Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Israeli Mythbuster 1: Rape

So I've been doing more of that dangerous activity of reading. This time a recent book by Israeli academic Ilan Pappe entitled "The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine". Excellent book, I really can't praise it enough for giving a carefully documented (from Israeli, Palestinian, and other sources) blow-by-blow account of exactly how the Israelis did in fact carry out a brutal, carefully planned ethnic cleansing in 1948 (which continues in more subtle forms to this day). You really cannot understand the conflict unless you properly understand the attrocities Israel committed in 1948 and how the Palestinians suffered then and since. The only fault I have with the book is that it should have more of the personal accounts of Palestinians so as to really bring home the trauma from their perspective. But these are not totally absent and certainly Pappe spends a lot of time using multiple sources that only corroborate Palestinian accounts that much more, and in any case one book cannot do everything.

So, what I would like to do in a series of posts is quote directly from the book in order to shatter some of the myths and lies Israelis tell others and believe about themselves. Education on history in Israel (both in schools and throughout the public sphere including aimed at tourists and outsiders) is a gigantic myth and sham, an exercise in propaganda, not truth-telling. Israelis are constantly harping on about supposed Palestinian brainwashing in their schools, when the truth is that while there are things that aren't good in Palestinian education, as usual they pale in comparison to Israeli lies and are in fact 99% reaction to what Israel has done and which Israel denies. While the scale of the ethnic cleansing of 1948 (known as the Nakba in Arabic) is certainly not at all comparable to the Holocaust, it was nonetheless a monstrous crime (all the more so considering that its perpetrators abused the sacred memory of the victims of the Holocaust - and in some cases even the Holocaust survivors themselves - in order to commit it) on the scale of the ethnic cleansing of Bosnia or Kosovo in more recent times and David Ben Gurion is proven through his own record-keeping to have been no hero like George Washington but in reality a monster akin to Slobodan Milosovic.

But ok, ok, you're listening to the rant, so I need to show some evidence. That's what the quotes from Pappe's book will be for. Hopefully I'm within fair use limits even with these long quotes, but if not I would imagine and hope that Pappe would just be pleased to see people learning more of what he has uncovered and systematically organized along with a generation of scholars willing to honestly examine the evidence of the founding sins that define Israel as the racist state it is.

Today's mythbuster topic: Rape. Israelis and their supporters recoil with horrified denial and may well accuse you of anti-Semitism if you suggest that Israeli soldier-heroes of their war of independence routinely engaged in the rape of innocent women. On pages 208-211 of his book, Pappe does away with this myth and shows that even with the efforts made to deny it and cover it up, it occurred and occurred regularly with David Ben Gurion himself keeping a running tally. The only thing I won't be able to reproduce here are all the footnotes, for that buy the book. Generally speaking his sources include Israeli military and archival records, journals of Ben Gurion and other Israeli leaders/war criminals, letters between the participants in the crimes, journalist accounts from the era (usually unreliable in their conclusions but often containing important details or hints at what was or wasn't actually going on), eyewitness accounts both Israeli and Palestinian, international organization documents from the era, and secondary citing of other academics who have also been instrumental in searching out primary sources. Any of my own comments are added in blue italicized brackets [].

Two general notes regarding rape. First, notice the way that several of the sources refer to it in an almost casual "oh and by the way about those rapes" manner. They are a strong sign of just how common they were, but unlike the carefully planned and documented demolition of Palestinian villages and homes, rape (and other crimes like looting, torture, beatings, murder of random innocents) were not specifically documented in most cases because they were both part of the general and not specific havoc which the Israeli leadership unleashed, and because they preferred that those dirty details be allowed to occur so that Palestinians would see and fear, but not promoted loud enough that an international audience's ears would perk up. And second regarding the relative paucity of rape survivors' testimonies: rape is always a crime that carries a huge amount of stigma with it. Even in the US most rapes go unreported. In Palestine 60 years ago (and especially rural Palestine), a society where female chastity was very important (overly so certainly to our modern feminist viewpoints), it was even more so. The Israelis certainly knew this just as war criminals in many wars have known it and as such it is that much more of an effective weapon. Rape in this context also becomes sexual blackmail of the extremely-violent variety which makes the victims and their relatives want to forget and hide all the more. It is a means of trying to silence the victims who were not outright murdered.

All of this means that the full scale of rape committed by Israeli soldiers against Palestinian women is not fully known. Comments indicating how unsurprising these cases are clearly show it was common and commonly known, but the murder of some victims and the silence of others living in fear and shame even 60 years later means we will likely never know the full scale of these attrocities, especially in a world where Israel and the United States have so completely and criminally sought to silence the voices of the victims.


We have three kinds of sources that report on rape, and thus know that severe cases of rape did take place. It remains more difficult to form an idea of how many women and young girls were victimised by Jewish trops in this way. Our first source is the international organisations such as the UN and the Red Cross. They never submitted a collective report, but we do have short and concise accounts of individual cases. Thus, for instance, very soon after Jaffa was taken, a Red Cross official, de Meuron, reported how Jewish soldiers had raped a girl and killed her brother. He remarked in general that as Palestinian men were taken away as prisoners [it was standard operating procedure as Pappe documents in many instances that when Hagana/Israeli soldiers took over an Arab village they would gather all boys and men between 10 and 50, execute on the spot those they deemed guilty of "crimes" such as belonging to a political party or having resisted Jewish takeover, and then throw the rest into open-air pens and prison camps. Note that age at the youngest: 10. The women, children, and elderly were thus left utterly defenseless and were sent walking with only what they could carry into exile], their women were left at the mercy of the Israelis. Yitzhak Chizik wrote to Kaplan in the letter mentioned above: 'And about the rapes, Sir, you probably have already heard.' In an earlier letter to Ben-Gurion, Chizik reported how 'a group of soldiers [had] burst into a house, killed the father, injured the mother and raped the daughter.'

We know of course more about cases in places where outside observers were present, but this does not mean women were not raped elsewhere. Another Red Cross report tells of a horrific incident that began on 9 December 1948 when two Jewish soldiers burst into the house of al-Hajj Suleiman Daud, who had been expelled with his family to Shaqara. The soldiers hit his wife and kidnapped his eighteen-year-old daughter. Seventeen days later the father was able to get hold of an Israeli lieutenant to whom he protested. The rapists appeared to belong to Brigade SEven. It is impossible to know what exactly happened in those seventeen days before the girl was set free; the worst may be presumed.

The second source is the Israeli archives, which only cover cases in which the rapists were brought to trial. David Ben-Gurion seems to have been informed about each case and entered them into his diary. Every few days he has a sub-section: 'Rape Cases'. One of these records the incident Chizik had reported to him: 'a case in Acre where soldiers wanted to rape a girl. They killed the father and wounded the mother, and the officers covered for them. At least one soldier raped the girl.'

Jaffa seems to have been a hothouse for the cruelty and war crimes of the Israeli troops. One particular battalon, Battalion 3 - commanded by the same person who had been in charge when its soldiers committed massacres in Khisas and Sa'sa [a massacre where Israeli soldiers dynamited houses with families still sleeping in them, murdering dozens of innocent men, women, and children], and cleansed Safad and its environs - was so savage in its behaviour that its soldiers were suspected of being involved in most of the rape cases in the city, and the High Command decided it best to withdraw them from the town [note: not punish, not bring to trial, not execute...just relocate. Shades of the Catholic pedophile priests, only with mass murder and ethnic cleansing thrown in for good measure]. However, other units were no less guilty of molesting women in the first three to four months of the occupation. The worst period was towards the end of the first truce (July 8) when even Ben-Gurion became so apprehensive about the pattern of behavior that emerged among the soldiers in the occupied cities, especially the private looting and the rape cases, that he decided not to allow certain army units to enter Nazareth after his troops had taken the town during the 'ten-day' war.

Our third source is the oral history we have from both the victimisers and the victims. It is very difficult to get the facts in the former case and almost impossible, of course, in the latter. But their storieshave already helped shed light on some of the most appalling and inhuman crimes in the war that Israel waged against the Palestinian people.

The perpetrators can only talk, it seems, shielded by the safe distance of years. This is how a particularly appalling case came to light just recently. On 12 August 1949, a platoon of soldiers in the Negev, based in Kibbutz Nirim not far for Beit Hanun, on the northern edge of today's Gaza Strip, captured a twelve-year-old Palestinian girl and locked her up for the night in their military base near the kibbutz. For the next few days she became the platoon's sex slave as the soldiers shaved her head, gang-raped her and in the end murdered her. Ben-Gurion lists this rape too in his diary but it was censored out by his editors [note a minor discrepancy here in Pappe's prior assumption: he mentioned earlier he thought Ben Gurion's diary only mentioned rape cases that were brought to trial at the time, this one was clearly not as can be seen next]. On 29 October 2003, the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz publicised the story based on the testimonies of the rapists: twenty-two soldiers had taken part in the barbaric torture and execution of the girl. When they were then brought to trial, the severest punishment the court handed down was a prison term of two years for the soldier who had done the actual killing [note the similarity to US attrocities in Vietnam and Iraq such as the My Lai and Haditha massacres where at best a slap on the wrist and generally no punishments were meted out. The lives of the victims are seen as worthless compared to those of the criminals when "our" soldiers are involved no matter which army "our" represents].

Oral recollection also exposed cases of rape throughout the occupation of Palestine's villages: from the village of Tantura [where a major massacre of civilians was committed] in May, through the village of Qula in June, and ending with one story after another of abuse and rape in the villages seized during Operation Hiram [a major series of ethnic cleansing operations in the north of the country late in the war]. Many of the cases were corroborated by UN officials who interviewed a number of women from the villages who were willing to come forward and talk about their experiences. When, many years later, some of these people were interviewed, it was obvious how difficult it still proved for the men and women from the village to talk about nams and details in these cases, and the interviewers came away with the impression that they all knew more than they wished or were able to tell.

Eyewitnesses also reported the callous and humiliating way in which women were stripped of all their jewelry [note that in traditional societies in many places around the world of which Palestine and especially rural Palestine 60 years ago was very much one, a woman's entire life savings is often held in her jewelry. Stealing that jewelry is not only stealing precious memories, it is in fact robbing her of her life savings and any hope of independence should she be widowed or divorced. Israeli soldiers did not care, greed and a desire to humiliate were all they cared about], to the very last item. The same women were then harassed physically by the soldiers, which in Tantura ended in rape. Here is how Najiah Ayyub described it: 'I saw that the troops who encircled us tried to touch the women but were rejected by them. When they saw that the women would not surrender, they stopped. When we were on the beach, they took two women and tried to undress them, claiming they had to search the bodies.'

Tradition, shame, and trauma are the cultural and psychological barriers that prevent us from gaining the fuller picture of the rape of Palestinian women within the general plunder Jewish troops wreaked with such ferocity in both rural and urban Palestine during 1948 and 1949. Perhaps in the fulness of time someone will be able to complete this chapter of the chronicle of Israel's ethnic cleansing of Palestine.

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At 9:17 PM, Anonymous Mark IV said...

Thank you for this.

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Definitely thank you for this.

PS: Please post more often - you do very good stuff.

At 2:54 AM, Anonymous bilal said...

I know this post has been up since april. I just came across your blog recently and am reading previous posts bit by bit.

by far this post had put me into tears. a man like me infront of a screen weeping like a baby.

God bless you for all this. for every word you say. write more often. how could we be of any help? let me know.

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