When was the last time you saw a television documentary dealing with the forced clearance of Palestine in 1947-48? Our 15th January blog reported the account of those terrible events unearthed from the Israeli archives by the historian Ilan Pappe in "The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine" (One World 2006). Pappe brings to light not only the bare facts of the hundreds of villages and urban areas "cleansed" of their occupants, and the vast expropriation of Palestinian property that accompanied it, but also draws attention to the extreme and frequently murderous violence with which the Zionist assault was carried out.
Women, children and old people forced from their homes and fields, and told to go to the West Bank (on foot, without food or water), their husbands, sons and fathers in many cases shot out of hand on the word of a hooded informant: surely this provides the mix of pathos and indignation that makes for gripping media coverage. But where is the reconstruction of the massacre at Dawaymeh or the slaughter at Jaffa and the looting of the victims' property, or similar events at many other places? And then there is the unbearable irony of this act of dispossession: as Pappe asks, "three years after the Holocaust, what went through the minds of those Jews who watched these wretched people pass by?"
No doubt the roots of this anything but accidental amnesia lie as much in European history as in Middle Eastern, but its consequences are pernicious. Take Jimmy Carter, in his recent book "Palestine, Peace not Apartheid" (Simon and Schuster 2006): in his slightly folksy way the former US president writes a good deal of sense on the conflict in the Middle East, which he has monitored closely during and since his presidency, and records the destruction of hundreds of Palestinian villages and the flight of 700,000 people. But he sees this as somehow a response to attacks on the infant Israel by Palestinian and Arab forces, apparently unaware that many of the villages had been destroyed before a single regular Arab soldier set foot in Palestine and well before the end of the British mandate.
Or take Neil Lochery, an academic commentator, in "The View from the Fence" (Continuum 2006), who does mention the expression "ethnic cleansing" only to retreat into blustering apologetics such as "the reality, of course, is much more complex". How can you begin to understand the demand for the right to return (UN Security Council Resolution 194) if you don't recognise that the Palestinians were driven out at the point of a gun?
Even if you go back forty years to say Maxime Rodinson's "Israel and the Arabs" (Penguin 1968), which so close to the events retained some recognition of the real balance of forces in 1948, there is no mention of the systematic expulsions and widespread atrocities that accompanied them: indeed, to read him, you would think the massacre at Deir Yassin was an isolated incident. But then, Rodinson probably knew nothing of "Plan Dalet", the Zionist blueprint for the cleansing of Palestine which Pappe puts before us.
The refusal to acknowledge this history, the destruction of villages, mosques, schools and homes and the remodelling of the very landscape which Pappe describes, all feed the blank incomprehension so common in the West about the background to conflict in the Middle East.
But perhaps not for much longer. A group of young Israeli historians are now documenting what Palestinians themselves have always known and, as Pappe himself writes, "growing numbers of Israelis are aware of the truth of what happened in 1948".