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ISR Issue 57, January–February 2008


Planning the terror that created Israel

The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine
Ilan Pappé
OneWorld Publications, 2006 (paper 2007)
320 pages • $15 (paper)


ISRAELI HISTORIAN Ilan Pappe, whose parents fled persecution in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, minces no words in telling the real story of Zionism’s crimes against the Palestinians:

It is the horrific story of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, a crime against humanity that Israel has wanted to deny and cause the world to forget. Retrieving it from oblivion is incumbent upon us; it is the very first step we must take if we ever want reconciliation to take a chance, and peace to take root, in the torn land of Palestine and Israel.

In The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Pappé explains and documents that the true goal of the founders of Zionism had always been to create a majority Jewish state, emptied as much as possible of the native Palestinian population. He meticulously (and painfully) reconstructs the story of how Zionist leaders, over many decades, carefully laid the groundwork for this expulsion and how they intiated their plan in 1948 when the British finally decided to leave.

The same Western governments that have been quick to denounce ethnic cleansing in Darfur or Bosnia and Kosovo, writes Pappé, have failed to recognize that the same awful crime also happened to the Palestinians sixty years ago and continues today.

Myth and reality

Israel’s official version of the story of 1948 claims that Jewish settlers in Palestine never intended to expel their Palestinian Arab neighbors; that Zionist leaders were willing to accept UN resolution 181 of November 1947, which called for the partition of Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state, but that it was the Palestinians who rejected that plan; and that the Palestinians became refugees when they “voluntarily” fled their homes to make room for the Arab armies that invaded Palestine in May 1948 to carry out what they called a “second Holocaust” against Jews.

Palestinian historians such as Walid Khalidi and Salim Tamari have repeatedly documented the crimes Israel committed in 1948 and afterwards, using historic records as well as the testimonies of Palestinian refugees. For his own research, Pappé decided to debunk the Israeli myths by relying almost exclusively on declassified Israeli military archives and the memoirs of Israel’s “founding fathers.”

These sources leave no doubt that, in the decades before 1948, the leaders of Zionism concocted a premeditated plan to expel the native Palestinian population. Pappé details how these Israeli “heroes” executed the plan in the period from December 1947 to March 1949 through the use of massacres, rapes, demolition of villages, and forced expulsion of the native population. In doing so, he manages to vindicate and corroborate the story that the Palestinians have been trying to get out to the Western world for the past sixty years.

Pappé has belonged to the school of historical revisionists pioneered by the Israeli historian Benny Morris in the late 1980s with The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem 1947–1949. In that book, Morris also researched declassified Israeli military archives and found that the Zionist leadership and militias committed certain crimes during the war of 1948 that led to Palestinian expulsion and flight. Morris maintained that these crimes were not the result of any advance plan of expulsion, but rather the result of the dynamics of the conflict—much the same as other bad things that happen in all wars.

The “transfer” plan

Looking at the same documents Morris used, however, Pappé concluded that Morris selectively used data and ignored many events that point starkly to a conscious plan of expulsion. He goes on to argue that the founders of Zionism—from Theodore Herzl to David Ben-Gurion—had always planned to expel the native Palestinian population as a prerequisite for creating an exclusive Jewish state in Palestine.

For example, in 1937 Ben-Gurion told the Jewish Agency Executive, the organization charged with procuring land for Jewish settlements in Palestine, “I am for compulsory transfer; I don’t see anything immoral in it.” Ten years later, Ben Gurion maintained his opposition to sharing Palestine with the Arabs by rejecting the UN partition plan because he believed it didn’t allocate at least the majority of Palestine to the Jewish state.

Pappé argues that the partition plan was, from the beginning, unfair to the Palestinians because they still made up two-thirds of the population in 1947, while the UN allocated only 42 percent of the land to them. Meanwhile, the UN allocated 56 percent of Palestine to foreign Jewish colonizers who only made up a third of the population. Despite this injustice to the native population, the founding father of Israel actually insisted on getting more and more land. In a speech delivered to his own Mapai Party on December 3, 1947, Ben-Gurion made his aims clear:

There are 40 percent non-Jews in the areas allocated to the Jewish state. This composition is not a solid basis for a Jewish state.… Only a state with 80 percent Jews is a viable state.

Zionist leaders believed that it was not possible to achieve a Jewish majority in the country simply through immigration, since most Jews fleeing Nazi Germany’s Holocaust wanted to head West, not to Palestine. Therefore, Pappé writes, they concluded that there was only one way to achieve this goal of a majority Jewish state on the majority of the land of historic Palestine—the ethnic cleansing of the natives.

Preparing for ethnic cleansing

Since the early 1930s, these founding fathers worked hard to prepare for a majority Jewish state with very few or no Arabs. First, they successfully strengthened Jewish economic, social, military, and political institutions that could become the basis of the new state. They also took advantage of British openness to Jewish immigration during the British colonial mandate period of 1917–48. In addition, they worked to weaken the Arab political leadership by fighting alongside British forces to crush most of the Palestinian political and military infrastructure during the Arab revolt of 1936–39. At the end of the Second World War, they launched a relentless campaign of terrorist attacks against British interests in Palestine to drive the British out.
They also authorized a committee of Jewish historians and Arabists (a term that refers to specialists in Arabic culture) to compile a detailed, secret map of every Arab town and village in Palestine. They recorded the location and topography of the villages, the degree of land fertility, and availability of water, the number of inhabitants and the names of all adult males, the number of guards and weapons, the names of individuals who took part in or sympathized with the 1936 revolt, and even recorded a description of the Mukhtar’s (mayor’s) living quarters.

Leaders such as Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, and Moshe Allon met for years on a biweekly basis in the “Red House” in Tel Aviv as a group called The Consultancy. They drew and revised a sophisticated plan to carry out the “transfer” of the Palestinians at an opportune time in order to secure a Jewish majority in Palestine. In the third updated version of that plan (compiled at the end of the 1930s and referred to as Plan C or gimel in Hebrew), these leaders agreed on the necessity of carrying out the following steps:

• Killing the Palestinian political leadership;
• Killing Palestinian inciters and financial supporters;
• Damaging Palestinian transportation;
• Damaging Palestinian water wells, mills, etc.;
• Attacking Palestinian clubs, coffee houses, meeting places, etc.

Within a few months, the same “founding fathers” drew up the final version of the plan, now named Plan D, or dalet in Hebrew. These leaders ordered their militias and gangs to start implementing Plan D only hours after the UN issued resolution 181 in November 1947. The long nightmare for the Palestinians would only get worse. Zionist militias began to attack and expel villagers with or without provocation inside lands allocated to either the Jewish or Arab state.

Qisarya was the first village to be expelled in its entirety, on 15 February 1948. The expulsion took only a few hours and was carried out so systematically that the Jewish troops were able to evacuate and destroy another four villages on the same day, all under the watchful eyes of British troops stationed in police stations nearby.

The people of the village of Sa’sa were among the early victims. On the night of February 15, 1948, troops from Palmach (which had the largest Zionist militias) “took the main street of the village and systematically blew up one house after another while families were still sleeping inside.” Moshe Kalman, the Jewish officer in charge of the operation later recalled, rather poetically, “In the end, the sky prised open. We left behind 35 demolished houses (a third of the village) and 60–80 dead bodies (quite a few of them were children).”

Declassified Israeli military archives confirm that the Zionist militias carried out at least thirty-seven large-scale massacres in that period. Some of the worst massacres and rape cases took place in villages such as Deir Yassin on April 9, 1948, where one survivor, Fahim Zaydan, described what Jewish troops did:

They took us one after the other; shot an old man and when one of his daughters cried, she was shot too. Then they called my brother Muhammad, and shot him in front of us, and when my mother yelled, bending over him—carrying my little sister Hudra in her hands, still breastfeeding her, they shot her too.

The news about the fate of the villagers in Deir Yassin spread like wildfire across Palestine, with Jewish troops cruising through other villages promising the villagers the same fate if they didn’t leave. And though more recent accurate accounts of the number of those killed in Deir Yassin suggest a figure of 170 men, women, and children, Zionist propaganda broadcast over loudspeakers in the weeks that followed the massacre claimed that they actually killed over 300, in order to elevate the panic among Arabs.

On October 28, 1948, Palmach troops committed another massacre in the village of Dawaymah, described by Pappé as more brutal than the massacre in Deir Yassin. In just a few hours, all houses were blown up and 455 people were executed, including 170 women and children. The remaining 6,000 inhabitants—who included 4,000 refugees expelled earlier that year from other villages—were forcibly expelled. According to Israeli archives, “The Jewish troops who took part in the massacre also reported horrific scenes: babies whose skulls were cracked open, women raped or burned alive in houses, and men stabbed to death.”

In all those villages that were attacked, the map compiled earlier by the Arabists proved to be extremely useful. It gave the Jewish troops complete understanding of the best way to attack those villages. And with the help of paid informants, it allowed them to pick out and immediately execute all potential resisters.

By the end of the war, Zionist troops had destroyed more than 420 Palestinian villages and turned their inhabitants into refugees. The same ill fate that befell the Palestinian countryside also befell the Arab population in cities—both Arab or mixed. The campaign against the Palestinian cities was also as relentless and brutal as that against the villages.

On the first day of Passover, April 21, 1948, Jewish troops began Operation Scissors (later renamed Operation Cleansing the Leaven or Bi’ur Hametz in Hebrew) to cleanse the mixed sea-port city of Haifa in the north of its fifty thousand Arab inhabitants. The troops attacked by rolling barrel bombs from the hills onto Arab streets and using heavy artillery while loudspeakers threatened the Palestinians to leave or else. Thousands of Palestinians fled to the port, attempting to get on boats to leave, but even there, Jewish troops continued to shoot, leading to more panic with parents trampling their own children. Many drowned when overloaded fishing boats capsized. This all happened under the nose of the British forces who were still stationed in the city and didn’t fulfill an earlier promise to protect the city’s Palestinian inhabitants.

Another example of what Pappé calls the urbicide, (killing of cities) of Arab Palestine is the attacks on the two cities of Acre and Baysan. On May 6, 1948, Jewish troops laid siege with intensive bombardment. Loudspeakers shouted everywhere: “Surrender or commit suicide. We will destroy to the last man.”

According to British doctors in the city’s Lebanese Red Cross hospital, the troops also caused an outbreak of typhoid and dysentery among Arabs and even British soldiers by poisoning the water supply with germs. These germs were developed by the Biological Warfare Science Corps program, set up by Ben-Gurion himself in the 1940s and ironically known by its acronym HEMED, which means “sweetness” in Hebrew.
Exhausted, starved, and fearing more death and destruction, the Palestinian inhabitants of Acre and Baysan finally surrendered in a matter of days only to be loaded by Jewish soldiers at gunpoint onto trucks that drove them to their future refugee camps. By the end of the war most major Palestinian cities had become totally or almost totally empty of their Arab inhabitants.

By the spring of 1949, Israel had conquered up to 80 percent of historic Palestine. It expelled 800,000 Palestinians, or 75 percent of the native Arab population, from their homeland, turning them into refugees and preventing them from coming back at the end of the war. The founding fathers had finally succeeded in securing a Jewish state with a Jewish majority. Some 660,000 Jews imposed military rule on 150,000 Arabs who dug in and didn’t flee. The rest of the Palestinians were dispersed as refugees in the remaining 20 percent of their own country or in neighboring Arab states—made to live as refugees for the following sixty years. Today, they number over six million.

Setting the record straight

Pappé makes a couple of critical points. First, he explains that the Arab resistance to the Zionist efforts of ethnic cleansing was actually quite weak. While Ben-Gurion, in public speeches, delivered fiery public warnings against a “second Holocaust,” he expressed utter confidence in private meetings that the nascent state of Israel would crush all Arab armies and resisters.

This confidence was based on his knowledge that Jewish troops outnumbered and out-gunned all the Arab armies combined. In addition, the Soviet Union allowed Czechoslovakia to supply the Jewish side with new tanks and air power while Britain formed an embargo on arms sales to the Arabs.

Pappé shows that the majority of the Palestinians, especially villagers, never fully comprehended the gravity of the Zionist threat in 1948. They had no idea that the Zionist project meant not to exploit them but to expel them. Indeed, in the early months of 1948, many were going on with their lives, even planning future harvests.

Second, Pappé demonstrated that Benny Morris was wrong to claim that the expulsion started after the Arab armies entered Palestine on May 15, 1948. He uses the same archives that Morris looked at to show massacres and expulsions beginning and spreading as early as December 1947.

The price: The future

Like all Israelis who dare to tell the true story of what happened, Pappé was ostracized. He received death threats and was forced out of his job as a distinguished senior lecturer at the University of Haifa last summer. Citing an atmosphere of hate and bigotry, he decided to accept a job at Exeter University in England.

There, he continues to argue that Israel must admit its historic crime in order to begin the process of reconciliation. He also argues that the state of Israel is racist to the core and must be democratized and purged of hate. The first step towards democratization is eliminating the Jewish character of the state, allowing all Palestinian refugees to return, and establishing total equality between Arabs and Jews in Palestine.

He is full of hope that this future is possible through the Palestinian struggle for national liberation. Pappé likens the resistance to Palestine’s olive trees, a national symbol of pride. Israelis keep trying to destroy them by planting pine trees over them, but the olive trees keep growing back.

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