Book review: The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine

Author: Ilan Pappe

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It is a testament to the quick-footedness of Israeli academia that, after nearly 60 years, the details of what actually happened in Palestine in 1948-49 (what the zionists call the War of Independence and the Palestinians call the Nakba – the catastrophe) are only now being properly synthesised into a coherent and comprehensive study.

Providing a tremendous wealth of detail – clearly based on an extensive examination of primary evidence, both written and spoken – Ilan Pappe is able to incontrovertibly prove that the war of 1948-49 was not, as it has always been painted in the official zionist history books, a valiant feat of self-defence in the face of the combined armies of the Arab world; it was in fact a premeditated, and largely successful, attempt by the zionists to increase their territory and to ethnically cleanse that territory of its Arab population.

Indeed, the forced transfer of Palestinians out of their homeland had long been planned by the zionists. Theodore Herzl, the founder of modern zionism, wrote in 1895: “We shall endeavour to expel the poor population across the border unnoticed, procuring employment for it in the transit countries, but denying it any employment in our own country.” (Cited on p250)

Leo Motzkin, described by Pappe as “one of the zionist movement’s most liberal thinkers” , wrote in 1917: “Our thought is that the colonisation of Palestine has to go in two directions: Jewish settlement in Eretz Israel and the resettlement of the Arabs of Eretz Israel in areas outside the country. The transfer of so many Arabs may seem at first unacceptable economically, but is nonetheless practical. It does not take too much money to resettle a Palestinian village on another land.” (Cited on p7)

Of course, these revered fathers of zionism didn’t consider, or at least didn’t publicly discuss, exactly how the population would be ‘resettled’. Certainly, the Israelis forgot about their promise to “procure employment” for the Palestinians who had been moved to the “transit countries” . Such romantic notions of gently pushing the Palestinian population in the direction of Lebanon and Jordan (where they would of course be given terrific jobs and be treated to gourmet falafel) were replaced by a vicious and relentless campaign of murder, torture, rape, sabotage and plunder.

“Like a ferocious storm gathering force, the Israeli troops no longer spared anyone in their destructive zeal. All means became legitimate, including burning down houses where dynamite had become scarce and torching the fields and remains of a Palestinian village they had attacked.” (p147)

In hundreds of villages attacked by the zionists, men of ‘military age’, that is between ten(!) and fifty, were rounded up and either imprisoned or executed on the spot. Several massacres, such as those at Deir Yassin and Tantura, took place. Pappe even points to evidence that the Hagana (a terrorist jewish group, and one of the pillars of the Israeli war effort) was involved in injecting typhoid into the water near certain Palestinian villages. Muslim holy sites – including buildings of great historical importance – were defaced or demolished. By the end of the war, “more than half of Palestine’s native population, close to 800,000 people, had been uprooted, 531 villages had been destroyed, and eleven urban neighbourhoods emptied of their inhabitants”. (pxiii)

David and Goliath

Zionist revisionist historians have always perpetrated the idea that the jewish forces were badly outnumbered and that they had to fight heroically to fend off the combined armies of all the Arab countries. Pappe points out that, at the beginning of the war, the combined Jewish fighting forces comprised of around 50,000 highly-armed and well-trained troops, while their opposition was around 7,000 Palestinian troops in irregular paramilitary outfits with very poor armaments. The Arab Liberation Army that entered the country from the beginning of 1948 was composed of no more than 3,000 fighters, almost all with very limited military training.

In public, the Israel leadership was making noises about the possibility of a ‘second holocaust’, but in reality they knew they held the upper hand. Ben Gurion wrote in February 1948: “If we will receive in time the arms we have already purchased, and maybe even receive some of that promised to us by the UN, we will be able not only to defend [ourselves] but also to inflict death blows on the Syrians in their own country – and take over Palestine as a whole. This is not a mystical belief but a cold and rational calculation based on practical examination.” Hardly the words of someone who is worried about impending loss in battle!

Refusal to negotiate

It is fairly natural that the Palestinian people would not immediately agree to the partition plan imposed upon them by the UN, since it allocated half their land – and the best land at that – to what was at the time a foreign group (by the end of the British Mandate in 1948, jewish land ownership in Palestine was only 5.8 percent).

The Palestinians protested that they needed more time to discuss the plan. “Palestinian leadership boycotted the UN proceedings, on the basis of their being illegal and unjust. They proposed instead that the unitary state be maintained and that the issue be solved through a much longer period of negotiation. Indeed, the US drafted a proposal suggesting an international trusteeship over Palestine for five years, during which the two sides would negotiate an agreed solution.” (p123)

However, the zionists had no interest in discussion or negotiation. The Palestinian refusal to immediately go along with the partition plan was just the pretext zionism needed to go to war for more territory and to effect its programme of ethnic cleansing. Indeed, had the Palestinians decided to go along with the partition plan, the jewish leadership would almost certainly have rejected it. (See p35)

David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister and ostensibly a ‘socialist’, put it concisely: “The Arabs will have to go, but one needs an opportune moment for making it happen, such as a war.” (p23)

The zionists were so opposed to negotiation and further mediation that they had Count Folke Bernadotte, the UN Mediator for Palestine, assassinated by the notorious Stern Gang, another prominent paramilitary terrorist group. Incidentally, former Prime Minister of Israel, Yitzhak Shamir, was one of the main organisers of the assassination.

Complicity of the British

Pappe notes that the British government (which at the time was dominated by Labour) could quite easily have put a stop to the ethnic cleansing operation. However, in some cases the British provided active assistance to the zionists:

“In December [1947] , [the British] still had 75,000 troops in Palestine, but these were dedicated solely to safeguard the eviction of the Mandatory soldiers, officers and officials.

“The British sometimes assisted in other, more direct, ways in the ethnic cleansing, by providing the Jewish leadership with ownership deeds and other vital data, which they had photocopied before destroying them, as was common in their decolonization process. This inventory added to the village files the final details the Zionists needed for the massive depopulation.” (p125)

Indeed, former British officers were prominent in training the Hagana.


John Pilger is certainly not wrong when he describes Ilan Pappe as “Israel’s bravest, most principled, most incisive historian”. Pappe’s book gives a vast amount of detail, and the evidence supplied proves clearly that what happened in Palestine in 1948-49 can most accurately be described as an extensive ethnic cleansing operation.

However, a criticism: in the book, Pappe routinely uses the alleged ethnic cleansing of Kosovan Albanians by the Serbian armed forces as his reference point, as though it were the archetypal ethnic cleansing operation.

It is surprising, given that Pappe is obviously a very talented and serious historian, that he has swallowed the imperialist bait on the question of Yugoslavia. Any number of serious analyses have shown that the ethnic divisions in Kosovo were deliberately stoked up by the US and its allies in a bid to destabilise the area and create a context in which Nato military invasion could be justified.

Criticisms aside, Pappe’s book is a valuable contribution to the struggle for Palestinian independence and freedom, and is a must-read for anyone hoping to understand the problems facing the Middle East.