The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, by Ilan Pappe

The borders of fact and myth

By Stephen Howe
Friday 24 November 2006 01:00

The war of 1948 created Israel and destroyed Palestinian Arab society. Argument over that destruction has never ceased - continuously, often directly, reshaped by contemporary political developments. Ilan Pappe is surely wrong to suggest in this important, provocative book that the Palestinians' fate has been "erased almost totally from the global public memory". Rather, some ways of seeing it have been blocked, for political reasons and with great, sometimes vindictive energy, in particular places. The kind of view that Pappe presents has been held or maybe even heard only by a very small minority, in Israel and the US.

The 1948 war had two main phases. First, it was mainly a civil war between irregular Arab and Jewish forces within Mandatory Palestine. Then it became an international conflict in which troops from five Arab states intervened. Israel was decisively victorious in both phases. During and after the conflict, most Arab inhabitants of the new Israeli state left their homes.

Ideas about 1948, among both Israelis and Palestinians, mingle historical investigation, popular and official "memory", political controversies and existential anxieties. For Palestinians, the events of 1948 have usually been called the nakba - translated as "disaster".

For the dominant Israeli self-understanding, both official and popular, 1948 was a tale of triumph. Yet victory was won at a high cost, with more than 6,000 dead. Increasingly, arguments emerged that that triumph had a high moral cost too. The dominant Israeli story saw the Palestinian flight as the fault of the Arabs themselves: it arose from a combination of orders to flee by their leaders, the cowardice and intransigence of those leaders, and panic among the peasant masses.

Younger Israeli historians - and, naturally, Palestinian ones too - have long since called all this into question. In the great majority of cases, they found, Palestinians became refugees because they fled actual or feared assault by Jewish armed forces, or because those forces deliberately expelled them during or after such attacks.

In a significant minority of cases, the capture and clearing of Palestinian villages was accompanied by atrocities: shootings of prisoners and civilians, widespread looting and some instances of rape. While the exodus was still in process, decisions were taken that the refugees would never be allowed to return.

These historians' semi-demolition of the official story was viewed by Israeli critics as undermining the foundations of the state. Pappe's new book, though, goes further. Far from the refugee crisis being an unplanned consequence of the war, he suggests, the war was the by-product of Israel's campaign of ethnic cleansing.

The latter was, in his view, far more completely pre-planned from the start than even the most critical historians had recognised. And atrocities were consciously integral to the whole process.

The successive, abortive peace processes since the 1990s have been based on undoing the consequences, not of 1948, but of 1967. The expected outcome among most key participants was the creation of a Palestinian state in at least most of the territories occupied by Israel in the latter year. Many Israelis and outsiders felt that to make the 1948 refugees and their descendants a part of the negotiations was to threaten, even destroy, any prospect of agreement.

Most Palestinians feel the opposite: the end of the conflict must be linked to acknowledgment of and recompense for what happened in 1948. Israeli recognition of past injustice must, some go on, imply support for the refugees' right of return.

Pappe has been among the most forthright advocates of this view. That conviction makes his book a slightly uneasy, if also often compelling, mixture of historical argument and politico-moral tract. His fervour also makes him rather less than generous in acknowledging others' work in the field.

Some commentators, most stridently the journalist John Pilger, seem to believe that Pappe's is the definitive account, the last word on 1948. It isn't: both his overall argument, and much detail, will undoubtedly be subject to sharp critique. And although some of that will be politically motivated, even malicious, some will be careful and honest. But if not the last word, this is a major intervention in an argument that will, and must, continue. There's no hope of a lasting Middle East peace while the ghosts of 1948 still walk.

Stephen Howe is professor of the history of colonialism at Bristol University; his books include 'Ireland and Empire' (OUP)

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