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The Palestinians call Israel’s 1948 war of independence their Nakba or catastrophic ethnic cleansing, or forced exile. The Israelis, for their part, have steadfastly rejected any suggestion of ethnic cleansing as calumny in all its anti-Semitic horror.
Historic revisionism is now under way. Without fanfare, just below the media radar screen, the Israeli Education Ministry has approved a textbook for Arab third-graders in Israel that concedes the war that gave birth to Israel was a ‘nakba’ for the Palestinians. The textbook refers to the ‘expulsion’ of some of the Palestinians and the ‘confiscation of many Arab-owned lands.’
Textbooks for Jewish Israelis in the same grade make no such verbal concession. But Israel’s ‘new wave’ historians have been combing through fresh material now available from the British mandate period and Israeli archives that document the history of Israel before and after it became a state. Long-lasting myths are being debunked.
Ilan Pappe, an Israeli historian and Haifa University lecturer, whose ninth book is titled “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine,” documents how Israel was born with lands forcibly seized from its Palestinian inhabitants who had lived there for hundreds of years.
During the British mandate (1920-1948), Zionist leaders concluded Palestinians, who owned 90 percent of the land (with 5.8 percent owned by Jews), would have to be forcibly expelled to make a Jewish state possible. Pappe quotes David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, addressing the Jewish Agency Executive in June 1938, as saying, “I am for compulsory transfer. I do not see anything immoral in it.”
Pappe outlines Plan D (Dalet in Hebrew), which followed earlier plans A, B and C, and included forcible expulsion of some 800,000 Palestinians from both urban and rural areas with the objective of creating by any means necessary an exclusive Jewish state without an Arab presence. The methods ranged from a campaign of disinformation — “get out immediately because the Jews are on their way to kill you” — to Jewish militia attacks to terrorize the Palestinians.
The first Jewish militia attacks, says Pappe, began before the May 1948 end of the British mandate. In December 1947 two villages in the central plain — Deir Ayyub and Beit Affa — were raided, and their panicked Palestinian inhabitants fled. Jewish leaders gave the order to drive out as many Palestinians as possible on March 10, 1948. The terror campaign ended six months later. Pappe writes 531 Palestinian villages were destroyed, and 11 urban neighborhoods in cities were emptied of their Palestinian inhabitants.
There is no doubt in Pappe’s mind that Plan D “was a clear-cut case of an ethnic cleansing operation, regarded under international law today as a crime against humanity.”
Plan Dalet began in the rural hills on the western slopes of the Jerusalem mountains halfway on the road to Tel Aviv, according to Pappe. It was called Operation Nachshon, and served as a model for massive expulsions using terror tactics. Pappe also details what he calls the “urbicide of Palestine” that included attacking and cleansing the major urban centers of Tiberias, Haifa, Tel Aviv, Safad and what he calls the “Phantom City of Jerusalem” once Jewish troops shelled, attacked and occupied its western Arab neighborhoods in April 1948. The British did not interfere. Lobbied by the World Zionist Organization and its guiding Chaim Weizmann, who became the first president of Israel (1949-52), the British decided in favor of a Jewish state in Palestine in the 1917 Balfour Declaration. This was a letter from the British Foreign Secretary to Lord Rothschild (Walter, 2nd Baron Rothschild), the leader of the British Jewish community, for relay to the Zionist Federation. The British also pledged indigenous Arab rights would be protected as they divvied up the Ottoman Empire.
The myth was then created of “a land without people for a people without a land” even though the “empty land” had a flourishing Palestinian Arab population. The U.N. partition plan of Nov. 29, 1947, gave the Jews 56 percent of Palestine, with one-third of the population, while making Jerusalem an international city. The Jewish part included the most fertile land and almost all urban areas.
When the British handed power to the Jews on May 15, 1948, including the influx of survivors from Hitler’s concentration camps, two-thirds of the population was still Palestinian.
The first Arab-Israeli war quickly followed as the armies of Egypt, Transjordan (now Jordan), Syria, Lebanon and Iraq joined Palestinian and other Arab guerrillas who had been attacking Jewish forces since November 1947. The Arabs failed to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state and were defeated. The war ended with four U.N.-arranged armistice agreements between Israel and Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.
Commenting on Pappe’s historical research, Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut and editor at large of the Beirut Daily Star, writes, “Many Israelis will challenge Pappe’s account. Such a process should ideally spark an honest, comprehensive analysis that could lead us to an accurate narrative of what happened in 1947-48 — accurate for both sides, if it is to have meaning for either side.”
An Israeli official textbook for Palestinian third-graders, says Fares, “that fleetingly acknowledges the Palestinian trauma of exile and occupation in 1948 is an intriguing sign of something that remains largely unclear.” The “something” is worth exploring and reciprocating, “if it indicates a capacity to move toward the elusive shared, accurate, truthful account of Israeli and Palestinian history that must anchor any progress toward a negotiated peace.”
The consensus in Israel today, says Pappe, is for a state comprising 90 percent of Palestine “surrounded by electric fences and visible and invisible walls” with Palestinians given only worthless cantonized scrub lands of little value to the Jewish state. In 2006, Pappe sees that 1.4 million Palestinians live in Israel on 2 percent of the land allotted to them plus another 1 percent for agricultural use with 6 million Jews on most of the rest. “Another 3.9 million live concentrated in Israel’s unwanted portions of the West Bank and concentrated in Gaza that has three times the population density of Manhattan,” notes Pappe. Back from the Middle East last week, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said prospects are good for a two-state solution. A “viable and contiguous” Palestinian state, pledged by the Bush administration, remains a pipe dream.