Cleansing: Past, Present and Future
Ran HaCohen was born in
the Netherlands in 1964 and grew up in Israel. He has a B.A. in Computer
Science, an M.A. in Comparative Literature and is currently working on his PhD
thesis. He teaches in the Tel-Aviv University's Department of Comparative
Literature. He also works as a literary translator (from German, English and
Dutch), and as a literary critic for the Israeli daily Yedioth Achronoth.
Mr. HaCohen's work has been published widely in Israel. "Letter from Israel"
appears occasionally at
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There is a puzzling paradox about Holocaust denial: those who
deny it are precisely the ones who would have supported it. I couldn’t help
thinking of this paradox when I heard that American university professors have
recently been accused of anti-Semitism (!) for signing
a document warning against Israeli intentions to drive out masses of
Palestinians, possibly during a American attack on Iraq. It seems that those
likely to support such a crime are precisely the ones who so vehemently deny
that Israel might be contemplating it.
In Israel itself, however, the idea of "transfer" – the common
euphemism for ethnic cleansing or mass deportation – is discussed openly.
Several political parties support it; one of them is in Sharon’s cabinet. They
may speak of "voluntary transfer", but Minister Benny Elon has been quite
explicit about what they mean by "voluntary": It’s like a man who refuses to
give his wife a divorce, he said. According to Jewish law, the defiant husband
can be jailed and slashed until he – "voluntarily" – complies. (If you wonder
why Israel is turning Palestinian life into hell, this – not the futile "war on
terrorism" – is the answer.)
Gamla, a group founded by former Israeli military officers and settlers,
offers a detailed
plan for forcibly expelling all Palestinians, both from the occupied
territories and the Palestinian citizens of Israel, within a 3-5 year period.
This may be too long for some: there are
persistent reports that Ariel Sharon has ordered his forces to prepare to
drive hundreds of thousands of Palestinians over the border into Jordan,
possibly on the day the United States conflict starts against Iraq. Sharon has
recently rejected an official Jordanian request that Israel issue a public
declaration opposing the "Transfer" of Palestinians (Ha’aretz, 29.11.02).
As recent Jewish history shows, the way from mass-deportation
to mass-murder is a dangerously short one. Recall that Hitler’s death camps were
his second-best "solution" for the Jewish "problem": at first, the Third Reich
intended "just" to deport (or "re-settle") the Jews to wherever possible –
Palestine, Eastern Europe, Madagascar.
How come – in a poll conducted last April – 44% of Jewish
Israelis, a people that suffered both deportation and extermination, support
similar measures against the Palestinians? One possible answer is that people do
not learn from History, or learn the wrong lessons. I don’t think it is the
answer in this case. The fact is that Israelis and Israel-supporters do not
refuse to learn from History: they deny History. The denied historical pattern
keeps duplicating itself, and won’t stop until its denial is stopped.
Ethnic Cleansing: The Past
What people fail to recognise is that Israel owes its very
existence as a Jewish State to massive ethnic cleansing. The overall picture is
undisputed: In 1948, there were about 600.000 Jews in Palestine. The number of
Palestinians driven out from the territory taken by Israel in 1947-1949 is
estimated at 600.000 to 720.000 (says the nationalistic Israeli historian Benny
Morris in his authoritative The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem);
about 100.000 Palestinians, a.k.a Israeli Arabs, remained. Without driving most
of the Arabs out, then, or without prohibiting their return after the war, no
Jewish majority could have been established.
This information is not part of the Israeli collective
consciousness. Israelis confronted with it would deny it, often out of true
ignorance. Everybody in Israel knows that many Arabs left in 1948. There is some
controversy among laymen about whether they fled the war zone spontaneously
("their own fault"), were encouraged to leave by Arab leaders, or were expelled;
experts agree that all three factors played a role. Older people still remember
"that Arab village down the road, that was erased once the inhabitants left".
But the extent of the Palestinian exodus, especially in proportion to the Jewish
population, is virtually suppressed.
The Price of Denial
When denial is no longer possible, Israel-supporters faced
with this information tend to take refuge in an accusation like "so you deny
Israel’s right to exist". This procedure is logically, morally, and practically
Logically wrong, because what was born in sin does not
necessarily lose its right to exist. Some people claim we were all born in sin,
yet they do not demand that we all commit suicide. Few people would deny the
crimes committed against Native Americans, yet I never heard that the US should
be dismantled because of them.
Morally wrong, because recognising historical facts should not
depend on their political implications. One cannot deny a fact simply because
one does not like its consequences.
And, finally, practically wrong, because if Israelis were
aware of the ethnic cleansing of 1948, they would not be so eager to try this
abortive "solution" once again. I doubt how many Israelis would think repeating
the crime is a good way to peace, if they were aware of the fact that the
hundreds of thousands driven out in 1948 have now grown into millions of
refugees along Israel’s borders, whose hatred towards Israel and whose desire to
return home have been nurtured by decades of humiliation and discrimination in
Lebanon, Syria or Jordan.
Just like we demand the Arabs to recognise the Holocaust,
recognising the ethnic cleansing of 1948 is a precondition to reconciliation. As
long as most (pro-) Israelis deny it, Israel is in danger of repeating it. Since
Israel’s political system is run by former generals responsible for the ethnic
cleansing of 1948, since the military echelon is run by their devoted disciples,
warnings of Israel’s intentions to repeat the crime in the (possibly near)
future should be taken very seriously.
Having said that, one must stress that debating the past and
warning of the future should not distract from the present. At this very moment,
slowly but steadily, ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in the occupied
territories is taking place. As
Ta’ayush activists Gadi Algazi and Azmi Bdeir write,
"Transfer isn’t necessarily a dramatic moment, a moment
when people are expelled and flee their towns or villages. It is not necessarily
a planned and well-organized move with buses and trucks loaded with people, such
as happened in Qalqilyah in 1967. Transfer is a deeper process, a creeping
process that is hidden from view. […] The main component of the process is the
gradual undermining of the infrastructure of the civilian Palestinian
population’s lives in the territories: its continuing strangulation under
closures and sieges that prevent people from getting to work or school, from
receiving medical services, and from allowing the passage of water trucks and
ambulances, which sends the Palestinians back to the age of donkey and cart.
Taken together, these measures undermine the hold of the Palestinian population
on its land." (Ha’aretz, 15.11.2002)
This "small-scale" ethnic cleansing has its own secret
language. You need some initiation to decipher it, but it’s in the paper all the
time. It happens when Palestinian neighbourhoods, along the Egyptian border in
Rafah for example, are turned into a battle zone: the inhabitants obviously
flee; Israel then quickly demolishes their houses. Protest is soothed by
Israel’s hypocritical claims that the houses were empty.
Ethnic cleansing happens when Israel connects the Jewish
settlement of Kiryat Arba with that of Hebron by a promenade which cuts the
heart of Palestinian Hebron and necessitates the demolition of scores of
Palestinian houses along the route, described as "uninhabited", as being
"shelter to terrorists" or as "belonging to rich families living elsewhere".
Ethnic cleansing happens when Israel builds a security fence
on Palestinian fields, cutting them from their owners; the farmers cannot access
their land and are forced to find their living elsewhere.
Ethnic cleansing happens when settlers terrorise the
Palestinian village of Khirbet Yanun, break into houses destroying whatever they
find; last October, only two old men were left of the whole village, the rest of
its population had taken refuge in the neighbouring town of Akrabeh.
Ethnic cleansing is the motivation behind every new acre taken
by Jewish settlements, behind "security
zones" and "by-pass roads", behind fences and military outposts. It is
behind every siege and closure, aimed at reducing Palestinian movement to their
immediate surroundings, confining them to their enclave, to their town or
village, to their house. The fenced Gaza Strip is already termed "the great
prison" by its own inhabitants; last week, Israel once again cut it into three
All these things are taking place here and now, some reported,
some not. The struggle against "transfer" should therefore involve a concerted
effort on all fronts: against plots to drive out Palestinians in the future,
against their strangulation in the present, and for making the ethnic cleansing
of 1948 (and since) part of our collective consciousness.