Professor Ilan Pappé’s latest book, “The Biggest Prison on Earth: A History of the Occupied Territories”, is a review of Israeli policy towards the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The historian sheds light on the mechanism that has been created to rule millions of Palestinians, who have effectively lived in an open air prison for 50 years.
In fact, Pappé goes back to 1948 and takes the reader on a journey through Israel’s political strategy since its creation on Palestinian land. In doing so, he highlights some defining moments and key players in the conflict, whilst pointing continuously to the fact that the total occupation of Palestine and the eradication of its population was always the ultimate end goal of the planners of the Zionist state.
The book makes clear its position on the current situation of the Palestinian territories early on when Pappé contests the definition of occupation. His first reservation is that the term creates “a false separation between Israel and the occupied areas”, such that the Israeli presence as a democratic state outside of the occupied territories is legitimised. He then objects that “occupation” implies a temporary state of affairs, yet this has been the accepted norm for the Palestinians for decades.
He also points out that the level of military control exercised over the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, has only otherwise been seen prior to incidents of genocide, where such measures were used to imprison populations completely. The author posits that the usage of so meagre a term as “occupation” has allowed Israel to evade serious condemnation, and calls for broader vocabulary to be used in describing the government’s violations.
Pappé reviews various measures of control that the Palestinian territories have been subject to, beginning with a context of Zionist attitudes towards the Holy Land, which served as a prelude to the 1967 war. He proceeds to describe the way in which 1967 decisions were implemented, detailing the legal infrastructure used to sustain the bureaucratic management of the territories and the strategic placing of Jewish settlers in areas across the West Bank and Gaza.
Whilst the international community feature in the book, it does not appear as regularly as one would think. Other than citing key instances of US-Israeli relations, the first half of the book is notable for rarely mentioning outrage on the side of foreign governments or bodies. Later on, following the 1967 war, Pappé does highlight the response of the United Nations and how proposed peace deals affected Israeli plans. However, he emphasises how it was only during the Second Intifada (2000-2005) that public perception of the Palestinian people changed, as the true situation of life under occupation was broadcast for all to see.
The otherwise minimal mention that foreign governments are afforded is not only a truthful representation of the case at the time, but also symbolic of how little assistance has been given to the Palestinian cause. By leaving out the majority of meaningless rhetoric that was doubtlessly purported by world leaders throughout Israel’s history, Pappé subtly accentuates how the Palestinians have been left alone in their struggle, their call largely unheeded, and their suffering ignored.
The various military leaders and campaigns discussed in the book present the reader with the image of Palestine as a game board surrounded by Israeli politicians. The challenge: to be rid of the Palestinian population either through total assimilation, forced deportation or extermination. Currently the model employed in the West Bank, Pappé argues, is to make life as difficult as possible for civilians, such that they will eventually retreat. He presents the Gaza Strip as the “Ultimate Maximum Security Prison Model”; the final stage in Israel’s occupation. The total sealing in of the population, with Israel possessing near immunity from the international community due to the designation of Hamas as a terrorist group, which allows it to continue with its aggression against the Strip, slowly suffocating the civilian population.
The book ends powerfully with the maps of Palestine shrinking over the years, until a 2006 map of the country highlights bleakly how little of the original country, a mere 12 per cent, remains as territory for a future Palestinian state. The numerous incursions of settlement activity are also highlighted, silencing potential critics by showing the many Israeli violations of international law.
Professor Pappé ’s latest book is a must read for all those wishing to grasp the history of the occupied territories and combat the narrative that Israel ever planned to allow an independent Palestinian state to exist. It gives the reader an insight into the Israeli political landscape, and a cold, hard look at what is really behind the occupation: a relentless and racist desire for power and land, at the expense of millions of people’s lives.