Jim Miles: Israel/Palestine Question

By Jim Miles
Special to PalestineChronicle.com

The Israel/Palestine Question – Second Edition. Ed. Ilan Pappe. Routledge, London, 2007.

Ilan Pappe’s highly revised second edition of The Israel/Palestine Question offers the reader a very instructive read on changing historical perspectives about Israel/Palestine within one over-riding theme – land tenure and population control.

Apart from two chapters dealing with women’s issues within Palestinian culture, this main theme – as with most recent revisionist histories of the region – explores the various permutations on the methods and ideas on how to control the land and the indigenous population, its settlement patterns, the control of resources and people, and the expulsion or marginalization of the Palestinian population within Israel. In consideration of the upcoming ‘conference’ or ‘peace talks’ to be arranged by the Americans, and Condaleeza Rice’s ignorant warnings to the Israelis about not seizing land in East Jerusalem, this volume should be considered “required reading” for all American participants. One must ask Ms Rice, “What about the other millions of dunums of land already seized?” The past continues on.

As presented by Pappe, the purpose of the book is “to introduce an interdisciplinary methodology into the research as well as to inject a more sceptical view of the historical narratives written under the powerful influences of nationalist elites and ideologies.” History, sociology, and political science are interwoven into this perspective. For those not familiar with the histories of the Palestine/Israeli conflict, Pappe’s previous works, A History of Modern Palestine, and The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine [1] would be a good place to start, as the first section of this collection of essays is a difficult read without some background knowledge of the situation.

One of the first questions addressed is that of Palestinian national identity as located within the geography of the Ottoman Empire. The first essay analyzes the writings about ‘Palestine’ concentrating on a need to examine previously ignored basic issues at the people’s level (as Howard Zinn does with U.S. history) rather than through the official Ottoman records during the 1700s and 1800s. That of course obviates the “Orientalist” view (modernity versus decay/empty land rescued by Jews) and the Israeli apologetics of their own cultural history in the region. A more specific look is then taken at the Ottoman ‘sanjaks’ or district provinces, with the Jerusalem sanjak “as a separate entity from the other regions of Syria [being] of tremendous importance for the emergence of Palestine about fifty years later.” It helped “determine the character and future of Palestinian politics” as well as contributing “to the emergence of Palestinian nationalism as distinct from Syrian-Arab nationalism.” The essay is a political summary of events in the 19th Century that helped shape the ideas of a nation of Palestinians as compared to Palestine being just a political response to later Jewish immigration.

The next section examines the aspects of Jewish settlement patterns and political thought that resemble the idea of colonization rather than the popularized and politicized Jewish version of “self liberation” and “redemption”. Baruch Kimmerling (sociologist at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem) looks at Israel as an “immigrant-settler” society, who sees three stages of the colonization process. First is land ownership or acquisition, institutionalized through the Jewish National Fund in which land is removed from its “capitalist” ownership to a “nationalized” collective ownership. Following that is settlement of the land with allocation determining its Jewish collective nature. The final stage is coercion, initially meaning “armed defense” but after the 1948 war Israel “could impose sovereignty on all lands within its borders”, followed by its legitimation through a wide array of cultural components.

Part of the difficulty in reading this book also comes from its being a study of studies using strong academic language, particularly of a sociological perspective (an academic area I must admit I am not strong with) that is not at all accessible to the general public. An example, unintelligible to a lay reader, is a comment about Gershon Shafir’s interpretation of events: “Both functionalist and conflict sociology err in a teleological conception of the Second Aliya.” Much more clearly expressed is the topic for the next paragraph, “Settler-colonial societies are propelled by the need to acquire land and settle it,” a phrasing with much more solidity for the average reader.

While Kimmerling saw three stages of land acquisition, Shafir (another sociologist, University of California, San Diego) defines six stages. But the essential message is that the socialist ideology of the kibbutz was applied after the fact, as “the success of the collective settlement in Israel [does] not…attest to its attractiveness as an alternative social model, but rather to its function as a spearhead of the project of national colonization.” The collectivist view arose because of “the relatively developed social conditions in Palestine” and “the presence in Palestine of a native population which possessed the land” making it so that “Jewish settlement institutions could not rely on the workings of the market.” According to Shafir, the “critical step in Israeli state-building” came in 1905 with the realization/decision by the Jewish workers to exclude all “Palestinian workers from the new society in the making”, transforming the “Jewish workers into militant nationalists.”

In other terms, history is fully revised: there was a strong Palestinian presence on the land and an ‘apartheid’ arrangement would strengthen the Jewish presence and growing colonial control. Eventually, the need to acquire and hold land, and exclude or remove the indigenous population, led to the many idiosyncratic laws in place in modern Israel (marriage laws, housing and zoning laws, property ownership, rights of movement and transfers, military rule, and many others up to the ideological statements made about an exclusionary theocratic “Jewish state”). But that is looking too far ahead – the next section of the text examines “The New History of 1948.”

The middle section of Ilan Pappe’s anthology explores the issues surrounding the actions of 1948, placed in their overall historical context of the Zionist movement’s designs on the land. The contemporary mythic cultural view is that the Palestinians proved hostile to a reasonable UN mandated plan to share the country. Along with this rides the myth of an outnumbered overpowered Jewish population that near miraculously overcame tremendous odds to defeat the combined Arab armies that had attacked them. Finally, the third big myth is that the Palestinians left their towns and villages at the urgings of their own leaders, leaving them empty for Israeli occupation. The three essays discussing these myths deconstruct them to present a significantly different picture.

Walid Khalidi first looks at the historical amnesia concerning events before the partition, events that demonstrate that the nakba was not the origin of the Palestinian ‘problem’ but a major catastrophe that had been long building. Khalidi refers to the Basel Program at the First Zionist Congress in 1897, where the “hidden agenda” is “explicated with brutal frankness and in classical imperialist fashion.” Next chronologically he refers to the era of British rule in which “The leading Western democratic country suspended democracy in Palestine to facilitate, with bayonets, the laying down of the infrastructure of Zionist power.” Contained within that is the “desperate Palestinian national rebellion” against the British partition report (Peel Report, 1937) that resulted in the consequent destruction of all effective Palestinian political and military organizations.” Finally, he turns to the Zionist ideals as expressed by David Ben-Gurion who could only foresee a military relationship with the Palestinians, and as early as 1937 had drawn up “a plan for the military takeover of the entire country in anticipation of Britain’s withdrawal.”

Following from these initial events, conveniently ‘forgotten’ in the amnesia of history, Khalid further develops the actual historical data concerning Jewish terror against the British, the creation of war plans, the support of the U.S., the lack of legality of the UN 1947 partition plan (emphasizing that there is no “compromise” when one side is outmanned and outgunned and is up against the will of the U.S. and the U.K.) and its unequal distribution of fertile farming lands and access to water all in favour of the Zionists on a clear majority of Palestinian territory. The scene for the nakba was set well before the Israeli declaration of its independence.

A specific case history of the nakba is presented with Ilan Pappe’s analysis of the Tantura Case, an examination of a Jewish Defence massacre of Palestinian villagers. Two main ideas rise from the discussion. The first one is that the nakba “should be examined from within the paradigm of ethnic cleansing, rather than as part of military history,” as “Tantura stands out as a typical case in point of the reality of ethnic cleansing.” The second related point concerns the validity of oral history with the point being made that “Oral history…is extensively used in the Israeli historiography of the Holocaust, but is totally de-legitimated when attempted by Palestinian historians reconstructing the Nakba.” Pappe sees oral history “not as a substitute for archival material” but as a means for “filling gaps” (such as when ‘purifying’ an area is not so pure for some) further arguing correctly that “Oral history is indeed as authentic as the documented one.”

In the final essay in this section Avi Shlaim (Professor of International Relations, Oxford, dual Israeli-British citizenship, “widely regarded as one of the world’s leading authorities on the Israeli-Arab conflict.”[2]) discusses the historiographical record, its interpretation, and further, its evaluation (while people such as myself take it further towards advocacy). His bottom line is that “History…is the propaganda of the victors.” After presenting the idea that the ‘revisionist’ ideas are not really that new, he examines the main items concerning the “Debate About 1948”.

British policy accepted and supported the establishment of a Jewish state, but they “were not reconciled to…the emergence of a Palestinian state.” The Zionist view that Britain supported the Arabs and “deliberately instigated hostilities in Palestine…represents almost the exact opposite of the historical truth.”

The second myth of military balance is simply over-run with statistical information showing that the Yishuv had more and better trained personnel and were more technologically advanced, lacking only in pure firepower which they overcame by violating the UN arms embargo. A third myth is that of the refugee problem, of whether the refugees were pushed out or left voluntarily. Shlaim in my mind does not answer fully to this myth, settling on “a far higher degree of Israeli responsibility”; but as seen above, ethnic cleansing was part of the original Zionist plans, with Israeli plans to clean out the Arab population long in the works.

One of the more interesting myths is that of Arab solidarity and implacable hostility, fully challenged by the collusion of Israeli-Hashemite (Jordanian) politicians. While Israel and Jordan did come to blows, they pursued “limited objectives and acted with restraint toward the other until the war ended.” That collusion has continued through the years as witnessed by other recent materials. [3] Related to this topic are the Arab war aims – the Israeli view being that the Arabs were united in wanting to push the Israelis into the sea. Shlaim argues that “The reality was one of national selfishness….a general land grab,” stated in the negative as the one purpose “the invasion did not serve was the ostensible one of coming to the rescue of the embattled Palestinians.” This trend also appears to have continued throughout the history of the Palestinian occupation.

Finally, Shlaim looks at the myth of the “elusive peace” and “Arab intransigence”. A new interpretation, supported “mainly from the files of the Israeli Foreign Ministry” indicates that the Arab states extended peace feelers and were ready to negotiate with Israel directly and were ready to negotiate (again looking much like a land grab). Ben-Gurion is the deciding factor, accepting an armistice as he knew that peace negotiations would lead to yielding of territory and return of refugees, a price “he did not consider worth paying.”

Shlaim’s final conclusion is the mythical version “is little more than the propaganda of the victors,” but more than just of historical interest, as it “cuts the very core of Israel’s image of herself.”

The text then moves into “Women’s History”. The first essay uses Nineteenth Century Ottoman court records to look at the institute of arranged marriage and the various patriarchal powers and their limitations within the Muslim world prior to colonialism and Zionism. The conclusion is open, relating to the continued pivotal role that marriage has for communal harmony and social organization, while at the same time possibly losing some of the strengths – openness and support, ability to improve status – that accompanied the previous role. The second chapter reviews the role that women played within society itself and within the national movement, reaching the conclusion that while women were active within a political role during the first intifada, and while they became aware of social issues, “the existing gender division of labor continues to place women at the lower end of the family hierarchy. However the emergence of women in a “saviour” role as “it has become dangerous for men to participate in demonstrations or marches in absence of women” may lead to weakening traditional values and loosening “restrictions placed on women’s social life.”

The final section of the anthology presents discussions on the Israeli Arab population and the various political and legal forces that are imposed on them. In “Crime and Legal Control” the Israeli criminology view of the Arab population will “require a certain degree of revision.” Alina Korn (Ph.D. Criminology, Faculty of Law, Hebrew University, Israel) argues that the Military Rule imposed on Arab citizens of Israel results in the atypically high criminal rate within the population, the Israeli “legal system fosters selective political control of the Arab population…[increasing] the chances of the minority committing offences. Many of the laws were "designed to control the movement of Arabs within the state’s domain,” and laws “designed to control the entry of Arabs into the state, or their exit therefrom, and which defined their sojourn within its borders as illegal.” These laws reach back again to the standard rubric of “land control” as the military authorities, who controlled the Arab populated areas, used travel restrictions and closed military areas to alienate the population from its land and to prevent any organization of protest against the laws. In essence, the very existence of the Arab people posed a threat to the Israeli state: the military government situated “the entire Arab population as acting by definition in the security sphere; its movements were suspect and…its links with the land received a threatening meaning of danger to national security.”

The ethnocratic nature of the state of Israel presented by As’ad Ghanem (head of the Government and Political Philosophy Department at the School of Political Science, University of Haifa) identifies the prevailing Zionist ideology as preventing Palestinian citizens from being citizens with rights equal to those enjoyed by the Jews.” While Israel may have the physical institutional underpinnings of democracy, its ethnic logic denies equality and democracy to the Arab citizens. There is no chance of equality as the very definition of the state indicates a “preferential status” to the Jewish population, resulting in a “basic legalized discrimination in favor of Jewish citizens to the detriment of Palestinian citizens.” Within the sphere of state funding allocations, “Palestinians in Israel suffer ongoing discrimination in nearly every sphere of life.” There is also a land component, as always, a “long standing discrimination in national and regional development plans” such that “planning policy…becomes a tool for the control of Arabs, with the aim of preventing their “spread”. Ghanem’s final conclusion is straightforward: “an ethnocratic regime rules in Israel, not a democratic one….Such a regime ranks on a continuum with the Apartheid regime in South Africa…and cannot be considered to be a normal democratic regime,” even while Israeli academia “works hard to market it in the West as a democracy.”

The land control issue returns in the last chapter “Present Absentees and Indigenous Resistance” by Nur Masalha (School of Theology, Philosophy and History

St Mary’s University College, U.K.), again an issue that comes to the fore under the Military Administration, which “existed only in the areas in which the majority of Israel’s Arab population resided.” The “present absentee” definition places the Palestinian landowner in a double bind as “most of the internally displaced have become present absentees by virtue of the fact that they had properties confiscated; very few of them have ever recovered any property.” Land, once confiscated, resides in perpetuity with the Jewish people. Superficially designed to “protect” the property of absentee owners, the Absentees’ Property Law (1950) has seized millions of dunums of land and billions of dollars’ worth of property.

Having summarized the main findings through this anthology it becomes very apparent, very clear, that Israeli actions, Israeli law, Israeli institutions are designed to accrue land to the Jewish population and at the same time control the Arab-Palestinian populations within an ethnocratic state of Israel. The very existence of the Palestinian people – from the first writ prepared by the Zionist Congress of 1897, through the nakba of 1948 and the resultant expropriation laws, to the present struggles of walling the Palestinians into smaller and smaller apartheid regions – has been a threat to the Jewish Zionist cause. It is that incorrigibility that for the foreseeable future precludes a peaceful settlement.

While there is currently a great deal of American noise being made about a two state solution, and an actual political settlement, it is highly doubtful that the Palestinians would accept any such solution imposed on them by the Israeli/American coalition and the advocacy of their local cohort, Abbas. A good starting point for the Americans would be to read some of the current history as explored within this anthology, and to read other works as indicated that demonstrate the recalcitrance of the Israelis, the illegalities of their actions under international law, their lack of democracy within a militaristic ethnocratic state, all towards their ongoing and determined effort to deprive the Palestinians of any land at all.


[1] see reviews at http://www.palestinechronicle.com/story-092106101728.htm and www.palestinechronicle.com/story-121206162530.htm
[2] see www.thenation.com/doc/20040628/attapatu
[3] see Note [1] and reviews of Between the Lines, The Palestinian Hamas, and Hamas, a History From Within, at www.palestinechronicle.com .

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