blog: On ethnic cleansing

There’s another op-ed of mine up in the Guardian. It poses the question of whether we might, in the very near future, face ethnic cleansing of Israel’s Palestinian citizens. By that I don’t mean instant DYI gas chambers springing up by the weekend.  Ethnic cleansing, as I propose below, is a complex dynamic that is very difficult to confidently predict or confidently deny. But in my personal opinion, the answer is “yes.”

On the grassroots level, racism in Israel is growing steadily; On the political level, more and more decision-makers are realizing that giving up the West Bank and Gaza – or, effectively, closing them off into bantustans – will no long guarantee the preservation of Israel’s character as an ethnic Jewish state.

Now, a reasonable question at this stage would be, do you have concrete evidence of planned ethnic cleansing? Has there been a Wannsee Conference? Is there a Final Solution under way, and would you kindly post the documents that prove it?

The answer, of course, is “No”; and the reason is that ethnic cleansing is a political, social and above all dynamic process that very rarely evolves in the mind of some maniac in the gory form it sometimes takes. Even the most extreme example – that of the Nazi holocaust – escalated through the war. I find that the phenomenon of ethnic cleansing was best described by Berkley sociologist Michael Mann:

Murderous cleansing… results where “demos” (democracy) is confused with “ethnos” (the ethnic group)… Danger arises when two rival ethno-nationalist movements each claims its “own” state over the same territory. Conflict escalates when either the weaker side fights rather than submit… or the stronger side believes it can deploy sudden, overwhelming force. But the state must also be fractionalized and radicalized by external pressures, such as wars. Premeditation is rare, since perpetrators feel “forced” into escalation when their milder plans are frustrated.”

(Michael MannDark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing)

Professor Mann also provides a very handy instrument to chart ethnic cleansing as it escalates (reproduced here with his kind permission):


Some of these actions have already been carried out in our much-eulogized days of innocence before 1967 – such as massacres (1948, 1956), mass expulsions beyond the border (1948-1954), land confiscation and expulsion (1948 – present), discrimination (1948 present) and cultural suppression  – from a state school in Jaffa that prohibits speaking in Arabic to the new version of the Nakba law, which threatens to cut off government funding to any institution that commemorates the mass expulsion of 1948. As you can see above, population exchange – the very term  Lieberman is euphemistically using in his propaganda – brings us right to the margin of Mann’s danger zone.

Now let us reconsider the paragraph: “Conflict escalates when either the weaker side fights rather than submit… or the stronger side believes it can deploy sudden, overwhelming force. But the state must also be fractionalized and radicalized by external pressures, such as wars.” Imagine a war with Iran or Syria; rockets falling all over the country. Demonstrations  are cracked down upon, with triple the ferocity in Arab towns and villages. Some town close enough to the border, maybe even the Palestinian community’s central city, Umm El Fahm, is put under curfew – checkpoints, permits, the works. After the war, the minister of Public Security (at the moment, a Lieberman man), says the curfew will remain in place until further notice – say, until all suspects of collaboration with the enemy are investigated.

Then, a fence is strung between the checkpoints, and residents find it very hard to get working permits west of the town – in Israel proper – but very easy to get them to go work in the east, perhaps in the new industrial zone near Jenin. Being a highly qualified workforce they are recruited there for top managerial positions, administering their less fortunate West Bank bretheren. The fence grows thicker, and the idea of “giving” the Palestinian “state” Umm El Fahm instead of, say, Ariel or Maaleh Edumim gathers force. Etc etc.

But this is the clean, non-murderous scenario of resolving the problem a large national minority suspected of allegiance with the “enemy.”  Now, scroll back to the middle of our hypothetical war, and  imagine that some residents of Umm El Fahm try to fight back – shoot at the checkpoint, perhaps. And that other Palestinians join them, in various degrees of organization, some carrying out attacks on soldiers and police, but some picking easier, civilian targets. And that the Syrian Defense Minister (or his Iranian counterpart, or whoever else we might be fighting), for sheer propaganda value, takes credit for the attacks, and calls for Palestinian Israelis to revolt. With a war on at least one front and the old colonialist nightmare of a fifth column materializing before their eyes, how will the ultra-Right, ultra-paranoid Israeli leadership react? How will commanders on the ground react?

And the recent news about a new infantry platoon being permanently stationed near – you guessed it – Umm el Fahm, “to resume control of the area in case of a war”, plus the minister of interior trying to get exclusive powers to annul citizenship, doesn’t do much to discredit such a scenario at all.

The point I’m trying to make is that any nationalism as rigid as the Israeli one, with such a preposterously purist approach to the idea of a nation state, tends to see anyone not matching it’s definition of “demos” as a problem that needs to be contained, or, preferably, solved. We’ve been “containing” that “problem” for over 60 years; Lieberman and his ilk are the just the first ones trying to “resolve” it.

Any ideology that sees people as a problem pending a solution can be confidently said to be going for a dead end; and on the way, it’s likely to extoll an enormous price – firstly and foremostly, although not only, in the minorities’ blood.  This is why the system that makes such an escalation almost inevitable needs to be urgently, yet carefully, restructured.

Update: Noam Sheizaf gives the perfect backdrop for a society of intolerance here


Filed under Blog, Op-eds

2 responses to “blog: On ethnic cleansing

  1. Pingback: LiveBlog | Netanyahu’s “peace” speech « Dimi’s notes

  2. Johng199

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