It can be done

Avi Shlaim

  • 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, ISBN 0 88728 235 0
  • The Making of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1947-1951 by Ilan Pappé
    Tauris, 324 pp, £39.50, June 1992, ISBN 1 85043 357 7

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.

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