Monday, February 23, 2009

The ethnic cleansing of Palestine

The New York Review of Books for March 12 contains a useful review of three recent books on ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia. Those horrors, at least, are over, and some of the war criminals who were responsible have been prosecuted. Not so with another instance of ethnic cleansing, which began sixty years ago and is still going on, with the unwavering support of the American government. Let me begin with a brief case study.

Al-Tantura was a prosperous Arab fishing village of some 1200 inhabitants, located on the Mediterranean 28 kilometers south of Haifa. In 1948 Tantura lay within the area the United Nations had allocated to the Jewish State in its ill-advised Partition Plan.

It was Tantura’s fate to be singled out as the starting point of the “Coastal Clearing Operation” to be carried out by a Hagana force. Code named Namal, the incursion took place on the night of May 22-23. That night Tantura was attacked and occupied by the the Alexandroni Brigade, which launched its assault under cover of darkness. There was no prior expression of readiness to suspend the operation in exchange for surrender.

The night attack started with heavy machine-gun fire, and was followed by an infantry attack from all three landward sides, even as an Israeli naval vessel blocked off any chance of escape by sea. By 0800 hours on May 23 the battle was over. The village had offered little resistance.

While the number is disputed, many adult males of Tantura were simply killed by the Israeli attackers. The rest of the inhabitants were driven away, and the village was ethnically cleansed.

A Ministry official, Ya’akov Epstein, who submitted a report after visiting Tantura shortly after the operation, reported seeing bodies '”in the [village] outskirts, in the streets, in the alleys, in village houses.” In 1998 a former resident of the village, Mahmoud Yihiya Yihiya, published a book on Tantura recording the names of 52 dead.

The occupation of the village was followed by looting. Some of the items the Hagana recovered included “one carpet, one gramophone ... one basket with cucumbers .... one goat.” Because of the number of rotting human and animal corpses, the area became a health hazard.

In 1964 the IDF (the Israeli Army) released an official history of "The Alexandroni Brigade in the War of Independence" in which eleven pages were devoted to Tantura; it makes no mention of any expulsion. However, in 2004 Alexandroni veterans finally acknowledged the forced expulsion.

The name Tantura was erased, replaced by the Hebraic name Dor; the old Arab village was bulldozed. This obliteration of the historical memory of Arab history is commonplace, and indeed ubiquitous. Today the Jewish residents are vehemently opposed to any exhumation of a possible mass-grave site.

This assault on Tantura was not an isolated event, but faithfully reflected a policy determined by a command group known as the Consultancy, headed by David Ben-Gurion. On May 11, 1948 this group decided to "expel or subdue" the villages of Kafr Saba, al-Tira, Qaqun, Qalansura and Tantura. The decision taken at the meeting was confirmed in a letter to commanders of the Hagana brigades telling them that they must not be distracted from their principal task. According to an entry in Ben-Gurion's diary: “the cleansing of Palestine remained the prime objective of Plan Dalet.” More on the Plan later.

Over the decades it has been difficult to establish the truth regarding the Tantura attack and expulsion--essentially because of official Israeli obfuscation.

Long consigned to the Orwellian memory hole, the devastation of Tantura became visible as the result of the research of a courageous Israeli graduate student, Theodore Katz. In his master’s thesis for the University of Haifa, Katz alleged that Israeli forces had killed 240 Arab civilians from the village of Tantura in 1948. Katz himself did not use the word massacre, although other scholars have concluded that that was what it was. Faced with a libel suit, Katz initially withdrew his allegation, However, he retracted his statement almost immediately. His mentor Ilan Pappe continues to stand by Katz and his thesis. The well-known historian Benny Morris acknowledged that while he is unsure whether what happened in Tantura was actually a massacre, he is now convinced that atrocities, rapes, and killings were committed by the troops.

Proposals in 2004 to exhume bodies from a site believed to be a mass grave never materialized. Local residents are opposed to an exhumation, an exhumation that is jointly supported by Katz, the Tantura refugees, and the Alexandroni veterans. The Alexandroni veterans contend that the grave holds only 70-75 bodies, while Katz believes that 200-260 bodies lie under the car park. Even if we accept the low figure of 70-75, it is clear that a mass execution took place.

At all events the destruction of Tantura was part of a larger pattern. Devised by Ben-Gurion’s Consultancy, Plan Dalet was a comprehensive blueprint for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. In keeping with this Plan, hundreds of Arab villages were erased. These occurrences were premeditated.

In his most recent book “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine” (2006), the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe pulls no punches. Pappe was born in Haifa in 1954 to German-Jewish parents who fled Nazi persecution in the 1930s. Author or editor of ten books, he was a professor at the University of Haifa for a number of years. In the face of threats and unremitting hostility, he found it prudent to exile himself to Britain, where he now serves as a professor at the University of Exeter.

In his new book Pappe flatly accuses Israel of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity beginning with the 1948 war for independence, and continuing through the present. Focusing primarily on Plan Dalet, finalized on March 10, 1948, Pappe demonstrates how ethnic cleansing was not a circumstance of war, but rather a deliberate goal of combat for early Israeli military units led by David Ben-Gurion, whom Pappe labels the "architect of ethnic cleansing." The forced expulsion of 800,000 Palestinians between 1948-49, Pappe maintains, was part of a long-standing Zionist plan to manufacture an ethnically pure Jewish state. Framing his argument with accepted international and UN definitions of ethnic cleansing, Pappe follows suit with an excruciatingly detailed account of Israeli military involvement in the demolition and depopulation of hundreds of villages, and the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Arab inhabitants.

With its graphic detail and blunt phrasing, this book is sometimes stomach-turning. Yet the history that Pappe has doggedly and expertly recovered is an essential one.

In his preface, Ilan Pappe describes the "Red House" in Tel-Aviv that became headquarters for the Hagana, the dominant Zionist paramilitary organization during the British Mandate period in Palestine between 1920 and 1948 (when the Jewish state came into being). He shows how David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, met with leading Zionists and young Jewish military officers on March 10, 1948 to complete their plans to ethnically cleanse Palestine. This undertaking unfolded in the months that followed, featuring "large-scale (deadly serious) intimidation; laying siege to and bombarding villages and population centers; setting fire to homes, properties and goods; expulsion; demolition; and finally, planting mines among the rubble to prevent any of the expelled inhabitants from returning."

The final master plan was called Plan D (Dalet in Hebrew) following plans A, B, and C preceding it. It was to be a war without mercy complying with what Ben-Gurion stated in June 1938 to the Jewish Agency Executive: "I am for compulsory transfer; I do not see anything immoral in it." Plan Dalet became the blueprint of how to do this. The goal was simple and straightforward: to create by any means necessary an exclusively Jewish state devoid of any significant Arab presence.

Once begun, the whole ugly business took six months to complete. The steamroller expelled about 800,000 people, killed many others, and destroyed at least 531 villages, as well as eleven urban neighborhoods in cities like Tel-Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem.

Even with the British still in charge of law and order before the Mandate ended, Jewish forces managed to expell about 250,000 Palestinians, using tactics that the occupying power did nothing to stop. The devastation continued unabated because when neighboring Arab states finally did decide to intervene, they did so without conviction. They came belatedly and with only small, ill-equipped forces--no match for a superior, well-armed Israeli military that easily prevailed.

Nonetheless, Ben-Gurion manipulated world opinion by suggesting that a “Second Holocaust” was about to occur. One should be cautious about casual use of the term holocaust, yet it would seem that in this case the Israelis were the perpetrators, not the victims--whatever the process may be termed.

David Ben-Gurion’s goal was Jewish sovereignty over as much of ancient Palestine as possible, achieved the only way he thought feasible--by forceable removal of Palestinians from their land so that Jews could resettle it. He wanted the maximum of territory with the fewest possible Arabs. To attain this aim, he and other Zionist leaders needed a systematic plan to cleanse the land for Jewish habitation. Their efforts began with a detailed registry or inventory of Arab villages that the Jewish National Fund (JNF) was assigned to compile. The JNF was founded in 1901 as the main Zionist tool for the colonization of Palestine. Its original purpose was to buy land used to settle Jewish immigrants that by the end of the British Mandate in 1948 amounted to 5.8% of Palestine or a small fraction of what Zionists wanted for a Jewish state. Early on, Ben-Gurion and others understood that a more aggressive approach was needed for their colonization plan to succeed.

An essential tool was the Arab-village inventory completed by the late 1930s. This inventory included the topographic location of each village with detailed information including husbandry, cultivated land, number of trees, quality of fruit, average amount of land per family, number of cars, shop owners, Palestinian clans and their political affiliation, descriptions of village mosques and names of their imams, civil servants, and more. The final update culminated in 1947 with lists of "wanted" persons in each village targeted in 1948 for search-and-arrest operations, with those seized summarily shot on the spot.

Ben-Gurion was determined to make Jerusalem the Jewish capital. He intended the final borders of the Jewish state to remain flexible, so as to include within them as much future territory as possible. Ben-Gurion decreed that the borders would "be determined by force and not by partition resolution [of the United Nations]."

The Zionist leaders wanted 80% of Mandatory Palestine, that is, over 40% more land than the UN allotted. This land was to be taken forcibly from the Palestinians. To obtain the territory they coveted, the Zionists colluded tacitly with the Jordanians, effectively neutralizing the strongest Arab army by buying them off with the remaining 20% of the territory.

In December 1947, the Palestinian population numbered 1.3 million of which one million lived in the domain of the future Jewish state. The Jewish minority stood at 600,000. Zionist leaders needed a way to dispose of this huge mass of undesirables. They wished to clear the land for Jewish habitation only. To this end, the Israelis began a campaign of state-sponsored terror against a near-defenseless population unable to withstand the onslaught unleashed against it. Tactics of choice included threats and intimidation, attacking villages while their inhabitants slept, shooting anything that moved, and blowing up homes with their residents inside. Especially at risk were fighting-age men and boys who might pose a combat or resistance threat.

As the events unfolded, Ben-Gurion exulted with comments like this. "We are told the army had the ability of destroying a whole village and taking out all its inhabitants; let's do it." On another occasion, he explained: "Every attack has to end with occupation, destruction and expulsion." He meant that the entire population of a village had to be removed, everything in it leveled to the ground, and its history erased. In its place, a new Jewish community would be established as part of the new Jewish state he and others in the Consultancy believed required a mass ethnic cleansing involving the relocation of the Palestinians living there. This aim was achieved by terrorism, intimidation, and selective killings.

Pappe details what he calls the "urbicide of Palestine" that included attacking and cleansing the major urban centers in the country. They included Tiberias, Haifa, Tel-Aviv, Safad, and what Pappe calls the "Phantom City of Jerusalem" changed from the "Eternal City" once Jewish troops shelled, attacked, and occupied its western Arab neighborhoods in April 1948.

The urbicide continued into May with the occupation of Acre on the coast and Baysan in the East on May 6. On May 13, Jaffa was the last city taken two days before the Mandate ended. The city had 1500 volunteers against 5000 Jewish troops. It survived a three-week siege and attack through mid-May, but when it fell its entire population of 50,000 was expelled. With its fall, Jewish occupying forces had emptied and depopulated most of the major cities and towns of Palestine.
Ilan Pappe shows that all this happened between March 30 and May 15, 1948 "before a single regular Arab soldier had entered Palestine (to help Palestinians which they did ineffectively when they finally came)." His account demolishes the Israeli myth that Palestinians left voluntarily before or after Arab forces intervened. Nearly half their villages were attacked and destroyed before Arab countries sent in any forces, and another 90 villages were wiped out from May 15 (when the Mandate ended) untill June 11 when the first of two short-lived truces took effect.


Other sources deal with the ongoing Israeli attempts to demoralize, restrict, and humiliate the Palestinians. Today all Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories are subject to a harsh regime of control There are roadblocks that include checkpoints and curfews, with violators shot on sight.

In many West Bank villages the residents are prevented from building on their own land, or from grazing their flocks in the pastures nearby, due to the severe restrictions imposed on them by the Israeli army and police. In order to succor the ever-expanding network of Jewish settlements, more and more land is annexed under the guise of erecting "security zones," effectively strangling the natural growth of the Palestinian communities, and destroying their livelihoods at the same time.

The current policy has been aptly described as "ethnic cleansing by stealth," the ultimate aim being to make life so tough for the Palestinians that they hold their hands up in despair and relocate elsewhere. For those holding the reigns of power, where the hapless victims go is immaterial--just so it's far enough away for the vacated land to be redistributed to a new generation of settlers.
This kind of low-level bullying is neither sensational nor violent enough to merit regular headlines in the media, but its effects are no less harshly felt just because the methods employed are less extreme than the deployment of all-out brute force. Erecting roadblocks at the entrance of villages to force the residents to take long detours; taking no action against settlers who routinely beat and harass Palestinian children on their way to school; demolishing shelters built in the middle of the desert on the pretext of curbing security risks--in all these ways the army's actions play a huge part in making the impoverished Palestinians' difficult lives ever harder.

Once the unwanted Arabs are gone, further steps are taken. Places under Israeli control must undergo campaigns to rename them so as to obliterate the centuries of history they signified. Archaeologists and biblical experts have volunteered to serve on an official Naming Committee to "Hebraicize" Palestine's geography. The goal is to de-Arabize the lands, erase their history, and use the territory for new Jewish colonization and development, as well as to create European-looking national parks with recreational facilities including picnic sites and children's playgrounds for Jews only. Hidden beneath the surface are the remains of destroyed Palestinian villages deleted from the public memory but not from that of people who once lived there. This is the process that Pappe aptly terms “memoricide.”

In all likelihood this hideous story is not yet over. According to a recent poll, sixty-eight percent of Israeli Jews favor the expulsion of the million or so Palestinians who are actually citizens of the state of Israel. The steamroller of ethnic cleansing rolls on and on.

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