Book review: Un-erasing the erasure of Palestine

I read Jonathan Cook’s new book Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s experiments in human despair before Israel committed its most recent massacres in Gaza. Israel’s massive disregard for Palestinian life and the clearly deliberate destruction of life-sustaining infrastructure shocked many poorly informed observers, but few of those acquainted with the knowledge contained in this book would have been taken by surprise. Cook is a British journalist who made the Palestinian city of Nazareth his home. Over the last six years Cook published a series of highly informative and original articles that broke with the Western tradition of stenographic journalism. Although previously a staff journalist of the liberal British paper The Guardian, few of his recent articles were featured in the mainstream Western press. He knows too much.

This book is in fact two short books for the price of one. The second half comprises a selection drawn from these articles Cook published over the last six years in a variety of websites and newspapers. The first half is an outstanding essay that seeks to distill the so-called “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” and to trace within it the overarching principle that guides Israel’s policies. Cook’s thesis is that “the goal of Israeli policy is to make Palestine and the Palestinians disappear for good.”

Proving such a strong thesis is not an easy task. Many historians, and many laypersons with a liberal education, tend to be suspicious of plans and purposes. History, when examined closely enough, often looks like a patchwork of accidents. No doubt chance had a substantial impact on the history of Zionism. Few of the colonizers who laid the ground for the future State of Israel in the 1920s imagined the coming holocaust in Europe, or the massive influx of Jews from Arab countries. The most fateful decisions taken by the state were the result of intense internal debates and can be easily imagined resolving the other way. For example, the decisions to attack Egypt in 1956 and 1967 required the no small feat of isolating a sitting prime minister, Moshe Sharett in 1955 and Levi Eshkol in 1967. Ariel Sharon’s provocation that ignited the second Palestinian intifada in September 2000 was an election campaign ploy, and so were the recent massacres in Gaza.

However, when a driver has an accident every year, it is not enough to note that each accident was different — here the street lighting was faulty, there the brakes malfunctioned, one time happened during a snow storm; we are at fault if we ignore the pattern. Cook synthesizes a voluminous array of books relating to both the ideology and practices of the Israeli state, in order to present a compelling and appalling pattern of actions and words leading, planning and driving in one inexorable direction, the disappearance of Palestine and Palestinians. He does this in a lean and matter-of-fact prose, with a style that keeps the inevitable pull of ironic language in check, and with effortless narrative guidance that acquaints the reader along the way with the main historical and geographical signposts. The first chapter covers Zionism’s early beginnings and the erasure of Palestinian history, the colonial imagination of the “empty land,” the emergence of active plans for getting rid of the inhabitants of Palestinian villages (transfer), followed by the actual massive ethnic cleansing that took place in 1948. A battered Palestinian minority remained under Israeli control, mainly in the Galilee and the Negev. Cook then describes and traces the common denominator of the various policies adopted vis-a-vis this minority after 1948, from land confiscations and “judaization” campaigns to explicit calls for transfer, revealing the persistence and consistency of the overarching Israeli purpose: disappearing Palestinians.

The bulk of the main essay is devoted to the history of the colonization of the West Bank and Gaza, from the war of 1967 and the pursuant occupation, through the various strategic phases of the settlements enterprise, up to the Oslo accords of the mid-1990s, the second Palestinian intifada, the building of the apartheid wall and Sharon’s “disengagement” from Gaza. It is in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, where demographic constraints make Palestinian presence so much more of a threat to Zionism, that the single-minded pursuit of the goal of disappearance assumes its most monstrous forms so far, fully justifying the book’s subtitle, “Israel’s experiments in human despair.” Cook weaves into the historical swipe copious evidence about the planning and thinking behind the settlement project. This thinking appears most clearly in the Kafka-esque legal subterfuges that Israel devised in order to give ethnic cleansing the patina of legality. The chapters about the law is a must-read primer into one of the most chilling aspects of Palestinian life under Israeli rule, chilling precisely because of its seemingly aseptic calm and the invisibility of violence. Political theorist Hannah Arendt’s phrase, “the banality of evil,” both resonates in and is questioned by this account: the banality of the local commanders and petty bureaucrats who make the occupation happen cannot exist without the sadistic creativity of its lawyers.

The final pages of the essay assess the implications of this story. Cook uses the late Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling’s concept of “politicide” to call attention to the careful ways in which Israel constructs and describes its policies in order to dodge an accusation of genocide, when in fact the accusation is fully merited:

“So long as Israeli outrages can be presented as spontaneous, unsystematic and related to security needs, the international community will turn a blind eye. As long as Israel ensures that politicide — a subtle incremental, war of attrition against the Palestinian public and private life — does not look much like the popular notion of genocide (concentration camps and butchery) Israel will be able to continue its policies unchecked. The ultimate goal, however will be the same: the disappearance of a Palestinian nation for good.”

Being proven right by events is not conclusive evidence of a thesis, but it is nonetheless a useful reminder that understanding matters. Cook writes in the last paragraph, “Gaza’s inmates are staring at a future in which they are supposed to return to the Stone Age, without fuel, electricity, medicines, and even basic foodstuffs.” That future is here, making Cook’s other dire predictions all the more alarming.

Part of what the essay reveals, although Cook does not make it explicit, is how much the Israeli dependence on constructed historical narratives also translates into an almost “literary” sensitivity to the power of narration that is itself harnessed to the goals of disappearing Palestinians. Not only does Israel seek to erase the Palestinian presence in the land, and with it that historical memory, but its strategies of erasure are constrained by narrative rules, and designed with a view of fragmenting the potential national narrative that emerges from the erasure itself. Israel seeks not only to erase, but, borrowing from the language of architecture, to erase the erasure of Palestine, thus satisfying both internal needs for a clear conscience as well as the demands of Western amnesia to depict every new phase of this genocide as “spontaneous, unsystematic and related to security needs.” History and journalism with memory, writing that insists on un-erasing the erasure, defragmenting the accidental and the spontaneous and tracing its patterns back to the bureaucrats, ideologues and politicians behind it and simultaneously to the resistance in front of it, is not just a matter of accuracy and knowledge, but also of survival.

Cook not only seeks to meet this requirement, but also exposes the complicity of those writers for whose consumption Israel tailors its genocide the way it does. This is done in the second half of the book. The reprinted articles are a useful series of “snapshots” from different moments in the war of disappearance. They tackle a variety of topics, from the persecution of Palestinian political leader Azmi Bishara, the rise of the Russian right-winger Avigdor Lieberman, the difference between left and right in Israeli politics, the siege of Gaza and more. An important number deal with analyzing the way various narrators of the events in question play an active role in the erasure of the disappearance of Palestine. Here, Cook takes to task Israeli writers Uri Avnery and David Grossman, as well as the rights organizations B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch for the complicit ways they represent the Palestinian struggle and Israeli actions.

Cook’s book is a timely and useful contribution to the urgent work of countering the hegemonic discourse in the West as it seeks to accept and legitimize the disappearance of Palestine. There are however two lacunae in this exposition of Israel to Western audiences. First, Palestinian resistance appears in it only en passant, in a fragmented way. In un-erasing the erasure, Cook reconstructs Israel as a subject carrying out genocide against Palestinians, but leaves Palestinian agency fragmented and to a large extent erased. This fragmentation is no doubt the result of successful Israeli repression, but part of the task of writing the story of this repression is to resist and recover from it. For a Western audience, this lacuna means that the book ultimately sustains a humanitarian appeal more than a demand for solidarity and support for Palestinian resistance.

The second lacuna is the concentration on the surface of Israeli policies. The coherent portrayal of Israel as it perpetrates genocide against Palestinians is not false. Without a doubt Israel is persistent in a slow drive to disappear Palestine. But beneath this coherence lay internal struggles and fractures that matter to the success of the work of stopping and undoing that disappearance. In the late 1980s, a dominant section of Israeli elites was eager, for reasons of self-interest, to move from a colonial to a post-colonial relation with Palestinians. To be sure, that would not have ended the repression, and it would not have meant the end of the Palestinian liberation struggle. However, the results of that failed transformation, doomed by the interplay between the global neo-liberal reaction and the internal fractures of Jewish Israeli society, were fundamental to the reinvigorated genocidal policies adopted by Israel in the ’90s and beyond. As vital as it is to reconstruct Palestinian agency in the face of fragmentation, it is also vital to deconstruct Israeli agency to both its local internal components and to the global structures that co-opt and use it. By attributing to Israel a level of coherence that it doesn’t actually possess we risk echoing uncritically the false claims of its leadership to represent Jews and Jewish interest, supposedly against Palestinians, a hostile region and a hostile world. Especially today, amidst a collapsing neo-liberal globalization and the inchoate possibilities opened by this collapse, it is crucial to de-exceptionalize the story of Israel and to integrate its analysis within larger frameworks that can facilitate dismantling its genocidal structures before they fulfill their apocalyptic potential. I am well aware that addressing both issues would have required a much beefier volume than Cook intended. It would have been useful however to call attention to the lack and make the reader aware of what is left untold.

Gabriel Ash is an activist and writer. Ash is a core member of IJAN (Inrternational Jewish Anti-Zionist Network). He writes because the pen is sometimes mightier than the sword and sometimes not. He welcomes comments at g.a.evildoer A T gmail D O T com.

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