Avnery on ‘the real Nakba’

The Editors

Uri Avnery on the myths and realities of the 1948 war:

According to the Arab version, the Jews came from nowhere, attacked a peace-loving people and drove them out of their country.

According to the Zionist version, the Jews had accepted the United Nations compromise plan, but the Arabs had rejected it and started a bloody war, during which they were convinced by the Arab states to leave their homes in order to return with the victorious Arab armies.

Both these versions are utter nonsense - a mixture of propaganda, legend and hidden guilt feelings.

During the war I was a member of a mobile commando unit that was active all over the southern front. I was an eye-witness to what happened....

The 1948 war was actually two wars that blended into one. From December 1947 until May 1948 it was a war between the Arab and the Jewish population inside Palestine, from May until the armistices in early 1949 it was a war between the new Israeli army and the armies of the Arab countries – mainly Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Iraq...

After the Arab armies entered the war in May, the Egyptians were stopped 22 km from Tel Aviv. A month-long cease-fire was decreed by the UN, and used by the Israeli side to equip itself for the first time with heavy arms (artillery, tanks, air force) sold them by Stalin. In the very heavy fighting in July, the balance shifted and the Israeli side slowly gained the upper hand.

From then on, a political – as distinguished from military – decision was taken to remove the Arab population. Units were ordered to shoot on sight every Arab who tried to return to their village.

The decisive moment came at the end of the war, when it was decided not to allow the refugees to return to their homes.


  • 6 June 2015 at 12:07am
    Pessoptimist says:
    Some years ago I was talking to a Palestinian friend about a recently published book on the conflict, hailed as "Scrupulously fair to both sides" by the Sunday Times. I recall my friend cutting me short as I began to tally up its many predictable mendacities.

    "Everything is summed up by the fact that they spelled Nakba wrong" he said, with a sad smile.

    • 6 June 2015 at 3:12pm
      Weiss says: @ Pessoptimist
      Did Avnery write it in English?

  • 6 June 2015 at 10:16am
    cufflink says:
    Dear Uri, may I on this anniversary of D-Day salute your long and eventful life, and wish you many more years of engaged activity in Israel. As a non-Jew but like you also a man of martial involvement in human affairs (I lost an ear to frost bite in Korea) say how reassuring your ethical stance and witness to events effectually ventilates toward peace the predicament of the peoples of Israel/Palestine.

    In June 1944, the beginning of the end was in sight for the elimination of anti-semitism and we now have after 50 years that elimination in clear law and and with matter of fact acceptanc in Western Europe.

    The plight of this history is now in the Middle East and we bystanders can only hope for the best - it will come.

  • 7 June 2015 at 10:59am
    Fred Skolnik says:
    I am surprised that you have chosen to publish such a superficial and pointless set of assertions about the 1948 War. Uri Avnery was of course not "an eyewitness to what happened," he was an eyewitness to what he saw, just as I was an eyewitness to what I saw when I served in the Israeli army, which was an infinitesimal part of what happened.

    As to expulsions and all the rest, readers are invited to consider the more recent work of Benny Morris, which is based on newly opened archives. Arabs certainly fled on their own or were told to flee by their leaders and Arabs certainly were expelled. Rightly or not, Morris believes that the last category was the smallest in number. He also believes, and shows, that it was not Israeli government policy "to remove the Arab population." There were initiatives by local Israeli commanders and there was a Plan Dalet that referred to hostile Arab villages serving as bases for the Arab gangs that were terrorizing the Jewish population and could not be allowed to operate as such behind the lines of the Israeli army as it advanced to meet the invading Arab armies. And yes, Israel did not intend to allow the refugees back in the new reality that had been created by the war initiated by the Arabs. This reality produced an equal number of Jews displaced from Arab countries who had lost everything they had. The reality created a de facto population exchange no different from the population exchange that resulted from the war between Pakistan and India.

    To Pessoptimist: What exactly is the "wrong" transliteration of "Nakba," which scholars spell Naqba for the letter ﻕ while using "k" for the letter ﻙ ? This is paralleled by the Hebrew קּ and כּ.

    • 12 June 2015 at 1:02pm
      Harry Stopes says: @ Fred Skolnik
      If Arabs "fled on their own", what were they fleeing from?

    • 14 June 2015 at 9:05am
      Fred Skolnik says: @ Harry Stopes
      The fighting.

  • 11 June 2015 at 8:56pm
    WEichler says:
    I would like to point out to Fred Skolnik that while there wasn't some grand plan to expel Arabs, it was the inevitable result of attempting to create a Jewish nation state in a majority non-Jewish area. Israel is far from exceptional here. All ethnic nationalisms contain within them the seeds that lead to the destruction of any group that makes a claim (or just exists) on the same piece of land as them. Benny Morris implicitly acknowledges this fact by adding a chapter on the concept of 'transfer' in Zionist thought to the 2nd edition of his book on the Palestinian refugees.

    This is also why, as Skolnik points out, many Jews were expelled from Arab lands. Although this was also exacerbated by the fact that Zionism was a colonial movement that came in under the aegis of a European power that was dividing up the Middle East. This 'painted' many of the Jews of Arab lands as Zionists and 'fifth columnists' in the eyes of Arab nationalists even though most of them had no intention of leaving their homes in Baghdad etc.

    Still, given the trajectory that Arab nationalism took in the 2nd half of the 20th century it seems likely that Jews, like Kurds and other ethnic minorities, would have had a rough time of it anyway and would have eventually left, Zionism or no Zionism, because, like I said, ethnic nationalism does not like heterogeneous societies.

    If you are interested in reading more see my: "Singling out Israel: a perspective from the left" on openDemocracy:

    • 14 June 2015 at 9:26am
      Fred Skolnik says: @ WEichler
      The Arabs may have been a majority but they became a majority through conquest. The Powers recognized their claims but also recognized the Jews' historical claim and carved out the Arab countries in pretty much the same way that they carved out the State of Israel in a small corner of the Middle East where they would in fact constitute a majority, mainly through immigration.

      When people start talking about the Jews in ethnic terms it is generally to delegitimize their national claims. The Jews have always thought of themselves as a nation and are no different in this respect from other peoples. The fact that Italian Americans and Irish Americans are called ethnic minorities does not mean that Italy and Ireland are not national states. The fact that the Turks do not get along with the Kurds and that the Spanish do not get along with the Basques does not make Spanish and Turkish nationalism ethnic.

    • 14 June 2015 at 9:37am
      Fred Skolnik says: @ Fred Skolnik
      I notice your refernce so I will offer you one of my own:

  • 14 June 2015 at 4:45pm
    Pessoptimist says:
    Like Mr Skolnik, I was clearly underwhelmed by Mr Avnery’s intervention. But it seems to me that Mr. Skolnik largely agrees with Avnery on what happened in 1948, some differences of interpretation notwithstanding. More importantly, they seem to agree on what it is necessary to a disagree about. In other words, on what question need not be asked about the Nakba, its underlying stakes, and possible futures. This concordance reflects a shared ideological outlook that Mr Skolnik’s own intervention does much to elucidate.

    “According to the Arab version,” writes Avnery, “the Jews came from nowhere, attacked a peace-loving people and drove them out of their country.” This claim, he continues, is “utter nonsense.” But Palestinians have never argued that Jews come from nowhere. Historically, Palestinians knew that those European Jews who began to settle Palestine in the late 19th century came from Europe, and that Jews who had since many centuries lived among them were from Palestine. By ‘from,’ Avnery means nothing so matter-of-fact, of course. He means that people must be ‘from’ somewhere in a more mystical sense; the sense of Blut und Volk. This is the sense upon which Mr Skolnik draws in claiming “The Jews have always thought of themselves as a nation and are no different in this respect from other peoples.” It should go without saying that this is patently false; nationalism is not a transhistorical phenomenon, and the Jewish nation is no more eternal than the Italian, or Palestinian nation.

    More consequentially, however, the question of where Jews are from, whether they must in fact have a common origin, and what this should mean politically, would always be a secondary concern to Palestinians, who have not surprisingly based their political claims primarily on their own situatedness. And while it is true that Palestinian nationalism has been shaped by its conflict with Zionism, and vice versa, the question of ‘from’ is not one that Palestinians have had to ask themselves to same extent, in the same moments, and in the same ways as have Zionists, ie drawing on the same crypto-racial logics. That indigenous Muslims, Christians and Jews were all Palestinians was for instance a central claim of early Palestinian nationalists; their beef was with European colonists. Avnery, then, is not trenchantly dispensing with a Palestinian mythology; he is trenchantly dispensing with his own fantasy of what that mythology would be if Palestinians were also Zionists.

    Predictably, this solipsism extends beyond the question of origins. It may for instance be the case that Palestinians sometimes describe themselves as peace-loving people. Many peoples do, including Israelis, and as we might hazard, this is in and of itself a banal claim. Like Israelis, however, Palestinians have historically speaking not been apologetic about their recourse to armed struggle. They have believed that they have a right to fight for their homes. They have not believed that those who fight for rights thereby forfeit their right to have rights, to paraphrase Hannah Arendt. Indeed, against the politics of the day, as played out for instance on the streets of austerity-stricken European cities, it is I think worthwhile to reaffirm that rights only retain meaning in so far as one struggles for them. This is why such struggle is always liable to be criminalized, particularly when those who claim to enforce national or international law - sovereign governments, or geopolitical hegemons such as the United States – routinize its suspension in the name of exception and emergency.

    Prevailing US and European understandings of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and what is required to solve it- “the international consensus” as it is otherwise known – reflect this criminalization of struggle. And it reasoning has seeped into contemporary Palestinian discourse. The founding of the Palestinian Authority, which has since 1994 been allowed to self administer Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and about a third of the West Bank, in return for its cooperation with Israel's occupying forces, marked an inversion of the historical Palestinian relationship to struggle. As per the narrative advanced by the PA’s current West Bank leadership, Palestinians can only realize their aspirations if they do not struggle for their rights. Implicitly and otherwise, this leaderships accedes that Palestinians must prove that they deserve to have rights; that they are law-abiding, or ‘peace-loving.” This narrative is echoed, implicitly and otherwise, in the arguments made by Avnery and Skolnik.

    After the expulsions of 1948, Mr Skolnik writes, “Israel did not intend to allow the refugees back in the new reality that had been created by the war initiated by the Arabs.” This is a familiarly threadbare contention. Palestinians ‘initiated’ hostilities against European settlers in Palestine in much the same way, presumably, that Algerians initiated hostilities against their French colonizers, Australian aborigines their English conquerors, and so forth. It is certainly predictable that in so far as colonization is not seen as violent, resistance to it must appear all the more so. Departing from this understanding, Mr Skolnik arrives at the conclusion that Palestinians deserved what European settlers did to them.

    The idea that some peoples deserve to be ethnically cleansed has a long history in European thought, and Zionist thought is no exception. Mr. Skolnik should know that from Herzl onwards, Zionist thinkers and institutional representatives openly advocated and held meetings about the transfer of Palestine’s native population. Plans were drawn up for such transfer, as he acknowledges. Plans were implemented. Like Avnery he tries to work around this by arguing that these were military plans, would like readers to believe that it is possible to draw hermetic distinctions between military and political reasoning, and presumes that such distinctions should be the only ones that matter to everyone concerned.

    That Jews drove Palestinians out of their country is an incontrovertible fact. Neither Avnery nor Mr Skolnik furnish any evidence to the contrary. Mr Skolnik tries to argue that causality should not be confused with responsibility. In doing so he gets himself into a bit of a tangle. Consider again his awkward run-on construction: “Israel did not intend to allow the refugees back in the new reality that had been created by the war initiated by the Arabs.” Consider the fact that a third of Palestine’s Arab population were made refugees before the intervention of neighboring Arab countries, which intervention Skolnik cites as context and justification for the ethnic cleansing. How could Palestinian displacement in this moment be considered an already irrevocable fact? Did not the decision to expel and then prevent Palestinian from returning also constitute that ‘reality’? How in fact can reality be made to appear before itself, so to speak?

    We should be able to recognize this paradoxical, bootstrapping logic. It inheres in the notion that “The Jews have always thought of themselves as a nation,” for instance. It seeks to turn an evolving present into the passé compose, precisely so as to continue working on the present. Gabriel Piterberg has neatly dissected its workings in his own writings on the Nakba. Writing for New Left Review in 2001, he observes that “[r]epression of what had been done to create the state was essential among the Jews themselves. It was still more important to eradicate remembrance among Palestinians.” “[O]ne of the most striking documents of the official campaign to this end,” he notes, was an internal memorandum authored in 1951 by a functionary in the Jewish state’s new Foreign Office named Shahai Kahane, entitled, “Propaganda Among the Refugees in Order to Sober Them From Illusions of Return to Israel.” In it Kahane proposes that photographs of demolished Arab villages be circulated among Palestinian refugees, writing:

    You should be efficiently assisted by propaganda of photos that would very tangibly illustrate to them [the refugees] that they have nowhere to return…Their eyes must be opened to see that their homes have been demolished, their property has been lost, and Jews who are not at all willing to give them up have seized their places. All this can be conveyed in an indirect way that would not provoke feelings of vengeance unnecessarily, but would show reality as it is, however bitter and cruel.

    It is not reality that is most cruel and bitter in this instance, however, but Kahane’s attempt to pre-empt it. Most emptied Palestinian villages were not immediately settled by Jews after 1949, and in such instances often only on a temporary basis. The majority of villages were not systematically demolished until the mid 1960’s. Nor was the expulsion of Palestinians completed by 1951, so that preventing them from returning remained the only task at hand - a fact which both Avnery and Skolnik are tellingly silent about. Israel continued to expel tens of thousands of Palestinian from its territory until 1956. In 1967, it expelled some 300,000 more from the West Bank. This is not the story of inexorably advancing facts, but of the interminable work required to make those facts. It is the work of shooting women and children returning to their homes (in 1952 orders were given to stop this practice, as documented by Benny Morris). And it is the work of discourse, of propaganda, as once advanced by Kahane and today advanced by Mr Skolnik.

    It is necessary to point this out not so as to establish juridical responsibility; to bring individuals or collectives to account, even to found claims to restitution. It should be easy to appreciate how bleak is the analogy of a settling of accounts, as invoked by Mr Skolnik’s approving comparison of the Nakba and the partition of India; the understanding that violence should be balanced out by more violence. Mr Skolnik’s invitation to think the Nakba as a “de facto population exchange,” would also consecrate a most dubious, transitive property of justice. Contrary to such logics, the point of my argument is not to bring perpetrators to account, but to invite them to stop being perpetrators. In this respect there is perhaps some unintended merit to Avnery’s intervention. At the very least it furnishes a reminder that the Nakba has been renewed every day since 1949, with every reiteration of the denial of the Palestinian right to return. Yet the problem was never that it was too late to return, as Piterberg makes clear; to Israelis the Nakba was a fait accompli even before it had happened. But it will conversely remain a fait accompli only for as long as it continues to happen. This at least would be the hope of a Pessoptimist; a hope based on an understanding that we are always simultaneously remaking past and present, that the future is therefore always more open than we think.

    To Mr Skolnik’s final query: the title of the original version of this blog post was “Avnery on ‘the real Naqba.’” The spelling was amended by the LRB’s editors after my first post. The word ‘nakba,’ meaning catastrophe, is spelled with the Arabic letter ﻙ, the closest English equivalent of which is ‘k,’ not ‘q’ which commonly renders the sound of the Arabic letter ‘ﻕ.’ I do not know which scholars “spell Naqba for the letter ﻕ” nor do I understand what it means to spell a word for a letter.

  • 14 June 2015 at 6:16pm
    Fred Skolnik says:
    It means that in what is termed the scientific system of transliteration used by scholars, as opposed to popular systems of transliteration, ﻕ is tranliterated as "q" and ﻙ is transliterated as "k."

    It is hard for me to understand what you are trying to say in this very long disquisition, other than that the Jews were in the wrong and the Arabs were in the right. I disagree. Two nations claimed the same land, a compromise was offered, the Jews accepted it, the Arabs rejected it, choosing to fight it out, and lost. If you believe that a conquest like the Arab conquest, which was a rampage of rape, massacre and forced conversion, accords sovereign rights, then you shouldn't object to Israel's occupation of the West Bank. The Arabs came from Arabia. The Jews came from Judea, including the European Jews. The "aborigines" that the Arabs found in the Land of Israel were Jews, among others. The Middle East did not belong to them. They took it, they lost it, and then it was given back to them by the Great Powers, just as part of the Land of Israel was given back to the Jews.

    • 14 June 2015 at 7:40pm
      Walter10065 says: @ Fred Skolnik
      One might additionally point out that the claim for a so-called "Palestinian" nationality is especially weak, and may even exist solely as an anti-Israel political strategy. It's rather like "Long Islanders" -- they do have a notional identity based on where they live, but are hardly distinct from their neighbors in any significant way.

  • 16 June 2015 at 8:12am
    MLS says:
    Both the Avnery quote and the sedulous efforts by certain commenters to miss the point illustrate an important difference between Palestinian and Zionist nationalism.

    Palestinian nationalism is founded on specifics: this particular village in Palestine was where my own father or grandfather was born and raised, therefore I have a rightful share in Palestine in general and in my hometown in particular. Distant history – are we the descendants of Arabs, or Canaanites, or (don’t say it too loud) converted Jews? - remains secondary, with no real bearing on the legitimacy of Palestinian claims. A core Palestinian goal has always been to protect those specific claims; whether this was to be done through a Palestinian state or some larger entity remained a secondary consideration until it became clear that no larger entity could be trusted to do it. The State is secondary, the village primary.

    Zionist nationalism is founded on generalities: my ancestors 2000 years ago must have lived in the Land of Israel, they were illegitimately driven out by the Romans and have been dreaming of this land ever since, therefore I have a rightful share in the Land of Israel - but not one that ties me to any specific location in it. Distant history is crucial (through naturally selective and mythologised), while concrete specifics are left to convenience. Rather than being a secondary device to protect specific localised claims, the project of a Jewish State is what enabled most specific claims to be made in the first place, and is the purpose for which many of them were made. The State is primary, the village secondary.

    • 12 July 2015 at 2:34pm
      Pennywhistler says: @ MLS
      "Zionist nationalism is founded on generalities: my ancestors 2000 years ago must have lived in the Land of Israel, they were illegitimately driven out by the Romans and have been dreaming of this land ever since, therefore I have a rightful share in the Land of Israel"

      Well, considering the kingdoms of David and Solomon around 1000 BCE, considering the pre-kingdom tribal socitety, considering the Assyrian conquest of 722-1 BCE and Nebuchadnezzar's conquest and exile of Judahites (in line with Mesopotamian practice, Nebuchadnezzar deported around 10,000 Jews to his capital in Babylon) and later returns of Jews to their homeland under the Persians, I would say 3000-3500 years ago.

      Exactly who claims that the Roman conquest and exile was "illegitimate"? Hideous, yes. Murderous, yes. (Estimates of 500,000-1,200,000 Jews murdered or enslaved.) But exactly who said "illegitimate"?

      "Distant history is crucial (through naturally selective and mythologised), while concrete specifics are left to convenience."

      Give three examples.

  • 17 June 2015 at 5:05pm
    Walter10065 says:
    Well, those claims have been raised and found wanting, sorry. You may feel be grieved that your grandfather lost his family plot, but too bad, those are the breaks of history, no doubt he or his descendants have been amply compensated. Listen, because the state bulldozes my house claiming it needs the right of way for a new highway doesn't make it rational for me to whine and stomp and randomly murder people who drive by on that road 50 years later, no matter what elaborate types of BS I concoct to excuse it. To get back to the point, the sad fact is that the Arabs failed to distinguish themselves when their brothers the Jews needed their help and hospitality, and that the Arabs today fail to distinguish themselves either, losing rather convincingly any claim they might have on our sympathy. And when I say "Arab" I mean of course the state and the state actors, not necessarily the nice person who might welcome you in and give you some mint tea ....

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