- The Biggest Prison on Earth: A History of the Occupied Territories by Ilan Pappe
Ilan Pappé's scholarship is used by Pappé himself in the struggles that take place not only in the academic arena but also in the political arena between what are sometimes called "pro-Palestinian" and "pro-Israel" groups. Because he uses his scholarship as a tool to actively promote a specific understanding of Israeli history and the Arab-Israeli conflict — Pappé supports an academic boycott of Israeli institutions, and he once ran for the Israeli parliament as a member of the Democratic Front for Peace and Equality (known by the Hebrew acronym Hadash), a non-Zionist party1 — it is difficult to assess his work: the contributions it makes to our understanding of these topics can be easily obscured by his activist stance in service to a very specific ideological commitment.
Pappé's latest study is no exception. Titled The Biggest Prison on Earth, the book is dedicated "To the Palestinian children, killed, wounded and traumatized by living in the biggest prison on earth." The term itself was popularized to refer to the Israeli siege of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, imposed after Hamas took control of the area in June 2007, but Pappé uses it here to describe the West Bank as well.
The purpose of the book is to examine Israeli policy toward the territories occupied during the 1967 war. It is thus a sequel to his 2006 book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (Oneworld Publications) which looks at the period around 1948.
The conclusions Pappé drew from the latter serve as the foundation for the current study. Over 13 chapters Pappé argues that — rooted in a Zionist ethos committed to the purging of as many Palestinians from the Holy Land as possible and the caging of the rest — Israel systematically planned an elaborate set of legal, political, and physical constraints to lock the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and to prevent them from achieving self-determination, or even basic human and civil rights.
The text is useful for providing information on different periods of Israeli history and on some of the policy discussions that took place in Israel in response to the various wars and events in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But beyond these, the book's contributions are limited by three weaknesses: first, by the underlying assumption of Israeli guilt and malice; second, by ignoring the controversial nature of the topic and thus giving the reader an imbalanced assessment of the issues; and third, by the inability to see beyond the despair of the moment to something better or even different.
On the underlying assumption of the book, Pappé starts from the position that Israel's very existence is deeply problematic, and so everything it does from 1948 on — indeed, everything the Zionist movement entailed since the 1880s — is tainted. The Zionists and the Israelis, Pappé believes, are perfidious.
There is no consideration of the possibility [End Page 150] that the events of the conflict and the actions of those involved are an ongoing process of action and reaction; that the effort to create a Jewish nation-state with a substantial minority is similar to other efforts that took place with other ethnonational groups in other areas in the post-1945 world; or that there is a real tension between majority rule and minority rights in any country. Pappé's presumption that the Zionists and then Israelis were intent on evil — the text is laced with descriptors of Israeli policy such as "vilest of motives," "policy of genocide," "frightening show of aggression" — follows easily from the belief that the Israeli case is unique. Accounting for these general trends, though, puts the Israeli case in a different light.
Similarly, there is no sense of context here. Rather than the presentation of a conflict in which multiples actors commit multiple acts of both violence and diplomacy, and conflict escalation and de-escalation, Pappé presents a litany of Israeli actions as though they occurred in a vacuum...