Frontline Index






The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine — Ilan Pappe Oneworld Publications 2007
313 pages, paperback £9.99


The main purpose of this compelling book by dissident Israeli historian Ilan Pappe is to call into question the foundation myths of the State of Israel. According to mainstream and popular Israeli historiography “in 1948 Israel was able to establish itself as an independent nation-state on part of [then British-administered] Palestine because early Zionists has succeeded in ‘settling an empty land’ and ‘making the desert bloom’”.

In fact, Pappe points out, pre-1948 Palestine was far from being an empty land and had been populated for centuries by Arab communities in hundreds of small villages, peacefully subsisting largely on the basis of farming and agriculture in an environment that was far from desert. As Pappe demonstrates in sometimes harrowing detail, what happened in 1948 and thereafter fully deserves the epithet “Nakba” – “catastrophe” – given to it by the Palestinians. As part of a pre-meditated plan, the Zionist founders of the modern State of Israel – led by David Ben-Gurion – systematically expelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, robbing them of their personal possessions, and forcing them at gunpoint to leave their homes before reducing them to rubble.

The view that Israel was born out of a David and Goliath like struggle between fragile Zionist forces and the hostile armies of surrounding Arab countries is dispelled, and in its place Pappe outlines the story of largely defenceless and unarmed Palestinian civilians terrorised by the well-armed Zionist military and ruthless paramilitary groups

In many cases, such as the village of Deir Yassin, the forced expulsions were accompanied by atrocities not unlike those vented on the Jews of Europe by the Nazis just a few years earlier: “As they burst into the village, the Jewish soldiers sprayed the houses with machine-gun fire, killing many of the inhabitants. The remaining villagers were then gathered in one place and murdered in cold blood, their bodies abused while a number of the women were raped and then killed”. Deir Yassin’s fate was to be shared by countless other villages, either at the hands of the Hagana – the official Israeli forces – or at the hands of “underground” terrorist groups such as the Irgun or the Stern Gang.

Throughout the book, Pappe uses the concept of “ethnic cleansing” to capture the essence of what led up to the declaration of the State of Israel, where “ethnic cleansing” is understood to involve the forced expulsion of a group from a territory “as a result of religious or ethnic discrimination, political, strategic or ideological considerations, or a combination of these”. And indeed, the language used by the Israeli perpetrators of the mass expulsion of the indigenous Palestinian population is often overtly racist. Pappe quotes one member of the Hagana describing the Bedouin tribes in the Baysan area as “farunkel” (the Yiddish word for “pus”) and the Zu’bis clan as “cholera” (Hebrew colloquial for scum). A high official in the Israeli Ministry of Interior, Israel Koening, is quoted as calling the Palestinians in Galilee a “cancer in the state’s body”, while an Israeli Chief of Staff, Raphael Eitan, describes them as “cockroaches”. The racism is not confined to remarks made by individuals, but sits at the very heart of the Zionist project: Ben-Gurion himself wrote of the “cleansing of Palestine” as his prime objective, and the word “tihur” – “cleansing” – appeared in every order the Zionist High Command passed down to military units on the ground. Other words used by the Zionist leaders to describe their objectives – “nikkuy”, “bi’ur” – have similar meanings.

For those unfamiliar with the foundation of the State of Israel, there are some surprises. If these days Israel is the main client state of the US in the Middle East, it apparently wasn’t always so. According to Pappe, the main furnisher of military hardware to the Zionist forces in 1948 was the Soviet Union, a transaction that the Israeli Communist Party was apparently instrumental in arranging. Moreover, in 1949 the US State Department attempted to pressure Israel into repatriating Palestinian refugees, and at one point the US administration withheld a loan from Israel and even threatened it with sanctions.

As an Israeli himself, Pappe is able to describe at first hand the phenomenon of “Nakba Denial” in contemporary Israel. Theme parks and forests of European trees now cover the ruins of scores of villages where thriving Palestinian communities lived and worked for centuries, and as far as modern Israel is concerned the Nakba and the ethnic cleansing of Palestine cannot even be acknowledged to have happened, so that there simply is no ‘refugee issue” and no “Palestinian right of return”.

The book’s indictment of Israel is all the more powerful for being the work of an author who is himself Jewish and an Israeli citizen. When Pappe wrote the book he was a senior lecturer in political science at Haifa University, but having found life in Israel increasingly difficult, now teaches at the University of Exeter in the UK. The final words of the book – “the risk of even more devastating conflict and bloodshed has never been so acute” – have already been borne out by Israel’s murderous assault on Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009. Pappe’s book is an essential read for anyone trying to understand the politics and history of the Middle East.