Preferred Citation: Ron, James. Frontiers and Ghettos: State Violence in Serbia and Israel. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c2003 2003.

Creating the Palestinian Ghetto


Paradoxically, Palestinians registered remarkable international diplomatic successes in the 1970s and early 1980s. By December 1987, when the Intifada began, the PLO was heavily embedded in international media and bureaucracies, gaining observer status at the UN and other international agencies, speaking regularly to representatives of elite global media outlets, and receiving quasi-diplomatic recognition by dozens of countries. This process was capped in November 1988 when the PLO's self-proclaimed "State of Palestine" was recognized by 120 UN memberstates.

These remarkable achievements were blunted, however, by the refusal of major Western powers to exercise the same kind of pressure on Israel that would later be deployed against Serbia. The Security Council did not order Israel to withdraw from occupied lands, NATO did not threaten air strikes, and the great powers did not impose economic sanctions. The most significant Western countries refused to recognize the Palestinian state, calling instead on Israel to respect Palestinian human rights and begin political negotiations. In fact, Western countries seemed most interested in keeping Israel firmly in control of the West Bank and Gaza until a final deal was struck. The PLO had placed its case before international audiences, but it could not win entry to the inner circle of Western-authorized, internationally recognized sovereign states. As such, its diplomatic achievements were far less substantial than those of the ex-Yugoslav republic of Bosnia, which earned full recognition as a sovereign state in April 1992.


Building a Diplomatic Coalition: The PLO and Arab States

In 1947, following vigorous debates between Jews, British colonialists, and Palestinians, a UN commission proposed creating a Palestinian state on 41 percent of mandatory Palestine. Discussions of Palestinian statehood faded after 1947–49, however, as Jewish forces had seized some 70 percent of the region, while Jordan and Egypt had taken the rest. Autonomous Palestinian forces played only a small role in the fighting, and until 1967, Palestinians were treated by all sides as marginal players. This trend dovetailed with the intellectual thrust of pan-Arabism, which emphasized Arab unity over the interests of particular Arab groups. Resolution of the Israeli-Arab imbroglio was supposedly the responsibility of the entire Arab world, not of the Palestinians themselves.

An initial effort to create separate Palestinian organizations was launched in Kuwait in 1959, when a handful of Palestinians formed the Fatah guerrilla group. The faction remained politically marginal, however, as long as Arab states claimed a lead role in dealing with Israel. Other refugees created Palestinian unions in Egypt and the Persian Gulf, but these too remained outside the political mainstream. The PLO was founded in 1964, adding weight to the notion of an autonomous Palestine, but the organization remained heavily constrained by Egypt, its chief supporter. Guerrilla groups such as Fatah were not yet in control of the PLO, and the organization did not become a state-seeking body until 1967, when military defeat discredited the pan-Arabist movement.

Autonomous Palestinian politics began in earnest after the war, starting with a wave of anti-Israeli guerrilla attempts. Their manifest goal was to defeat Israeli military forces, but their more important (latent) goal was to create a distinct Palestinian national identity centered around notions of armed struggle and self-reliance.[36] Although the guerrillas spoke of liberating all of mandatory Palestine (including Israel proper), they mostly used infiltration operations to promote their organizations, raise funds, mobilize Palestinians, and win Arab recognition. Within a short time, the strategy paid off, and in July 1968, Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) gained half the seats in the PLO's legislative body.

Although the PLO's guerrilla efforts against Israel were largely ineffectual, the organization's diplomatic and political initiatives fared much better. In 1973, the PLO persuaded Arab states to secretly recognize it as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, and one year later, that recognition was made public.[37] From then on, the PLO's monopoly

over Palestinian representation was largely uncontested by Arab states, save for the occasional Jordanian challenge.[38] Equally important was the PLO's ability to garner support in the West Bank and Gaza, where it faced stiff Israeli and Jordanian political opposition. In 1976, Israel encouraged municipal elections in the occupied areas, hoping to generate a more accommodating local leadership but was alarmed to discover broad support for pro-PLO candidates. Nine years of occupation, social change, and PLO political mobilization had pulled popular opinion away from Jordan.[39] In years to come Israel, the United States, and Jordan would sporadically seek to replace the PLO with alternative local elites, but the organization remained hegemonic until the rise of Hamas in the late 1980s.[40] Cumulatively, the 1974 Arab recognition and the 1976 municipal elections signaled the PLO's monopolization of Palestinian representation, laying the groundwork for a powerful diplomatic appeal for international recognition.

Gaining International Credibility:
Gradual PLO Support for a Small State

Given international sympathies for Israel and the UN 1947 partition plan, some PLO leaders understood that international support for their cause depended on their willingness to drop their claim to both Israel proper and the newly occupied lands. Before the 1967 war, however, Palestinian politicians had been unwilling to cede the land taken by Israel during 1947–49, calling instead for Israel's complete dismantling.[41] When Israel gained control over still more Palestinian land during the 1967 war, however, Palestinian discourse changed, and after 1973, Fatah and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) floated the notion of a West Bank and Gaza "mini-state." The scheme was contested by other PLO factions and some Arab states, however, who saw it as an unacceptable concession.[42]

Fatah continued to moderate its stance, however, beginning with the hazy notion of a "fighting national authority" on any part of Palestine evacuated by Israeli troops, and then moving in 1976 toward a West Bank mini-state as an "interim phase." In 1978, Fatah went even further, saying it would make peace with Israel if granted a West Bank state.[43] Fatah wanted Israel to first recognize Palestinian political rights and withdraw its troops, however, and this Israel would not consider. Both sides were driven by internal debates that made compromise difficult: Israelis willing to cede land were blocked by nationalists seeking permanent

control over the West Bank, while the PLO was similarly split between pragmatists and maximalists. Fatah was the PLO's dominant faction, but it could not compel the loyalty of smaller Palestinian groups.[44]

In the 1970s, the PLO created a large bureaucracy and semi-state apparatus in Lebanon, which helped it develop broader international links.[45] The movement had thousands of paid functionaries and militia as well as quasi-state services such as health and education, even enjoying empirical sovereignty of sorts over some parts of Beirut and south Lebanon. Although the organization could not claim juridical sovereignty over a well-defined piece of territory, it had enough territory to encourage the growth of even more bureaucratic functions. By the time Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, sympathetic observers often referred to the PLO as a "state in waiting." All that it required was physical access to the West Bank and Gaza, coupled with international recognition of its sovereignty. Although the 1982 war removed the PLO's territorial base from Lebanon, its bureaucracy survived, albeit in reduced form.

The PLO's Global Alliances

The PLO's growing willingness to accept a small West Bank and Gaza state was partly motivated by its growing international connections. During the 1950s and early 1960s, Israel had enjoyed strong ties to Western countries, socialist states, and the decolonizing world. That began to change with the 1956 Arab-Israeli war, however, during which Israel joined with the former colonial powers against Egypt. The 1967 occupation of more Palestinian land definitively changed Israel's international stature as Arab states, working with Palestinian representatives, argued that Israel was a colonial-settler regime akin to South Africa, Rhodesia, and Mozambique. Following Egypt's break with the Soviets in 1972, the Kremlin drew closer to the PLO, seeking an alternative source of Middle Eastern influence.[46] In 1978, the Soviets recognized the PLO as Palestine's sole legitimate representative, advocating a broad Geneva peace conference with the PLO, Soviets, Israelis, and Western powers.

Changes in the UN's composition also enhanced the PLO's diplomatic fortunes. When the UN voted for Palestinian partition in 1947, the body had some fifty members, with pro-Israel views predominating. By the late 1960s, however, the number of members had tripled, and once the PLO and Arab states made inroads with socialist and formerly colonial states, their support in the General Assembly grew, spurred on by the global Southern protest movement, which took on the Palestinian cause

as its own.[47] The PLO, along with Arab support, had successfully framed its struggle as part of the South's broad struggle for global justice.

UNRWA and Palestinian Bureaucratic Embeddedness

Palestinians were also increasingly integrated into the international scene through the specialized UN agency created to manage Palestinian refugees. Although the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) was first created by Western powers to contain Palestinian frustration, it eventually metamorphosed into a far-flung international interest group with strong sympathy for the Palestinian cause.[48]

After the 1947–49 war, UNRWA registered some 914,000 Palestinians as refugees, over half of whom resided in refugee camps. There were 1.3 million registered refugees in 1965, and over 2.25 million in 1988, 65 percent of whom still lived in camps.[49] UNRWA registration cards were cherished documents as they proved their owner's entitlement to repatriation or compensation. Over time, the UN refugee agency developed substantial administrative muscle to support its network of camps, educational institutions, and health facilities, with a 1987 budget of $78 million and a workforce of over 18,000. UNRWA had developed a strong and international bureaucratic presence.

Although the UN agency could not prevent the camps' militarization or protect their residents from attack, it did provide Palestinians with a global and internationally legitimized bureaucratic niche linking Palestinians to the UN, international media, and transnational agencies. It was the PLO's guerrilla operations and diplomatic efforts, however, that transformed that niche into an object of substance. UNRWA and PLO efforts were mutually reinforcing, promoting the Palestinians' international profile and linking them to flows of information, resources, and legitimacy. UNRWA camps could not be attacked without officials taking note and reporting on events; camp residents could not be killed without officials registering and protesting their deaths; and UNRWA staffers often raised Palestinian concerns before UN bodies and commissions, as well the global media.

The PLO's Diplomatic Achievements

In 1974, Arafat told the UN General Assembly he was willing to negotiate with Israel, and in response, it recognized Palestinians as "a principal party in the establishment of a just and durable peace," instructing

the UN Secretary General to "establish contacts with the Palestinian Liberation Organization on all matters concerning the question of Palestine."[50] General Assembly resolution 3236 strengthened the PLO's monopoly over international representation despite opposition by Israel and its closest Western allies. Throughout the 1970s, the PLO sent numerous diplomatic missions abroad, gaining recognition from 130 states, UN observer status, and a state-like identity in international fora. In 1980, the PLO even gained a measure of Western European support, with the European Community recognizing Palestinian rights to self-determination. Repeated contacts between the PLO and European leaders from Austria, Spain, Italy, Greece, and elsewhere added weight to the 1980 resolution. By the decade's end, the PLO had clearly made powerful allies in important places.

These successes should have assured the PLO of international support for its sovereignty over the West Bank and Gaza, especially with the precedent for Palestinian statehood set by the 1947 UN partition plan. That the UN Security Council did not order Israel to withdraw or face punitive sanctions is best explained by the strength of Israel's own alliances. Most importantly, Israel was able to rebuff international criticisms by relying on vigorous U.S. intervention. As such, Israel's campaign for territorial expansion proved more resilient than that of Serbia, which failed to win international backing.

Israel's International Alliances:
Thwarting the PLO's Drive for Recognition

Israel's unwillingness to cede control over the West Bank and Gaza relied heavily on American promises to block international Palestinian advocacy.[51] In 1975, the U.S. administration promised Israel it would not speak to the PLO unless the organization unilaterally recognized Israel's right to exist. Although this vow was momentarily broken during Carter's presidency, it was reactivated soon after following pressure from Israel's American supporters.[52] U.S. ties with Israel, by contrast, grew exponentially during the 1970s and 1980s, transforming Israel into the largest recipient of American assistance. Funds to Israel went from 5 percent of America's total foreign aid bill in 1951–69, to 35 percent in the late 1970s, dropping to 20 percent during the 1980s.[53] Israel's share of foreign military assistance was even higher, reaching 60 percent during the mid-1970s, and then dropping to 30 to 40 percent during the 1980s. By 1991, the U.S. aid bill to Israel since 1948 had reached $77 billion in

1991 dollars. American popular opinion bolstered Israel's alliance with the superpower, outweighing public support for the Arab world by a factor of four. During the 1980s, surveys suggested that 40 to 50 percent of Americans were explicitly pro-Israeli, while the overwhelmingly majority was opposed to the PLO.[54]

Scholars offer different explanations for America's special relations with Israel.[55] One school stresses cultural and political similarities between the two countries, while another highlights Israel's strategic importance. Indeed, U.S. aid to Israel skyrocketed during the Nixon administration, when officials became convinced that Israel was an important Cold War ally.[56] A third school emphasizes pro-Israeli lobbyists in the United States, who have allegedly pushed successive administrations to support Israel at the expense of America's national interests.[57] Israel, in this view, relies on the American Jewish community's devotion to Zionism, superior organizing skills, and substantial resources. The American-Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC), for example, wielded a $15 million budget and a staff of 150 in the mid-1990s, demonstrating its ability to isolate and even drive from office politicians critical of Israel. Indeed, fully half of Democratic Party "soft money" and presidential campaign funds during the 1980s and 1990s came from Jewish contributors, and Jewish voters play an important electoral role in seven key states.[58] Although Israel is rarely the only or even the major interest of politically active American Jews, it remains substantially important.

Regardless of which explanation one adopts for the phenomenon, it is clear that Israel enjoyed extraordinary levels of support from the United States, and that this dramatically affected Palestine's international opportunities. Unlike Bosnia, which enjoyed rapid access to sovereign status following American and West European support, Palestine was blocked by Washington.

1988: The PLO's Unsuccessful Plea for Statehood

After almost a year of rebellion in the West Bank and Gaza, the PLO proclaimed Palestinian statehood on November 15, 1988, accepted Israel's right to exist, endorsed the 1947 UN partition plan, renounced terrorism, and accepted UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338. Yasser Arafat repeated the move on December 14, 1988, at the UN General Assembly, earning recognition from 104 states and support from 150 for PLO participation in negotiations with Israel. After additional wrangling, the U.S. government finally agreed to open a political dialogue with the PLO.[59]


These diplomatic achievements, however, were not coupled with serious international pressure on Israel to withdraw its forces. Western powers and the UN Security Council were at best willing to push Israel toward negotiations while applying human rights oversight to Israeli actions. The United States and its West European allies refused, however, to threaten Israel the same way they would threaten Serbia four years later. The PLO's international prominence ensured that Palestinian demands could not be ignored, but Israel's alliance with the United States prevented the PLO from winning recognition of Palestinian sovereignty where it counted, that is, in Washington, NATO headquarters, and in the UN Security Council. Unlike Bosnia, which was saved from a formal Serbian (or Federal Yugoslav) military occupation in 1992, Palestine remained firmly under Israeli control.

To be sure, Palestinian global prominence did translate into international scrutiny of Israeli behavior in the occupied lands. Newspapers, human rights groups, and international politicians all called on Israel to respect Palestinian human rights, with important effect. Israeli actions against Palestinians were intensely debated in the international media and diplomatic arenas. Still, the PLO could not leverage those discussions into effective international pressure on Israel to withdraw. The world applied the international norm of human rights, not sovereignty, to the West Bank and Gaza, with dramatic implications for Israeli repertoires of violence.

By the late 1980s, scholars recognized that Israel and Palestine had developed a hybrid relationship defying easy conceptualization. Portraying Israel as "military occupier" and Palestine as "occupied land" did not capture the nuanced nature of Israel's relations with Palestine, since the latter had become deeply embedded within the fabric of the Israeli state. Analysts describing Jewish-Palestinian relations as an instance of "international conflict," however, were also wrong, since it was unclear where the state of "Israel" ended and "Palestine" began. Scholars developed a range of terms to explain the relations, invoking different intellectual and theoretical traditions. Some, for example, preferred the sense of parity implied by the notion of a Jewish-Palestinian "inter-communal struggle."[60] Others spoke of an Israeli "Herrenvolk" democracy in which Jews ruled over Palestinians in an outright system of national domination. Israeli scholar Meron Benvinisti, for example, wrote that "the Palestinian problem has now been internalized" within Israel, and Palestinians "have become a permanent minority" within Israeli-ruled

territory.[61] This joint Jewish-Arab space had a "rigid, hierarchical social structure based on ethnicity," and Jews "hold total monopoly over governmental resources, control the economy, form the upper social stratum and determine the education and national values and objectives of the republic."[62] Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling concurred, writing in the late 1980s that Jewish domination had been "routinized" in an unequal "control system" that contained an "inferior caste" of Palestinians with few economic, political, or social rights.[63] Some believed Israel's "creeping annexation" of Palestine had progressed so far as to make true separation impossible.[64] Those hoping the West Bank and Gaza might still escape Israeli control, by contrast, used terms borrowed from anti-colonial discourse, suggesting that like other colonial regimes, Israeli rule in Palestine would eventually crumble.[65] A third terminology was employed by sociologists such as Gershon Shafir, who argued the West Bank and Gaza were "settlement frontiers" for Jewish colonizers.[66]

In this book, by contrast, I use the term "ghetto" to describe Palestine's post-1967 status in order to capture the region's ambiguous, neither-in-nor-out position. "Frontier" implies externalization, but "ghetto" implies subordination and incorporation, helping us to better understand Israel's non-use of ethnic cleansing when the Palestinian uprising began. As Baruch Kimmerling and others warned in the late 1980s, "large scale expulsions" of Palestinians by Israel "might become a real option under certain conditions."[67] This prediction was plausible, however, only if Palestine's institutional setting resembled a frontier. If Palestine was a ghetto, by contrast, Israel's non-use of ethnic cleansing is easier to comprehend. Ghettos, after all, are policed, not destroyed.

The next chapter analyzes Israel's repertoire of ethnic policing in some detail. Drawing on interviews with Israeli military veterans, I probe tactics used by Israeli security forces to discipline, disperse, imprison, and monitor Palestinian ghetto rebels.

Creating the Palestinian Ghetto

Preferred Citation: Ron, James. Frontiers and Ghettos: State Violence in Serbia and Israel. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c2003 2003.