Some Essential Readings on the Palestinian/ Israeli Conflict: A resource and suggested reading list (Part 1)

The Dispossessed, Bisque ceramic

In the last month, Gaza has been under almost daily air attacks launched from Israel. It used to be about rockets—now it started with balloons. Hardly an existential threat. The almost meaningless Netanyahu “Peace Deal” with the UAE hardly changes things, yet Netanyahu has claimed it as an excuse to finally, formally, annex the remaining Palestinian land. If our US election brings Biden into the White House, there may be space for a renewed effort for a fair resolution. In hope of that moment, and for anyone trying to get a better sense of this still vital world interest, I post these short book reviews. The 8 works suggested here cover roughly the first 100 years of the Zionist project in Palestine (1890-1987). The books I will suggest in Part Two will pick up roughly at 1987, when the “First Intifada” began, and take the issue up to the present. 

To me, the ability of the international community to finally deliver on its long-standing promise a state that can secure justice, peace and equality for Palestinians is one of the litmus tests of our time. This is my personal list of books and authors who have honestly addressed the various issues involved in the history of this conflict. Many claim the problem is ancient, complex, and insoluble. A closer look shows that none of this is really true. It started around 1890, it was about Zionist Jewish settlers displacing indigenous Palestinian people from their land, and it could be solved very easily if Israel simply honored the many promises they have made over the decades. It is only their failure to do so that has allowed time to heap “complications” on the basic problem. I believe this list will help anyone interested begin to sort the truth of things our for themselves. I’ll start with two books I believe provide a thorough, but readable general overview of the conflict. 

David Hirst (The Gun and the Olive Branch and Beware of Small States)

David Hirst’s The Gun and the Olive Branch takes you from the initial Zionist settlements in the 1890s up to the early 1980s (Camp David). It is considered a classic in the field. His book Beware of Small States is a history of Lebanon, yet it quickly turns into a story of Israeli policy from 1976 on to about 2000. The Israeli invasion of Lebanon was more about crushing continued Palestinian resistance to Israeli aggression than about Lebanon itself. Hirst was a Middle East correspondent for the British paper “The Guardian.” Both of his books are fair, readable and well documented.

Kathleen Christison (Perceptions of Palestine)

Informed observers of the conflict recognize that the US has been instrumental in creating Israel’s “success” and the tragedy that has resulted from it. Most also agree that if there is to be a just and peaceful resolution of the struggle, US participation is essential. The US is the single country with the most potential leverage over Israeli policy—if it would only use it. A key factor in all this is the issue of how perceptions of the issue were created and perpetrated in the US. Christison takes the reader through the earliest days and then through each successive US administration to reveal how this works. She illustrates the enormous impact of the “Israel Lobby” even in the early days of the Truman election and on (a striking example of foreign election interference). It is a fascinating journey through cultural history—including details on how the “novel” Exodus was actually paid-for propaganda for the Zionist cause. It is a great exploration of not merely “fake news” but the “fake history” and bad policy that can be the result. There is little hope for a just resolution of the problem unless there is a serious change of heart in the US. This book is a good step towards creating understanding of how important this is.

Ilan Pappé (The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine)

Probably no single episode in the struggle over Palestine has been more falsified, mythologized, propagandized, and misrepresented than the events surrounding the initial UN decision in 1947 to divide the country, and the ethnic cleansing and war that followed. This is a definitive account of what really happened and when and how and why. Pappé is one of Israel’s leading “new historians”—a group of scholars who are facing up to the violent truth of the Zionist project (a truth most Americans still seemingly unable to confront). This well documented, concise book explodes popular notions about who started the conflict and the myth that new state of Israel was besieged by vastly stronger Arab armies bent on its destruction. It also thoroughly explodes the idea that there was equal blame “on both sides” and that both sides were equally ruthless and brutal. It is essential reading for anyone who want to understand more about how the state of Israel came into existence.

Kati Marton (A Death in Jerusalem)

Since the initial partition of Palestine in 1947, the UN has been a major player in the conflict. Despite the fact that Israel links its supposed “legitimacy” to that first UN resolution (UN 181), it has been relentlessly hostile to the institution. This book explores one of the key incidents in the ethnic cleansing of 1947-48: the assassination by Zionist Terrorists of Count Folke Bernadotte. Bernadotte was a distinguished and highly respected Swedish diplomat who was instrumental in freeing Scandinavian Jews from Nazi camps. The question of Palestine was one of the first really big problems to confront the UN—Bernadotte became their envoy. After arriving on the scene and becoming familiar with what was happening on the ground, his initial bias to favor the Jewish side quickly changed. Realizing this (and despite his record of saving Jews), Jewish terrorists killed him. As she focuses on this specific event, which probably radically changed the final outcome of the partition, Marton skillfully illuminates the roots of the Likud Party which currently rules Israel (and has largely done so since 1977) and the extremely right-wing, even fascist leanings of the old Zionist terrorist groups from whose ranks came a number of Israeli Prime Ministers. A really fascinating, well-researched read.  

Tom Segev (One Palestine, Complete

The horrific events of the 1947-48 partition of Palestine left about 78% of the country in Zionist hands (the UN partition resolution had assigned them some 56%- even though Jews then numbered only about 33% of the population.) This lop-sided result was mainly due to the actions of the British during the period of their “mandate” (1917-1948.) Segev uses biographical sketches of important figures on the different sides of the conflict to illuminate the mandate period. He shows how the British quietly but relentlessly favored the Zionists over the local Arabs—even though the rules of the mandate required them to act in the interests of the people of the country (not incoming settlers). In effect, they helped the Zionists establish a virtual shadow government which was ready to take control when they left. The New York Times called this “The best single account of Palestine under the British Mandate.”  A really important, readable work.  

Shlomo Sand (The Invention of the Jewish People)

Sand is a respected professor at Tel Aviv University. For anyone interested in a deeper look at Jewish history, this book, and its sequel, The Invention of the Land of Israel are must-reads. Sand takes a thorough look at the reality of Jewish history and then at Jewish historiography. He shows how 19th century Jewish historians, deeply influenced by the then new ideas of Nationalism, rewrote the historical narrative to accommodate and serve the interests of the new Zionist movement—then a radical departure from orthodox Jewish thought. The resulting ‘Zionist narrative’ (which is what we mostly get in the US as we grow up) focuses on establishing a series of ideas that helped create a rationale for a “Jewish State.” Briefly stated, they are: 1. That Jews were a racially and religiously distinct group from very ancient times. 2. That they controlled historical Palestine for long periods of that time. 3. That they were forcibly exiled from their home (but always longed to return). 4. That they did not seek converts or intermarry much with people that they lived among. The point of these assertions is to establish that “Jews” are essentially a “nation” entitled to Palestine as their “homeland” and that the descendants of the people who left are actually the people who are returning.  Sand punches gaping holes in every one of these ideas. Along the way, he exposes the deeply racist attitudes that were typical among early Zionists. These are two really important works.  

Sylvain Cypel (Walled: Israeli Society at an Impasse)

Since 1947, the US has given Israel enormous amounts of aid in the form of money, military aid, and diplomatic support. Most Americans believe this is good for both countries. In fact, the US has gained little in return, while Israel has been vastly enabled in its project to take Palestinian land. Although the Palestinians are the obvious victims, the result of oppressing and occupying another people also imposes enormous psychological costs on the aggressor as well. To take just one example, among Israeli veterans of occupation, the suicide rate is unusually high. Cypel’s book examines the corrosive effect Israeli policy has on Israeli society itself. He shows in detail how the systemic racism that lies at the heart of this policy pervades almost every aspect of Israeli society—from children’s literature to the constant drift towards increasingly harsh and intolerant authoritarian governments. An award-winning journalist, Cypel, who is a French Jew, was for years the international editor of the leading French newspaper “Le Monde”. This book is comprehensive and filled with illuminating detail and anecdote. With US support, Israel is headed down a dead-end street. Promoters of a so called “One State Solution” should read this with special care—Cypel describes the kind of society they expect Palestinians to live in…

Robert Fisk (Pity the Nation)

A couple of days ago I posted on Facebook a recommendation of David Hirst’s book about Lebanon, Beware of Small States. That day, the city of Beirut was hit by one of the most catastrophic explosions ever to wound a city. Lebanon has been in crisis for some time. For anyone who wants to understand the situation there more clearly, Hirst’ book is valuable background. I also suggest the classic book Pity the Nation by Robert Fisk. He is simply one of the best reporters to ever work in the region. Pity the Nation covers the period from the early 70s to the late 80s. Much of what happened then has helped shape the Lebanon of today.

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