‘It was necessary to uproot them’

Charles Glass

  • A History of Modern Palestine: One Land, Two Peoples by Ilan Pappe
    Cambridge, 333 pp, £15.99, January 2004, ISBN 0 521 55632 5
  • The Gun and the Olive Branch by David Hirst
    Faber, 624 pp, £16.99, August 2003, ISBN 0 571 21945 4
  • The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited by Benny Morris
    Cambridge, 664 pp, £70.00, January 2004, ISBN 0 521 81120 1

Albert Aghazarian is a Palestinian, neither Arab nor Israeli, who lives in the eastern portion of Jerusalem annexed by Israel in 1967. His house stands within two sets of walls, those of the ancient Armenian convent of St James and, beyond them, the Turkish walls of Jerusalem’s old city. The convent is a haven, in the same sense Israel calls itself a haven, in which descendants of Armenians who escaped Turkey’s First World War massacres still live. When he was director of the public relations office at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank, Aghazarian was often called on to mediate between the university and the Israeli military authorities. His Hebrew is fluent, as are his Arabic, Armenian and English. At the ulpan, or Hebrew language school, his favourite expression was Ze lo col khakh pashut: ‘It’s not as simple as that.’

Simplicity and partisanship are hard to resist in Israeli/Palestinian historiography. Neither the Zionist project to conquer the land and fill it with settlers nor the ineffective resistance of the natives has ended. Meanwhile, Israeli historians have moved beyond the myths in which the country’s first chroniclers dressed the early state. The ‘new’ or post-Zionist historians emerged in the aftermath of two significant events in Israel, the conquest of the remainder of British Mandate Palestine in 1967 and, ten years later, the election for the first time of the right-wing Likud coalition under Menachem Begin. The colonisation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967 led many who witnessed its brutality to explore the events that preceded it. They came to disparage the notion that 1967 had transformed an ideal state into a violent expansionist power, concluding instead that Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories were consistent with the historical record. Perhaps more important, using the model of Britain’s 30-year rule, Likud began in 1978 to declassify archives that the Labour Party had kept secret during its uninterrupted period in power from 1948. The Labour patriarch David Ben-Gurion had called Begin a ‘Jewish Hitler’. Begin, a zealot but a legalist, had called Ben-Gurion’s extension of the repressive British Defence Regulations, although enforced mainly against Israel’s Arabs, ‘Nazi laws’ and vowed to resist them. Political argument had raged from Zionism’s earliest days between the socialist Zionists, including Ben-Gurion and those to his left, and the rightist Revisionists, led by Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky and his disciple Begin. This later took the form of a dispute between the Haganah, the official Zionist army that became the Israel Defence Forces, and the Jewish underground – Begin’s Irgun and the Stern Gang – over who was responsible for the ‘excesses’ of 1948, including the most famous ‘excess’, in Deir Yassin, the small Arab village near Jerusalem.

The four hundred Arab inhabitants of Deir Yassin had good relations with their Jewish neighbours and kept Arab irregular forces out of the village. On 9 April 1948, little more than a month before Israel’s declaration of statehood, there was a raid on the village by the Stern Gang and Irgun. Two days later the chief Red Cross delegate, Jacques de Reynier, visited. ‘There had been 400 people in this village,’ he wrote. ‘About fifty of them had escaped, and were still alive. All the rest had been deliberately massacred in cold blood, for, as I had observed for myself, this gang was admirably disciplined and only acted under orders.’ Most of those who didn’t escape were mutilated and dumped in the village well, and a handful were dragged alive through Jewish Jerusalem to be spat on by crowds of onlookers. Both sides publicised the massacre: the Arabs to denounce Zionist cruelty and to demonstrate that collaboration was no guarantee of safety; the Zionists to encourage other Arabs to abandon their lands and avoid a similar fate. ‘In this way,’ de Reynier continued, ‘a general terror was built up among the Arabs, a terror astutely fostered by the Jews. On both sides, it was made into a political argument, and the results were tragic. Driven by fear, the Arabs left their homes to find shelter among their kindred.’ This much has never been disputed, but two issues remained contentious: the involvement of the Haganah and whether Deir Yassin was the exception or the rule.

In one of the standard (and interesting) Labour Zionist histories, Seven Fallen Pillars: The Middle East 1915-50 (1950), Jon Kimche wrote of Irgun and the Stern Gang that ‘nothing they have said has explained, or can explain away, the murder of some 250 innocent Arabs, among them more than a hundred women and children’ at Deir Yassin. But Kimche, in common with other Israeli historians of his time, exonerated the mainstream Zionist leadership from involvement in a war crime that contributed, according to the Irgun leader Menachem Begin in The Revolt (1964), to the fortuitous departure of Arabs from the country. Begin maintained that the Haganah was aware of his intentions at Deir Yassin and contributed a unit of elite Palmach troops. Kimche wrote that ‘the terrorists’, by which he meant Irgun and the Stern Gang, claimed the credit for forcing both the British and the Arabs out of Palestine. Reports of the massacre and Irgun’s claim to have more men under arms than the Haganah reached the Arab states, and apparently influenced their decision to invade a month later. Kimche wrote that this

swayed many who had been hesitating on the brink of decision, whether to flout the United Nations and go to war against the Palestine Zionists or not. For though it has become a habit among Israelis and pro-Zionists to assume that there was nothing but evil hatred behind the Arab decision to go to war against Israel, and that the Arab explanation that they came to save their brethren from attack by the terrorists was a cheap excuse for the benefit of those who care to believe it, it must be stressed that there was great and very real Arab concern for the fate of the Palestine Arabs.

Kimche, in other words, blames the Arab invasions on Begin and company. Their interventions, ostensibly to save Palestine’s Arabs from expulsion, were in large measure attempts to grab pieces of Palestine for themselves: Egypt kept the Gaza Strip; and as Avi Shlaim tells us in Collusion across the Jordan (1988), by tacit agreement with the Zionist leadership, King Abdullah of Jordan held onto the West Bank. Not only did the Arab armies fail to save Palestine’s Arabs; the invasion became a pretext for their removal and the excuse for Israel to bar their return. It was an article of faith in early Zionist state histories that the Palestinian Arabs left because Arab armies broadcast appeals to them to flee the battlefield. In fact, as Ilan Pappe writes in A History of Modern Palestine, a third of Palestine’s Arabs had been evicted before the Arab states invaded in May 1948. Abba Eban, Israel’s representative at the UN, nonetheless told the General Assembly in 1957 that ‘the responsibility of the Arab governments is threefold. Theirs is the initiative for its creation. Theirs is the onus for its endurance. Above all – theirs is the capacity for its solution.’ It was not a post-Zionist historian, but an Irish diplomat, Erskine Childers, who examined all the Arab broadcasts transcribed by the BBC and a US monitoring unit in 1948 – transcripts held in the British Museum – and published his findings in the Spectator of 12 May 1961: ‘There was not a single order, or appeal, or suggestion about evacuation from Palestine from any Arab radio station, inside or outside Palestine, in 1948. There is repeated monitored record of Arab appeals, even flat orders, to the civilians of Palestine to stay put.’ Childers noted that al-Inqaz radio threatened punishment for any Palestinian ‘cowards’ who left their homes. The Arab radio canard, although occasionally repeated in propaganda pamphlets, is no longer part of the scholarship.

After the fall of Deir Yassin, Irgun and the Stern Gang ransacked Jaffa. ‘For the first time in the still undeclared war,’ Kimche wrote, ‘a Jewish force commenced to loot in wholesale fashion . . . What could not be taken away was smashed. Windows, pianos, fittings and lamps went in an orgy of destruction.’ No school history textbooks in Israel mention these episodes; even Kimche is unwilling to see them as part of a pattern. In his traditional Zionist interpretation, Jaffa is a deviation from Israel’s ‘purity of arms’; and its perpetrators were the outcasts of the revisionist right.

It is not as simple as that. ‘A few days after the capture of Jaffa,’ Tom Segev writes in 1949: The First Israelis (1985),

Giora Yoseftal, Chief of the Jewish Agency’s Department of Immigrant Absorption, went to see how many new immigrants could be settled in the town. Many of the streets were empty when he arrived, the houses abandoned and the shops boarded up. The smell of war was still in the air as well as the residual odours of the life that had existed there earlier. Yoseftal, a tall yekkeh (German Jew), proper and very thorough, took care to obtain the documentation showing that he was acting in accordance with official policy. The documents included one from the Custodian [of Abandoned Property] and one from Ben-Gurion himself, confirming that Jaffa was intended for the settlement of new immigrants. ‘Jaffa will be a Jewish city,’ wrote Ben-Gurion in his diary. ‘War is war.’

Declassified papers of the Haganah, which established a Committee for Arab Property, and of the Custodian of Abandoned Property make it clear that looting became institutionalised. Trucks delivered looted furniture and clothing from Ramle, Lydda, Haifa and Jaffa to Haganah warehouses. Segev quotes the Custodian, Dov Shafrir, on the rules governing the distribution of Arabs’ household belongings: ‘The army had the first choice of any goods and materials it might require. Next were the government offices, the war disabled, the Jewish Agency, the local authorities and public bodies, such as Hadassah.’ Tractors taken from Arab farmers in Beersheba went to kibbutzim in the Negev Desert. Palestinian deposits were seized from banks, including £1.5 billion belonging to Arabs in Haifa. Private contractors, Segev explains, ‘agreed to remove the goods to the warehouses of the Custodian of Abandoned Property, as required by law. In return, they were entitled to claim 30 per cent of the value of the goods as a reward for handing in abandoned property.’ The movable property was not restored to its owners, neither those in refugee camps over the borders nor the thousands within Israel that the law defined, with Orwellian precision, as ‘present-absentees’.

On clear days Pappe often asks his students at Haifa University ‘to associate the view from the window with history. Palestinian students will describe a town that was once a flourishing Palestinian city but was then emptied and destroyed by the Jews in 1948; Jewish students will see a flourishing town built where emptiness and destruction once reigned.’ Pappe is after a ‘common narrative’ for the two peoples who dwell in one land. ‘This history,’ he writes, ‘seeks to combine the narratives of the exploiters with those of the exploited, the invaders with the invaded, and the oppressors with the oppressed.’ The difficulty of reconciling rival historical accounts of a conflict diminishes, in Pappe’s view, when conflict is allowed to make room for other aspects of history. Native Arabs and immigrant Jews lived together, first under the Turks, then the British and from 1948 within Israel or the Occupied Territories. They sometimes ignored one another, though frequently they fought and often they mixed. They formed businesses together – there were 1400 partnerships on ‘an Inter-Racial Basis’ under British rule from 1917 to 1948 – and Arab and Jewish workers came out on strike together. Elites on both sides resisted integration. Pappe reminds us that David Hacohen, the Histadrut labour federation chief in Haifa, warned that ‘railway workers forget that the mission of the Hebrew workers, who are part of the movement for settling Palestine, is not to be bothered by mutual assistance to Arab workers but to assist in the fortification of the Zionist project on the land.’ Palestine’s Arab aristocracy was especially careful to resist the influence of ‘Jewish communists’ on Arab peasants and labourers. Despite the objections of Muslim and Jewish religious hierarchs, there was some intermarriage. Among the dead in the Palestinian refugee camps at Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon in 1982 were Jewish wives who had fled Palestine with their Palestinian Arab husbands. Their lives are as much a part of the history of Palestine/ Israel as the military dynamism of Ariel Sharon, who oversaw those massacres.

Post-Zionist historians have transformed what was a dispute between Arabs and Israelis over what happened (and is happening) between them into what Meyrav Wurmser, a hostile Israeli critic of the post-Zionists, describes in an essay entitled ‘Can Israel Survive Post-Zionism?’ as ‘a cultural civil war in which one side would like to see their country continue to exist as a Jewish state and the other believes that Zionism, the founding idea of the state, has reached its end.’ Wurmser is not alone in condemning the post-Zionists as anti-Zionists and, in some cases, anti-Jewish. Her essay does not attack their scholarship – she never mentions it – so much as their influence: ‘Their intention is wholly negative; not to improve Zionism but to destroy it.’ Some Israeli commentators denounce the new historians as ‘ocher Yisrael’, ‘anti-Israel’ or ‘Israel-hating’, just as King Ahab called the Prophet Elijah ‘ocher Yisrael’ – the only time the term is used in the Bible. Elijah had condemned Ahab for murdering Naboth, although he did it in accordance with the law, and seizing his vineyards. Their critics pay the post-Zionist historians an unintended compliment by placing them in the prophetic tradition.

It may not matter much to Palestinian Arabs that historians on the other side finally understand their case, but believers in founding myths always resist the use of their own archives as evidence that their forebears committed crimes. There is little in the post-Zionist canon that adds to the narrative told by Palestinians themselves. The difference is that no one, outside the Arab and Muslim worlds, listens to Palestinian historians. But when Israeli historians, armed with Zionism’s own documents, tell a different story from Abba Eban’s at the UN or Moshe Dayan’s on his American fund-raising tours, people listen. One post-Zionist historian, Benny Morris, has taken the argument a step further: yes, he says, Ben-Gurion and the Haganah had a hand in expelling Arabs; but, no, there was nothing wrong with this. Morris told the Haaretz journalist Ari Shavit in a remarkable interview reprinted in New Left Review (March-April 2004), that the ethnic expulsion of 1948 should have been completed.

The first edition of David Hirst’s The Gun and the Olive Branch appeared in 1977, before Israel opened its archives. Hirst, a resident of Beirut since the 1960s and a long-time Guardian correspondent, shattered the Labour Zionist narrative and his book was ignored by American reviewers. I.F. Stone, one of the few Americans to mention it in print, said in his Weekly: ‘Finding an American publishing house willing to publish ” a book which departs from the standard Israeli line is about as easy as selling a thoughtful exposition of atheism to the Osservatore Romano in Vatican City.’ In a 128-page foreword that brings the story up to date, Hirst claims ‘to demonstrate that the greatest act of violence in the history of the Arab-Israeli struggle – Israel’s "War of Independence” – was in reality a massive act of ethnic cleansing on which the Zionists had been resolved, and girding for, ever since they set foot in Palestine.’ He pays tribute to Pappe and other Israeli historians, and there’s no doubt that the post-Zionists have helped to legitimise, at least in the United States as well as among some sectors in Israel, work that he and many Palestinians, including Walid Khalidi, had already done.

Hirst cannot be dismissed as a propagandist for the Arabs, whose leaders he treats with the same disdain as he does the Israelis’. Neither leadership confronted its people with the reality that the other side would not disappear. Neither warned, as Rabbi Judah Magnes, the president of the Hebrew University, did in 1947, that if they were set on war, it would be perpetual. Hirst exposes the cynical policies of Anwar Sadat, Arafat and other Arab leaders, along with ‘the moral and political bankruptcy of the whole existing Arab order’. Palestinian histories in the future will have to grapple with the unpleasant facts that Palestinians sold land knowing that Arab tenants were certain to be evicted; that Arab gangs joined the looting in 1948; that Palestinian contractors (including a current cabinet member of Arafat’s Palestine Authority) now help to build exclusively Jewish settlements on confiscated Arab land in the West Bank and Gaza; that Arab merchants supply much of the stone and marble for these settlements; that Arab labourers have helped to build almost all of them; that Palestinian collaborators probably outnumber resistance fighters; and that suicide bombers, however brave they may seem to a desperate people, have not regained one inch of Palestine.

At the end of The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem 1947-49 (1987), Benny Morris argued that

what happened in Palestine/Israel over 1947-49 was so complex and varied, the situation radically changing from date to date and place to place, that a single-cause explanation of the exodus from most sites is untenable. At most, one can say that certain causes were important in certain areas at certain times, with a general shift in the spring of 1948 from the precedence of cumulative Arab factors – lack of leadership, economic problems, breakdown of law and order – to a primacy of external, compulsive causes: Haganah/IDF attacks and expulsions, fear of Jewish attacks and atrocities, lack of help from the Arab world and AHD [Arab Higher Committee] and a feeling of impotence and abandonment, orders from Arab institutions and commanders to leave. In general, in most cases the final and decisive precipitant to flight was Haganah, IZL [Irgun], LHI [Stern] or IDF attack or the inhabitants’ fear of such attack.

That the ‘Haganah attacks and expulsions’ and ‘fear of Jewish attacks and atrocities’ were not countered with ‘help from the Arab world’ does not absolve the Haganah of the charge that it drove the Arabs out. Morris, who has updated his book with more documents, told Haaretz, ‘What the new material shows is that there were far more Israeli acts of massacre than I had previously thought. To my surprise, there were also many cases of rape. In the months of April-May 1948, units of the Haganah were given operational orders that stated explicitly that they were to uproot the villagers, expel them and destroy the villages themselves.’

Morris distances himself from Pappe and other post-Zionist historians such as Segev and Avi Shlaim in maintaining that ‘there are circumstances in history that justify ethnic cleansing.’ He is a kibbutz-raised sabra who refused to do military service in the Occupied Territories in 1988; even so, he believes that ‘a Jewish state would not have come into being without the uprooting of 700,000 Palestinians. Therefore, it was necessary to uproot them.’ His only criticism of Ben-Gurion is that he ‘got cold feet’ and let more than 150,000 Arabs remain inside Israel’s borders. ‘If he had carried out a full expulsion – rather than a partial one,’ Morris says, ‘he would have stabilised the state of Israel for generations.’

Declassified Zionist and Israeli documents, including those that Morris discovered, reinforce what the Arabs have been writing and saying all along. Nur Masalha, a Palestinian historian born in Galilee in 1957 who has taught at both the Hebrew University and Bir Zeit, makes the case in two fascinating works, Expulsion of the Palestinians: The Concept of ‘Transfer’ in Zionist Political Thought 1882-1948 (1992) and A Land without a People: Israel, Transfer and the Palestinians 1949-96 (1997), that moving the Arabs out of Palestine lay deep within Zionist thinking and, from 1948, motivated policy – both military and economic. In public statements to the Arabs, the British and later the UN, Zionist leaders protested that they had no intention of driving out indigenous Arabs. Theodore Herzl said as much in 1899, in a letter to Yusuf Zia al-Khalidi, a prescient Jerusalem notable. The minutes of Jewish Agency meetings, however, are full of proposals for the ‘transfer’ of the native population to other countries in order to make the land available to Jewish settlers and create a Jewish majority. The term used for ‘transfer’ then, as now, was the Hebrew word tihur, which is closer in meaning to ‘purification’ or ‘cleansing’ of the land.

Zionism seemed to have solved Europe’s ‘Jewish problem’ by sending the Jews to western Asia. That solution led to Israel’s ‘Arab problem’. The Arab problem exercises Israelis now as it did the Zionist pioneers. Is any solution to the Arab problem acceptable? Should Israel pay Arabs to leave their homes? Order them to move to Jordan? Punish them if they stay? The government recently announced the creation of the Minhal Harisot, or Demolitions Administration, to co-ordinate the destruction of illegal Arab homes. Ministers are also calling for the construction of new towns in the Negev to stop the growth of bedouin villages. The demographic mix in Israel itself allows for the possibility that Arabs will one day outnumber Jews. Is it racism to suggest this should be prevented? At a conference in Herzliya last December, Yitzhak Ravid of the Israeli government’s Armament Development Authority proposed that Israel ‘implement a stringent policy of family planning in relation to its Muslim population’. Should Arabs in Israel be forcibly sterilised to prevent their children outnumbering the children of Israel’s Jews? Should the same be done to create a Jewish majority in the West Bank and Gaza Strip? Is it mad even to think in such terms? Was this inherent in the Zionist idea? Is it time for a new idea?