In November 1956, as recounted by the journalist Max Blumenthal in his shocking Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel (Nation Books, £15.99) and by Jean-Pierre Filiu, professor of Middle East studies at Sciences Po, the Paris Institute of Political Studies, in his monumental Gaza: A History (Hurst, £25), Israeli troops massacred 386 Palestinians in the refugee camps of Khan Younis and Rafah. Moshe Dayan, then southern commander of the Israeli army, ordered the massacre, in which men over the age of 15 were lined up and shot in the head. "Ein breira," – "There's no choice" – Dayan said.
Fifty-eight years later Israel still claims it has no choice but to continue the policies of ethnic cleansing, dispossession and extermination that started with the foundation of the state of Israel.
In a chilling premonition of the recent slaughter in Gaza, recounted by Blumenthal, the Haifa University demographer Arnon Soffer, an adviser to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu known as the Arab counter, foretold what would happen. “When 2.5 million people live in a closed-off Gaza, it’s going to be a human catastrophe,” Soffer said. “Those people will become even bigger animals than they are today, with the aid of an insane fundamentalist Islam. The pressure at the border will be awful. It’s going to be a terrible war. So, if we want to remain alive, we will have to kill and kill and kill. All day, every day . . . If we don’t kill, we will cease to exist.”
Israel veered sharply right in 2000, when it became apparent that the deeply flawed “peace process” used by Israel and the US since 1978 to consolidate Israel’s dominion over the Palestinians would not produce submissive bantustans acceptable to Israel. The atrocities of 9/11 and the suicide bombings of the second intifada convinced Israelis that Palestinians were part of a global jihad bent on the destruction of the Jewish state. In 2009, in the wake of Operation Cast Lead, which killed more than 1,400 Gazans, Israelis elected their most right-wing government ever.
Blumenthal, the son of a former high-ranking aide to Bill Clinton, admits that he was able to report so fully on the racist rot in Israeli politics and society because of his US passport and Jewish heritage. He turns a pitiless spotlight on a country where human rights and anti-occupation activists are arrested and interrogated by the Shin Bet intelligence service, where hooligans shouting “death to Arabs” lynch Palestinian youths, where the bulldozing of Palestinian homes and the expropriation of their land continues both within the original borders of Israel and in the West Bank. We hadn’t realised it was this bad.
Avigdor Lieberman was a nightclub bouncer in his native Moldova, then a baggage handler at Ben Gurion airport. Today he is Israel’s foreign minister. His Yisrael Beiteinu party advocates the deportation of the survivors of 1948 and their progeny, 1.6 million Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship. The party’s motto, “No loyalty, no citizenship”, has been translated into a law requiring new citizens to take an oath of loyalty to the “Jewish and democratic state”. At Yisrael Beiteinu’s 2009 convention, high-school students chanted “death to Arabs”.
For Palestinians the foundation of the state of Israel was a nakba, or catastrophe. Since 2009 the Knesset has passed legislation that Blumenthal and the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, author of The Idea of Israel: A History of Power and Knowledge (Verso, £16.99), label anti-democratic laws and apartheid laws. The nakba law, for example, criminalises public observation of the nakba.
Another recent law revokes the citizenship of anyone accused of terror; support for the struggle against occupation is declared a terrorist act. The admissions-committees law allows Jewish communities to ban Palestinian citizens of Israel. The “law for prevention of damage to state of Israel through boycott” criminalises support for the international BDS Movement – the initials stand for boycott, divestment and sanctions. Modelled on the global boycott that helped end apartheid in South Africa, BDS demands an end to the occupation and continuing colonisation of Arab land.
The US has given $115 billion (€88 billion) to Israel since the second World War. Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said professor of modern Arab studies at Columbia University, and author of Brokers of Deceit: How the US Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East (Beacon Press, £22.50) shows how successive US governments have aided Israeli territorial expansion and oppression of Palestinians. Several US presidents stood up to Israel, briefly. At the beginning of his first term Barack Obama demanded a halt to settlements. That, and a later call for a peace agreement based on 1967 borders – also long-established US policy – enraged Netanyahu and US Republicans.
By the time he vetoed Palestinian admission to the UN in a September 2011 speech so craven that it was praised by Avigdor Lieberman, Obama had abandoned all hope of an independent policy. As Alison Weir writes in Against Our Better Judgment: The Hidden History of How the US Was Used to Create Israel (If Americans Knew, £5.95), Israel exercises more influence over the US than the US holds over Israel.
Israel’s colonisation of the West Bank and limiting of Palestinian autonomy have not changed through more than half a dozen governments of all political stripes, Khalidi notes. Fatah’s security forces were turned into proxies for Israel, and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, lost all credibility in the charade of the “peace process”.
Ari Shavit, a highly regarded columnist for Haaretz newspaper, represents mainstream Israeli thinking. Shavit is a faux leftist, faux liberal Zionist who says he'd like the colonisation of the West Bank to stop. Yet he supports Israel's wars and buys into Netanyahu's fearmongering over a nuclear holocaust provoked by Iran. He praises the "stupefying success" of Israel's nuclear-weapons programme. Shavit's obsession with his own angst inhibits empathy for Palestinians and his desire for justice. "For as long as I can remember, I remember fear. Existential Fear," his book My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel (Scribe, £20) begins.
Palestinians appear doomed to eternally pay for Israel’s “existential fear”. Shavit honestly recounts the ethnic cleansing of Lydda, now the site of Ben Gurion international airport, in 1948. Hundreds of Palestinians were massacred by Israeli soldiers, and tens of thousands were sent on a death march to Ramallah. Israelis looted Palestinians homes and shops and robbed fleeing refugees. Shavit interviews the soldier who fired an anti-tank weapon into a small mosque, killing 70. The Palestinians who dug their graves were shot dead in turn.
"Lydda is our black box. In it lies the dark secret of Zionism," Shavit writes. Yet lucid as he is about the evil committed in Lydda, he concludes. "I'll stand by the damned. Because I know that if it wasn't for them, the State of Israel would not have been born. If it wasn't for them, I would not have been born. They did the dirty, filthy work that enables my people, myself, my daughter, and my sons to live." The problem is that "the dirty, filthy work" is never completed. And Israelis like Shavit continue to justify it. In a column in Haaretz on August 21st, Shavit condemned as anti-Semites those who criticise the assault on Gaza.
Ilan Pappe recounts in detail the pioneering work of Simha Flapan, whose 1987 The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities blew apart the founding myths of the Jewish State. Flapan wrote that Israel did not accept the borders prescribed in the 1947 UN partition plan, but most Palestinians did. Three-quarters of a million Palestinian refugees left not voluntarily on instructions from their leaders but because they were driven out by Zionist fighters. Israel was not a Jewish David fighting an Arab Goliath but enjoyed military superiority. Palestinians and Arabs did not reject a peace offer by Israel.
Other Israeli “new historians” – Pappe himself, Benny Morris – who went from documenting the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians to regretting they had not all been driven out – Avi Shlaim, Tom Segev and Shlomo Sand – followed in Flapan’s footsteps.
When Israel veered right the “new historians” were reviled as traitors and self-hating Jews. Shavit rejoiced in the “obsolescence” of post-Zionism, writing that the “enormous gap between the (human) dimensions of Israeli injustice and the (inhuman) intensity of the brutality that surrounds it” had “opened people’s eyes and explains some of the things we’ve had to do”.
Shlomo Sand, professor of history at the University of Tel Aviv, has persevered. His 2008 book The Invention of the Jewish People became a bestseller, although his contention that Jews do not constitute a separate race or ethnic group enraged many.
The former Palestinian negotiator Hanan Ashrawi used to say that “God is not a real-estate agent”. In his latest book, The Invention of the Land of Israel: From Holy Land to Homeland (Verso, £16.99), Sand attacks what he calls Zionism’s use of the Bible as a deed to Palestine. “In no text or archaeological finding do we find the term ‘Land of Israel,’ ” Sand writes. “All biblical texts employed the same pharaonic name for the region: the land of Canaan.”
Furthermore, Sand writes, the Jewish patriarch Abraham and most of his family were from Mesopotamia, not the “land of Israel”. Moses, Aaron and Joshua were born and raised in Egypt.
Sand’s conclusion should be engraved on the heart of every Israeli: “Remembering and acknowledging victims that we ourselves create is much more effective in bringing about human reconciliation . . . than incessantly recalling that we are the descendants of people who were once victimised by others,” he writes. “A brave and generous memory, even one tainted by hypocrisy, is still a necessary condition for all enlightened civilisations.”
None of these authors sees an easy way out of the conflict. Pappe says the much-vaunted “two-state solution” has become irrelevant.
With half a million settlers in the West Bank, Israel-Palestine is de facto one country riven by apartheid. Pappe argues for a binational state for both peoples. *
Khalidi says the Camp David-Madrid-Oslo mould, which places top priority on Israeli security but ignores Palestinians’ security and basic rights, must be broken. Negotiators must return to United Nations Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, which demand that Israel withdraw from the territories occupied in 1967. With Palestinians wielding zero political clout, that’s unlikely.
Filiu writes that it is “in Gaza that the foundations of a durable peace should be laid”, as the intractable issues of borders and settlements no longer exist there. He does not say how US and Israeli refusal to deal with Hamas, which won free and fair elections in 2006, could be overcome.
Ultimately, as demonstrated in Khalidi’s and Weir’s books, unconditional US support for Israel is the knot of the problem. The conflict will not be resolved until or unless a US president, probably at the beginning of his or her second term, is willing to impose a solution.
* This article was edited on Monday, January 15th, 2015.
The above review states that “Israel still claims it has no choice but to continue policies of ethnic cleansing, dispossession and extermination that started with its foundation”. The Israeli government has never made such claims.