[Marxism] Divide and divide and divide and rule

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Sep 28 06:14:33 MDT 2016

(In my review of "Ruins of Lifta", I mentioned that historian Hillel 
Cohen was among those interviewed and alluded to his book "1929: Year 
Zero of the Arab-Israeli Conflict" that appears to be an important 
contribution to "revisionist" literature.)

LRB, Vol. 38 No. 19 · 6 October 2016
Divide and divide and divide and rule
by Yonatan Mendel

1929: Year Zero of the Arab-Israeli Conflict by Hillel Cohen, 
translation by Haim Watzman
Brandeis, 312 pp, £20.00, November 2015, ISBN 978 1 61168 811 5

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 

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 

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 

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 

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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