"If the Palestinian population was compliant and did not resist the occupation they were rewarded with the most basic of civil and human rights and if not, these rights were rescinded. All changed when, after two intifadas it was clear that if the prisoners would not behave themselves, an increasing brutal system of collective punishment would be put into place. Israeli policymakers asserted that the colonisation could be justified if it was presented as a means of” fighting terror”. Israel replaced Palestinian low-paid workers with those from foreign countries. Movement was severely restricted through road-blocks, checkpoints and curfews. The building of the notorious “Security Fence” ostensibly to deter suicide bombers, took another chunk of Palestinian land, destroyed infrastructure and demolished houses as well redirecting stolen water to the settlements, some which was sold back to the Palestinians at inflated prices. The messianic Zionist settlers, hell-bent on expanding biblical Israel were let loose on the Palestinians as vigilantes to wreak whatever havoc they desired without rebuke. Former Israeli soldiers in the IDF have spoken out anonymously in the group “Breaking the Silence” of cases of brutality, intimidation and harassment they were encouraged to mete upon the Palestinian population. Pappé exposes the Oslo peace process as a sham; a means to carve up the Palestinian areas even further and place them under Israeli control. By 2007, forty percent of the West Bank was annexed by Israel. Within this area Israel solidified its presence with barriers, military bases and closed military areas, which, cynically, the Israelis call nature reserves." The Biggest Prison on Earth – A History of the Occupied Territories, by Ilan Pappé
Ilan Pappé has written prolifically on the topic of Israel and Palestine. His work has always been meticulously researched, forensically analytical and yet relatively simple for a layman to grasp the main concepts. Perhaps this is why he has rarely, if ever been asked to comment on the region and its history in mainstream media. After all, if the situation is continually described as too complicated, controversial and sensitive for the public to understand, then why ask a renowned scholar to comment?
His latest book, “The Biggest Prison on Earth” is published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the six-day war in 1967 and takes up the story where “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine” left off. The latter exposes the dispossession and expulsion of the Palestinians in the creation of the State of Israel in 1947 to 1949 (and is indispensable reading in understanding the back drop of the 1967 events) whilst in this book he describes how the “Palestinian Problem” has been managed but not resolved, resulting in a Stygian nightmare of a population under siege in the longest occupation in recent times.
He quotes evidence from archives made public in the last few years, the memoirs and interviews from generals and players of the time which prove, beyond any doubt, that Israel, far from being attacked by the Arab armies in 1967, was planning and co-ordinating provocation for a full-out strike in order to appropriate land and resources to create Eretz Israel, Greater Israel. This expansion was viewed as finishing the job started in 1948. Indeed, in 1964, a special guidebook was produced for military leaders entitled “Military Rule in Occupied Territories” ready for the final onslaught. The evidence is damning enough without the added fact that parts have already been censored. One wonders what more damaging information still remains hidden.
Pappé is methodical in his exposé. The first four chapters describe the way the 1967 decisions were implemented. Next he describes the open-air prison model created for the Palestinians between 1967 and the First Intifada in 1987, the harsh retaliation and imposition of a maximum security prison from 1987 and 1993. He then analyses the “peace process” from 1993 to 2000 initiated and led by the West. The book concludes with the examination of the maximum security prison model operating in the Gaza strip today.
What makes Pappé so accessible is his unequivocal use of language. He says what he means, he means what he says. There is no obfuscation here, the bluntness of the language is stark, clearly demonstrated in chapter headings such as “Devising the Mega-Prison”, “The Oslo Charade”,” The Ultra Maximum Security Prison Model: The Gaza Strip”. The opprobrium heaped on the Israelis is relentless: “intransigent and harsh position towards the Arab world”, “uncompromising,” “oppressive military rule,” intentional brutality of the leaders and generals,” “the colonizer’s butchery did not end there,” the repertoire of barbarity” are some examples; moreover the book is liberally peppered with prison terminology as befits the title. Pappé’s stance is uncompromising.
Pappé exposes the Orwellian manipulation of language that has operated in Israel since 1967. Palestine is now termed Judea and Samaria, Palestinians are described as the Arabs. Moshe Dayan ensured that journalists were not allowed into the West Bank and even today there are many places- such as Gaza- deemed closed military zones, to deter news leaking out in order to quell dissenting voices from the Israeli media and to hide certain policies. Once something was declared a defence matter then it was closed to public scrutiny, Israel Galili, the Minister of Information at the time was known as a past-master of “newspeak “ and served up propaganda that was easily digested by an Israeli public and international audience who were willingly duped. Any action could be explained away by stating that “Israel has a right to defend itself.” The Minister of Education was quoted as saying: “we should say something, not necessarily mean it.“ In other words, they should continue to use the words of seeking peace but not necessarily mean it.
From the outset, it was clear that the occupation would necessitate a dual language, one for domestic and international consumption- the discourse for peace- and one for the bureaucracy of the occupation- the language of annexation and control. As Pappé puts it: The press was domiciled, the world indifferent and the Americans misled.
This book is about the occupier rather than the occupied; the colonizer rather than the colonist. A vast bureaucracy from all walks of life, not just civil servants and soldiers, is needed to man this vast prison and requires the collusion and complicity, not only of the Israeli public, but of the international community. Much of the book focuses on the disregard and flouting of the Geneva convention, International laws and the UN charter of Human Rights.The West uses words such as “autonomy” “self-determination” and finally “independence” to describe the best version of an open-air prison model (aka the State of Palestine) the Israelis could offer to the Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza. The reality is though that today every single aspect of Palestinian life is monitored and controlled by the Israelis.
Pappé’s argument is that since Palestinians are denied basic human and civil rights of a citizen they are de facto prisoners. But as the record of abuses and humiliation against the Palestinians mounts up and is irrefutable, as U.N. reports of Israeli war crimes are shelved and any murmurings of disapproval from the international community are ignored by the seemingly invincible Israeli State, it appears that the analogy of a prison is an apt one.
The main difference between 1948 and 1967 was that the decisions about the fate of the Palestinians in 1948 were taken before the war, whereas in 1967 they were formulated after the war. The reason for the war was to take over the land and resources, but the indigenous population was surplus to requirements. As the excellent maps show at the back of the book, the ever-increasing population is squeezed into an ever- decreasing land area mainly by land expropriation through corrupt legal systems, and house demolitions. By December 2016, about 400,000 Israelis inhabit 121 settlement officially recognised by the Israeli Government (although condemned by International Law) whilst 375,000 Israelis live in settlements in East Jerusalem. There are around a hundred further settlement outposts that are not officially recognised by the government, and are illegal against Israeli law, but have been provided with infrastructure, water sewage and other services by the authorities. In the 1980’s, the Chamber of Planning, devised by Ariel Sharon, was created ostensibly to help with the future of 400 Palestinian villages in the West Bank but in reality its remit was to limit expansion and growth.
What do you do with four and a half million people you simply do not want?
Pappe’s unsparing detail makes for uncomfortable reading. Population transfers of the scale of 1948 were no longer possible, although one hundred and eighty thousand were expelled from their homes in the aftermath of 1967, thus creating a second wave of refugees.
The solution to Gaza was relatively simple. Geographically it is isolated from the rest of the disintegrated Palestine. Two successive bombardments by land, sea and air by the most high-tech of equipment available of one and a half million people living in the most densely populated 40 square miles on the planet met the UN article 2’s definition of genocide. A UN report in 2016 predicted by 2020 life in Gaza would be unsustainable. The International Community objected to what they termed as Israel’s use of “excessive force” but did nothing.
At first, it was decided that the Palestinians would be temporary guest workers, a cheap labour force with no rights whatsoever inside Israel, as well as that their presence inside Israel would make the occupation irreversible. The local economy would be destroyed to make Palestinians reliant on Israeli goods, creating a one-sided dependency.
If the Palestinian population was compliant and did not resist the occupation they were rewarded with the most basic of civil and human rights and if not, these rights were rescinded.
All changed when, after two intifadas it was clear that if the prisoners would not behave themselves, an increasing brutal system of collective punishment would be put into place. Israeli policymakers asserted that the colonisation could be justified if it was presented as a means of” fighting terror”. Israel replaced Palestinian low-paid workers with those from foreign countries. Movement was severely restricted through road-blocks, checkpoints and curfews. The building of the notorious “Security Fence” ostensibly to deter suicide bombers, took another chunk of Palestinian land, destroyed infrastructure and demolished houses as well redirecting stolen water to the settlements, some which was sold back to the Palestinians at inflated prices. The messianic Zionist settlers, hell-bent on expanding biblical Israel were let loose on the Palestinians as vigilantes to wreak whatever havoc they desired without rebuke. Former Israeli soldiers in the IDF have spoken out anonymously in the group “Breaking the Silence” of cases of brutality, intimidation and harassment they were encouraged to mete upon the Palestinian population. Pappé exposes the Oslo peace process as a sham; a means to carve up the Palestinian areas even further an place them under Israeli control. By 2007, forty percent of the West Bank was annexed by Israel. Within this area Israel solidified its presence with barriers, military bases and closed military areas, which, cynically, the Israelis call nature reserves.
Pappé compares the judicial system imposed on the Palestinians to that of a Stasi regime where it was able to arrest and punish without reason, occasionally using concocted evidence of an un-known collaborator. Thousands of Palestinians have spent long periods in jail without trial as part of administrative detention.
There are two omissions which are the most striking. Tony Blair, Middle East Peace Envoy for the United Nations, European Union, United States, from 2007 to 2015 is absent from the political landscape. There are no comparisons made to the apartheid model which have been made before in other tomes (apart from describing the Jewish-only by-pass roads and the Wall as such in passing), but perhaps this detracts from the prison motif.
As Pappé states from the beginning, this is a book about the occupier, therefore what is curious is the relative absence of any Israeli outcry to these abuses that he describes. It would have been interesting to hear the views of Israeli civilian society. Perhaps they have been so inured by propaganda and indoctrination that they are totally disconnected from the Palestinian experience, viewing them as “the enemy”. Certainly news disseminated by the internet has made more Israelis more involved and there is a growing number of Israeli activists demonstrating that the suffering of the Palestinians is not in their name. Nonetheless, as Pappé explains: (Israelis have) ..”a genuine inability to grasp the level of Palestinian suffering and the evil nature of Israeli oppression.” There are few instances, if any, that Palestinians and Israelis can interact in social contexts on an equal basis. Maybe it is a case of people see only what they want to see, hear what they want to hear. Pappé recounts when he himself went over to see “the other side” in 1967 on an organised trip to see archaeological sites and completely blanked out the obvious signs of devestation.
One episode sticks out for me which encapsulates a mindset. Pappé writes: “To the aesthetic crimes against the city of Jerusalem can be added those of culture and religion. One of the most important parts of the Mamilla area was its Muslim cemetery dating back to the seventh century. The graves were removed at night so that no-one could witness this, and in their place the Simon Wiesenthal Foundation built a museum of tolerance! To ensure the Muslims could not reach this sacred site, it was surrounded by an electric fence. Desecrating Muslim graveyards for new constructions was nothing new, however…”
This is ultimately a depressing and bleak book, with no endgame in sight. No doubt, critics of Pappé will denounce this book as lies, lies and more lies and denounce him as a “sloppy historian.”
The message is: Read, and take note. More than anything else, this book a cry to the world to wake from its stupor and make amends before it is too late.
15 July 2017