We are washing our hands of the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians

My column last week, urging Ireland to stand with the Palestinians, drew such a huge and often angry response that I re-read my history.

We are washing our hands of the ethnic cleansing  of Palestinians

The conviction only deepened that there has been a mass global refusal to admit that the Palestinians were expelled from their own land and that Benjamin Netanyahu’s war will indeed be “protracted” and will threaten peace in our time until the wider world accepts the past. In Ilan Pappe’s book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (2006), for instance, I read about the campaign to ethnically cleanse the city of Haifa of Palestinians.

That campaign was called Operation Cleansing the Leaven. This refers to the Jewish religious practice of eliminating all traces of bread or flour from people’s homes on the eve of the Passover, and, in Haifa in 1948, the Palestinians were the bread and flour. The British forces washed their hands of what happened, as Mordechai Maklef, of the proto-Israeli Carmeli Brigade, gave his orders: “Klll any Arab you encounter; torch all inflammable objects and force doors open with explosives.” He later became Israeli chief of staff.

One million Palestinians were killed or displaced during the ethnic cleansing on which the Israeli state was founded. Israel is, writes Pappe, a European colonial outpost in the Arab world. It was founded by a Polish Jew, David Ben-Gurion, and is maintained by the Western powers for strategic reasons. Pappe is an Israeli Jew whose family fled Nazi Germany, and he served in the Israeli army in the Golan Heights in 1967. But he has refused, as a historian, to go along with the founding lies of his nation, though this has meant death threats and the loss of his university job in Israel. Pappe makes the point, over and over, that there is no hope for Palestine as long as the Nakba, or “the catastrophe”, is denied; that without Palestinians having the “right to return”, which they were given in UN resolution 194, there will never be peace. But the question of the refugees of 1948 was parked at Camp David and Oslo, and was not even mentioned in the peace initiatives of the Quartet.

How can this have happened? On guard against anti-semitism, the world is still not ready to see Jews as perpetrators of any wrong. But religion is irrelevant to the atrocity. True Judaism preaches humanity, as Christians can see clearly in the words of one Jew, Jesus Christ. Could it also be that we dehumanise the Nazis, and make the Jews the only possible victims, to distance ourselves from the fact that both perpetrators and victims were people, like us? The truth is that any group of people, including ourselves, could do the same, given the same set of circumstances. If there had been any justice, Ben-Gurion, the revered founder of modern Israel, should have stood trial for multiple war crimes.

He did not hide his plan to ethnically cleanse Palestine, writing to his son in 1937: “The Arabs will have to go, but one needs an opportune moment for making it happen, such as a war.” The “opportune moment” was the end of the British Mandate in 1947. At that point, less than six per cent of the land was in Jewish hands and they constituted a third of the population. Ben-Gurion reckoned he needed at least an 80% Jewish majority to run a Jewish state, and so Plan Dalet, by which the land was to be rid of Palestinians, was adopted by the proto-Israelis in 1948. Villages were attacked around midnight, when people were asleep. The New York Times reported how in the village of Sasa a large unit of proto-Israeli troops attached TNT to the houses.

The commander later recounted: “We ran into an Arab guard, who was so surprised he did not ask, ‘Who is it?’ but ‘What is it?’ One of our troops, who knew Arabic, responded humorously, ‘This is fire’, and shot a volley into him.” Ben-Gurion had had the Palestinian villages systematically mapped, down to the last fertile tree, and found about 20 to 30 men in each village against whom some bogus charge could be laid — from having taken part in the rebellion against the British, in 1936, to having travelled to Lebanon. A hooded informer pointed out the men on the night and, typcially, they were shot dead. In the village of Tantura, a mass grave was dug for 230 bodies after the rampage.

One informant saw the execution of seven males from his own family. He kept in touch with another survivor, who went insane after seeing his father shot dead. A few months later, the village of Deir Yassin was invaded by Israeli soldiers and the people were rounded up and murdered in cold blood. The informant was a boy of 12, who survived after having been lined up with the other children against a wall and sprayed with bullets. But he can’t forget: “They called my brother, Muhammad, and shot him in front of us and, when my mother yelled, bending over him — carrying my little sister, Hudra, still in her hands, still breast-feeding her — they shot her too.”

We have heard so many such descriptions of our potential for inhumanity, from the Armenian massacre to the Holocaust, right up to the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo and the Rwandan genocide, that I am nearly more shocked by descriptions of Israel, a country built on the ruins of the indigenous culture and which completely denies its origins. When Israelis wander through their endless national parks, they are told to notice the fruit and nut trees, but never that they were planted by the hands of dead villagers, in a dead village of which only rubble remains.

Palestine, minus the Gaza Strip and the West bank, is almost exactly the Israeli state that Ben-Gurion imagined, but it hinges on keeping Israel demographically Jewish.

In a recent poll, sixty-eight per cent of Israeli Jews expressed their wish to see Israeli Arabs “transferred”, and racist laws were enacted in 2003 forbidding Palestinians from obtaining citizenship, or even temporary residency, when they marry Israeli citizens. Pappe argues convincingly that this situation can never be normalised; that the two-state solution, first proposed by Britain and which the West still puts on the table, can never work; and that Palestinians must be given the absolute right to return to land which is theirs. International pressure works in Israel, as it does everywhere. It was the reason that Jesus’s birthplace, Nazareth, was not “cleansed” and remains as the only Arab city in Israel. The Nakba happened because we let it happen.

There must never be another Irish abstention on a crucial issue affecting the Palestinians, such as the craven and immoral abstention, last week, on the UN Human Rights Commission’s proposal for an international enquiry into the situation in Gaza. We are a very small voice on the international stage, but we must use it to help bring the Palestinians home.

More in this section


Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox

Execution Time: 0.286 s