The Forgotten Palestinians

By Khalil Nakhleh

(The Forgotten Palestinians: A History of the Palestinians in Israel. Ilan Pappe. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011)

No doubt, hundreds if not thousands of articles, reports and books have been written about the Palestinians in Israel, “the forgotten Palestinians”, in Arabic, English and Hebrew, during the last sixty some years.  To my knowledge, this is the first time a major, mainstream, US academic university press publishes a comprehensive and sympathetic narrative of the Palestinians in Israel, with a focus on their evolving Palestinianhood, by a well respected anti-Zionist, Israeli Jewish historian.

Is this a notable change, where after sixty-three years of the destruction and decimation of their society and identity, and official insistence that they should be relegated to a hybrid, artificial, and rootless group of people,  dubbed as “Arabs in Israel”, or “non-Jewish minorities”, there is, seemingly, a Western academic cognizance and affirmation of their Palestinian genealogy and identity? Basically, yes. In part, I believe, this has to do with the erudite scholarship and credible academic record of Ilan Pappe (the author of this book).  But, in large part, it has to do with the relentless and cumulative academic, intellectual and political challenge mounted, particularly over the last 20-30 years, by Palestinian intellectuals and activists citizens of Israel (1), which rendered dubious Israel’s historical and cultural claims, as they re-affirmed, simultaneously, in no uncertain terms, the Palestinian identity of this minority—their self-identity, and its historical and cultural connectivity to the larger Palestinian body.

This is an important book about the nearly 1.4 million “forgotten Palestinians” who are the remnants of the indigenous Palestinians who lived in the land of Palestine until it was decimated by the Zionist settler-colonial onslaught in 1947/1948, and who continue to live today within the artificially-created Jewish-Zionist state of Israel.

This is not a traditional book review.  It is an interactive reading of Ilan’s book, where I deliberated virtually with him about the overall subject, during my careful reading of the book, which I utilize now as a stepping stone.  However critical certain aspects of this reading may appear, it must be kept in mind that it’s coming from a friendly (not hostile) corner.  I focus here only on few aspects.

The Book and the Author

Ilan writes as an astute and knowledgeable observer, and as a sympathetic occasional participant in some of the developments he narrates. Thus his narrative of the evolving Palestinian identity in Israel over the past sixty some years, emerges considerate, sensitive, honest, and anti-Zionist, written in total solidarity with Palestinian dilemmas, and with deep understanding of these dilemmas. Furthermore, it is a gentle narrative reflecting, in my view, Ilan’s personality, as I know it.

He focuses not only on official policies, but on the complexity of the daily life of the Palestinians, and how they struggle and manage to live it, in a hegemonic Jewish Zionist state that insists with recurring persistence on not seeing them.  By its nature, Ilan states, “this book aims to present a people’s history as far as possible and therefore the magnifying glass is cast more on the Palestinians than on those who formulated and executed the policies towards them” (p.13).  At times, however, I felt an inadvertent inclination on Ilan’s part, to grant those “who formulated and executed the policies …”, i.e., the Israeli Jewish Zionist structure, and the ideology that propelled them into control (e.g., Zionism, p.266), an unnecessary charitable and humane understanding.

Be this as it may, this is, nevertheless, a painful narrative of the evolution of my people’s persistent dispossession and unrelenting attempts at their exclusion and elimination.  And how they learned to survive under an oppressive system of control that always maneuvered to expel them from their homeland, or, temporarily, forcing them to co-exist as unequal under its hegemony.

At the same time, it is an Israeli Jew narrating painfully about the sins that his state and consecutive governments committed, and persist in committing, against the indigenous Palestinian inhabitants of the land.  In contrast, if I, as a Palestinian Arab member of that community, were to write such a narrative it would have emerged more furious and less tolerant narrative of the Jewish Zionist majority that has been in direct oppressive control of my people for well over half a century!

The Oslo Accords and Their Impact

Ilan described correctly the impact of the Oslo Accords on the Palestinian minority in Israel in the following words:

“What emerged was not that the community was unique in comparison to other Palestinian groups but rather that it had a unique problem.  Zionism was the exceptional factor, not being a Palestinian in Palestine, or what used to be Palestine.  The strong affirmation of the connection to the country and not to the state was the end product of a long internal Palestinian analysis of the predicament, crisis and nature of the community, which was followed by a prognosis and a kind of action plan for how to deal with the crisis being a national indigenous minority within the Jewish state. … [T]he community went from a very hopeful and assertive period, 1995 to 2000, into a very precarious and dangerous existential period after 2000 and until today … (pp.195-196; emphasis added).”

I assert, however, that the concerns of the “forgotten Palestinians” in terms of the “predicament” and the identity of the community, as “a national indigenous minority within the Jewish state”, started being driven home with the events culminating in the eruption of “Land Day” in 1976.  Clearly, those concerns were not formulated with the same clarity then, as it became post the “2000 earthquake” (P.229 ff).  Nevertheless, although the book presents a fairly detailed discussion of the circumstances leading to “Land Day”, the connection was not made as strongly, or as organically, as it should have been made with what has been termed “hubbet October” in 2000, and all the evolving events following that.  I would have liked to see a deeper analysis about this connection.

If my claim is valid, and since I can say with certainty that Ilan recognizes this connection between the mid-seventies and today, why then was more focus placed on the “2000 earthquake”? Largely, I believe, it’s an issue of the availability of public and academically credible analyses and articulation of these concerns and predicaments post 2000, which were made available in English and Hebrew, primarily.  The emergence of a substantial group of political and educated elites among the Palestinians in Israel over the last thirty some years made this feasible.

Although I agree with the generalization that:

“The political and educated elites of the Palestinians in Israel lost all beliefs in ‘coexistence’, liberal Zionist discourse or a future of change within the present parameters of the Jewish state (p.240).”

I maintain that this was abundantly and inherently felt in the aftermath of the savage Zionist attack on the indigenous lands in Galilee by official “security” apparatuses of the Jewish state, twenty-five years earlier, although not publically articulated in academic language.  It was very clear then that “[t]he police legitimized in its own eyes and in the eyes of the public the killing of demonstrators [Palestinian citizens] as part of its response” (p. 239).  Furthermore, it was very obvious, then, “the full support the Israeli media gave the police and the lack of any sympathy or solidarity with the victims and their families” (p. 239).

In addition to the issue of the availability of ‘public articulation’, mentioned above, there is the concomitant rise of academic, activists, human rights defenders, etc, NGOs that were allowed legally to register following the Madrid Peace Conference in the early nineties, and which were responsible, largely, for the ‘public articulation’ literature.  These NGOs became legitimate funding targets by transnational funding agencies, including NGOs, governments, corporate companies, etc.  This phenomenon, in itself, begs deeper analysis, which, I maintain, it did not receive in this book, and when it did (e.g., p. 217 ff), the analysis was very accommodating and uncritical.

The ‘Vision Documents’

I agree with Ilan that the ‘Vision Documents’, which were produced over a period of 3-4 years at the beginning of the twenty-first century, by the Palestinian political and intellectual elite in Israel, were ground breaking documents, and that “the Palestinian community had taken the initiative itself and adopted the language of the indigenous people versus the settler state” (p. 254). I maintain, however, that the Palestinian community in Israel was positing in these documents a more fundamental position, in which they were reaffirming their Palestinianhood and rejecting Zionist hegemony over their land and lives, with some degree of variance from one document to another.(2)   This explains why these documents were declared by the entire spectrum of Israeli public opinion as “a statement of war” (p. 253).

Conclusions of the Book

It is extremely important to refocus our attention, strategically, to the core and important conclusions of the book.  In the concluding chapter—the Epilogue, under the title “the Oppressive State”, Ilan stressed that:

1. [T]he worst aspect of the minority’s existence is that its daily and future fate is in the hands of the Israel secret-service apparatuses (P.265);
2. It seems that in the last few years … the Jewish state has given up on the charade of democracy … and … has escalated its oppression of the minority in an unprecedented manner (P.266);
3. [W]e expect either escalating state violence against the Palestinians, wherever they are, or further oppressive legislation (P. 274; emphasis added);
4. [T]he history of this community, despite the endless Israeli efforts to fragment the Palestinian people and existence, was still an organic part of the history of the Palestinian people (P. 200; emphasis added).

A note that can never be final …

My conclusion from the above is crystal clear: the lesson that we should learn is to actively resist all attempts by the enemies of the Palestinian people, including the current Palestinian ruling elite structure, to fragment the Palestinian people and existence, and to re-institute and revive our struggle for a FREE, JUST, EQUAL, and DEMOCRATIC Homeland.

All Palestinians must read this book.  All Jews—Zionists and anti-Zionists alike, who express concern about justice and human rights for the Palestinians, must read this book.

– Dr. Khalil Nakhleh, a Palestinian anthropologist, independent researcher and writer, who for the last three decades has sought to generate People-Centered Liberationist Development in Palestine. His new book: Palestine Is Open for Business: The National Sell-Out in English, will be released in September by Africa World Press ( He contributed this article to Contact him at:


(1) A cursory look at the “bibliography” section provides ample support to this statement, keeping in mind, however, that numerous sources are omitted here, as well as all the relevant sources in Arabic.
(2) Please refer to my book, The Future of the Palestinian Minority in Israel, Ramallah: MADAR, the Palestinian Center for Israeli Studies , 2008, (Arabic). 

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