By Ilan Pappe
The term Nakba has become, understandably, a sacred entry in the Palestinian national dictionary. It will remain probably the principal way in which the terrible events of 1948 will be commemorated and recollected in years to come. However, conceptually, this is a problematic term. Nakba means a catastrophe. Catastrophes usually have victims but no victimizers. This leaves aside questions of accountability and responsibility.
It is for this reason, among others, that it was easy for the cynical or genuine upholders of the so-called peace process in “the Palestine question” to ignore this monumental event. It also allowed those who are more attentive to the Palestinian plight to view the Nakba as a distant event, happening more or less at the time of the Second World War – an event that may be of interest to historians, but one which has very little relevance to the situation in Israel and Palestine today.
This is why I suggested in 2007 to employ the term of ethnic cleansing to describe both the events of 1948 and the Israeli policies ever since. The legal, academic and popular definitions of ethnic cleansing fit the developments in Palestine in 1948 very well. The planned and systematic dispossession of the Palestinians which ended in the destruction of half of Palestine’s towns and villages and the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians can only be described as ethnic cleansing.
But the term is not only important for understanding the particular events of that year properly, but it is also a concept that explains the Zionist thinking about the native population in Palestine before 1948 and the Israeli policies towards the Palestinians ever since.
From the very first encounter of both leaders and common members of the settler colonialist project of Zionism with the native Palestinians, they were regarded, at best, as an obstacle and, at worst, as aliens who usurped by force what belonged to the Jewish people. Liberal minded Zionists tolerated the presence of local Palestinians in small numbers, but even they subscribed to a deep conviction, planted into generations of Israeli Jews since 1948, that in order to thrive, and not just survive, having a future Jewish state over much of Palestine with no Palestinians in it, was the ideal scenario for the future.
The international silence in front of the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine conveyed a clear message to the newly born Jewish state. The Jewish State was not going to be judged like any other political outfit and the world would turn a blind eye and provide it with immunity for its criminal policies on the ground. It was Europe who led the way, understanding that it could be absolved from the terrible chapter in the history of its Jews by granting the Zionist movement carte blanche to de-Arabise Palestine.
These two developments – the Zionist conviction that success in Palestine depended on the ability to downsize the number of the Palestinians in a future Jewish state to a minimum and the international complicity in allowing this ambition to be attempted in 1948 – turned the ethnic cleansing ideology into the DNA of the future Israel.
The vision was of a Palestinian-less state, but the tactics of how to implement it changed with time. While the ideological movement, Zionism, was able under the particular circumstances produced by the abrupt British decision to leave Palestine, to implement a brutal operation of massive ethnic cleansing of the local Palestinian population, the next stages had to be more sophisticated.
A simple truth was realized by those responsible for strategic planning vis-à-vis the continued presence of Palestinians on the land: expelling people and not allowing them to move – by enclaving them – produced the same affect demographically. The undesired population was out of sight either beyond the state’s borders or within the state.
The ethnic cleansing of 1948 was incomplete. Inside the area that became Israel, a small minority of Palestinians remained. They stayed either because they lived in the north and south in the areas where exhausted Jewish forces arrived, unable to expel a population that was aware, more than those dispossessed in the early stage of the operations, of the real intention of the occupiers. Or they were spared by a local commander’s decision to let them stay or leave them for further decision after the war. Resistance (sumud) and fatigue of the army left a Palestinian minority inside Israel. Political agreements allowed Jordan to take over the West Bank and military considerations enabled Egypt to hold onto the Gaza Strip.
Brutal ethnic cleansing was still attempted between 1948 and 1956 and quite a considerable number of villages were still expelled in that period. But after 1956, this was replaced by the notion mentioned above that ethnic cleansing by other means could be achieved by imposing military rule on the Palestinian population where the main prohibition was the restriction of free movement into Jewish areas and informal, but very strict, prohibition from living there. This was accompanied by preventing the expansion of the living space of that community.
When the military rule imposed on the Palestinians in Israel came to an end in 1966, it was replaced by an apartheid system that prevented the spatial movement of the Palestinian community. At first it had great success, but it has proven to be less efficient in recent years. Not one new village or neighborhood was built for the community that represented 20 percent of the population while its agricultural and natural space was systematically Judaized in the north and the south of the state.
In the areas Israel occupied in 1967, ethnic cleansing by other means took similar forms. Immediately after the war, the Israeli cabinet seriously contemplated the repeat of the 1948 ethnic cleansing, but the idea was ruled out. It opted, instead, for colonization of the occupied territories. This strategy was used not only for the sake of changing the demographic balance, but mainly to create settlement belts that would enclave the Palestinian towns and villages in a way that would not allow expansion, strangulate them and encourage emigration. The army, as recently exposed by journalist Amira Hass, has created training grounds in the West Bank to empty it from the Palestinian population. Ariel Sharon found an original version of this more sophisticated ethnic cleansing by Ghettoizing the Gaza Strip in 2005.
Present day Israel is also ideologically willing to resort to brutal ethnic cleaning as could be seen from the Prawer plan in the Naqab (Negev) and the wish to ethnically cleanse the Arab population for old Acre (Akka). The peace process has provided an international umbrella for both the brutal and sophisticated ethnic cleansing. History teaches us that ethnic cleansing does not peter out because the perpetrators get tired or change their minds. Too many Israelis benefit from, and are involved in, this project.
Ethnic cleansing ends when it is completed or when it is stopped. Peace in Israel and Palestine means stopping the ethnic cleansing as a precondition for any reconciliation.
– Ilan Pappe is an Israeli historian and activist. He is a professor with the College of Social Sciences and International Studies at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, director of the university’s European Centre for Palestine Studies, and co-director of the Exeter Centre for Ethno-Political Studies. His books include “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine” and “A History of Modern Palestine: One Land, Two Peoples.” (This article was originally published in Middle East Eye – www.middleeasteye.net)