Ethnic Cleansing: Palestine Reality

Against the Current, No. 139, March/April 2009

Joel Finkel

The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine
By Ilan Pappé
Oneworld Publications, 2006, 256 pages,
$14.95 paperback.

“Today’s horrific attacks mark only a change in Israel’s method of killing Palestinians recently. In recent months they died mostly silent deaths, the elderly and sick especially, deprived of food and necessary medicine by the two-year-old Israeli blockade calculated and intended to cause suffering and deprivation to 1.5 million Palestinians, the vast majority refugees and children, caged into the Gaza Strip. In Gaza, Palestinians died silently, for want of basic medications: insulin, cancer treatment, products for dialysis prohibited from reaching them by Israel.”

—Ali Abunimah writing in late December, 2008, as Israel attacked Gaza

I have no illusion that it will take more than a book to reverse the reality that demonizes a people who have been colonized, expelled and occupied, and glorifies the very people who colonized, expelled and occupied them.

—Ilan Pappé, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (2006), 181

WHILE THE TERM “ethnic cleansing” has come into use only very recently, the act that it describes, namely the forcible expulsion of one or more ethnic groups from a region, has been practiced for millennia.

From ancient Assyrians, who in the 9th century BCE regularly transferred conquered people to other lands, to the expulsion of the French from Sicily in 1282, to the removal of Jews and Muslims from Spain in 1492, to Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland in 1652, to the expulsion of millions from Crimea in 1783, to the fascist-led transfer and murder of millions in the 1940s, and now to the cleansing of Darfur: human history is riddled with such events.  Each one has its own characteristics, motives, means, and responses.(1)

Seen in this light, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine can be considered to be yet another in a long list of human atrocities.  There is, however, this important fact: we can join in the struggle to end it.  As activists in the United States, we have both the opportunity and the obligation to join the struggle.  Israel is able to continue its Occupation, of which ethnic cleansing is a primary component, only because it receives economic, military, and diplomatic support from the U.S. government.

Our efforts in this struggle are informed by an understanding of historical events, just as our opponents’ are assisted by the application of myth.  All of us have had to counter the Zionist narrative, in which reality is often turned on its head.  One such example was Joan Peters’ 1984 fraud, From Time Immemorial: the origins of the Arab-Jewish conflict over Palestine, in which she attempted to “prove” the laughable proposition that the land was uninhabited before Zionist immigration created the jobs that attracted Arabs from other regions.

More pernicious are claims that the flight of the Arab population was due entirely to the orders of advancing Arab armies, who invaded the new Jewish state of Israel in an attempt to throw the Jews into the Sea. The reality is that almost half of those expelled were driven off their land before the war started, and that it was the Zionists who drove the Arabs into the Sea — or eastward to the desert.

The importance of these Zionist myths is reflected in the titles of books written by the “new historians,” who, since the mid-1980s, have published such works as Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities(2) (Flapan, 1988), The founding myths of Israel: nationalism, socialism, and the making of the Jewish state (Sternhell, 1998), and Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict (Finkelstein, 2003). These Jewish and/or Israeli historians have corroborated the work of Palestinian scholars (e.g. Khalidi, 1992) and refugees.

Ilan Pappé’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine is a vital addition to the scholarship from these new historians. It details the inner workings of the Jewish agencies that planned and executed the expulsion of Arabs, the destruction of their homes and villages, and the theft of their land. So devastating is his critique of Zionist policy in Palestine that he was hounded out of Israel, where he had taught at Haifa University; he is now at the University of Exeter, in England.

His book is hardly pleasant reading, but one would not expect it to be.  Basing his work on that of previous historians as well as on an examination of recently declassified official documents, Pappé forever puts to rest any doubt that Palestinians were systematically and brutally expelled from their homeland.


Pappé’s central theme is that there was nothing spontaneous about the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.  To coordinate the secret preparation for the ethnic cleansing, Ben-Gurion created an inner circle on the Jewish Agency (the provisional Zionist government in mandatory Palestine), named the Consultancy.

“In October and November 1947 the Consultancy became Ben-Gurion’s most important reference group. It was only among them that he discussed openly what the implications would be of his decision to disregard the [U.N.] partition map and to use force in order to ensure Jewish majority and exclusivity in the country. In such ‘sensitive’ matters, he could confide only in this highly select coterie of politicians and military men.” (37)

The Consultancy carefully developed a long-term strategy that was based on 1) creating the military might, 2) amassing intelligence information, 3) developing alliances Transjordan, 4) preparing the yishuv (the Jewish population in Palestine) for the cleansing, 5) creating settlements to protect, and 6) patience to wait for the right opportunity, which they knew would eventually present itself. By 1947, the military planning had undergone four revisions and had become finalized in what was known as “Plan Dalet” (Dalet is the fourth letter in the Hebrew alphabet. See Chapter 5, 86-126 for a detailed account.)

The Hagana had been established in 1920, ostensibly to defend Jewish settlements from Arab attack.  During the 1936 Arab revolt, the Hagana received important training from Orde Wingate, a British officer who was assigned to Palestine in 1936. Wingate “made the Zionist leaders realize more fully that the idea of Jewish statehood had to be closely associated with militarism and an army.”(14)

In 1941, the Hagana created its commando units, the Palmach. Never needed to combat Nazis, the job for which they were created, they soon directed their activities against the rural Palestinian population. The Irgun, which had split from the Hagana in 1931, and led by Menachem Begin once he landed in Palestine in 1943, was also to play an integral part in the violent expulsion of the indigenous population. Having received training and experience, these three instruments of military might were well prepared for their coming assault on the defenseless population.

This military might would have been pointless if careful intelligence information had not been gathered. To accomplish this, the Jewish Agency trained hundreds of “sociologists” who traveled throughout Palestine detailing the location of each village, the religious and clan relationships among villages, the location of gates and orchards, and identifying the political and religious leaders in each location.

Arab hospitality was such that these researchers were generally welcomed into each village. The hosts were unaware of the insidious nature of their visitors’ project.  Amassed into what became known as the “Village Files,” this information was indispensible for planning the attacks. (17-22)

To ensure victory, the Jewish Agency approached the Hashemite kingdom in Transjordan. Together they agreed that mandatory Palestine would be divided only among the two. On the eve of war, Golda Meir undertook a secret mission to King Abdullah to guarantee that relation. Abdullah controlled the most militarily advanced armies, both his own and that of Iraq. While Jordan did eventually enter the war, Abdullah kept to his promise and never took the opportunities to acquire land from Israel. This pre-war agreement was a vital component of the Jewish Agency’s plan to conquer all of Palestine.

The Jewish population, many of whom by 1946 were themselves refugees from fascism, was not automatically ready to partake in the wholesale theft of Palestinians’ land. Indeed, relations among Jews and Arabs were not strained in many locations.The Jewish Agency, while never doubting that their military might would easily win the day, spoke in grave terms to the public, warning them of their coming annihilation at the hands of the Arabs.

Finally, the Jewish Agency placed many settlements in outlying areas. While this created occasionally annoyances, the purpose was essential. The Zionist armies would have every “right” to defend this population. This strategy is still used today, where poor immigrant Jews are directed to border towns, such as Sderot, near Gaza. Any Palestinian attack provides the pretext for massive Israeli military assault.

All that was left was to wait until the opportunity presented itself to begin the all-out assault. This came in late 1947, when the Arabs refused to accept the United Nations partition of their homeland: a partition that gave a majority of their land to the Jews, who represented less than one-third of the population.

By agreeing to the Partition, the Jewish Agency formally accepted the idea that Arabs within the land allocated to the Jews would remain as citizens of the new state. In order to create a Jewish super-majority, only one road was open to them: expulsion of the vast majority of non-Jews. “When Plan Dalet was put into effect, the Hagana had more than 50,000 troops at its disposal, half of which had been trained by the British army during the Second World War. [In May 1948], the time had come to put the plan into effect.” (87)

The Expulsion

Pappé details the history of this expulsion, village by village and town by town.  One salient feature emerges. The Palestinian population was almost entirely passive. Having seen the comings and goings of empires in their region, none believed that they would be forced to leave.

At first, this lack of resistance became a problem for the Jewish Agency, who wanted their own population (and the world) to believe that the nascent Jewish state was in grave danger from the Arabs. Until 1948, they had always been able to create the myth that that their military actions were solely in self-defense or in retaliation for Arab attacks.  Now, unable to maintain that myth, they simply dropped it. The international community stood by, silently, as the ethnic cleansing proceeded, even though few facts were hidden from them.

The Zionist forces prosecuted their attacks by employing a specific tactic. After attacking a village with heavy arms, they would round up the men and, using an informer whose face was hidden, identify and execute the political leaders along with anyone who had engaged in any way in the 1936 revolt. The villagers would be driven away at the point of a gun, and, in most cases, their buildings razed.

In a few cases, the forces were able to divide the Palestinian population along religious lines. Many Druze were allowed to stay in Israel. A handful of villages were saved by neighboring Jewish settlements, which feared the loss of labor. In some few instances, heroic resistance was mounted by both Palestinians and Arab army units. None was ultimately successful, as their equipment and numbers were far inferior to the Zionist forces.

“It should be clear by now that the Israeli foundational myth about a voluntary Palestinian flight the moment the war was started — in response to a call by Arab leaders to make way for invading armies — holds no water. It is a sheer fabrication that there were Jewish attempts, as Israeli textbooks still insist today, to persuade Palestinians to stay.  As we have seen, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians had already been expelled by force before the war began, and tens of thousands more would be expelled in the first week of the war. For most Palestinians, the date 15 May 1948 was of no special significance at that time: it was just one more day in the horrific calendar of ethnic cleansing that had started more than five months earlier.” (131)

In the aftermath of the war, the world community responded by demanding that the Palestinian refugees be allowed to return to their homes. Israel responded by undertaking systematic efforts to 1) create myths that negated its responsibility for the ethnic cleansing, 2) Judaize the land by settlement expansion, 3) de-Arabize the land through name changes, further demolition, and archeological chicanery, 4) enter into phony “peace” processes that covered for its continued expansion, colonization and expulsion, and 5) flout international law.

Two important issues need to be examined. The first is that the mainstream Zionist movements embodied an ideology of exclusivity that required the ethnic cleansing of the indigenous population. Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, went to his grave arguing that the Jewish state should be established in Uganda. He understood, however, that irrespective of its location there would be a fundamental contradiction between a Jewish exclusivist/supremacist state and the presence of a native population. To create the former, the latter would have to be removed.

While the rank-and-file Zionist may have never fully appreciated the implications of this contradiction, the leadership of political Zionism certainly did. As Pappé details, they accepted their historic task, planned for it, end executed it with precision and violence.

Secondly, the Zionist project of ethnic cleansing continues to this day. The Israeli government is still colonizing the Occupied Palestinian Territories. It is still demolition homes and turning Palestinians into refugees (some for the third time). It is still stealing land and resources. And it has turned the little land that remains to Palestinians into outdoor prisons, conveniently hidden from Israeli view by beautifully manicured gardens that conceal the Apartheid Wall. It continues to use its overwhelming military might to pound Palestinians, not into submission — for Israel will always refuse any Palestinian accommodation — but into complete degradation.

To address past atrocities, we must address the atrocities of the present, and vice versa. Pappé’s scholarship is one tool to inform our struggle.


  1. See, for example: “A Brief History of Ethnic Cleansing” Foreign Affairs — Andrew Bell-Fialkoff,”
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  2. For a fascinating review, see Norman Finkelstein’s “Palestine: The Truth About 1948,” which appeared in Against the Current #15, July/August 1988.  Finkelstein informed me that in writing this review, he began to develop the thesis that was published in his 2000 book, The Holocaust industry: reflection on the exploitation of Jewish suffering.
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Khalidi, Walid. All That Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948. Institute for Palestine Studies, 1992.

Finkelstein, Norman G. Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict, New and Revised Edition. 2nd ed. W. W. Norton & Company, 2003.

Flapan, Simha. Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities. Routledge, 1988.

Sternhell, Zeev. The founding myths of Israel: nationalism, socialism, and the making of the Jewish state. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.

ATC 139, March-April 2009