‘We saw Jews with hearts Like Germans’: Moroccan immigrants in Israel warned families not to follow

Moroccan immigrants arriving in Haifa, 1954

Moroccan immigrants arriving in Haifa, 1954

More on Palestine

‘We saw Jews with hearts Like Germans’: Moroccan immigrants in Israel warned families not to follow

[This article, written by Ofer Aderet, first appeared on the Harretz website, and this version reprinted from the Portside website.]

Thousands of letters written in the early years of the state by immigrant soldiers to their families in Morocco reveal a gloomy picture. Most wanted to go home. ‘If you want my advice, stay in North Africa; it’s better than the Land of Israel.’

In 1949, in the midst of the War of Independence, an Israel Defence Forces soldier wrote a letter to his family who remained in Morocco. ‘We came to Israel and thought we’d find a paradise here, but regrettably it was the opposite: We saw Jews with hearts like Germans.’ He also had a word of caution for his relatives: ‘If you want my advice, stay in North Africa; it’s better than the Land of Israel.’

The soldier’s identity remains unknown, but thousands of similar letters that were deposited in the IDF and Defence Establishment Archive show that he was not the only Moroccan immigrant who harboured such feelings. Excerpts from the letters, which had remained below the radar of historians and researchers, are now being published for the first time.

Another soldier from North Africa was more direct and blunt, accusing the Ashkenazi Jews of racism. ‘The European Jews, who suffered tremendously from Nazism, see themselves as a superior race and the Sephardi [Mizrahi] Jews as belonging to an inferior one,’ he wrote to his parents. He complained that the North African new immigrant ‘who came here from afar and was not required to leave his home because of racial discrimination – is now humiliated at every turn.’

A feeling of injustice also arises from the lines that follow: ‘Instead of [showing] gratitude, they treat us like savages or something that is unwelcome. When I see [North] African friends wandering the streets, one without an arm, the other without a leg, people who spilled their blood in war, I ask myself, ‘Is it worth it?”

Historian Shay Hazkani – whose research focuses generally on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and on how Jewish immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East were absorbed and treated during the early years of the state – discovered these letters in classified reports written by the postal censorship bureau that operated in the army from its inception. The unit’s members read the letters sent by soldiers and deleted classified information. Moreover, they also copied – without the soldiers’ knowledge or consent – passages that would interest the army and the civilian authorities. By this means it was possible to monitor the mood among the soldiers and to track other developments.

Dr. Hazkani was especially interested in what these historical sources could reveal – despite the problematic nature of reading personal correspondence – about the feelings of immigrants who had come from Morocco to fight in the war in 1947-48, who were opening their hearts to their families who remained behind.

‘The Poles control everything,’ one soldier wrote his family in Morocco at the time, noting that ’95 percent of the guys here are dissatisfied, and would like only to go back to where they came from.’ In the view of another soldier, ‘Palestine might be good for people who suffered in the camps in Germany, but not for us, the French, who are lovers of freedom.’ (He was referring to France’s protectorate regime, which ruled in Morocco until the country became independent, in 1956.)

Allegations of discrimination at the hands of Ashkenazi immigrants are rife in many of the letters Hazkani studied. One soldier, originally from Casablanca, wrote his family back home that the Polish Jews ‘think Moroccans are savages and thieves. When we pass by, they look at us like [we are] brutes.’ His dream was to return to Casablanca, he told his family, and he would go on crying until he was able to buy a plane ticket.

Morrocan immigrant at Dead Seas Industries potash plant, 1956

Morrocan immigrant at Dead Seas Industries potash plant, 1956

‘I can’t stand this country, which is worse than jail. The Ashkenazim exploit us in everything and give the best and easiest jobs to the Poles,’ a soldier wrote to relatives in Morocco. ‘The wages are worth nothing. For his easy labor, the Pole gets 2.5 liras, but the maximum we Moroccans can earn for our arduous and strenuous work is only 1.5 liras.’

The perusal of thousands of letters by new-immigrant soldiers from Morocco suggests that the majority of them wanted to return home and that they recommended that their families not immigrate to the Jewish state, or at least put off any such move. The percentages shift between periods and between the groups of letters sampled, but a summary drawn by the IDF turns up high numbers: About 70 percent who wanted to go back to Morocco and 76 percent who recommended to their families to stay put.

The army’s top brass itself generally displayed a patronizing, hostile and distant attitude toward soldiers of North African origin, according to the IDF’s own files, from which the letters quoted by Hazkani were taken. ‘Even though the soldiers are of inferior education and culture, they manifest potent criticism,’ one army report states. ‘North African immigrants suffer from an inferiority complex that might be caused by the way their Ashkenazi colleagues treat them,’ a censorship official wrote after analysing the soldiers’ letters.

‘This phenomenon is serious and raises concern,’ he continues, not just because of the damage to morale among the soldiers, ‘but also because of the information sent by the ‘offended’’ to their families and friends in their countries of origin.

Data from the Central Bureau of Statistics shows that 6 percent of those who immigrated from Morocco in the years 1949 to 1953 actually returned to their native land: 2,466 out of approximately 40,000. Proportionally, Hazkani found, this was almost twice the number of those who returned among the immigrants from Europe and America (Ashkenazim).

‘Human sheep’

Complaints about Israel did not only make people decide to leave the country. There was an Israeli government policy that was intended to hinder or delay immigration. In 1951, the government adopted a policy of ‘selective aliyah.’ In a 1999 article, ‘The Origin of Selective Aliyah,’ Dr. Avi Picard, from Bar-Ilan University’s Land of Israel Studies department, notes that the restrictions referred to the “quality” of the immigrants – who by and large came from North Africa at the time – and not their numbers, and were imposed via classification on the basis of one’s physical fitness, age and profession.

‘Don’t believe the Zionist Office in Morocco. It is spreading propaganda, lies and distortions,’ an immigrant soldier from North Africa wrote his family in an effort to dissuade them from making the move to the Holy Land. ‘Here you’ll be called ‘dirty Moroccans,’ and the papers will write that the Moroccans don’t know how to dress or how to eat with a fork. Only with their hands. They think that the only human beings here are the Poles.’

Military post office in Tel Aviv

Military post office in Tel Aviv

The unnamed soldier was referring to a series of articles published in Haaretz in 1949, which continue to resonate to this day. A reporter on the paper, Aryeh Gelblum, assumed a fictitious identity in order to document life in the immigrants’ transit camps. He published his grim conclusions under the headline, ‘I was a new immigrant for a month.’

‘This is an immigration of race such as we have never before known in Israel,’ he wrote, in reference to the North African immigrants. ‘We have here a people at a peak of primitiveness. The level of their education borders on absolute ignorance, and even graver is [their] incompetence at absorbing anything intellectual.’

Gelblum added, ‘Only slightly do they surpass the general level of the Arab, Negro and Berber inhabitants from their places [of origin]… They are completely subject to primitive and savage instincts. In any event, this is an even lower level than what we knew among the Arabs of the Land of Israel of the past.’ He continued: ‘What can we do with them? How can we absorb them? Have we considered what will happen to this country if they became its citizens? One day the rest of the Jews from the Arab world will immigrate! What will the State of Israel look like and what sort of level will it have if it has citizens like these?’

In the summer of 1950, Davar, the organ of the Histadrut labor federation, ran an article about a transit camp in Marseille where new immigrants, most of them Jews from North Africa, were waiting on their way to Israel. Terms such as ‘bad material’ and ‘human sheep’ were used to describe the prospective immigrants, who would have to be ‘kneaded’ in order ‘to shape them.’ The article went on: ‘Will it be possible to form new traits among these abject human beings? In Israel, will they not again descend into the atmosphere from which they were removed – among their brethren in the community?’

An article in Davar that September warned about the ‘oriental’ character of the people who would flood Israel. ‘Our fate depends on quality. In other words, the degree to which the non-oriental elements, which are the only ones that can sustain this country, will triumph. How to elevate them to the Western level of the existing community and how to protect ourselves with all our might against the possibility that the quality of the populations of Israel will fall to the oriental level.’

Similarly harsh comments were made by the country’s leaders, as has already been revealed. Levi Eshkol, the finance minister and later prime minister, was quoted in 1953 as saying, ‘We are shackled with human refuse, because in those countries they are sweeping the streets and sending us in the first row these backward people.’ Other leaders expressed themselves in similar terms.

Some of the immigrants from Morocco heard these voices and read the articles and were enraged. Their feelings were given expression in an article titled, ‘Moroccan Jewry Gazing toward Israel,’ published in 1949 in a Jerusalem-based periodical, Hed Hamizrah (Echo from the East). It opens by noting that at first ‘the enthusiasm of the masses of Jews [in Morocco] for making aliyah to the Holy Land was unbounded.’ Subsequently, however, when the newcomers encountered Israeli reality, ‘that enthusiasm began to be mixed with bitter disappointment.’

It is clear from this that the letters from the disappointed soldiers reached their destination in Morocco and resonated there. ‘The reports reaching here from Israel are ominous. We are told that the immigrants are being received in Israel with gross discrimination and scathing insults,’ the Hed Hamizrah writer noted. ‘The sorrow is heightened when you hear that these insults are not coming from gentiles but from their brothers who are in Zion, on whom they pinned all their hopes and from whom they thought to find succour and aid until they adjusted to life in Israel.’

Morocaan immigrant doing road work, 1949

Morocaan immigrant doing road work, 1949

The author wonders ‘what did we do to deserve having this trouble fall upon us, and this shameful attitude?’ He goes on to review the contribution of Moroccan immigrants to Israel’s rebirth: ‘Is this the reward that the official institutions pay us for having fulfilled our national duty in all senses? After all, you all know what we have wrought in the past and in the present. We were among the first illegal immigrants [ma’apilim] to Israel. Young sailors among us left their families and suffered together with their brethren in the concentration camps of Cyprus. Young lads from Morocco were also not lacking on [the ship] Exodus Europe 1947. Our boys fought like lions on all the fronts, in the north and the south, the Galilee and the Negev, in the Old City of Jerusalem and in the land’s other cities, and blood was shed everywhere.’

The article concludes: ‘Morocco’s Jews fought for the deliverance of their land, and why should they be discriminated against? Why is their blood different from the blood of their Western brothers? The bitterness caused by this insulting attitude is growing apace here. Everyone is demanding that the government of Israel right this wrong.’ Addressing members of Knesset, the writer calls for ‘the abolition of this racial discrimination, for we are the children of one father.’

Yaron Tsur, an expert in the history of Jews from the Arab and Islamic countries, addresses this issue in his 2001 book ‘A Torn Community: The Jews of Morocco and Nationalism 1943-1954’ (Hebrew).

‘The first testimonies about the cooling of the enthusiasm for the idea of aliyah to Israel are connected to the reports about the shock experienced by the immigrants from Morocco at what they viewed as discrimination against Sephardim overall and against Moroccans in particular in Israel,’ Prof. Tsur writes. ‘That was one aspect of their encounter with the ethnic problem. The potency of the negative impact these reports created may be gleaned from numerous testimonies. This discrimination was apparently the phenomenon that was most damaging to Israel’s image in the eyes of the [Moroccan] diaspora.’

According to Tsur, heightened efforts to portray the positive aspects of immigration to Israel were of no avail. ‘No propaganda could offset the impressions of the immigrants in letters from Israel and the testimony of those who returned,’ he notes. Complaints about discrimination were heard from every quarter in Morocco, he writes, and they also had an impact on the efforts to raise funds from Moroccan Jewry for the Zionist cause.

Thus, the professor describes a meeting in a private home in Rabat, at the end of which one of the participants said to the guest speaker, ‘You spoke well, but I will not donate anything and I will try to see to it that others follow my example, because you are treating Morocco’s Jews like savages.’ In another meeting, held by an MK from the Sephardi List, Avraham Elmalich, with Moroccan rabbis in the city of Port Lyautey (today, Kenitra), a religious court judge requested of him ‘that every son of Israel who will go up to Israel, whoever he may be, it will not be said of him, ‘This is an African, a Sephardi or an Ashkenazi,’ but just a plain Israeli.’

The soldiers’ letters also reflected this sentiment. One soldier wrote his family that the antisemitism in Israel was worse than in Poland. Indeed, he added, the discrimination was so widespread that it could be compared to the extreme nature of relations between whites and Blacks in America. Striking a similar note, another wrote, ‘Orientals are treated here like Negroes in the South of the U.S. There is great hatred between the Orientals and the Westerners, who make up the Government.’

One soldier wrote, dishearteningly, that despite everything, he preferred to remain in Israel and not return to Morocco. It is better to be a ‘filthy Moroccan’ than a ‘filthy Jew,’ he explained to his family.

Waxing poetic, another expressed the hope ‘to finish my service in the IDF and return to you, to my homeland Morocco, which I loved. This makes me very happy.’ One of his comrades-in-arms, who was from France, was frustrated at being identified, mistakenly, as a Moroccan. ‘I only know French but my skin is tan and I resemble a North African. What should I do? No one believes I am not North African. I don’t have a job, and even ‘white’ girls don’t want to dance with me,’ he complains. Another soldier cautioned his family that this was not the right time to immigrate to Israel. He explained, ‘You must know that the Arabs are our brothers, unlike the Ashkenazi Jews, who make our lives miserable. For all the money in the world I will not stay here.’

Moroccan immigrants in southern Israel

Moroccan immigrants in southern Israel

‘Big Brother apparatus’

An analysis of the letters reveals that the writers effectively refuted the central tenets of Zionist propaganda: The ‘homeland’ is not Israel but Morocco, and it is only to there that can one ‘return.’ As for the Jewish state, the only recourse is to flee it. Moreover, the brethren of Morocco’s Jews are not the Jews of Poland or Germany, as those who espoused the ‘ingathering of the exiles’ had hoped, but rather the Arabs. Thus, instead of a new – Israeli – identity, the hard landing experienced by some of Morocco’s Jews contributed to the shaping of a Moroccan identity.

The soldiers’ letters are quoted in Hazkani’s new book, ‘Dear Palestine: A Social History of the 1948 War’ (in English, from Stanford University Press). The historian has drawn in the past on the same collection of letters from the army’s postal censorship unit. One such study, which gave rise to an article in Haaretz in 2013, dealt with letters sent by soldiers from the front in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The letters themselves, in the army archive, are not accessible to scholars or others. Selected passages from them were quoted in internal military reports under the heading, ‘The Soldier’s Opinion,’ earmarked for senior ranks – and it is these reports that Hazkani was able to locate.

How did he get to this archival collection in the first place? At the beginning of the 2000s, Hazkani was the military correspondent for Channel 10 News. One day, while preparing an item about Israel’s arms deal with Germany in 1958, he came across an odd document. ‘It summarized the views of ‘ordinary’ soldiers about the deal… Their views were extracted from their personal letters, secretly copied by a massive Big Brother apparatus,’ Hazkani explains in his book.

Although the historian’s current focus is on soldiers of Moroccan origin, other archival documents show that they were not the only foreign-born soldiers during the state’s first decade who had scathing criticism about the Israeli society in which they found themselves. Soldiers from the United States, Great Britain and elsewhere who arrived as part of the Mahal project – involving army volunteers from overseas who were not immigrants – also weren’t wild about the so-called sabras. A survey conducted among the volunteers in 1949 by the Israel Institute of Applied Social Research (later renamed the Guttman Institute, and today called the Viterbi Family Center for Public Opinion and Policy Research) found that most of the newcomers expressed negative opinions about the Jewish state and its inhabitants (55 percent), with the bulk of the complaints referring to the phenomenon of proteksya (cronyism or favouritism). ‘Other reasons for resentment,’ Hazkani notes, ‘were chutzpah, egoism, hypocrisy and lack of respect.’

In this country, ‘it’s not what you know but who you know’ that’s important, one of the volunteers noted in his answers to the questionnaire. ‘Proteksya… proteksya… what chance does a guy like me have without that vitamin?’ added another. Some complained that the locals made no effort to be friendly, and were impolite, impudent and loud. A common theme was that Israelis think they’re always right and can’t abide the idea that sometimes the other side is right. The volunteers also felt that the locals attached too much importance to their country of origin, which affected their attitude. And, of course, that Israelis love aliyah but not olim.

The army’s postal censors diligently copied passages in which the volunteers expressed highly negative views about their experience in Israel. ‘It is enough if I say that when the Anglo-Saxons [first] came here, 95 percent were interested in settling. Today, you can’t even find 5 percent,’ a soldier wrote to his family in England. ‘In this country, soldiers try not to die for their country, but try, and with success, to have others (foreigners) die for their country,’ another observed. A volunteer soldier from the United States castigated the sabras’ ‘reprehensible behavior’ and termed them ‘irresponsible’ and ‘cheaters.’ ‘When I come back home,’ he added, ‘I’ll tell you how the people here falsify all the ideals that you work so hard for and that for the sake of their realization I came here.’

A South African soldier expressed anti-war sentiments, writing to his family that he didn’t want to fight for imperialism and the Zionists’ ‘territorial ambitions.’

Another maintained that ‘a golem is being created here, and no one knows how it [will] turn out when it grows up.’ The golem in question was the State of Israel itself, which arose, he wrote, thanks to lofty ideals but was losing control over its character and its future.

All pictures credit: Fritz Cohen/GPO/Haaretz

More on Palestine

How Israel weaponizes International Law

Palestinian rally - Abou Ghost, 1936

Palestinian rally – Abou Ghost, 1936

More on Palestine

How Israel weaponizes International Law

[This version of the article first appeared on the Portside Snapshot page on 7th June 2021.]

In an article published last winter in the Harvard International Law Journal, legal scholar Naz K. Modirzadeh criticizes contemporary scholars working on the laws of war for their “distanced, remote, and abstract” work. Often devoid of both political context and historical background, such scholarship, Modirzadeh laments, often makes “no reference to . . . people, to their experience of war, to our political responsibility for the war they [live] through, or to our fundamental and simple sense of how international law did and should see them.” Instead, Modirzadeh implores scholars to engage in “passionate” writing that “reflects a kind of moral situatedness, a willingness to take seriously the professional ethics and moral agency of writing about international law and war to audiences that have power to make decisions about war.”

Against the backdrop of yet another Israeli onslaught against Palestinians in Gaza, I hope to heed Modirzadeh’s call—to speak about Israel’s violent weaponization of international law not from a place of manufactured scholarly neutrality but from within the colonial context that has made Israel’s repeated crimes in Gaza, as well as the rest of historic Palestine, possible.

This reality—more than seventy years of Israeli settler colonialism and ethnic cleansing—has long been crystal clear to Palestinians themselves, to scholars of Palestine, as well as to Israelis, many of whom support these policies. It is just beginning to make its way into mainstream media discussions of Palestine in the United States. But most Western legal analysis of Israeli violence in Gaza still ignores this colonial backdrop, as well as the anticolonial nature of Palestinian resistance to it. This context is vital to understanding the Israeli government’s manipulation of international law to avoid its humanitarian obligations in Gaza and wantonly kill Palestinians living in the besieged strip.

***

Attacking Gaza. . . Again

To appreciate Isreal’s legal distortions and their relationship to its colonialist project, it is essential to place the current crisis in context. The latest onslaught in Gaza was prompted most immediately by various Israeli actions in occupied East Jerusalem over the last few weeks. In April Israeli police raided the al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, on the first night of Ramadan and then barricaded Damascus Gate plaza, a popular gathering place—severely limiting what little remains of Palestinian communal space in the city.

Israeli authorities also joined forces with Israeli Jewish settler groups trying to evict and displace Palestinian families living in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. Throughout April and early May, Israeli forces harassed these families and brutally cracked down on protests and sit-ins organized in Sheikh Jarrah to support Palestinian efforts to remain in their homes. As this repression continued, Israeli forces escalated events even further, starting on May 7 and continuing throughout the last days of Ramadan, by once again attacking the al-Aqsa mosque compound, where they launched stun grenades, rubber bullets, and tear gas, including against worshipers praying inside the mosque.

All together, these various incidents sparked solidarity protests organized by Palestinians across historic Palestine. Though it is hard to pin down the exact date, these demonstrations appear to have substantially increased in early MayIsraeli police and military forces, in tandem with roaming groups of armed Israeli Jewish settlers, responded to these protests with lethal violence, home invasions, and arrests, in the West Bank as well as in various cities within Israel itself.

Hamas, which won political power in Gaza in 2006 elections, responded with a warning to the Israeli government: either stop the attacks or face armed resistance. Israel’s attacks did not cease, so on May 10, a few days after issuing its warning on May 4, Hamas launched its crude unguided rockets into Israel. While its Iron Dome defense system repelled most of these rockets, Israel pummeled Gaza with its advance weapons technology. By the time a ceasefire took hold on May 20, Israel had killed at least 243 Palestinians, including 66 children. Israeli violence has also injured approximately 1,900 Palestinians and displaced 90,000 residents of Gaza; Hamas rockets killed 12 Israelis, including 2 children.  

But even these recent events do not tell the whole story. Understanding Israel’s violence inside Gaza today requires a longer-term perspective on how occupation and colonialism transformed the region into an extreme site of Israeli state violence.

Since the 1967 Six-Day War, the international community has recognized Israel as occupying Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. Given the long-standing, indefinite nature of this occupation—including large settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank—United Nations officials have begun to refer to it as an “occu-annexation.” While Israel asserts that its occupation of Gaza ended with the withdrawal of settlements there in 2005, the claim is obviously belied by the unconscionable facts on the ground and rejected by the international community. Hamas has only nominal political authority; effective control of the area remains with Israel. In 2007 the Israeli government supplemented its occupation of Gaza with an economic and military siege of the strip, which continues to this day. In addition to controlling Gaza’s air, land, and sea borders, Israel dominates all aspects of Palestinian life in Gaza, from access to food and medicine to the availability of electricity. As a result of this occupation and siege, Israel has effectively turned Gaza into a “maximum security prison” that, according to the UN, became unlivable in 2020.

Inside Gaza, nearly 2 million Palestinians reside in a space of only 140 square miles, making it one of the most densely populated areas in the world. This extreme density is the result both of Israel’s current occupation and siege of Gaza—which makes it nearly impossible to leave the area—as well as the ethnic cleansing Israel conducted in the 1947–48 war. That war, fought by Israeli forces against the indigenous Palestinian population and its Arab allies, aimed to secure as much of historic Palestine with as few Palestinians as possible for a future Israeli state. As Israeli historian Ilan Pappé has shown, to achieve that goal Israeli forces pursued an official policy of ethnic cleansing and displacement of the indigenous population. As a result of this policy, 80 percent of Palestinians fled their homes, and many sought refuge in Gaza, which fell under Egyptian control after the war. Today approximately 1.4 million Palestinians in Gaza—about 70 percent of the strip’s population—are refugees or the descendants of refugees displaced by those eliminatory policies.

Israel’s subjugation of Palestinians continues to this day. As various organizations have documented—Palestinian (including Al Haq, amongst several others), Israeli (B’Tselem), and international (Human Rights Watch)—the Israeli government has systematically pursued an apartheid policy of ghettoizing, discriminating against, and displacing Palestinians across all of historic Palestine for decades.

Israel has pursued these policies of subjugation and ethnic cleansing in their most absolute and unrelenting form in Gaza. In 1969 the Israeli cabinet considered a plan to transfer Gazan Palestinians to Paraguay, while in 1992 former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, hailed in Israel as a peace-maker, declared that he “would like to see Gaza drown in the sea.” In 2007 Rabin’s monstrous dream became Israeli state policy. As part of its siege of Gaza, Israel has purposefully worked to negatively impact the health and well-being of Gaza’s population. As part of these efforts, Israel monitors and controls the caloric intake for Palestinians in Gaza, which has resulted in chronic (and intentional) malnutrition of the local population. As a result of the siege, the neonatal mortality rate in Gaza is seven times higher than that in Israel. Israeli authorities have also systematically prevented vital medical equipment and medicines, including COVID-19 vaccines, from entering the region, and made it nearly impossible for Palestinians in Gaza to leave in order to receive medical care elsewhere. In the words of one doctor who has worked in Gaza, this situation makes “the prevention, treatment and management of . . . chronic diseases much harder and causes avoidable death and disability.”

But it is the full-scale, Israeli-launched massacres in Gaza—including the current onslaught as well as other massive attacks launched in 20082012, and 2014—which have resulted in thousands of deaths that make Israel’s onslaught against Palestinian life in Gaza clearest. In various ways, this long-standing war on Gaza has much in common with the colonial wars waged by European imperial powers in the nineteenth century—including Israel’s legal acrobatics to justify and legitimize its attack on Palestinians.

***

Israel’s Rewriting of the Laws of War

This historical perspective is crucial for understanding the way Israel has simultaneously avoided and exploited the law to facilitate its violence in Gaza. On the one hand, Israel has denied that occupation law—a branch of IHL that incorporates human rights norms and is made up of provisions from the Hague Regulations of 1907, the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, and Additional Protocol I of 1977—applies to its actions in Gaza. At the same time, Israel has relied on colonialist arguments about the laws of war to justify its actions against the Palestinians of Gaza. Through these efforts, Israel has attempted to situate its relationship to Gaza within a war paradigm, which allows Israel far more flexibility than it would have under occupation law to engage in broad-based military attacks.

Israel’s claim to self-defense is a prominent example of these dynamics. In attempting to justify its massive onslaught on Gaza, Israel has repeatedly invoked the right of self-defense, which is recognized by Article 51 of the UN Charter as well as customary international law. The right of self-defense allows a state to do what it is generally forbidden to do: unleash military force against another state.

But there are a number of problems with Israel’s self-defense argument in relation to Gaza. First, as the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has held, the right of self-defense is only a right that states have against other states. Israel and the United States disagree with this view, while others subscribe to the ICJ’s position and still other states take an intermediate perspective. Though the issue remains unsettled, the contention that states can invoke the right of self-defense to justify military attacks against non-state actors is rooted in part in the practices of European colonialist states. Take the 1837 Caroline Affair, which arose when Canadian rebels, actively fighting against British colonial rule, escaped from Canada and took refuge in the United States. British forces pursued the group into U.S. territory where they attacked the Caroline, a ship the insurgents and their supporters had been using. In defending its actions to the U.S. government, the British claimed they were acting in self-defense.

Since then, the Caroline Affair—steeped in the colonial interests of the British crown—has often been cited to justify the claim that states can, in certain circumstances, attack non-state actors residing on another sovereign’s territory. This has been particularly true since the September 11 attacks in 2001, when the question of whether states have a right of self-defense against non-state actors has become increasingly pressing. Like the Caroline Affair itself, the post–9/11 push to recognize such a right has had colonialist reverberations. While the response to 9/11 was immediately framed in terms of war and self-defense, the decision to adopt such a framing, in the words of Antony Anghie, reflects the view that “the threat of terrorism can be addressed only by the reconstruction of a new, imperial order.” Through this war framing of self-defense, the “terrorist,” like the colonial “other,” could be “excluded from the realm of law, attacked, liberated, defeated, and transformed”—results that have been clearly on display in the creation of the Guantanamo Bay military detention regime, as well as other U.S. counter-terrorism policies.

But even if there is a right of self-defense against non-state actors located on the territory of third-party countries, that right arguably does not apply, at least in its conventional sense, against groups that are subject to the occupying power of the state invoking that right. Though some of its judges dissented from this position, in an advisory opinion issued in 2004, the ICJ rejected Israel’s argument that it could invoke the right of self-defense against the Palestinian people. As the Court held, because Israel exercises control over the Palestinian territories and the purported threat to it “originates within and, not outside, that territory,” the right of self-defense does not apply.

Expanding on this position, legal scholar and human rights attorney Noura Erakat and others have shown, occupation law requires that occupying forces defend themselves through the use of traditional police powers. This police authority is “restricted to the least amount of force necessary to restore order and subdue violence.” Though there are some situations where lethal violence can be used, it must be “a measure of last resort.” And while even military force may be permitted in exceptional circumstances, it must be “circumscribed by concern for the civilian non-combatant population.” As Erakat argues, Israel’s use of the far more expansive right of self-defense may protect its “colonial authority,” but it comes at the “expense of the rights of civilian non-combatants” under occupation law.

***

Israel’s Manipulation of International Humanitarian Law

As with its approach to self-defense, Israel’s interpretation of international humanitarian law (IHL) has colonialist overtones. As positivist international law began to emerge in the nineteenth century, European countries insisted that IHL did not apply to the “uncivilized”—non-European, non-Western people of color—and, therefore, did not apply to Europe’s wars to take and occupy foreign lands. By placing people of the Global South outside the law, European colonialist gave themselves carte blanche to wage war as they pleased against those populations.

While this overt exclusion of non-Westerners faded away during the course of the twentieth century, it continues to be practiced by some states in other forms, most notably by the United States in its pursuit of its War on Terror policies. In Israel, as well, the government has extended IHL’s colonial legacy by creating new legal categories and interpreting elements of IHL in ways that aim to give itself carte blanche authority to target the Palestinian population.

These efforts are the subject of Craig Jones’s new book, The War Lawyers: The United States, Israel, and Judicial Warfare (2021), which demonstrates, in part, the extent to which Israel and its military lawyers have exploited and rewritten IHL to fit Israel’s colonial ends. Israel’s first major innovation was to create a completely new kind of “armed conflict.” Under IHL, armed conflicts are classified as either international or non-international. As Jones demonstrates, in order to unleash the full force of its military against its occupied Palestinian population, Israeli military lawyers invented a new category in 2000: “armed conflict short of war.”

Though Jones’s book does not unpack the underlying rationale, the scheme is designed, much like Israel’s efforts to invoke self-defense, to shift focus away from occupation law, which places limits on the force Israel can use, and emphasize instead the more malleable and potentially expansive categories of IHL that apply to armed conflicts. These categories revolve around four basic principles: military necessity, which limits attacks to strictly military objectives; distinction, which allows only combatants and military objects to be directly attacked and requires they be distinguished from civilians and civilian objects; proportionality, which prohibits attacks that would cause disproportionate or excessive losses to civilians or civilian objects compared to the anticipated military advantage of the attack; and humanity, which prohibits all suffering, injury, or destruction that is unnecessary to realizing legitimate military objectives.

As Jones’s book describes, in early 2001, the Israeli military wove these basic principles of IHL into a six-point test for killing Palestinians under its newly specified regime of “armed conflict short of war.” Under this test, several conditions must be met. First, the military advantage gained by the killing must be proportional to anticipated civilian casualties and destruction of objects of civilian life. Second, only combatants and those who engage in “direct participantion” in hostilities can be targeted. Third, if arrest rather than killing of a suspected “terrorist” is possible, then arrest must be attempted. Fourth, the obligation to arrest rather than kill only applies to those under “Israeli security control.” Fifth, Israel’s defense minister or prime minister must provide approval prior to a planned attack. And sixth, attacks have to be aimed at “terrorists” who plan to carry out violence in the “near future.” In 2006 the Israeli High Court—the supreme judicial body in Israel—set out its own test for the military’s extrajudicial killings, broadly adopting these same categories.

At first blush one might think this framework comports with Israel’s obligations under occupation law. After all, it seems to combine the basic principles of IHL with the human rights obligation to rely first and foremost on civilian policing. But because Israel claims that it does not occupy Gaza or have effective control of the strip, it does not consider itself bound by policing norms at all. As Jones’s book demonstrates, the test also has a number of other problems under laws of war, including adopting a very broad definition of what violence planned in the “near future” means (a point Erakat has also made).

But perhaps the most problematic aspect of Israel’s extrajudicial killing policy is its definition of “direct participants,” as well as its more general views on who counts as a combatant in Gaza. As Jones shows, from Israel’s perspective, “direct participants” include not only leaders, commanders, and foot soldiers, but also, as a result of the Israeli High Court’s 2006 decision, anyone who provides “support” to these individuals. As Jones points out, such support can include a range of activities, from someone who simply serves as a driver for Hamas politicians to those providing “political or religious support” to groups Israel has labeled as enemies.

Israel’s rules of engagement (ROE)—which are informed by IHL but provide more specific guidance to commanders and soldiers as to when force can be used—reinforce and further expand upon its expansive approach to categorizing combatants. In 2015 the organization Breaking the Silence—composed of active duty and retired Israeli soldiers exposing Israel’s crimes in the West Bank and Gaza—released a report detailing the ROE for Israel’s last major onslaught against Gaza in 2014. According to that report, Israeli soldiers “said they were told by commanders to view all Palestinians in the combat zones as a potential threat, whether they brandished weapons or not. Individuals spotted in windows and rooftops—especially if they were speaking on cellphones—were often considered scouts and could be shot.”

This broad definition of combatants is perhaps the most overt way that Israel’s approach to IHL aligns with colonialist approaches. As Frédéric Mégret observes:

It is arguably at this stage that the discrimination that had been abolished at the level of the actual operational rules of warfare sneaks back in and niches itself at the heart of the laws war. From ‘how should one deal with ‘savages’ in war?,’ the question becomes ‘who is a combatant?’ (and the implicit answer. . . is ‘not a savage’).

As part of its expansive, colonialist approach to who is or is not a combatant, Israel has pathologized Palestinian life itself as a potential threat. This policy is rooted in the ideology of Zionism, which treats Palestinians as a demographic threat to Israel’s existence as a Jewish state, and it has been operationalized through the Israeli government’s long-standing effort to make Palestinian identity synonymous with terrorism—another key word in Israel’s six-point test for killing.

Since at least the early 1970s, Israel has worked hard to transform “terrorism” from a neutral descriptive term for a particular kind of violent tactic to a normatively infused rhetorical weapon synonymous with unacceptable evil and existential destruction. As many scholars have argued, Israel’s goal in repurposing terrorism was to use it as to delegitimize Palestinian resistance to Israeli violence, colonialism, and occupation. This de-legitimization campaign has come to include all forms of peaceful Palestinian resistance and advocacy for Palestinian human rights. For example, in a report issued in February 2019, Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy insisted that peaceful Palestinian advocacy amounts to terrorism in a new form. “Terrorist organizations see the ‘civilian’ struggle against Israel—demonstrations, marches, fundraising, political lobbying and the so-called ‘peace’ flotillas—as a complementary effort of their armed attacks against the State of Israel,” the report says.

As far as the Israeli government is concerned, it is not just armed or peaceful Palestinian resistance that represents a form of terrorism; Palestinian life itself is connected to what Maya Mikdashi calls the “civilian infrastructure of terrorism.” As Mikdashi writes:

You do not have to pick up a gun in Palestine to be a revolutionary or an ‘enemy’ of Israel. You do not have to protest or throw stones or fly flags to be dangerous. You do not have to rely on underground tunnels for food and cancer medication in order to be deemed part of the civilian infrastructure of terrorism. To be a threat to Israel is easy: You just have to be Palestinian.

The vastly disproportionate numbers of Palestinian civilians killed in Israel’s bloodiest attacks on Gaza are the inevitable manifestation of these policies. In 2008, this toll amounted to 759 civilians out of 1391 Palestinians killed in Gaza; in 2012, 87 civilians out of 167; and in 2014, 1,462 civilians out of 2,104. By contrast, in 2008 just 3 Israeli civilians were killed; in 2012, 4 were killed; and in 2014, 7 were killed.

***

The significance of these facts is clear. Israel’s latest attacks on the people of Gaza is part and parcel of Israeli settler colonialism and ethnic cleansing. It is based on the Israeli government’s view that all Palestinians, especially those in Gaza, represent a potential or actual threat to Israel. It is grounded in the pathologizing and devaluing of Palestinian life. And it is all undertaken through uses and abuses of the legitimizing power of the law. It is unacceptable for people of conscience to deny or ignore these facts—especially in the United States, where taxpayer money and diplomacy have both fueled Israeli crimes against Palestinians and shielded them from accountability for decades. As Americans, we have a responsibility to reckon with our complicity.

More on Palestine


Maryam Jamshidi is Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Florida Levin College of Law, where she teaches and writes in the areas of national security, public international law, the law of foreign relations, and tort law. Find her on Twitter @MsJamshidi.

The ‘Palestinian Problem’ is really the Israeli Problem

Attack on Gaza

Attack on Gaza

More on Palestine

The ‘Palestinian Problem’ is really the Israeli Problem

The biggest problem of the ‘Palestinian Problem’ is that the world doesn’t really give a toss what happens in Palestine until the Zionist, Israeli Settler State enjoys another period of slaughter of the Palestinian people. And even then criticism of the ‘ethnic cleansing’ is muted.

The fact that Palestinians, on a daily basis, are treated like second class citizens, who really don’t have a right to live in their own land is forgotten. The fact that they are probably being treated in a manner which makes the white supremacist South African apartheid regime pre-1990s seem quite ‘civilised’ is ignored. The fact that Palestinian land is being stolen from those whose families have lived there for generations – against all international ‘laws’, supposedly adopted to prevent such activity – happens on a daily basis with impunity. The fact that Palestinian children are dying and being injured at the hands of the Israeli military and police in numbers which would be received with shock and horror in those countries who seek to determine what happens in the Middle East and passes by without comment. The fact that Zionist fascist thugs roam the streets of the Palestinian occupied land, reminiscent of what occurred in Germany in the 1930s, isn’t even considered newsworthy.

It’s shameful that it was only shortly before the 73rd anniversary of the Nabka that two reports were published (one by the Jewish organisation B’ Tselem, This is apartheid, published in January 2021 and the other, A threshold crossed – Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution, published by Human Rights Watch in May 2021) which openly condemned Israel as being an apartheid state.

For decades the Zionists had cynically hidden behind the Holocaust whenever their activities were challenged. They had become so confident (probably over-confident) in their propaganda exercise that they had started to conflate, and equate, criticism of the Settler State of Israel with anti-Semitism. This has had the effect, in the last year or so, of stifling debate about the rights of the Palestinians. That charade is starting to look slightly thin now when the forced evictions in East Jerusalem (highlighted by the Palestinian refusal to let it happen quietly) has made it difficult for the Zionists to deny the accusation that their racist state has been applying a policy of apartheid and ‘ethnic cleansing’ for decades.

It took the world a long time, far too long a time, to universally criticise and ostracise the racist South African regime. For the capitalist and imperialist countries (most of whom were racist in many respects) the existence of a tame attack dog in Africa which was willing to fight against any national liberation movements and stem the move toward Socialism was worth more than the local, national inconvenience of supporting a racially, unjust society. When the apartheid regime had run out of its usefulness changes in the society were accepted by the capitalists – although they did so in a manner which meant that capitalism wasn’t seriously challenged in the most industrially developed country on the African continent. (It should also be remembered that at the height of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa Israel was that country’s closest military and diplomatic ally.)

Now Israel plays the slavish (but willing) role of imperialism’s attack dog in a part of the world that is politically and economically crucial for the short term existence of imperialism The more the Zionists crow about their right to live on stolen land; the more they spout about independence as a State; the more they prowl around the Middle East like an over-confident bully and gangster the more the reality they only exist due to the grace of the imperialist powers, mainly the United States of America, becomes evident.

How long will it be before the world opens its eyes to the crimes of the Zionist Settler State of Israel?

One of the other consequences when the simmering war goes on the boil is that there are a lot more articles from those who support the Palestinians in their fight for freedom and from injustice. Not that they’re not out there generally but when peoples’ concentration is directed to the situation in Palestine then more comments and information is forthcoming.

Below are links to some articles which have been published in the last week or so with salient comments to make on the reality of the past 73 years, on how the world sees Palestine and the biased manner in which Israel is treated by capitalist politicians and media.

However, although it is reasonable to condemn the approach of the leaders of the capitalist countries that doesn’t mean the people of the world, workers and peasants, equally maltreated by the economic and political system they live under, are totally blameless. Those politicians are in positions of power due to the action or inaction of the populace. Whether by crimes of commission or omission we are all guilty of what has happened, is happening and likely to continue happening if something is not done to prevent it for the foreseeable future in Palestine.

Long Live Palestine!

For further background information (mainly material from the 1960s-1980s) on Palestine you can click here.

(Notwithstanding the recent ‘cease fire’ the issue will not just go away. All those matters addressed below won’t disappear because the guns have fallen silent. A long term solution will have to be found and it will mean the State of Israel having to substantially change. The so-called ‘two state’ solution has been dead in the water for a long time.)

Sheikh Jarrah Shows that Palestine’s Nakba Never Ended

Two residents of Sheikh Jarrah write about their community’s fight against eviction – and why this month’s Palestinian uprising is just the latest chapter in a decades-long struggle against dispossession.

Another Nakba: ‘This Is My House, This Is My Door, You Are a Thief’

In the days leading up to the 73rd anniversary of the Nabka the aggressiveness and arrogance of the Israeli settlers in East Jerusalem was such that it would have been a surprise if matters did not reach a head close to the time of the date of the establishment of the Israeli Settler (and apartheid) State. (Note the contempt expressed in the faces of the young Zionists in the top picture.)

The Palestinian Body Is Whole Once Again

Palestinians disconnected from each other have struggled immensely to maintain a national project with clear objectives. Now, struggling together across the entire geography of historic Palestine, the Palestinian body is coming back together.

A Nightmare of Terror Across the Landscape of Palestine

As Israeli lynch mobs roam the streets attacking Palestinians, and as Israeli war planes drop bombs on Gaza, it’s essential to understand how we arrived at this moment.

On Palestine, the Media Is Allergic to the Truth

This article looks at how the media in the vast majority of capitalist countries falls over itself in support of the Israeli Settler State by always addressing matters as if the ‘both sides’ in the battle were on an equal footing – and forgetting the history of the conflict in general and always looking at matters as if they were all short term flare-ups.

Nine children killed in Gaza Strip as violence escalates

Although events got worse before they got ‘better’ – an uncertain cease fire – this article documents the cavalier attitude the Israeli Defence Forces have towards the lives of Palestinian children.

How the United States helps to kill Palestinians

U.S. policy has perpetuated the crisis and atrocities of the Israeli occupation by unconditionally supporting Israel in three distinct ways: militarily, diplomatically and politically.

Israeli forces kill 17-year-old Palestinian in Arroub refugee camp

The Israeli Defence Forces have been killing children on a regular basis for years. This is just yet another example where extreme and deadly force is being used against young people.

Gaza conflict: no matter how powerful Israel’s military becomes it still can’t win

‘ …. an apt summary is of a state that is impregnable in its insecurity. It is impregnable in the sense that it cannot be defeated, but insecure in that the underlying threats will not go away – as is evident in the current violent confrontations.’

Peaceful Coexistence in Israel hasn’t been shattered – it’s always been a myth

‘As a Palestinian from within Israel I have long been a second-class citizen, denied basic rights.’

Life inside Gaza during 11 days of bombardment

Guardian journalist Hazem Balousha describes living in, and reporting from, Gaza, under heavy bombardment until a ceasefire began on Friday, while historian Rashid Khalidi discusses the history of the Palestinian struggle for statehood. (Podcast)

Israeli social fabric is ripping at the seams

Israel has reached apartheid, the antithesis of Judaism’s long tradition of social justice.

Palestinian youth are leading a Popular Uprising to end Israeli Apartheid

The latest Palestinian uprising firmly rejects the conquest and division of our people legally and geographically, into separate, besieged, apartheid parcels of land similar to the Bantustans of Apartheid South Africa.

Why is accountability for alleged war crimes so hard to achieve in the Israel-Palestinian conflict?

‘The failure of the international community to bring about a resolution in the decades-long conflict reflects the highly politicised nature of international law.’

Likud Must Pay for Its Criminal Culture

The ruling party’s rap sheet is too long to be tolerated any longer.

And taking another historical perspective on Palestine;

What we did: How the Jewish Communist Left failed the Palestinian Cause

Although this article concentrates on the attitude of the Jewish Left in the United States in the late 1940s – at the time of the establishment of the Settler Sate of Israel – a similar approach would have been taken by many Communist parties throughout the world when the Soviet Union changed its approach to the ‘two state’ ‘solution’ of the situation in Palestine. Although a long term supporter of Comrade Stalin (and still am) this is one policy decision I have been unable to reconcile with his world view in general.

More on Palestine