Strangers in Their Own Home

Ilan Pappé, The Forgotten Palestinians: A History of the Palestinians in Israel

Yale University Press, 336pp, £18.99, ISBN 9780300134414

reviewed by Matt Hill

At the outset of The Time that Remains, a film by Israeli director Elias Suleiman, a man driving home from Tel Aviv airport gets lost in a rare Middle East thunderstorm. 'Why the hell am I here?' he says into the darkness as rain whips the windows. 'And where the hell am I?'

His sense of displacement has an existential edge because the character, like his director, is not just an Israeli but a Palestinian too. This may sound like a riddle, but it is a fact that 1.3 million Arabs live as citizens of Israel: 20% of the population. Identity can be a puzzle to the Palestinian Israelis themselves, who are often viewed with suspicion by both their Jewish co-citizens and their occupied Arab brethren. To the rest of the world, as the title of Ilan Pappé's new history indicates, they are normally simply forgotten.

During the conflict Israelis are fond of calling their 'War of Independence', most of the country's Arabs fled or were expelled, reducing the population from 1 million to just 160,000. The Nakba  ('catastrophe') was a traumatic experience for a people who had populated the land since antiquity, and whose new rulers had been a small minority just a few decades ago. Families were divided between those who remained in Israel and those who fled, barred from returning. Israel's Declaration of Independence promised to 'uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens'. But critics argue that a 'Jewish democratic state', as Israel styles itself, is a contradiction in terms: what can it mean for a state to be Jewish in character, except that Jewish citizens have special privileges denied to others? In fairness it should be said that a state could, in theory, be nominally Jewish and fundamentally egalitarian - much as the UK is officially and quite meaninglessly Christian. The only problem with this argument is that it bears no relation to reality in Israel, where discrimination against Arabs is widespread, officially sanctioned and dismayingly popular.

In The Forgotten Palestinians, Ilan Pappé shows how the Palestinian Israelis have lived with Israel's contradictory nature for sixty-three years. For the first nineteen they lived under harsh military rule: citizens could be expelled without warning; suspects were detained indefinitely without trial; and movement was often banned in and out of towns. Abuses inevitably followed, such as the 1956 Kafr Qassem tragedy, when villagers committed the grievous crime of being out working the fields when a curfew was suddenly imposed. A routine journey home turned into a hideous massacre when they ran into trigger-happy IDF soldiers; forty-eight people died, including many women and youths. After the 1967 'Six-Day' war, Israel had a new, more troublesome population of Palestinians to worry about. Though it lifted military rule for its own Arabs later that year, the lessons it had learnt were not put to waste. The Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza were now subjected to the same regime of curfews, checkpoints, torture, detention without trial, secretive military courts, land expropriation, and so on. The system that causes so much controversy today has a long pedigree, having been tested to perfection on Israel's own citizens.

Though the Israeli state now spoke the language of liberal democracy, both de facto and de jure discrimination continued. Wary of rebellion in the Arab Galilee, the government embarked on a so-called 'Judaization' programme, expropriating Arab towns' lands to plant new Jewish settlements on their outskirts. When the victims dared to launch a series of protests against the land seizures, new minister Ariel Sharon's barefaced distortion of the facts summed up the authorities' upside-down moral universe: 'Alien elements are taking over the lands of the state. National land is robbed by others. Soon Jews will have no place to settle in.' In 1976 demonstrations turned violent, leaving six protesters dead. Each year on 30 March, these events are commemorated as the 'Day of the Land', symbolising the dispossession of Palestinian Israelis at the hands of their government.

The years from the outbreak of the First intifada in 1987 to that of the Second in 2000 were more hopeful, partly due to growing acknowledgement that a problem existed. The new mood was embodied by David Grossman's masterpiece Sleeping on a Wire: Conversations with Palestinians in Israel (Farar, Straus and Giroux, 1993), which describes his subjects' lives with preternatural empathy and disturbing honesty; it is still the best introduction to this subject. Eloquent voices arose from within the community too, in figures like director Elias Suleiman and novelist Anton Shammas. Yitzhak Rabin offered Arab parties their first opportunity to participate in government (a fact later cited by his assassin as a motive). An equal opportunities law banned racial discrimination (although employers were able to circumvent it by requiring applicants to have served in the military – code for 'Jews only'). New NGOs aimed to ameliorate everyday problems. Meanwhile the first serious peace talks between the two sides seemed to be making real, if fitful, progress.

But the last decade, which began with the killing of twelve Arabs by security forces at a demonstration, has been a story of disappointment and simmering resentment. An extreme, racist version of Zionism became increasingly mainstream, attracting a coalition of expansionist settlers, the ultra-Orthodox, and Russian and north African Jews. The latter two groups, themselves disenfranchised minorities, are readily persuaded to focus their anger against Arabs rather than the inequitable conditions they all face. Perhaps the decade's most dispiriting development was the rise to the post of foreign minister of Avigdor Lieberman, an unabashed advocate of ethnic cleansing, who has made a career playing on fears of a 'demographic threat', seeing a menace to the Jewish state in each new Arab child. Lieberman is a familiar type: such far-right demagogues have stalked the margins of Israeli politics for many years, but none had previously reached such high office.

Although there is truth in the book's titular claim that Palestinian Israelis have been 'forgotten' by the world, there is no shortage of material – mostly produced by Jewish academics, think tanks, even government commissions – documenting discrimination and inequality in Israel, to which Pappé's work is an important addition. Israel's healthy culture of dissent illustrates a paradoxical fact: that its often lamentable treatment of its Palestinians coexists with genuinely liberal and democratic characteristics. Neither is this lost on Israeli Arabs, whose attitude towards their citizenship is profoundly ambiguous. On the one hand, they deplore its inferior nature; on the other, they are realistic about its benefits. Polls find them relatively moderate in their politics – they demand only equality with Jews – and supportive of the 1967 borders. You cannot denounce rightwing plans to expel Israel's Palestinians without admitting that they overwhelmingly want to stay, preferring second-class Israeli citizenship to first-class citizenship in a future Palestine. Western radicals, often blithe about gruesome violence in the name of 'resistance', might reflect on the fact that only 5-10% of Palestinian Israelis support violence against civilians. 

Israel's perennial apologists ought not be allowed to use these facts to give the state a free pass on minority issues. Though Palestinian Israelis are well-off relative to other Arabs, the relevant comparison is, of course, to Israeli Jews. Here the evidence is damning, as another new book – Israel's Palestinians: The Conflict Within (Cambridge University Press, 2011) – makes clear in  superabundant detail. Israel counts itself among the world's respectable states, so it must expect to be judged by those states' standards, rather than congratulated for being more liberal than Saudi Arabia. Still, it is a fact to marvel at: that unless you have a penchant for Wahhabi clericalism, sharia law, sectarianism and unemployment, Israel may well be the best place to be an Arab in the Middle East.

You sometimes sense Ilan Pappé is frankly disappointed with his subjects for allowing their relative ease to foster passivity and temper resistance. That is because he is, avowedly, a partisan of the Palestinian cause. Historical 'objectivity' can be an excuse for a bogus neutrality when judgement is demanded, and Pappé's trenchant liberalism is often refreshing. But commitment to the cause can sometimes mar his work. He matter-of-factly refers to Arabs in mainstream politics as 'collaborationist' – glossing over the question of whether opposition is more effective from inside or outside the system. He suggests that all the refugees of 1948 were 'expelled' by Israeli forces, when as he knows many of them freely chose to flee fighting (temporarily, they thought). His description of Palestinian life on the eve of that war is revealing:

‘Almost each village had a school, running water and proper sewage for the first time, while the fields were plentiful and old blood feuds - as the village files tell us - had been settled. In the cities and towns prosperity was also budding.  [. . .] The affluence was visible in the architectural expansion. New neighbourhoods, streets and modern infrastructure were also evident everywhere.’

This shimmering vision of peace and plenty is a Palestinian Garden of Eden, innocently awaiting the Israeli Fall. In fact, Palestine in 1948 was a place of seething tension and sporadic violence, as Britain gave up arbitrating between the two communities and the UN struggled to broker a compromise. And ironically much of the economic growth Pappé mentions was probably stimulated by the arrival of skilled Jewish immigrants from Europe

Pappé calls his book a 'people's history', but these people are rather spiritless on the page, treated as victimised specimens rather than the human portraits of a Grossman or Shammas. The complex psychology of citizens whose state is at war with their people is never brought alive. This limitation is partly imposed by Pappé's English prose, which ranges from the strenuously distinguee to the foggily theoretical. However, though the book lacks artistry, it is thorough and convincing, and takes its place as the authoritative history of the Palestinian Israelis. Pappé's previous book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (Oneworld, 2006), was so controversial that he was hounded out of his job in Israel (he is now at Exeter University), but the facts he assembles here are hardly novel to those who care to know about them. They will make uncomfortable reading for diehard Israeli partisans, which is why, though it may be more respected than loved, this is undoubtedly an important book. The Forgotten Palestinians reads like an expert charge sheet; how Israel reckons with these charges will determine its political and moral future as much as its actions across the Green Line.
Matt Hill is a freelance writer based in London.