Israel’s “new history” and the Palestinians

A rethinking by Israeli historians enlarges understanding of the bitter events of 1948, including the Palestinian "nakba" (catastrophe). It thus creates a foundation for addressing their consequences in the present, says Avi Shlaim.
Avi Shlaim
4 November 2009

1948 was a year of triumph and tragedy - triumph for the Jews and tragedy for the Arabs of Palestine. Israelis refer to the key event of that year as “the war of independence” whereas Palestinians refer to it as the nakba or the catastrophe. Each of the participants in the first Arab-Israeli war has its own narrative of what happened in that fateful year. In this article I shall look exclusively at the Israeli narrative and its consequences.

To begin with, a personal note. I am an Iraqi Jew who grew up in Israel and lived most of his life in Britain. And I feel doubly guilty towards the Palestinians. As an Englishman, I am ashamed of my adopted country’s astonishing record of duplicity and betrayal going all the way back to the Balfour declaration of 2 November 1917. As an Israeli, I am burdened by a heavy sense of guilt for the injustice and suffering that my people have inflicted on the Palestinians over the last sixty years (see “Israel at 60: the ‘iron wall” revisited”, 8 May 2008).

The traditional Zionist rendition of the events of 1948 is well known and widely accepted in the west. It lays all the blame for the war and its consequences on the Arab side. This is a nationalist version of history; as such, it is simplistic, selective, and self-serving. It is, essentially, the propaganda of the victors. It presents the victors as victims, and it blames the real victims - the Palestinians - for their own misfortunes.

Yet until the late 1980s this one-sided narrative went largely unchallenged outside the Arab world. The fortieth anniversary of the creation of the state of Israel in 1988 was accompanied by the publication of four books:

* Simha Flapan, The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities (Pantheon, 1987)

* Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 (Cambridge University Press, 1988)

* Ilan Pappé, Britain and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1948-1951 (Palgrave, 1988)

* Avi Shlaim, Collusion Across the Jordan: King Abdullah, the Zionist Movement, and the Partition of Palestine (Columbia University Press, 1988).

Between us, the four authors challenged many of the myths that had come to surround the birth of Israel and the first Arab-Israeli war. We came to be known collectively as the “new historians” (or the “revisionist” Israeli historians). The publication of our books triggered the equivalent of a Historikerstreit - a war of the Israeli historians.

There are four main bones of contention in the debate about 1948:

1 Britain’s policy in the twilight of the Palestine mandate

2 The military balance in 1948

3 Arab war aims

4 The causes of the Palestinian refugee problem.

This article looks briefly in turn at how the work of the “new historians” affected understanding of each of these issues.

British policy and the Palestine mandate

Zionist leaders at the time, and Zionist writers subsequently, portrayed Britain’s policy as utterly hostile to the Yishuv, the pre-independence Jewish community in Palestine. The main charge was that Britain armed and encouraged her Arab allies to resist the birth of the Jewish state by force.

A special place was reserved in Zionist demonology for Ernest Bevin, the foreign secretary of the Labour government (1945-51). Bevin was portrayed as a great ogre, a monster in human form. At the time I was a 3-year-old in Baghdad at the time, where my mother used to tell me: “If you don’t eat your porridge, Mr Bevin will come and take you away.” The threat never failed to work!

Ilan Pappé completely demolished the traditional Zionist account of British policy at the end of the mandate. His argument is that Britain was resigned to the emergence of a Jewish state but supported her client, King Abdullah of Transjordan, in his efforts to pre-empt their common enemy, the grand mufti, Hajj Amin al-Husseini. The key to British policy was “Greater Transjordan” - to help Abdullah expand his kingdom at the expense of the Palestinians (see Lion of Jordan: The Life of King Hussein in War and Peace [Knopf, 2008]).

In British eyes, the independent Palestinian state envisaged by the United Nations partition-resolution of 29 November 1947 was synonymous with a mufti state. Their hostility to the mufti and to a mufti-led state was an important and constant factor in British policy in 1947-49.

So there is a case to be made against Britain during this critical period in the struggle for Palestine. The case, however, is not that Britain tried to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state but rather that it helped to abort the birth of a Palestinian state.

The military balance

The “old” historians saw the 1948 war as an unequal struggle between a Jewish David against an Arab Goliath: a desperate, heroic, and ultimately successful Jewish struggle against overwhelming odds. The heroism of the Jewish fighters is not in question. Nor is there any question that the first round of fighting was indeed a struggle for survival. Yet, throughout the war, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) outnumbered all the Arab forces, regular and irregular, operating in the Palestine theatre.

The best estimates suggest that on 15 May 1948 - the day after the declaration of Israel’s independence - Israel fielded 35,000 troops,  whereas the Arabs fielded 20,000-25,000. The problem of the IDF was not manpower but firepower, which was negligible. But during the first truce Israel violated the United Nations embargo and imported arms (including artillery, tanks, and aircraft) from the Soviet bloc.

These illicit arms-imports decisively tipped the military balance in favour of Israel. The Israelis now not only outnumbered but also outgunned their opponents. The final outcome of the war was not a miracle but a reflection of the underlying Arab-Israeli military balance. In this war, as in most wars, the stronger side won

The Arab war aims

Why did the neighbouring Arab states send their armies into Palestine upon expiry of the British mandate on 15 May 1948? The standard Zionist answer is that all the Arabs were united and that their aim was to destroy the infant Jewish state and to throw the Jews into the sea. The reality was more complex.

The Arab coalition facing Israel in 1948 was one of the most deeply divided, disorganised, and ramshackle coalitions in the history of warfare. There was no agreed Arab strategic plan for the conduct of this war. The Arab armies were ill-prepared and ill-equipped for prolonged warfare. Most of the Arab military leaders were incompetent. 

There were dynastic rivalries at play between King Farouk of Egypt and the Hashemite rulers of Jordan and Iraq. Syria and Lebanon also felt threatened by King Abdullah’s ambition to make himself master of Greater Syria.

All the Arab armies intervened ostensibly in order to help the Palestinians. But they treated the Palestinians with brutality and with contempt. The Arab League promised the Palestinians money and arms. It did not keep its promise, thereby helping to seal their fate. In short, the Palestinians, in their hour of need, were let down by the Arabs. The inability of the Arab leaders to coordinate their diplomatic and military strategies was a major factor in the loss of Palestine. 

The refugee problem

The causes of the Palestinian refugee problem is a very controversial issue and one which lies at the heart of the Arab-Israeli dispute (see The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World [WW Norton, 1999]). Between 700,000 and 750,000 people, almost half the Arab population of Palestine, became refugees in 1948. The question is: did they go or were they pushed? The origins of the refugee problem are intimately connected with the question of responsibility for solving this problem. Here there are two diametrically opposed versions.

The official Israeli version maintains that the Palestinians left the country on orders from their leaders and in the expectation of a triumphal return after the Arab armies had swept all before them. Israel was thus in no way responsible for turning the Palestinians into refugees.

The Arab version maintains that the Palestinians did not leave of their own accord: they were pushed out. Israel expelled them and Israel therefore has to grant them the right of return to their homes and compensation to those who chose not to return.

Benny Morris, in his 1988 book, studied the birth of the Palestinian refugee problem thoroughly, carefully, and objectively. He found no evidence of Arab calls on the Palestinians to leave their homes, but nor did he find evidence of a Zionist master-plan for the expulsion of the Palestinians. He therefore rejected both the “Arab order” and the “Jewish robber-state” explanations. The refugee problem, he concluded, was a by-product of the war.

Many reviewers pointed out that Benny Morris’s conclusion did not correspond to the evidence he had unearthed. The evidence suggests a far higher degree of Israeli responsibility for the mass flight of the Palestinians. Admittedly, there were many different reasons for the Palestinian exodus but the single most important reason was Israeli political, military, and psychological pressure.

Beyond the war

The entire debate between the old and the new Israeli historians revolves round the question of moral responsibility for the consequences of the first Arab-Israeli war. The old historians present Israel as the innocent party, as the victim of Arab aggression. But the evidence presented by the new historians makes it patently clear that the establishment of Israel involved a monumental injustice to the Palestinians. To say this is not to deny the legitimacy of the state of Israel within its pre-1967 borders; it is only to insist that Israel played a major part in turning over half the Arab population of Palestine into refugees. Unless and until Israel acknowledges its share of the moral responsibility for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem, this dispute cannot be solved. 

Does the new historiography of 1948 have any broader significance beyond the war of the historians? Does it have any relevance to the quest for peace today? The late Edward Said answered these questions in the affirmative. He pointed out that if Israelis and Palestinians are to learn to coexist peacefully side by side, it is essential that they understand their own history and each other’s history (see Israel and Palestine: Reappraisals, Revisions, Refutations [Verso, 2009]).

It is not enough for each side to examine critically its own actions in 1948. We must have a common and comprehensive picture of what happened in the war in order to deal with its consequences, in order to work out a reasonable solution to all the problems that have their roots in the year of the nakba

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