Book Review: A History of Modern Palestine

By Jim Miles

A History of Modern Palestine – Second Edition.  Ilan Pappe.  Cambridge University Press, N.Y. 2006.  361 p.

A traditional history is the one written by the ‘winners’, the elites that make up the winners, or those that serve them either through ignorance or through free will, or through the overbearing filter of the mass media that creates the whole mythology and belief system about their country’s actions and events.  It presents the story through the eyes of the generals (with maybe a hero or two thrown in for good measure), the politicians, the communiqués and agendas of the government (but not the backroom wheeling and dealing), and the government’s own propaganda that is often taken for gospel (somewhat literally in this ‘modern’ era).  It is about dates and negotiations that occur within the upper echelons between combatants, without revealing that they often having the same if not similar interests in maintaining some kind of status quo within their own societies.   What a traditional history does not do, except possibly for a brief sanitized anecdote that assuages the writers guilt by acknowledging the atrocities that are committed, is tell the story of the people, the workers, labourers, the farmers, the women and children, and the different stories that they bring to events shaped by the powers that be. 

The alternate histories, those that acknowledge the effects (or lack of) on the masses of people, those that put the negotiations into their correct perspective of those in power mainly jockeying for the salvation of their own privileged positions (not always, but always present, even if only as an undercurrent) are called revisionist or reductionist.  They bring a much more valuable analytical view at history, looking back not at the technical details of who won what battle where or who signed what agreement when, but looking back at the effects on the populations of the areas involved and how they are influenced by these decisions, and then how their reactions would eventually reach a point where the upper tier would have to pay attention to them.  More importantly, they assume a critical eye that does not accept at face value the societal values imposed through the media and government sources, but looks deeper into information to reveal contradictions, false promises, back-handed dealings, and personal biases and – in some cases – personal idiocy. 

In A History of Modern Palestine, Ilan Pappe brings the latter perspective to life, implicit in the very title as a history of modern Palestine rather than a history of Israel.  His attempt is to “take into account” the two national narratives, without necessarily accepting them as truth, but tries to see an “alternative narrative that recognizes similarities, criticizes overt falsifications, and expands the history of the region to the areas not covered.”  In doing so he admits, “mine is a subjective approach.”  There is no  surprise in the latter statement as it is true of all histories no matter how ‘factual’ they pretend to be, as the mere choice of facts will bias an argument one way or another. 

Without an exact replication of events, the facts will always present a bias, but by choosing from a broader range of information and looking at the “alternative narratives” a more accurate approximate representation of the truth can be made.  Pappe’s general view is highly sympathetic to the Palestinian people, recognizing the general trend of Zionist goals acting as a colonial and occupying force in Mandatory Palestine (itself “the façade of an independent state that was in fact a colony”). 

Within that framework several themes are clearly evident throughout the history of Palestine.  These include the over-riding objective of Jewish land occupation, the dual colonialism of Britain and the Zionists over the Palestinians, followed by that of the Israelis, and concomitant with that, the rise of American support for that colonialism and occupation.  Other patterns emerge, including the severe nature of Jewish retaliation for Palestinian guerrilla actions, as they grew with “ferocity and brutality…often out of all proportion.”  This has carried through into the recent Lebanon war and the ongoing displacement of Palestinians inside the prison-based Bantustans that the remaining Palestinian territory has become.  Militarism as a part of the national culture emerged in 1936, well before the Mandate ended, and negated any form of real negotiative stance except as a diversion to the real purpose of gaining more land. 

There are two aspects introduced in this narrative that do not appear in most others.  One is the ongoing conflict of values between the Ashkenazi Jews (generally those from Eastern Europe), the Shepharadi (an urban indigenous population, strictly religious), and later the Mizrachi Jews (the African Jewish immigrants, most significantly form Morocco).  A second part of the narrative that is not normally discussed is that of the Arab states and the Arab leaders and their support – or more strikingly, their lack of support – for the Palestinian cause. 

The Hashemite empire – now Jordan – was carved out of the same Mandatory Palestinian territory and worked at odds with the Palestinians both inside Israel and with those inside their own territory as refugees.  Pappe recognizes that the Palestinian “notables”, who had been complicit through ancient Ottoman land laws in selling large tracts of land to the Zionists, later “surrendered diplomacy to the Arab League” which amounted a policy of “brinkmanship between warlike rhetoric and secret negotiations aimed at postponing any international resolution.”  Jordan acted independently, secretly negotiating to “ensure the safe annexation of eastern Palestine to Jordan in return for limited participation by the Hashemite Legion in the overall Arab war effort.”  Only at the end of the 1948 war did the Arab politicians prepare a plan to save Palestine, but were “hardly sincere”, wishing mostly to “annex as much of [Palestine] as possible to the Arab countries” fighting the war.  Jordan’s tacit agreement with Israel meant that its “efficient British-led army…confined its activity to the area around Jerusalem” resulting in the West Bank being “fully annexed to Jordan.”

But it was land, and more land, that drove many of the other features of this narrative.  From early on, the Zionists bought as much land as they could, taking advantage of absentee landlords, ancient Ottoman land laws, and their desire to increase their personal capital.  Following on that is a history of displacement of the rural population from the urban areas to the villages as the agricultural lands used labour saving machinery.  Two pools of low cost labour were created, one on the farms, one in the villages and towns, both subject to exploitation by the increasing economic power of the Jewish settlers. 

War obviously created a huge return in land possession and parallel dispossession of the Palestinian people.  In 1948, 370 villages were “wiped out” that led to the “almost complete disappearance” of rural Palestine.  Terror, forced evacuations, murder, genocide, and the physical erasure of the villages were applied systematically, after which the Zionists moved in to occupy and rename them, the latter “as part of an attempt to prevent future land claim to the villages.”   The 1967 war gave the Israelis control of all the areas between the Jordan River and west to the Suez Canal, as well as the Golan Heights in Syria, the well-known material for the common narrative. 

The other narrative is the ongoing dispossession of the Palestinians under military rule with arbitrary laws, restricted movement, the creation of ongoing settlements throughout the Westbank, the arrests, harassment, torture of the people and the destruction of the infrastructure of their remnant society.  More recently, these methods operated under Sharon’s so called Peace Plan and later Bush’s Roadmap to Peace, neither of which provided anything authoritative as a basis to constructively work from, but provided a smokescreen for the ongoing dispossession of Palestinian land.

There is much more to this work than can be expressed here.  It is a concise work that covers its themes well, without getting lost in either ‘facts’ or political philosophy, nor does it spare anyone their errors.  It is finely crafted and delineates clearly the problems imposed upon the people of Palestine and the internal weaknesses of the Israeli state, propped up by its free market militarism (one of many parallels with the U.S.). While being a scholarly work, it remains down to earth and accessible for the reader, making it an important contribution to the knowledge base on the Middle East. 

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