Cleansing the Galilee

David Gilmour

  • The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities by Simha Flapan
    Croom Helm, 277 pp, £25.00, October 1987, ISBN 0 7099 4911 1
  • Collusion across the Jordan: King Abdullah, the Zionist Movement and the Partition of Palestine by Avi Shlaim
    Oxford, 676 pp, £35.00, May 1988, ISBN 0 19 827831 4
  • The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 by Benny Morris
    Cambridge, 380 pp, £30.00, March 1988, ISBN 0 521 33028 9

The Palestinian refugee problem was created forty years ago and seems no nearer a solution as it enters its fifth decade. The 750,000 people who left their towns and villages in 1948 have multiplied to three million, many of them still concentrated in refugee camps in or close to their former homeland, the rest dispersed throughout the Arab world and beyond. Their problem remains unsolved today for the simple reason that both sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict have always denied responsibility for its creation. Their views, expressed interminably and without variation over the years, are incompatible and indeed opposite.

The Arabs blame the Israelis for deliberately expelling the Palestinians in the course of a campaign which blended selected atrocities, psychological warfare and blunt expulsion. Israel has always claimed that the Palestinians ran away or were ordered out by their own leaders: and its first prime minister, Ben Gurion, even announced that his country had not expelled a single Arab. Until recently, the inaccessibility of documents in relevant archives discouraged historical research on the matter, and both sides stuck to their unregenerate line. Such evidence that did emerge – often through the confession of an Israeli general or a revelation in the Hebrew press – tended to support the Arab case, though usually it confirmed a particular atrocity rather than a general campaign of expulsion.[*] As for the Israeli claim, no evidence whatever has been found to substantiate it, and in consequence, Zionist spokesmen today merely trot out the speeches of their ancestors forty years ago. Sadly, there has been no change even in the presentation of their bits of ancient ‘evidence’. A few months ago, Mr Hayim Pinner, Secretary-General of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, wrote a letter to the Independent in which he used as ‘evidence’ a book by the late Edward Atiyah, published in 1955. He quoted Atiyah’s statement that the behaviour of the Arabic press and some Arab leaders was a cause of the Palestinian exodus, but carefully omitted the very next sentence in which the author asserted that the exodus ‘was also, and in many parts of the country, largely due to a policy of deliberate terrorism and eviction followed by the Jewish commanders in the areas they occupied ...’ What is particularly depressing about Pinner’s trick – twisting Atiyah’s argument so that it suggests the opposite of what he meant – is that over the last 33 years other Zionist propagandists have performed it in exactly the same way. I do not know whether Pinner was too lazy to check his sources and was merely copying out his predecessors’ drafts, or whether he was deliberately trying to mislead the readers of the Independent, but I do not see how there can be a third explanation.

If the misrepresentation of Edward Atiyah ever ceases, the credit may be due to a number of Israeli scholars who have spent years in their country’s archives attempting to discover and present the truth. Among them are Yehoshua Porath, professor of Middle East History at the Hebrew University, and several younger historians such as Avi Shlaim, Tom Segev and Benny Morris. A handful of older men have also encouraged the re-examination of Israel’s past, including the late Simha Flapan, a pioneer of the state’s early days, and Dr Israel Shahak, president of the Israeli League for Civil and Human Rights. Three of these men have just produced highly original and disturbing books on the origins of Israel. Written independently and focusing on different subjects within the same era, the three books complement each other: taken together, they form the most important body of work ever published on Zionism and the Palestinian question.

Simha Flapan, a writer, socialist politician and veteran of genuine attempts to achieve a peaceful settlement with the Palestinians, died last year. His book is a moving testament to his humanity and capacity for self-criticism, an old man’s mea culpa on behalf of his country and the movement to which he dedicated his life. Realising in old age that he ‘had always been under the influence of certain myths that had become accepted as historical truth’, he decided to investigate them. His book examines the myths that have sustained Zionist propaganda for forty years and destroys each one in turn. Avi Shlaim, whose long, impressive work has no such polemical purpose, reaches similar conclusions: documentary evidence in Israel’s archives, he writes, demolishes the ‘numerous legends’ that surround the state’s birth.

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[*] A couple of these revelations are discussal by Peretz Kidron in Blaming the victims (Verso, 1988), edited by Edward Said and Christopher Hitchens, a valuable collection of essays on Zionist propaganda about the Palestinians.

[†] These events are corroborated in Michael Palumbo’s book, The Palestinian Catastrophe (Faber, 1987). The author makes effective use of UN files and other documents to write a vivid account of the Palestinian exodus.