Shapen in Dispossession


As Franz Oppenheimer and Herbert Spencer taught, the State is, in Spencer’s words “begotten of aggression”: meaning born of war, conquest, and plunder. And as Randolph Bourne taught, war is virtually the very essence of the State, which, in the words of Murray Rothbard, is basically “a bandit gang writ large.” Every state is thus, to use a biblical phrase, “shapen in iniquity,” and every state’s path is paved by this “original sin” and essential characteristic. To paraphrase Heraclitus, a state’s origin and character is its fate. For some states, however, its iniquitous origin and character loom particularly large over its historical course. So it is with the State of Israel. This truth can be clearly seen in the Israeli academic historian Ilan Pappe’s masterpiece, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. Pappe tells the history of the 1947-48 event that, during this time of year, Israelis celebrate as their “War of Independence” and Palestinians mourn as the “Nakba” (catastrophe).

Conceived in Ethnocracy

As Pappe shows, the paving of Israel’s path occurred even before its birth: at its very conception. The idea of Israel was conceived by Zionism, a Jewish nationalist movement that began in 19th century Eastern Europe. The Zionists sought to establish a sanctuary for Jews to “escape a history of persecutions and pogroms in the West.” Early Zionism included major non-statist and non-colonialist strands. Tragically, these were crowded out by the “Zionist-Revisionist” strand that aspired to an explicitly Jewish state ruling and settling the biblical territory of Palestine.

This dream was complicated by the inconvenient fact that there were hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish people (mostly Arabs) already living there in centuries-old communities. The Zionists could not have a state with a sufficiently “Jewish” character with so many non-Jews living in the territory they coveted. This became known as the “Arab problem” or “population problem,” and was considered by Zionism “as the major obstacle for the fulfillment of its dream,” as far back as the late 19th century. The “solution” to the “Arab problem” was identified very early on: expulsion. The Arabs simply had to go. As Pappe wrote:

“As they saw it, Palestine was occupied by ‘strangers’ and had to be repossessed. ‘Strangers’ here meant everyone not Jewish who had been living in Palestine since the Roman period. In fact, for many Zionists Palestine was not even an ‘occupied’ land when they first arrived there in 1882, but rather an ‘empty’ one: the native Palestinians who lived there were largely invisible to them or, if not, were part of nature’s hardship and as such were to be conquered and removed. Nothing, neither rocks nor Palestinians, was to stand in the way of the national ‘redemption’ of the land the Zionist movement coveted.”

Expulsion was the main solution from the 19th century and into the mid-20th: although by then, the euphemism “transfer” was often used instead. One Zionist leader wrote in 1940:

“Transfer does not serve only one aim — to reduce the Arab population — it also serves a second purpose by no means less important, which is: to evict land now cultivated by Arabs and to free it for Jewish settlement. (…) The only solution is to transfer the Arabs from here to neighbouring countries. Not a single village or a single tribe must be let off.”

Thus the Zionist dream of Israel, from early on, was a dream of an ethno-racial supremacist state that could only be established through a massive colonialist campaign of ethnic cleansing and dispossession.

Such a nightmare ideology would have remained the stuff of dreams, had it not been for World War I, that greatest of all global calamities that led to the spread of so many virulent strains of statist fanaticism: Nazism, Fascism, Communism, Saudi Wahhabism, and Zionism. The Great War moved Palestine from the Ottoman Empire to the British Empire, under a League of Nations mandate in 1918. While the Zionist settlement movement had already begun under the Muslim Ottoman Turks, it was in Mandatory Palestine that the Zionist project really started taking off, with the heavy support of the British. Already in 1917, British Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour had issued a declaration promising “to establish a national home for the Jews in Palestine…” And, as Pappe wrote:

“Britain’s Mandate charter for Palestine also incorporated, wholesale, the 1917 Balfour Declaration…”

The statist Ottoman land title registration system that the British inherited made it easy for Zionist settlers to cheaply purchase false land titles from“landlords” and evict the rightful peasant owners. For details on this, see the important essay, “Ottoman Land Registration Law as a Contributing Factor in the Israeli-Arab Conflict.”

Even so, during the 1920s, the Jewish population was still a tiny minority in a Palestine that was between eighty and ninety percent Arab. In spite of this, the British made very clear their intention to create a government that advantaged the minority Jewish population over the majority Arabs. This policy resulted in two Arab uprisings: in 1929 and 1936. The latter, according to Pappe, was…

“…a popular rebellion fought with such determination that it forced the British government to station more troops in Palestine than there were in the Indian subcontinent. After three years, with brutal and ruthless attacks on the Palestinian countryside, the British military subdued the revolt. The Palestinian leadership was exiled, and the paramilitary units that had sustained the guerrilla warfare against the Mandatory forces were disbanded. During this process many of the villagers involved were arrested, wounded, or killed.”

The British crushing of the Palestinian uprising in 1936 greatly impacted the Nakba.

“The absence of most of the Palestinian leadership and of viable Palestinian fighting units gave the Jewish forces in 1947 an easy ride into the Palestinian countryside.”

What Pappe, a man of the left, does not mention is the gun control policy that also must have contributed to the Zionist cakewalk during the Nakba, as it has for innumerable other atrocities, from the “Kristallnacht” Nazi pogrom against Germany’s Jews to the Rwanda genocide. As Professor Gordon Welty wrote:

“As the Great Revolt wound down in late 1939, the Palestinians were carefully disarmed by the Mandatory authority — but the Zionists were not.”

While the Palestinians were being disarmed, the Zionists stockpiled arms, which they received both from purchases abroad and from the British, who recruited many of them in 1937 to help crush the Arabs and in 1939 to join the fight against the Axis powers.

These conflicts gave the Zionist forces invaluable opportunities for combat experience, training, and political guidance under the British imperial wing.

“It was one British officer in particular, Orde Charles Wingate, who made the Zionist leaders realise more fully that the idea of Jewish statehood had to be closely associated with militarism and an army… because acts of armed aggression were an effective deterrent against the possible resistance of the local Palestinians. (….)

In 1936, he was assigned to Palestine where he quickly became enchanted by the Zionist dream. He decided actively to encourage the Jewish settlers and started teaching their troops more effective combat tactics and retaliation methods against the local population. (…)

Wingate transformed the principal paramilitary organisation of the Jewish community in Palestine, the Hagana. Established in 1920, its name literally means ‘defense’ in Hebrew, ostensibly to indicate that its main purpose was protecting the Jewish colonies. Under the influence of Wingate, and the militant mood he inspired among its commanders, the Hagana quickly became the military arm of the Jewish Agency, the Zionist governing body in Palestine that in the end developed and then implemented plans for the Zionist military takeover of Palestine as a whole, and the ethnic cleansing of its native population.

The Arab revolt gave the Hagana members a chance to practise the military tactics Wingate had taught them in the Palestinian rural areas…

Wingate succeeded in attaching Hagana troops to the British forces during the Arab revolt so that they could learn even better what a ‘punitive mission’ to an Arab village ought to entail. For example, in June 1938 Jewish troops got their first taste of what it meant to occupy a Palestinian village…

Amatziya Cohen, who took part in the operation, remembered the British sergeant who showed them how to use bayonets in attacking defenseless villagers: ‘I think you are totally ignorant… since you do not even know the elementary use of bayonets when attacking dirty Arabs: how can you put your left foot in front!’”

Also during the Mandate period, Hagana spies carried out extensive and minute reconnaissance of Palestinian villages and farmland and their populations. For this purpose, the recruitment of informants was especially key. This was not so much to aid tactical planning against the helpless villagers, but to plan the disposal of the spoils and of potential “enemies of the state.” The “bespectacled historian” who recommended compiling a “detailed registry of all Arab villages” in this way exulted that “This would greatly help the redemption of the land.”

The conflict became a crisis when it became clear after World War II that the British were preparing to withdraw. And the crisis peaked in 1947 when the newly-formed United Nations, under intense pressure from the now-hegemonic United States, approved a partition plan that, if executed, would hand over about half of Palestine to a Jewish state, even though the vast majority of the populace was still non-Jewish. This resolution was characterized as “a hasty act of granting half of Palestine to an ideological movement that declared openly already in the 1930s its wish to de-Arabise Palestine.”

The tumultuous and in some places violent reaction of the Arabs that resulted gave the Zionists the pretext they were waiting for to implement their long-planned conquest of Palestine. As outraged as the Arabs were over the Jewish State being granted half of Palestine, the Zionists had no intention of being satisfied with so little.

Time for Plan D

Initially, the Zionist forces, under the leadership of David Ben-Gurion, began “redeeming” the land through “punitive raids” (which they had learned to conduct from Wingate) that employed wildly disproportionate and collective punishment: often over nothing more than Arab vandalism.

Pappe describes one of the earlier attacks:

“Social life in Lifta revolved around a small shopping centre, which included a club and two coffee houses. It attracted Jerusalemites as well, as no doubt it would today were it still there. One of the coffee houses was the target of the Hagana when it attacked on 28 December 1947. Armed with machine guns the Jews sprayed the coffee house, while members of the Stern Gang stopped a bus nearby and began firing into it randomly.”

Although what happened after the UN resolution was announced is often characterized as a “civil war” breaking out, Ben-Gurion himself did not characterize it in this way in his internal correspondence. He said:

“I believe the majority of the Palestinian masses accept the partition as a fait accompli and do not blieve it is possible to overcome or reject it (…) The decisive majority of them do not want to fight us.”

Of course he struck an entirely different note in his fiery public speeches, in which he would speak of a “second Holocaust” and proclaim that, “This is a war aimed at destroying and eliminating the Jewish community.”

Soon, however, the pretense of “retaliation” was deemed too cumbersome (one Zionist complained “They are still blowing up a house here and house there…”) and was duly dropped for a more systematic approach.

Only a few months into the civil war, the Zionist leadership adopted Plan Dalet (Plan D), an explicit policy for the systematic de-Arabization of Palestine. Under Plan Dalet:

“There was no need, stressed Ben-Gurion, to distinguish any more between the ‘innocent’ and the ‘guilty’ — the time had come for inflicting collateral damage. Danin recalled years later that Ben-Gurion spelled out what collateral damage meant: ‘Every attack has to end with occupation, destruction and expulsion.’”

The campaign of ethnic cleansing that followed was carefully and centrally planned.

“The country was divided into zones according to the number of brigades, whereby the four original brigades of the Hagana were turned into twelve so as to facilitate the implementation of the plan. Each brigade commander received a list of the villages or neighborhoods that had to be occupied, destroyed and their inhabitants expelled, with exact dates.”

Often, before a village or neighborhood was taken, it would be subjected to threatening orders being blasted from loudspeakers, and other forms of terrorization:

“…the Jewish troops rolled barrels full of explosives, and huge steel balls, down into the Arab residential areas, and poured oil mixed with fuel down the roads, which they then ignited. The moment panic-stricken Palestinian residents came running out of their homes to extinguish these rivers of fire, they were sprayed with machine-gun fire.”

When the forces would march in, they would generally do so on three sides, trying to get the inhabitants to flee through the fourth side. Whenever captives were taken, the preparatory reconnaissance went into use. As Pappe wrote:

“The final update of the village files took place in 1947. It focused on creating lists of ‘wanted’ persons in each village. In 1948 Jewish troops used these lists for the search-and-arrest operations they carried out as soon as they had occupied a village. That is, the men in the village would be lined up and those appearing on the lists would then be identified, often by the same person who had informed on them in the first place but who would now be wearing a cloth sack over his head with two holes cut out for his eyes so as not to be recognised. The men who were picked out were often shot on the spot.”

“Military age males” (between 10 and 30) were often taken to prison camps. The rest would then be hauled away in trucks toward the Jordan River or a border or simply forced to march: generally allowed to bring with them nothing more than the clothes on their backs. Many died on these death marches. Over and over again, we read of Zionist soldiers firing over the Palestinians heads to terrify them into moving faster.

To dissuade them from returning, the houses would then be dynamited and mines would be planted in the rubble.

“In some of the villages that were close to urban centers, the Jewish troops followed a policy of massacres in order to precipitate the flight of the people in the cities and towns nearby.”

As many as thirty-seven such massacres occurred.

From the beginning of the Nakba through May 15, the British were still responsible for law and order. Yet, they restricted themselves to merely protecting their own stations, and looked on as the atrocity unfolded; except that is, for in west Jerusalem, where:

“…the British played a truly diabolical role, as they disarmed the few Palestinian residents who had weapons, promisingn to protect the people against Jewish attacks, and then instantly reneged on that promise.”

May 15, the date set for the British Mandate to end, came around. The Zionists declared the State of Israel and continued the ethnic cleansing apace.

Pappe stresses that:

“All of this took place before a single regular Arab soldier had entered Palestine… This is a fact that must be repeated, as it undermines the Israeli myth that the ‘Arabs’ ran away once the ‘Arab invasion’ began. Almost half of the Arab villages had already been attacked by the time the Arab governments eventually and, as we know, reluctantly decided to send in their troops.”

Pappe also debunks the myth that the intervention of the Arab states posed an “existential threat” to Israel. The equipment and preparation of the Arab forces were a joke compared to the Israelis. And they were placed under the overall command of the King Abdullah of Jordan, a British sock puppet who already made a deal with Israel that granted him the West Bank of the Jordan River, while Israel got to keep the rest of Palestine. He was only interested in preserving his portion of the spoils and not in defending the Palestinian people.

As Pappe wrote:

“Once the [Plan Dalet] decision was taken, it took six months to complete the mission. When it was over, more than half of Palestine’s native population, close to 800,000 people, had been uprooted, 531 villages had been destroyed, and eleven urban neighborhoods emptied of their inhabitants. The plan decided upon on 10 March 1948, and above all its systematic implementation in the following months, was a clear-cut case of an ethnic cleansing operation, regarded under international law today as a crime against humanity.”

It was very clear-cut in the language of the Zionist orders as well, which made frequent use of three different Hebrew words meaning “cleanse” and such operation titles as “Broom.”

The rapacious ruin of the Palestinians is Israel’s foundation story, and its perpetrators were Israel’s founding fathers. The State of Israel was conceived in ethnocracy and born of dispossession and atrocity.

Crime of the Century

Its origin is its character, and its character has been its fate. In ongoing pursuit of its Zionist ideology, Israel has made the lives of the Palestinians one long Nakba ever since. It uses the unjust but predictable and pathetic reprisals of Palestinian militants as a pretext for unbelievably brutal collective punishment: further land grabs for the benefit of Israeli settlers; blockades, sanctions, travel restrictions, and other forms of economic strangulation; widespread torture and arbitrary imprisonment; neighborhood-leveling, total war military operations that are tantamount to canned hunts, and even following them into foreign countries and having them slaughtered in their refugee camps.

Through demagogic, nationalistic herd-spooking, the State of Israel has managed to normalize this kind of brutality among its citizenry. In doing so, it has afflicted much of the Israeli populace with a profound sickness of soul. As Raimondo writes in his review of Max Blumenthal’s book Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel:

“How else are we to explain the fact that, during the attack on Gaza, IDF soldiers killed an eight-year-old child, one Ibrahim Awajah, and used his corpse for target practice? This was no isolated incident: one by one we read the stories of disgusting atrocities carried out by the IDF — how they lobbed a shell into the living room of Izeldeen Abuelaish, a Harvard-trained fertility doctor and medical researcher who had helped many Israelis have children. The shell decapitated two of his daughters and “shredded” his other children “to pieces.” As this was going on, Israelis sat on Parash Hill, near Sderot, which offers a clear view of the Gaza Strip, watching the slaughter and cheering as if it were the latest hit movie — spectators to their own moral degeneration.”

They are not alone. Writing shortly after Israel’s Six Day War, Murray Rothbard wrote:

“One of the most repellent aspects of the 1967 slaughter is the outspoken admiration for the Israeli conquest by almost all Americans, Jew and non-Jew alike. There seems to be a sickness deep in the American soul that causes it to identify with aggression and mass murder — the swifter and more brutal the better.”

The sickness Rothbard speaks of is a result of the American people being debased by its own government, which itself was also born of the systematic dispossession of its own helots: the dispossession and enslavement of African blacks and the dispossession and extermination of the American Indians.

Indeed it is the United States government that has, since 1967, done the most to enable Israel’s crimes, through its aid and its unconditional support, and to commit further crimes on its behalf.

The US props up despots in Egypt and Jordan with billions in aid largely to ensure their complicity in boxing in the Palestinians for the sake of Israel. The US invaded Iraq, fomented a civil war in Syria, and maintains a cold war with Iran, and in general has plunged the entire Muslim world into mayhem largely because the neocons and the Israel lobby thought it would be good for Israel, in part because of the tepid and often indirect support for the Palestinians offered by those states. The neocons may have even pushed for an anti-Russian regime change in Ukraine in retaliation for Putin interfering with the US airstrikes they wanted in Syria. And US complicity in the plight of the Palestinians is one of the grievances most frequently cited by anti-American terrorists.

Its destabilization of the Middle East and its ripple effects on today’s foreign policy of the American global superpower, make the Nakba more than just one more atrocity in an era full of them, but the crime of this century, even though it was committed in the last one.

Pappe identifies the root issue:

“Neither Palestinians nor Jews will be saved, from one another or from themselves, if the ideology that still drives the Israeli policy towards the Palestinians is not correctly identified. The problem with Israel was never its Jewishness–Judaism has many faces and many of them provide a solid basis for peace and cohabitation; it is its ethnic Zionist character.”

Restitution and Reconciliation

All of this history is well-documented. Yet most Israelis know little-to-none of it, thanks to their government’s efforts to deny and erase it. Yet Pappe concludes his book on a note of hope:

“Not all the Jews in Israel are blind to the scenes of carnage that their army left behind in 1948, nor are they deaf to the cries of the expelled, the wounded, the tortured and the raped as they keep reaching us through those who survived, and through their children and grandchildren. In fact, growing numbers of Israelis are aware of the truth of what happened in 1948, and fully comprehend the moral implications of the ethnic cleansing that raged in the country. They also recognise the risk of Israel re-activating the cleansing program in a desperate attempt to maintain its absolute Jewish majority.

It is among these people that we find the political wisdom that all past and present peace-brokers of the conflict appear to lack so totally: they are fully aware that the refugee problem stands at the heart of the conflict and that the fate of the refugees is pivotal for any solution to have a chance of succeeding.

True, these Israeli Jews who go against the grain are few and far between, but they are there, and given the overall desire of the Palestinians to seek restitution and not demand retribution, together they hold the key to reconciliation and peace in the torn land of Palestine.”

If such a worthy dream should come true, it will probably be largely thanks to Ilan Pappe’s own brilliant and fearlessly moral work.