‘The promised land, the stolen land’

A summary of the study by Anja Meulenbelt and Harry van Bommel, published in March 2007

In March 2007 the SP's Research Bureau is publishing the book ‘Het beloofde land, het beroofde land’ – ‘The promised land, the stolen land’. The book is the product of a study conducted by Anja Meulenbelt and Harry van Bommel into the background to the Israel-Palestine conflict, a conflict which in the first place holds millions of Palestinians and Israelis in its grip, but which at the same time is relevant to the whole world. The West's credibility as 'custodian of democracy' is under considerable pressure, while there is always the danger that the conflict will be 'imported' into Dutch society. Below is a summary of the study.

The SP argues for a non-violent solution to the long-running conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. An end must be put to the occupation of Palestinian areas and to Israel's settlement policy.  The European Union must contribute to the solution by arguing consistently in favour of a viable Palestinian state and secure, internationally recognised borders (the 'Green Line' which existed before  1967) for both Israel and Palestine. This standpoint has emerged from a certain vision of the history of the way in which the conflict came into being.

Three viewpoints

In the Netherlands three broad views of the Israel-Palestine question are evident.

Viewpoint 1, which has long been dominant in the Netherlands, sees Israel above all as a much-needed haven of refuge for the survivors of the Holocaust and their descendants. In this view the problem has primarily been defined as being the unwillingness of the Palestinians (and other Arabs) to recognise Israel and put an end to violence.

Viewpoint 2 is best summarised as 'where two are fighting, two are guilty.' The problem in this case is seen as a conflict between two national movements ensnared in a spiral of violence. This is a basic assumption popular with the media, which on this basis seeks to be as impartial as possible.

Viewpoint 3 adds an important element to viewpoint 2: the two sides are extremely unequal. The state of Israel has enormous military capacity, while the Palestinians are a people living either in exile or under occupation. In this view the idea of 'occupation' is of central importance: the areas to which the Palestinians have a right, according to international agreements and the decisions of judges in courts of international law, are increasingly subject to annexation by Israel.

This last viewpoint is shared by the SP. It is a view which rejects the Israeli policy of many years, but not the right of either Israel or Palestine to an independent existence, to security and to the support of the international community.

A history of occupation

The history of the way in which the conflict came into being plays a great role in its persistence – and therefore also in the search for possible resolutions.

To summarise: in 1947 the  UN formulated a proposed division under which the state of Israel was awarded 55% of the area of the Palestinian mandate. The Arab states rejected this plan and began a war, which Israel won. The flood of refugees began even before the onset of war, due to reports and rumours of large-scale ethnic cleansing by Zionist terrorist groups, the bloodbath in Deir Yassin offering a well-known example. In 1948 Israel was established on 78% of the area and the border under the then cease-fire was dubbed the 'Green Line'. Four hundred and fifty Palestinian villages were destroyed and a large part of the land expropriated.

In the Six Day War of 1967 the Israelis captured the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Israel had the chance to end the occupation of these areas in conformity with numerous UN resolutions, and permit the foundation of a Palestinian state. The choice instead was to place them under 'provisional' military control, a situation which continues to this day. .

In violation of the Geneva Conventions, UN resolutions and, amongst other agreements, the Oslo accord of 1993, numerous Jewish settlements appeared in the occupied areas, as well as connecting roads and, a few years ago, a separating wall. The result is that no more than 60% of the occupied area is available to the Palestinians, and that in a number of closed enclaves. This isolation puts a brake on the economic development of the occupied areas and almost half of the 1.7 million Palestinians live  below the poverty line. For the Palestinians the occupation means, among other things, the extra-judicial execution of Palestinian suspects – the so-called targeted killings – the real possibility that your house will be bulldozed and extremely limited access to hospitals via the humiliating route of the checkpoints. 

The number of refugees from the wars of 1948 and 1967, together with their descendants, is estimated at more than five million. They reside for the most part in  Jordan, Lebanon and the occupied territories. The refugee problem has, despite numerous UN resolutions, never been acknowledged by Israel. In violation of international law it has been made impossible for the refugees to return home, to say nothing of any right to compensation for their lost land and other possessions. 

The ‘democratic’ dilemma

Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East – at least for its Jewish inhabitants. Israel has no constitution (!) guaranteeing equal rights for citizens. It defines itself as a Jewish state, a fact which has far-reaching consequences. Every Jewish person in the world has the right to citizenship the moment he or she sets foot in Israel; non-Jews must acquire citizenship, even if they have lived there for generations. Palestinian inhabitants of Jerusalem cannot become citizens and are therefore unable to vote. Whether or not you are Jewish influences your chances of working for the government (Palestinians need not apply), the severity of punishment for crimes, freedom of choice of where you live, the level of any benefit payments, and even the distribution of gasmasks. Fighting for equal rights for non-Jews can be seen as a danger to the state, because those who take part in such campaigns clearly do not subscribe to the idea that Israel is a Jewish state. Parliamentary  immunity does not apply to Arab Members of the Knesset. Through expropriation, 93% of Israel's surface area is in the hands of the state. Land is leased out almost exclusively to Jews, and to non-Jews only for exorbitant sums. The growing Palestinian population must therefore choose between illegal building on the one hand and homelessness on the other. A country with second class citizens who are unable to exercise their most important civil rights without being criminalised for it cannot – even if most such citizens do enjoy the right to vote – be called a democracy. 'Ethnocracy' would come closer to a definition.

There is, however, a demographic time-bomb ticking under this ethnocracy. The emigration of Jewish citizens is greater than the immigration of Jewish newcomers. At the same time the minority - as it for the time being remains – of non-Jews is growing. If the occupied territories are officially annexed by Israel, Jews would become a minority. Can Israel remain a Jewish state? It appears to have three options:

  1. Israel deports the majority of non-Jews.
  2. Israel becomes a formal apartheid state and deprives non-Jews of the right to vote.
  3. Israel becomes a multi-ethnic, true democracy with a constitution which guarantees equal rights for all citizens.

As long as the last of these options is seen as the 'destruction of the Jewish state' and the first two options seem unachievable against the realities of international politics, Israel will find itself faced with a major dilemma.

Attempts to bring peace

It is no secret that the US gives a high level of support to Israel. This support is financial – around a quarter of the annual state budget, amounting to many billions of dollars, comes from the US – but also political. The US never protests against Israel's many violations of UN resolutions and of the Geneva Conventions and regularly employs its veto at the Security Council to block further resolutions. In addition, recent times have seen the Israelis negotiate not with the Palestinians but with the United States in an attempt to find a 'solution'. 

In 1993 Bill Clinton undertook in Oslo the first serious attempt to negotiate a peace treaty. President Arafat signed the declaration of intent, recognising once again an Israeli state which covered 78% of the land. In view of the history of the conflict this was a far-reaching concession.  During subsequent negotiations it turned out that Israel was not prepared to recognise a Palestinian state covering the remaining 22%. Israel considered this 22% as part of its room for negotiation and in the meantime continued building settlements inside it. It also transpired that the Israelis would not discuss the refugee problem. Prime Minister Ehud Barak demanded increased control over the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and that the Palestinians accept and recognise this state of affairs as 'a definitive solution'. Clearly Arafat could not sign up to this 'generous offer'.

Subsequent attempts – the Road Map, the Geneva initiative – met the same problem as had the Oslo agreement: the goal was not defined. Because of this Israel has repeatedly been given the space to delimit 'the Palestinian state' as suits it, as a collection of isolated enclaves without the least chance of achieving economic independence. The most current 'attempt', the Sharon/Olmert ‘Disengagement Plan’, boils down in reality to more of the same. The World Bank has already stated that the Palestinian people cannot become economically independent as long as they have no airport, port, border crossings and secure access to the Palestinian territory on the West Bank.

If the unconditional support of the US ensures that Israel can do whatever it wishes on the international level, within Israel itself there is little significant opposition. None of the political parties, right or left, is willing to talk seriously about, for example, the refugee problem, or equal rights for all citizens. The only opposition, though persistent, is extra-parliamentary; a change of political direction seems out of the question.

Palestinian violence

Do the Palestinians have joint responsibility for the 'spiral of violence'?  According to international law, armed resistance to occupation is permitted, as long as no attacks are carried out against civilians.  Attacks on civilian targets must of course be repudiated. This does not, however, mean that all resistance is illegitimate. In addition it is very much open to question whether the situation would be better in the absence of Palestinian armed resistance; never, and this also goes for periods of cease-fire or relative peace, has Israel given up its extension of the settlements. The Palestinians can therefore not be held jointly responsible for the occupation policy of successive Israeli governments, even if these governments have used such a justification for those policies. 

Increasing tension

The elections held in the Palestinian territories in January, 2006 resulted in victory for Hamas. After the disappointment with Fatah, a large part of the population gave Hamas the benefit of the doubt. The problem was that Hamas is on the West's list of terrorist organisations, which ruled out negotiations with the newly-formed government. The immediate imposition of sanctions made an economic situation which was already bad into an emergency.  It is clear that Israel and the US hope that this will bring down the Hamas government. This, in the Palestinian view, is rank injustice. First of all Israel and the US would not negotiate because there was no democratically elected government. Now that such a government has been elected, and in an exemplary manner, the Americans and Israelis move the goalposts.

Europe takes a somewhat different attitude, but operates nevertheless a double standard. The EU is only willing to talk to Hamas if they recognise the state of Israel, forswear violence and respect existing treaties. Yet these conditions have not been imposed on Israel, though there is every reason why they should be.  At the same time the Olmert government is pushing on with its plan for a unilateral expansion of Israel's territory, the Disengagement Plan. The new wall will form the de facto border, an estimated annexation of 46% of the West Bank. The Palestinians will be stuck inside enclaves, cut off from each other and the rest of the world.  For infrastructure, water, gas and  electricity, they will be completely dependant on Israel. Israel is already collecting import and export taxes and is imposing an ever-growing number of conditions on the handing over of moneys to which Palestine is entitled. And so on, and so on.

Hamas President Ismail Haniya has given assurances that he is willing to negotiate. Such negotiations will only have a chance to succeed if the conditions exist for the economic independence of a Palestinian state. The Disengagement Plan is simply not an option.

Tensions are rising meanwhile in the huge prison camp which Gaza has become, and armed conflicts have taken place between Hamas and Fatah. For a government stricken by economic sanctions, it is impossible to maintain peace. Palestinian despair is, if that is possible, only increasing. No people should find itself in a position where there is not a single international institution where it can assert its rights. UN resolutions, judgements by the International Court of Justice, none of these appear to be enough to justify the imposition of sanctions against Israel. As jurist Charles Shamas has said: when a people can nowhere achieve justice, it will take the law into its own hands by any means available.


Israel has to date been unwilling to lay down definitive borders, despite the fact that the Palestinians have on two occasions, the latest being at the time of the Oslo agreement, recognised the state of Israel and thereby renounced any claim to 78% of the original mandate territory of Palestine. By creating ever more ‘facts on  the ground’ (primarily settlements), Israel is making a viable Palestinian state impossible. In the face of the dilemma in which Israel finds itself  – deportation, apartheid or a multi-ethnic democracy – the Olmert government is clearly directing the ‘facts’ towards a fourth option: Palestine as a collection of isolated 'homelands' with self-government but no self-determination.

It is time for  unambiguous action, such as political and economic sanctions against Israel. The European Parliament, on 10th April 2002, called on the EU member states to take just such measures. Our standpoint is that the Dutch government must recognise the democratically elected Palestinian government and treat with it as a legitimate partner in negotiations. Both parties, Hamas and Olmert, must be held to conventions, resolutions and agreements. Both must also, respectively, recognise the state of Israel and the Palestinian state. The Dutch government and the EU must not switch their support to the unilaterally established Disengagement Plan. In addition, the Netherlands should offer financial help in order that a further humanitarian disaster might be averted.

Europe and the Netherlands have a number of concrete possibilities to hold Israel to these conditions.

  • putting a stop to any military cooperation and trade with Israel
  • boycott of illegal Israeli products from the occupied territories
  • recall of ambassadors in the event of any further violations of human rights
  • suspension of the Association Agreement

The solution to the Israeli-Palestine conflict presupposes a view of history, and therefore of the nature of the conflict, based on the facts.  Viewpoints 1 and 2, with Israel as the the underdog or an equal party, do not do justice to that history. The emphasis in our recommendations on putting pressure on the Israeli government comes from the third viewpoint, which sees Israel as the more powerful party and also the one most responsible for the conflict's continuation. Our demands are primarily that both parties, Israel and the Palestinians, be held to agreements made, to the decisions of international justices and to international conventions such as those of Geneva. Even someone who adheres to viewpoint 1 or 2 would be hard pressed to assert that these are unreasonable.

Harry van Bommel is a Member of Parliament for the SP, and the party's spokesman on international affairs. Anja Meulenbelt was at the time of publication Senator for the SP.

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