Examining “Ten Myths About Israel,” by Ilan Pappe
by Allen C. Brownfeld
Mondoweiss, Jan., 24, 2018
This review of the book “Ten Myths About Israel’ by Ilan Pappe will appear in the Winter 2018 ISSUES, the quarterly journal of the American Council for Judaism. The book is published by Verso.
The Middle East remains a subject of increasing examination and debate. The prospects for peace between Israelis and Palestinians seem to be receding. Early in 2018, Israel’s ruling Likud Party unanimously endorsed a resolution calling for the annexation of West Bank settlements. This decision marked the latest step by Likud to distance itself from the internationally backed idea of establishing an independent Palestinian state as part of a future peace agreement. Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan declared: “We are telling the world that it doesn’t matter what the nations of the world say. The time has come to express our biblical right to the land.”
Much of the world’s understanding of the conflicting claims to historic Palestine is confused. We have heard over the years of “an Israeli narrative” and a “Palestinian narrative.” There have been too few efforts to understand what really has happened in this region, and to arrive at some agreement about where myth ends and facts begin. In this book, written on the 50th anniversary of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Professor Ilan Pappe, an Israeli historian now teaching at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom, examines the most contested ideas concerning the origins and identity of the contemporary state of Israel.
The “ten myths” that Pappe explores reinforce the regional status quo. He explores the claim that Palestine was an empty land at the time of the Balfour Declaration, as well as the formation of Zionism and its role in the early decades of nation building. He asks whether the Palestinians voluntarily left their homeland in 1948, and whether June 1967 was a war of “no choice.” Turning to the myths surrounding the failures of the Camp David Accords and the official reasons for the attacks on Gaza, he explains why the two state solution, in his view, is no longer viable.
“As the example of the Israel-Palestine conflict shows,” writes Pappe, “historical disinformation, even of the most recent past, can do tremendous harm. This willful misunderstanding of history can promote oppression and protect a regime of colonization and occupation. It is not surprising, therefore, that policies of disinformation continue to the present and play an important part in perpetuating the conflict…The Zionist historical account of how the disputed land became the state of Israel is based on a cluster of myths that subtly cast doubt on the Palestinians’ moral right to the land…This book challenges these myths, which appear in the public domain as indisputable truths. These statements are, to my eyes, distortions and fabrications that can—and must—be refuted through a closer examination of the historical record.”
The author begins by admitting that, “This is not a balanced book; it is yet another attempt to redress the balance of power on behalf of the colonized, occupied and oppressed Palestinians in the land of Israel and Palestine. It would be a real bonus if advocates of Zionism or loyal supporters of Israel were also willing to engage with the arguments herein. After all, the book is written by an Israeli Jew who cares about his own society as much as he does the Palestinian one. Refuting mythologies that sustain injustice should be of benefit to everyone living in the country or wishing to live there. It forms a basis on which all its inhabitants might enjoy the great achievements that only one privileged group currently has access to.”
The first myth which is confronted is the Zionist claim that Palestine was an empty land. There is a consensus among scholars that it was the Romans who gave the land the name “Palestine.” During the period of Roman and, later, Byzantine, rule it was an imperial province. Various Muslim empires aspired to control it, since it was home to the second holiest place in Islam and was also fertile and in a strategic location. The Ottoman period began in 1517 and lasted 400 years. When the Ottomans arrived, they found a society that was mostly Sunni Muslim and rural, with small urban elites who spoke Arabic. Less than 5 per cent of the population was Jewish and probably 10 to 15 per cent Christian.
Jewish Population of 2 to 5 Per Cent
Historian Yonatan Mendel notes that, “The exact percentage of Jews prior to the rise of Zionism is unknown. However, it probably ranged from 2 to 5 per cent. According to Ottoman records, a total population of 462,465 resided in 1878 in what is today Israel/Palestine. Of this number, 403,795 (87 per cent) were Muslim, 43,659 (10 per cent) were Christian and 15,011 (3 per cent) were Jewish.”
Those who receive their information from official Israeli sources, Pappe shows, would come away with the view that, “Sixteenth-century Palestine… was mainly Jewish and the commercial lifeblood of the region was concentrated in the Jewish communities.” According to the Website of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Pappe points out, “By 1800, Palestine had become a desert…Every passing year the land became more barren, deforestation increased and farmland turned to desert. Promoted through an official state website this fabricated picture is unprecedented.”
Many Israeli scholars have challenged this false narrative, among them David Grossman (the demographer not the novelist), Amnon Cohen and Yehoushua Ben-Arieh. Their research shows that, over the centuries, Palestine, rather than being a desert, was a thriving Arab society. Yet, Pappe reports, “Outside of Israel, in particular in the United States, the assumption that the promised land was empty, desolate, and barren before the arrival of Zionism is still alive and kicking…Palestine began to develop as a nation long before the arrival of the Zionist movement. In the hands of energetic local rulers such as Daher al-Umar (1690-1775), the towns of Haifa, Shefamr, Tiberias, and Acre were renovated and re-energized. The coastal network of ports and towns boomed through its trade connections with Europe, while the inner plains traded inland with nearby regions. The very opposite of a desert.”
At the end of the 19th century, Palestine had a sizeable population, of which only a small percentage was Jewish. Those Jews who did live in Palestine at this time were opposed to the ideas promoted by Zionism. Contrary to the notion of Palestine being an “empty land,” Pappe shows that, “It was part of a rich and fertile eastern Mediterranean world that in the 19th century underwent processes of modernization and nationalization. It was not a desert waiting to come into bloom; it was a pastoral country on the verge of entering the 20th century as a modern society, with all the benefits and ills of such a transformation. Its colonization by the Zionist movement turned this process into a disaster for the majority of the native people living there.”
The second myth considered is that, “The Jews Were a People Without a Land.” Asking whether the Jewish settlers who arrived in Palestine could be considered “a people,” Pappe cites Shlomo Sand’s “The Invention of the Jewish People,” which shows that the Christian world, in its own interest, adopted the idea of the Jews as a nation that must one day return to the holy land. This return, in their view, would be part of the divine scheme for the end of the world, along with the resurrection of the dead and the second coming of the Messiah.
The theological upheavals of the Reformation beginning in the 16th century produced a clear association, particularly among Protestants, between the idea of the end of the millennium and the conversion of the Jews and their return to Palestine. Thomas Brightman, a 16th century English clergyman, wrote, “Shall they return to Jerusalem again? There is nothing more certain: the prophets do everywhere confirm it and beat about it.” Brightman wished the Jews either to convert to Christianity or leave Europe. A hundred years later, Henry Oldenburg, a German theologian, wrote: “If the occasion presents itself amid changes to which human affairs are liable, the Jews may even raise their empire anew, and…God may elect them a second time.”
A Christian Project of Colonization
“Zionism,” writes Pappe, “was therefore a Christian project of colonization before it became a Jewish one… A powerful theological and imperial movement emerged that would put the return of the Jews to Palestine at the heart of a strategic plan to take over Palestine and turn it into a Christian entity… This dangerous blend of religious fervor and and reformist zeal…would lead to the Balfour Declaration of 1917.”
An important advocate of a Jewish return to Palestine in England in the 19th century was Lord Shaftesbury (1801-85), a leading politician and reformer, who campaigned actively for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. His arguments for a greater British presence in Palestine were both religious and strategic. As Pappe reports, “Lord Shaftesbury convinced the Anglican bishopric center and cathedral in Jerusalem to provide the early funding for this project. This would probably not have happened at all had Shaftesbury not succeeded in recruiting his father in law, Britain’s foreign minister and later prime minister, Lord Palmerston, to the cause.”
In 1839, Shaftesbury wrote a 30-page article in The London Quarterly Review in which he predicted a new era for the Jews: “…the Jews must be encouraged to return in yet greater number and become once more the husbandman of Judea and Galilee…though admittedly a stiff-necked people and sunk in moral degradation, obduracy, and ignorance of the Gospel, (they are) not only worthy of salvation but also vital to Christianity’s hope and salvation.”
There has been much speculation, Pappe points out, about whether the Jews who settled in Palestine as Zionists were really the descendants of the Jews who had been exiled 2,000 years ago. Arthur Koestler (1905-83) wrote “The Thirteenth Tribe” (1976) in which he advanced the theory that the Jewish settlers were descended from the Khazars, a Turkish nation of the Caucasus which converted to Judaism in the 8th century and was later forced to move westward. Israeli scientists have ever since tried to prove that there is a genetic connection between the Jews of Roman Palestine and those of present-day Palestine. That debate continues today.
Israel’s Claim to Represent all Jews
“It is not the claims of 19th century Zionism, it is not the historical accuracy of those claims that matters,” argues Pappe. “What matters is not whether the present Jews in Israel are the authentic descendants of those who lived in the Roman era, but rather the state of Israel’s insistence that it represents all the Jews in the world and that everything it does is for their sake and on their behalf. Until 1967, this claim was very helpful for the state of Israel. Jews around the world, particularly in the United States, became its main supporters whenever its policies were questioned. In many respects, this is still the case in the U.S. today. However, even there, as well as in other Jewish communities, this clear association is nowadays challenged.”
In making the case that Jews were a nation belonging to Palestine, and therefore should be helped to return to it, Pappe notes, “They had to rely on British officials and, later, military power. Jews and the world at large did not seem to be convinced that the Jews were a people without a land. Shaftesbury, Finn, Balfour, and Lloyd George liked the idea because it helped Britain gain a foothold in Palestine. This became immaterial after the British took Palestine by force and then had to decide from a new starting point whether the land was Jewish or Palestinian—a question it could never properly answer, and therefore had to leave to others to resolve after 30 years of frustrating rule.”
Of particular interest is the chapter dealing with the myth that, “Zionism is Judaism.” In fact, Zionism was originally a minority opinion among Jews. “Since its inception in the mid-19th century,” writes Pappe, “Zionism was only one, inessential expression of Jewish cultural life. It was born out of two impulses among Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe. The first was a search for safety within a society that refused to integrate Jews as equals and that occasionally persecuted them… The second impulse was a wish to emulate other new national movements mushrooming in Europe at the time… Those Jews who sought to transform Judaism from a religion into a nation were not unique among the many ethnic and religious groups within the two crumbling empires—the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman—who wished to redefine themselves as nations.”
Redefinition of Judaism
The early Zionists put forward two new ideas: the redefinition of Judaism as a national movement and the need to colonize Palestine. These ideas became more popular after a brutal wave of pogroms in Russia in 1881, which transformed them into a political program propagated by a movement called “The Lovers of Zion,” who sent a few enthusiastic young Jews to build the first new colonies in Palestine in 1882. This first phase of Zionism culminated with the works and actions of Theodor Herzl, a journalist and an atheist with no connection to Jewish religious life. He came to the conclusion that widespread anti-Semitism made assimilation impossible and that a Jewish state in Palestine was the best solution for the “Jewish Problem.”
While such ideas gained some support in countries such as Russia, where Jews were second-class citizens, Pappe writes that, “As these early Zionist ideas were aired among Jewish communities in countries such as Germany and the United States, prominent rabbis and leading figures in those communities rejected the new approach. religious leaders dismissed Zionism as a form of secularization and modernization, while secular Jews feared that the new ideas would raise questions about the Jews’ loyalty to their own nation-states and would thus increase anti-Semitism.”
Reform Judaism rejected the Zionist idea and proclaimed that Judaism was a religion of universal values, not a nationality. Later, it reconciled itself to the Zionist idea. The older Reform philosophy, Pappe declares, has been kept alive by the American Council for Judaism. He writes: “When the Reformists first encountered Zionism, they vehemently rejected the idea of redefining Judaism as nationalism and the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. However, their anti-Zionist stance shifted after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. In the second half of the 20th century, the majority among them created a new Reform movement in the U.S… However, a large number of Jews left the new movement and set up the American Council for Judaism (ACJ), which reminded the world… that Zionism was still a minority view among Jews, and remained loyal to the old Reformist notions about Zionism.”
In 1869, Reform Jews in the U.S. made the point that, “The messianic aim of Israel (I.e., the Jewish people) is not the restoration of a Jewish state under a descendant of David, involving a second separation from the nation’s of earth, but the Union of the children of God in the confession of the unity of God, so as to realize the unity of all national creatures and their call to moral sanctification.”
No Longer A Nation But A Religious Community
In 1885, another Reform group, meeting in Pittsburgh, declared: “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and we therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any laws concerning the Jewish state.”
In 1897, the same year as the first Zionist conference was convened in Basel, Switzerland, a socialist Jewish movement was born in Russia, the Bund. Bund members believed that a socialist revolution would be a far better solution to the problems of Jews in Europe than Zionism. Even after the Holocaust, Bundists were convinced that Jews should seek a place in societies that cherish human and civil rights, and did not see a Jewish nation state as a panacea.
Another critique of Zionism came from Orthodox Jews. Pappe notes that, “When Zionism made its first appearance in Europe, many traditional rabbis in fact forbade their followers from having anything to do with Zionist activists. They viewed Zionism as meddling with God’s will to retain the Jews in exile until the coming of the Messiah… The great Hasidic German Rabbi Dzikover… said that Zionism asks him to replace centuries of Jewish wisdom and law for a rag, soil and a song (I.e., a flag, a land and an anthem).”
The Zionists not only sought to colonize Palestine but, as Pappe shows, “…it also hoped to secularize the Jewish people, to invent the ‘new Jew’ in antithesis to the religious Orthodox Jews of Europe… The Orthodox Jew was ridiculed by the Zionists, and was viewed as someone who could only be redeemed through hard work in Palestine… The role of the Bible within Jewish life offered one further clear difference between Judaism and Zionism… the Bible provided ‘the myth for our right over the land.’ It was in the Bible that they read stories about Hebrew farmers, shepherds, kings, and wars, which they appropriated as describing the ancient golden era of their nation’s birth. Returning to the land meant coming back to become farmers , shepherds and kings. Thus, they found themselves faced with a challenging paradox, for they wanted both to secularize Jewish life and to use the Bible as a publication for colonizing Palestine. In other words, though they did not believe in God, He had nonetheless promised them Palestine.”
Palestine Was Not Empty
Another myth which Pappe confronts is, “Zionism Is Not Colonialism.” When the first Zionist settlers arrived in 1882, the land of Palestine was not empty. In fact, he writes, “This fact was known to the Zionist leaders even before the first Jewish settlers arrived. A delegation sent to Palestine by the early Zionist organizations reported back to their colleagues: ‘The bride is beautiful, but married to another man.’ Nevertheless, when they first arrived, the early settlers were surprised to encounter the locals whom they regarded as invaders and strangers. In their view, the native Palestinians had usurped their homeland. They were told by their leaders that the locals were not natives, that they had no rights to the land. Instead, they were a problem that had to, and could, be resolved.”
None of this, Pappe argues, was unique because “Zionism was a settler colonial movement, similar to the movements of Europeans who had colonized the two Americas, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand… Settler colonialism is motivated by a desire to take over land in a foreign country, while classical colonialism covets the natural resources in its new geographic possession… The problem was that the new ‘homelands’ were already inhabited by other people. In response, the settler communities argued that the new land was theirs by divine or moral right, even if, in cases other than Zionism, they did not claim to have lived there thousands of years ago. In many cases, the accepted method for overcoming such obstacles was the genocide of the indigenous locals.”
From the beginning, Palestinian resistance was depicted as motivated by hate for Jews. The diaries of the early Zionists tell a different story, They are filled with anecdotes revealing how the settlers were well received by the Palestinians, who offered them shelter and in many cases taught them how to cultivate the land. “Only when it became clear that the settlers had not come to live alongside the native population, but in place of it, did the Palestinian resistance begin,” writes Pappe. “And when that resistance started, it quickly took the form of every other anti-colonialist struggle.”
In 1928, the Palestinian leadership, notwithstanding the wishes of the majority of their people, consented to allow the Jewish settlers equal representation in the future bodies of the state. The Zionist leadership was in favor of the idea only as long as it believed the Palestinians would reject it. Shared representation was the opposite of what the Zionists wanted. When the proposal was accepted by the Palestinians, it was rejected by the Zionists. This led to the riots of 1929. Even in 1947, when Britain decided to refer the question to the United Nations, the Palestinians suggested with other Arab states, a unitary state to replace the Mandate in Palestine, with equal rights for Jews and Arabs. This the Zionists rejected.
In Pappe’s view, “One can depict Zionism as a settler colonial movement and the Palestinian national movement as an anticolonial one…. By 1945, Zionism had attracted more than half a million settlers to a country whose population was about 2 million… The settlers’ only way of expanding their hold on the land…and of ensuring an exclusive demographic majority was to remove the natives from their homeland… Palestine is not entirely Jewish demographically, and although Israel controls all of it politically by various means, the state of Israel is still colonizing—building new settlements in the Galilee, the Negev, and the West Bank…”
The Israeli government has long promoted the idea that the Palestinians voluntarily left their homeland in 1948. It has promoted the idea that Palestinians fled their villages of their own accord or on orders from Arab armies that wanted them out of the way. There was no obligation on Israel, therefore, to let Palestinians return since, according to this argument, their displacement was not Israel’s responsibility. Any “infiltrators” who tried to go back were criminals. In the late 1980’s, Israel’s so-called “new historians,” notably Benny Morris, examined newly opened Israeli archives and found no evidence that the refugees fled on orders from Arab leaders, but had done so mostly out of terror, after hearing reports of massacres carried out by Israeli soldiers in villages such as Deir Yassin, where Jewish militiamen killed over 100 Palestinian civilians.
Transferring The Palestinians
This idea that the Palestinians left voluntarily is another of the “myths” Pappe confronts. He writes that, “The Zionist leadership and ideologues could not envision a successful implementation of their project without getting rid of the native population, either through agreement or by force. More recently, after years of denial, Zionist historians such as Anita Shapira have accepted that their heroes, the leaders of the Zionist movement, seriously contemplated transferring the Palestinians.”
In 1937, David Ben-Gurion told the Zionist assembly, “In many parts of the country, it will not be possible to settle without transferring the Arab fellahin… With compulsory transfer we would have a vast area for settlement… I support compulsory transfer. I don’t see anything immoral in it.”
In his book “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine,” Pappe examines the development of a master plan for the massive expulsion on the Palestinians. Officially, the Israeli government maintains the claim that Palestinians became refugees because their leaders told them to leave. “But,” he writes, “there was no such call—it is a myth created by the Israeli foreign ministry… What is clear is that the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians can in no way be justified as a ‘punishment’ for their rejecting a U.N. peace plan that was devised without any consultation with the Palestinians themselves.”
Israel’s master plan, Plan D, which had been prepared alongside the high command of the Haganah, the main Jewish military wing, included the following clear references to the methods to be employed in the process of cleansing the population: “Destruction of villages (setting fire to, blowing up, and planting mines in the debris), especially those population centers which are difficult to control continuously. Mounting search and control operations according to the following guidelines: encirclement of the village and conducting a search inside it. In the event of resistance, the armed force must be destroyed and the population must be expelled outside the borders of the state.”
Pappe declares that, “From the present vantage point, there is no escape from defining the Israeli actions in the Palestinian countryside as a war crime… The crime committed by the leadership of the Zionist movement, which became the government of Israel, was that of ethnic cleansing. This is not mere rhetoric, but an indictment with far-reaching political, legal and moral obligations. The definition of the crime was clarified in the aftermath of the 1990’s civil war in the Balkans: ethnic cleansing is any action by one ethnic group meant to drive out another ethnic group with the purpose of transforming a mixed ethnic region into a pure one. Such an action amounts to ethnic cleansing regardless of the means employed to obtain it—from persuasion and threats to expulsions and mass killings.”
It is important to remember, Pappe points out, that, “There are Jews in Israel who have absorbed all these lessons. Not all Jews are indifferent to or ignorant of the Nakba. Those who are not are currently a small minority, but one which makes its presence felt, demonstrating that at least some Jewish citizens are not deaf to the cries, pain, and devastation of those killed, raped, or wounded throughout 1948.”
Other myths confronted by the author include: “The June 1967 War Was A War of ‘No Choice,” “Israel Is The Only Democracy In The Middle Esst,” “The Oslo Mythologies,” “The Gaza Mythologies,” and “The Two-States Solution Is The Only Way Forward.”
In the case of the 1967 war, the accepted narrative is that the 1967 war forced Israel to occupy the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and keep it in custody until the Palestinians were prepared to make peace. Many think that the 1967 war was one in which Israel was resisting attack and occupied the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza in self-defense. The fact is that it was Israel which launched the first strike against Egypt in 1967. Prime Minister Menachem Begin later said: “In June 1967 we again had a choice. The Egyptian Army concentration in the Sinai approaches do not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack them.”
Zionist Aim Before 1948
In reality, Pappe believes, “…the takeover of the West Bank in particular, with its ancient biblical sights, was a Zionist aim even before 1948 and it fitted the logic of the Zionist project as a whole. This logic can be summarized as the wish to take over as much of Palestine as possible with as few Palestinians as possible… After the occupation, the new ruler confined the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in an impossible limbo: they were neither refugees nor citizens—they were, and still are, citizenless inhabitants. They were inmates, and in many respects still are, of a huge prison in which they have no civil, and human rights and no impact on their future. The world tolerates this situation because Israel claims —and the claim was never challenged until recently—that the situation is temporary…Israel is still incarcerating a third generation of Palestinians…and depicting these mega-prisons as temporary…”
With regard to Israel’s claim to be the only “democracy” in the Middle East, Pappe points to the fact that, even before 1967, Palestinians, who represented 20% of Israel’s citizens, lived under “military rule based on draconian British Mandatory emergency regulations that denied… any basic human or civil rights. Local military governors were the absolute rulers of the lives of these citizens: they could devise special laws for them, destroy their houses and livelihoods and send them to jail whenever they felt like it. Only in the late 1950’s did a strong Jewish opposition to these abuses emerge, which eventually eased the pressure on the Palestinian citizens.”
The state of “military terror” under which Palestinians lived, notes Pappe, is “exemplified by the Kafr Qasim massacre in October 1956, when, on the eve of the Sinai operation, 49 Palestinian citizens were killed by the Israeli army. The authorities alleged that they were late returning home from work in the fields when a curfew had been imposed on the village. This was not the real reason, however. Later proofs show that Israel had seriously considered the expulsion of Palestinians from the whole area called Wadi Ara and the Triangle in which the village sat… These two areas… were annexed to Israel under the terms of the 1949 armistice agreement with Jordan… Additional territory was always welcomed by Israel, but an increase in the Palestinian population was not… Operation ‘Hafarfert’ (mole) was the code name of a set of proposals for the expulsion of the Palestinians when a new war broke out… Many scholars today now think that the 1956 massacre was a practice run to see if the people in the area could be intimidated to leave.”
Law of Return
Israel’s Law of Return grants automatic citizenship to every Jew in the world, wherever he or she was born. In Pappe’s view, “This law…is a flagrantly undemocratic one, for it was accompanied by a total rejection of the Palestinian right of return—recognized internationally by the U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194 of 1948. This rejection refuses to allow the Palestinian citizens of Israel to unite with immediate family members or with those who were expelled in 1948. Denying people the right to return to their homeland, and at the same time offering the right to others who have no connection to the land is a model of undemocratic process.”
Other aspects of life in Israel, Pappe shows, makes the claim to “democracy” questionable. Since 1948, Palestinian municipalities have received far less funding than their Jewish counterparts. The most affluent Palestinian community, the village of Me’ilva in the upper Galilee, is still worse off than the poorest Jewish development town in the Negev. At the same time, more than 90 per cent of the land is owned by the Jewish National Fund (JNF). Landowners are not allowed to engage in transactions with non-Jewish citizens and public land is prioritized for the use of national projects, which means that new Jewish settlements are being built while there are hardly any new Palestinian settlements. The biggest Palestinian city, Nazareth, despite the tripling of its population since 1948, has not expanded one square kilometer, whereas the development town built above it, Upper Nazareth, has tripled in size, on land expropriated from Palestinian landowners.
“Imagine,” writes Pappe, “if in the UK or the U.S., Jewish citizens, or Catholics for that matter, were barred by law from living in certain villages, neighborhoods, or maybe whole towns? How can such a situation be reconciled with the notion of democracy?… [Israel] cannot by any stretch of the imagination, be assumed to be a democracy.” When it comes to Palestinians living in the occupied territories, he declares, “the humiliation of millions of Palestinians is a daily routine, ‘the only democracy in the Middle East’ behaves as a dictatorship of the worst kind.”
Unlawful Killings and Torture
Amnesty International annually documents the nature of the occupation. Its 2015 report provided this assessment: “In the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, Israeli forces committed unlawful killings of Palestinian civilians, including children, and detained thousands of Palestinians who protested against or otherwise opposed Israel’s continuing military occupation, holding hundreds in administrative detention. Torture and other ill treatment remained rife and were committed with impunity. The authorities continued to promote illegal settlements in the West Bank and severely restricted Palestinians’ freedom of movement… The authorities continued to demolish Palestinian homes on the West Bank and inside Israel, particularly in Bedouin villages in the Negev/Naqab region, forcibly evicting their residents.”
On September 13, 1993, Israel and the PLO signed a declaration of principles, known as the Oslo Accord. Pappe argues that “…we should acknowledge that the Oslo process was not a fair and equal pursuit of peace, but a compromise agreed to by a defeated, colonized people. As a result, the Palestinians were forced to seek solutions that went against their interests and endangered their very existence. The same argument can be made about the debates concerning the ‘two-state solution’ that was offered in Oslo. This offer should be seen for what it is: partition under a different wording. Even in this scenario…Israel would not only decide how much territory it was going to concede but also what would happen in the territory it left behind.”
In the original Accords there was an Israeli promise that the three issues that trouble the Palestinians most—the fate of Jerusalem, the refugees, and the Jewish settlements—would be negotiated when the interim period of five years came to a successful end. This process, however, was stalled by the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, followed by the victory of Likud, headed by Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996. Netanyahu opposed the Oslo Accords and the process came to a halt.
Later, under Ehud Barak, Israel’s final offer was made at Camp David in 2000. Israel proposed a small Palestinian state with a capital in Abu Dis, but without significant dismantling of any settlements and no hope for the return of the refugees. The negotiations collapsed. “After 1995,” writes Pappe, “the impact of the Oslo Accord as a factor that ruined Palestinian society, rather than bringing peace, became painfully clear… the Accord became a discourse of peace that had no relevance to the reality on the ground. During the period of the talks—between 1996 and 1999—more settlements were built, and more collective punishments were inflicted on the Palestinians. Even if you believed in the two-state solution in 1999, a tour of either the West Bank or the Gaza Strip would have convinced you of the words of the Israeli scholar, Meron Benvenisti, who wrote that Israel had created irreversible facts on the ground: the two-state solution was killed by Israel.”
Looking to the future, Pappe believes that the declaration that, “The two states solution is the only way forward” is yet another myth. He notes that, “Any criticism of this myth is often branded as anti-Semitism. However, in many ways the opposite is true: there is a connection between the new anti-Semitism and the myth itself. The two-states solution is based on the idea that a Jewish state is the best solution for the Jewish problem; that is, Jews should live in Palestine rather than anywhere else. This notion is also close to the hearts of anti-Semites. The two-states solution, indirectly one should say, is based on the assumption that Israel and Judaism are the same. Thus, Israel insists that what it does, it does in the name of Judaism, and when its actions are rejected by people around the world the criticism is not only directed toward Israel but also towards Judaism… It seems that nothing is going to stop Israel now from completing its colonization of the West Bank and continuing its siege on Gaza.”
What will happen as Israel abandons the two-state solution remains a subject of much speculation. It is important for the world, and in particular for Jews, to understand what has occurred in Palestine in historical terms. Pappe puts it in this perspective: “After World War ll, Zionism was allowed to become a colonialist project at a time when colonialism was being rejected by the civilized world because the creation of a Jewish state offered Europe, and West Germany in particular, an easy way out of the worst excesses of anti-Semitism ever seen. Israel was the first to declare its recognition of ‘a new Germany’—in return it received a lot of money, but also, far more importantly a carte blanche to turn the whole of Palestine into Israel. Zionism offered itself as the solution to anti-Semitism, but became the main reason for its continued presence.”
A Just Solution
A just solution to the dilemma of Palestine will, Pappe concludes, only be achieved if we stop treating the mythologies he sets forth as truths: “Palestine was not empty and the Jewish people had homelands; Palestine was colonized, not ‘redeemed’; and its people were dispossessed in 1948, rather than leaving voluntarily. Colonized people, even under the U.N. Charter, have the right to struggle for their liberation…and the successful ending to such a struggle lies in the creation of a democratic state that includes all of its inhabitants.”
Since Ilan Pappe completed his book, Israel has moved even further away from a two state solution. The ruling Likud Party’s central committee, early in 2018, endorsed a resolution calling for the annexation of the West Bank settlements. Prime Minister Netanyahu no longer speaks of the establishment of a Palestinian state. The very idea of a Palestinian state ever coming into existence is rejected by Israel’s current government.
To understand how we have come to this point, and to consider how, in the face of the latest developments, we can look forward to a more hopeful future, this important book by Ilan Pappe is essential reading. Abandoning myths and confronting reality is an important first step forward.