Classical Israel apologia portrays the country as a liberal democracy forced to defend itself against hostile Palestinians as its liberal founders held back radical right-wing Zionists who agitated for more aggressive expansion and settlement.
A new bombshell article in Haaretz blows this narrative out of the water.
The article, “Israel Poisoned Palestinian Land to Build West Bank Settlement in 1970s, Documents Reveal,” by Ofer Aderet, tells the story of the dispossession of the Palestinian village of Aqraba, about three miles from Huwwara in the northern West Bank. Aqraba’s lands were coveted for the purpose of establishing a new Jewish settlement, Gitit. In the end, 83% of the lands of Aqraba, then a village of 4,000 people, were confiscated by Israel, reducing them from 145,000 dunams (36,000 acres) to 25,000 dunams (6,000 acres).
Here is how the Israelis did it:
‘The first step was dispossessing residents of the nearby Palestinian village of their land under the false pretext of making it a military training zone. When the Palestinians insisted on cultivating the land, Israeli soldiers sabotaged their tools. Soldiers were later ordered to use vehicles to destroy the crops. A radical solution was employed when this failed: a crop duster spread a toxic chemical. The substance was lethal for animals and dangerous for humans.’
The poisoning of the crops was not a vigilante act. It was carefully planned and did not only involve military actors, but it also involved the parastatal Jewish Agency:
‘A discussion held at [the army’s] Central Command [in April 1972] with the participation of officers, a representative of the settlements department at the Jewish Agency, and the Custodian of Absentee Property was titled “Spraying the irregular areas in the Tel-Tal sector.” Tel-Tal eventually became Gitit… According to the document, the purpose of the meeting was to establish “responsibility and schedule for the spraying.” It also stated that for three days after the spraying, no one was to enter the area “for fear of stomach poisoning.” Animals, the document said, were not allowed to enter for an additional week… Another meeting was held later that month. “There is no objection from this command to carrying out the spraying as planned,” read the minutes. “The Custodian of Absentee Property will see to it that the area’s borders are marked accurately and will direct the plane accordingly.”’
This was Israel under Prime Minister Golda Meir. Not Netanyahu, not Itamar Ben-Gvir, not Bezalel Smotrich – liberal icon Golda Meir.
Did this poisoning operation get much attention? Aderet notes “the story briefly made headlines in 1972 when it was reported in foreign media.” Alas, “it didn’t prevent the establishment of the settlement of Gitit on land confiscated from residents of the village of Aqraba, which the military had poisoned.”
This episode in the ethnic cleansing of Palestine is just one item revealed in a new project by the Taub Center for Israel Studies at New York University, called the Jewish Settlements Archival Project.
The researchers are not at all political activists, as one might think. In fact, Aderet notes that “the researchers were mostly residents of current or past settlements.” The historian Ronald W. Zweig, the outgoing head of the Taub Center, is cited:
“Reviewing the material enables us to better realize that this huge national enterprise is the result of the initiative taken by Israeli governments for generations. Not only right-wing governments, but all of them.” However, Zweig stressed, “We don’t promote any agenda, but only the research”.
Whether or not the researchers have a political agenda, it is clear that Golda Meir’s government had a voraciously expansive agenda. But Meir knew that one had to watch out not to shout too loudly about it to protect Israel’s reputation and image. The article cites minutes of a January 19, 1971 cabinet meeting under the title of “Statements and announcements regarding settlements and outposts.” In it, Prime Minister Meir made a special request to the ministers:
“Before we move forward with our discussion, there’s something I’d like to ask. It was our habit that for anything that has to do with settlements, outposts, land expropriations and so on, we simply do and do not talk [about it]… Lately, this line [of understanding] has broken down, and I’m asking the ministers for the sake of our homeland to hold back, talk less, and do as much as possible. But the main thing, as much as possible, is to talk less… We were not used to ministers appearing in settlements in a ceremony with the press and so on. I ask that it be the same in the future”.
So this was the essential difference between left and right Zionist leaders – how they talk. When Jewish supremacist Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich called to “wipe out Huwwara” four months ago, inciting a pogrom, it was a PR problem for Israel because it was very explicit. But when most of Aqraba’s land was destroyed with poison, it passed almost unnoticed. And Golda Meir made sure that people representing Israel would not broadcast it because that might harm the settlement venture. The important thing was to “do as much as possible” – create “facts on the ground” using just about any means necessary, and get away with it looking like a libera.