Israel’s Dirty War

Avi Shlaim

  • Israel’s Border Wars, 1949-56: Arab Infiltration, Israeli Retaliation and the Countdown to the Suez War by Benny Morris
    Oxford, 451 pp, £40.00, September 1993, ISBN 0 19 827850 0

Benny Morris is one of the most original and prolific contributors to the new or revisionist Israeli historiography of the Arab-Israeli conflict. What distinguishes the new historians most clearly from the traditionalists is that they are critical of the claims made by Israeli governments, claims which were turned into national myths and as such continue to influence popular attitudes to the Arabs even now.

So far the new historiography has focused mainly on the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and on the ‘missed opportunity’ for peace in its immediate aftermath. In two earlier works, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-9 and 1948 and After: Israel and the Palestinians, Morris drove a coach and horses through the official version, which denied any Israeli responsibility for the Palestinian exodus. Israel’s Border Wars is an impressive sequel bringing the story up to the 1956 Suez War. It is an account of Israel’s dirty war, directed largely against civilians, many of whom were refugees from the 1948 conflict.

Almost as soon as the guns fell silent and armistice agreements were concluded between Israel and her neighbours in 1949, voices began to be heard in the Arab world calling for a second round against the newly-born Jewish state. Faint echoes of these voices were also heard on the Israeli side of the divide. Some generals, notably Moshe Dayan, were dissatisfied with the outcome of the first round and they too advocated a second – to crush the Arab armies and ‘rectify’ Israel’s borders. After he became Chief of Staff in December 1953, Dayan actively, deliberately and deviously pushed for war. For nearly three years he was eager for another go at the Arabs. The long-awaited second round broke out in October 1956. It was initiated not by the Arabs but by Israel, in collusion with Britain and France, against Egypt, now the standard bearer of radical Arab nationalism.

The period 1949-56 may be seen simply as an interval between the first and second rounds. But it was a critical phase in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, a period of increasing hostility leading to violence and then to full-scale war which set the pattern for decades to come. Israel’s Border Wars, as its subtitle indicates, is a study of Arab infiltration into Israel across the armistice lines, of Israeli military retaliation, and of the preamble to the Suez War. As in his previous books, Morris subjects the official versions of events, Arab as well as Israeli, to the most exacting historical scrutiny: important elements of the official versions, especially the Israeli one, do not survive. A fuller, more nuanced and more convincing picture emerges from this book than from any previous account of the endless chain of action and reaction which culminated in the tripartite attack on Egypt in 1956.

The conventional (Israeli) view is that Palestinian infiltration into Israel was aided and abetted by the Arab governments following the defeat of their regular armies on the battlefield; that it was a form of undeclared guerrilla warfare designed to weaken and even destroy the infant Jewish state; that Israel was thus the innocent victim of Arab provocation and Arab aggression; and that its military reprisals were legitimately undertaken in self-defence.

The evidence gleaned by Morris from Israeli, British, American and UN archives – Arab governments do not, as a rule, open their archives to research – suggests that infiltration into Israel was a direct consequence of the displacement and dispossession of over 700,000 Palestinians in the course of the Palestine War and that the motives behind it were largely economic and social rather than political. Many of the infiltrators were Palestinian refugees whose reasons for crossing the border included looking for relatives, returning to their homes, recovering possessions, tending their fields, harvesting and, occasionally, exacting revenge. Some of the infiltrators were thieves and smugglers; some were involved in the hashish convoys; others were nomadic Bedouins, more accustomed to grazing rights than to state borders. There were acts of terror and politically-motivated raids, such as those organised by the ex-Mufti, Hajj Amin al Husayni, and financed by Saudi Arabia, but they did not amount to very much. In the period 1949-56 as a whole, 90 per cent or more of all infiltrations, in Morris’s estimate, were motivated by economic and social concerns.

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