The '48 Nakba & The Zionist Quest for its Completion
Between The Lines
October 2002 Issue
Dr. Ilan Pappe is a Profesor of History at Haifa University. This article is based upon the transcript of a lecture presented by Dr. Pappe to the Right To Return Coalition - Al Awda UK, held at the School for Oriental and African Studies in London Monday 16th September 2002. It is hereby published after receiving Dr. Pappe's consent and editorial remarks.
I have come here to present the comprehensive story of the history of the expulsion and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians in 1948 and its relevance to the present and future agenda to peace in Palestine.
For Israelis, 1948 is a year in which two things happened which contradict each other: On the one hand, it was the climax of Jewish aspirations to have a state or to fulfill a long dream of returning to a homeland after what they regarded as 2000 years of exile. In other words, it was considered a miraculous event that only positive adjectives could be attached to, and that you could only talk about and remember as a very elated kind of event. On the other hand, it was the worst chapter in Jewish history. Jews did in 1948 in Palestine what Jews had not done anywhere for 2000 years prior. The most evil and most glorious moment converged into one. What Israeli collective memory did was to erase one side of the story in order to co-exist or to live with only the glorious chapter. It was a mechanism for solving an impossible tension between two collective memories.
Because so many of the people who live in Israel lived through 1948, this is not a distant memory. It is not the genocide of the Native Americans in the United States. People know exactly what they did, and they know what others did. Yet they still succeed in erasing it totally from their own memory while struggling rigorously against anyone trying to present the other, unpleasant, story of 1948, in and outside Israel. If you look at Israeli textbooks, curricula, media, and political discourse you see how this chapter in Jewish history - the chapter of expulsion, colonization, massacres, rape, and the burning of villages - is totally absent. It is not there. It is replaced by a chapter of heroism, glorious campaigns and amazing stories of moral courage and superiority unheard of in any other histories of people's liberation in the 20th century. So whenever I speak of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948, we must remember that not just the very terms of "ethnic cleansing" and "expulsion" are totally alien to the community and society from which I come and from where I grew up; the very history of that chapter is either distorted in the recollection of people, or totally absent.
Zionist Leaders' Strategy:
Settlement and Expulsion
Now, when you start reading the diaries of the leaders of Zionism, and researching their ideologies and ideological trends since the movement's conception in the late 19th century, you see that from the very beginning there had been the realization that the aspiration for a Jewish state in Palestine contradicts the fact that an indigenous people had been living on the land of Palestine for centuries and that their aspirations contradicted the Zionist schema for the country and its people. The presence of a local society and culture had been known to the founding fathers of Zionism even before the first settlers set foot on the land.
Two means were used in order to change the reality in Palestine, and impose the Zionist interpretation on the local reality: the dispossession of the indigenous population from the land and its re-populating with newcomers - i.e. settlement and expulsion. The colonization effort was pushed forward by a movement that had not yet won regional or international legitimacy and therefore had to buy land, and create enclaves within the indigenous population. The British Empire was very helpful in bringing this scheme into reality. Yet from the very beginning of Zionist strategy, the leaders of Zionism knew that settlement is a very long and measured process, which may not be sufficient if you want to revolutionize the reality on the ground and impose your own interpretation. For that, you needed something more powerful. David Ben-Gurion, the leader of the Jewish community in the 1930s and later the first Prime Minister of Israel, mentioned more than once, that for that [imposing your interpretation on the ground] you need what he called "revolutionary conditions". He meant a situation of war - a situation of change of government, a twilight zone between an old era and the beginning of a new one. It is not surprising to read in the Israeli press today that Ariel Sharon thinks that he is the new Ben Gurion who is about to lead his people into yet another revolutionary moment - the war with Iraq - in which expulsion, and not a political settlement, can be used to further, indeed, to complete the process of de-Arabizing Palestine and Judaizing it, which had begun in 1882.
Towards the end of the British Mandate, there was a need to make these more theoretical and abstract ideas about expulsion into a concrete plan. I have been writing about 1948 since 1980, and for much of that time have been concerned with the question of whether there had or hadn't been a Zionist master plan to expel the Palestinians in 1948. Then I realized, (largely as a result of what I have learned in the last two years), that this was not the right track: neither for academic research nor from more popular ideological research of what has happened in the past. Far more important for ethnic cleansing is the formulation of an ideological community, in which every member, whether a newcomer or a veteran, knows only too well that they have to contribute to a recognized formula: the only way to fulfill the dream of Zionism is to empty the land of its indigenous population.
Mass Ideological Indoctrination
Behind '48 Nakba
Master plans are not the most important component in preparing yourself for that time of a revolutionary juncture or for the contingency plans of how to practically make the idea of expulsion a reality. You need something else: you need an atmosphere, you need people who are indoctrinated, you need commanders in every link of the chain of command who would know what to do even if they don't have explicit orders when the time comes. Most of the preparations before the '48 War were less about a master plan (although I do think there was one). The commanders were busy compiling intelligence files for each Palestinian village for the use of Jewish commanders on all levels, so they would know how wealthy and how important each particular village was as a military unit etc. Armed with such intelligence, they were also aware of what was expected from them by the man who stood at the top of the Jewish pyramid in Palestine, David Ben Gurion and his colleagues. These leaders wanted only to know how each operation contributed to the Judaization of Palestine, and they made it perfectly clear that they did not care how it was done. The expulsion plan worked very smoothly exactly because there was no need for a systematic chain of command that had to check whether a master plan was fully implemented. Anyone who has done any research on ethnic cleansing operations in the second half of the 20th century knows that this is exactly how ethnic cleansing is achieved: by creating the kind of education and indoctrination systems that ensures that every soldier and every commander, and everyone with his individual responsibility, knows exactly what to do when they enter a village, even if they haven't received any specific orders to expel its inhabitants.
Just recently, as a result of reading testimonies not only of Palestinians but also of Israeli soldiers, it became clear to me that the master plan, although significant in itself, pales in comparison to the whole machinery of indoctrination of a community. In 1948, the Yishuv's [the pre-'48 Zionist community] population was a little more than half a million, and before 1948 was even less. Those who had an active role in the military aspects of their community knew precisely what to do when the moment came and not one moment too soon.
But it should be remembered that the plan was successful not only because of the ideological indoctrination. It was done under the eyes of the UN, which had been committed ever since its General Assembly adopted Resolution 181 to the safety and welfare of those 'cleansed'. The UN was obliged to protect the life of the Palestinian people who were supposed to live in the areas allocated to the Jewish State (they were meant to make up almost half of the population of the prospective state). Out of 900,000 Palestinians living both in these areas and additional areas occupied by Israel from the designated Arab states, only 100,000 remained. Within a very short period during the time in which the UN was already responsible for Palestine, a massive expulsion operation took place within a very short period of time.
We have yet to be told the most horrific stories of 1948, although so many of us have been working as professional historians on that. We haven't talked about the rape. We haven't talked about the more than 30 or 40 massacres which popular historiography mentions. We haven't yet decided how to define the systematic killing of several individuals that took place in each and every village in order to create the panic that should produce the exodus. Is this a massacre or not when it is systematically repeated in every village? It is quite possible that some chapters will never be revealed, and many of them do not depend on archives, but rather on the memory of people whom we are loosing each day as vital witnesses. There were not specific orders written, only an atmosphere that has to be reconstructed. A glimpse into that atmosphere can be found on the bookshelves of almost every house in Israel - in the official books that glorify the Israeli army in its activity in 1948. If you know how to read them, you can see how the Palestinians were de-humanized to such a degree that you could rely on the troops, and that they would know what to do.
Israeli and Palestinian Leaders
Accept the American Game:
Shrinking Palestine Physically & Morally
Noam Chomsky was correct in his analysis that we in Palestine/ Israel and the Middle East as a whole were eagerly playing the American game ever since they decided to take an active role in the peace process, beginning in 1969 with the Rogers Plan, and then with the Kissinger initiatives. Ever since then, the peace agenda has been an American game. The Americans invented the concept of the peace process, whereby the process is far more important than peace. America has contradictory interests in the Middle East, which include protecting certain regimes in the area that preserve American interests (therefore entailing paying lip service to the Palestinian cause) while also has a commitment to Israel. In order not to find itself facing these two contradictory agendas, it is best to have an ongoing process which is not war and not peace but something which you can describe as a genuine American effort to reconcile between the two sides - and God forbid if this reconciliation works.
We were playing this game not only because the Americans invented it, but also because the replacement of peace with a "peace process" became the main strategy of the Israeli peace camp. When the peace camp of the stronger party in the local balance of power accepts this interpretation then the world at large follows suit.
Such a process, which can and should go on forever, coached by the only superpower and supported by the peace camp of the stronger party in the conflict, is presented as peace. One of the best ways of safeguarding the process from being successful is to evade all the outstanding issues at the heart of the problem. In such a way it was possible to erase the events of 1948 from the peace agenda and focus on what happened in 1967. The outstanding issue became the territories Israel occupied in the 1967 war. The concept of "territories for peace" was invented simultaneously in Tel Aviv, London, Paris and New York for United Nations Resolution 242. It presents a very concrete variable, in fact about 20% of Palestine, while wiping out the remainder 80% from the formula and juxtaposes it against "peace", which is in fact the never-ending peace process. A process that was not meant to bring a solution, let alone reconciliation. In return for a peace process, the Palestinians would be allowed to talk about and maybe gradually build something of a political entity on 20% of Palestine.
In 1988 [after the PNC accepted UN 242 in Algiers] and 1993 [at the Oslo Accords] even the Palestinian leadership joined this game. No wonder then that after Oslo, the American policy makers felt that they could round up the whole story. They had Palestinian and Israeli leaderships that accepted the name of the American game. This was the beginning of the process, which culminated with the "the most generous Israeli offer ever made about peace" in the Camp David summit in the summer of 2000. Had this process been successful, history would have witnessed not only the expulsion of the Palestinians from their homeland in 1948 but the eradication of the refugees, as well as of the Palestinian minority in Israel, and maybe even Palestine, from our collective memory.
It was a process of elimination that succeeded to a certain extent, were it not for the second uprising. I wonder what would have happened had the second Intifada not broken out. If the Palestinian leadership continued to partake in the ploy to shrink Palestine, physically and morally, it would have succeeded. The second Intifada was trying to stop this. Whether or not it will succeed, we do not know.
Agenda for Peace Activists
in the Shadow of Transfer Scheme
The problem for us as peace activists, is that any coordinated pressure on Israel to stop its plans, can in an absurd way lead the Israelis to accelerate their plans for wiping out Palestine, namely to feel that the revolutionary circumstances have arrived. This is my greatest fear for the second Intifada. I fully support it and regard it as a popular movement determined to stop a peace process which would have destroyed Palestine once and for all. The uprising, and certainly on top of it the coming war against Iraq, have produced in the minds of Israelis - of all walks of life not only within the circles of the Right-wing camp - the idea that "we have reached yet another fortuitous juncture in history where revolutionary conditions have developed for solving the Palestine question once and for all." You can see this new assertion talked about in Israel: the discourse of transfer and expulsion which had been employed by the extreme Right, is now the bon ton of the center. Established academics talk and write about it, politicians in the center preach it, and army officers are only too happy to hint in interviews that indeed should a war against Iraq begin, transfer should be on the agenda.
This brings me to chart what I think are three agendas of peace, for anyone involved in supporting peacemaking in Israel and Palestine, otherwise we may miss the train, so to speak.
The first agenda is the most urgent one: we must all take the danger of a recurrence of the 1948 ethnic cleansing very seriously. This is not just paranoia when I directly - not indirectly - link the war against Iraq with the possibility of another Nakba.
Take it seriously, believe me. There is a serious Israeli conceptualization of the situation in which Israeli leaders say to themselves, "we have a carte blanche from the Americans. The Americans will not only allow us to cleanse Palestine once and for all, they even will help create the window of opportunity for implementing our scheme. We will be condemned by the world, but this will be short-lived and eventually forgotten. This is a rare opportunity to 'solve' the problem."
The second agenda is the immediate one, and that is ending the occupation. We should be very careful in adopting the American, the Israeli Peace Now, and I'm sorry to say, the Palestinian Authority discourse about a two-state solution. Because the two-state solution nowadays is not the end of the occupation but continuing it in a different way. It is meant to be the end of the conflict with no solution to the refugee problem and the complete abandonment of the Palestinian minority in Israel. Anybody who has not learned this after the Oslo Accords has a problem of understanding and interpreting reality. We have to make sure that the idea of peace is not hijacked by people who are seeking indirect ways of continuing the present situation in Palestine. This is not easy because the western media has already adopted within its main vocabulary that anyone who wants to present himself as a peacemaker or as a supporter of peace, must talk about a two-state solution.
Only after the occupation ends can we talk about what it entails. Then it is possible to discuss the political structure best needed to prevent a reoccupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. But it should be clear that the political structure needed to end the conflict is a different one. It has to be one that enables us to end refugeehood and the apartheid policies against the Palestinians inside Israel. We have to be sure not to get caught in the same cul de sac that Yassir Arafat found himself in Camp David when he was asked to equate the end of occupation (when it wasn't even the end of occupation) with the end of the conflict.
Finally, and this is our third agenda, we have to keep on thinking about how to devise concrete plans for making the Right of Return feasible and for making possible the end of discrimination against Palestinians in Israel. These are the two pillars of a comprehensive settlement and they have to be specified. I think it is quite clear that we haven't done that job yet: we are still stuck with slogans of the 1960's, of a secular democratic state. These slogans have to be updated according to the reality of 2002. What was meant in the 1960's by a secular democratic state is a possible vision for the distant future. Our focus on the urgent and immediate agenda should not absolve us from long-term strategies. What people need to hear from us are concrete plans, even if they sound utopian given the situation on the ground. This is a delicate enterprise which entails not only creating a political culture and structure that would rectify past evils, and prevent another catastrophe, but also one which would not inflict another evil, or replace the past evil with a new one. We are not calling for the expulsion of the Jews. We do want the Right of Return. We do want equal rights for the Palestinian citizens.
I think many of us who think in such a long-term span would like to see one state or a political structure which has one state in it. But you cannot disseminate these ideas by just giving highlights, nuggets or slogans. There needs to be a very serious and detailed presentation of such a solution, to convince people of its feasibility.
Finally I want to come back to where I started. In the collective Israeli memory there are two 1948s: one is totally erased, and one is totally glorified. But there is a young generation in Israel - and I have ample opportunities to meet with young audiences - who may prove to have a potential to look differently at the reality in the future. The fact that you have generations of young people who are basically willing to listen to universal principles, provides the opportunity to break the mirror and show them what really happened in 1948, and what is going on in 2002. I think we shall eventually find partners, even to our wildest dreams, on how a solution should look like.
The problem is of course, that while we do this - educate, disseminate information etc. - the government of Israel is preparing a very swift and bloody operation. If it succeeds, even our best dreams and energies would be wasted.