‘It was necessary to uproot them’

Charles Glass

  • A History of Modern Palestine: One Land, Two Peoples by Ilan Pappe
    Cambridge, 333 pp, £15.99, January 2004, ISBN 0 521 55632 5
  • The Gun and the Olive Branch by David Hirst
    Faber, 624 pp, £16.99, August 2003, ISBN 0 571 21945 4
  • The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited by Benny Morris
    Cambridge, 664 pp, £70.00, January 2004, ISBN 0 521 81120 1

Albert Aghazarian is a Palestinian, neither Arab nor Israeli, who lives in the eastern portion of Jerusalem annexed by Israel in 1967. His house stands within two sets of walls, those of the ancient Armenian convent of St James and, beyond them, the Turkish walls of Jerusalem’s old city. The convent is a haven, in the same sense Israel calls itself a haven, in which descendants of Armenians who escaped Turkey’s First World War massacres still live. When he was director of the public relations office at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank, Aghazarian was often called on to mediate between the university and the Israeli military authorities. His Hebrew is fluent, as are his Arabic, Armenian and English. At the ulpan, or Hebrew language school, his favourite expression was Ze lo col khakh pashut: ‘It’s not as simple as that.’

Simplicity and partisanship are hard to resist in Israeli/Palestinian historiography. Neither the Zionist project to conquer the land and fill it with settlers nor the ineffective resistance of the natives has ended. Meanwhile, Israeli historians have moved beyond the myths in which the country’s first chroniclers dressed the early state. The ‘new’ or post-Zionist historians emerged in the aftermath of two significant events in Israel, the conquest of the remainder of British Mandate Palestine in 1967 and, ten years later, the election for the first time of the right-wing Likud coalition under Menachem Begin. The colonisation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967 led many who witnessed its brutality to explore the events that preceded it. They came to disparage the notion that 1967 had transformed an ideal state into a violent expansionist power, concluding instead that Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories were consistent with the historical record. Perhaps more important, using the model of Britain’s 30-year rule, Likud began in 1978 to declassify archives that the Labour Party had kept secret during its uninterrupted period in power from 1948. The Labour patriarch David Ben-Gurion had called Begin a ‘Jewish Hitler’. Begin, a zealot but a legalist, had called Ben-Gurion’s extension of the repressive British Defence Regulations, although enforced mainly against Israel’s Arabs, ‘Nazi laws’ and vowed to resist them. Political argument had raged from Zionism’s earliest days between the socialist Zionists, including Ben-Gurion and those to his left, and the rightist Revisionists, led by Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky and his disciple Begin. This later took the form of a dispute between the Haganah, the official Zionist army that became the Israel Defence Forces, and the Jewish underground – Begin’s Irgun and the Stern Gang – over who was responsible for the ‘excesses’ of 1948, including the most famous ‘excess’, in Deir Yassin, the small Arab village near Jerusalem.

The four hundred Arab inhabitants of Deir Yassin had good relations with their Jewish neighbours and kept Arab irregular forces out of the village. On 9 April 1948, little more than a month before Israel’s declaration of statehood, there was a raid on the village by the Stern Gang and Irgun. Two days later the chief Red Cross delegate, Jacques de Reynier, visited. ‘There had been 400 people in this village,’ he wrote. ‘About fifty of them had escaped, and were still alive. All the rest had been deliberately massacred in cold blood, for, as I had observed for myself, this gang was admirably disciplined and only acted under orders.’ Most of those who didn’t escape were mutilated and dumped in the village well, and a handful were dragged alive through Jewish Jerusalem to be spat on by crowds of onlookers. Both sides publicised the massacre: the Arabs to denounce Zionist cruelty and to demonstrate that collaboration was no guarantee of safety; the Zionists to encourage other Arabs to abandon their lands and avoid a similar fate. ‘In this way,’ de Reynier continued, ‘a general terror was built up among the Arabs, a terror astutely fostered by the Jews. On both sides, it was made into a political argument, and the results were tragic. Driven by fear, the Arabs left their homes to find shelter among their kindred.’ This much has never been disputed, but two issues remained contentious: the involvement of the Haganah and whether Deir Yassin was the exception or the rule.

In one of the standard (and interesting) Labour Zionist histories, Seven Fallen Pillars: The Middle East 1915-50 (1950), Jon Kimche wrote of Irgun and the Stern Gang that ‘nothing they have said has explained, or can explain away, the murder of some 250 innocent Arabs, among them more than a hundred women and children’ at Deir Yassin. But Kimche, in common with other Israeli historians of his time, exonerated the mainstream Zionist leadership from involvement in a war crime that contributed, according to the Irgun leader Menachem Begin in The Revolt (1964), to the fortuitous departure of Arabs from the country. Begin maintained that the Haganah was aware of his intentions at Deir Yassin and contributed a unit of elite Palmach troops. Kimche wrote that ‘the terrorists’, by which he meant Irgun and the Stern Gang, claimed the credit for forcing both the British and the Arabs out of Palestine. Reports of the massacre and Irgun’s claim to have more men under arms than the Haganah reached the Arab states, and apparently influenced their decision to invade a month later. Kimche wrote that this

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