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On Palestine: a brief but essential update

Book explores the oft suppressed history of the formation of the State of Israel


In 2010, Haymarket Books published a collection of interviews and essays from Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappé that attempted to make sense of the Gaza War of 2008-2009, otherwise known as Operation Cast Lead. The conflict, which lasted three weeks, ended in a unilateral ceasefire after an opening assault and concluding ground invasion left over 1,200 Palestinians and 13 Israelis (four from friendly fire) dead.

Following the IDF’s vicious incursion, punctuated by airstrikes and artillery barrages, Gaza was left in ruins.

An international humanitarian crisis quickly unfolded: 80 percent of the population now depended on outside assistance, 60 percent of agricultural land was wrecked and tens of thousands were displaced. One year after the mayhem, fewer than five percent of Gaza’s homes were rebuilt.

Gaza in Crisis: Reflections on Israel’s War against the Palestinians (2010) provided what one Guardian reviewer called a “fiercely accurate deconstruction of official rhetoric.” It aimed to contextualize the battle in a broader discussion about Israeli-Palestinian relations and answer a set of reflexive questions: How did we get here? What is the road to a lasting peace?

The book was edited by human rights activist and author Frank Barat, current president of the Palestine Legal Action Network, who posed these questions and others to Chomsky and Pappé over the course of several introductory chapters. In others that followed, both scholars provided essays – some original, others reworked – addressing more focused subjects such as Palestinian ghettoization, opposition politics and contemporary history.

Five years later, Haymarket has released an update, On Palestine, extending these dialogues into the present: a climate of increased violence in the aftermath of last summer’s two month-long Operation Protective Edge.

In four days alone the IDF fired 2,000 bombs, destroyed hundreds of homes and killed dozens of civilians, many of whom were first responders. The targeting of non-combatants was indiscriminate. Condemned for sheltering Hamas rocket installations and other arms, hospitals and densely packed residential areas were leveled. Thanks in part to some IDF whistleblowers (see Breaking the Silence) and intense media coverage, the wanton destruction sparked global outrage. A June 2015 report by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the United Nations denounced Israel for possible war crimes and the unwarranted use of extreme force.

On Palestine is based upon a paradigmatic historical understanding of the ethnic cleansing of 1948, when more than half a million Arab people were forced from their homes to make way for a Jewish state. As Pappé explains, this understanding “clarifies” the connection between Zionist political ideology and the movement’s policies in the past and present:

Insisting on describing what happened to the Palestinians in 1948 and ever since as a crime and not just as a tragedy or even a catastrophe is essential if past evils are to be rectified. The ethnic cleansing paradigm points clearly to a victim and offender and more importantly to a mechanism of reconciliation.

The oft suppressed history of the formation of the State of Israel was chronicled in painstaking detail in Pappé’s seminal 2006 work The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. Parts of that indispensable text – one that compelled the author to leave Israel – reappear in On Palestine. These insights help to explain how, for example, the development of Zionism in interwar Europe secularised great numbers of Jews while concurrently entrenching an ideological narrative of an essential homeland in Palestine.

The movement “made by people who do not believe in God but God nevertheless promised them Palestine” has thus engendered a particular language of concession within modern Israel. As Pappé describes, the portrayal of a revisionist version of history in popular media and Jewish life denies Palestinians any meaningful association with their land. It repeats the myth of an empty homeland filled with Arab nomads lacking any connection to it. Such thinking has shaped the vocabulary of the peace process: “I invaded your house, but I am generous enough to let you come back and take the sofa with you to a new place.” Today it continues to justify the unlawful expansion of settlements in the occupied territories.

Indeed, the disjunction in historical memory between Israelis and Palestinians is by now a gaping chasm. The ruling Likud party, headed by Binyamin Netanyahu (an unapologetic hawk who warned against “droves” of Arab voters making their way to ballot boxes during the last election) has moved political dialogue further away from reconciliation and closer to a state of permanent violence. His support for expanded Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Golan Heights and elsewhere belies what is effectively specious mediation with Arab leaders.

Pappé and Chomsky both stress the importance of structural analysis. While discussing the relationship between Jewish nationalism and colonial Britain, Barat at one point asks how grasping the history of the Balfour Declaration of 1917, a document that guaranteed the empire’s support of a national home for the Jewish people, is central to devising solutions to the current crisis. Pappé responds:

If you don’t have a historical perspective, understanding, and if you don’t know the facts, you accept the kind of negative depictions that the world and that Israelis have of Palestinians. It is only when you have a historical understanding that you can say, “Wait a minute, I understand where this violence comes from, I understand the source of the violence…
You need to understand how languages are means of manipulating the knowledge that is there so as to form a certain point of view and prevent another point of view from coming the space.

On Palestine is a worthwhile, albeit short read, that brings readers to terms with a nuanced account of the issues and the prospects for lasting peace. To some dismay, boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaigns are discussed in only superficial detail and lacking Palestinian perspective. Yet, as both scholars concede, it is among the only remaining routes of effective protest available to the international community. Chomsky, however, strongly suggests the movement focus on US support for Israel (arms manufacturers) as its principal target. Otherwise, cultural and academic sanctions disproportionately affect those without any direct influence over the instruments of political power.

Nevertheless, On Palestine proves the voice of independent writers, scholars and human rights advocates is crucial. Without them, conversations such as the ones contained in this book would be weakened immeasurably.

On Palestine is available from Haymarket Books. You can purchase it here.

Harrison Samphir is an editor, writer and policy analyst based in Toronto. His work has appeared in CBC, Jacobin, NOW Magazine, Huffington Post,, Ricochet, Truthout, and the Winnipeg Free Press, among others. In 2016, he completed an MA in International Relations at the University of Sussex. Harrison has served as Dimension’s web editor since 2014.


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