Poets may rhapsodise over it, artists paint it, farmers till it and politicians and generals fight over it, but, until recently, the lure of the land was not apparently felt by historians. Today, however, the power of landscape in people's dreams and memories, its nostalgic hold over refugees and its sanctity for undoubting patriots, have finally spurred research into the history of our relationship with the ground beneath our feet. This most readable and timely book skilfully uncovers the "buried history" of one of the most bitterly contested landscapes in the world, and deserves the attention of anyone who wishes to understand what is at stake in the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.
Few parts of the world have been imbued with religious and historical associations more profoundly felt than have the mountains, deserts and groves of the Holy Land. In the 19th century, European travellers discerned the biblical past in the Ottoman Arab villages they passed through. In the 20th century, the map-makers traversed the same territories in the cause of military intelligence, archaeological preservation and contemporary nation-building. While those Victorian Christians exaggerated the timelessness of the quaintly picturesque peasant life occurring around them, they were certainly not wrong to see a landscape shaped by the slow and gradual evolution of habits, markets and political institutions. After 1948, by contrast, change was violent, sudden and dramatic. The mass flight of Palestinian Arabs began an epoch of expropriation, destruction and rebuilding, which continues to this day, and whose ugly impact on the land is powerfully evident.
Meron Benvenisti is the son of an Israeli geographer. One of the things that gives his book its passionate flavour is that it reads, in part, as an extended dialogue with, and critique of, the Zionist ethos embedded in the work of his own father, who, like many other creators of modern Israel, wished young Jews to familiarise themselves with the land in a very partial way. "Knowing the land", the discipline to which David Benvenisti himself made an im- portant contribution, presented young Jews with a Holy Land that was virgin territory, crying out for cultivation, a land with scarcely any history between the end of biblical times and the emergence of modern Zionism. To the Zionist pioneers, the hundreds of thousands of Arab villagers who then farmed the soil, producing citrus fruits, olives and many other crops, were virtually invisible. They were a part of the landscape that needed to be made fruitful, an element of backwardness and tradition that required, even if they themselves did not realise this, the promise of modernity embodied in the Zionist mission.
In this book, Benvenisti adds an important dimension to the long-running debate over whether the Arabs were "ethnically cleansed" from Israel in 1948. He argues persuasively that, while there was no Jewish master plan for ethnic cleansing before the war, the expulsions that took place from the summer of 1948 onward were often premeditated and not warranted on military grounds. But the real originality of the book lies in showing that, well before the war broke out, the Arabs had already ceased to be a part of the landscape of the Holy Land in Zionist minds. And the consequence was that the absent Arabs, far from being mourned, were doubly erased through the changes of place names, the wholesale demolition of villages and the construction of new settlements.
Although, ironically, some of the fullest information on the pre-1948 Arab villages was collected by Jewish intelligence organisations for military use, the cartographers and scholars engaged in drawing up maps for the Israeli state had little time for it. They were preoccupied with designing a "Hebrew map", and this involved finding Hebrew equivalents for some of the Arabic place names and simply excluding others altogether. At meetings of the Committee for Assigning Hebrew Names in the Negev, for instance, bizarre and spurious etymologies were discussed by the cartographers, historians, archaeologists and geographers present. The governmental naming committee followed a similar course. One may be sure that scholarship has been employed to similar ends in the Balkans, central Europe and elsewhere, too. But, as Benvenisti points out, it is not merely the politicisation of the process that one finds distasteful. Much more important is that names which sprang up over centuries, and which carried within them a wealth of relationships to the land and the people who had passed over it, are, in this way, suddenly erased and replaced by fictitious and often meaningless alternatives - or, in many cases, not replaced at all. The land, literally, loses meaning.
Sure enough, a "Palestinian map" has also emerged, and we now have a battle of maps that mirrors the struggle on the ground. The author draws on much recent Palestinian research, but dismisses the temptation to idealise its end product, much of which is no less partisan than its opposing version, and sometimes based on even less hard information. Benvenisti himself has travelled widely to visit the deserted and abandoned sites, and he puts archives, interviews and personal observation together in a way that vividly brings back these settlements as they were in times of peace and war.
He shows us the plight of those Arabs who fled their villages, some of whom remained nearby in Israel, able to see their former fields and homes, but barred from returning to them. He shows us, too, the newcomers - Jewish settlers, among them refugees from postwar Europe, and later from the Middle East. Above all, he shows us the homes, fields and monuments that once defined the land, but which have been obliterated in the explosion of consumerism and privatisation that has transfigured modern Israel. Here lies a gigantic irony. The Zionist dream, which once offered a sentimental and romantic vision of the promised land, turns out to have led to a series of sordid land-grabs in which the established Jewish settlements muscled out less fortunate newcomers. Unable even to farm all the fields that were once owned by Arabs, the lucky beneficiaries have now put their acres up for sale, and are raking it in from profitable land deals.
Those who once worked this land, and existed in the farmer's intimate but unemotional relationship with his surroundings, have come to see their entire national and sacred patrimony at stake in this struggle. The Palestinians have become, in Benvenisti's mordant phrase, "the last of the Zionists".
Mark Mazower's most recent book is The Balkans: a short history (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £14.99)