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65th anniversary of the Nakba: Ethnic cleansing and the birth of Israel
20 May 2013. A World to Win News Service. 15 May is Nakba Day, marking the Zionist expulsion and forced exodus of many hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to create a Jewish state in 1948. Every year on this day, Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank, Gaza and the countries where they have been driven into exile hold protests and other activities to express their determination to see their people return to their historic homeland.
This year, according to news reports, about ten thousand people took part in demonstrations in Gaza, the West Bank and Israel itself, often waving keys to what were once their family homes. Israeli police on horseback attacked a gathering in East Jerusalem, and soldiers forcibly dispersed protests in Hebron and several other West Bank towns and villages. One of the fiercest clashes took place in front of Ofer, a military prison for Palestinians near the town of Ramallah, where dozens of people were injured and arrested. This year’s Nakba celebrates 65 years of Palestinian resistance in the face of violent repression, wide-scale imprisonment and complex and difficult political conditions.
On this occasion we are reprinting the following article from the 10 December 2007 AWTWNS. Population figures have changed since then; today there are approximately 1.5 million Palestinians in Israel, 3.8 in the West Bank, and 1.7 in Gaza, according to the Palestinian Youth Movement, and millions more in the global Palestinian diaspora. The continuing expansion of Israeli settlements on the West Bank and the “Judaization” of Jerusalem are further expanding the spaces reserved exclusively for Jews and strategically fragmenting the remaining Palestinian areas.
The author of the book discussed in this article, Ilan Pappe, was driven out of Israel in 2008. (For details, see Guardian, 20 January 2009.) The Winter 2013 issue of The Jerusalem Quarterly has a new study of the village files, aerial photos and maps the Zionists made in 1940-48 as they drew up detailed plans for the mass expulsion of the Palestinians.
Palestinians call what happened to them beginning in 1947 the Nakba – Arabic for catastrophe. It was perpetrated by Zionist leaders looking to form the state of Israel on Palestinian land without the Palestinians.
During the Nakba about the half the Palestinian population were brutally forced from their land, villages and homes, fleeing with only the possessions they could carry. Many were raped, tortured and killed. [Estimates of the exodus vary; the UN Conciliation Commission Report of 1949 says 726,000 people were driven out.] To ensure that there would be nothing for the Palestinians to return to, their villages and even many olive and orange trees were so well razed that few visible remnants remain. When the Nakba ended, there had been 31 documented massacres and probably others. Some 531 villages and 11 urban neighbourhoods were emptied of their inhabitants.
Former Arabic village and road names were Hebrewized. Ancient mosques and Christian churches were destroyed. Theme parks, pine forests (trees not native to the region) and Israeli settlements sit atop many of the old Palestinian villages. All this was to wipe out any physical evidence that the land belonged to Palestinians and give finality to the Nakba.
How many times have you had a discussion about the plight of the Palestinians with supporters of the existence of the Israeli state and met the argument that the problem arose from Palestinian intolerance of Jewish settlers? How many people know – or admit – that from the beginning Zionism had planned to permanently expel the Palestinian people from their land? In many Western countries, Nakba denial is as obligatory as Holocaust denial is condemned. How did this happen?
The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, by Israeli historian and senior lecturer at Haifa University Ilan Pappe, explores the period of the Nakba (One World Publisher, Oxford, 2006). The premise is that the Nakba was nothing less than an act of ethnic cleansing, normally regarded by international law as a crime against humanity. To support this theory, the author outlines various definitions from different current sources, including “an ethnically mixed area being turned into a pure ethnic space.” He shows how the slaughter and/or forced expulsion of the Armenians in Turkey, the Tutsis in Rwanda and the Croatians and Bosnians in former Yugoslavia is akin to what the Zionists did to the Palestinians on a massive scale in 1948 and are still doing today. Pappe also draws a connection between ethnic cleansing and colonialism as it occurred in North and South America as well as Africa and Australia.
His research is based on primary sources: newly released material (1990s) from the Israeli military archives, David Ben-Gurion’s diary where summaries of many of his meetings are recorded, the rereading of the older archival material through the prism of the ethnic cleansing paradigm and extensive use of Palestinian oral history archives.
Pappe provides a brief historical background leading up to the Nakba and a few chapters at the end of the book about the situation today for Palestinians. The following is a very sketchy timeline of events leading up to the Nakba.
The first Zionist settlements began in 1878, when Palestine, like much of the Middle East, was a part of the Ottoman Empire. In 1917, with the end of WWI and the defeat of the Ottomans, the British army marched into Palestine and took over. Later that same year, the British Lord Balfour issued the Balfour Declaration, which promised a “national home” for the Jews on Palestinian land even though by most accounts, Jews constituted at most only 8 percent of the population and even less according to some estimates. The League of Nations legalized the British occupation by giving it a mandate to run Palestine. In 1938 major fighting between Jews and Palestinians broke out. The bombs of the Zionist military organization Irgun killed 119 Palestinians; Palestinian bombs killed eight Jews. In 1947 Britain told the newly formed United Nations that it would withdraw from Palestine. In November the UN approved the plan to divide Palestine into two states. By December 1947, the Zionists began mass expulsions of Palestinians. When the British pulled out in May 1948, the Zionists declared independence. The Nakba continued into the early months of 1949.
Pappe’s book reveals how meticulously the Zionist movement planned, executed, lied about, and then denied their takeover of Palestinian land and the removal (through force and terror) of its population. He presents Israeli policies against the Palestinian minority inside Israel as well as in the West Bank and Gaza in their proper historical framework, setting the record straight on truths that conceptualize the situation faced by Palestinians today. Pappe only briefly touches on the role of Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement in the late 1800s, to show how deeply rooted the concept of “transfer” of the indigenous population was, how the “demographic problem” as viewed by most Israelis today is a continuation of the original Zionist exclusionist view. A map from 1919 clearly illustrates Zionist intentions to grab all of Palestine. The Herzl ideologues stated that “strangers” lived in their biblical land and by stranger they meant everyone who was not Jewish, although most of Palestine’s Jews had left after the Roman period. And even today, a recent poll indicated that 68 percent of Israeli Jews want Palestinian citizens of Israel to be “transferred.”
Much of the book’s exposure concerns David Ben-Gurion, one of the masterminds and leading overseers of the Zionist project and the ethnic cleansing that implemented it. From the mid-1920s, Ben-Gurion functioned as the unofficial defence minister (or minister of war) of the not-yet officially formed state and later became its founding prime minister. He worked on an international level as well as locally organizing other Zionists around his methods and goals. It was in his home that ethnic cleansing was first discussed with a combination of security figures and “Arab affairs” specialists (Jews who grew up in the region and could speak Arabic) who would advise future governments of Israel (Pappe calls it the Consultancy). His view toward achieving a Zionist state was ambitious and strategic. He thought it could only be won by force, but that the Zionists had to wait for the opportune historical moment to be able to deal “militarily” (as Ben-Gurion put it) with the demographic reality on the ground: the presence of a non-Jewish native majority population.
When in 1937 the British offered the Jewish community a future state (on a much smaller percentage of land than the UN was to give it in 1948), he accepted that as a good beginning in that it formalized the idea. He had far more ambitious plans. In 1942 Ben-Gurion publicly stated the Zionist claim for all of Palestine, but later came to believe that this was not realistic and that 80 percent would be sufficient for a viable Israeli state.
The book talks about one important strategic project guided by Ben-Gurion – the “village project” of mapping all of Palestine. Through the use of aerial photography, details of every Palestinian village were recorded: its access routes, quality of land, water springs, main sources of income, socio-political composition, religious affiliations, names of its mukhtars (traditional village heads), relationship with other villages, the age of individual men and an index of “hostility” toward the Zionist project measured by involvement in the 1938 revolt against the British policy of allowing increased immigration of Jews into Palestine (including those who may have killed Jews).
Those involved in the village mapping understood that this growing database was not a mere academic geography exercise. One person who went on one of these data collection operations in 1940 recalled many years later: “We had to study the basic structure of the Arab village. This means the structure and how best to attack it… how best to approach the village from above or enter it from below. We had to train our ‘Arabists’ (the Orientalists who operated a network of collaborators) how best to work with informants.”
The book describes another preoccupation of Ben-Gurion and the Consultancy – the “demographic balance” between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. Whenever there was a majority of Palestinians living in an area it was considered a disaster. The public policy that was adopted was to promote widespread Jewish immigration. But the Jews who were moving to Palestine since the 1920s preferred living in the more urban areas which were inhabited by Jews and Palestinians in equal number, whereas the countryside was overwhelmingly inhabited and cultivated by Palestinians. The Zionists understood that immigration would not counterbalance the Palestinian majority and use of other means would be necessary. Already in 1937 Ben-Gurion told his cabal that the “‘reality’ of a Palestinian majority would compel the Jewish settlers to use force to bring about the ‘dream’ – a purely Jewish Palestine.” “We have to face this new reality with all its severity and distinctness. Such a demographic balance questions our ability to maintain Jewish sovereignty.” “They can either be mass arrested or expelled; it is better to expel them.”
When the British decided to leave in 1947 the Palestine question was transferred to the UN, which, like the British, also accepted the Zionist claims on Palestine and that partition of Palestine was the best way to solve the issue. Even if you accepted the Zionist logic, a partition according to relative population would have allowed less than 10 percent of the land for a Jewish state. But after considerable negotiations, the UN Partition Resolution 181 of November 1947 allotted the Zionists 56 percent of Palestine. While Jerusalem, because of its religious significance to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, was kept as an international city, much of the most fertile land was included in the Zionist portion.
Although disappointed again, Ben-Gurion appreciated the international recognition of the Jewish state while ignoring the part which stipulated how much and which territory. He declared that Israel’s borders “will be determined by force and not by the partition resolution.” Ben-Gurion skilfully sidestepped what little there was of the worldwide opposition to their schemes. While the Zionists publicly proclaimed to uphold the Resolution, inside the country they began to implement their own plans. This ignoring of agreements “before the ink is even dry” became characteristic of subsequent negotiations Israel engaged in.
Pappe relates how Arab leaders opposed the partition of Palestine and boycotted these UN negotiations. They refused to participate on the grounds that giving their land to a settler community (by then one third of the population, who owned only six percent of the land and had long proclaimed that they wanted to de-Arabize Palestine) was illegal and unjust. Resolution 181 created tremendous anxiety for the Palestinians. They sensed the impending showdown with the Zionists. The slaughter began in December 1947, even before the British left Palestine.
Pappe details the combination of meticulous planning as well as allowing “unauthorized” initiative to the more terrorist military groups, like the Irgun, Stern gang and Palmach (special commando units that pioneered the building of Jewish settlements). With a group of military and civilian people, including well-known figures like Moshe Dayan (a military leader who was army chief during the 1956 Suez crisis and defence minister during the Six Day War in 1967) and Yitzhak Rabin (a general and two-term prime minister, assassinated in 1995), Ben-Gurion established and supervised plans to prepare the military forces of the Jewish community for an offensive against the Palestinians.
Plan C (a revised version of Plans A and B) spelled out the actions that would be taken: killing Palestinian political leadership and those who financially supported them, killing Palestinians who acted against Jews, killing officers and officials, attacking villages that seemed more militant and might resist future attacks by the Israeli army, and damaging Palestinian sources of livelihood.
Then Plan Dalet (or Plan D) was drawn up, the blueprint for the systematic and total expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland. Plan D described operations in the following way: “destroying villages (by setting fire to them, by blowing them up, and by planting mines in their debris) and especially those population centres which are difficult to control in a constant manner; or by mounting combined control operations according to the following guidelines: encirclement of the villages; conducting a search inside them. In case of resistance, the armed forces must be wiped out and the population expelled outside the borders of the state.”
In the course of carrying out Plan D the Zionist leaders were not so concerned with resistance on the part of the Palestinians or other Arabs who might come to their defence, as opposition from the Arab states was half-hearted and their soldiers poorly trained and equipped. Publicly the Zionist leaders railed about the possibility of a “second Holocaust”, this time at the hands of the Arabs, but privately they were fully aware that the war rhetoric of the Arab states was not matched by serious preparation on the ground. Often irresolute army leaders from the Arab states were ignored by some Arab soldiers who took initiative and fought valiantly to defend the Palestinians. The Zionist leadership’s main fear was the British army. But while it was still in Palestine, the British army rarely intervened against the massacres, even when beseeched to do so by the local Arab population.
Expulsions began by December 1947, in villages and larger towns. The following is a condensed description from Pappe’s book of what happened in Haifa under British eyes.
The morning after the UN resolution, the Hagana (the main military group that would become the Israeli army) and the Irgun (an early split from the Hagana, led by future prime minister Menachem Begin, which also later became part of the army) unleashed a campaign of terror on the 75,000 Palestinian residents of Haifa. Jewish settlers who had come in the 1920s and lived in the hills around the city took part in these attacks alongside Zionist military units.
Various tactics were used. Frequently artillery shells and sniper’s bullets rained down on the Palestinian population. Oil mixed with fuel was poured down the roads and ignited. Barrels full of explosives were rolled down into the Palestinian areas. When panic-stricken Palestinians came out to put out the fires they were sprayed with machine-gun fire. Jews who passed as Palestinians brought cars stuffed with explosives to be repaired at Palestinian garages and the cars were detonated.
In a refinery plant in Haifa, Jews and Arabs worked shoulder to shoulder and had a long history of solidarity in their fight for better labour conditions against their British employers. The Irgun, which specialized in bomb throwing into Arab crowds, did so at this refinery. Palestinian workers reacted by killing 39 Jewish workers, one of the worst and also one of the last retaliatory skirmishes in that period. Later Hagana units went into one of Haifa’s Arab neighborhoods, Wadi Rushmiyya, expelled people and blew up their houses. The British army looked the other way while these atrocities were being committed. Two weeks later the Palmach went into the Hawassa neighborhood of Haifa, where around 5,000 of the poorest Arabs lived in dismal conditions. Huts and the local school were blown up, causing the people to flee. Pappe regards this as the official beginning of the ethnic cleansing operation in urban Palestine.
By March 1948, Ben-Gurion commented to the Jewish Agency Executive, “I believe the majority of the Palestinian masses accept the partition as a fait accompli and do not believe it is possible to overcome or reject it… The decisive majority of them do not want to fight us.”
The armies of the Arab countries were no match for the well-equipped Zionist military clandestine units, which had received weapons from Britain, the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. Arab irregulars ambushed Israeli convoys but refrained from attacking the settlements. The Consultancy decided that ruthless retaliation was not sufficient and they needed to change to more drastic actions.
Ben-Gurion used the Arab world’s attempts to rescue the Palestinians to whip up a fear factor among the Jewish community that he carefully nourished to the extent that it overcame any opposition these tactics would engender. The “security” of the Jewish state (then as it is still today) became the overriding fear that allowed many Israelis as well as people outside the country to turn a blind eye to what the Zionist leadership was doing, what their plan constituted.
Until March 1948, the Zionist leadership still portrayed their activities as retaliation to hostile Arab actions. Then, two months before the British were to leave, they openly declared that they would take over the land and expel the indigenous population by force. When the British left in May, the Zionists declared their state. They were officially recognized by the U.S. and the USSR. Ruthless expulsion went into high gear and the word retaliation was no longer used to describe what the Israeli military forces were doing. Ben-Gurion said, “Every attack has to end with occupation, destruction and expulsion.” There was no longer any need to distinguish between the “innocent” and the “guilty”. Pre-emptive strikes and collateral damage became acceptable and necessary.
On a hill to the west of Jerusalem lay the town of Deir Yassin. The massacre there is well known throughout the world but bears mentioning here as it reflected the systematic nature of Plan D as applied to hundreds of villages throughout Palestine. Pappe describes how on 9 April 1948, Jewish soldiers burst into the village and sprayed the houses with machine-gun fire, killing many. “The remaining villagers were then gathered in one place and murdered in cold-bold, their bodies abused while a number of women were raped and then killed.
“Fahim Zaydan, who was twelve years old at the time, recalled how he saw his family murdered in front of his eyes: ‘They took us out one after the other; shot an old man and when one of his daughters cried, she was shot too. Then they called my brother Muhammad, and shot him in front of us, and when my mother yelled, bending over him – carrying my little sister Hudra in her hands, still breastfeeding her – they shot her too.’
“Zaydan himself was shot, too, while standing in a row of children the Jewish soldiers had lined up against a wall, which they had then sprayed with bullets ‘just for the fun of it’, before they left. He was lucky to survive his wounds.”
When villages were entered, destroyed and the inhabitants rounded up, decisions were made about who would live and who would die. Intelligence officers on the ground aided the military officers in this decision. The intelligence officers with the help of local collaborators (hooded spies) would point out different people to the main intelligence officer.
Israel and the Palestinians today
As a result of the Nakba, there are now almost 4.5 million Palestinians dispersed throughout the world, in addition to the 1.4 million under Israeli military occupation in the West Bank and 1.3 million in Gaza, a formerly sparsely populated desert strip now full of crowded refugee camps and towns. About 1.5 million Palestinians continue to live in Israel itself as second-class citizens. The Jewish population of Israel numbers roughly 5.5 million. The Zionist state now comprises about 78 percent of historic Palestine, not counting the still-growing number of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. It has no parallel in the world – a state consciously built, since its inception, for one people, one culture, on religious grounds and with no real permanent borders.
Pappe’s argument that the Nakba was an act of ethnic cleansing is convincing. The human and physical geography of Palestine was transformed by the Zionist consciously punitive plan to wipe out Palestine’s history and culture and thus deny any future claim Palestinians could make to their land. Through the years since the Nakba, the killing machine that is the Israeli army has continued its dirty work. Pappe lists the following: Kfar Qassim in October 1956, Israeli troops massacred 49 villagers returning from their fields. Qibya in the 1950s, Samoa in the 1960s, the villages of Galilee in 1976, the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon in 1982, Kfar Qana in 1999, Wadi Ara in 2000 and the Jenin refugee camp in 2002. There has not been an end to Israel’s killing of Palestinians.
Pappe ends his book with the hope that Israelis will wake up from their distorted view of wanting retribution, shed racism and religious fanaticism, and wake up to the truth portrayed in this book. He thinks that not accepting the Palestinian right of return equals the continuing defence of the “white” apartheid-like enclave and upholding Fortress Israel. He says that Palestinians and Jews coexisted peacefully before the Nakba and even now many have strong social ties, which shows that the two peoples can live in harmony. He calls for the transformation of Israel into a secular and democratic state.
Pappe’s book does not concern itself with the central role that Israel has come to play as the bastion of American imperial interests in the Middle East. Without the military and political backing of the U.S. government and the unparalleled financial support that is central to Israeli society and its way of life ($3 billion a year in U.S. government aid, along with officially encouraged private funding), Israel would not be what it is today – if it even existed at all. Nonetheless, the book is well worth the read for its historical accuracy and as a vivid reminder of the tragedy that is the Nakba
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