Review of A History of Modern Palestine, Ilan Pappe, Cambridge University Press, 2004, pp. 333+xxi.

Abstract: Pappe’s latest book is an informative account of the history of Palestine from the mid-Eighteenth Century until the recent war on Iraq. It covers vital historical periods including the fall and division of the Ottoman Empire, British Mandate Palestine, the creation of Israel, the various Arab-Israeli wars, the invasion of Lebanon, the Intifadah and the failed Oslo Accords.

Ilan Pappe is one of the new generation of Israeli scholars who has campaigned for a unified state for the Palestinians and Israelis. He is also known to be a revisionist historian who in numerous studies and discussions is seen to be dismantling and deconstructing the narrative for history of the birth of Israel. Palestinian history is pretty much the history of the new state of Israel especially when considering that 80% of what was formerly known as Palestine is now Israel.

In this book Pappe presents to the reader a history of this turmoil-filled region with the intention of rejecting the modernizationist and nationalist approaches towards the history of this region. The modernizationist approach which Pappe regards as a way at looking at how a nation is reborn rather than when it was born tends to minimize the role of the local Palestinian or the subaltern society as they are regarded as invalid subject matter until they are modernized (pg. 6).

The nationalist approach is influenced indirectly by the modernizationist approach in the sense that it analyses the main nationalist figures which is conveniently constructed under what is a modern response to colonialist perspectives.

It is between these two readings of history that Pappe tries to construct his history with the subaltern society (the Palestinian masses) as the centre. These people are the people who are way beyond the normal confines of the usual elites in politics and other structures of power of which usual history writing is centered upon. By concentrating on the people, Pappe has attempted to propose a new approach towards the history of the region. Thus this new approach begins with a society in Palestine in the late Ottoman period and ends with the conditions of the post-Oslo reality in the 1990s.

The book is divided into 7 chapters with an introduction, a concluding chapter and an epilogue. The epilogue goes up to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.

After this introduction, Pappe then goes on to set the setting in the first chapter by giving a detailed outline on the society of mid 19th – early 20th century Palestine. He discusses the formation of modern Palestine, its people and also the coming of the Zionist. It is important to note that Zionism was an invented ideology rather than a revealed one, as the opposition to Herzl’s ideology had argued against it that it was a secular ideology (Cohen). Pappe in his retelling of the situation of the coming of the Zionist lends credence to this idea through history. He says:

“Many traditional Rabbis forbade their followers to have anything to do with Zionist activists. They viewed Zionism as meddling with God’s will that the Jews should remain in exile until the coming of the Messiah.” (pg.37)

If there was this opposition, why and how did Zionism win the battle to become the founding ideology of the state of Israel? Zionist ideology owes much to the renaissance period which had begun in the 1850s. According to Pappe, intellectual Jewish scholars in Eastern Europe were attracted to Herzl’s message more than the bankers and statesmen (pg. 37). The interested parties were large enough to form a substantial political movement which propagated the cause by using ancient Jewish history as their model instead of religion. This led to the first Zionist Congress in Basle in 1897. It is here that they identified their plan as well as their internal Jewish enemies.

“The Zionist or Basle Programme was the main product of the first Zionist Congress. The manifesto explained that ‘the Zionist movement aspires to create an asylum for the Jewish people in Eretz Israel which would be guaranteed by law’. The second Zionist congress, in 1898 added the imperative of colonizing Eretz Israel (land of Israel) for that purpose. At the third congress in 1899, Herzl suggested replacing the search for international legitimacy with a chartered lease from the Ottoman sultan.” (pg. 37)

Anti-Semitic violence that swept over Europe in the mid-20th century, violence against Jews due to Alexander III blaming the Jews for the assassination of the former Tsar, all these factors led towards the acceptance of Herzl’s ideology. Russian Jews led by Moshe Lilienblum and Leon Pinsker (pg. 39) became the ideological prophets for Jewish immigration to Palestine. It was to Baron Edmond de Rothschild that these settlers turned to, who was the richest man. He was generous to these new settlers in providing them with farms and vineyards, and expert help in planning and structuring the colonization of their land. This relationship did not last long however as he withdrew his support when he saw the lackluster performance of the settlers. The settlers were to find another ally which was more ideologically in tune with them in the Zionist Organization for the Settlement of the Land of Palestine.

The Ottomans tried to stop the migration of Jews to Palestine by imposing a prohibition in the form of law in 1882 but due to British pressure the restrictions on Zionist immigration were eased (pg. 40).

In the second chapter we get to understand the role and involvement of the British in the establishment of the state of Israel. The reasons the British aligned themselves to the idea of a Jewish state were colonial interest in the Middle East, hoping to get the co-operation of the Ashkenazi Jews by spreading pro-British propaganda in Russia in order to influence the tsarist government to support the Allies in weakening Germany in the First World War, and religious reasons by the then British Prime Minister David Lloyd George who believed that placating the Jews back to Palestine would precipitate the second coming of the Messiah. The last factor is attributed to the pro-Zionist bent in British policy at the end of the 19th century which had mixed new colonial perceptions of global reality and old theological concepts connecting the return of the Jews to Palestine with the second coming of the Messiah (pg. 51). The issue of using theology to support the agenda of the Zionist is dealt with by Steven Sizer in his book on Christian Zionism. Sizer and Pappe agree that this idea was revived in Christianity and became the guide in making British policy in regards to Palestine in line with the ideological underpinnings of Zionism.

It is in this chapter that readers are exposed to the three documents that were to decide the future of Palestine i.e. the Husayn-McMahon correspondence which promised Husayn the right to rule transJordan; the Sykes-Picot Agreement which proposed to place Palestine under Anglo-French colonial rule and the Balfour declaration which explicitly worked towards making Palestine a Jewish state (pg. 68). It is through the last that the people of Palestine, Jews (the local inhabitants and not settlers) and Arabs were to suffer till the present time.

The collapse of Ottoman power due to its failure in the First World War and the coming of the British Mandate precipitated the process as we see in Chapter 3. Jewish immigrants fleeing from a hostile Europe were received in increasing numbers after 1929. This increasing population led to numerous escalations of violence in the Mandate due to the inequality due to wealth (pg. 111). Before the violence there was an underlying structure of unity between the communities which went with each of the communities’ nationalist agenda. Pappe gives us the example of “Palestinian and Jewish truck drivers who organized in 1931 a very effective strike”(pg.113). Nationalist tendencies however broke this pact and ironically the same truck drivers were at the forefront of the 1936 clashes between the Zionists and the Palestinians.

Later gangs were formed by the Zionists to protect the Jewish settlers and expel Palestinians from their homes. One such gang was the notorious Stern Gang which is associated with David Ben Gurion, who was to later become Prime Minister of Israel. Pappe is systematic in providing us the details towards the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948. Beginning with the coming of UNSCOP (United Nations Special Committee on Palestine) and how they were given a “ready made partition programme” by the able Zionist representatives, to the inadequacy of the Arabs and the Palestinians to respond, to the different plans that were organized to dispossess the Palestinians of their land including the different stages of the battle in 1948; all of these are covered in some detail in chapters 4 and 5.

By the time of 1948 there were already nearly a million Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. (pg.142) Quite impressive considering the Zionists had just been in Palestine for the last 40 years. Such success as outlined by Pappe derived much support from the factors outlined above.

Chapters 6 deals with the 1967 war and the fate of the Palestinian refugees in Jordan and other Arab countries. Issues connected to the occupied land and Israeli policies in regards to the occupied land, UN Resolution 242 and how this resolution had managed to establish the Americans as the main player in the Middle East by ousting the Soviets. The resolution had allowed the Americans to employ terms such as ‘peace process’ which were devoid of any moral values. The peace process itself seems more important than the actual results of such negotiations (pg. 208). This chapter also deals with the war in 1973 which saw Israel’s near defeat at the hands of the Egyptians and its eventual withdrawal from the Sinai peninsula in 1977 as well as the various undercurrents within Israeli politics which brought Begin to power. The invasion of Lebanon and the protest of Israelis towards their political elite at the atrocities committed at the Shabra and Chatila refugee camps by Christian Phalangists militia are also dealt with in this chapter. Pappe does point to a relevant fact when dealing with these two issues i.e. that there was internal debate raging in Israel regarding the fate of the Occupied Territories. This led to the creation of two extra-parliamentary movements: Peace Now and Gush Emunim (pg. 224). The former wanted to leave the Territories but the latter wanted to retain them. It is within the latter that you would find the most fanatical supporters of Israel who were identified by Pappe as “fanatical immigrants from the USA and the USSR” and who became recruits to the extremist Kahane Kach movement (pg.225).

Chapter 7 deals with the first Intifadah in December 1987 and the consequences surrounding it. Pappe is correct in alluding to the fact that the Intifadah was coming. What is surprising was why it took so long for it to happen. Harsh living conditions in the Occupied Territories and the failure of Arab leaders to help resolve the real issues that were affecting the refugees led towards the Intifadah against Israel.

The book concludes with a discussion post-Oslo. The failure of Oslo is attributed to the power generously tilting in Israel’s favour and the weakening of Palestinian leadership under Yasser Arafat (pg.254). The Oslo process did not address the refugee problem as well as Palestinian sovereignty on Jerusalem which are two crucial issues and close to every Palestinian and Muslim throughout the world. Instead it made the Israeli state stronger and increased the oppression of the Palestinians. The issue of right of return of the Palestinians to their dispossessed land and Jerusalem are the two most urgent and pressing issues for the establishment of peace in the region.

Pappe’s book is interesting because it gives the lay reader an insight into the workings of the original population of Palestine and how they were caught up in the midst of battles between the Arab nationalist and the Jewish nationalist (Zionist) and the colonial forces. Each chapter is an honest construction of history with details on the various forces at work in the political arena as well as at the level of the society. The various political ploys and strategies and the main players of politics in Israel are mentioned to the reader’s advantage. Pappe is to be congratulated for such an enlightening book. Readers without any prior knowledge of Palestine would be advised to read the book and have it as a reference.

Mohamad Nasrin Nasir

Mohamad Nasrin Nasir is a PhD student in Islamic Thought at the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization in Malaysia, and a sub-editor of Palestine Internationalist.