On this Land Day, Israel must acknowledge the true story of how it came into being

There is no denying the legitimacy of Israel's existence in international law but the state still has a responsibility towards those who were adversely affected by its creation

Reuters,Getty, Gerald Du
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The protests that took place in Israel on Land Day on March 30, 1976 are commemorated every year by Palestinians.

They were the first large-scale political protest organised by the Palestinian citizens of Israel themselves and were met by thuggish repression. It was also a landmark event because Palestinians inside Israel united with those of the occupied territories, as well as refugees beyond, to oppose Israel’s continuing appropriation of Palestinian land for Jewish settlement.

Such appropriation has been a feature of Israel ever since its creation. It continues to this day on both sides of the Green Line and is proof positive of the inequality between Arabs and Jews everywhere “between the river and the sea”.

This goes back to the very beginning of modern Israel. On the final day of Britain’s Mandate, May 14, 1948 – hours before the proclamation of the state of Israel – the legal advisers in Britain’s Foreign Office gave the following analysis of the legal situation that would pertain at the moment Israel declared its independence:

“If the Jews claim to set up a state in the boundaries of the Jewish areas as defined by the United Nations Resolution of November 29 [the provisional UN partition plan] and the Arabs claim to set up a state covering the whole of Palestine, there would be nothing legally to choose between those claims.”

This was an acknowledgment that the way the British Mandate ended made war inevitable. The UN partition resolution was not legally binding. Almost right up to the final days of the Mandate, there was a real possibility that the plan would be abandoned in favour of making Palestine a UN trust territory with the intention that a single, bi-national state would eventually be established for Arabs and Jews.

After the plan was announced in November 1947, fighting erupted. Much of this was initiated by Arab irregular fighters whose aim was to force the international community to abandon the plan. But during the crucial months leading up to the end of the Mandate, when Britain abandoned the pretence of maintaining law and order, the superior forces of the Yishuv – the Jewish minority in Palestine – went on the offensive.

Land Day was the first large-scale political protest organised by the Palestinian citizens of Israel themselves and was met by thuggish repression

Arabs were then a majority in 15 of Palestine’s 16 administrative units. The Yishuv needed to secure much of this territory for their new state, but there was no way this could be done effectively unless large areas were emptied of their Arab inhabitants. If the forces of the Yishuv did not do this, the Jewish state would not be viable. If military necessity is pleaded as the reason behind this ethnic cleansing, it should be remembered that it was the Yishuv leadership’s decision to declare its state that made war inevitable. It was a war of choice, not of self-defence.

The analysis by the British legal advisers in 1948 also shows that Israel came into existence by its own efforts, not those of the international community. That has long been known to international lawyers. The process by which this happened is called secession: “the creation of a state by the use or threat of force without the consent of the previous sovereign”, as Australian jurist James Crawford authoritatively defined it in his 1979 book, The Creation of States in International Law (2nd edition, 2006). Israel was admitted as a member of the UN on May 11, 1949, on its third attempt. The fact that its two earlier attempts failed is additional proof that it did not come into existence as a result of the partition resolution.

Today, Israel is a sovereign state and a member of the UN. There is no denying the legitimacy of its existence in international law. This was recognised by the whole Arab League at its summit in 2002, when it proposed a pathway to recognition.

Yet the way in which Israel came into being is still relevant. It means that the state still has a responsibility towards those who were adversely affected by its creation. These include those who lost their land so that Israel could be established in 1948-49, as well as subsequently. Land Day commemorates the fact that this has happened on both sides of the Green Line, the legal boundary of the State of Israel.

Yet Israel is unwilling to admit this. It has refused to accept legal and moral responsibility towards those it displaced in the Nakba, the catastrophe that its creation inflicted on the Arab people of Palestine. It denies Palestinians’ right to self-determination, a denial that was enshrined in Israeli law in 2018. It is this mentality that underpins the continued appropriation of Palestinian land. That is what Land Day is a protest against.

What is to be done now, especially after the horrors of October 7 and the even worse – far worse – horrors of Israel’s invasion of Gaza? This is not the place to propose a detailed solution, but certain parameters are essential before one can be reached. These include admission of Palestine to the UN alongside Israel, and the need to listen to the stories of all who have suffered and lost their homes. Israel must acknowledge the true story of how it came into being, and that it bears responsibility for the Nakba.

Published: March 29, 2024, 6:00 PM