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Israel and the Palestinians: An Exchange

In response to:

The Impasse Over Israel from the October 25, 1990 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of my book Palestine and Israel: A Challenge to Justice [NYR, October 25, 1990] Arthur Hertzberg questions certain of my conclusions. Some of Hertzberg’s criticisms reflect differences of interpretation. But others reflect common factual misperceptions about Palestine and Israel that it was the purpose of my book to correct.

I wrote that the United Nations General Assembly’s 1947 resolution for the partition of Palestine, Resolution 181, provides no legal basis for a Jewish state in Palestine. The government of Israel relied on Resolution 181 for that purpose. Hertzberg agrees with the Israeli view. He says that the United Nations, by Resolution 181, granted the Jews national rights and a state in Palestine. He says, with reference to Resolution 181, “the Jewish settlers agreed in 1947 to live peacefully in a limited part of Palestine in areas where they were in the majority, and that they were attacked by the surrounding nations and the Palestinians.” This sentence contains serious factual errors.

What Hertzberg calls a “limited part of Palestine” was, in fact, 56 percent of its territory. Resolution 181 envisaged a Jewish state of this size even though Jews constituted only 30 percent of Palestine’s population.

Hertzberg says that the Resolution 181 Jewish state would have been in areas where Jews were “in the majority.” But most of the projected Jewish state was in areas where Arabs predominated. There were not enough Jews in Palestine to make a Jewish state of any size that did not encompass Arab areas. In the projected Jewish state, there would have been fewer Jews than Arabs—499,000 Jews to 509,000 Arabs. The projected Arab state, on the other hand, would have been almost entirely Arab—749,000 Arabs to only 9,500 Jews. Because of this disparity, even Arabs who might in theory have thought it appropriate to divide Palestine considered Resolution 181 an outrage.

Hertzberg says that the Jewish population agreed to live peacefully in the projected Jewish state. The Jewish Agency, which represented the Jews of Palestine at the United Nations, did, to be sure, state that it would accept Resolution 181. But, as I pointed out, and as Simha Flapan explained on p. 31 of his 1987 book The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities, the Agency did not limit itself to the Resolution 181 borders. On the contrary, four days after the resolution was adopted, David BenGurion, who would become Israel’s first prime minister, gave a speech in which he rejected the Resolution 181 borders or the establishment an Arab state. The Agency was not renouncing its long-stated aim of taking all of Palestine.

Hertzberg says that the Jews were “attacked by the surrounding nations and the Palestinians.” But the Palestinians had little military capability. Their only significant offensive efforts early on were ambushes of the delivery of supplies to Jewish settlements. On the contrary, it was the Zionist forces that first attacked the Palestinians. Almost immediately after Resolution 181 was passed, the Zionist “dissident” military organizations (the LEHI and Irgun) began raids on Arab villages. By the end of December the Haganah, the army of the Jewish Agency, did the same. As I noted (p. 42), the CIA called these attacks “terrorist raids,” because they targeted and killed civilians. By early 1948 the Haganah, LEHI, and Irgun devised a plan to conquer the main cities of Palestine. In April and May, they took those cities, driving out their Arab inhabitants in the process.

Hertzberg says that the Jews were attacked by the surrounding Arab nations. But by the time the Arab states sent troops into Palestine (April 1948), the Zionist military organizations had already seized the coastal area and had driven 300,000 Arabs from Palestine. The only Arab state with any military capacity was Transjordan, but its army was under British control, and Britain did not want Transjordan to engage the Zionist forces. In secret meetings, Transjordan’s leader agreed with the Jewish Agency not to contest the Agency’s control of the bulk of Palestine, so long as Transjordan got the West Bank. Transjordan never attacked the coastal area. The Agency was actually double-crossing Transjordan, because in October 1948 it planned an invasion of the West Bank. It stopped only at the last minute, out of fear of international reaction.

Hertzberg also says that I exaggerated the percentage of Arabs that the Zionist armies forced out of Palestine in 1948, and specifically, that I did not consider the “carefully balanced conclusion” of Benny Morris, in his 1987 book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947–1949, that over half left “of their own accord, or in the hope of coming back with the invading Arab forces in victory.”

Morris made no such statement. The time period of the main exodus was April to October 1948. Morris wrote (pp. 130–131) that in April–June, “the most important single factor” in the exodus was “the Haganah/dissident military attack on each site.” This, he wrote, “is demonstrated clearly by the fact that each exodus occurred during and in the immediate wake of each military assault. No town was abandoned by the bulk of its population before Jewish attack.”

Morris wrote (p. 130) that some of the flight was due to the “atrocity factor,” namely, that Arabs heard about mass killings of Arab civilians by Jewish forces, like the massacre of 250 civilians by the Irgun and LEHI in April 1948 in the Arab village of Deir Yassin near Jerusalem.

The IDF mounted offensives in July and again in October 1948, driving out the populations of whole towns and villages. Morris wrote (p. 292) that during this period “there was a growing readiness in the IDF units to expel,” in part, he wrote, from a feeling “that an almost completely Jewish State was a realistic possibility.” Morris’s conclusion, like mine, is that the overwhelming majority of Arabs who fled Palestine in 1948 did so under direct compulsion of military attack or out of fear of future attack. Because of the numerical predominance of Arabs, there was no way to establish a Jewish state in Palestine without getting rid of the Arabs.

The Israelis and Palestinians differ sharply in their versions of the 1947–1948 events. A premise of my book is that before a solution to the Palestine-Israel conflict can be achieved, all of us—Israelis, Palestinians, and the world community—must understand what occurred, in order to determine the legitimate expectations of the parties. Although Hertzberg, admirably, seeks a settlement, he perpetuates myths that stand in the way of the understanding that is a precondition for a settlement.

John Quigley
College of Law
Ohio State University
Columbus, Ohio

Arthur Hertzberg replies:

Mr. Quigley’s letter often misquotes facts or uses them out of context. To deal first with the supposedly hard facts that he has compiled: he asserts that in the Jewish State projected by the partition resolution of November 29, 1947 “there would have been fewer Jews to Arabs—499,000 Jews to 509,000 Arabs.” The boundaries of this projected Jewish State were sketched by the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP). Its figures for the population of the projected state as of the end of 1946 were 500,000 Jews and 416,000 Arabs and others. Benny Morris, whose book The Birth of The Palestinian Refugee Problem 1947–1948 Mr. Quigley seems to accept as authoritative, gives the following figures at the time of the partition resolution: 520,000 Jews and 350,000 Arabs. There is a simple explanation for the differences between Morris’s figures and those of UNSCOP. During 1947, the Jewish population had increased through immigration of survivors of the death camps by at least 20,000; UNSCOP, under the category of “Arabs and others,” had counted some 80,000–90,000 Bedouins in the Negev, while Morris apparently excluded them because neither in Arab nor Jewish calculations were the Bedouins participants in the struggle.

On the question of UN Resolution 181, Mr. Quigley again insists in his letter, as he did in his book, that it had no legal validity. That was and remains the position taken by Arab spokesmen to justify the actions of Palestinians and the Arab states that went to war in defiance of UN Resolution 181. Does their case hold up? Five days before the vote in the General Assembly for partition, the suggestion was made that the question of Palestine be referred to the World Court. By a majority of one vote, 21 to 20, the General Assembly acting through the Second Committee refused to do so; it voted that the question of Palestine was a political matter for the General Assembly to decide.

In his book, Mr. Quigley claims that the only organ of the UN capable of a decision creating new states was the Security Council. If so, what are we to make of the repeated actions of the Security Council after May 14, 1948, which ordered ceasefires and finally sent Ralph Bunche to mediate a series of arrangements between Israel and every one of its Arab neighbors? Did not the Security Council accept the existence of Israel as beyond question, in fact and in law?

The essence of Mr. Quigley’s view is not in his legalistic criticism of powers of the General Assembly; it is in the proposition that the right of Israel to exist required the assent of the Arabs. This assumes that there was some preexisting Arab state or entity that had the right to reject the Jews; but of course there was not. The right of the Jewish State to exist was never subject to the willingness of the Arabs to welcome it. It was rooted in the unique tie of Jews to the land of their ancestors; on a need of the Jews for a homeland of their own in a dangerous century; on the growing assent of many nations, beginning with the Balfour Declaration and the League of Nations mandate, that Jewish needs and Jewish history had validity in their own right; and on the declared willingness of the Jews to share political control of the territory with a Palestinian Arab state.

Quigley’s argument about the partition boundaries, that the Jews were assigned 56 percent of the land when they were “only 30 percent of the Palestine population” of the undivided territory of Palestine, thus is misleading. The central affirmation of Zionism has always been the right of Jewish immigration and the need for sufficient territory to accommodate those who would want or need to come. One strong pressure on UNSCOP was the need for refuge of hundreds of thousands of Jews who had survived Hitler and faced great difficulty in finding countries that would accept them. Over a million came to Israel in the immediate years after the state was declared, both from post-Hitler Europe and from the Arab lands, in which life had suddenly become more difficult for Jews. Thus Mr. Quigley’s linking of the area of partition to the amount of immediate population, Jewish and Arab, ignores the historical situation in which the partition resolution was passed; and it ignores as well the fact that much of the 56 percent of the land assigned to the Jewish state was in the nearly empty desert of the Negev, where there were some Bedouins but no Palestinian Arabs.

And yet the relation of land and population in Israel/Palestine is a vexed and painful question that needs to be discussed. It is certainly true that the Jewish Agency, the leadership of the Zionist movement, accepted UN Resolution 181 not with great joy, but as the best deal that it could get; but the Jewish Agency did accept it. The Zionist leaders hoped that, in time, the economic relations between the Jewish and Palestinian state would become such that the question of boundaries would become less important.

Some Zionist figures, such as David Ben-Gurion, who was in charge of security after 1946, were confident that the Palestinian Arabs would not lay down their arms and accept partition. Ben-Gurion did not simply announce four days after the vote on November 29, 1947, that he regarded the boundaries as irrelevant, as Mr. Quigley would have it. Ben-Gurion often said, both then and later, that Palestinians who had rejected the UN resolution and the possibility of peaceful coexistence of two states, could not later demand the boundaries that the rejected resolution had defined. The Palestinians, and the Arab states which supported them, could not go to war to obliterate the Jewish state and then, if they lost, demand from the victors the state they had refused to accept, in the very boundaries they had rejected.

Mr. Quigley avoids these considerations by claiming that the Palestinians never went to war against the Jews. He says in his letter that the Palestinians’ “only significant offensive efforts early on were ambushes of the delivery of supplies to Jewish settlements” and he adds that “on the contrary it was the Zionist forces that first attacked the Palestinians.” On the face of it, this assertion is simply untrue. It can only claim a semblance of truth if it is limited to what happened after November 29, 1947, and even then it is far from true.

Civil war between Jews and Arabs had been going on in Palestine for decades and a major concern of UNSCOP was to partition Palestine in order to end this civil war. After November 29, 1947, the Arab Higher Committee, the official leadership of the Palestinian Arabs, rejected UN Resolution 181 and declared a three-day strike. In the midst of the strike, an Arab mob burned down the Jewish commercial center of Jerusalem. On December 8, 1947, an Arab force whose members were recruited from Ramleh, Lod, and Nablus attacked a Jewish suburb of Tel Aviv. Most important, the road between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem was for months under constant and continual siege from Palestinian snipers. True, the Palestinians were not a major military force; they were disunited irregulars, but they made war against the Jews and they called in help from the Arab states. To claim, as Mr. Quigley keeps trying to do, that the Palestinians were simply fallen upon by the Jews is to deny the Palestinians the history of their own resistance.

There remains the question of the events that caused the Palestinians to leave Israel and become refugees. Mr. Quigley is right that “Israelis and Palestinians differ sharply in their versions of the 1947–1948 events.” The official Israeli version was for years that the Palestinians left of their own accord believing that they would return with the conquering Arab armies. The Palestinian version, which Mr. Quigley supports, is that they were all forced out, mostly at the point of a gun by the conquering Israelis, who wanted to clear the land for themselves.

The most recent Israeli historiography, in Benny Morris’s book and other studies that have been appearing in Hebrew, presents a factual case against both views. Quigley challenges my brief characterization of Morris’s conclusions that over half the Palestinian Arabs left of their own accord, or in the hope of coming back with the victorious Arab armies. Commenting on the second wave of Arab flight, in April and May 1948, he quotes Benny Morris to the effect that the Arabs’ departure was the direct result of fear of the future occasioned by Israeli military victories.

But Benny Morris’s conclusions are not as one-sided as Quigley makes them out to be. As Morris shows, the steady exodus of the Arab middle and upper classes between December 1947 and March 1948 provided a model for other Palestinians, as they felt more and more threatened in the midst of war. “Another major factor in the exodus of the cities,” Morris writes, “was the dissolution and flight of the local civil and military leadership just before and during the final battles.” There was never, not even under Haganah’s Plan D, which ordered the clearing of Arab villages that might block the main roads, a clear-cut Zionist policy to chase all the Arabs out. What happened varied from place to place: in Haifa, the Jewish leaders, including the mayor, pleaded with the Arabs to remain, while the town of Lod was cleared in one day as a supposed military necessity. This first Arab exodus, between December 1947 and March 1948, is not mentioned by Quigley at all. In Morris’s summary, the upper-and middle-class Arabs felt themselves vulnerable to Jewish attack, but “they contemplated an absence from Palestine or its combat zones similar to that of 1936–1939, lasting only until the hostilities were over and, they hoped, the Yishuv vanquished.”

The second wave, according to Morris, which numbered between 200,000 and 300,000, “was not the result of a general, predetermined Yishuv policy.” It was mainly the result not of direct action by the Jewish forces to expel Arabs but of fear: “a major factor in the exodus from each town, was the fall of and exodus from the previous town.” Quigley is right that I should have called attention to the element of fear in my summary sentence. But his insistence on putting “direct compulsion of military attack” first is not born out by the facts.

Quigley’s further insistence that the nascent Jewish state consciously went about expelling all the Arabs as a necessary precondition to its existence is denied repeatedly by the very text he cites. “Up to the beginning of April 1948,” Morris writes, “there was no Yishuv plan or policy to expel the Arab inhabitants of Palestine, either from the area destined for Jewish statehood or those lying outside it.” Even during the second wave, “There was never during April–June, any political or General Staff decision to expel ‘the Arabs’ from the Jewish state’s areas.”

As Mr. Quigley suggests at the end of his letter, the history of the period 1947–1948 has been excessively polemical. I agree with him that official Israeli history has often been one-sided and that we need more understanding, but I do not see how this will result from distortions such as the ones in his book or in his letter. Mr. Quigley continues to write polemical briefs seeking to show that the Zionist state has no right whatever to exist, and that virtually everything it did to survive was inherently wicked. Such dogmatic arguments will not help improve the prospects for mutual comprehension or peace.

The one clear result of many decades of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is that neither is willing to disappear in order to accommodate the desires of the other side. Israel will have no peace unless the demand of the Palestinians for a state of their own on the soil of part of Palestine is accepted. The Palestinians will have no peace unless they accept finally and irrevocably that Israel has a clear right to national existence as a state. The lives and the hopes of millions of people have been distorted, ruined, or destroyed by this conflict. All who are involved in this destructive conflict must move beyond debating with one another about the past and, instead, help make a start on a decent compromise to save the future.

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