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Ethnic Cleansing: Past, Present and Future
by Ran HaCohen
January 7, 2003

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There is a puzzling paradox about Holocaust denial: those who deny it are precisely the ones who would have supported it. I couldn’t help thinking of this paradox when I heard that American university professors have recently been accused of anti-Semitism (!) for signing a document warning against Israeli intentions to drive out masses of Palestinians, possibly during a American attack on Iraq. It seems that those likely to support such a crime are precisely the ones who so vehemently deny that Israel might be contemplating it.


In Israel itself, however, the idea of "transfer" – the common euphemism for ethnic cleansing or mass deportation – is discussed openly. Several political parties support it; one of them is in Sharon’s cabinet. They may speak of "voluntary transfer", but Minister Benny Elon has been quite explicit about what they mean by "voluntary": It’s like a man who refuses to give his wife a divorce, he said. According to Jewish law, the defiant husband can be jailed and slashed until he – "voluntarily" – complies. (If you wonder why Israel is turning Palestinian life into hell, this – not the futile "war on terrorism" – is the answer.)


Gamla, a group founded by former Israeli military officers and settlers, offers a detailed plan for forcibly expelling all Palestinians, both from the occupied territories and the Palestinian citizens of Israel, within a 3-5 year period. This may be too long for some: there are persistent reports that Ariel Sharon has ordered his forces to prepare to drive hundreds of thousands of Palestinians over the border into Jordan, possibly on the day the United States conflict starts against Iraq. Sharon has recently rejected an official Jordanian request that Israel issue a public declaration opposing the "Transfer" of Palestinians (Ha’aretz, 29.11.02).


As recent Jewish history shows, the way from mass-deportation to mass-murder is a dangerously short one. Recall that Hitler’s death camps were his second-best "solution" for the Jewish "problem": at first, the Third Reich intended "just" to deport (or "re-settle") the Jews to wherever possible – Palestine, Eastern Europe, Madagascar.


How come – in a poll conducted last April – 44% of Jewish Israelis, a people that suffered both deportation and extermination, support similar measures against the Palestinians? One possible answer is that people do not learn from History, or learn the wrong lessons. I don’t think it is the answer in this case. The fact is that Israelis and Israel-supporters do not refuse to learn from History: they deny History. The denied historical pattern keeps duplicating itself, and won’t stop until its denial is stopped.


Ethnic Cleansing: The Past


What people fail to recognize is that Israel owes its very existence as a Jewish State to massive ethnic cleansing. The overall picture is undisputed: In 1948, there were about 600.000 Jews in Palestine. The number of Palestinians driven out from the territory taken by Israel in 1947-1949 is estimated at 600.000 to 720.000 (says the nationalistic Israeli historian Benny Morris in his authoritative The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem); about 100.000 Palestinians, a.k.a Israeli Arabs, remained. Without driving most of the Arabs out, then, or without prohibiting their return after the war, no Jewish majority could have been established.


This information is not part of the Israeli collective consciousness. Israelis confronted with it would deny it, often out of true ignorance. Everybody in Israel knows that many Arabs left in 1948. There is some controversy among laymen about whether they fled the war zone spontaneously ("their own fault"), were encouraged to leave by Arab leaders, or were expelled; experts agree that all three factors played a role. Older people still remember "that Arab village down the road, that was erased once the inhabitants left". But the extent of the Palestinian exodus, especially in proportion to the Jewish population, is virtually suppressed.


The Price of Denial


When denial is no longer possible, Israel-supporters faced with this information tend to take refuge in an accusation like "so you deny Israel’s right to exist". This procedure is logically, morally, and practically wrong.


Logically wrong, because what was born in sin does not necessarily lose its right to exist. Some people claim we were all born in sin, yet they do not demand that we all commit suicide. Few people would deny the crimes committed against Native Americans, yet I never heard that the US should be dismantled because of them.


Morally wrong, because recognizing historical facts should not depend on their political implications. One cannot deny a fact simply because one does not like its consequences.


And, finally, practically wrong, because if Israelis were aware of the ethnic cleansing of 1948, they would not be so eager to try this abortive "solution" once again. I doubt how many Israelis would think repeating the crime is a good way to peace, if they were aware of the fact that the hundreds of thousands driven out in 1948 have now grown into millions of refugees along Israel’s borders, whose hatred towards Israel and whose desire to return home have been nurtured by decades of humiliation and discrimination in Lebanon, Syria or Jordan.


Just like we demand the Arabs to recognize the Holocaust, recognizing the ethnic cleansing of 1948 is a precondition to reconciliation. As long as most (pro-) Israelis deny it, Israel is in danger of repeating it. Since Israel’s political system is run by former generals responsible for the ethnic cleansing of 1948, since the military echelon is run by their devoted disciples, warnings of Israel’s intentions to repeat the crime in the (possibly near) future should be taken very seriously.


The Present


Having said that, one must stress that debating the past and warning of the future should not distract from the present. At this very moment, slowly but steadily, ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in the occupied territories is taking place. As Ta’ayush activists Gadi Algazi and Azmi Bdeir write,


"Transfer isn’t necessarily a dramatic moment, a moment when people are expelled and flee their towns or villages. It is not necessarily a planned and well-organized move with buses and trucks loaded with people, such as happened in Qalqilyah in 1967. Transfer is a deeper process, a creeping process that is hidden from view. […] The main component of the process is the gradual undermining of the infrastructure of the civilian Palestinian population’s lives in the territories: its continuing strangulation under closures and sieges that prevent people from getting to work or school, from receiving medical services, and from allowing the passage of water trucks and ambulances, which sends the Palestinians back to the age of donkey and cart. Taken together, these measures undermine the hold of the Palestinian population on its land." (Ha’aretz, 15.11.2002)


This "small-scale" ethnic cleansing has its own secret language. You need some initiation to decipher it, but it’s in the paper all the time. It happens when Palestinian neighbourhoods, along the Egyptian border in Rafah for example, are turned into a battle zone: the inhabitants obviously flee; Israel then quickly demolishes their houses. Protest is soothed by Israel’s hypocritical claims that the houses were empty.


Ethnic cleansing happens when Israel connects the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba with that of Hebron by a promenade which cuts the heart of Palestinian Hebron and necessitates the demolition of scores of Palestinian houses along the route, described as "uninhabited", as being "shelter to terrorists" or as "belonging to rich families living elsewhere".


Ethnic cleansing happens when Israel builds a security fence on Palestinian fields, cutting them from their owners; the farmers cannot access their land and are forced to find their living elsewhere.


Ethnic cleansing happens when settlers terrorize the Palestinian village of Khirbet Yanun, break into houses destroying whatever they find; last October, only two old men were left of the whole village, the rest of its population had taken refuge in the neighbouring town of Akrabeh.


Ethnic cleansing is the motivation behind every new acre taken by Jewish settlements, behind "security zones" and "by-pass roads", behind fences and military outposts. It is behind every siege and closure, aimed at reducing Palestinian movement to their immediate surroundings, confining them to their enclave, to their town or village, to their house. The fenced Gaza Strip is already termed "the great prison" by its own inhabitants; last week, Israel once again cut it into three separate zones.


All these things are taking place here and now, some reported, some not. The struggle against "transfer" should therefore involve a concerted effort on all fronts: against plots to drive out Palestinians in the future, against their strangulation in the present, and for making the ethnic cleansing of 1948 (and since) part of our collective consciousness.


Ran HaCohen teaches in the Tel-Aviv University's Department of Comparative Literature, and is currently working on his PhD thesis. He also works as a literary translator (from German, English and Dutch), and as a literary critic for the Israeli daily Yedioth Achronoth. HaCohen’s semi-regular “Letter from Israel” column can be found at, where this article first appeared.