1929: Year Zero of the Arab-Israeli Conflict 
by Hillel Cohen, translated by Haim Watzman.
Brandeis, 312 pp., £20, November 2015, 978 1 61168 811 5
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Ten​ minutes into Elia Suleiman’s film The Time That Remains, the Palestinian city of Nazareth officially surrenders to Israeli military forces on 16 July 1948. In the town hall, the Israeli commander reads out the bill of surrender to the gathered Arab-Palestinian notables. It’s in Hebrew and they don’t understand a word. The commander tells the mayor to sign the document, and then to join his soldiers for a ‘historic photo’. A military cameraman points his camera at the soldiers. But when the black and white photo appears on screen it isn’t the soldiers we see: it’s the puzzled group of Arab-Palestinian figures at the other end of the room, ordinary people, onlookers. They, and others like them, are central figures in the work of Hillel Cohen. Neither the conventional ‘winners’ nor the stereotypical ‘losers’, they play a part in the grand political story which, though crucial, is often overlooked.

Cohen was born in 1961 into a National Religious family; his father was of Jewish Afghan origin, his mother of Jewish Polish descent. As a teenager he lived in a settlement in the West Bank. He left school at 16 and began to explore the neighbouring Palestinian villages. He made friends, learned Arabic, and by being there found out about the lives of Palestinians under the occupation. He worked as a floorer before beginning his academic career. He reads the Bible but no longer considers himself ‘religious’. He goes ‘more often to Hebron than to Tel Aviv and more often to Bethlehem than to Haifa’. He believes in a one-state solution (at least in the long term) and supports Israeli human rights organisations such as Anarchists against the Wall and Hamoked, which works with Palestinians in the Occupied Territories whose rights have been violated by Israeli policies. He writes in Hebrew – unusually for an academic, he doesn’t have an international audience primarily in mind. In half a dozen scholarly books covering the history of Palestine and Israel from 1929 to 1967 and beyond, he has consistently written about ordinary people, something no other Israeli historian has managed to do.

Cohen identifies 1929 as the year that gave birth ‘to the Zionist military ethos’. The Arab-Israeli conflict probably doesn’t have a ‘year zero’ – its roots go back at least as far as the 19th century – but 1929 should certainly be seen as a landmark. Between 23 and 29 August that year, 133 Jews and 116 Arabs were killed. Hundreds more were injured. The worst violence was in the Old City of Jerusalem and near the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. Cohen shows how the violence was connected to the threat – real or imagined – of a change in the status of a religious site that served as a symbol of political hegemony. In the 1920s, the Western Wall in Jerusalem was a Jewish prayer site in an Arab area where ‘Jews were allowed to pray … on the condition that they not disturb the residents of the neighbourhood, and on the understanding that they not claim title to the site.’

On 15 August 1929, following months of tension, Jewish demonstrators marched to the Wall, raised the Zionist flag, sang the Zionist anthem and claimed ownership of the site. The effect on relations between Jews and Arabs was dramatic. There was an Arab counter-demonstration the next day, which within a week had escalated into full-blown anti-Jewish riots. (More recent violence in Jerusalem has also been a consequence of Israeli attempts to change the status of the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site. The Second Intifada was sparked in 2000 by Ariel Sharon’s decision to visit the site to prove Israeli sovereignty; and the latest cycle of violence in Jerusalem follows 15 meetings at which the Interior Committee of the Knesset discussed changing the site’s status to allow Jews to pray there.)

Drawing on a wide range of sources, in Hebrew, Arabic and English, Cohen argues that neither side includes in the history it tells itself the massacres and murders committed by its own members. He juxtaposes Hebrew and Arabic accounts of particular incidents – for example, the murder of the Palestinian ‘Awn family in Abu Kabir village by a Jewish policeman named Simha Hinkis – and shows how Jews and Arabs described them at the time, and how they have been remembered, and forgotten, since. In Biladuna Filastin (‘Our Homeland Palestine’) Mustafa Dabbagh describes the murders of the ‘Awn family and the way Hinkis mutilated their bodies: Jewish newspapers didn’t report the crime at all, and when they covered the trial referred to the murder as the ‘Hinkis incident’.

The division between the two communities – Jewish Zionists on one side and Arab Palestinians on the other – ‘grew ever more salient’, Cohen argues, ‘as national identity grew stronger’. At the beginning of the 20th century, many of the Jews in Palestine, not to mention the wider Middle East, had no Zionist national aspirations. The riots of 1929 changed that. ‘No other factor was more influential in bringing the established Jewish communities in Palestine and the new Zionist community together under a single political roof.’

After 1929 tension was no longer between the indigenous population (Arab Palestinians, including Jews) and European Zionist immigrants, but between Arabs and Jews. In Israel today, descendants of Mizrahi Jews (or Arab Jews) tend to have more anti-Arab views than the rest of the Jewish population. This has a lot to do with the narrow range of identities ‘allowed’ by Zionist European ideologies, according to which an Arab cannot be a Jew and a Jew cannot be an Arab. The 1929 attacks on Mizrahi Jews, who spoke Arabic and dressed in Arab clothes, marked a moment of dramatic change.

Mazal Cohen was a Jewish woman murdered in Safed on 29 August 1929. Her brother spoke at her funeral:

For a quarter of a century I have spoken their language, perused their books, learned their way of life, observed their ways and manners, yet I did not know them … Who injected into your inner beings this twisted spirit, to stride with drawn swords at the head of a bloodthirsty throng and to lend a hand to murdering innocent people who lived with you securely for generations, who just yesterday were your companions and friends? … You always said that you considered native-born Jews to be your brothers, that you would love them, that you would respect them, because you share a single language and way of talking with them, and that you bore a grudge only against those who came anew … And how is it that you, the murderers of Safed, beset like beasts of prey solely those inhabitants of the city who have been integrated there for generations, turning their homes to heaps of ruins, mercilessly killing women and the old and the weak, who never did you any harm, taking the lives of people whose mother tongue is your language, and whose way of life is yours, different from you only in religion? … I have lived among you for a quarter of a century, I have been your guest, I have attended to your confidences and thoughts, and I did not know you.

This was the moment at which the possibility of a unified Arab-Jewish identity, or even a shared Arab-Jewish life, disappeared, perhaps for ever. The Zionist movement had succeeded in associating itself with all Jews, no matter whether they were European or Mizrahi, supportive of Zionism, indifferent or opposed to it. From now on Jews would see Arabs, all Arabs, as their enemy, and vice versa.

Theodor Herzl envisaged Israel as a ‘rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilisation against barbarism’. In the 1930s, some 57 Jewish settlements were established in a project called ‘Homa u-Migdal’ (‘A Wall and a Watchtower’), in which new villages were built in Palestine with two prescribed features: they were surrounded by a fence, and there was a guard tower in the middle. Jewish Israeli society still sees itself and its position in the world through the prism of security. Ehud Barak used to call Israel a ‘villa in the jungle’. Benjamin Netanyahu has said: ‘We need to secure our villa, the State of Israel, with fences and barriers from all sides, to protect it from the wild beasts that surround us.’ Military service is compulsory, and generally regarded as the highest contribution to the ‘common good’. The security establishment is also key to the Israeli economy: Israel, with a population of only eight million people, is the world’s seventh biggest arms exporter.

Cohen is less interested in the militarisation of Israeli society than in the practices that have shaped the relationship between Jews and Arabs. In Army of Shadows: Palestinian Collaboration with Zionism 1917-48 (2008) and Good Arabs: The Israeli Security Agencies and the Israeli Arabs 1948-67 (2010), he explores the way that the security apparatus gradually became Israel’s main means of interacting with and controlling the Palestinian community. Intelligence work – especially the recruitment and running of collaborators – has deepened Israeli penetration of Palestinian society, which served not only to strengthen Israel militarily but also to dilute Palestinians’ sense of national identity, their political commitment and above all their social solidarity. Over the years, and especially under martial law between 1948 and 1966, it became clear to some that working with the Israeli security forces was a way to ensure their survival, and to others that it could bring material gain.

By looking at the security apparatus as a ‘bond’ between Jews and Arabs and examining the role played by Palestinian collaborators, Cohen exposes a crucial – and ongoing – aspect of history that nobody else wants to talk about. Much of what’s written on the conflict is confined within the ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ frameworks. Cohen’s angle makes both sides uncomfortable. From a ‘pro-Israel’ point of view, his work raises serious moral questions about the underhand methods used by the Zionist movement and Israel against the Palestinians, as well as making plain that the hands of Jewish decision-makers have not been held out in peace. From a ‘pro-Palestinian’ point of view, his research seems liable to undermine the unity of the Palestinian national movement if only by showing the historic depth of ‘betrayal’ in the Palestinian community in the 1930s and 1940.

In 1920 Chaim Weizmann, then president of the Zionist Movement, called for the ‘provocation of dissension between Christians and Muslims’. Chaim Margaliot Kalvarisky, head of the Zionist Executive’s Arab Department, created the Muslim National Association with the purpose of widening divisions between Palestinian Muslims and Palestinian Christians. These were the early seeds of a Zionist divide and rule strategy that prevailed after 1929. Following another wave of clashes in the 1930s the dominant institutions of the Zionist movement’s security establishment began to take shape (Irgun was established in 1931, the Arab department of the Hagana in 1937, the Stern Gang in 1940 and so on). A Jewish ‘collaboration doctrine’ was formulated, based on the assumption that every Jewish-Arab relationship, however friendly and peaceful, would be subordinated to a ‘higher cause’: the needs of the Zionist movement. This is how Ezra Danin, one of the first intelligence co-ordinators in the Jewish community in Palestine, saw the situation in 1936:

There is always bad blood in a village and sometimes there are murders and then a chain of reprisals. In many cases of this sort, the murderer emigrates to another settlement, where he receives protection under Muslim custom. You can always get information from such a pursued, protected man in need of succour. The refusal to give a girl to a given man can lead to harsh conflicts. A man who asks the hand of a girl and is refused by her parents feels himself abused, especially if he is the girl’s cousin. Types generally exploitable for intelligence work are rebellious sons, thieves who have brought disgrace on their families, rapists who have acted on their passions and fled the avengers of tainted honour. An intelligence agent with open eyes and ready ears will always be able to make use of these personal circumstances and exploit them for his own needs.

‘Rebellious sons’​ are still available for exploitation today. Mos’ab Hassan Yousef, son of a Hamas leader in the West Bank, collaborated with Israeli intelligence from 1997 to 2007. His story made it into bookshops (Son of Hamas) and cinemas (The Green Prince). Human rights organisations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip report evidence of Palestinians killed, tortured or jailed, by both official and unofficial Palestinian bodies, for collaborating with Israel. When I worked at Physicians for Human Rights, there were many stories of Palestinians from the West Bank being stopped by Israeli intelligence officers on their way to Jordan to get medical treatment. ‘They told me, if you want to save the life of your daughter, you have to work with us,’ a Palestinian father said. ‘I refused and came back home.’ The next day he tried again, and was allowed to go to Jordan. He told me after his return to Palestine that those who are first refused and then allowed to leave the country, or are allowed through in the first place, will always be suspected of being collaborators. In other words, any contact that Palestinians have with Israeli officials involves the threat of being made to collaborate, or of being labelled a collaborator. For Israeli security it’s doubly useful: it brings in information and deepens mistrust.

The earliest murder of an Arab collaborator that Cohen has discovered took place in 1929; the earliest murder of an Arab land dealer who arranged a sale of land from Arabs to Jews occurred in 1934; in 1938, at the height of the Great Arab Revolt, of 900 Palestinians killed, 498 were killed by fellow Palestinians on suspicion of either collaborating with the Zionists or selling land to Jews. As the circle of khawana (‘traitors’), real or suspected, grew, so did the violence. In such circumstances it was almost impossible to create a united Palestinian front. In 1948, Cohen says, there was not only a general unwillingness among Palestinians to fight, but even active resistance to the Arab fighters. The Zionist intelligence services were working overtime to create the impression that everybody in Palestine was betraying everybody else.

With the creation of the Israeli state, Palestinians became ‘Arab Israelis’ overnight while Israel did its best – with the help of Palestinian collaborators – to create satellite political parties that were friendly to Israel as a way of impeding the creation of an authentic Palestinian leadership. Many Arab members of the Knesset had been collaborators before 1948. As far as Israel was concerned, there were ‘bad Arabs’ (politically aware Palestinian citizens of Israel who wanted to connect to the Arab world, called for equal rights and demanded the return of refugees) and ‘good Arabs’ (Palestinian citizens of Israel who co-operated with the state and showed loyalty to its principles).

Investigating the daily lives of Palestinians between 1948 and 1967, Cohen looks at the school system, and traces letters from informers denouncing teachers who didn’t toe the Zionist line, or tried to remain apolitical. He enters into the political debates between the Communist Party (the Jewish Arab List) and MKs associated with Zionist parties, especially David Ben Gurion’s Labour. He looks at wedding songs to trace the different streams of Palestinian political behaviour. He finds informers who snitched on their neighbours and on people they saw in the village shop or on the city bus; who reported things they heard when they went to have a pee in an olive grove or as they were walking past the house of the head of the village. With the help of informers, the Israeli government ‘was able to obtain information about what was going on in Palestinian communities and what was said in private’, Cohen writes, and ‘even when informers were unable to obtain information, they were able to make their fellow Arabs think they knew.’ As Napoleon III’s chief of police put it, ‘I don’t need one out of every three Parisians chatting on the streets to be my informer, all I need is for each of the three to think that one of the others is an informer.’ Israel made the Palestinian community the first inspector, and the first supervisor, of its own members.

The strategy’s success is at times hard to believe. ‘Good Arabs’ were often as Zionist and anti-Arab as the Israeli establishment, perhaps convincing themselves that they were helping to secure the existence of the Arab community in Israel, or simply for personal gain: rewards ranged from land to public status, from local power to protection. After the 1956 massacre in Kafr Qasim – Israeli border police shot dead 47 men, women and children – Arab community leaders expressed their understanding of the ‘special considerations’ that led to the killings, and rejected the idea of building a memorial in the village. In 1964, Arab MKs chose to celebrate the establishment of Karmiel – a Jewish city built as part of the ‘Judaisation of the Galilee’ – instead of attending a memorial ceremony in Kafr Qasim. And when, on several occasions in the 1960s, the Knesset debated whether to continue with martial law in Arab areas, some Arab MKs voted with the government against dismantling the military regime imposed on their own communities.

The principle of divide and rule governs many walks of life. One significant example given by Cohen was the decision to recruit the Druze into the Israeli army, to cut them off both from the Arab Palestinian community in Israel and from the Druze communities in Lebanon and Syria. Cohen quotes Avraham Akhituv, the former head of Shin Bet: ‘We need to continue our efforts to increase the uniqueness of the Druze and their separateness – that of the young Druze generation especially – from the general Arab population.’ The prime minister’s adviser on Arab affairs said that ‘the individuality of each and every separate community should be consolidated.’ Breaking the Arab community up into smaller communities of Muslims, Christians, Druze and Bedouins not only forced each group to deal with the state separately, Cohen argues, but helped to change the conflict from a conflict between a Jewish community and an Arab community into one between a Jewish majority and Arab minorities, with the singular and plural forms echoing the power relations established by Israel.

Cohen also records Palestinian acts of resistance, organised and unorganised, collective and individual. He has unearthed a police report, for example, on a wedding in the village of Tur’an in the 1960s. After the regular shouts of ‘long live the prime minister of Israel and long live the military governor,’ one of the guests shouted: ‘long live Abu Khaled [Nasser], long live Ben Bella, long live Amin al-Hafez’ – the leaders of Algeria and Syria respectively. In 1958, the Communist Party called on Palestinian citizens not to celebrate Israel’s tenth anniversary:

Will we dance on the day of mourning for the destruction of our villages? Will we dance on the graves of our martyrs who fell in the many massacres, like the ones at Dir Yasin and Kafr Qasim? Will we celebrate while a million of our compatriots are dispersed in exile and prevented from returning to their homes and their homeland? Will we celebrate when we are stripped of national rights and live under a military regime and national repression? No, we will not celebrate. We are part of a huge nation that is today raising its head everywhere, in Algeria, Oman, Aden and Lebanon, against the imperialists and their lackeys, and we will pay them back double.

When the head of the village of Jish refused to celebrate Israeli Independence Day, he lost his position at the Ministry of Health. A customer in a crowded café in a village in the Galilee told the owner not to turn the radio off when it began broadcasting a speech of Nasser’s. ‘I am not afraid of collaborators,’ he said. In Acre in the late 1950s, the Israeli authorities decided that the renovation of Al-Jazzar mosque would be celebrated together with Israel’s Independence Day. Elias Kousa, a prominent lawyer and activist, wrote to the mosque committee:

The Israeli government took Arab land and put it in Jewish hands, so the Jews can live in prosperity while the Arabs live in poverty … This government … chained your freedom as if you were dogs, humiliated you, hurt your dignity and made you a people without respect or pride. It also hurt our education, progress and success … Are you going, after all that, to celebrate a national day we have nothing to do with?

Cohen studies the tension between national feeling, on the one hand, and the need to survive and feed a family, on the other, without judging those who chose either way. Yet the reality he describes makes it clear why the Palestinians couldn’t put the catastrophe of 1948, the Nakba, out of their minds: not because Israeli attempts at re-education weren’t powerful enough but, on the contrary, because Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians was a constant reminder.

The Rise and Fall of Arab Jerusalem, published in Hebrew in 2007 and in English in 2011, predicts the most recent wave of violence to have hit Jerusalem: the so-called knife intifada, which began in October 2015 and mostly involved attacks by Palestinians from the West Bank on Israeli soldiers positioned around the Muslim Quarter in East Jerusalem. Cohen shows that Israeli attempts to erase any Palestinian political claim to Jerusalem – next year Israeli schools will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its ‘unification’ – and the destruction of Palestinian institutions in the city during the Second Intifada has led to a situation in which Palestinians are still discriminated against, East Jerusalem is still occupied, house demolitions there continue, and the Palestinian national leadership has been taken away from the city. This is the context for the latest round of Palestinian violence. By giving Palestinian Jerusalemites ‘special status’ and building a seven-metre concrete wall between Jerusalem and the West Bank, Israel has continued to divide and rule. Not only have Muslims, Christians, Druze and Bedouins been separated from each other, but so have Palestinian Jerusalem, Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Divide and divide and divide and rule.

Cohen doesn’t try to portray the connection that Palestinians have to Jerusalem as stronger or weaker than that of the Jews. Rather, he wishes to revive the possibility of sharing the city. How many Jewish Israelis know that the Palestinians made Jerusalem their capital before Israel did? And how many know that the founding convention of the PLO was held in the Intercontinental Hotel in Jerusalem? And how many Palestinians know about the place of Jerusalem in Jewish literature, religious ceremonies and thought? When Cohen speaks about Jerusalem he means both Palestinian and Jewish Jerusalem, and when he speaks about ‘Jerusalemites’ he includes the Palestinians; Yerushalmim in Hebrew usually refers only to Jewish Israeli residents.

We are in a period of despair. Israel has an extreme right-wing government and a spineless opposition; its prime minister refers cynically to the evacuation of illegal settlements as ‘ethnic cleansing’; its minister of education approves of a wounded, prostrate Palestinian being shot through the head; a majority of Israeli MKs pass a bill that allows them to dismiss fellow members – that’s to say, Arab members – if they feel inclined to do so. Meanwhile, the historic municipal elections that were to take place in Gaza and the West Bank this month were cancelled, probably because the Palestinian Authority feared Hamas would have a resounding victory; the occupation will be half a century old next year and the siege of Gaza will mark its tenth anniversary. Cohen’s work is a valuable resource in these horrendous times. Neither ‘pro-Israeli’ nor ‘pro-Palestinian’, it is impossible to requisition, which may, in part, explain why he was never elevated to the rank of Israel’s ‘new historians’. He writes critically about Zionism and sympathetically about Jews who ran to Palestine for their lives; he writes with great honesty about Palestinians who were forced to co-operate with Israel, and those who chose to fight. He has a rich, dialectical understanding of the Jewish-Arab relationship, and though he would never compare the occupier to the occupied, his writing will make Jewish and Palestinian readers equally uncomfortable.

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