By Ilan Pappe
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Israel, the Holocaust and the Nakba

This article is over 15 years, 11 months old
Sixty years ago half of Palestine's population was expelled when the state of Israel was created. Acclaimed anti-Zionist historian Ilan Pappe looks at the legacy of the Nazi persecution of Jews, and the complicity of world leaders, past and present, in maintaining the occupation in Palestine.
Issue 325

Very few matrixes can be as sensitive as that of the Holocaust, Israel and the Palestinian Catastrophe of 1948 (known as the Nakba). It is no wonder that very few people in the past have attempted to comment on the nexus between the Holocaust, the Nakba and a solution for the Palestine question. To all intents and purposes, researchers, journalists and essayists who were, and still are, interested in the Palestine question preferred to deal with each of the subject matters separately – as if there is no connection whatsoever between them. But the connection is there and is highly important both for students of the Israel/Palestine question and for the future of this torn country. Sixty years after the dispossession of the Palestinians, the event that shaped the present Middle Eastern political crisis, it is high time also to involve the Holocaust and its memory in our overall attempt to understand the “conflict” and contribute towards its solution.

Various factors contributed to the demise of the Palestinians in 1948. The most important of them was Zionist ideology and later on Israeli policy. The Zionist movement wished ever since its appearance on Palestine’s soil in the late 19th century to take over as much of the country as possible and create on it a Jewish state. The effort to achieve it began in earnest with the onset of British rule in Palestine in 1917. Judaising Palestine meant de-Arabising it. So an important part of the vision was an effort to have as few Palestinians as possible within the future Jewish state.

The vision became a plan and reality when Britain, after 30 years of rule, decided to leave Palestine in February 1947. About a year later, at the beginning of 1948, the Zionist leaders decided that the best means of making the vision of a Jewish Palestine possible was by forcefully dispossessing the Palestinians from their homeland. Within less than a year, between February and October 1948, the Israeli army systematically uprooted and destroyed more than 500 villages and 11 towns. Half of Palestine’s native population was ethnically cleansed in those months. Their material and cultural possessions were taken over by the Israelis and their presence on the land was nearly wiped out.

British legacy

The ethnic cleansing of Palestine, however, could not have been executed had it not been for some additional factors. The British mandatory government was responsible, since it did not interfere, when it could, in the early stages of the dispossession. The expulsions were carried out while its officials and soldiers watched. Indirectly, Britain was also made culpable by its destruction of the Palestinian leadership during the 1936-1939 revolt. The British exiled and killed many of the Palestinian leaders in those years. The absence of an able political leadership and the disappearance of capable military men left the Palestinians literally defenceless in the face of the Jewish forces in 1948.

The Arab world also played a negative part. The impotence of its armies and the lack of commitment of its leaders turned the hope of a pan-Arab solidarity movement into a farce. The Palestinians surrendered their affairs in the hands of the Arab League, a move that proved to be a colossal mistake. The League did not represent their aspirations nor could it protect them.

But the most important factor, quite often overlooked, was the international complacency in the face of the ethnic cleansing. This Israeli policy could not have been contemplated, let alone implemented, had it not been tolerated by the international community. The Zionist and later Israeli leaders knew they could rely on the passivity and silence of the international community.

On the face of it, this should not have been an obvious assumption. After the Second World War when the Cold War period had just begun, the main powers competing for world hegemony needed the goodwill of the Arab world. Moreover, the more conscientious sections of Western society were increasingly supporting the anti-colonialist emotions and movements throughout the Arab world. True, the two leading ailing colonialist powers of the day, Britain and France, were still trying to maintain their presence and influence in the Arab world, but at least for the sake of appearances they too had to adhere to the notion that all the Arab peoples in all the Arab countries were entitled to be independent and sovereign. And when France was particularly reluctant to grant even this symbolic independence to Algeria – preferring the interests of its settler community there – public opinion in Europe, and beyond, rallied behind the Algerian liberation movement.

The people of Palestine and their national movement should not have been an exceptional case study, had it not been for the Zionist movement’s interest in their country. They easily passed the test of being recognised as a modern day “nation” or “people”. But they were already exempted, towards the end of the First World War, from the international promise to allow the Arab nations or peoples to become independent. Strategic considerations, Christian Zionism among Britain’s leaders and a fair share of anti-Semitism led London to support the settlement of European Jews away from Europe in the midst of the Arab world. Although the British declared famously in 1917 that this would be done without prejudicing the rights and aspirations of the indigenous population, of course it did. It impinged upon their basic rights for nationhood, self-determination and independence – rights granted to everyone else in the Arab world. This was done against staggering statistics: 90 percent of the population were Palestinians, and out of the 10 percent Jews, quite a few were Orthodox Jews who regarded Zionism as an aberration and interference with God’s will.

It did not work, though. The Palestinians rejected the imposition of a colonialist project on them, despite the full European support for it. Up to 1939 Europe, and in particular Britain, developed second thoughts about Palestine. International public opinion had to make a new decision in 1947, when Britain, in despair at its entanglement there, passed the question to others.

In 1947 the statistics were still very much in the Palestinians’ favour. Objectively, they had what was needed to be regarded by the international community as a legitimate nation demanding its right for self determination and independence. They were two thirds of the population and owned more than 90 percent of the land. The Jews were mostly newcomers from the previous three years and had managed to buy only 7 percent of the land. Compared to 1917, the Palestinians had an even more distinct national identity and a clearer vision.

But this was all ignored by the international community that used the United Nations (UN) to pass a decision on Palestine’s future on 29 November 1947, the famous partition resolution. Instead of granting the Palestinians independence in Palestine, the UN suggested allocating them less than half of the country and proposed they would share the economy and currency with the Jewish settlers who were allocated a larger part of it. Their capital, Jerusalem, was expropriated as an international enclave. Only one factor led the UN special commission on Palestine, and all those powers behind it, to abandon every conventional principle of statehood and independence for the sake of satisfying the Zionist movement: the Holocaust.

One can read again and again the arguments put forward by everyone involved in proposing the partition resolution and later on the admittance of Israel as a full member of the UN, while Palestine was erased from the international public agenda, and see clearly that the Holocaust was the sole argument.

The argument for a Jewish state as compensation for the Holocaust was a powerful argument, so powerful that nobody listened to the outright rejection of the UN solution by the overwhelming majority of the people of Palestine. What comes out clearly is a European wish to atone. The basic and natural rights of the Palestinians should be sidelined, dwarfed and forgotten altogether for the sake of the forgiveness that Europe was seeking from the newly formed Jewish state. It was much easier to rectify the Nazi evil vis-à-vis a Zionist movement than facing the Jews of the world in general. It was less complex and, more importantly, it did not involve facing the victims of the Holocaust themselves, but rather a state that claimed to represent them. The price for this more convenient atonement was robbing the Palestinians of every basic and natural right they had and allowing the Zionist movement to ethnically cleanse them without fear of any rebuke or condemnation.

The most bewildering arithmetic done by the UN, in the name of the international community, towards achieving this formula was to include the number of Jews in Europe in the overall demographic calculation of the balance in Palestine. Hence, Palestine was now the land of the Jews of Europe, including those who had not yet arrived there and those who never intended to arrive there. As such they were a majority in Palestine.

The Zionist movement had the military power to both ethnically cleanse Palestine of its original population and to face a military confrontation with troops from various Arab armies sent to try and prevent the creation of a Jewish state. However, it needed the Holocaust memory to silence any criticism of its ethnic cleansing operation and to prevent any international pressure on it to allow the return of all those expelled from the land after the 1948 war. Europe’s guilt at allowing Nazi Germany to exterminate the Jews of Europe was to be cured by the dispossession of the Palestinians.

This created what the late Edward Said called a chain of victimisation. The Palestinians became the victims’ victim. This concept was never accepted by Israel and its allies; nor was it ever endorsed by the European political elite that felt very comfortable with the formula of Israel being the only and exclusive victim of the Holocaust and the only victim in Palestine.

The Israelis went the other way in two directions that complemented each other. On the one hand, they felt secure from any Western pressure and continued the dispossession of the Palestinians – until today. The limits to their actions in the past, and quite probably in the future, were well defined by the late Israeli journalist Aryeh Caspi: as long as the Israelis do not do to the Palestinians what the Nazis did to the Jews, they are within the legitimate and moral boundaries of civilised behaviour. The repertoire of actions within those limits was, and still is, quite horrendous, as the latest Israeli actions in the Gaza Strip testify. The other direction was to Nazify the Palestinians so as to justify further the actions against them.


The European political elite seems still to suffer from the same timidity as it did in the past. This fear, rooted so clearly in Europe’s tragic Jewish history, hinders severely any chance for a comprehensive and lasting peace in Israel and Palestine. It is true that the main block for any effective pressure on Israel is the US. But any chance of balancing it or causing it to redirect its course depends very much on Europe.

One of the main stumbling blocks in the way of such a change is Germany, for obvious reasons. However, Germany as a society and government has an obligation not only to the Jewish people, but also to the Palestinians. It was right and just that the first decades after the Holocaust were devoted to reconciliation with the Jewish world. Germany as a whole did face its past boldly and did not deny the horror of the Holocaust. Now the time has come for the Germans to pay attention to the victims’ victim – Germany is not that far a link in the chain of victimisation and cannot spurn responsibility.

There are other strategic reasons for trying a new approach to the Palestine issue than the one that puts all the blame on the Palestinians and disregards their legitimate rights such as the right of the refugees to return and the right of the rest of the Palestinian people to live without occupation, oppression and discrimination. The continued violence in Israel and Palestine has the potential of dragging not only the Middle East into endless wars but also Europe – as is very clear from the events of the last decade.

But this naive article is about morality and justice – justice, something which I found is very important to a younger German generation; a generation that knows that as a nation they faced head-on their own past evils and expect the Israelis to do the same. You can meet them as volunteers in the occupied territories and in the various European solidarity campaigns for Palestine. These young men and women should be a source of pride for Germany, as were the young Germans who volunteered in Israel as part of the reconciliation.

We will all need them, because history teaches us that evil, occupation and dispossession do eventually come to an end. There is always a danger of revenge and retribution on such a day. Maybe a group of people who were brought up boldly facing the Nazi genocide, and became aware at first hand of the Israeli occupation and its horrors, would facilitate a restitutive justice for all – like the one we had in post Apartheid South Africa and not a retributive one – such as the one we witnessed in Rwanda.

Judging by the speech recently given by the chancellor, Angela Merkel, in the Israeli Knesset, Germany is not likely to play any constructive role in bringing peace to Israel and Palestine. Merkel presented an embarrassingly biased and one sided pro-Israeli position. In her address the chancellor did not mention the occupation, even in passing, and only praised Israel as a paragon of justice, democracy and civilisation. This will only strengthen the more aggressive and violent aspects of Israeli policy and actions. It also left the Palestinians with no hope for a different future, and without hope despair sets in which in turn produces violence.

We all need closure from the 20th century – not in order to forget and not even to forgive, but for the sake of building a normal and healthy life. This is true about victims and victimisers alike. Germany can play a very positive role in bringing that about in Palestine. Now is the time, before it is too late.

Ilan Pappe’s latest book is The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. His new book The Bureaucracy of Evil will be published later this year. Pappe will also be talking at Marxism 2008.

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