of Denial: Israel, 1948-2008
Ilan Pappe, April -
The Link - Volume 41, Issue
For Israelis, 1948 is the year in which two things happened, one of
which contradicts the other.
On the one hand, in that year the Jewish national movement,
Zionism, claimed it fulfilled an ancient dream of returning to a
homeland after 2,000 years of exile. From this perspective, 1948 is
a miraculous event, the realization of a dream that carries with it
associations of moral purity and absolute justice. Hence the
military conduct of Jewish soldiers on the battlefield in 1948
became the model for generations to come. And subsequent Israeli
leaders were lionized as men and women devoted to the Zionist
ideals of sacrifice for the common cause. It is a sacred year,
1948, the formative source of all that is good in the Jewish
society of Israel.
On the other hand, 1948 was the worst chapter in Jewish history. In
that year, Jews did in Palestine what Jews had not done anywhere
else in their previous 2,000 years. Even if one puts aside the
historical debate about why what happened in 1948 happened, no one
seems to question the enormity of the tragedy that befell the
indigenous population of Palestine as a result of the success of
the Zionist movement.
In normal circumstances, as Edward Said noted in his "Culture and
Imperialism," the painful dialogue with the past should enable a
given society to digest both the most evil and the most glorious
moments of its history. But this could not work in a case where
moral self-image is considered to be the principal asset in the
battle over public opinion, and hence the best means of surviving
in a hostile environment. The way out for the Jewish society in the
newly founded state was to erase from its collective memory the
unpleasant chapters of the past and to leave intact the gratifying
Because so many of the people who live in Israel lived through 1948
this was not an easy task. That year is not a distant memory and
the crimes are still visible on the landscape. Above all, there are
victims still living to tell their story and when they are gone,
their descendents will pass on their accounts to future
generations. And, yes, there are people in Israel who know exactly
what they did, and there are even more who know what others
The authorities in Israel, to be sure, have succeeded in
eliminating these deeds totally from society’s collective memory,
as they struggle relentlessly against anyone who tries to shed
light on them, in or outside Israel. If you look at Israeli
textbooks, curricula, media, and political discourse you see how
this chapter on Jewish history—the chapter of expulsion,
colonization, massacres, rape, and the burning of villages—is
totally absent. It is replaced by chapters of heroism, glorious
campaigns and amazing tales of moral courage and military
competence unheard of in the historiographies of any other state in
the 20th century.
It would be useful, therefore, to begin this essay with a short
reference to the denied chapters of those events that took place 60
The 1948 war's diplomatic maneuvers and military campaigns are well
engraved in Israeli Jewish historiography. What is missing is the
chapter on the ethnic cleansing carried out by the Jews in 1948:
500 Palestinian villages and 11 urban neighborhoods were destroyed,
700,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes, and several
thousands more were massacred. Why did it happen?
In November 1947, the U.N. offered to partition Palestine into a
Jewish and an Arab state. The scheme was problematic from its
inception for three reasons.
Firstly, it was presented to the two warring parties not as a basis
for negotiation but as a fait accompli,
even though the U.N. knew
the Palestinian side would reject it. Palestinians regarded the
Zionist movement as the Algerians regarded the French colonialists.
Just as it was unthinkable for the Algerians to agree to share
their land with the French settlers, so was it unacceptable for the
Palestinians to divide Palestine with Zionist settlers. The cases
were different, to be sure—even the Palestinians recognized this;
but the better option, as a few U.N. members had proposed, and as
the U.S. State Department later recognized, would have been a
longer period of negotiations.
Secondly, the Jewish minority (660,000 out of two million) was
offered the larger part of the land (56 percent). Thus the imposed
partition was to begin with an unfair proposal.
Thirdly, because of the demographic distributions of the two
communities—the Palestinians and the Jews—the 56 percent offered to
the Jews as a state included an equal number of Jews and
Palestinians, while few Jews resided in the remaining 44 percent
designated for an Arab state. Zionist leaders, from left to right,
all concurred on the need to attain a considerable Jewish majority
in Palestine; in fact, the absence of such a solid majority was
regarded as the demise of Zionism. Even a cursory knowledge of
Zionist ideology and strategy, should have made it clear to the
U.N. architects that such a demographic reality would lead to the
cleansing of the local population from the future Jewish
In May 1947, the Jewish Agency, which functioned as the Jewish
government within the mandatory government, had already drawn a map
which included most of Palestine as a Jewish state, apart from the
West Bank which had been granted to the Transjordanians.
On March 10, 1948, the Hagana, the main Jewish underground in
Palestine, issued a military blueprint preparing the community for
the expected British evacuation of Palestine. On that same day, a
plan was devised to take over the parts earmarked by the Jewish
agency, which constituted 80 percent of Palestine.
The plan, called Plan D (or Dalet in Hebrew), instructed the Jewish
forces to cleanse the Palestinian areas falling under their
control. The Hagana had several brigades at its disposal and each
one of them received a list of villages it had to occupy and
destroy. Most of the villages were destined to be destroyed and
only in very exceptional cases were the forces ordered to leave a
In between December 1947 and well into the 1950s, the ethnic
cleansing operation continued. Villages were surrounded from three
flanks and the fourth one was left open for flight and evacuation.
In some cases it did not work, and many villagers remained in the
houses—here is where massacres took place. This was the principal
strategy of the Judaization of Palestine.
The ethnic cleansing took place in three stages. The first one was
from December 1947 until the end of the summer of 1948, when
Palestinian villages along the coastal and inner plains were
destroyed and their population evicted by force. The second stage
took place in the autumn and winter of 1948/9 and included the
Galilee and the Naqab (Negev).
By the winter of 1949 the guns were silenced on the land of
Palestine. The second phase of the war ended and with it the second
stage of the cleansing terminated, but the expulsion continued long
after the winds of war subsided.
The third phase was to extend beyond the war until 1954, when
dozens of additional villages were destroyed and their residents
expelled. Out of about 900,000 Palestinians living in the
territories designated by the U.N. as a Jewish state, only 100,000
remained on or nearby their land and houses. Those who remained
became the Palestinian minority in Israel. The rest were expelled
or fled under threat of expulsion; a few thousand died in
The countryside, the rural heart of Palestine, with its picturesque
one thousand villages was ruined. Half of the villages we re erased
from the face of the earth, run over by Israeli bulldozers at work
since August 1948 when the government decided either to turn them
into cultivated land or to build new Jewish settlements on their
A committee for naming gave the new settlements Hebrewized versions
of the original Arab names—thus Lubya become Lavi and Safuria was
turned into Zipori. David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of
Israel, explained that this was done as part of an attempt to
prevent future claims to these villages. It was also an act
supported by the Israeli archeologists who had authorized the names
not as a takeover of a title but rather as poetic justice which
returned to "ancient Israel" its old map. From the bible they
salvaged geographical names and attached them to the destroyed
Urban Palestine was torn apart and crushed in a similar way. The
Palestinian neighborhoods in mixed towns were cleansed, the emptied
homes left to be populated later by incoming Jewish immigrants from
The Palestinian refugees spent the winter of 1948 in tent camps
provided to them by voluntary agencies; most of these locations
would become their permanent residence. The tents were replaced by
clay huts that became the familiar feature of Palestinian existence
in the Middle East. The only hope for these refugees, at the time,
was the one offered by U.N. Resolution 194 (December 11, 1948)
promising them a quick return to their homes—one of but numerous
international pledges made by the global community to the
Palestinians that remains to this day unfulfilled.
This tragedy would be remembered in the collective memory of
Palestinians as the Nakba—the catastrophe—and it would restore
their national movement. Its self image would be that of an
indigenous population led by a guerilla movement wishing to turn
back the clock, with little success.
The Israelis' collective memory would depict the war also as a
national liberation movement, one fighting both British colonialism
and Arab hostility, and winning against all odds. The loss of one
per cent of the Jewish population would cloud their joy, but not
their determination to Judaize Palestine and turn it into the
future haven for world Jewry.
Israel, however, turned out to be the most dangerous place for Jews
to be living in the second half of the 20th century. Most Jews
preferred to live outside the Jewish state, and quite a few did not
identify with the Jewish project in Palestine, nor did they wish to
be associated with its dire consequences.
But a vociferous minority of Jews in the United States continued to
give the impression that the majority of world Jewry condoned the
cleansing of 1948. This illusion dangerously complicated the status
of Jewish minorities in the Western world, particularly in those
places where public opinion since the first Intifada in 1987 has
grown increasingly hostile towards Israel's policies in
Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine
NATO Spokesman Jamie Shea said all reports reaching NATO indicated
that what was happening in Kosovo was a well-organized master plan
by Belgrade. He said the reported pattern of violence was that Serb
tanks were surrounding villages, then paramilitaries are going in
rounding up civilians at gunpoint, separating young men from women
and children. The women and children are then expelled from their
homes and then sent forward towards the border. After they have
left the villages, the homes are looted and then systematically
March 30, 1999
Those operations can be carried out in the following manner: either
by destroying villages (by setting fire to them, by blowing them
up, and by planting mines in their debris) ... or by mounting
combing and control operations according to the following
guidelines: encirclement of the villages, conducting a search
inside them. In case of resistance, the armed forces must be wiped
out and the population expelled outside the borders of the state.
March 10, 1948
Until recently the Israeli-Zionist narrative of the 1948 war has
dominated the academic world and, probably for that reason, it has
influenced the public's general recollection of the Nakba.
This meant that the 1948 events were described as an overall war
between two armies. Such an assumption calls for the expertise of
military historians, who can analyze the military strategy and
tactics of both sides. Actions and atrocities are part of the
theater of war, where things are judged on a moral basis quite
differently from the way they would be treated in a non-combat
situation. For instance, within the context of warring armies, the
death of civilians—collateral damage, we call it—is accepted as an
integral part of the overall attempt to win the war (although even
within a war there are exceptional atrocities which are treated as
illegitimate in military historiography).
Such a view also entails the concept of parity in questions of
moral responsibility for the events unfolding on the ground,
including, as in our case, the massive expulsion of an indigenous
population. Using the two-army paradigm, the moral balancing
between the two sides seemed to be "academic" and "objective."
However, using the Palestinian narrative, namely, that there were
in 1948 not two equally armed and equipped armies, but rather an
expeller and those expelled, an offender and the victims, the
two-army paradigm is seen as sheer propaganda.
I suggest that the events that unfolded after May 1948 in Israel
and Palestine should be viewed from within the paradigm of ethnic
cleansing and not only as part of military history.
Historiographically, this means that the deeds were part of
domestic policies implemented by a regime against civilians.
Indeed, in many cases, given the fact that the ethnic cleansing
took place within the designated U.N. Jewish state, these were
operations conducted by a regime against its own citizens.
This was not a battlefield between two armies, it was a civilian
space invaded by military troops. Ethnic ideology, settlement
policy and demographic strategy were the decisive factors here, not
the military plans. Massacres, whether premeditated or not, were an
integral, not exceptional, part of ethnic cleansing, although, in
most cases, expulsion was preferred to killing.
The ethnic cleansing paradigm explains why expulsions and not
massacres are the essence of such crimes. As in the 1990s' Balkan
wars, within the act of cleansing, sporadic massacres were
motivated more by revenge than any clear-cut scheme. But the plan
to create new ethnic realities was assisted by these massacres no
less than by systematic expulsions.
The Jewish operation in 1948 fits the definition of ethnic
cleansing offered in the U.N. reports on the Balkan wars of the
1990s. The U.N. Council for Human Rights linked the wish to impose
ethnic rule on a mixed area—the making of Greater Serbia—with acts
of expulsion and other violent means. The report defines acts of
ethnic cleansing as including separation of men from women,
detention of men, explosion of houses and repopulating with another
ethnic group later on. This is precisely the repertoire of the
Jewish soldiers in the 1948 war.
As others have shown, the massive expulsion of Palestinians was the
inevitable outcome of a strategy dating back to the late 19th
century. This ideology of transfer emerged the moment the leaders
of the Zionist movement realized that the making of a Jewish state
in Palestine could not be materialized as long as the indigenous
people of Palestine remained on the land.
The presence of a local society and culture had been known to the
founding fathers of Zionism even before the first settlers set foot
on the land. Theodore Herzl, the founding father of Zionism,
already predicted that his dream of a Jewish homeland in Palestine
would necessitate expulsion of the indigenous population as did the
leaders of the Second Aliya, a kind of a Zionist Mayflower
Two means were used to change the reality in Palestine and to
impose the Zionist interpretation on the local reality: the
dispossession of the indigenous population from the land and its
re-population with newcomers—i.e. expulsion and settlement.
This colonization effort was pushed forward by a movement that had
not yet won regional or international legitimacy and had to buy
land to create enclaves within the indigenous population. The
British Empire was very helpful in bringing this scheme into
reality. Yet from the very beginning the leaders of Zionism knew
that settlement was a very long and measured process, which would
not be sufficient to realize the revolutionary dreams of the
movement to alter the realties on the ground and impose its own
interpretation on the land's past, present and future. For that,
the movement needed to resort to more meaningful means such as
ethnic cleansing and transfer.
Transfer and ethnic cleansing as means of Judaizing Palestine had
been closely associated in Zionist thought and practice with
"historical opportunities," i.e., times in history when the world
would be indifferent to what happened in a foreign land, or
"revolutionary conditions" such as war.
This link between purpose and timing had been elucidated very
clearly in a letter David Ben-Gurion had sent to his son Amos in
July, 1937: "The Arabs will have to go, but one needs an opportune
moment for making it happen, such as war." This notion will
reappear in Ben-Gurion’s addresses to his MAPAI party members
throughout the Mandatory period, up until an opportune moment
And, as we shall see, the idea of ethnic cleansing —or transfer, to
use the preferred euphemism—is alive and well in today’s Israel as
still offering the best way of dealing with the Palestinian
Struggle Against Nakba Denial
The Nakba denial in Israel and the West was helped by the overall
negation of the Palestinians as a people—the notorious declaration
by Israel’s Prime Minister Golda Meir in 1970, "There are no
Palestinians," epitomized this attitude.
Towards the end of the 1980s, as a result of the first Intifada,
the situation improved somewhat in the West with the humanization
of the Palestinians in the media and their introduction into the
field of Middle Eastern Studies as a legitimate subject
In Israel, Palestinian affairs in those years, academically or
publicly, were still discussed only by those who had been
intelligence experts on the subject, and who maintained close ties
with the security services and the Israeli Defense Force. This
perspective erased the Nakba as a historical event, preventing
local scholars and academics from challenging the overall denial
and suppression of the catastrophe in the world outside the
universities' ivory towers.
The mechanisms of denial in Israel are effective because they cover
the citizen's life from cradle to grave. They assure the state that
its people do not get confused by facts and reality, or view
reality in such a way that it does not create moral problems.
Cracks in this wall of denial first appeared in the 1980s. Since
1982, with Israel's invasion of Lebanon, the wide exposure of
Israeli war crimes raised troubling questions in Israel and the
Western media about the Jewish State’s self-image of being the only
democracy in the Middle East, or as a community belonging to the
world of human rights and universal values.
But it was the emergence of a critical historiography in Israel in
the late 1980s, known as the "new history," which re-located the
Nakba at the center of academic and public debate about the
conflict, legitimizing the Palestinian narrative after it had been
portrayed for years as sheer propaganda by Western journalists,
politicians and academicians.
The challenge to the Zionist presentation of the 1948 war appeared
in various areas of cultural production: in the media, academia and
popular arts. It affected the discourse both in the U.S. and
Israel, but it never entered the political arena. The "new history"
was no more than a few professional books written in English, only
some of them translated into Hebrew, which made it possible for
anyone wishing to do so to learn how the Jewish State had been
built on the ruins of the indigenous people of Palestine, whose
livelihood, houses, culture and land had been systematically
In Israel, only in the media and through the educational system
were people directed hesitantly towards taking a new look at the
past; the establishment did everything it could to quash these
early buds of self-awareness and recognition of Israel's role in
the Palestinian catastrophe.
Outside the academic world, in the West in general, and in the
U.S.A. and Israel in particular, this shift in the academic
perception had little impact. In America and in Jewish Israel,
terms such as "ethnic cleansing" and "expulsion" are still today
totally alien to politicians, journalists and common people alike.
The relevant chapters of the past that would justify categorically
such definitions are either distorted in the recollection of
people, or totally absent.
In several European countries, new initiatives appeared in the
1990s by pro-Palestinian N.G.O.s to recast Israel’s role in the
plight of Palestinian refugees; their effect on government policies
is still too early to judge.
A similar movement emerged in the United States, where in Boston in
April 2000 the first ever American Right of Return Conference was
convened with over 1,000 representatives from all over the country
in attendance. But so far their message has failed to reach Capitol
Hill, The New York Times or the White House. The events of
September 11, 2001 have put an end to the new trend and have
revived the old anti-Palestinianism in America.
Even before the U-turn in American public opinion after 9/11, the
new history of 1948’s ethnic cleansing had no impact on the
Palestine/Israel peace agenda.
At the center of these peace efforts was the Oslo Accord that began
in September 1993. The concept behind this process was, as in all
previous peace endeavours in Palestine, a Zionist one. The Oslo
Accord was conducted according to the Israeli perception of
peace—from which the Nakba was totally absent. The Oslo formula was
devised by Israeli thinkers from the Jewish peace camp, people who
ever since 1967 were playing an important role in the Israeli
public scene. They were institutionalized in a popular movement
"Peace Now" that had several parties on their side in the Israeli
parliament. In all their previous discourses and plans they had
totally evaded the 1948 issue and sidelined the refugee questions.
They did the same in 1993 and this time with the dire consequences
of raising hopes of peace as they seemed to have found a
Palestinian partner to a peace plan that buried 1948 and its
When the final moment came, and the Palestinians realized not only
that there would be no genuine Israeli withdrawal from the occupied
West Bank and Gaza Strip, but that there would be no solution to
the refugee question, they rebelled in frustration.
The climax of the Oslo negotiations—the Camp David summit meeting
between then Prime Minister of Israel Ehud Barak and Yasir Arafat
in the summer of 2000—gave the false impression that it was
offering an end to the conflict. Palestinian negotiators had put
the Nakba and Israel's responsibility for it at the top of their
list of demands, but this was totally rejected by the Israeli team
that succeeded in enforcing its point of view on the summit.
To the Palestinian side's credit, we should say that at least for a
while the catastrophe of 1948 was brought to the attention of a
local, regional, and to a certain extent global, audience. Yet its
continued denial in the peace process stands as the main
explanation both for its failure and for the ensuing second
uprising in the occupied territories.
Indeed, the Nakba had been so efficiently kept off the agenda of
the peace process that when it suddenly appeared on it, the
Israelis felt as if a Pandora's box had been pried open in front of
them. Their worst fear was that Israel's responsibility for the
1948 catastrophe would now become a negotiable issue. The "danger"
was immediately confronted. In the Israeli media and parliament, a
consensus was reached that no Israeli negotiator would be allowed
even to discuss the Right of Return of the Palestinian refugees to
the homes they had occupied before 1948. The Knesset passed a law
to this effect, and Barak made a public commitment to it on the
stairs of the plane that was taking him to Camp David.
Now, after the events of September 11, 2001 and the outbreak of the
second Intifada with its waves of suicide bombers, an unholy
coalition of neo-conservatives, Christian Zionists and the
pro-Israeli lobby in the States has maintained a firm grip over the
American media's presentation of the conflict in Palestine. This
coalition helps Israel to get away with policies, past and present,
which, if pursued by other nations, would brand them as pariah
Ahead, As We Look Back
As one who has been personally involved in the struggle against the
denial of the Nakba in Israel, I look back over the attempts that I
and others have made to introduce the Nakba onto the Israeli public
agenda with mixed feelings.
I detect cracks in the wall of denial that surrounds the Nakba in
Israel, cracks that have come about as a result of the debate on
the "new history" in Israel and the new political agenda of the
Palestinians in Israel. This atmosphere has also been helped by a
clarification of the Palestinian position on the refugee issue
towards the end of the Oslo peace process.
As a result, after more than 60 years of repression, it is today
more difficult in Israel to deny the expulsion and destruction of
the Palestinians in 1948. This relative success, however, has
brought with it two negative reactions:
The first reaction has been from the Israeli political
establishment, with the Sharon government, through its minister of
education, beginning the systematic removal of any textbook or
school syllabus that refers to the Nakba, even marginally. Similar
instructions have been given to the public broadcasting
The second reaction has been more disturbing and has encompassed
wider sections of the public. Although a considerable number of
Israeli politicians, journalists and academics have ceased to deny
what happened in 1948, they continue to justify it publicly, not
only in retrospect but also as a prescription for the future. The
idea of "transfer" has entered Israeli political discourse openly
for the first time, gaining legitimacy as th e best means of
dealing with the Palestinian "problem."
Indeed, were I asked to choose what best characterizes the current
Israeli response to the Nakba, I would stress the growing
popularity of the Transfer Option in Israeli public mood and
The Nakba now seems to many in the center of the political map as
an inevitable and justifiable consequence of the Zionist project in
Palestine. If there is any lament, it is that the expulsion wasn’t
completed in the early years.
The fact that even an Israeli "new historian" such as Benny Morris
now subscribes to the view that the expulsion was inevitable and
should have been more comprehensive helps to legitimize future
Israeli plans for further ethnic cleansing.
Transfer is now the official, moral option recommended by one of
Israel's most prestigious academic centers, the Center for
Interdisciplinary Studies in Herzeliya, which advises the
government. It has appeared as a policy proposal in papers
presented by senior Labor Party ministers to their government. It
is openly advocated by university professors, media commentators,
and few now dare to condemn it. Even the former leader of the
majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, Dick Armey, said he
believed that Palestinians living in the West Bank should be
A circle has thus been closed. When Israel took over almost 80 per
cent of Palestine in 1948, it did so through the ethnic cleansing
of the original Palestinian population. The country's politics are
now dominated by three parties, Likud, Labor and Kadima, all of
whom share the same view about what to do with the rest of
Palestine. They wish to strangulate the Gaza Strip and annex half
of the West Bank, while bisecting the other half into small cantons
into which the Palestinians from the annexed part would eventually
This is ethnic cleansing by other means, and it seems that all the
politicians who subscribe to it enjoy wide public support. Judging
from the most recent actions taken by the Israeli Knesset, such as
prohibiting married Palestinians who come from both sides of the
Green Line to settle in Israel, and the new legislation aimed at
denying citizenship to anyone who doubts the Jewish character of
the state, it seems that the politicians sense, and they may not be
wrong in this, that the public mood in Israel would allow them to
go even further, should they wish to repeat the ethnic cleansing of
And this ethnic cleansing extends not only to the Palestinians in
the occupied territories but, if necessary, to the one million
Palestinians living within Israel's pre-1967 borders.
Since the 40th anniversary of the Nakba in 1988, the Palestinian
minority in Israel has associated its collective and individual
memories of the catastrophe with the general Palestinian tragedy in
a way that it never did before. This association has been
manifested through an array of symbolic gestures, such as memorial
services during Nakba commemoration day, organized tours to
deserted or formerly Palestinian villages in Israel, seminars on
the past, and extensive interviews with Nakba survivors in the
Through its political leaders, NGOs and media outlets, the
Palestinian minority in Israel has been able to force the wider
public to take notice of the Nakba. All this public debate cannot
help but undercut future peace plans built on denial of the Nakba,
such as the Annapolis summit, the Road Map, the Ayalon-Nusseibah
initiative, and the Geneva agreements.
It What It Is
For many years, the term Nakba seemed a satisfactory term for
assessing both the events of 1948 in Palestine and their impact on
our lives today. I think, however, it is time to use a different
term: the Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.
The term Nakba does not imply any direct reference to who is behind
the catastrophe—anything can cause the destruction of Palestine,
even the Palestinians themselves. Not so when the term ethnic
cleansing is used. It implies direct accusation and reference to
culprits, not only in the past but also in the present. More
importantly, it connects policies such as the ones that destroyed
Palestine in 1948 to an ideology which is still the basis of
Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians.
Ethnic cleansing is a crime and those who perpetrate it are
criminals. In 1948, the leadership of the Zionist movement, which
became the government of Israel, committed a crime against the
Palestinian people. That crime was ethnic cleansing.
This is not a casual term but an indictment with far reaching
political, legal and moral implications. Its meaning was clarified,
as we have noted, in the aftermath of the 1990s civil war in the
Balkans. Any action by one ethnic group meant to drive out another
ethnic group with the purpose of transforming a mixed ethnic region
into a pure one is ethnic cleansing. An action becomes an ethnic
cleansing policy regardless of the means employed to obtain it.
Every method—from persuasion and threats up to expulsions and mass
killings—justifies the attribution of the term to such policies.
Consequently, the victims of ethnic cleansing are both people who
left out of fear and those forced out as part of an on-going
The above definitions and references can be found in the American
State Department and United Nations websites. These are the
principal definitions that guided the international court in the
Hague when it was set to try those responsible for planning and
executing ethnic cleansing operations as people who perpetrated
crimes against humanity.
The Israeli objective in 1948 was clear and was articulated without
any evasions in Plan Dalet that was adopted in March 1948 by the
high command of the Hagana. The goal was to take as much land as
possible from the territory of Mandatory Palestine and the removal
of most of the Palestinian villages and urban neighborhoods from
the coveted future Jewish State.
The execution was even more systematic and comprehensive than the
plan anticipated. In a matter of seven months, 531 villages were
destroyed and 11 urban neighborhoods emptied. The mass expulsion
was accompanied by massacres, rape and imprisonment of men (defined
as males above the age of ten) in labor camps for periods over a
Such a policy is defined in international law as a crime against
humanity which the U.S. State Department believes can only be
rectified by the repatriation of all the people who left, or were
expelled, as a result of the ethnic cleansing operations.
The political implications of such a statement is that Israel is
exclusively blameable for the making of the Palestinian refugee
problem and bears legal as well as moral responsibility for the
The moral implication is that the Jewish State was born out of
sin—like many other states, of course—but the sin, or the crime,
was never admitted. Worse, among certain circles in Israel, it is
acknowledged and, in the same breath, advanced as a future policy
against Palestinians wherever they are.
All these implications were totally ignored by the Israeli
political elite and instead a very different lesson was derived
from the 1948 events: you can, as a state, expel most of
Palestine’s population, destroy half its villages and get away with
it. The consequences of such a lesson were inevitable: the
continuation of the ethnic cleansing policy by other means. In
Israel proper, between 1948 and 1956, Palestinian citizens were
expelled from dozens of villages, 300,000 Palestinians have been
transferred to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and a measured,
but constant, cleansing is still going on in the Greater Jerusalem
As long as the political lesson is not learned, there will be no
solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The issue of the
refugees will fail any attempt, successful as it may be in any
other parameters, to reconcile the two conflicting parties. This is
why it is so important to recognize the 1948 events as an ethnic
cleansing operation, so as to ensure that a political solution will
not evade the root of the conflict: the expulsion of the
The acknowledgement of past evils is not done in order to bring
criminals to justice, but rather to bring the crime itself to pubic
attention and trial. The final ruling will not be retributive—there
will be no punishment—but rather restitutive—the victims will be
compensated. The most reasonable compensation for the Palestinian
refugees was stated clearly in December 1948 by the U.N. General
Assembly in its resolution 194: the unconditional return of the
refugees and their families to their homeland (and homes where
As long as the moral lesson is not learned, the state of Israel
will continue to exist as a hostile enclave at the heart of the
Arab world. It would remain the last reminder of the colonialist
past that complicates not only Israel's relationship with the
Palestinians, but with the Arab world as a whole.
When and how can we hope for these lessons to be learned and
absorbed into the effort to bring peace and reconciliation in
Palestine? First, of course, not much can be expected to happen as
long as the present brutal phase of the occupation of the West Bank
and the Gaza Strip continues. And yet alongside the struggle
against the occupation—with the positive development of the B.D.S.
option (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) being adopted as the
main strategy forward by civil society in the occupied territories
and by the International Solidarity Movement—the effort to relocate
the 1948 ethnic cleansing at the center of the world's attention
and consciousness has to continue.
On the 60th anniversary we—Palestinians, Israelis and whoever cares
for this land— should demand that Israel's 1948 crime against
humanity be included in everyone's history books so as to stop the
present crimes from continuing before it is too late.