by Marty Roth
Discussed in this essay: The Biggest Prison on Earth: A History of the Occupied Territories, by Ilan Pappe. Oneworld, 2017, 304 pages.
ILAN PAPPE’S new book is a history of Israel’s steady absorption and/or constriction of the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip after the 1967 war with Jordan, Egypt and Syria. Pappe’s work makes use of recently declassified minutes of government meetings — two volumes of public records totaling thousands of pages— and tells a numbing story of cynical and selfish indifference to the lives and well-being of others.
Simply put, few of the events in this story were contingent. Instead, they were stages in the fulfilment of a steadfast Zionist plan “to Judaize as much of historical Palestine as possible.” “Nothing that has occurred since June 1967 up to the present day,” Pappe writes, “has diminished the determination of the Israeli authorities to keep the West Bank and the Gaza Strip under strict Israeli control, to cage the people living in it in a huge prison and to disregard any international pressure to end its criminal policy.”
Since Israel’s war with five Arab states in 1948, the military and political elite had been looking for the right moment to occupy the West Bank, Pappe argues. Plans for the regulation of the Occupied Territories were laid down in 1963, four years before the territories were occupied in the Six-Day War. These regulations were simply adaptations of the protocols governing the military rule of Palestinians within Israel from 1948, which were themselves based on the regulations of the British Mandate, which had, at the time, been condemned by every Zionist leader as “Nazi legislation.”
The rule imposed in June of 1967, and never deviated from by any successive government, was agreed to by a government that included every ideological stream in Israel. It was not, Pappe insists, generated by the elation of that high moment of victory, but was the inevitable outcome of Zionist ideology boiled down to two fundamental principles: as much land and as few Palestinians as possible.
THE GOVERNMENTAL minutes show that withdrawal was never on the table. Israeli attitudes are still governed, Pappe insists, by an “overwhelming consensus to keep the West Bank and Gaza Strip for ever,” constrained by the undesirability of annexing these territories (and thereby threatening the existence of an exclusively Jewish State) and expelling the population en masse. The plans devised in 1963 provided a formula for keeping the coveted territories, not annexing them, and safeguarding Israel against international rebuke. Such goals inevitably led to “an inhumane and merciless reality on the ground.” Palestinians were condemned to suffer a collective punishment for a crime never committed.
Pappe believes it abundantly clear that the 1967 war was not defensive, and that Israel was the aggressive party. CIA director Richard Helms told Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban on the eve of the conflict, “All of our intelligence people are unanimous that if the UAR [Egypt and Syria] attacks, you will whip hell out of them.” Eban was even unhappy about demonstrators in Washington who were “crying about poor Israel,” “after we defeated seven Arab armies and drowned an American warship.” Pappe finds it “surprising,” to put it mildly, that historians still insist on describing 1967 as a “self-defense and no-choice war.” In 1948, by contrast, there had been a real threat by Arab armies -- but there had also been an Israeli plan to expel as many Palestinians as possible and 80 percent of the Palestinians who lived within what became the state of Israel became refugees.
Following its 1967 victory, Israel was faced with crucial decisions about the fate of the territories and the people living in them. It opted against another round of expulsions, as practiced in 1948, and instead decided to occupy and rule the population without granting citizenship. The government marketed this as part of a peace proposal, claiming they could not withdraw until an adequate peace treaty was signed.
A Palestinian state was even considered at a governmental meeting on 18 June, 1967. It was proposed by Yigal Alon, a member of the Knesset, who did not anticipate significant resistance from the Palestinians. If they “behaved themselves,” he considered allowing them to have their own state in the West Bank, provided the colonization and annexation programmes had been completed. However, he warned that Israel could not wait too long, as ‘they [the Palestinians] will have a national movement,” and then it would be unwise to offer them a state as this might turn out to be a real one.
According to a “wedge plan” envisioned by Alon, designed to “secure the space without incorporating the people,” the West Bank would be divided into annexed regions (set aside for future settlements) and populated spaces (i.e. Arab villages). This strategy of “encystation” would create de-Arabized wedges, chains of Jewish-only colonies “that would separate Palestinians from Palestinians and essentially annex parts of the West Bank to Israel.” The plan would be perfected later by Ariel Sharon as housing minister. Eventually the Occupied Territories would assume the dimensions of a prison, with checkpoints, closures, curfews, and searches, and an apartheid wall and other physical barriers.
The only contemporary institution that imposes such conditions on a population is, in fact, the prison, and that is the ruling metaphor of Pappe’s book -- a prison for a million and a half people in 1967 and almost four million today. Following the logic of carrots and sticks, Israel has alternated between maintaining an “open prison” when the Palestinians acquiesce in their oppression, and a “maximum security prison” when there is any show of resistance, as in the first and second intifadas, the suicide bombings, and the rocket attacks from Gaza. However, this siege reality existed “long before the Israeli authorities could justify it under the pretext of defending themselves against suicide bombs and terrorism.”
The Israeli agenda in the Occupied Territories was totally disconnected, as it would be up to the present day, from the international agenda. The former was a blueprint for how to maintain the biggest prison on Earth for as long as possible; the latter wished to end the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians on the basis of a two-state solution.
All of this has been bolstered by a policy of disinformation. As Benjamin Netanyahu told a conference of Likud activists, “It doesn’t matter if justice is on your side. You have to depict your position as just.” The election of Hamas in Gaza only invigorated this project.
Another major thread to the story is the brazenness with which Israel has defied world opinion: feeding countries like the United States, Great Britain or France an earnest narrative of striving for peace, or counting on a blind eye because of the horrific history of the Jews in Europe. However, even when the international community understood exactly what was happening, it responded with empty declarations.
A parallel observation from Max Blumenthal’s Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel (2013) seems appropriate here:
What is so chilling . . . are not the sniper towers surrounding the Strip, the electrified fences, the armed drones that hover overhead night and day, but the dietary restrictions--“Heeding Israeli government pledges to push Gaza’s economy ‘to the brink of collapse,’ army bureaucrats in Tel Aviv developed complex mathematical formulas to regulate the caloric intake of each person trapped inside the coastal strip”–and the precise prohibitions forbidding the importation of potato chips, seeds and nuts, ginger and cardamom. Gaza is the subject of a ruthlessly scientific gaze as well as a ruthless military one.
The Biggest Prison on Earth is a little dry in the telling’ as any history of ministerial decisions must be.
If this “creeping transfer in the West Bank and a measured genocidal policy in the Gaza Strip” sounds like the stuff of conspiracy theories, so be it. How does a reader deal with the fact that almost everything in Western media coverage of the situation is false? Pappe not only has to tell the story that emerges from these newly declassified documents but also combat Israeli dissembling.
Pappe has inserted himself into a contentious field of discourse as a politically engaged historian, and has come under attack by pro-Israeli commentators as well as more academically oriented historians. By the time he left the University of Haifa, he had been condemned in the Israeli Knesset; the minister of education had publicly called for him to be sacked; and his pictures had appeared in the country’s biggest-selling newspaper at the center of a target. Next to it, a popular columnist told his readers: “I’m not telling you to kill this person, but I shouldn’t be surprised if someone did.” Pappe’s major critic is Benny Morris, another “new historian,” at Ben-Gurion University. Pappe has responded to Morris’s vicious attack and his charges of “sloppiness” in The Electronic Intifada, March 30, 2004.
Pappe’s book is appropriately dedicated to “the Palestinian children, killed, wounded and traumatized by living in the biggest prison on earth.” A current campaign, “No Way to Treat a Child,” reports that each year the Israeli military arrests and prosecutes around seven hundred children, many of whom are exposed to torture.
Marty Roth is a contributing writer to Jewish Currents who appeared here recently with “Is Ignatz Mouse Jewish? (Is Mickey Palestinian?)“ and an article about the Canadian leftwing artist Avrom Yanovsky.