To grasp what’s happening in the Middle East requires understanding two intertwined matters that are largely absent in mainstream media coverage and pro-Israeli government commentaries.
The first is the Cataclysm (Nakba) of the Palestinians of mid-July, nearly six decades ago. As Israeli political scientist Ilan Pappe noted in a recent ZNet piece, the story in today’s headlines begins in 1948 when recently arrived Jews engaged in a well-planned “ethnic cleansing” campaign, an effort documented by respected Israeli historians and unimpeachable military sources. The facts are not in dispute and have entered some Israeli textbooks. In 2006 they are again attempting to enlarge the Jewish state and in Pappe’s words, “complete the unfinished business of 1948: the total de-Arabization of Palestine”
In a forced Death March, up to 50,000 Palestinians were driven from their villages into exile, a number eventually reaching 750,000 in the Palestinian diaspora or dispersion. Haifa and Jaffa were “cleansed” and according to Benny Morris, the celebrated dean of the “new historians,” Israeli massacres included: Salina(70-80 killed), Deir Yassin (100-110), Lod(250), Dawayima (hundreds) and Abu Shusha (70 likely). Relying on IDF archives, Morris documents massacres at Deir al Asad, Majdal Krum, Eilaboun and Sasa. Asked about the word “cleansing” Morris replied “I know it doesn’t sound nice but that’s the term used at the time. I adopted it from all the documents in which I’m immersed.”
In all, 385 Palestinian Arab villages were razed to the ground by the Israeli army, including garden walls and cemeteries. Jews moved in, new towns and parks (Canada Park, which I visited, is an example) were built and map names altered. As Israeli military hero Moshe Dayan once said, “There is not a single place in this country that did not have a former Arab population.” (Ha’aretz. 4/4/69). Although Israelis are well aware of these facts, I’ve observed American tourists departing Israel who remain ignorant of this history, still believing the Leon Uris tale about the Israelis “making the desert bloom.”
This identity defining Palestinian trauma was brought home to me some years ago during a visit to Palestinian refugee camps in Tyre and Sidon in Lebanon. Upon learning that I would be journeying to Israel, elderly Palestinian camp residents showed me well-worn photos of their olive orchards and orange groves. Another displayed her old house keys. They asked if I might possibly visit their properties and send back updated pictures to show their children and grandchildren. The events of 1948 have animinated Palestian life and that of the “Arab street” to this day.
The second troubling feature is that it’s impossible to understand Israel without recognizing its founding on this dispossession and exclusion of the native Arabs. According to Haifa University scholar Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, this original sin “haunts and torments Israelis; it marks everything and taints everybody.” A settler colonialist mentality prevails in which equality for all simply lies outside the Israeli mindset. There is a certain logic here because “The injustice done to the Palestinians is so clear and so striking that it cannot be openly discussed…”
In a sense this is a coping mechanism to avoid an otherwise obscene reality that runs counter to minimum moral standards and would undermine many of Israel’s self-professed virtues. How else can they avoid facing the fact that their “beloved homeland has been built at the expense of others” and that the “cost of domination is their own bondage to oppression.”
How does one face being “the last white settlers in Asia?” As Prof. Beit-Hallahmi observes, most Israelis avoid thinking about human rights anywhere in the Third World because that means thinking about Palestinian rights and “undermining the moral justification for Zionism.” Instead, many simply choose to see the world as unjust and hypocritical, a jungle in which “might makes right.” Banish all guilt. Act tough, don’t identify with losers and be contemptous towards what the world thinks — with the all important exception of U.S. public opinion.
It follows that although Israel is the only nuclear power in the region and has the third most powerful military in the world, it convinces itself (and many Americans) that it’s a plucky, innocent, tiny country in constant mortal jeopardy with the Palestinians and surrounded by evil Goliaths. Nothing could be further from the truth but maintaining this sacrosanct mythology is embedded in the political culture and assiduously propagated.
Is there an answer? There are courageous and highly principled dissenters in Israel who do not have a moral blind spot where their government is concerned. But the majority of Jewish-Israelis remain silent and complicit. The solution is to end the Israeli occupation and face up to the fundemental 1948 issues. Palestinian land occupied in 1967 must be relinquished, the Apartheid Wall dismantled, some 9,800 kidnapped Palestinian political prisoners held in Israeli jails released, Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah must be freed, a fair division of Jerusalem negotiated and equal rights for all recognized at an international conference.
But unless and until peace is forced on Israel by Washington, the pipeline for its F-16s, sophisticated missiles and $109 billion U.S. taxpayer dollars over 50 years, only the bleakest future awaits all parties. An informed and aroused American public could make all the difference.
(A shorter version of this article appeared The Morning Call (Allentown,PA) on July 26, 2006).
Sources: Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, ORIGINAL SINS (Interlink, 1993).
______________THE ISRAELI CONNECTION (NY: Pantheon, 1987). Benny Morris, THE BIRTH OF THE PALESTINIAN REFUGEE PROBLEM REVISITED (Cambridge: CUP, 2005).
Simha Flapan, THE BIRTH OF ISRAEL (NY:Pantheon, 1987).
Gary Olson is chair of the Political Science Department at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA. The recipient of Fulbright and Malone study grants to Jordan, Syria, Kuwait, Egypt and Syria, he has also traveled extensively in Israel and Lebanon. Contact: [email protected]