Nur Masalha is a Palestinian academic and historian based in London. He is an associate member of the Center for Palestine Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. Masalha is author of a number of books, including, most recently, Palestine: A Four Thousand Year History. Diwan interviewed him in late September to discuss a concept he has developed in two of his books, namely that of the transfer of Palestinians in Zionist thought, to see if it still has relevance today at a time when there is talk by Israeli officials of annexing large parts of the West Bank.
Michael Young: Amid signs that the United States may approve of Israel’s annexation of parts of the West Bank, do you feel that discussion over a “transfer” of the Palestinian population out of the territory will be revived?
Nur Masalha: The public debate in Israel over “transfer” of the Palestinian population out of the territory has been going on for many years and top Israeli public figures on the extreme right have been vocal about this. We also have a de facto “creeping transfer” of Palestinians from East Jerusalem, largely implemented through a variety of bureaucratic and legal procedures.
As you know, two of my books Expulsion of the Palestinians: The Concept of “Transfer” in Zionist Political Thought (Institute for Palestine Studies, 1992) and A Land Without a People (Faber and Faber, 1997) sought to cover “historical” periods (1882–1948 and 1949–1997, respectively). I also tried to contextualize the evolving concept of “transfer” in mainstream Zionism in the framework of writing the history of modern Palestine, with the Palestinian Nakba, or “catastrophe,” of 1948 being a major theme. My book Expulsion of the Palestinians, in particular, reveals extensive internal discussions by the Jewish Agency Executive (then the government of the Zionist Yishuv in Palestine) and a number of secret transfer plans in the run-up to 1948. However, all these were history books, based on archival discoveries, and it’s easier to write about the past and present on the basis of available documents than about the future.
I can perfectly understand the point you raised about the revival of the threat of transfer or expulsion that Palestinians face—a threat rooted in Palestine’s modern history and current Israeli settler-colonial policies in the West Bank. But at this stage we cannot talk about the future, or futures, of Palestine with any certainty. We can only talk about likely scenarios, most likely scenarios, and best possible scenarios.
MY: What was at the heart of the notion of transfer in Zionist thinking, and how does it play out in the more recent context?
NM: Land and demography were always at the heart of the conflict between the Zionist colonial settlers in Palestine and the indigenous Palestinians. Essential to mainstream Labor Zionist strategies of the mid-1930s, especially from 1936 onwards, was the doctrine of pursuing “maximum land with a minimal number of Arabs” in a projected Jewish state. The modalities of this doctrine evolved over the years and across developing historical contexts in Palestine, and later Israel-Palestine after May 1948. The expulsion of more than half of the Palestinian population in 1948 and the capture of 78 percent of Mandatory Palestine by and large ensured, albeit not fully, the achievement of this territorial-demographic strategy.
That said, a large Palestinian minority survived within the Green Line, equivalent to 13 percent of the population in 1949—a figure that has risen today to 20 percent of Israel’s population. Israeli annexation (with the agreement of King Abdullah I of Jordan) of the “small triangle” of Arab villages adjacent to the Green Line with the West Bank in 1949 added more Palestinians to the Israeli state in those early years.
We know that, mainly for demographic reasons, Israeli strategies since June 1967 have never been to annex formally and legally the territories occupied at the time—with the exception of East Jerusalem, which was formally annexed more than three decades ago. Rather, Israeli strategies have been to annex in a de facto way, through the creation of settlement facts on the ground, while keeping most Palestinians outside the geographically expanding Jewish state.
This “pragmatic expansionism” was instituted by an Israeli Labor government, but was later adopted and adapted by most Likud governments—Ariel Sharon’s and Benjamin Netanyahu’s governments included. At the same time, a Labor government took the secret decision in October and November 1967 to eliminate the Green Line with the West Bank, and all Israeli governments since then have considered the Jordan River as the physical border of Israel. Also, the political consent in Israel was that the Jordan Valley portion of the West Bank—where Israeli settlements were created after 1967—would ultimately be annexed to Israel. In this sense, Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent pre-election announcements and promises about the Jordan Valley’s annexation has deep roots in Israeli strategies since 1967, although the scale of his annexation plans may differ from those endorsed by other mainstream Israeli parties.
Through the Oslo II Accord of September 1995, this pragmatic expansionism also led to the breakup of the West Bank into three areas: Area A, in which “autonomy” was granted to the main Palestinian urban centers and cities; Area B, in which partial autonomy was granted to Palestinian towns and villages surrounding the main cities of Area A; and Area C, which remained under direct Israel control. The de facto partitioning of the West Bank under the Oslo Accords between Israel and the “autonomous” Palestinian Authority was first mooted in the Allon Plan of 1967–1970. Interestingly, this West Bank autonomy concept emerged within the so-called the “Palestinian option”—an Israeli political approach that contrasted with the historical “Jordanian option” of Labor Zionism and the tacit alliance that had emerged in the 1940s between Labor Zionism and the Hashemite rulers of Transjordan.
Yigal Allon occupied a central position at the time and became a deputy prime minister in Golda Meir’s government. Although the Allon Plan, which included full annexation of the Gaza Strip and the “transfer” of refugees to northern Sinai, was never officially adopted by the Israeli government, much of Labor’s settler-colonial strategies in the West Bank until 1977 was guided by the Allon Plan. However, in practice then-defense minister Moshe Dayan ran the occupied territories and managed the creeping de facto annexation of the West Bank in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Territorially and in terms of the suggested Palestinian “autonomy” in the plan, the Allon Plan was slightly more generous to the Palestinians than the Oslo Accords of 1993. This was partly because Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank was much less evident in 1970 than in 1993. But, from an Israeli perspective—especially those of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres—the Oslo Accords were in effect a revised Allon Plan, especially with its de facto partitioning aspects of the territory, taking into consideration the changing demographic realities on the ground and the establishment of numerous Israeli settlements by 1993. We know Oslo did not stop the practical expansion of settlements. In fact the number of West Bank settlers has trebled since 1993.
However, from an Israeli point of view Oslo fit in reasonably well with the notion of “maximum land with a minimal number of Arabs.” Today, most Palestinians in the West Bank are confined to Areas A and B, which are governed partially by the Palestinian Authority, while a minority of Palestinians, about 200,000, live in Area C, which constitutes about two-thirds of the West Bank. Since 1993 Palestinians, with only a few exceptions, have never been allowed to build homes in Area C, an area that is designated to eventually become part of the Israeli state.
Although at Camp David in 2000, Israel’s then-prime minister Ehud Barak, with his pragmatic expansionist approach, was prepared to negotiate over the size of Area C, no Israeli government since 1967 has been prepared to give up most of this area or return to the 1967 borders, effectively obliterating the Green Line. All governments have stuck doggedly to creating new settlement facts on the ground and creeping de facto expansionism. Today much Israeli settler-colonial expansionism is focused on Area C and East Jerusalem.
MY: How have the Netanyahu government’s policies played into this?
NM: Benjamin Netanyahu has sought to transform the practical de facto annexation of Area C into a de jure, or legal, annexation of that area. He also seems to have heard sympathetic noises in that direction from members of the Trump administration, although the outcome of the recent Israeli elections introduces an element of uncertainty into this. Netanyahu’s calculation was that under strong support from the U.S. administration and growing normalization with the Arab Gulf regimes, both secret and open, he had an excellent window of opportunity to engage in annexation.
As I noted earlier, greater East Jerusalem, with its 300,000 inhabitants, was formally and legally annexed by Israel long ago. However, in recent years much of Israel’s settler-colonial policies in East Jerusalem have focused on penetrating and breaking up Palestinian neighborhoods and thinning Palestinian demography. We also know that under former prime minister Ariel Sharon Israel withdrew unilaterally from Gaza in 2005, again within the ideological framework of “maximum land, minimum Arabs.” But it was also the failure to “transfer” the Gaza refugees to northern Sinai in the late 1960s and 1970s that formed part of the historical background to the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005.
This withdrawal thus took 2 million Palestinians out of the Jewish state, while losing little territory, in addition to imposing a crippling siege on Gaza’s Palestinians. An Israeli majority backed that move, and today there is absolutely no Israeli support for reoccupying the Gaza Strip, even among the Israeli extreme right, and being burdened with a huge Arab demographic problem.
The Israelis have concentrated on both the de facto and de jure annexation of Area C, with its relatively small Palestinian population. Israel has kept most West Bank Palestinians in Areas A and B. If you add the Palestinian population there to the one in Gaza, it totals some 4 million people. In this way the Israeli state is again advancing a “maximum land with a minimum number of Arabs” strategy.
MY: You mentioned earlier how Oslo effectively partitioned the West Bank between Israelis and Palestinians. Given how the notion of partition was essential to the founding of Israel in 1948, can you walk us through the way it has been used by the Zionist movement?
NM: “Partition”—like “transfer”—was another key concept in mainstream Labor Zionism and by those who founded the Israel state. It was also a powerfully lethal weapon in the armory of the gradualist and pragmatic Zionist settler-colonizers in Palestine. Many liberal Zionists, and some of the Israeli so-called “new historians,” have contrasted pragmatic mainstream Zionist advocacy of partition in 1937 and 1948 with the Palestinians fighting against the partitioning of Palestine. However, these new historians ignore the mountain of Zionist archival sources from 1937 to 1948 which show that the politics of partition by Labor Zionism and David Ben-Gurion during this period were conditional on the transfer or expulsion of the indigenous Palestinians.
Also in 1937–1948, the European Zionist settlers were a minority in Palestine and owned about 6 percent of the land. In 1948 the Zionists did not stick to the United Nations partition plan of 1947, going far beyond it by grabbing 78 percent of Mandatory Palestine. Partition never ceased to be a practical weapon in the hands of the Zionist colonizers fighting to disinherit the indigenous Palestinians.
Today mainstream Zionists—both Labor and Likud and the Blue and White centrist Party of the Israeli generals—advocate the partitioning of the last 20 percent of Mandatory Palestine, namely the West Bank. They only differ over the proportion of the land that would be taken from the West Bank. While Netanyahu is seeking to grab much of the last bit of Palestine, the Zionist liberal colonizers will continue to ignore the plight of the millions of Palestinian refugees and muddy the waters. This time the liberal colonizers will promote the politics of partition on the basis of 90 percent of Mandatory Palestine for the Zionist settlers, leaving 10 percent of the land to the Palestinians.
Of course not all Israeli doctrines and everything the Israelis plan or seek to implement works. Historically, many Israeli plans failed miserably. For instance, the schemes to transfer the Gaza refugees to northern Sinai failed spectacularly. Moreover, Palestinian demographics in Galilee, despite ongoing Judaization policies, have remained very solid and the overall number of Palestinians within the Green Line is close to 2 million people.
At the same time, the Palestinians across former Mandatory Palestine are facing new and emerging existential problems. To mention only a few of them, they are facing, as I noted earlier, the de facto and potential de jure annexation of Area C of the West Bank. They are also facing a breakup of the contiguity of Palestinian territories in the West Bank. Palestinians must also deal with the Israeli determination to prevent both the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and a binational state in Mandatory Palestine. The Israeli strategy is effectively “no state solution for Palestine and the Palestinians.” The Palestinians are also witnessing the physical separation of East Jerusalem from the West Bank, as well as the possible formal annexation of the center of Al-Khalil, or Hebron, the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank, to Israel. There are growing Israeli pressures, and increasing determination, to partition the Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem along the lines of the partitioning of the Ibrahim Mosque in Al-Khalil. And Palestinians within Israel’s 1948 borders are facing new threats, including legislative threats. We can’t predict the future with certainty, but we should be alert to the new and emerging threats to Palestine and the Palestinians.