‘For Israel to perpetrate ethnic cleansing, it needs a regional conflagration. That is happening now’

Moshé Machover assesses Israel’s Gaza war in its historical context – and offers a stern warning.

‘For Israel to perpetrate ethnic cleansing, it needs a regional conflagration. That is happening now’
Moshe Machover at home in his study, London, September 2022. Credit: Hannah Machover

A picture of a Hebrew advert hangs on the wall of my grandfather’s study. Originally published in Israel’s liberal Haaretz newspaper in September 1967, after Israel had occupied vast new territories following the six-day war, the advert reads: “Our right to defend ourselves from extermination does not give us the right to oppress others. Occupation leads to foreign rule. Foreign rule leads to resistance. Resistance leads to repression. Repression leads to terror and counter-terror. The victims of terror are mostly innocent people. Holding on to the occupied territories will turn us into a nation of murderers and murder victims. We must leave the occupied territories immediately.”

My grandfather, Moshé Machover, is one of the statement’s 12 signatories, and the last living founder of the radical Arab and Jewish group Matzpen that was active in Israel from the 1960s until the 1980s. As Israel’s escalates its genocide of Palestinians in Gaza, and the nearly 60-year-old ad is being circulated again on social media with renewed vigour, I spoke to Moshik to gain a better understanding of this moment in its historical context.

The following interview was originally conducted on 20 October with help from Vashti editor Evan Robins; it was updated on 28 October to reflect Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza, and has been edited for length and clarity▼

Eli: You’ll have seen that the advert you and 11 others published in Haaretz in the immediate aftermath of the June 1967 war is once again doing the rounds online. As the last surviving signatory, what do you make of it being recirculated now?

Moshé: I feel horrible, because our dire predictions long ago are coming true. The balance of power is such that the Israeli regime is much stronger than the Palestinian resistance, but not strong enough to completely annihilate it. This escalation goes on and on. Israel has, from its point of view, a way out from this vicious circle, and this is ethnic cleansing.

I didn’t predict it would start in Gaza, but what you have in Gaza now is ethnic cleansing. Look, bombing on this scale, starving a population of 2.3 million, denying food and water, telling over 1 million people to move out of their homes and go where they can’t find shelter, bombing hospitals, and now this massive ground invasion. Either by expulsion or by extermination, this is major ethnic cleansing.

In this context, what Hamas did on 7 October is going to make the slim chance of preventing ethnic cleansing even slimmer. This was a horrible massacre. It was a crime, morally but also politically, because it has terrible consequences.

Most people, especially in the west, can see the massacre, but they cannot relate it to the root cause, which is the occupation.

And the Nakba before it.

And the Nakba before it. The oppression of the Palestinians, the colonisation of Palestine by the Zionist project – this is the root cause.

What are some of the deeper dynamics behind what happened on 7 October?

If Hamas is a monster, it is a monster that was fostered by Israel – going back to the 1980s and even earlier, when Ariel Sharon was the Israeli minister of defence. The idea was that the PLO, and especially Fatah, were the terrorists. Hamas was simply the local Gaza branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. And it was regarded as a more or less pacifistic organisation, which was concerned with social welfare. So, to undermine the PLO/Fatah, the Israelis fostered Hamas.

Later on, Bibi Netanyahu, especially after 2009, had a policy of actually being complicit in the promotion of Hamas against the PLO. For him, the “danger” was that the Palestinian Authority and the PLO in the West Bank were pressing for a two-state solution. He wanted to undermine them. He wanted first of all to split the Palestinian leadership into two, so they would not be in a position to make any binding agreements.

Divide and rule.

How do we know this? Because he said so. I’ve got it in Hebrew, I’ll translate it for you. According to a report of the Jerusalem Post, Netanyahu was asked in 2019 why he allows Qatar to send so much money to the Gaza Strip. He replied that this is part of the strategy to separate the Palestinians in Gaza and in the West Bank. “Whoever is against the creation of a Palestinian state should be for” the transferring of money to the Hamas government, he said.

So this was the short- and medium-term plan?

This was his stupid, idiotic strategy of preventing pressure for a two-state solution. Which succeeded! The two-state solution is now not a serious option, if it ever was serious, which I don’t think it was. But there was always international pressure for it, and PLO pressure for it. He wanted to resist that.

He failed to predict the onslaught last month, which caught Israel completely by surprise and is a huge failure of the Israeli regime – worse than the failure in the Yom Kippur War on almost exactly the same date 50 years ago, which is also symbolic. But in this case it was a failure because the Hamas assault happened in refutation of positive Israeli policy actually to foster Hamas. Netanyahu did not regard Hamas as a danger to this extent. He was satisfied if from time to time there was any “need” to attack Gaza; he did it. But without ever intending to destroy Hamas, because he found it useful.

Can we go into the broader geopolitical context of what we’re seeing now?

There was the alliance that was being hatched between Saudi Arabia and Israel with American mediation, as it were, bypassing the Palestinian people altogether. So Israel will be accepted as an ally of the major, richest Arab state and the Palestinians completely ignored.

And this would also sideline Jordan, Lebanon and Syria?

I think Jordan wasn’t very happy either. I can go into the rivalry between the Hashemite dynasty and the Saudis.

Jordan’s Hashemite rulers have custody of Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, going back of course before 1967, but after the war of ’67, Moshe Dayan specifically made an agreement with the Hashemite rulers (King Hussein at the time, the great grandfather of Abdullah). And according to this agreement Jordan had the custodianship of the third holy place of Islam. Mecca and Medina also used to be under the custodianship of the Hashemites, but the house of Saud dislodged them in the 1920s.

This rivalry goes far back into the history of the Arabian peninsula and the machinations of imperialism in this era. Jordan likely feared the Saudis could have been granted custodianship of the al-Aqsa compound too, in exchange for their alliance with Israel, to complete the three and dislodge the Hashemites.

And what would be the significance of unseating Jordan?

There is a well-documented scheme of attempting to overthrow the Hashemite regime in Jordan and making it the new Palestine. Of course, under Israeli control.

Is this why you said earlier that you did not predict this phase of ethnic cleansing would start in Gaza?

What I believed was that the Gaza concentration camp would remain an enclave controlled by Israel with 2.3 million people incarcerated. Israel could live with it for a further period. I thought this latest wave of ethnic cleansing of Palestinians would start in the West Bank because Israel has the possibility of using Jordan.

A year before the invasion of Iraq, when it was clear to people in the know that it was going to happen, an Israeli military historian wrote an article describing what he refers to as the “Sharon plan” of the then-prime minister of Israel, to get rid of Palestinians from the West Bank, and indicated he would do so in case of this major upheaval in the region. In order to perpetrate ethnic cleansing, you need a conflagration in the region, which is happening now.

Moreover, there was another, earlier indication of such an agenda too, during the Tiananmen Square events in Beijing in 1989. An Israeli politician made a speech – he was not aware that he was being recorded – at Bar-Ilan University, saying that Israel would be stupid not to use this opportunity to carry out a major ethnic cleansing in the West Bank. This was reported later in the Jerusalem Post. He denied it, but they had the recording. Who was this politician? Binyamin Netanyahu. He was then a junior minister in the Israeli foreign office.

By the way, if you follow the news, the ethnic cleansing is now spreading to the West Bank.

How would you sum up your thoughts about the current moment and the resonance of the ad?

I think now we are returning to the beginning. We are in the middle of an act of ethnic cleansing.

From time to time people discover the ad and say “Ah! You were prophetic”. But you didn’t need the gift of prophecy to predict something so simple. Occupation leads to such and such consequences. It was just common sense.

So what is the common sense thing to do now?

To point out that the Palestinian people are not collectively responsible for what Hamas did, and that Hamas itself was fostered by Israel – initially as a mild substitute for the terroristic PLO, now as a more militant organisation that would foil the peace overtures of the abject Palestinian Authority.

And what do you see as the specific role of Jewish left organising now in Israel and in the UK, America, and elsewhere?

In Israel there is no role for a separate Jewish organisation – I don’t believe in it. The situation is quite different in a place like Britain or America, because Israel is claiming to act in the name of Jews everywhere.

If Jews want to speak as radical leftist Jews, I think they have a role here. And that is to disabuse the left and the general public of the falsehood that Israel acts and speaks on behalf of all Jews all around the world. It doesn’t. It has no right. And it has no place to speak in this way.▼

Eli Machover is a PhD candidate in politics at the University of Oxford and an editor at Vashti.