Not Just Collateral Damage

The Israeli historian Ilan Pappé takes a new look at the expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948. According to Pappé, the Palestinians' exodus was not an unfortunate side-effect of the war, but an act of ethnic cleansing planned long in advance. Martina Sabra reports on the book

​​By this time Germany has seen so many books on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that even the most politically committed sometimes feel their eyes glazing over.

However, despite the deluge of books, the topic has hardly been exhausted, as the recent book "The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine" by Ilan Pappé shows. Originally published in English in 2006, the Israeli historian's study is a milestone and a must for those interested in the Middle East, as Pappé sheds a whole new light on the expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948.

In Israel itself and in many western countries the 1948 war was for decades regarded exclusively as an act of heroic self-assertion. Morally speaking, the Zionists were right by definition.

Against the background of the Holocaust there could be no doubt as to the legitimacy of the Zionist project. And a Jewish soldier, according to a belief that is widespread even today, simply could not be "bad". Against this background, terrorist acts were spoken of as unavoidable or glorified as acts of liberation.

Reports of planned massacres of the Arab population or the systematic expulsion of the Palestinians were written off as anti-Semitic propaganda.

New historians bring a paradigm shift

The picture did not change until the beginning of the 1980s. With Benny Morris leading the way, the Jewish-Israeli "new historians" discovered proof of systematic expulsions and war crimes on the part of Zionist members of the military in Israeli military archives and other written sources.

From these written sources, Benny Morris also proved that the Zionist "founding fathers" conceived the dispossession and expulsion of the Palestinians long before the Holocaust, and that they were well aware that their project was dubious both morally and in terms of international law.

Palestinians on the flight (photo: &copy Verlag Zweitausendeins)
Pappé says, the exodus of the Palestinians was no mere collateral damage but an ethnic cleansing planned long before

​​Nonetheless, the view prevails that the 1948 exodus of the Palestinians was primarily collateral damage caused by the Israeli-Arab war. Ilan Pappé regards this stance as historically untenable.

With the aim of "completing the fragmentary historical picture" and "gaining a comprehensive understanding of the roots of the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict", the historian from Haifa calls for a paradigm shift in the analysis of the events of 1948.

No side effect of the war

According to Pappé, the Palestinians' exodus was not an unfortunate side-effect of the war, but an act of ethnic cleansing planned long in advance. As in any case of ethnic cleansing, whether in ex-Yugoslavia or elsewhere, ideological and socioeconomic factors played a crucial role in Palestine prior to the actual expulsion. Benny Morris outlined this intellectual and economic context in a recent publication.

By contrast, Pappé concentrates on the logistical and operative aspects of the expulsion. An important instrument was provided by the so-called "village dossiers", files in which the Jewish Agency and the Jewish National Fund had scrupulously documented all Arab villages and their inhabitants beginning from the 1930s onward.

As early as 1943 members of the Jewish intelligence service announced that the catalogue was complete. In 1948, Pappé claims, the dossiers were used to facilitate the evacuation of Palestinian villages and to nip all resistance in the bud – in part with target executions among Palestinian men.

Detailed description of the expulsion

Ilan Pappé provides a detailed description of the methods used by members of the Israeli military in Arab towns between 1947 and 1949, often following the pattern of the so-called "Plan Dalet": attack, taking of prisoners and in some cases the killing of men, expulsion of the remaining inhabitants, the plundering and subsequent destruction of the buildings and the laying of mines in the rubble to prevent a return. Subsequently the fleeing women and old people were often robbed of money and jewelry as well.

It made no difference whether or not a village had taken part in military actions. The goal was to create a majority Jewish population in British Palestine (and after the foundation of the state of Israel).

Pappés detailed portrayal gets under the reader's skin, often unbearably so. He also once again debunks the still-prevalent notion that Jewish soldiers did not commit rapes.

The diaries of high-ranking officers reveal that rapes seem to have occurred on a regular basis during Jewish attacks on Palestinians. In an especially egregious case a twelve-year-old girl was kidnapped, raped for days by more than 20 soldiers, and finally killed. This was one of the few cases in which the soldiers involved were later sentenced by an Israeli court – to a maximum of two years in jail. Many other cases came to light, but were never investigated.

Focus on the refugee issue

Critical colleagues such Benny Morris, who has now moved to the right-wing Zionist camp, accuse Pappé of relying too heavily on oral evidence from eyewitnesses in his depictions of events.

Such criticism seems misplaced, however; Pappé is a scrupulous scholar who is quite capable of weighing the reliability of his sources. The key assertions of his study are based on authorized written sources, be they documents from Israeli military archives or the personal notes of leading Israeli military officers and politicians.

The book closes with a reflection on the failed Oslo peace process and the situation following the Lebanon War in the summer of 2006. Pappé calls for an end to the denial of the Palestinians' tragedy. Pappé's book makes it clear that the question of the Palestinian refugees belongs at the center of any peace negotiations in the Middle East. It is pointless to shelve the issue.

Martina Sabra

© 2008

Translated from the German by Isabel Cole

Ilan Pappé: "The Ethnic Cleansing of the Palestine", Oneworld Publications, 2006, 336 pages, ISBN: 1-85168-467-0

Further reading:

Benny Morris: The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited. Cambridge Middle East Studies, Cambridge 2004.

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