Ilan Pappé exposes the undemocratic and racist character of the Israeli state, not only providing shocking detail of the persecution of Israeli Palestinians, but also a history of that community’s strategies of resistance.

Ilan Pappé, The Forgotten Palestinians: A History of the Palestinians in Israel (Yale University Press 2011), 336pp.

This month, the German poet Günter Grass has been denounced as an anti-Semitic ex-SS member and banned from Israel for putting Iran’s supposed nuclear ambitions and Israel’s very really nuclear answer on an equivalent footing. This was disgraceful because, according to the leader of the German Jewish community, ‘Iran is the threat for world peace – and Israel the only democracy in the entire region’. This view of Israel as an embattled outpost of western-style democracy in a sea of Middle Eastern dictatorships is a common one, but one which is substantially contradicted by Ilan Pappé’s detailed and fascinating study of the Palestinians who live in Israel itself.

The Palestinian community in Israel has received comparatively little attention compared to those in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza, but is clearly no less important. The sixty years which have passed since the 1948 Nakba mean that it is now possible to attempt a history of this community as a community, assessing how it has attempted to survive within a state which regards it as an enemy within.

Defenders of the Israeli state against accusations of apartheid will point to the fact that Palestinians in Israel have the vote as evidence that they are not formally discriminated against by the state. Rebutting this, the publisher’s text for the book’s dust jacket has Pappé arguing that the Palestinians have ‘faced subtle discrimination in various ways, from education and housing provision to employment’. This phrasing is perhaps an indication of how the real conditions in which a national minority in ‘the Middle East’s only democracy’ actually live, remains for many an unsayable truth. What Pappé really brings out is that the discrimination the Palestinians in Israel face is anything but subtle.

In 1956, during the period in which Palestinians in Israel were still subject to military rule, the then head of the Shabak (the Israeli security service) said that the aim was for the Palestinians in Israel to ‘feel that at any given moment we can destroy them’ (p.53). This fundamental threat to the existence of the community has not changed: in 2010, three Israeli government ministers made separate speeches in which they referred to the expulsion of Palestinians and the removal of their Israeli citizenship as part of their strategy for the next decade.

Pappé’s detailed narrative highlights how, after the ethic cleansing of 1948, the Israeli state fought to limit the number of Palestinians it would have to accept as citizens. The declaration in 1953 that all those who were registered as living in Israel by November 1948 were citizens, managed to exclude fully 100,000 of the 160,000 Palestinians remaining in the territory, because they had been temporarily displaced from their homes by the army, because the Israeli censors had simply not made it to their area to register them, or in the case of the Palestinians of the Wadi Ara region, because in November 1948 their territory was still part of Jordan. Those who were not granted citizenship had to go through a naturalisation process, involving swearing an oath of loyalty to the Jewish state, while the many who refused were expelled. It becomes clear that even the basic right of citizenship was only allowed to those Palestinians to whom the Israeli state could not find an excuse to deny it.

A theme throughout the history of the Palestinian community in Israel has been the fight for land; not just for the return of land and homes seized in 1948 but against subsequent programmes to ‘Judaize’ regions by expropriating land from Palestinians to give to Jewish settlers. It was the decision to take 20,000 dunams of land as part of a programme to Judaize the Galilee, an area with a high proportion of Palestinian residents, which gave rise to the famous Day of the Land national strike and protest on 30th March 1976, in which six demonstrators were shot dead by the Israeli security forces. That the Day of the Land has been commemorated since 1988 is an indication of how far Palestinians must still struggle against having their land taken from them by the state, despite the fact that, by 2010, Palestinian-held land was down to about 2.5%. Many Palestinians in Israel live in illegal buildings or unrecognised villages, devoid of public services, and a recent law, for example, makes it possible for Jewish communities to refuse to accept Palestinians as residents.  

As this shows, the continuing racist discourse about the Palestinian community within Israel makes it possible to legislate openly against them. Polls consistently show that while a majority of Israelis say they want to live in a democratic society, they also see the Palestinian community as a threat which they want removed from their midst. There are also many more underhand ways in which Palestinians are excluded from the benefits, housing and employment which are open to other Israeli citizens. Palestinians (apart from the Druze and the Bedouin) are excluded from military service, and so are also excluded from the range of benefits specifically directed at young people who have completed their military service. Indeed, ear-marking jobs for ‘young people coming out of military service’ has proved a good way for Israeli businesses to discriminate legally against potential Palestinian applicants. The state is also on the lookout for Palestinian successes despite these barriers ranged against them: Palestinians have been comparatively well-represented in the medical profession, so a recent change of the minimum age for starting medical training from 18 to 20 seems specifically designed to encourage young Palestinians, who would face a two-year gap between leaving school, to choose another job or leave Israel. Jewish Israelis, who do their military service between 18 and 20, would have no such disincentive.

Pappé argues convincingly that Israel should be seen not as a Western democracy but as a security state, a Mukhabarat, comparable for example to Syria. The founding ideology of the state and the reality of its colonial relations with the Palestinians ‘have produced a state in which the army and the security services reign not in exceptional situations, but as a rule’ (p.271). This, Pappé suggests, is the most serious threat facing the Israeli Palestinian community today, but it is also a threat to Israel itself, as the increasing exposure of its undemocratic regime strips away its ‘moral shield’ in relation to the west.

The above may make the book seem as simply a list of all the ways in which the Israeli state visits oppression on a passive Palestinian community, but it is very far from it. One of the many strengths of this work is how it is constructed as a history of this community from the community’s point of view, examining not simply how it has suffered at the hands of the state but how it has adopted different strategies for fighting back. Key here is an understanding of how Palestinians in Israel inevitably faced different fights than those in the occupied territories. Within Israel, the community has been struggling for recognition by the state – for equal rights to citizenship, land and so on – while in the West Bank and Gaza, the struggle is against the occupying state. As a result, the focus within Israel has tended to be on protest and action within the law, including through representation in the Knesset.

Unfortunately, to write an entirely upbeat account of these struggles would not be possible, but Pappé gives due recognition to the way in which sixty years of struggle by the Palestinian community in Israel has been able to influence the Israeli state, for example in the moderation and eventual ending of the military rule in place from 1948-1966. The demonstrations and strikes by Palestinians in Israel in solidarity with the first and second intifadas were also clearly effective, so much so that Israeli state repression was required to ensure that the demonstrations against Israel’s attacks on Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2009 were smaller.

The Palestinians in Israel have a precarious existence, citizens of a state which regards the birth of their children as a national security threat. Although they are not as isolated from the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and from the wider Arab world, as they were in the period of military rule, they have developed their own distinct culture, characterised by their use of Arabrabiya, a Palestinian-Israeli Arabic dialect which uses many Hebrew words. Attempts to justify the expulsions of Palestinians from Israel in 1948 and after have often relied on the notion that there was no Palestinian national identity and that, as undifferentiated Arabs, the Palestinians could just as well live anywhere in the Arab world. Pappé’s portrayal here of a community under serious threat from the Israeli state is a timely reminder, if reminder were needed, of what a racist lie that particular line of defence is.

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press. 

Tagged under: