A country whose capital city is unrecognized by most of the world is not fully independent.

In 1996, the PBS Frontline program aired a four-hour special on the Gulf War between the US and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The program revealed how Hussein’s atrocities against Kuwaiti civilians were integral to building public support for the war.

“This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait,” George H.W. Bush said in August 1990. In subsequent speeches, Bush compared Saddam’s regime with that of Hitler and his aggression against Kuwait with the 1939 invasion of Poland.

Fireworks explode over Jerusalem at the close of the Israel’s 50th anniversary gala show on Independence Day in 1998.
Fireworks explode over Jerusalem at the close of the Israel’s 50th anniversary gala show on Independence Day in 1998. © REUTERS

Saddam’s atrocities against Kuwait were far milder than his genocidal campaign against Kurds in the 1980s. In 1988, Iraqi forces struck Halabja with poison gas, killing thousands of Kurdish civilians. So why did the world, including 30 countries that joined the US in going to war, ignore Halabja but care so greatly for Kuwait? Why was Saddam called “Hitler” for what he did in 1990 but not 1988? 

The essence of the difference is independence. Kuwait and Poland were independent. The Jews in Nazi Germany and Kurds in Iraq were not independent. Our world order has determined that genocide and human rights violations are basically acceptable so long as they are committed against non-independent peoples and places.

When Israelis consider the privilege of independence, they should compare themselves to other groups. The list of groups that sought freedom but did not receive it is long – including Tibet in 1951, Biafra in 1967, Chechnya and Somaliland. In some cases, groups that sought independence have thrown in the towel, as happened with the ETA in Basque country last month when the group disarmed. Some territories, such as Scotland and Quebec, have voted on independence peacefully, and their people have narrowly chosen “No.”

Israel’s declaration of independence was timed to coincide with the end of the British Mandate. It was heroically pragmatic. The country had already been fighting a brutal civil conflict with Arab residents of British Palestine for six months since the November UN partition vote. But Israel’s early leaders understood early on that the border the international community had granted the Jewish State were insufficient. The international community created a state that looked more like a salad than a functioning entity. That was convenient for the British imperialists who ruled over the country. They did the same with Pakistan, creating a ridiculous two-headed country that consisted of two pieces strung out across India. It is no surprise that Bangladesh fought a war of independence from Pakistan in 1971.

The British planners also thought partition in Israel could logically leave pieces of Palestine in Gaza, the Galilee and Jaffa, the latter an island within the Jewish state. The British and UN also decided to make Jerusalem and areas around it, including Ein Kerem and Bethlehem, an “international” city. European colonial powers like such geographic utopian monstrosities when they apply to countries in the global south, less so in Europe. No one proposes to make Rome “international” or perhaps other disputed areas. Russia and Ukraine both desire Crimea, perhaps it should be “international”? 


SO WHAT is the final meaning of independence? On one level, it is a begging from the international community and former colonial powers for recognition of borders that they drew arbitrarily. Because the British administrator of Sinai, W. Jennings Bramley, pushed for a boundary with Ottoman Turkey in 1902 in Aqaba, Israel today has access to Eilat. Is that independence, or is it simply a thank-you from the colonial administrators? And less of a thank-you for not including the Golan.

But the meaning of independence is more than that. It is the ability to determine one’s fate.