Ilan Pappe's history of Palestine covers the period from the mid-nineteenth century, when it was part of the Ottoman Empire, to its present fractured constitution as Israel and the occupied territories. The book's subtitle is “One Land, Two Peoples”: Pappe seeks to build a joint Jewish-Arab narrative. He is less concerned with wars and the decisions made by powerful figures and more with the immigrant and indigenous communities, their beliefs, attitudes and everyday difficulties – a perspective lost in conventional approaches. He openly admits compassion for the colonized rather than admiration for the colonizer. In exploring the development of nationalist ideas and their effects, he treats nationalism as a largely mythic artificial construction, something more important to the rich and powerful than the poor and the marginalized, be they Jewish or Arab.

Because this book is, in sum, a good one, it is perhaps as well to deal first with its flaws of which the most obvious is Pappe's impatience with details. Facts such as the year of an event or the number of people killed in a particular suicide bombing sometimes vary between different pages of the book. The problem is exemplified by Pappe's response to a critical review of this book by another Israeli historian, Benny Morris. Pappe gives as good as he gets, accusing Morris of being a mere chronologist (not to mention a racist). However, to rebut one of the alleged errors ridiculed by Morris, Pappe misquotes a sentence in his own book – or perhaps it's a misprint. In any case, both Morris and Pappe are wrong on this point: there is a discrepancy in the book in the dates given for the establishment of Jewish terrorist groups but it is not the one Morris claims.

Morris's mistaken charge may come from a sentence (on p108) that is quite open to misinterpretation. Such ambiguities are part of a more general problem: Pappe presents his extensive knowledge in a slightly discursive way that does not always impart a solid understanding. For the reader, it is somewhat like being a passenger on a rowboat: we lose our bearings as he wheels the boat around, pointing at vague, shadowy wrecks wobbling beneath the waves; when he reels in something tangible he often disappoints by throwing it back, telling us that is not after all a very significant or representative example. Fleeting references can also leave more questions than answers. While some problems of this kind may be expected in a book with such a large scope, in many places they might have been avoided by more careful prose.

Readers who persist, however, will be rewarded with interesting treatments of subjects such as the extent to which religious belief is really a motive for misdeeds on both sides, why various peace efforts failed, and the divisions within Jewish Israeli society. On this last point, Pappe describes Palestinian Jews regarding the Zionist immigrants as troublemakers, the disdain of earlier immigrants for Holocaust survivors (weak victims threatening their self-image as conquering Zionist heroes), and the generally racist attitudes of Ashkenazi Jews towards Arabic-speaking Mizrachi Jews from countries like Morocco and Yemen: demographically useful, but otherwise a socioeconomic underclass, ignored by the political parties of the so-called Israeli “left”. Pappe notes that the discord and social protests that tend to surface in times of relative peace give Israeli leaders an incentive to maintain a state of simmering conflict with the Palestinians.

Though not explicitly mentioned in this book, Pappe's account reflects and helps to explain his advocacy elsewhere of a one-state solution with equal rights for all – a position still almost unthinkable in Jewish Israeli society. Thus his inclusion of an “untold story” from the Mandate period: the extent to which economic and practical interests led to peaceful co-habitation and co-operation between native Arabs and immigrant Jews, despite the opposition of violent ideologues and the apparent threat each community posed to the other. Pappe returns to this theme at the end of the book, mentioning rare joint initiatives in areas such as education and olive oil production within Israel. In reality, merely to mention these initiatives is almost to overstate their significance, both as a reflection of attitudes among Jewish Israelis and in the context of Palestinian Israelis still enduring oppressive state discrimination. To be fair to Pappe, he admits to emphasizing the positives and one can hardly fault him for seeing them as suggestive of the possibilities of a better future – a future that he recognizes requires a resolution of the historic and present injustices to the Palestinian people, including not only those currently living under military occupation but also the refugees of 1948.

Sections on many other subjects from “The Pauperization of Rural Palestine” under the British to the breakdown by gender and class of Palestinian victims of the Intifada provide plenty more for curious readers to mull over. As well as the usual bibliography and index, there is a chronology of events, a glossary of terms (from A'ayan to Zena) and a collection of over 100 three- or four-sentence biographies of notable figures. A minor niggle is the third-party maps which the publisher could have reproduced with more care: for example, one peers and squints in vain at Map 2 to distinguish grey “Private Palestinian lands” from equally grey “Jewish-owned land in 1948”.

While this book has some random errors and other irritations, it presents topics and analyses absent from more traditional perspectives. It is also an unapologetically moral, humanist account, free of the myths of nationalist historiographies.

Book review © 2007 Michael Breen