Ian Black has written a very well-researched, comprehensive and insightful survey of a century of Palestinian-Israeli conflict, from the Balfour Declaration to the present. Even though this is well-travelled terrain, his systematic and detailed account is instructive as it pulls together from a wealth of, albeit secondary, sources a complex story in a very coherent and well-structured narrative. However, the narrative of the conflict is marred by the absence of some critically important contexts and by an imbalance in the treatment of the two parties.
Black argues, correctly, that the settler colonialist paradigm does not fit the Israeli Zionist story as it fails to grasp ‘the Jewish religious-national connection to Eretz Yisrael that is so central to Zionist ideology and Israeli identity’ (p.xxi), but he misses a key distinction of the Zionist endeavour. Zionism was a movement of national liberation and salvation for the Jews after centuries of European exclusion, expulsion and eventual extermination. The Zionist movement of the late 19th century resulted from the discrimination, oppression and rejection of the Jews by the nationalist movements of Europe. German, Polish, Russian, and even French nationalism, as Theodor Herzl discovered in the Dreyfus case, would not accept the Jews, who consequently sought to establish a national movement and a homeland of their own, in the only place that made any historical sense.
On its own, the Jewish reaffirmation of their ‘religious-national’ connection to Eretz Yisrael would have neither attracted too many Jews nor have aroused much international attention. Had it not been for the push of the ‘Jewish question,’ (Die Judenfrage), the Jews as the downtrodden of the earth, the international community would most probably never have bothered to recognise the legitimacy of the Zionist movement, as it did in the Balfour Declaration, the British Mandate and the UN Partition Resolution of 1947. This key theme of the Zionist enterprise is only discussed briefly in a sentence on Chaim Weizmann’s testimony before the Peel Commission in late 1936: ‘Weizmann eloquently described the broad outlines of Jewish history, the scourge of anti-Semitism, [and] the plight of the Jewish masses in Eastern Europe.’ (p. 79) Unfortunately the famous quotation from Weizmann’s testimony, which perfectly encapsulated the insufferable Jewish predicament of the 1930s, was omitted from Black’s account. Weizmann had observed sadly that for almost six million Jews in Eastern Europe ‘the world is divided into places where they cannot live, and places into which they cannot enter’.And it was precisely then that the Arab Rebellion of the 1930s led to the closing also of Palestine to the Jews, just as they were about to face their horrific fate of physical extermination by the Nazis.
Black’s book, unfortunately, suffers from a structural imbalance. In his preface he notes that he ‘tries to tell the story of, and from, both sides, and of the fateful interactions’ between Israelis and Palestinians (p. xix). Indeed, the book does tell the story of both sides, but it is mostly the story of the victorious Israeli villain and the vanquished Palestinian victim. Black tends to underestimate Arab hostility towards Zionism, as he simultaneously displays understanding for the Arab rejection of Israel.
Indeed, Arab rejection is easy to comprehend. There was no reason for the Arabs to accept the solution to the Jewish problem in Europe at their expense. But underplaying the intensity of Arab hostility makes it more difficult to understand what the Jews were up against and why they responded the way they did. It was well known to all and sundry, and the Arabs made no secret of it, that they (except for King Abdallah of Jordan) were opposed to partition in principle and that they would go to war against the UN resolution. But Black tells us that the Arabs and the Palestinians opposed the resolution, ‘infuriated by American susceptibility to the Zionists’ as if it wasn’t really the very principle of partition that they rejected.
He then goes on to explain how unfair the partition was, in that the Jews were to obtain 55 per cent of Palestine though they ‘owned just seven per cent of Palestine’s private land’. The reader is left to assume that it was the Arabs who owned the other 93 per cent, while they were awarded only 44 per cent of the country for their state (p.107). However, this is a misleading presentation. The Jews owned seven per cent of all the land (not just private) of Palestine and the Arabs owned some 24 per cent. The remaining 70 per cent or so was state land not privately owned by either Jews or Arabs. Of all the land that was allocated to the Jews about two-thirds was the mostly uninhabited Negev desert, awarded to the Jews as the main reservoir of land for the absorption of the hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors still in the displaced persons camps of post-war Europe.
It is impossible to understand the logic of partition outside the context of the Holocaust. Indeed the entire Zionist enterprise cannot be fully comprehended without its European background. The story is not just about Jews and Arabs in Palestine. It never was. Thus the conflict in Palestine cannot be explained independently of the Jewish predicament in Europe.
The Arabs went to war against partition and lost. The Israelis were better prepared and better trained, but the war was not a foregone conclusion for the Israelis. There were times when they seemed to be on the verge of possible defeat, military and diplomatic. At the end of March 1948 the war for control of the roads ended in Jewish failure and very heavy losses. By the end of March the Jews had suffered about a thousand dead. Jewish defeats in the battlefield were accompanied by a serious diplomatic setback, as the US withdrew its support for Jewish statehood, arguing that partition was not working. They proposed a UN trusteeship for Palestine instead. The Arabs were elated while the Jewish Agency expressed its shock and disbelief at the US retreat. In Black’s account, Jewish victory is almost self-evident, and both the extent of Jewish losses at this point and the trusteeship crisis are not even mentioned. Though he does note correctly that, in early April, the implementation of the Plan Dalet offensive by the Jewish forces ‘was the turning point of the first phase of the war’ (p. 116).
The fighting in April was brutal and atrocities were committed by both sides. On 9 April a force consisting of two Jewish right-wing undergrounds, the Irgun and Lehi,committed the notorious massacre at Deir Yassin, when over 100 Palestinians, including women and children, were killed. Revenge was not long in coming. On 13 April, 78 Jewish doctors, nurses and others were killed by Arab fighters as their convoy was attacked in Jerusalem on its way to Hadassah hospital on Mount Scopus.
Black is not even-handed in his discussion of these events. He fails to mention that the massacre at Deir Yassin was immediately condemned by the Jewish Agency, the Haganah command (the official military force of the Jewish Agency), and the two chief Rabbis.Though there were no similar condemnations on the Arab side on the Hadassah convoy, he makes the point of telling the reader that ‘the attack caused disquiet among Arab doctors’. As for the Jewish losses in the convoy, Black tells us that they were ‘killed’ (p. 118). According to Benny Morris, however, their vehicles were set alight by the attackers and many of them were ‘roasted alive.’ Only thirty bodies were recovered and buried, ‘the rest had turned to ashes’.
In Black’s narrative it was Deir Yassin that became ‘a byword for Zionist brutality,’ (p. 118) but no ‘brutality’ or similar epithets are ascribed to the Arabs’ actions against the Hadassah convoy. When it comes to Palestinian (or British) losses Black’s language tends to become more graphic. During the second intifada, when Israeli missile strikes killed Palestinian operatives, meticulously singled out for their personal responsibility for the deaths of Israelis, we are told that the victims were ‘incinerated’ (p. 401, 439). The booby-trapped corpses of two British soldiers hanged by the Irgun Jewish underground in the summer of 1947 were ‘blown apart’ when they were cut down (p. 107). But hundreds of Israelis, murdered indiscriminately by Palestinian suicide bombers in the second intifada, were always ‘killed,’ never ‘blown apart’. It is only the Israelis who ‘incinerate’ and ‘blow apart’.
In June 1980 settler activists bombed the cars of two Palestinian mayors seriously injuring them. The Israeli media referred to these settlers as the ‘Jewish underground,’ though, as Black correctly points out, their actions ‘clearly constituted terrorism by any normal definition’ (p. 250-251). But on the very same pages Black notes that, shortly before, Fatah had given ‘a spectacular demonstration of its enduring belief in the efficacy of armed action … when a four-man squad gunned down six Israeli settlers … in the centre of Hebron … one of the most effective Palestinian attacks since 1967…’ There seems to be more admiration than admonition in this instance. Needless to say, there is no ‘terrorism’ here, nor in other Palestinian attacks, not even when four members of the Palestine Liberation Front killed the elderly wheelchair-bound Leon Klinghoffer on the hijacked Achille Lauro and then dumped him overboard. This was just an ‘embarrassment to Arafat’ (p. 267).
On responsibility and agency
There are two main analytical paradigms for the Arab-Israeli or Palestinian-Israeli conflict. One argues that its development, the actions and reactions of the parties, are a function of the dispute between the parties, and so Israel and the Arabs share responsibility for its events and outcomes. The other would contend that the conflict is primarily an outcome of the very essence of Zionism and of Israel’s aggressive nature. Between these two poles, Black tends to be closer to the second.
He quotes the Israeli writer Ari Shavit, for example, writing about the expulsion of the Arabs of Lydda in 1948: ‘If Zionism was to be, Lydda could not be. If Lydda was to be Zionism could not be.’ But both Shavit and Black are off the mark. Zionism and Lydda could have lived happily ever after if the Arabs had accepted partition in 1947 and had not decided to launch a war of genocidal intent against the Jews. Israeli leaders, Black says, have refused to admit responsibility for Palestinian suffering (p. 6-7). He faults the Israelis for not accepting ‘the passionately held Palestinian demand for Israel’s recognition of its responsibility for creating the [refugee] problem in 1948 – the Nakba’(p. 367, 420). But the responsibility shoe is very much on the other foot.
Israeli leaders have been prepared, at Taba in 2001 for example, to accept their share of responsibility for the consequences of 1948. But they have never been willing to accept sole responsibility. The Palestinians, on the other hand, have never taken any responsibility for the decisions they made in 1947-1948. Nakba is a natural disaster like an earthquake or a flood and, as Sadiq al-Azm has argued, the very use of the term is, in itself, an act of ‘exoneration and the evasion of responsibility and accountability, since whomever is struck by a disaster is not considered responsible for it’.The Israelis, needless to say, are entirely responsible for all their deeds and misdeeds, but they cannot also be held responsible for the decisions and actions of the Palestinians.
The Palestinians are forever refugees, even four generations after 1948, including those who have never really lived as refugees and have prospered very comfortably for over half a century in the West. Israelis, many if not most of whom are the descendants of Holocaust survivors and/or refugees from Europe and the Middle East, are hardly ever described as such, and when they are it is designed to compare Palestinian suffering to the Holocaust, not to empathise with the Israelis (p. 143, 158).
The usually sterile impersonal descriptions of Israeli losses were noticeably different from the more human, personalised and compassionate depictions of Palestinian victims. In August 2001 15 Israelis, including five members of one family, were killed in the bombing of a pizzeria in Jerusalem (p. 382). We are not told anything about them. They were Mordechai and Tzira Schijveschuurder, both children of Holocaust survivors, who were killed along with three of their children. In October 2003, 20 Israelis were killed in a restaurant in Haifa, and we are not told anything about them either. There were two families of five, grandparents, parents and grandchildren who were wiped out at the Sabbath lunch table. One of the grandchildren who survived, ten years old at the time, has been blind ever since. Black, surprisingly, reserves the human touch for the bomber, a young woman from Jenin. She was a trainee lawyer named Hanadi Taysser Darajat, and she was avenging a brother who had been killed by the Israelis (p. 396). She actually arrived at the restaurant, sat down and had lunch first, and then blew her fellow-diners to pieces.
Shalhevet Pass was an Israeli exception to this rule. She was the ten-month old baby of settlers in Hebron ‘killed by a Palestinian sniper as she sat in her pushchair’. But she is immediately matched up with Muhammad al-Durrah (p. 378), the iconic figure of the young Palestinian boy said to have been killed by Israeli fire in the first intifada, a fact fiercely contested by the Israelis. In late 2014, four rabbis and a policeman were hacked to death by two Palestinians in a West Jerusalem synagogue. Pictures of bloody meat cleavers were subsequently circulated on Arabic social media. But again this incident was offset by an Israeli atrocity, as it was said to have ‘reminded many’ (who exactly, is left to the reader to ponder) of the massacre by Baruch Goldstein in Hebron 20 years before (p. 458).
On the Palestinian side the victims are regularly humanised. Thus in early 2005, IDF tank shells killed seven Palestinian children who were on their way to pick strawberries (p. 402). In July 2006 a twelve-year-old Palestinian boy named Nadi al-Attar was killed with his grandmother in a sudden explosion, riding in their donkey cart on their way to pick figs (p.412). There are other similarly personalised accounts (p. 426), including one where an Israeli shell killed four boys playing on a beach in Gaza and a journalist described ‘a distraught father collecting his son’s dismembered remains in a plastic bag’ (p. 453).
There were also regular mitigating factors for Palestinian attackers of Israelis, who invariably had personal justifications for their actions. Thus a Palestinian who forced a bus off a highway into a gorge killing 14 was ‘avenging beatings of relatives by Israeli soldiers’ (p. 296). The lynching by a mob of two Israeli reservists who had lost their way in Ramallah ‘did not happen in a vacuum.’ The lynching came after the IDF had killed eight Palestinian children under the age of sixteen, and nine between the ages of 16 and 18 (p. 373). A Gazan bus driver mowed down eight Israelis at a bus stop near Tel Aviv, the background being that he ‘had snapped because of the intolerable pressure of Israel’s blockade’ (p. 378). A bus bombing in Haifa killed 15 Israelis. The bomber was Maher Hubashi, ‘who had sworn revenge after seeing the dismembered corpses of two Hamas leaders’ killed by the Israelis in Nablus. Hubashi had posted photographs of Palestinian children killed by the Israelis on his bedroom wall (p. 386).
On the other hand, the separation wall constructed by the Israelis to keep the bombers out was criticised for cutting into the West Bank and also cutting off Palestinians from land and jobs. Black quotes a Palestinian who lamented that this ‘stupid wall has nothing to do with Israel’s security’ (p. 393). The fact that the number of Israelis killed by the bombers dropped from hundreds a year to zero, before and after the wall, is not mentioned.
Drive by shootings by Palestinians against Israeli settlers in the West Bank were quite common and one of the reasons for the paving of by-pass roads for settlers was to evade the shootings. But in the sole instance when Black mentions drive by shootings, it is of Israeli settlers attacking Palestinians (p. 382). Not that settlers did not attack Palestinians. They often did, from cutting down trees to murder. Needless to say, their reprehensible behavior is recorded in detail. But drive by shootings are, by far, a more popular Palestinian tactic.
Just about every Israeli blemish or misdeed or foolish, outlandish or racist statement is dutifully recorded, while the Palestinian parallels are often overlooked. In December 1998 the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) was said to have confirmed ‘the nullification of the offensive provisions’ of the organisation’s National Covenant, (p. 359) which denied Israel’s right to exist and called for its destruction. The reader is given no taste of these ‘offensive provisions,’ which call for the ‘elimination of the Zionist presence in Palestine,’ because ‘Zionism … is a racist and extremist movement in its essence, aggressive, expansionist and colonialist in its objectives, and fascist and Nazi in its means’. Black does not explain that the whole ‘nullification’ exercise was an act of deception. To this day not one word has actually been altered in the Covenant. The PLO’s governing bodies passed resolutions to amend the Covenant, but in practice they never did so. It was all a hoax, and President Bill Clinton fell for it without reservation and even thanked the Palestinians for their goodwill. The full text in its original form is still on display on the PLO’s Arabic Language website. Actually, much too much is made by the Israelis of the Covenant and its importance. But the same is true of the outlandish statements made by Israeli politicians.
Some Dubious Sources
Black tends, at times, to rely on dubious sources, such as Ilan Pappe, and to accept his work without question even though Pappe is notorious for his tendency to confuse fact and fiction. Pappe, as part of his source manipulation, engages in tendentious translations from Hebrew into English to better serve his political agenda. One such example is the use of the Hebrew word tihur, which means to cleanse or purify. In the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), mopping up, or clearing out of enemy positions is known as tihur. Pappe, however, uses the word to suggest that orders for tihur in 1948 were for ethnic cleansing.Pappe must know that the translation is false, but people unfamiliar with the nuances of Israeli military terminology could hardly be expected to know the difference. Black accepts Pappe as an authority despite the fact that he is well aware of Pappe’s ideological inclinations as an ‘anti-Zionist Israeli historian’ (p. 115-116). He also cites Pappe on the murdering of over 200 residents of the Palestinian village of Tantura by Israeli forces in May 1948 (p. 124), a story that was disproved long ago.
He relies on well-known Palestinian propagandists, like Ghada Karmi, quoting her unbelievable conspiracy theories as if they had credibility and were worth repeating, such as the notion that European NGOs ‘had been deliberately introduced into the Palestinian territories by pro-Israeli Western agencies to siphon off the pool of available Palestinian talent and prevent it from being used to mount any resistance to Israel’ (p. 405).
On Occupation and Peace
It is Black’s criticism of the Israeli occupation that is especially on the mark, particularly of Israel’s settlement policy, much of which is illegal even according to Israeli, and not only international, law. Riding roughshod over Palestinian rights also flies in the face of elementary fairness. Proposals such as Israel’s Education Minister Naftali Bennet’s for the annexation of area ‘C’ and ‘autonomy on steroids’ (p. 478) for the sliver that remains (some 10 per cent of historical Palestine) are outrageous in their total disregard for Palestinian aspirations. As for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he was obviously ‘not prepared to make the concessions needed to make’ a two-state solution possible, no matter what he said. (p. 474)
But, yet again, that is only one side of the story. Much of the criticism that could have been and should have been levelled against the Palestinians, the PLO and Hamas, to complete the picture of both sides is absent. Their contribution to the perpetuation of the conflict, to the repeated failure of negotiations, is not given the weight it deserves. Thus, for example, the Sadat initiative of 1977, is said to have done ‘nothing at all for the Palestinians, locked into a bleak status quo of occupation’ (p. 241). This is true of course. The Palestinians were only offered autonomy in the Camp David Accords of 1978, which was understandably dismissed by them as ‘a sham’ (p.247). But at the time there were only a few thousand settlers in the West Bank, and Israel did recognize the ‘legitimate rights of the Palestinian people and their just requirements.’ Had the Palestinians accepted autonomy in 1978, the massive settler project might have been averted and the Palestinians may have had their state long ago. It is also worthy of note that no Palestinian leader has ever recognised the ‘legitimate rights of the Jewish people and their just requirements,’ as none other than Menachem Begin of the Irgun did for the Palestinians.
The Palestinian rejection of the Clinton parameters (p. 375) was far more serious than Israel’s reservations. Arafat wrote a long letter to Clinton explaining chapter and verse why the Palestinians could not make meaningful concessions on the refugee question. Not surprisingly the Palestinian reservations were seen by the Americans as ‘deal-killers’.Interestingly, on most final status issues – Jerusalem, settlements, borders and security – the international community, by and large, supported the Palestinian positions. This was not true, however, on refugees, where the international community usually stood with Israel. The notion that after the creation of a Palestinian state the refugees should return to Israel, and not to Palestine, defied the basic logic of the two-state solution. What was the point of establishing a Palestinian state if the Palestinian refugees were supposed to return to Israel?
Moreover, in international practice, generally speaking, refugee questions after such long lapses of time were not solved by return. The great majority of Palestinian refugees today are people who never lived in the homes that they were supposed to ‘return’ to, and that no longer exist anyway. In 2010 the European Court of Human Rights ruled against Greek Cypriots who demanded to return to their properties in the northern part of the island now under Turkish-Cypriot control. Considering the time that had elapsed since 1974 when the Turks invaded the island, the Court ruled that it was necessary to ensure that the redress offered for these old injuries did not create disproportionate new wrongs.If this was true for Cyprus since 1974 it was all the more so for Palestine since 1948.
Those Palestinians and their external supporters who are most adamant on refugee return are also those least interested in a settlement with Israel. On the contrary, it was they who, like Hamas, did not believe that Israel had any right to exist in the first place. Their demand for refugee return was more about waging the struggle to undo Israel, than seeking an accommodation with it. This did not make refugee return any more palatable for most Israelis.
The Hamas decision, after Israel’s withdrawal, to turn Gaza into a launching pad for rockets, rather than a potentially prosperous economic enterprise, is not even discussed. If Hamas had opted for such a course, debilitating Israeli punitive actions against Gaza would have been unnecessary and the fate of the territory could have been entirely different.
Black describes Hamas rockets as ‘home-made,’ suggesting that they are more or less harmless. The rockets are made in workshops and metal works throughout Gaza. Though they are definitely not cutting edge high-tech they are not useless contraptions made in grandma’s kitchen either. They are lethal weapons of war. The rockets are not very accurate, but that makes matters worse. They are not even intended to hit very specific military targets, but are fired randomly at large densely populated urban areas, designed to terrorise entire populations, who have 15 seconds (if they live close to Gaza and up to 45 seconds if further away) to scurry to the shelters.
After all is said and done, this is a thorough and well-researched book that covers the ground of an entire century from 1917 to the present. The imbalance throughout the narrative, however, is both unfortunate and unnecessary. A more even-handed account could have made this into one of the best books on the subject.
Chaim Weizmann, The Letters and Papers of Chaim Weizmann, Volume II, Series B, December 1931-April 1952 (Jerusalem: Israel Universities Press, 1984), p. 102.
Benny Morris, 1948; The First Arab-Israeli War(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), p.127.
Morris, 2008, p.129.
Sadiq al-Azm, Self-Criticism after the Defeat(London: Saqi Books, 2011), p. 40.
Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, (Oxford: One World, 2007).
Dennis Ross, The Missing Peace; The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace(New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), p. 755-756.
Asher Susser, Israel, Jordan and Palestine: The Two-State Imperative(Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2012), p. 151.