for equality and justice for themselves and their compatriots — those under occupation and those who are refugees. Those Palestinians who live under harsh occupation, despite a dysfunctional and divided leadership, continue to resist and demand freedom. And despite their dispersal, dispossession, and efforts to erase their identity, Palestinians have built institutions and maintained their attachment to their land.
Among governments in the West however, little has changed. Palestinians are now increasingly recognised as a political issue with Western politicians offering support for a vague “two-state solution”. But the formulas they offer are, more often than not, predicated on the need to protect Israel’s Jewish population from being swallowed up by what is referred to as the “Palestinian demographic time-bomb” that will threaten Israel’s “Jewish character”. What the West does not address are Palestinian human rights and the suffering and the humiliation they are forced to endure on a daily basis as a result of an oppressive occupation. In that sense, the Palestinian people remain invisible and their rights are still ignored.
One of the more hopeful developments to occur in recent years is the emergence in Israel and in the West of voices who are challenging the exclusivist idea of Political Zionism. They are partnering with Palestinians to oppose the occupation and to defend human rights.
In recent years, almost weekly, articles appear in publications in Israel or in progressive publications in the US making the same arguments about Israel’s ideology or behaviour that I made (and for which I was denounced) 40 years ago when my book was first published. There is growing awareness that was once ignored or considered taboo, must now be addressed.
And so, I am proud that working together with the folks at Mondoweiss, we are reissuing Palestinians: The Invisible Victims in the hope that it will educate a new generation of readers about the history that has created the situation that continues to plague both Israelis and Palestinians; provide the context in which to understand the enormity of the injustice that has defined the Palestinian reality; promote recognition of the human rights of these beleaguered people; and spur a much-needed debate about the dangers inherent in the exclusivist vision of Political Zionism. For there to be a just and lasting peace for Israelis and Palestinians, an understanding of this history is a necessity.
Dr James J. Zogby is the president of Arab American Institute, a non-profit, non-partisan national leadership organisation.