The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities 
by Simha Flapan.
Croom Helm, 277 pp., £25, October 1987, 0 7099 4911 1
Show More
Collusion across the Jordan: King Abdullah, the Zionist Movement and the Partition of Palestine 
by Avi Shlaim.
Oxford, 676 pp., £35, May 1988, 0 19 827831 4
Show More
The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 
by Benny Morris.
Cambridge, 380 pp., £30, March 1988, 0 521 33028 9
Show More
Show More

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.

Flapan’s first target is the much-repeated claim mat Israel accepted the UN Partition Plan of 1947 in good faith. Politicians of all parties, he points out, regarded acceptance as a tactical move, ‘a springboard for expansion when circumstances proved more judicious’. Many years earlier, Chaim Weizmann had advised the Jews to accept a state ‘even if it were the size of a table-cloth ... C’est le premier pas qui compte!’ It was advice that Ben-Gurion carefully followed. Begin might rant in public about the illegality of partition but Ben-Gurion hid the same views behind a mask of moderation. As Flapan convincingly demonstrates, ‘the line from Ben-Gurion to Begin is direct’: both of them refused to share Palestine with the Palestinians. But Ben-Gurion was prepared to wait for ‘judicious circumstances’, and these, fortunately for him, occured sooner than expected. In March 1948, two months before the end of the British Mandate and the establishment of Israel, he revealed his real attitude towards the partition plan by approving proposals for conquering territory designated by the UN for the Arab state. Known as Plan Dalet, these were quickly put into operation, with the result that various Arab areas were captured and a large number of Palestinians turned into refugees before there was any question of intervention from the Arab states. Later in the year Ben-Gurion felt that circumstances were once again judicious and planned to capture the whole of Palestine, but his cabinet narrowly decided to leave the West Bank and Gaza for the time being.

Mr Flapan’s second target is ‘the myth of monolithic Palestinian extremism’, the claim that the Palestinians all rejected partition and clamoured for war. The author finds the evidence against this notion ‘so overwhelming’ that he is amazed it could have lasted for so long. The Mufti and his followers were certainly planning to fight, but the great mass of the population had no intention of joining them. The Palestinians did not welcome partition – how could they when it meant losing over half their country? – but most of them were resigned to it and were unwilling to contest the matter by force. Moreover, the Zionists knew all this and even Ben-Gurion admitted that ‘the decisive majority of them do not want to fight us.’ Evidence of the Arabs’ attitude was indeed overwhelming, attested by a great many non-aggression pacts between Arab villages and neighbouring Jewish settlements. Even the posturing Qawukji and his Arab Liberation Army received little support from the native population. The Palestinians were rightly suspicious of Qawukji, though they could not have known that, besides his incompetence as a leader, he was also a traitor who secretly encouraged Zionist troops to attack the Husseini forces and then stood by, quietly applauding the Arab defeat.

From the myth of Palestinian extremism, Mr Flapan turns to ‘the myth of united Arab intransigence against Israel’, the persistence of which he finds ‘quite amazing in view of the very rich literature – including a great deal of research by Israeli historians’ – which disproves it. Dr Shlaim’s conclusions fully support his argument: ‘The first and most important casualty’ of his research in the Israeli archives ‘is the view that from the moment of its birth, the State of Israel had to confront a monolithic Arab world that was implacable in its hostility and fanatical in its determination to wipe it off the Middle East map.’ As both men point out, opposition to Zionism was very often a secondary concern of Arab politicians in 1948. The principal aim for some was the defeat of the Mufti; for many others, the chief objective was to prevent King Abdullah from incorporating the Arab areas of Palestine into Transjordan. The idea of a co-ordinated attack by five Arab armies – Goliath and his hordes against little David – is fatuous. When Israel attacked Egyptian forces in September 1948, Abdullah hoped the Egyptians would lose: he believed that an Israeli victory would prevent the Arabs from challenging his right to the West Bank. In the weeks preceding the establishment of Israel, the Arab states hoped to avoid fighting the Zionists and made no military preparations. When forced by their own public opinion to do something for the Palestinians, they agreed, four days before their intervention, to discuss operations. The result was of course a fiasco: there was no attempt to co-ordinate tactics or even to exchange information. Nor did they have any idea about the size and capability of the enemy forces. A day or two before the ‘invasion’, Sir John Glubb informed Azzam Pasha, Secretary-General of the Arab League, that the Zionists had 65,000 trained men. Azzam was surprised by this but replied: ‘I expect it will be all right. I have arranged to get up seven hundred men from Libya.’ On being asked how they were to be armed, he replied: ‘I have sent a man to buy seven hundred rifles from Italy.’

One of the crucial factors determining Arab behaviour was the ambition of Glubb’s master, the King of Transjordan. Abdullah was a realistic, pragmatic man, scornful of those Arab politicians who waffled on about Palestinian rights without doing anything to protect them. He was also intensely ambitious, dissatisfied with the little kingdom Churchill had given him and determined to extend it. In addition, he was keen to revenge the humiliations suffered by his family in Arabia, where Ibn Saud had deposed his father, and in Syria, where the French had toppled his brother. For many years he had been plotting for the establishment of a Greater Syrian kingdom, including all or part of Palestine, to be ruled by himself. Twenty-five years of scheming, however, had achieved nothing before Britain’s decision to withdraw from Palestine gave him the opportunity to realise part of his ambition. To begin with, he hoped to include all of Palestine within his new monarchy, but when the Zionists rejected his offer of autonomy for the Jewish areas, he conspired for the partition of Palestine between a Jewish state and his Hashemite monarchy. To be successful, points out Dr Shlaim, he had to pursue three different and often conflicting policies: genuine collaboration with the British, genuine collaboration with the Zionists, and insincere and deceitful collaboration with the states of the Arab League.

The British regarded Abdullah as a good friend and a realistic man, the only Arab leader prepared to accept partition. They did not regard his solution as ideal but it seemed preferable to the alternative: unstable and uncompromising government by the Mufti in the three areas of Palestine allotted by the UN to the Arab state. Abdullah’s plan, in direct contravention of the General Assembly resolution, could not be backed openly, but it could – and was – encouraged discreetly by the British Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin. There is thus some justification for the Palestinians’ grievance against Britain’s behaviour at the end of the Mandate, though it can also be argued that Bevin was merely being realistic.

The Zionist grievance, however – so bitter that Ben-Gurion once sought out Bevin’s burial place in England and stamped on his grave – turns out to be entirely unjustified. Israel’s early leaders wholly misunderstood British policy in the period, and they have subsequently been copied by Zionist writers intent on fabricating conspiracy theories for political purposes. The allegations of Jon Kimche and others that the British were determined ‘to put no obstacles in the way of the Arabs driving the Jews into the sea’ prove to be, in Dr Shlaim’s words, ‘the exact opposite of the historical truth’. Bevin sanctioned the use of the Arab Legion in Palestine but warned Transjordan not to cross the borders of the Jewish state. His motives for retaining the Legion’s British officers at their posts were ‘the exact reverse’ of those ‘attributed to him by his Zionist and pro-Zionist opponents’: far from encouraging the Arabs to attack Israel and ‘drive the Jews into the sea’, his intention was to restrain the Transjordan troops and limit their role to the defence of the West Bank. The crucial figure in this policy was Glubb, who went out of his way to avoid clashes between the Israeli forces and the Arab Legion even in areas outside the borders of the Jewish state. Unfortunately, as Dr Shlaim points out, ‘there was no parallel restraint on the Israeli side,’ and Glubb was forced into defensive battles at Latrun and Jerusalem. Yet in spite of repeated provocation, he did not retaliate and his behaviour at no stage justified the Zionist vilification directed then and subsequently at Britain. Summing up British policy during this period, Dr Shlaim stresses that ‘Britain had no intention of preventing the birth of a Jewish state. Thus Bevin, who is usually portrayed in Zionist accounts of this period as the great ogre who unleashed the Arab armies to strangle the Jewish state at birth, emerges from the documents as the guardian angel of the infant state. It was not encouragement to do battle that Bevin conveyed to Abdullah through his prime minister but a clear warning not to cross the borders of the Jewish state as laid down in the United Nations Partition Plan.’

The Zionist writers who propagated the legend of British hostility were often those who also cultivated myths about the Palestinian refugees. Mr Kimche once claimed that there was ‘a mountain of independent evidence to show that the initiative for the Arab exodus came from the Arab side and not from the Jews’: when he was challenged to display this mountain, it mysteriously vanished. Investigating the myth of a voluntary Palestinian exodus, Mr Flapan found its perseverance ‘astounding’. Not only have the Zionist archives produced ‘no evidence to support Israeli claims’: they also show that the Arab leadership made considerable efforts to prevent the refugees from leaving. Dr Morris has now gone through the available documents in Israel and produced a major study, authoritative and unemotional, of the matter. The exodus, which began in December 1947 and was not completed until the summer of 1949, is analysed stage by stage and data about individual towns and villages are assembled to construct an impartial history of the events. The resulting picture is naturally more confusing than propagandists on both sides have claimed, and shows that it was often a combination of reasons which forced the Arabs to flee. Many left following expulsion orders, a massacre or a bomb attack in their area; others fled as a result of psychological warfare, the approach of Zionist troops or demoralisation on hearing about the fall of a neighbouring town. A village’s fate might depend on very different factors such as its geographical location, the religion of its inhabitants (Muslims were more likely to be expelled than Druzes or Christians) or the character of the commander who captured it. If they had the ill luck to encounter Allon, later to become Israel’s foreign minister, the villagers had no chance.

Dr Morris shows that the Arab case, though substantially accurate, is over-simplified. Zionists from Herzl onwards had considered ways of ‘spiriting’ the Arabs out of Palestine, but there was no general plan for their expulsion in 1948. Plan Dalet recommended the depopulation and destruction of Arab villages in certain areas, but its purpose was military rather than political. Yet even if Ben-Gurion and his ministers gave no written orders, the local commanders soon ‘understood’ that expulsion was what their leaders wanted. Ben-Gurion told his colleagues that he wanted the Arabs to flee, but he did not wish to be known as the ‘great expeller’ and therefore he avoided giving explicit orders. Sometimes, however, if the expulsion was on a particularly large scale, the commanders did ask for guidance and even Allon felt he needed authorisation for evicting 50,000 people from the towns of Lydda and Ramleh. Dr Morris describes a meeting between Ben-Gurion and several officers on 12 July in the course of which

someone, possibly Allon, after hearing of the start of the shooting in Lydda, proposed expelling the inhabitants of the two towns. Ben-Gurion said nothing, and no decision was taken. Then Ben-Gurion, Allon and Rabin left the room. Allon asked: ‘What shall we do with the Arabs?’ Ben-Gurion made a dismissive, energetic gesture with his hand and said: ‘Expel them’ [garesh otam].

In many villages there was no need for expulsion because a massacre nearby had created panic and precipitated the flight of the inhabitants. The atrocity at Deir Yassin, in which 250 villagers were butchered by the Irgun and the Stern Gang, is only the most notorious of a series of massacres carried out in villages in different parts of Palestine. Israel Galili, leader of MAPAM, gave details of some of these at a meeting of his party’s political committee: ‘Fifty-two men tied with a rope and dropped into a well and shot [in Saf-saf] ... mass murder [in Sa’sa] ... 94 ... blown up with a house [in Saliha]’. All these massacres, Dr Morris points out, ‘served to precipitate and enhance Arab flight. Some of the atrocities, as in Eilabun and Sa’sa, were bound up with, and were part of, expulsions’.

Some Zionist leaders were upset by these incidents and the policy of expulsion. After learning of another horrific massacre (perhaps Duwayma), the minister of agriculture admitted that he ‘couldn’t sleep all night ... This is something that determines the character of a nation ... Jews too have committed Nazi acts.’ But little was done to halt or even discourage them. On receiving a letter complaining about these things, the Foreign Ministry’s senior adviser on Arab affairs answered: ‘If the commanders believe that by destruction, murder and human suffering they will reach their goal more quickly, I would not stand in their way.’ Protests about the expulsion policy, usually from the left-wing MAPAM party, were regarded by Ben-Gurion as hypocritical. It was all very well for these people to complain about the evictions but they were perfectly happy to settle on Arab lands after the owners had been driven out. Moreover, they often took part in the atrocities themselves. As Professor Shahak has angrily pointed out, there were many ‘horrifying massacres of Palestinians in the 1947-48 war, and most of the worst of them were committed by the Haganah, by the “socialist” Zionists who sang about “peace” and “fraternity of all workers” before and after the murders.’ Simha Flapan, who later became MAPAM’s national secretary, recognised the hypocrisy of his party members, particularly the generals who were among the most notorious expellers in the country. Moshe Carmel, whose orders to his battalion commanders on 19 May were ‘to attack in order to conquer, to kill among the men, to destroy and burn the villages of Al Kabri, Umm al Faraj and An Nahr’, was a member of MAPAM. So was Allon, who was personally responsible for depopulating parts of the south, the Galilee and the central plain: in each of his campaigns, notes Dr Morris, he ensured that the conquered areas became ‘Arab-clean’. Afterwards Allon himself described how he ‘cleansed’ the Galilee of Arabs, using the same verb three times in a short passage as if to suggest that the Palestinians, although its rightful owners, were somehow polluting their own land. Ben-Gurion was also fond of this word and told his cabinet he wanted Galilee to be naki (clean) and reik (empty) of Arabs. This is the language of apartheid and worse: the creation of ‘Arab-clean’ areas in 1948 is reminiscent of the creation of Judenrein areas a few years earlier.

After the Arabs had been cleansed from their land, their crops were reaped by their enemies and their fields and villages apportioned among the kibbutzim. ‘The concepts of “ours” and “not ours”,’ said Ben-Gurion, ‘are only concepts for peacetime, and during war they lose all their meaning.’ Half-hearted protests were dismissed. When some officials remarked that they were not living in the Middle Ages and the Army did not steal land, Ben-Gurion told them to divest themselves of ‘conventional notions’. He had decided on a policy of rigid intransigence towards the Palestinians: the refugees were neither to be allowed home nor to be compensated for what they had lost. If a peaceful solution became impossible as a result, that was too bad.

The final myth demolished in different ways in these three books is that ‘Israel’s hand has always been extended in peace’ and has encountered only rejection on the Arab side. In the aftermath of the 1948 war each of the Arab states showed it was prepared to make concessions for peace whereas Israel refused to compromise on either territory or the refugees. Dr Shlaim shows in particular how Abdullah made every effort to come to terms and how the Israeli negotiators rebuffed him by making impossible demands. Once, in December 1949, the King did come to an agreement but ‘before the ink was dry on the document that gave rise to so much hope, the Israelis began to renege on their promises ... An offer presented as proof of Israel’s good faith was virtually overnight turned into a demonstration of bad faith.’ Dr Shlaim concludes ‘that in 1949 the Arabs did recognise Israel’s right to exist, that they were willing to meet face to face to negotiate peace, that they had their conditions for making peace with Israel, and Israel rejected those conditions because they were incompatible not with her survival as an independent state but with her determination to keep all the territory she had and to resist the repatriation of the refugees.’ Simha Flapan concludes his argument in similar terms and adds: ‘The refusal to recognise the Palestinians’ right to self-determination and statehood proved over the years to be the main source of the turbulence, violence and bloodshed that came to pass.’

In the end, one puts down these books with admiration for the work and integrity of their Israeli authors and astonishment at the power of propaganda. Forty years are a long time for the survival of myths which countless witnesses knew were untrue: Stalin’s purges were rumbled long before then, and so were Franco’s claims about Guernica. Israeli leaders no doubt cling to these legends because so many of them (including three of the last four prime ministers) actually carried out the massacres and expulsions of forty years ago. And they have nurtured a public relations machine capable of prolonging these deceptions in the minds of the people who matter to them – the Americans.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences