Invisible Palestinians: Ideology and Reality in Israel

by Rosemary Ruether

Rosemary Radford Ruether, a contributing editor of Christianity and Crisis, is Georgia Harkness Professor of Theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston. One of the foremost feminist theologians of the time, she was trained in church history arid historical theology and has published widely on feminism, the Christian roots of anti-Semitism, and the situation of the Palestinians.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, July 17, 1987, p. 587. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The first step Israel must take in reaching an accommodation with the Palestinians is to "Recognize (them) as fellow human beings who are angered by past humiliations but who can become friendly when treated with respect."

Twenty years ago, in the wake of the Six-Day War, Israel took over East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Golan Heights and the Gaza Strip. Together the occupied territories hold about 1.3 million people, mostly Palestinians, whose existence has been largely invisible to the West.

The image of the Palestinian in the Western press is that of the keffiyeh-wrapped "terrorist." The keffiyeh-wrapped farmer trying to survive in his rocky and dwindling olive orchards in occupied Palestine is unseen. The focus on the Palestinian as "terrorist" is partly due to the rise of commando groups from the refugee camps of the 1960s, who decided that armed struggle was necessary to recover their homeland. Their advocacy of guerrilla struggle catapulted these groups onto the world stage, but with disastrous consequences for most Palestinians: the guerrilla image of Palestinians has been used to justify two decades of military violence against mostly helpless refugees, and tens of thousands have died. Though in the past decade the Palestine Liberation Organization has focused more on efforts toward diplomatic negotiations, the terrorist image of the PLO has been used by Israel and the United States to reject categorically negotiations with this group, the one that most Palestinians regard as their only legitimate representative.

The inability of most Americans to be aware of the Palestinian survivors in the camps and the occupied territories is also due to censorship by the Western press. Even for the small presses of the secular and Christian left, Israel’s treatment of Palestinians remains an untouchable subject. I will cite two examples. On June 11, 1982, the progressive Dutch Catholic newspaper De Bazuin published an article titled "Criticism of Israel" by the well-known Israeli human rights activist Israel Shahak: It addressed violations of Palestinians human rights in the occupied territories. A Dutch group Stiba, which monitors critical views of Israel, brought legal charges against the paper’s editor under a Dutch law forbidding acts that "wound the religious feelings of the Jewish people." The case dragged through the Dutch courts for three years until the charges were finally dismissed.

The second case reveals the extent to which critical discussion is repressed in Israel itself, which has otherwise had a strong tradition of a free press in both Hebrew and English. On February 16, 1987, the Shin Bet (the Israeli secret police) raided the offices of the Alternative Information Center in West Jerusalem. All its files were confiscated, the office was closed and several leaders were arrested. All were released after questioning except the founder, the Israeli anti-Zionist Michael Warshavsky, who was charged under security regulations with having relationships with the People’s Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Since he is charged with security violations, Warshavsky and his lawyer won’t be able to see the information upon which the charges are based. This will make it extremely difficult for them to conduct a defense. The real reason for the raid was probably the fact that the Alternative Information Center was collecting data on the torture of Palestinian prisoners in the occupied territories. Since this crackdown marked the first time that such measures have been used against Jewish Israelis, it signified to critical circles in Jerusalem a new step in the repression of information.

Although only a small sector of journalists may experience this kind of repression, Western journalists sense that Israeli treatment of Palestinians is a topic too hot to handle and that they and the papers for which they write will be discredited if they discuss it. At the same time, many progressive Christians are convinced that Christian sins against the Jews, culminating in the Holocaust, somehow forbid critical discussion of Israel. Few dare to question this non sequitur.

Altogether about 52 per cent of the land in the occupied territories has been confiscated -- under a variety of pretexts, such as the government’s right to take over any land needed for "military purposes" or "public purposes," or that is uncultivated or lacks a legal title. Some 52,000 Israeli settlers are present in the West Bank.

Under Arab custom, most Palestinian peasants lack a Western type of legal title to their land but are understood to have the right to use it if they cultivate it and pay taxes on it. This situation provides a broad opportunity for land confiscations which appear to the Western mind to be legal, but are totally unjust from the Arab perspective.

When I visited the region recently, I met many Palestinian farmers who could display tax records going back three generations, and yet found themselves helpless in the face of confiscation proceedings. I also saw instances in which a farmer’s olive trees had been uprooted, barriers put in his way of entry onto his land, and boulders rolled down on it by settlers on the hilltops above. Confiscation orders would then be issued based on the claim that he had failed to cultivate the land.

In addition to confiscating land, Israelis have taken control of road systems, water supplies, electricity, employment and markets in the occupied territories. For example, the water from the Sea of Galilee has been diverted for Israeli agricultural use in the Negev while West Bank residents now rely for some 60 per cent of their water on supplies controlled by Israel, which has prevented the digging or repairing of wells by residents in the occupied territories. In a region where irrigation, clearly means life, the availability of water is a first priority.

Similarly, some 90 per cent of Palestinian electricity is dependent on electrical grids from Israel. This dependence has often come about through the dismantling of autonomous Palestinian electrical supplies. For example, the deposed mayor of Hebron, Mustafa Natsche, reported in an interview that before 1967 the village had possessed its own power station. In 1973 it was refused permission to replace an old generator, and was thus forced to connect its electrical system to Israeli sources.

Palestinians in the occupied territories provide cheap labor for Israel. Seasonal agricultural work, restaurant work and maintenance and construction jobs are done largely by Arabs, despite the original Zionist belief in "Jewish labor" -- that Jews should occupy all sectors of labor in Israel. Jews increasingly occupy the management and professional sectors, while Arabs, in turn, are prevented from developing their own industry, and are largely dependent on finished goods from Israel. The West Bank and Gaza have, in fact, become the largest market for Israeli-produced goods. The occupied territories thus furnish both a captive labor supply and a captive market for Israel.

The systems of government operating in Israel and the occupied territories are entirely different. Israel has the structures of a Western democracy, with a representative government and courts, but the non-Israeli residents of the occupied territories are ruled by the military government. They have no civil rights: no legal redress for violations to their persons or property, and no rights of political assembly, freedom of the press or habeas corpus. Though official propagandists deny these procedures, they are demonstrably true. El Haq (Law in the Service of Man) , a legal project affiliated with the International Commission of Jurists-in Geneva, has amassed convincing proof (see Raja Shehadeh’s Occupier’s Law, Israel and the West Bank [Institute for Palestine Studies, 19851) Lawyers and social workers on the West Bank and Gaza who have tried to apply some of the restraints of Western legal systems to the defense of Palestinians in the territories have been told bluntly by arresting military officers: "Your mistake is that you thought you lived under a democracy."

Military orders allow any means deemed necessary to control protest and resistance. For example, a house (including a block of apartments) may be demolished as punishment for a suspected act of resistance by one resident. Other such punishments include house or town arrest, prison detention and deportation. Nor are Palestinians allowed to assemble or express themselves politically, especially in support of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Even to unfurl the Palestinian national flag is forbidden.

Palestinians in the territories live under a constant regime of restrictions and harassments that make it difficult for them to build houses, attend school, travel or publish. Any sign of protest, whether in universities or even secondary and elementary schools, provides a reason to close those schools. Between January and March 1987, the universities on the West Bank were repeatedly closed because of anticipated protests against the treatment of Palestinians in refugee camps in Lebanon. It is estimated that 90 per cent of the schoolchildren between 12 and 20 in the occupied territories have been arrested at least once. Increasingly, those imprisoned for long terms for "security violations" are teen-agers.

The ultimate means of frightening this controlled population is torture. The torture of Palestinian prisoners has long been documented by such groups as Amnesty International. Raji Surani, a Gazan, lawyer committed to the defense of Gazan political prisoners, claims that since 1970 the torture of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons has been more subtle -- it is designed to terrorize without leaving physical marks. He said that such torture, which he himself has experienced, includes sleep deprivation, the placing of manacles on the hands and feet, covering the head with wet sacks that are injected repeatedly with tear gas, and subjection to continuous hours of questioning. In May of 1985 Surani wrote a legal complaint about the torture and illegal treatment of three cases, and sent it to several Israeli legal authorities. Subsequently he was arrested and tortured for 42 days without charge, then placed on administrative detention for six months and forbidden to practice law with political prisoners.

The primary resistance I observed among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza is much less noticeable, but in the long run much more important: it is simply the determined work of survival. Struggling to raise children, to hold families together, to create means of keeping up morale and to maintain Palestinian culture and identity is a form of resistance called "steadfastness." It can take the form of simply spreading the word about university closings, deportations, house arrests or house demolitions, or it can mean developing data banks on violations of human rights -- for example, in the careful documentation of the more than 500 Palestinian villages that have been destroyed by the Israelis since 1948; this information has been compiled by the Arab Study Society in East Jerusalem. Data on human rights violations are being gathered by the Palestinian Human Rights Information Center, with offices in East Jerusalem and a data bank in Chicago. Steadfastness also means developing Palestinian cultural centers where folklore and artisans’ work can be collected, or encouraging artistic expressions of Palestinian identity that can be circulated in postcards and posters. Palestinian survival entails, above all, maintaining a memory of an alternative reality.

Women play a key role in this work of survival, since it is often they who must hold the family together when their menfolk are in prison, deported, or simply demoralized. Sewing circles that produce clothes, sweaters or cross-stitch embroidery provide a way both of earning income and of keeping cultural identity alive. Women’s networks have sprung up throughout the occupied territories, giving rise to work collectives or kindergartens, or efforts to improve sanitation. Such projects improve the conditions of life while creating means for achieving solidarity which give these women courage to resist. They are a means of grass-roots leadership training. I heard one leader of a women’s committee proudly report that when Israeli soldiers once invaded such a gathering and demanded to see the women’s identification cards, the women did not hesitate to look the soldiers in the eye and ask: "Why are you doing this? Is embroidery a threat to your security? Are kindergartens a threat to your security?"

The struggle between democracy and security takes a particularly convoluted form in Israel. Even more than other states that claim to value democracy and social justice, Israel needs to maintain the image of successfully upholding ethical claims in its social and political systems. This need is deeply rooted in the European background of Zionist ideals. Israel was expected to provide a haven of security for Jews in an anti-Semitic world, and to be a showplace of liberal and socialist hopes. Thus, even for secularized Jews, there is a redemptive tinge to the state of Israel. The return to the homeland echoes the ancient Jewish religious hopes of a messianic restoration that would solve not only the historical exile of the Jews but the alienation from God as well. Israel is seen as a corporate resurrection of the Jewish people in the face of the Holocaust.

But these very understandable theoretical visions have been transformed into ideologies that prohibit criticism of the state’s negative side. In that sense, Israel’s messianic dream inhibits its real struggle for social change.

The need to expel or repress Palestinians is based on the Zionist belief that a Jewish state requires an absolute Jewish majority. Eighteen per cent of Israelis are not Jewish, and the number of Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories is growing at a faster rate than the number of Israeli Jews (and Arab Jews -- Sephardim, or Middle Eastern Jews -- are multiplying faster than European Jews). In Israel and the territories there are 3.32 million Jews and 2 million Palestinians. Incorporating all these Palestinians into Israel would threaten the idea of a Jewish state. Thus, Israel’s repressive policy toward Palestinians in the occupied territories is designed to keep the non-Jewish populace in the status of noncitizens, and to force many of them to emigrate.

It should be evident that any ethnically exclusive state that cannot provide civil rights to a large portion of people living within its boundaries will generate terrible problems. Such an exclusivist state must inevitably regard the "alien" population as one that is to be eliminated in one way or another.

The identity of Israel is a complicated issue for both Jews and Christians because it involves religiously loaded language. Some argue on biblical grounds that the Jews have a divine claim to this particular land. Such a claim raises many questions. Did ancient Israelites really live in this territory as an exclusive tribal majority? Or did they live side by side with other ethnic communities, with which they fought at times, but with which they also coexisted? (It is not accidental that tours of the Holy Land tend to avoid the coastal plains: the ancient cities there were Philistine and Phoenician, not Israelite.) Can ancient stories of holy war and conquest be the basis for modern claims to a nation state? Or should they be regarded as religious ideologies that are questionable as "revelations" of a God of love and justice, even in their biblical form? Are modern Jews the descendants of the Middle Eastern ancient Israelites any more than are the Arabs who over the centuries may have become Christian or Muslim? Even if some modern Jews could trace their ancestry back to some ancient Hebrews, do descendants of a people that lived in a particular region 2,000 years ago have a right to return, particularly when this means evicting people who have long resided there?

No Arab can be expected to accept religious or tribal claims for Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. Indeed, one may say that no state has an a priori right to exist. To take another example, one can scarcely imagine American Indians accepting the notion that a white European United States has an a priori right to exist because "God gave the Puritans this land," to make a "city set on a hill."

What most Palestinians are ready to acknowledge is that Israel does exist, and that it is a part of the Middle East that is not going to disappear. But at the same time, Israel needs to accommodate and coexist with Palestinians in the land they both claim as a homeland. This accommodation must begin by recognizing Palestinians as fellow human beings who are angered by past and present humiliations but who can become friendly when treated with respect.

The projection of the demonology of the Holocaust onto Palestinians reflects the trauma of Jewish survivors. But it falsifies Israeli-Arab relationships and turns coexistence with Palestinians into an intractable problem of "survival" fueled by self-generated fear and aggression. This is not to say that there is no religiously inspired tribal insanity in the Arab world as well. But it is the Palestinians who are least prone to this fanaticism and most inclined to seek a secular democratic state for Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Although guerrilla militants raised in refugee camps may not be the best people to fashion such a state, the ideal itself should be taken seriously. Both secularization and detribalization are probably what Israel, along with Iran and other Muslim states, need if they are to coexist with other religious and ethnic groups in the region. The ideologies of ethnic election, divine donation of particular territory, messianic fulfillment, and compensation for evils committed elsewhere all prevent realistic self-criticism. A shift from ideological self-justification to prophetic critique is needed so that those committed to Israel’s well-being can acknowledge the injustice of the present situation and work for a more just social order.