New Pappe book highlights plight of forgotten Palestinians

Published by the Electronic Intifada, 7 December.

Asa Winstanley| The Electronic Intifada | 7 December 2011

After the Nakba, Israel’s 1948 ethnic cleansing operations, only approximately 160,000 Palestinians were left within the borders of what became Israel. Their numbers grew to 600,000 by the mid-1980s (152), and to about 1.2 million today. They struggled for Israeli citizenship, and won the right to vote in the Knesset (Israel’s parliament), but were kept under the thumb of strict military rule until 1966.

Thanks partly to the growing international notoriety of their representatives and activists (such as current and former members of the Knesset Haneen Zoabi and the exiled Azmi Bishara) in recent years there has been more attention paid to the situation of these Palestinians. But in the western solidarity movement, there is still a learning process to be had of understanding that “the Palestinians” includes more than the people of the West Bank and Gaza. As such The Forgotten Palestinians, Ilan Pappe’s latest work of popular history, is a welcome contribution.

Pappe contextualizes the book as almost a sequel to his most celebrated work: “this book continues my research on Palestine and Israel, which I began in The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (2006). It is only through a history of the Palestinian minority in Israel that one can imagine the extent to which the long-lived Zionist and Israeli desire for ethnic supremacy and exclusivity has brought about the current reality on the ground” (11). This approach very much pays off. Through the prism of the Palestinian citizens of Israel, Pappe explores the general Palestinian condition.

The Forgotten Palestinians ably displays Pappe’s main strength: his ability to relate a strong historical narrative. He ties many threads together, giving some much-needed perspective.

The Nakba, continued

Pappe addresses the plight of Palestinians who remained in the new State of Israel following the Nakba. In urban areas, “cordoned off with wire and fences,” Pappe writes that there were Israeli “attempts to concentrate Palestinians who had lost their homes but remained within the boundaries of the hometown … supervised by Israeli officers, who called these confinement areas ‘ghettos.’” These “ghettos” would not disappear until 1950 (18).

Like the rest of the scattered Palestinian community at large, this was a deeply traumatized people. “If they lived in rural areas, they belonged to a hundred and so villages left intact out of more than five hundred whose inhabitants were evicted and in 1949 were wiped out by the Israeli tractors, turning them into either recreation parks or Jewish settlements,” Pappe states (19). The ethnic cleansing operations went on into the 1950s.

Characteristic of Pappe, there are plenty of challenges here to the idea of “left wing” Zionism, including: “the [Palestinian] people of Khirbet Jalami, who were evicted following a demand by the newly founded left-wing kibbutz of Lehavot Haviva in March 1950” (34).

In this early phase (1948-57), even the presence of the Palestinians in Israel was under threat: “the very existence of the community was in question. Their presence was regarded by important figures in the Israeli regime as ‘unfinished business,’ and quite a few of the politicians and heads of the security services still contemplated the removal of the Palestinian citizens from the Jewish state” (47).

This threat later receded somewhat, but it never truly went away, and has very much been revived during the rise of Avigdor Lieberman, arch-racist and current foreign minister of Israel, whose party Yisrael Beiteinu made electoral gains by calling for Palestinians citizens to be made to swear oaths committing to a Jewish state, with the slogan “no loyalty – no citizenship.”

In October 2010, Pappe records, “Israeli police simulated a scenario whereby parts of Israel in which Palestinians lived were appended to the West Bank — while the illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank were incorporated into the Jewish state” (5).

Pappe says it was only in 1958 that the first Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion “conceded in an official document that the option of transfer was not applicable any more” (31).

By 1955, Ben-Gurion’s second “advisor on Arab affairs” Shemuel Divon would have to concede that “There is no way the Arabs of Israel will be loyal to the state. It would have been advantageous if the state could either expel them or convert them to Judaism, but these are not realistic options” (31). Ben-Gurion seemed to agree (33). It is very interesting that Zionist leaders still entertained the delusion that Palestinians could be converted to Judaism late into the 1950s. This is also quite a challenge to the narrative of “secular” Israel.

All this goes some way to explain why the community’s struggle in this first phase was not for national or cultural rights as Palestinians, but simply to stay in their homes and to win citizenship.

The struggle for citizenship

In its propaganda, Israel likes to boast that it benevolently gave its “Arab Israelis” citizenship. But something that comes across strongly in this book is the extent to which this is not true: many had to struggle for even this basic right.

In 1953, the new Israeli citizenship law cynically declared that only those registered in the November 1948 census would be automatically given citizenship. Partly because Israel did not yet have full military control, “out of 160,000 Palestinians, 100,000 were not registered by November 1948.”

This was a racist law, because it did not apply to Jews (from anywhere in the world) who are still automatically granted citizenship under the “Law of Return.” The upshot of this was that a majority of the “Arab Israelis” were not benevolently “granted” citizenship as Israel likes to claim, but in fact had to struggle for it, often in the courts (35-7).

The military regime in the 1948 areas

Another key challenge to the Israeli narrative of democracy is that, until 1966 it kept its Arab citizens under a military rule similar to that now in effect in the West Bank. This is still a traumatic memory for people in the community until this day.

Making use of British Mandate laws, “the [military] governor had the right to arrest people without a warrant and detain them without trial for long periods; he could ban their entrance to a place or expel them from their homes; he could also confine them under house arrest. He could close schools, businesses, newspapers and journals, and prohibit demonstrations or protests” (49).

Amazingly, many of these laws are still on the books, and the army still has the power to declare parts of the country “closed military zones.” Since 1996 a legal change has required an annual renewal of the laws (264).

In the 1950s, a special committee met to coordinate military rule. At its first meeting, the Palestinian citizens were defined as a “hostile community” that needed to be closely watched, a “fifth column.” Members of the committee included agents of the Shin Bet (Shabak), the Israeli General Security Service; the prime minister’s advisor on Arab affairs; officials from the military rule unit and, interestingly, representatives from the Histadrut — Israel’s general trade union (which until 1953 banned Arabs from membership (69). This committee met until the end of military rule in 1966 (48-9).

The Palestinian citizens of Israel today

The book spans the complete historical narrative of the Palestinians of 1948, bringing things right into the present day. Pappe concludes that, although the 1950s threat to expel the remaining Palestinians from Israel was later backed away from, this thinking has returned. The head of the regional council of lower Galilee, Motti Dotan (from the “left-wing” Zionist Labor party) in 2008 said, “If we lose the Jewish majority in the Galilee this is the end of the Jewish state … I would like to imagine a Galilee without Arabs: no thefts, no crimes … we will have a normal life” (257).

If the book has a weakness, it is something about which I have criticized Pappe’s work previously: sometimes there is lack of direct quotes. One is left to trust in the historian’s judgment. This does make for a more readable, flowing narrative, but I would have liked more specifics at times. For example, he says that the Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua “famously invited [Palestinian novelist Anton] Shammas to leave the country if he was unhappy with the Zionist regime and the success of Jews in dispossessing the Palestinians” (190). I would have liked to have read the exact words of Yehoshua here.

Apart from this and a few other very minor quibbles, I have no hesitation in recommending this book. It’s a great read, especially for those new to the topic. Those more familiar with the situation will still learn new things, and gain some important perspectives on the situation and history of this neglected, but key part of the Palestinian people.

Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist who writes about Palestine. He edited the new book Corporate Complicity in Israel’s Occupation and regularly contributes to The Electronic Intifada, where he also has a blog. His general website is

Boycott Israel campaign grows among UK unions, despite Zionist backlash

Exclusive to The Electronic Intifada, 30 Nov.

Asa Winstanley | The Electronic Intifada | London | 30 November 2011

Over the last few years, UK trade unions have expressed solidarity with Palestine more and more explicitly. Union after union has overturned a previous orthodoxy of balance between “two sides” when it comes to policy on Israel and the Palestinians. So many unions have now passed motions in support of the Palestinian boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement that even the often conservative Trades Union Congress (TUC) has been compelled to change policy.

In 2009, TUC policy on Palestine was — for the first time — brought closer to the policy of member unions. A motion calling for a targeted boycott of Israeli settlement goods was passed at the September congress. It instructed the TUC to “develop an effective Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions campaign by working closely with the PSC [Palestine Solidarity Campaign] to … encourage trade unionists to boycott Israeli goods, especially agricultural products that have been produced in the illegal settlements.”

Each year since has brought progress on BDS, according to trade union official and Palestine solidarity activist Hugh Lanning. “Big players who’ve not had positions before, say like Unite, the largest union — but also little ones — are discussing the issue for the first time,” he said.

Lanning is deputy general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS), and also chairman of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. He has a relaxed air about him, but constructs persuasive arguments. It’s clear to see why he has been able to win so many union activists over to the BDS movement.

The 2010 TUC motion on Palestine moved the focus to “companies who profit from illegal settlements, the occupation and the construction of the wall” Israel is building in the West Bank, rather than just companies based in the settlements.

In September of this year, the TUC annual meeting passed a motion reaffirming previous boycott policy, with an amendment calling for unions to “review their bilateral relations with all Israeli organizations, including Histradrut,” the Israeli trade union federation. This latter point marks this year’s slow, but steady BDS progress in UK unions.

But it’s not the first time Histadrut has come in for criticism from UK unions for its involvement with Israeli war crimes. The 2010 motion stated that TUC “condemns the Histadrut statement of 31 May which sought to justify” the deadly Israeli attack on the Mavi Marmara, while that Turkish ship was attempting to break the blockade of Gaza.

PSC’s director Sarah Colborne said the 2008-09 Histadrut support for the Israeli attack on Gaza was another turning point: “You don’t expect that from any trade union — to be supporting a war of aggression. So I think that was quite a shock for people.”

But after several years of bitter battles, the pro-Israel wing of the unions has dwindled to such a degree that it seems to have given up the battle against BDS. At congress, no one even spoke against the 2011 TUC motion, said Lanning.

Israel lobby’s backroom tactics

But this does not mean the Israel lobby has given up. Backroom tactics, appeals to union official to “see sense” and smearing activists as anti-Semitic seem to be the order of the day.

This year, the Board of Deputies of British Jews wrote to Brendan Barber, the TUC general-secretary, calling for him to revoke the leadership’s support for the motion. “This is a moment for principled leadership to prevail,” the Board wrote in conjunction with the Jewish Leadership Council (another pro-Israel group) (Press release, “Board and JLC write to TUC General Secretary,” 13 September 2011).

In June, there was a landmark defeat for the pro-Israel camp. At their conference, the leadership of the Community union (an recent amalgamation of remaining steelworker and knitwear unions) attempted to pass a motion pushing back against the BDS movement.

The text was a throwback to the era of “balanced” TUC policy on Palestine, including the line “there must be full engagement with both sides.” Eric Lee of the anti-boycott Trade Unions Linking Israel and Palestine (TULIP) admitted afterwards there was “no point in trying diminish the size of this defeat … we have a lot of work to do” (“What happened at the Community union conference,” TULIP, 8 June 2011).

Community’s chairman Michael Leahy co-founded TULIP in 2009. Lanning describes it as a “global trade union friends of Israel.” In an email to The Electronic Intifada, Lee responded that this characterization was inaccurate: “We are what we say we are … That having been said, I think we would consider TUFI [Trade Unions Friends of Israel] to be an ally, as we would similar groups in other countries,” he wrote.

In its founding statement, TULIP lists its first goal as to unite groups “fighting within the labor movement against the boycott of Israel.”

Asked to comment on the successes of BDS in the unions, TULIP’s Lee said: “I agree with Hugh Lanning that the BDS campaigners have scored some impressive victories … This doesn’t mean that the average British trade unionist [is] more, or less, committed to BDS now than he or she was last year. It means that the Palestine Solidarity Campaign has done an excellent job of mobilizing and lobbying British union conferences, including the TUC’s.”

The Electronic Intifada then asked Lee if TULIP has received or solicited funding from any of the following: the Israeli government or any of its embassies; pro-Israel lobby groups in the West; Israeli think tanks such as theReut Institute; or the Histadrut.

Lee responded: “TULIP receives — at the moment — no funding from anyone and is run on a volunteer budget. There are no links between TULIP and any of the groups you mention, though of course we were delighted that Histadrut leader Ofer Eini spoke positively about TULIP, as we have reported on the website. TULIP — like many other organizations — was interviewed by Reut as part of their research projects; I think they cite us but I’m not sure.”

Lanning was invited to debate Lee at the June Community conference. He said that the pro-Israel camp had set him up to be the fall guy at whom members were supposed to be disgusted and therefore vote against. Instead, some seemed open to BDS. During the debate, one delegate, Simon Brears, attacked the leadership for aligning the union to Israel.

“Since 2009, Community has been part of TULIP without a mandate from members.” Brears said. “This motion is a retrospective mandate for TULIP, which acts as an apologist for war crimes and human rights abuses committed by the Israeli government … [rejection of TUC policy would] isolate the union and send a message to the movement that Community is a nasty, right-wing union” (“Keep boycotting Israel say delegates,” Morning Star, 7 June 2011).

The motion was defeated. “I think they were overconfident,” said Lanning, who added that the leadership was expecting the motion to be approved.

But this failed anti-BDS strategy in the unions has been only one strand of the campaign by Israel’s advocates. This year, there has been a detectable return to an old strategy by Israel’s supporters: accusing critics of Israel of anti-Semitism.

Smear campaign revived

The main thrust of the Board of Deputies’ letter to Brendan Barber was to accuse the PSC of anti-Semitism. Lanning said these attacks are just an example of the pro-Israel camp “believing their own mythology” and emphasized that the vast majority of support for Palestine comes from people who simply don’t like the crimes of Israel. People demonstrating against Israel’s attacks on Gaza, for example, took to the streets because they didn’t like what they saw on TV, not because of supposedly latent anti-Semitism.

Lanning told The Electronic Intifada that these attacks will only make the movement stronger, because they are purely negative and often backfire. He also acknowledged that “there are people who attach themselves around Palestine who are driven by the wrong thing” but that it was PSC’s job to make it clear they are not part of the solidarity movement, which is based on solid anti-racist principles.

Colborne is all too aware of the negative strategy. She described it as the anti-BDS camp’s “delegitimization strategy … they are trying to distance people from PSC.” She pointed out that an influential Israeli think tank, the Reut Institute, dedicated five pages to the PSC in a key 2010 report on Palestine solidarity campaigning in London (“Building a Political Firewall Against the Assault on Israel’s Legitimacy,” Reut Institute, November 2010).

“You can almost see the cogs being put into place from the Reut Institute report,” said Colborne.

That report branded London “the ‘hub of hubs’ of the delegitimization network.” It also argued that a successful anti-BDS strategy should challenge BDS campaigners “by forcing them to ‘play defense’ … The goal is to eventually frame them, depending on their agendas, as anti-peace, anti-Semitic, dishonest purveyors of double standards.”

BDS goes mainstream

Since BDS is “becoming a mainstream issue,” said Colborne, the pro-Israel lobby wants to drag Palestine solidarity campaigners into an “Alice in Wonderland world” so that they focus on reacting to attacks, rather than pushing forward the BDS agenda.

“We’ve issued very clear statements opposing anti-Semitism,” Colborne stressed, but despite that, the PSC continues to be attacked constantly. Unions have mass appeal, which is why the Israel lobby is worried at the inroads BDS is making, added Lanning. Reut seems to agree: “With millions of members and a national presence, trade unions can potentially … turn BDS into a potent economic weapon against Israel” stated its report.

But despite such attacks, Colborne said that there is still a great deal of interest amongst trade unionists on Palestine. “Palestine has become this iconic struggle internationally,” she explained. This is not an achievement to be sniffed at, especially in a year that union activists are focused on more bread-and-butter issues of pay, conditions, pensions and the general climate of austerity coming from the UK government.

Despite these successes, Lanning said that although union policy on BDS is now strong, “what we haven’t yet done is translate that into activism at the local level” on a mass scale. Unions are “sort of oil tankers” that take a long time to change, he argued.

Lanning said the next stage of the BDS movement’s advance in the unions will be on the level of global union federations, which have been the “traditional stronghold” for the pro-Israel camp, with the Histadrut being present. In 2016, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) meets again, and Lanning is hoping for a better debate by then.

South African union federation COSATU raised BDS with the ITUC last year, but it was rebuffed. TULIP’s Lee said that “the Histadrut’s leader was elected a vice president” of the ITUC during its most recent congress. Winning the debate is a long term goal that could take five to ten years, said Lanning. But he considered it a good sign that Israel’s only support in the unions now is largely based in the “Anglo-world” — mainly the US and Australia.

Both Lanning and Colborne are hoping for advances on the level of activism, building on the strong policy victories. They are pushing for individual unions to start organizing members to address links their companies have with Israeli firms. For example, the Communication Workers Union has spoken out against British telecommunications firm BT’s links with Israel’s Bezeq over its services to illegal settlements in the West Bank.

To build towards such activism, Colborne said the PSC has started to organize trade union delegations to Palestine, with the next such trip likely to take place during Easter next year. The PSC had also been planning to hold a conference of union activists last month to discuss BDS tactics. But after a 30 November joint day of action on saving workers’ pensions was agreed, the conference had to be postponed so that activists’ efforts were not split. Lanning is hoping it will push ahead early next year.

Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist based in London who has lived in and reported from occupied Palestine. He edited the book Corporate Complicity in Israel’s Occupation. His website is

Palestine is Still the Issue | The Question of Palestine: liberation or independence?

My monthly column for Ceasefire Magazine, 26 November.


I was interested this week to read on The Electronic Intifada two articles about the recent Palestinian “Freedom Ride”. This was the recent attempt by six activists to ride segregated Israeli buses all the way to Jerusalem.

Due to the system of Israeli apartheid in effect in the West Bank, they were dragged off the buses by the Israeli occupation forces at a checkpoint. But the appeal to drawing a parallel with the US civil rights struggle of the 1960s seemed to generate a large amount of media coverage (a fact that sent the Zionist fanatics at “Honest Reporting” into a rage, much to my amusement).

The first opinion piece was by Nour Joudah, a Palestinian-American who grew up in Tennessee, praising the action and explaining its resonance for her – “my histories and my homes merged in a new way.” The second was by Palestinian blogger and recent graduate Linah Alsaafin (who is also a fellow-blogger of mine at Electronic Intifada). While commending the Freedom Riders for their courage, Alsaafin asked some tough strategic and tactical questions. At the core of her critique is the idea that: “our struggle is not a civil rights one. It is a struggle against a foreign occupation… [and] for the liberation of an indigenous population under a devastating settler-colonial rule.”

This key point actually goes to the heart of the current cul-de-sac that the divided Palestinian political leadership finds itself in. Fatah, ruling the West Bank, has put armed resistance aside in favour of fruitless “negotiations” with Israel that have now dragged on intermittently for 20 years. In the Gaza Strip, Hamas too now enforces a ceasefire with Israel – to the point of arresting rival groups of fighters who have challenged Hamas’s interpretation of the ceasefire by launching home-made rockets into Israel.

On Thursday, Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas met Hamas leader Khalid Meshaal in Cairo for talks on a unified leadership of the Palestinian Authority. Meshaal told AFP that Hamas would now start to focus on peaceful popular resistance, while reserving the right to armed resistance. “We believe in armed resistance but popular resistance is a programme which is common to all the factions,” he said.

Time will tell whether or not this is as much empty rhetoric as Abbas and unelected Prime Minister Salim Fayyad when they make similar noises about popular resistance. Nevertheless, the fact that Mehshaal even seems to think such statements will increase his popularity is important. It is indicative of a rising tide of popular Palestinian resistance.

Aside from the false Fatah-Hamas dichotomy, the wider Palestinian liberation movement is facing existential questions about its nature.

While it’s true that, as an anti-colonial struggle, the situation is not the same as the US civil rights struggle, I humbly submit that there is a civil rights aspect to it. Alsaafin notes correctly that “the indigenous population of Palestine is occupied by a colonial settler population”. She says this is a crucial difference – Native American activists might justifiably disagree this factor is so different from the USA.

Nevertheless, real structural differences remain, and cannot be brushed aside. Furthermore, Alsaafin’s critique of appeals to the sensibilities of western liberals is an insightful one. Some Palestinians in the first intifada raised the slogan of American revolutionary colonists who split from Britain: “no taxation without representation”. But this appeal was mostly unsuccessful in generating new allies in the US.

This is not to argue against Palestinians making grassroots connections in the West (after all, many Palestinians in exile actually live in the West). But it does mean that only hypocrites or racists would insist that the Palestinians rely on begging for outside help to save them. The task for those in the West who would express solidarity with the Palestinian struggle is to follow the Palestinian lead.

While it’s true this is made more difficult by a lack of unified leadership, it is no less of an important principle. Furthermore, the lack of a single political leadership actually has an advantage: resistance to political co-optation.

The question that Alsaafin raises is both a new and an old one. In his insightful memoir “My Life in the PLO” the late Shafiq al-Hout wrote that the first intifada was the culmination of a long process that had changed the Palestinian national movement “from a national liberation movement to a national independence movement” (p. 234).

With the long-dead Oslo process still being periodically disinterred from its ever deeper grave, Palestinians are now more and more questioning the relevance of “national independence” in ever-shrinking parcels of land in the West Bank – to say nothing of the Gaza Strip ghetto.

The logic of new trends such as the energetic boycott, divestment and sanctions movement – while being agnostic on the exact contours of a political solution – tilts the balance back towards national liberation once again. The emphasis is on three key principles: the end of occupation, the return of the refugees and full equal rights. Whatever the political solution, and whatever a joint Palestinian programme would look like, these three points are immutable.

Asa Winstanley is a freelance journalist based in London who has lived in and reported from occupied Palestine. His first book “Corporate Complicity in Israel’s Occupation” has been published by Pluto Press. His Palestine is Still the Issue column appears monthly. His website is