Jonathan Cook’s Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair

Jonathan Cook’s Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair

Towards the end of Emile Habiby’s novel The Secret Life of Sa’eed, the pessoptimistic protagonist looks out the window of the police vehicle disappearing him to prison. Sa’eed notices that they are driving through the plain of Ibn Amir, which he tells the Israeli police.

“’No, it’s the Yizrael plain!’” corrects the policeman. This is just one of many scenes in Habiby’s absurdist novel that illustrates the disappearance of people and places in 1948 Palestine. Elia Suleiman’s 1996 film Chronicles of a Disappearance, in a style similar to Habiby’s also makes use of this theme of Palestinian disappearance. It makes sense that one of Palestine’s leading novelists and one of its leading filmmakers would illustrate the absurdity of disappearance as an existential crisis for Palestinians since the Nakba given the reality disappearance plays in daily life.


Palestinian life is plagued by various methods of disappearance at the hands of Zionist colonists: Palestinian refugees, villages wiped off the map, Palestinians disappeared to Israeli jails, Palestinians exiled and assassinated, Palestinian homes demolished. Still other things disappear; information and evidence get covered up, United Nations resolutions are passed but forgotten, and the world remains silent acquiescing to that disappearance. Resistance also disappears as Palestinian and Arab leaders normalize relations with the Zionists occupying Palestinian land.

Perhaps, then, it comes as no surprise that Jonathan Cook’s most recent book illustrates some of the more egregious and recent disappearances using a similar trope. Cook’s latest publication is one of the most important books on Palestine to come out in recent years. While most of the articles published in the volume appeared previously in places like Electronic Intifada or Al-Ahram Weekly, reading them as one cohesive text brings together his journalistic insight with academic analysis that makes it essential reading.

Perhaps one of the reasons that Cook’s writing is so significant is due to his physical location in Nazareth. Living in 1948 Palestine enables Cook to view the ongoing ethnic cleansing in all of Palestine, not just in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The book opens with two chapters, “The Road to Disappearance” and “Greater Israel’s Lure,” which lay out the context for those who are unfamiliar with Palestinian history to get a sense of the continuity between pre-state Zionist ethnic cleansing operations and those carried out after the establishment of the state on both sides of the “Green Line.” While it is impossible to catalogue all the ground that Cook covers in his book, there are several key aspects of the colonial project in Palestine that Cook highlights including, but not limited to: the creation of internal refugees, a policy of divide and rule, the “demographic time bomb,” the abuse of charges of anti-Semitism, the limitations on human rights workers, and the impossibility of a two state solution.

All of the various threads of Disappearing Palestine are grounded in historical context in ways that help elucidate the fact that Zionist policies have continued unabated for over sixty-one years. For instance, early on he historicizes the legal maneuvers to Judaize the land through instruments such as the Absentee Property Law of 1950 and the Palestinians it affected most, namely those internally displaced Palestinians who remain refugees near their land. While this law is a basic fact of Zionist history, Cook connects it to an ongoing process that also includes the practice of creating “unrecognized villages,” something that has especially affected Palestinian Bedouins who the state “deprives of all public services, from electricity to water, demolishes their homes and sprays their crops with herbicides. Governments regularly refer to the Negev’s Bedouin as ‘criminals,’ ‘squatters’ and trespassers’” (37). Cook later explains that “[t]he Bedouin in the Negev are being reclassified as trespassers on state land so that they can be treated as guest workers rather than citizens” (158). This Orwellian language, of course, is part of a legal regime designed to expel Palestinian Bedouin.

It is important to highlight how Zionist policies affect Palestinians throughout historic Palestine partially because, as Cook details, all of these practices originated before 1967 and were only applied to the West Bank and Gaza Strip afterwards.

The practice of disappearing Palestinians and their land in the West Bank, which one witnesses on a daily basis today, had a long history in Palestine pre-1967. Indeed, unlike other writers (read: Jimmy Carter) who go great lengths to distinguish dispossession on one side of the Green Line from the other, Cook unequivocally does not. After detailing features the “benevolent apartheid system” created in 1948 Palestine, he articulates how it has become magnified:

But even these partial equalities are being rapidly eroded as the 1 million Palestinian citizens become as assertive of their rights as their ethnic kin in the occupied territories. The first two cases of “Israeli Arabs” having their citizenship revoked signals a dangerous precedent, and newly passed laws have stripped Arab politicians of the right to criticize either the ethnic character of the state or government policies towards the Palestinians. Several of the Arab parties are at risk of being banned before the next election. This new climate is producing a much harsher apartheid system, one much less benevolent. (150-151)

That apartheid system, whether it affects Palestinians in the Naqab or in the Jordan Valley, has centered upon a few ideological tenets of Zionist colonialism. Cook traces one main facet known as the “demographic time bomb.” Cook highlights how in 2003, and propelled by the racism of Zionist ideology, the state altered legislation like the 1952 Nationality Law to render it illegal for Palestinian citizens of Israel to marry Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza. Such laws were enacted in order to prevent the disappearance of a Jewish state:

These racist views have been encouraged by leading journalists, academics, and politicians of all persuasions, who regularly refer to the Palestinian minority as a “demographic time bomb” that, if not urgently defused, will destroy the state’s Jewishness one day. Many advocate drastic action. One favored measure is a policy of “transfer”--or ethnic cleansing--of the Palestinian minority. (43)

Cook makes it clear that this fear of demography and of maintaining an ethnocracy are by no means new; nor are the various strategies for maintaining Jewish supremacy in Palestine. He maps out the post-1967 plans for colonizing the West Bank and Gaza Strip in ways that ensured demographic superiority. Both of these blueprints--those of Moshe Dayan and Yigal Allon--embraced some elements of colonization and expulsion. Cook details the ways in which various governments over the last forty-two years have implemented different strains of their strategies. But the one that we see most clearly on a daily basis over that time period comes from Dayan because, as he predicted, this plan would keep international intervention at bay:

The solution, in Defense Minister Dayan’s view, was “creeping annexation.” If it was carried out with enough stealth, the illegality of Israel’s actions under international law would go unnoticed and the army would also have the time and room to “thin out” the Palestinian population.(59)

One of Dayan’s other primary objectives was to make sure that Palestinian communities--where ever they lie--would be separated from each other as islands “so that the inhabitants would never be in a position to unite and demand independence” (58). This was one of the many colonial methods of divide and rule implemented by successive Israeli regimes. Indeed, throughout the book Cook reveals how all of historic Palestine--not just the West Bank as in the recent archipelago by Julien Bousac that uses water to illustrate Palestinian areas that have been disappeared--has become tiny islands of dissected Palestinian communities. From the beginning the Zionist entity sought to divide Palestinians along various axes, “between Muslims, Christians and Druze; between internal refugees and non-refugees; between the cities and the villages; between those serving in the army and those not; between recognized and unrecognized communities and so on” (109). Thus, Cook shows how through demographic and spatial means Zionists divided and conquered Palestinians.

Throughout Disappearing Palestine, Cook makes it clear that one strategy for dividing Palestinians politically--from before the Nakba until the present--was to ensure there were no leaders that would unite Palestinians. Any such leader would disappear, especially after 1967, “Israel concentrated on intimidating, imprisoning and expelling anyone it identified as an independent leader” (109). Leaders who were allowed to emerge became what Cook calls “Israel’s security contractor:”

[Yasser] Arafat’s task as leader of the Palestinian Authority would soon become clear: to enforce Israel’s security in the West Bank and Gaza, just as dozens of other Arab rulers had done before in their own territories on behalf of Western colonial powers. (111)

As the most recent chapter in the manifestation of colonial rule over Palestine, Cook illustrates the ways in which the leadership of the Palestinian Authority became complicit in carrying out colonial policies in the occupied territories. In this way, the Palestinian Authority became a mechanism for the Zionist entity “to crack down on Palestinian dissent, not respond to Israel’s many military provocations [let alone] fight the occupation” (188)

These divide and rule tactics, which Cook details historically and contemporaneously at length, perhaps best elucidate the reasons why he can cogently culminate his insightful book with the brilliant analysis in a chapter entitled “Two-state Dreamers.”

Although it could just as easily appear in a Kafkaesque scene out of a Suleiman film or a Habiby novel, Cook explains precisely  why it is those who are vying for a two-state solution who are woefully naive: “It requires only that Israel and the Palestinians appear to divide the land, while in truth the occupation continues and Jewish sovereignty over all historic Palestine is not only maintained but rubber-stamped by the international community” (247). Carrying out this trope of dreaming, Cook imagines what would happen if a so-called two-state solution were carried out to its logical conclusion. He highlights three significant problems with this model, the first dealing with water, if the Zionist entity pulled back to the 1967 borders:

Israel inside its recognized, shrunken borders would face an immediate and very serious water shortage. That is because, in returning the West Bank to the Palestinians, Israel would lose control of the large mountain aquifers that currently supply most of its water, not only to Israel proper but also to the Jewish settlers living illegally in the occupied territories. Israel would no longer be able to steal the water, but would be expected to negotiate for it on the open market.(247)

While perhaps a seemingly innocuous issue, it would become compounded by what he predicts would be a massive drive to fight the “demographic time bomb” by campaigning for Jews around the world to colonize 1948 Palestine. He argues that this would exert further pressures on the water shortage, which would in turn lead Jews to return to their countries of origin.

Second, Cook identifies the labor surplus problem that would arise as a result of the dismantling of the occupation. Third, given that currently one in five Israeli citizens are Palestinian and that the birthrate for Palestinians is higher, the “demographic time bomb” would ultimately result in a large scale campaign by Palestinians inside historic Palestine for equal rights, which would include the right of return just as Jews have the Law of Return.

Ultimately Cook concludes with the only possible key to a just solution:

...if we stopped distracting ourselves with the Holy Grail of the two-state solution, we might channel our energies into something more useful: discrediting Israel as Jewish state, and the ideology of Zionism that upholds it. Eventually the respectable facade of Zionism might crumble. And without Zionism, the obstacle to creating either one or two states will finally be removed.(251)

In the end, Cook’s writing skillfully illustrates not only the history of Zionist colonialism in Palestine, but pinpoints with alacrity the obstacles and solutions to achieving a just solution for Palestinians. By including throughout his book a context that includes all Palestinians residing on what was once historic Palestine, he offers readers a perspective that is sorely lacking from those who forget Palestinians in 1948 Palestine. For these reasons and so many more Cook’s book is an indispensable tool for scholars and activists alike.

*Marcy Newman is a scholar, teacher, and activist invested in human rights, and especially committed to al awda, or the Right of Return for Palestinian refugees. Specializing in resistance literature, Professor Newman has taught at Boise State University (USA) and al-Najah University (Palestine). She is a founding member of the US Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel. You can visit her blog at: