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Raphael Israeli on The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, by Ilan Pappe

Filed under: Israel, The Middle East

Jewish Political Studies Review 20:3-4 (Fall 2008)


 Alice in Ethnic Cleansing Land

The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, by Ilan Pappe, One World, Oxford,   2006, 261pp + endnotes, chronology, maps and index.

Reviewed by Raphael Israeli


There is an Arabic saying that mbayyin al-kitab min ‘unwano (the book is self-evident from its title). Never has it been easier to misjudge a book from its cover. The term ethnic cleansing evokes images of the massive uprooting of ethnic groups by force to achieve a demographic or ethnic change in a certain area, or to punish ethnic groups by exiling them en masse from their land. This is what the Soviet Union under Stalin did to the Chechens and Germans; the Germans carried out their policies on Jews and Gypsies, as did the Turks on the Greeks from Anatolia and Circassians from the Caucasus, the Serbs on Muslims from Bosnia and Kosovo, the Albanians on the Serbs from Kosovo, and any number of similar unfortunate occurrences. In most of these cases, what is euphemistically referred to as “population transfer” took place with pain and suffering, and the end result was vast movements of people, usually against their will.

Over the course of the Arab-Israeli wars many people have been forcibly removed from their homes and/or lands and made to evacuate entire villages and neighborhoods. This includes the areas around the Dead Sea  (Kalia, Beit Ha-‘Arava), Northern Jerusalem (Atarot, Neve Ya’akov) and Hebron (the city itself and then the Etzion Bloc where there were several flourishing Jewish settlements) in 1948, the evacuation of all the Jews from the Yamit and Ophira areas in 1982 where several scores of stunningly successful Jewish settlements in the desert were forced to leave according to the terms of the peace treaty with Egypt, and more recently, the forced evacuation of the Gaza Strip and the uprooting of 20 prosperous Jewish settlements (Gush Katif) under Israel’s disengagement scheme (August, 2005).

To ignore this list of Jewish transfers, and to concentrate on the uprooting of the Palestinians from Israel, as if it were unprovoked and unilaterally perpetrated against Palestinians, is not only unfair and untrue, but also intellectually dishonest, misleading and reflects a desire to curry favor among a certain type of anti-Semitic readers whose main purpose in life is to delegitimate Israel, Zionism and the Jews.

The most blatant falsification of history may be found in the distorted presentation of otherwise irrefutable facts. If on the one hand most of the examples of population transfer mentioned above were “successful” in the sense that they attained their goal removing an “undesirable” ethnic group, just as vast swathes of Europe became judenrein, the “ethnic cleansing of Palestine” on the other has clearly been a major failure. The numbers speak for themselves. There were altogether 1.2 million Arabs in Western Palestine in 1948, now there are close to 5 million (3.5 in the West Bank and Gaza, 1.3 in Israel proper). A population that has grown four-fold in 60 years, i.e., has doubled in every 20-year generation (a rate akin to natural growth in Egypt, Syria and the rest of the Arab world) cannot be said to have been “ethnically cleansed.” The reader would expect a little more awareness of the basic facts, the numbers and the statistics, if nothing else.

When we advance beyond the title of this eye-catching volume of one-sided “History,” whose author has been called “Israel’s bravest, most principled and most incisive historian,” the picture becomes more nuanced and can be argued either way. Even if one grants that many of the detailed cases discussed and documented by Pappe reflect a certain reality, it is the author’s generalizations and conclusions which lead him astray, and in turn mislead his readers, especially the uninitiated. Had the unbiased context been laid out fairly to the readers, one could draw one’s own conclusions. But to apportion the blame to one party, and making the other a cohort of saintly victims simply does not tally with the known record. Why Pappe did this is beyond the scope of this essay. Rather, this analysis will center on the structure, selective documentation and damning conclusions of this ideologically driven book.

Over the last 20 years any number of books, notably by revisionist historians, has documented the extent to which the picture of the exodus of the Arabs of Palestine is composite, multi-layered and diverse. No historian in Israel today would claim that all the 700,000 Palestinians who left their towns and villages during the war did so of their own volition. There was certainly a mix of premeditated expulsions, as in the Lod-Ramla battles, and massacres (on both sides) which caused some Arabs to flee for their lives.

There were also Arab elites, especially from the cities, who had the means to leave temporarily hoping to return as victors (they left their homes furnished and took their keys with them), as compared to the bulk of the villagers who were simply caught in the cross fire and sought refuge for their families in exile, and there were other villagers who collaborated with Zionists and preferred to seek accommodation with them rather than fight them, as Hillel Cohen has shown in his admirable book. Tens of thousands of displaced Arabs left their villages and converged in cities like Nazareth where they felt better protected. Finally, the general atmosphere of war prompts people to make hasty and unwise decisions. All these features were present; thus to include this exodus under the all-encompassing umbrella of “ethnic cleansing” simply does not meet any basic yardstick of truth, despite the temptation of a simplistic and unsound interpretation.

Pappe, regardless of his writings and “findings” on the exodus of Palestinians in 1948, is ideologically committed to one Palestine, and adheres to the ideal formulated by the Mufti and the pacifist and naïve Jewish Brith Shalom led by President Magnes of the Hebrew University, which found no resonance among the Jewish population at that time. He cares little about Jewish nationalism (Zionism), though he does not castigate the Arab Palestinian national movement. For him, the state is a utilitarian framework that enables free expression, but he appears to disregard the fact that the end of a Jewish state is also the end of democracy, growth, freedom, science, prosperity, high-tech and all the other advances that make Israel so different from the neighboring Arab countries.

Left to its own devices, any Arab-majority state in Palestine would be no different from the chaos of Gaza, the poverty of Egypt, the dictatorships of Syria and Libya, the corruption of Saudi Arabia or the backwardness of all the rest. To justify his personal idea of justice, he is also ready to re-write history, demonize the Jews who scuttled his scheme, and lend his support to the Palestinians who from their position of recalcitrant and negative opponents of Jewish nationalism are elevated to the status of martyred victims.

A more balanced (and truthful) analysis of the situation in the 1947-1949 period would reveal the following:

1. The Zionist enterprise, cognizant of its demographic weakness, has operated on the basis of compromise and partition since its inception. The Peel Commission and later the Partition Plan were accepted by the Zionists and rejected by the Arabs, who under their Mufti, Husseini, insisted on a whole and undivided Palestine. The Mufti’s collaboration with Hitler during the War in the genocide of the Jews and the declaration by Azzam Pasha, Secretary of the Arab League concerning the impending massacre of all Jews, combined with repeated attacks on the Jewish settlements, did not augur well for the existential future of the Jews in Palestine, let alone their independence. Thus, from the outset, the Jewish attitude, after experiencing the horrors of the Holocaust, was one of fear, suspicion and determination to fight for survival, especially since many Arabs were prepared to assist them in this endeavor (for a price).

2. Had the Arabs accepted all these compromises, and had the Palestinian Arabs refrained from waging war on the nascent Jewish state, opportunities for accommodation could have emerged. The Jewish perception of the Arab claims and genocidal attempts on their lives by necessity hardened their own views, and in a situation of imminent annihilation, if they did not overcome their enemy, they naturally chose to overpower or send it into exile, rather than face extinction themselves. If the Jews of Europe had been exiled instead of sent to crematoria, most of them would have survived the war.

3. The fact that there was NO ethnic cleansing, as incontrovertible current demographic figures show, in the long run may have triggered this lengthy unending conflict. As long as the Palestinians believe there is a chance to reverse historical developments and annihilate the state of Israel, they will persist in their politicidal dreams encouraged by people like Pappe who have mobilized immense support in the Western world by disseminating revisionist views of history. Hence, contrary to his hopes and statements, Pappe encourages the continuation of bloodshed and conflict, and in that regard he is not the Palestinians’ friend, but their worst enemy as he will cause them further bloodshed and sacrifice, instead of encouraging them to compromise and face reality.

4. While the Palestinians were leaving their country, under expulsion, flight, voluntary exile or otherwise, the same number of Jews were fleeing from Arab countries and found refuge in Israel, where they were absorbed into the system. Their flight did not take place during conditions of war but simply derived from their oppressive dhimmi status that they could no longer bear. Therefore, this unplanned exchange of populations, which resolved one problem though it did nothing to settle the other, remains a living reminder that population transfers, though they may be painful and inhuman at the time, may also bring a problem to an end after a few generations, as was the case with the Jewish immigrants to Israel, something which the Arabs bluntly refuse to accept as a solution for the Palestinians.

5.  Pappe prefers to live in Sussex, U.K., and not to lead the life of a Jew in an Arab land, in Gaza or Casablanca. He is fully aware that Arabs, with the same history, language, tradition and customs have found their national expression in 21 Arab states. Nonetheless he is totally aligned with the cause of creating a 22nd state. At the same time, he feels that Jews are not entitled to any state and he is prepared to forsake the only Jewish state there is for the purpose of establishing that 22nd Palestinian entity. He is also aware that Jews want a state not as a matter of faith but as a people that established Jewish kingdoms and two commonwealths before there was any Arab or Muslim entity to speak of. Indeed, the majority of Israeli Jews are committed to that idea.

Thus many of Pappe’s contentions presented in this book, which is otherwise well-written, have no foundation, in spite of the copious references. Examples of such skewed interpretations abound. In his second chapter (10-28) for example, he castigates Israel for its “drive for an exclusively Jewish state.” Firstly, this is not true: the Declaration of Independence calls upon the Arabs to remain within the state and contribute peacefully to its construction. Secondly, 60 years later, 20% of the population is Arab.

So, where is the Jewish exclusivity? Or, were the Jews so impotent and helpless they could not “cleanse” their country of Arabs, had they wished to? Certainly, the Jews wished to establish a Jewish state because there was a Jewish problem to resolve. But to accuse them of exclusivity is untrue and misleading. A state with an Arab majority, one that Pappe would like to live in although he did not make that choice when he could have, would not resolve Jewish problems in the world, and the whole enterprise of providing a home for persecuted Jews would have been defeated.

Similarly, Pappe views military operations such as Nachshon (86-90) or Palm Tree (154-5) as premeditated moves within the grand scheme of “ethnic cleansing,” but the truth is that military operations were conducted for the sake of extricating the fledgling state from the genocidal siege imposed by the invading Arab nations. The vast exodus of Arabs that resulted was the natural outcome of population movements referred to above. But to turn the result into the cause is tantamount to claiming that America planned the Pacific War to test its nuclear bomb.

These reports are so one-sided and exaggerated that the whole story loses its credibility. If it were balanced and less selective, it could have provided an interesting “alternative history” of the origins of the Arab-Israel conflict. The author’s eagerness to condemn, castigate and demonize his own country is so intense, and the hatred of his own people is so strong that one wonders how he could have functioned in this environment for most of his academic career. In general, turncoats of any sort and against any party inspire contempt, pity and embarrassment. In this case, the litany of complaints and selective stories that the author has chosen to elevate to the level of “history” while excising specific events from their context can only cause dismay and wonder. How can a knowledgeable scholar claim to present the narrative of a conflict by describing exclusively what one party allegedly did to the other? It is like reporting a boxing match on the radio or in writing by describing only the punches delivered by the winner, while completely neglecting to mention the defensive and offensive steps taken by the loser.

The final chapters of the book address the recent problems of the unfortunate Israeli disengagement from Gaza, which far from calming tempers has on the contrary  inflamed them, brought Hamas to power, and occasioned daily bombing and shelling of Israel. Instead of seeing wrongs in these unprovoked attacks on innocent civilians, the author elects to criticize Israel’s demographic fears and its resulting opposition to Palestinian claims to the so-called “right of return.” France, Germany, The Netherlands and Britain have also begun to fear what Muslim immigration on their soil might do to their culture and demographic composition. This is natural for Israelis as well, with the exception of Pappe, whose eagerness to turn Israel into an Arab-majority state, where Jewish identity will vanish, may render his own chances to come home impossible, — if ever his wishes come true.

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RAPHAEL ISRAELI is a Fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, and a professor of Islamic, Middle Eastern, and Chinese Studies and a Senior Fellow at the Harry Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.