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It can be doneAvi Shlaim
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Vol. 16 No. 11 · 9 June 1994

It can be done

Avi Shlaim

2711 words
Expulsion of the Palestinians: The Concept of ‘Transfer’ in Zionist Political Thought, 1882-1948 
by Nur Masalha.
Tauris/IPS, 235 pp., £19.95, May 1994, 0 88728 235 0
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The Making of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1947-1951 
by Ilan Pappé.
Tauris, 324 pp., £39.50, June 1992, 1 85043 357 7
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Of all Zionist slogans, the most persuasive has always been Israel Zangwill’s ‘a land without a people for a people without land’. Had this slogan been true, there would have been no conflict; the Jews could have peacefully realised their dream of statehood in their Biblical homeland. Unhappily, an Arab community had lived on the land for centuries and its refusal to share it with the Jewish immigrants from Europe spawned the conflict which reached its climax in 1948 with the creation of the State of Israel and the uprooting and dispersal of some 730,000 Palestinians.

The causes of the Palestinian exodus of 1948 have been hotly debated ever since. Arab spokesmen have consistently claimed that it was the result of a premeditated, pre-planned and ruthlessly executed Zionist policy of expulsion. Palestinian writers in particular have stressed the link between Zionist theory and Zionist practice, seeing the exodus of the indigenous population as the inevitable accompaniment the drive to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. Israeli spokesmen have maintained with equal consistency that the Palestinians were not pushed out but left of their own accord, in response to orders from their own leaders or Arab broadcasts and in the expectation of a triumphal return. This explanation absolved Israel of any responsibility for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem and underpinned its refusal to allow the refugees the right of return or even to offer compensation for the property they left behind. More recently, a group of revisionist Israeli historians, using official documents released under the Thirty-Year Rule, have challenged the standard Zionist version of the 1948 war in general and the origins of the Palestinian refugee problem in particular. The first and most comprehensive attack on the official version was published by Simha Flapan in The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities in 1988. The same year saw the publication of Benny Morris’s The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949. Morris describes the flight of the Palestinians wave after wave, town by town, and village by village. He gives numerous specific examples of psychological warfare, of intimidation, of expulsion by force and of atrocities committed by the armed forces of the infant Jewish state. But he found no evidence of a Jewish master plan or of a systematic policy dictated from above for the expulsion of the Palestinians. He therefore rejects both the Jewish robber state and the Arab order explanations. His much-quoted conclusion is that ‘the Palestinian refugee problem was born of war, not by design, Jewish or Arab’.

Some reviewers felt that the evidence presented by Benny Morris supports a somewhat different conclusion. While accepting that various causes contributed to the flight of the Palestinians, they think that the evidence points most directly to Jewish military pressure as by far the most important precipitant. One of the critics of Morris’s conclusion is Nur Masalha, an Israeli Arab and a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The subject of Masalha’s book, more accurately conveyed by the sub-title than by the title, is the concept of ‘transfer’ in the Zionist movement until the birth of the State of Israel. ‘Transfer’ is a euphemism for the expulsion or organised removal of the indigenous population of Palestine to the neighbouring Arab countries. In today’s world, the closest equivalent to ‘transfer’ is the ethnic cleansing practised by the Serbs in the former Yugoslavia. There are also of course extreme right-wing Israeli political parties, like Moledet, that openly advocate the mass expulsion of Palestinians.

The history of Zionism, from the earliest days to the present, is full of manifestations of deep hostility and contempt towards the indigenous population. On the other hand, there have always been brave and outspoken critics of these attitudes. Foremost among them was Ahad Ha’am (Asher Zvi Ginsberg), a liberal Russian Jewish thinker who visited Palestine in 1891 and published a series of articles that were sharply critical of the aggressive behaviour and political ethnocentrism of the Zionist settlers. They believed, wrote Ahad Ha’am, that ‘the only language that the Arabs understand is that of force’. And they ‘behave towards the Arabs with hostility and cruelty, trespass unjustly upon their boundaries, beat them shamefully without reason and even brag about it, and nobody stands to check this contemptible and dangerous tendency’. Little seems to have changed since Ahad Ha’am wrote these words a century ago.

That most Zionist leaders wanted the largest possible Jewish state in Palestine with as few Arabs inside it as possible is hardly open to question. As early as 1919, at the Paris Peace Conference, Chaim Weizmann called for a Palestine ‘as Jewish as England is English’. And Chaim Weizmann, the uncle of Israel’s current president, was one of the moderates. What Masalha sets out to do is to explore the link between the goal of Jewish statehood and the advocacy of transfer by the leaders of the Zionist movement. His aim is to demonstrate that Zionist thought was translated into action and culminated in the mass expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948. In short, he seeks to prove that the Palestinians did not leave Palestine of their own free will but were pushed out.

Masalha’s study is based on extensive research in Israeli state, party and private archives, supplemented by material from British and Arab sources. He makes very full use of the diaries and memoirs of prominent as well as obscure Zionist leaders from Theodor Herzl onwards. The notion of transfer, says Masalha, was born almost at the same time as political Zionism itself, with Herzl’s hope to ‘spirit the penniless population across the border’. Zangwill’s slogan about ‘a land without a people’ was useful for propaganda purposes, but from the outset the leaders of the Zionist movement realised that they could not achieve their aim without inducing, by one means or another, a large number of Arabs to leave Palestine. In their public utterances the Zionist leaders avoided as far as possible any mention of transfer, but in private discussions they could be brutally frank. So it is from private rather than public sources that Masalha draws the bulk of his incriminating evidence.

Masalha goes to some length to demonstrate that support for transfer was not confined to the extremists or maximalists but embraced almost every shade of Zionist opinion, from the Revisionist right to the Labour Left. Transfer, he argues, occupied a central position in the strategic thinking of the Jewish Agency as a solution to what was coyly referred to as the ‘Arab question’. Virtually every member of the Zionist pantheon advocated it in one form or another.

In 1930, against the background of disturbances in Palestine, Weizmann tentatively advanced the idea of an Arab transfer in private discussions with British officials, but met with no support for this idea. It was not until the British Government sent the Peel Commission in November 1936 to investigate the causes of unrest in Palestine that Weizmann and his colleagues began to lobby actively, but still discreetly, for a ‘voluntary’ transfer of displaced Arab farmers to Transjordan. The commission’s report was the first official endorsement of the principle of partition and the creation of a Jewish state. In this respect, it was a turning-point in the search for a solution to the conflict between the Arab and Jewish communities in Palestine. Weizmann and his colleagues welcomed the idea of partition but were deeply concerned about the prospect of a large Arab minority remaining inside the borders of the proposed Jewish state. From now on, Masalha observes, partition and transfer became closely linked in Zionist thinking.

David Ben-Gurion, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, was one of the earliest converts to the idea of transfer as the best way of dealing with the problem of an Arab minority. Masalha argues convincingly that around the time of the Peel Commission inquiry, a shift occurred in Ben-Gurion’s thinking, from the notion of a voluntary to that of a forcible transfer. While the ethics of transfer had never troubled Ben-Gurion unduly, the growing strength of the Jewish Agency eventually convinced him of its feasibility. On 12 July 1937, for instance, he confided to his diary: ‘The compulsory transfer of the Arabs from the valleys of the proposed Jewish state could give us something which we never had ... a Galilee free from Arab population ... We must uproot from our hearts the assumption that the thing is not possible. It can be done.’ The more he thought about it, the more convinced he became that ‘the thing’ not only could be done but had to be done. On 5 October 1937, he wrote to his son with startling candour: ‘We must expel Arabs and take their places ... and, if we have to use force – not to dispossess the Arabs of the Negev and Transjordan, but to guarantee our own right to settle in those places – then we have force at our disposal.’ The letter reveals not only the extent to which partition became associated in Ben Gurion’s mind with the expulsion of the Arabs from the Jewish state but also the nature and extent of his territorial expansionism. The letter implied that the area allocated for the Jewish state by the Peel Commission would later be expanded to include the Negev and Transjordan. Like Vladimir Jabotinsky, the founder and leader of Revisionist Zionism, Ben-Gurion was a territorial maximalist. Unlike Jabotinsky, he believed that the territorial aims of Zionism could best be advanced by means of a gradualist strategy.

When the UN voted in favour of the partition of Palestine on 29 November 1947, Ben-Gurion and his colleagues in the Jewish Agency accepted the plan despite deep misgivings at the prospect of having a substantial Arab minority, a fifth column as they saw it, in their midst. The Palestinians, on the other hand, rejected partition with some vehemence as illegal, immoral and impractical. By resorting to force to frustrate the UN plan, they presented Ben-Gurion with an opportunity, which he was not slow to exploit, for extending the borders of the proposed Jewish state and for reducing the number of Arabs inside it. By 7 November 1949, when the guns finally fell silent, 730,000 people – 80 per cent of the Arab population of Palestine – had become refugees.

For Masalha this mass exodus was not an accidental by-product of the war but the inevitable accompaniment of the birth of Israel: ‘the result of painstaking planning and an unswerving vision ... stated and restated with almost tedious repetitiveness for almost fifty years’. Chaim Weizmann, who became Israel’s first President, hailed the Arab evacuation as ‘a miraculous clearing of the land: the miraculous simplification of Israel’s task’. For Masalha it was less of a miracle than it was the result of over half a century of sustained effort and brute force.

The main strength of Masalha’s book derives from the new material he has unearthed about Zionist attitudes to transfer during the pre-1948 period. But he spoils a good case by over-stating it. In the first place, he focuses very narrowly on one aspect of Zionist thinking and neglects the broader political context in which this thinking crystallised. Secondly, he portrays the Zionist movement as monolithic and single-minded in its support for transfer, ignoring the reservations, the doubts, the internal debates and the opposition. Thirdly, he presents transfer as the cornerstone of Zionist strategy when it was in fact only one of the alternatives under consideration at various junctures in the conflict over Palestine. Fourthly, while sharply critical of the Zionist design and of the means by which it was achieved, he completely ignores the part played by the Palestinians themselves in the disaster that eventually overwhelmed them, or the part played by their leader, Hajj Amin al-Husayni, who had about as much political sense as the Good Soldier Schweik.

The end-result of Masalha’s selective use and tendentious interpretation of the evidence is an account which posits a straightforward Zionist policy of transfer and lays all the blame for the flight of the Palestinians in 1948 at the door of the wicked Zionists. If Benny Morris does not go as far in his critique of the Zionists as his evidence would seem to warrant, Nur Masalha goes way beyond what his evidence can sustain. If Morris carries his multi-phase and multi-cause explanation to the point of obscuring the primary responsibility of the Zionists for the displacement and dispossession of the Palestinians, Masalha ends up with a mono-causal explanation which absolves everybody other than the Zionists.

For a broader, more balanced and more searching analysis of the causes of the Jewish triumph and the Arab defeat in the struggle for Palestine, one must turn to Ilan Pappe’s recent book. Pappé is an Israeli academic from the University of Haifa who joined the ranks of the revisionists in 1988 with a highly original study of Britain and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1948-51. His second book is the product of five further years of research and reflection. Based on deep knowledge of the primary and secondary sources in English, Arabic and Hebrew, it provides a powerful synthesis of the revisionist literature on the causes and consequences of the first Arab-Israeli war.

Pappé sets out to investigate the way the two communities, the Jews and the Arabs of Palestine, prepared themselves for the trial of strength which was bound to occur sooner or later in the absence of a peaceful settlement. He is much more interested in the politics of the 1948 war than in its military aspects. Indeed, he believes that the outcome of the war had been determined by the politicians on both sides before the first shot was fired. Jewish success in building the infrastructure of a state and then in winning the diplomatic campaign, Pappé argues, decided the outcome of the war before the actual confrontation took place. The inadequacy of the Palestinian leadership and division within the ranks of the Arab League are presented as further reasons for the Arab defeat.

Pappé examines every claim and counterclaim against the available evidence and discards all those which fail to stand up to his critical scrutiny. On the question of whether the expulsion of the Palestinians was preplanned, for example, he is much closer in his views to the Palestinian historian Walid Khalidi than he is to his compatriot and co-revisionist Benny Morris. Morris regards Plan D, the Haganah plan of early March 1948 as a milltary plan for coping with the anticipated Arab invasion. Pappé agrees with Khalidi that Plan D was also, in many ways, a master plan for the expulsion of as many Palestinians as could be expelled. In the final analysis, he argues, if you have a plan to throw someone out of his house, and the person leaves before you carry out your plan, that does not in any way alter your original intention. For all the trouble he took to cover his traces. David Ben-Gurion emerges from Pappés book, as he does from the books by Morris and Masalha, as the great expeller of the Palestinians in 1948.

The failure of the parties to reach a settlement at the end of the war ensured the perpetuation of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Traditional Israeli historians explain this failure exclusively in terms of Arab intransigence; Pappé explains it essentially in terms of Israeli intransigence. He shows that at the conference convened at Lausanne in April 1949 by the Palestine Conciliation Commission, the Arabs were prepared to negotiate on the basis of the UN partition resolution which they had rejected 18 months before. Israel, however, insisted that a peace settlement should be based on the status quo without any redrawing of the borders or readmission of the Palestinian refugees. It was therefore Israeli rather than Arab inflexibility which stood in the way of a peaceful settlement.

Morris’s aim was to describe how and try to explain why so many Palestinians became refugees in 1948. Masalha set out to prove that the expulsion of the Palestinians was implicit in Zionist thinking from the very beginning. Pappés aim is neither to provide a narrative of events nor to buttress one national version against another, but to explore the dynamics of the conflict. In so doing, he has added significantly to our understanding of a formative period in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

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Vol. 17 No. 9 · 11 May 1995

Recent articles in the LRB by Ian Gilmour (LRB, 22 December 1994), Avi Shlaim (LRB, 9 June 1994) and Robert Fisk (LRB, 23 February) focus on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Unfortunately, several inaccuracies can be found in these articles. To mention two: Fisk quotes Lebanese sources as ‘acknowledging that, without Assad’s stewardship, their country would have been eaten up with unacceptable concessions by the peace process.’ Israel has repeatedly made it clear that she has no territorial claims on Lebanon and will withdraw her forces when the Lebanese Government disbands the terrorist organisations that pose a threat to Israel. What is so unacceptable about this? Fisk further claims that the Christian Lebanese militiamen who perpetrated the massacre of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut were sent by the Israelis. To the contrary, when it became apparent to Israeli commanders what was happening, they stopped the massacre, saving untold Palestinian lives. Palestinian propagandists turned the story around, blaming the Israelis.

My father, Arthur Ruppin, was a Zionist leader from 1907, when he came to Palestine as the representative of the Zionist Organisation. He founded Brit Shalom, a society to further peace between Jews and Arabs. The basis of Brit Shalom was that neither group should seek political dominance. Thus, each people would elect half the members of a common Parliament. Jewish and Arab immigration would continue, but not to the detriment or displacement of the existing population. Many, although not all, Zionist leaders agreed with these principles. No Arab leader ever did. Expulsion of Jews from Palestine was an integral part of Arab policy. The Palestinians, aided by armies from Egypt, Transjordan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, tried to expel the Jews in 1948. Expulsion still figures in the PLO charter, which notwithstanding Arafat’s obligation to abrogate it under the Oslo agreement, is still in force because a majority of the PLO’s leadership is not willing to part with the dream of evicting the Jews from Israel. Given the tension between Arabs and Jews before 1948, and the Arab desire to evict Jews from Israel, it is hardly surprising that similar dreams were evoked among some Jews for removal of the Arabs. Some translated these dreams into a plan modelled on the Graeco-Turkish population exchange after the Graeco-Turkish War in the early Twenties. The transfer idea was never adopted by the Zionist Organisation.

The contention that the Jewish leadership engineered the exodus of Palestinians in 1948 is quite ludicrous. After the UN Partition Resolution, the Palestinian Arabs perpetrated country-wide attacks upon Jews. Arab leaders decided to invade the Jewish state following the British withdrawal and promised the annihilation of Palestine’s Jewish population. Arabs living in predominantly Jewish areas were advised to leave their homes and move to Arab areas temporarily until the victorious Arab armies liquidated the Jews. The Jewish Agency tried to stem the exodus. I can attest to this from personal experience. I lived in the village of Michmoret in a predominantly Jewish area. Nearby was an Arab village, A-Nufiat, with which we had good relations. In April 1948 we were informed that the Arab villagers were preparing to flee. Following a Jewish Agency directive to counter the Arab exodus, I went to A-Nufiat to talk with the village head. He said they had been told to flee by an emissary of the Mufti, who warned that the Jews were planning to kill them. I reassured them that no Jew intended them harm. However, two weeks later they disappeared. One old man who stayed behind recounted that an emissary came to A-Nufiat and announced that by midnight the Jews would arrive slaughtering all the inhabitants. When the villagers repeated my assurances, the emissary retorted that this was a Jewish trick – to catch the unsuspecting. Had they heeded my advice, they would still be in their village.

In Robert Fisk’s article, the story recounted by Selma Tawil, who left her home in Haifa for Lebanon three months after the occupation of the city by Jewish forces in April 1948, is another example of misguided action. The story of the Arab exodus from Haifa, where the Jewish mayor begged the Arabs not to flee, is amply documented. Mrs Tawil obeyed the advice of the Arab leadership to leave, despite the fact that she had three months to see that no Arabs were harmed after the Jewish victory. Unfortunately she, like the villagers of A-Nufiat, was badly used by the Arab leadership, and they have paid dearly in consequence. Many Arabs did stay in their homes and villages, where they have lived peacefully to this day. Indeed, Arabs constitute almost 20 per cent of Israel’s current population.

Though the overwhelming majority of the Palestinian refugees left because of directives by the Arab leadership, some, during the 1948 war, were forcibly expelled. This occurred when the Arab population posed a strategic threat, as, for example, in Lydda and Ramla – two Arab towns on the road linking Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. These towns were taken by the Israeli Army and the towns’ leadership capitulated. A few hours later the townspeople opened fire on our forces, entailing a costly reconquest followed by the expulsion of most of the Arab population.

It is to the credit of the Israeli public that notwithstanding widespread Arab terrorism, the Kach Party – which advocates expulsion of Palestinians from Israel – got only about 1 per cent of the vote in the elections in 1984. The Party has since been outlawed. Contrary to Shlaim’s allegations, the political party Moledet does not advocate mass expulsion of Palestinians. ‘Transfer’ in Moledet’s definition is persuasion of Palestinians, by money and other positive inducements, to emigrate. The Israeli public has rejected transfer in any form. Moledet has never received more than 3 per cent of the vote.

Avi Shlaim, reviewing Benny Morris’s book on Israel’s Border Wars 1949-56, describes Arab refugees infiltrating into Israel ‘looking for relatives, returning to their homes, looking for their possessions, tending their fields’. He cites Morris as showing that ‘the governments of the neighbouring Arab states were opposed to the cross-border forays into Israel for most of the period under discussion.’ The Palestinian exodus took place in 1948. Armistice agreements were signed in 1949, forbidding cross-border incursions. Heavy Arab infiltration started in the early Fifties when there were no possessions left to retrieve. At first the infiltrators concentrated on theft of Jewish property – mainly livestock and farming equipment. Afterwards came sabotage, then murder.

Arab states, except Lebanon, never opposed infiltration into Israel, though they tried to document opposition to avoid accusations of breaking the armistice agreement. Later they (predominantly Egypt) aided infiltrators. Israel’s border contains no natural impediments to infiltration. To protect its citizens, the Israeli Government retaliated. At first, retaliatory raids moved Nasser to intensify feyadeen activity. Only after Suez, Israel’s biggest retaliatory act, did Nasser change course, and infiltration stopped. Similarly, retaliatory raids stopped terrorist infiltration from Jordan. To call Israel’s only possible line of defence ‘dirty’ is mere name-calling.

Ian Gilmour, Robert Fisk and Edward Said (LRB, 20 October 1994) criticise the Oslo agreement, which is described as badly negotiated, humiliating and unfavourable. Israel is accused of delaying and not implementing its commitments to the Palestinians.

The basis of the Oslo agreement is the ending of terrorism, to be replaced by co-operation and reconciliation. Arafat and his PLO have failed completely in this basic aspect. Arab terrorism has increased since Oslo. Gaza and Jericho have become safe havens for terrorists, murderers and thieves. The PLO police does little to apprehend these criminals. Indeed, many of the cars used by the Palestinian police have been stolen in Israel. Hate propaganda continues under the guise of freedom of speech. The Palestinian Autonomy teems with armed gangs belonging to organisations rejecting the notion of peace. Arafat does little to curb their activities. When suicide bombers exploded buses in Hadera, Afula, Tel Aviv and Netanya, Gazans danced in the streets. Arafat only accused television crews of misleading the public. In his speeches he has compared the current agreements to Mohammed’s agreement with the Kureish Tribe. Mohammed signed a peace treaty with the Kureish only later to turn on them and slaughter them all. The Oslo agreement was a test of Palestinian resolve to turn a new page in their relationship with their Jewish neighbours. They failed in that test. The Israeli Government, mindful of the security of Israel’s population, cannot be expected to withdraw from other Arab regions, creating new safe havens for terrorists. Recently, under intense Israeli pressure, Arafat took steps to curb terrorist activity based on Gaza, but his effort fell short of disarming the out-spoken terrorist movements Hamas and Islamic Jihad and has so far produced no tangible results.

Gilmour quotes Shlaim accusing Israel of being responsible for Arab violence by insisting on the continuation and increase of the settlements. But Palestinian terrorism did not abate even during the first days following Oslo. Hamas and Islamic Jihad declare that their aim is to scuttle the peace process and continue their war against Israel’s very existence. For them there is no difference between a West Bank settlement and Tel Aviv. Said’s accusation that ‘the Israelis deliberately destroyed the infrastructure’ of the occupied territories is far from the truth. Israel invested much more than any previous occupying power in infrastructure and economic development. Income per capita has risen dramatically, and were it not for Palestinian violence, would have risen further. Reporting on Hebron, Said criticises the security measures enforced on visitors to the Hebron mosque. The arrangement, designed to allow both Jews and Muslims to pray at the site, he describes as ‘one monotheistic faith intruding itself on the religious practices of another’. He forgets that this ‘mosque’ is a converted synagogue, built by King Herod over the tomb of the Patriarchs, only one of whom (Abraham) is claimed by the Arabs as their ancestor. He also forgets to mention that this site, holy to the Jews, was closed to them from the Arab conquest in the seventh century to 1967, when the IDF occupied Hebron. Said also mentions the existence of a ‘small rabbinical school located at the back of the mosque that had been unused for generations’. He fails to mention that the rabbinical school was used until 1929, when the Arabs in Hebron massacred the Jewish community that had lived in the city for centuries. In all, it would seem that the monotheistic faith intruding itself on the practices of another was Islam.

All the above-mentioned authors are clearly opposed to the current peace process but fail to propose a realistic alternative. Fisk, for example, berates the Israelis and others for their changed attitudes toward Arafat after the Oslo agreement. Arafat’s sins have not been forgotten. But he is the only recognised Palestinian leader who has been willing to work for peace, however flawed. This is something that calls for a changed attitude. The Oslo agreement is depicted as unjust because many difficult issues (settlements, the status of Jerusalem, the status of refugees) were postponed to a later stage in the negotiations. It was not unreasonably hoped that solution of these issues would be easier after an interval of peaceful relations.

The Palestinians seem to have forgotten that their real weapons in the conflict with Israel are peace, friendship and reconciliation. Pressure on Israel does not work and usually backfires. The Palestinians would be well advised if, instead of blaming Israel for their every misfortune, they were to concentrate their efforts on constructively tackling their problems, and building positive bridges with the Israelis. This will be the only route to achieving their goals of prosperity, independence and dignity.

Rafael Ruppin
Michmoret, Israel

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