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.