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John Pilger

Israel's Secret Shame

Ethnic cleansing attended the birth of Israel but, more than 50 years
later, the country is still in denial about its bloody past. Those who
speak out risk their jobs.

Behind the turbulent news from Israel, a struggle for historical truth has
passed almost unnoticed outside academic circles; yet its wider
significance is epic. In May 1948, more than 200 Palestinians were killed
by the advancing Jewish militia in the coastal village of Tantura, south of

According to the recorded testimony of 40 witnesses, both Arab and Jewish,
half the civilians were shot in a "rampage". The rest were marched to the
beach, where the men were separated from the women and children. They were
taken to a wall near the mosque where they were shot in the back of the

The "cleansing" of Tantura (a term used at the time) was a well-kept
secret. When they were interviewed four years ago, several Palestinian
witnesses said they feared for their lives if they spoke out. One survivor,
who as a child witnessed the murder of his entire family in Tantura, said
to the interviewer: "But believe me, one should not mention these things. I
do not want them to take revenge against us. You are going to cause us
trouble... "

Trouble indeed. The researcher, a student called Teddy Katz, has had his
masters degree annulled by Haifa University, even though he was awarded a
top grade by the Middle Eastern department. When his research was revealed
in the Israeli press, Jewish veterans of the attack on Tantura sued him for
libel, and several Jewish witnesses recanted.

Katz had breached the taboo of the ethnic cleansing that gave birth to
Israel and which the Palestinians mourn as Nakba - the catastrophe. Without
waiting for the case to come to court, the university struck Katz's name
from its honour roll. Whispered to be a traitor, and under pressure from
his family and friends, Katz, a devout Zionist who lived on a kibbutz,
apologised. Twelve hours later, he retracted his apology.

Professor Ilan Pappe is one of the few to have read all the transcripts of
more than 60 hours of Katz's taping of eyewitness evidence. "They include,"
he wrote, "horrific descriptions of executions, of the killing of fathers
in front of children, of rape and torture." He describes Katz's thesis "as
a solid and convincing piece of work whose essential validity is in no way
marred by its shortcomings". The shortcomings, he says, come down to four
minor mistakes. But the importance of the Katz research is its illumination
of Israel's history in terms of "the expulsion, direct and indirect, of
some 750,000 Palestinians, the systematic destruction of more than 400
villages and scores of urban neighbourhoods, as well as the perpetration of
some 40 massacres of unarmed Palestinians."

Although other prominent scholars supported Katz, a silence and hostility
familiar to those who break academic and political ranks in Israel
descended on the case. Since the election of Ariel Sharon last year, this
hostility is such that not even national heroes are forgiven. Last month,
Yaffa Yarkoni, "Israel's Vera Lynn", whose emotional, wistful songs have
celebrated Zionist triumphalism from 1948 to the present day, lost her huge
popularity overnight when she remarked that Israeli soldiers ought not to
be writing numbers on the arms of Palestinians. "Isn't that what the
Germans did?" she asked.

One newspaper headline called her an "enemy of the people"; an editor said
she "has joined the new anti-Semites in Europe". In challenging the Zionist
version of Israel's past, Ilan Pappe is one of Israel's "new historians", a
distinguished and courageous critic. He has likened the Israeli state to
apartheid South Africa, with its Palestinian "bantustans" and plethora of
humiliating controls which now restrict the movement of people within their
own communities. He says that Sharon's goal is to begin the mass expulsion
of Palestinians across the Jordan; only a pretext is required. According to
one poll, 44 per cent of Israelis support this latest "cleansing", known as
"transfer", another euphemism from the past. In 1948, David Ben-Gurion,
Israel's founding prime minister, wrote, "We have accomplished our
settlement by transfer of the [Palestinian] population."

Not quite. The notion of a "final transfer" is supported by a number of
cabinet members in the ruling Likud government, by leading Labour Party
members and professors and media commentators. "Very few now dare to
condemn it," says Pappe. "A circle has been closed. When Israel took over
almost 80 per cent of Palestine in 1948, it did so through settlement and
ethnic cleansing. The country has a prime minister who enjoys wide public
support and who wants to determine by force the future of the remaining 20
per cent."

Now it might be Professor Pappe's turn to be expelled from Haifa
University. In an open letter circulated two weeks ago, he writes that the
dean of the humanities department has demanded his expulsion for
criticising the university over the Katz case. This runs deeper; Pappe has
been a consistent opponent of Israel's illegal military occupation of
Palestine. He describes the university "court" that threatens to punish him
as a "McCarthyite charade". He has called upon "universities worldwide to
debate a boycott of Israeli institutions, given their contempt for basic
principles of academic freedom and dispassionate research". He says that
only international shaming, free of the intimidation that equates criticism
of Israel with anti-Semitism, will break the silence about "horrific deeds
in 1948, and so prevent their repetition".

Others in Israel, as courageous as Ilan Pappe, are also under pressure,
both crude and insidious. In Ha'eretz, Israel's equivalent of the Guardian,
two outstanding journalists, Amira Hass and Gideon Levy, have consistently
reported the unpopular truth about Israel's occupation of the remaining 22
per cent of the Palestine it conquered in 1967. They live daily with
threats and hate mail. Upholding the bravest traditions of Jewish humanity,
they need international solidarity. You can support Ilan Pappe, and the
cause of justice in both Israel and Palestine, by e-mailing

John Pilger's latest book, The New Rulers of the World, is newly published
by Verso

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