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Israel and Palestine - Book Review

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Much farther back along the time line, the Balfour Declaration is simply that, a declaration of purpose, and has absolutely no validity in international law, or should not have. One government's belief about making a new state on already populated territory should have no validity in international law. This of course raises huge questions about many countries that were colonies set up with arbitrary boundaries by the imperial forces of the day extending throughout Asia, Africa, and the Americas (did any of the indigenous populations have a say in the establishment of their country and its boundaries?) and which have been partial cause if not major cause of many international problems today.

These concerns can be argued back and forth without changing much. What is clear is that Israel today is in a clear breach of international law along with its accomplice, the U.S. Shlaim covers much territory and significant time, but the two strongest hitting chapters from my perspective were the ones on Ariel Sharon in "Ariel Sharon's War Against the Palestinians" and on Gaza "Israel's War Against Hamas: Rhetoric and Reality."

Back to the basics I - Sharon

Sharon is viewed as an ultimate warrior, in which "diplomacy"is the extension of war by other means," with convictions based on Ze'ev Jabotinsky's strategy "to enable the Zionist movement to deal with its local opponents from a position of unassailable strength." His "iron wall" was "not an end in itself but a means to an end," in order "to compel the Arabs to abandon any hope of destroying the Jewish state. Despair was expected to promote pragmatism." His career was hallmarked with "mendacity, the most savage brutality towards the Arab civilians, and a persistent preference for force over diplomacy," he remained "the champion of violent solutions."

Apart from his "habitual violation of UN resolutions to the systematic abuse of international humanitarian law," one of Sharon's most disturbing aspects "was the commencement of the construction of the so called "security barrier' or wall on the West Bank." According to Shlaim, "it is clear that the wall is paving the way to the de facto annexation of a substantial part of the West Bank to Israel. Jabotinsky's iron wall metaphor "fast became a hideous and horrendous concrete reality, and an environmental catastrophe," not to mention the International Court of Justice "declared Construction of the barrier is contrary to international law."

Back to the basics II - Gaza.

Gaza receives the denouement position within this series of articles, as it is the most recent, most aggressive, and most obvious violation of international law. When a massively armed force attacks what is essentially a large outdoor prison, having previously broken a truce sustained by Hamas, there can be no doubt about Israel's culpability in breaking international law.

While introducing the background to this chapter, Shlaim says "the aftermath of the June 1967 war had very little to do with security and everything to do with territorial expansion".and the result has been on of the most prolonged and brutal military occupations of modern times." At first, economic control of Gaza (and the West Bank), a control that "did incalculable damage to the economy of the Gaza Strip," is discussed. The ongoing Israeli activities made it so "The development of local industry was actively impeded so as to make it impossible for the Palestinians to end their subordination to Israel and to establish the economic underpinnings essential for real political independence."

When the Gaza settlers were withdrawn it served two purposes. The first was propaganda for the western media, but "the real purpose behind the move was to redraw unilaterally the borders of Greater Israel by incorporating the main settlement blocs on the West Bank into the [State] of Israel." Shlaim's history continues with strong condemnatory notes. After the withdrawal "Gaza was converted overnight into an open-air prison." As for democracy, "Israel likes to portray itself as an island of democracy in a sea of authoritarianism. Yet it has never in its entire history done anything to promote democracy." Turning to the Palestinian side, he says, "the Palestinian people succeeded in building the only genuine democracy in the Arab world with the possible exception of Lebanon and Morocco." These are impressively strong statements that speak clearly of the reality in the Arab/Israeli conflict.

Shlaim notes the irony of "The international community imposing economic sanctions not against the occupier but against the occupied, not against the oppressor, but against the oppressed." He also notes the reaction of Hamas, as "it began to move towards pragmatic accommodation of a two-state solution," a voice Israel continually denies credibility to.

His language continues accusing and strong: "Killing civilians is a gross violation of international humanitarian law." Israel's record is one of unbridled and unremitting brutality towards the inhabitants of Gaza." The ongoing economic blockade is seen as immoral and also "a form of collective punishment that is strictly forbidden by international humanitarian law." Beyond the economy, war crimes are listed that "alone sweep away any moral or legal justification for the war." Shlaim ends the chapter with the passage quoted above about Israel becoming a rogue state that "habitually violates international law."


Shlaim's work is not necessarily a good place to start for someone wanting an overview of the whole of the Palestine/Israel question from its historical inception through to today. It is however a powerfully stated series of descriptions and commentaries that highlight the Israeli disregard for international law and some of the complicity of the U.S. Without equivocation and with clear language that is accessible to all readers, Shlaim provides ample evidence of the international intransigence of Israel towards what are commonly expressed principles of international law and commonly held expectations of humanitarian behaviour. As a dissident historical perspective (becoming more and more mainstream, especially after the Gaza war), Israel and Palestine is a welcome and strongly worded addition to the library of material on the core threat to peace in the Middle East.

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A long time student/critic/analyst of the American empire and all that entails, having initially focused on Palestine with many articles submitted to Palestine Chronicle. Since then, other global websites have distributed the reviews and (more...)

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