The state of Israel's bloody foundations

The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine

By Ilan Pappe

Oneworld Publications, 2006

313 pages, $39.95 (hb)

The soon-to-be first Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, was unhappy when the United Nations decreed the establishment of the state of Israel in December 1947. Although being allocated 56% of Palestine despite owning barely 6% of the land and making up just 30% of the population, the veteran Zionist wanted much more Arab territory for the Jewish community. "The borders", he wrote with menacing intent in his diary, "will be determined by force".

Six months later, by mid-1948, writes the Israeli historian, Ilan Pappe, in The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, force — brutal, murderous and calculated — had carved out most of Palestine for the Zionist state in one of history's grimmest episodes of "ethnic cleansing". With cold efficiency and frequent relish, 800,000 people, more than half of Palestine's indigenous Arab population, had been driven out, almost none ever to return.

Zionism, the conservative ideology that took root in response to the anti-semitism and deadly pogroms of late 19th century in Europe, had finally settled on Palestine, fraudulently justified by ancient biblical claims, as a Jewish refuge. When Britain, forced to divest itself of its costly and unruly colonies after World War II, handed over Palestine to the UN in 1947, the Zionists prepared to seize their chance.

The Jewish Agency (the Zionist governing body in Palestine) made a secret plan (Plan Dalet) for "a giant land grab". The architects and practitioners of the forcible expulsion of the Palestinians were the statesmen and women of the subsequent Jewish state — including prime ministers Ben-Gurion (in whose private home the plans were made), Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin and Golda Meir.

The 50,000 strong Hagana, the military arm of the Zionists, aided by the terrorist Irgun and Stern Gang, opened a campaign against the Palestinians of intimidation, siege, execution, imprisonment, bombardment, forced marches, looting, and the demolition of homes and the planting of mines among the rubble to prevent the inhabitants from returning. Hit-lists of Palestinians involved in the 1936 Palestinian nationalist revolt (crushed by Britain) or the remnant nationalist movement furnished the names of those for summary execution. The Zionist planners were unfazed by a string of war atrocities such as the poisoning of Palestinian water supplies with typhoid, rape (widely under-reported) of Palestinian women and girls, and dozens of massacres of Palestinians of all ages.

Terrorist tactics were used against the civilian population. Fuel-oil explosives created rivers of fire, car-bombs exploded, coffee shops and buses were raked with machine-gun fire, schools and hotels were blown up, houses were dynamited with people still in them, Palestinians were killed by sniper fire and heavy shelling by artillery and air, panicked refugees drowned in the port city of Haifa's harbour as overcrowded boats sank. All these tactics were authorised, in advance or after the event, by a ruthless Zionist leadership.

Urban, rural, elite, poor, friendly, hostile, all Palestinian population centres were targets. To small villages and major city neighbourhoods, loudspeakers offered the choice — flee or die. As the carnage accumulated, few Palestinians believed the threats were idle. "Selections" for POW camps or execution encouraged flight, spurred on by firing over their heads. The fleeing Palestinians were sent on forced marches, without food or water, some dying from hunger and thirst.

Refugees who attempted to return to retrieve belongings, to harvest their orchards and crops, were shot or arrested. They faced brutal interrogation, with torture, at the hands of ex-Irgun and Stern Gang camp guards. Some Palestinian prisoners were sent to labour camps — working in the quarries and carrying heavy stones, living on one potato in the morning and half a dried fish at noon — "scenes that could have come straight from another place and time", notes an ironic Pappe.

All this happened whilst the British, the caretaker power, looked the other way or collaborated with the Zionists by persuading the Palestinians to evacuate. Also looking on impotently were UN observers who reported, writes Pappe, the "hordes of men, women and children" streaming in flight every day, "ragged women and children ... conspicuously dominant in these human convoys: the young men were gone — executed, arrested or missing". One of the UN emissaries (the president of the Swedish Red Cross, who had been instrumental in saving Jews from the Nazis in WWII) dared to propose the right for Palestinian refugees to return and was assassinated by Zionist terrorists "for trying", says Pappe, "to do for the Palestinians what he had done for Jews only recently".

After October 1948, the major "ethnic cleansing" was completed but the hardships did not end for the Palestinians — "about 8,000 spent the whole of 1949 in the prison camps, others suffered physical abuse in the towns, and large numbers of Palestinians were harassed in numerous ways under the military rule that Israel now exerted over them. Their houses continued to be looted, their fields confiscated, their holy places desecrated, and Israel violated such basic rights as their freedom of movement and expression, and of equality before the law." Today, more than seven million refugees languish in the ghettoised Occupied Territories (West Bank and Gaza Strip), or as second-class citizens inside Israel, or as camp-dwellers in neighbouring Arab states.

Yet this catastrophic crime does not exist in official Zionist history, which systematically denies the ethnic cleansing in favour of the tale of a heroic struggle to create a homeland for the Jews, settling an empty land, "making the deserts bloom" after the "voluntary transfer" of the Palestinian Arabs who temporarily left their homes to make way for invading Arab armies intent on destroying the fledgling Jewish state.

This official narrative, however, is myth piled on myth. Months before the intervention in May of heavily outnumbered and poorly-armed pan-Arab volunteer militia and armies, the Zionist forces had already forcibly expelled a quarter of a million Palestinians, destroyed two hundred villages and emptied scores of towns, stealing richly fertile land and a productive economy from their centuries-long Palestinian owners. The Jewish community never faced annihilation — the Palestinians, lacking serious Arab military aid and bereft of experienced political leadership and paramilitary fighting forces after their defeated 1936 revolt, did.

The fairy tale wins out over the reality, says Pappe, because to admit the ethnic cleansing of 1948 is to undermine Zionist ideology, the ideology that enabled the depopulation of half of Palestine's native people and which is still alive in the minds of a majority of Israeli Jews. It would also mean confronting the racist heart of Zionism that, Pappe shows, rationalised the Zionist dispossession of the Palestinian Arabs as "cleansing" the land of "sub-humans", along with other disturbingly close parallels to the "selections", labour camps and terror tactics faced by the Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

Pappe's history offers the "painful journey" into the past for Israeli Jews which, he argues, is the only way forward to peace for Palestinians and Israelis, dependant on acknowledgement of the crime of ethnic cleansing and the right for the unconditional return of the Palestinian refugees. Pappe's rigorous and humane history helps to uncover the ruined villages and homes, the lost lives and citrus groves, beneath the Israeli housing settlements, universities, tourist attractions, forests and theme parks which have literally buried the real history of 1948. Al Nakba is what the Palestinians call the ethnic cleansing of 1948. Al Nakba denial, as Pappe shows, is as much a failing of humanity as Holocaust denial.