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The War to Begin All Wars

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Aude/Wikimedia Commons
Benny Morris at a conference of the Middle East Institute, Washington, D.C., October 30, 2007

The account of that expulsion—based largely on IDF documents—may be the most harrowing section of Birth. It begins with Israeli soldiers facing unexpected gunfire in Lydda just after it was conquered. They responded by killing some 250 townspeople, in what Morris calls a “slaughter.” Fearing both a rebellion and a Transjordanian counterattack, Ben-Gurion told his officers to empty both Lydda and neighboring Ramle. Thousands of Palestinians were forced to walk eastward under the July sun, at first dropping belongings and later leaving “bodies of men, women and children, scattered along the way.”

As both Morris and Shlaim stress in Making Israel, a major factor behind the new wave of historical scholarship was that in the 1980s, Israeli, American, and British archives allowed access to papers from 1948. For Morris, that was crucial. In scholarly argument over what is reliable, Morris is an unbending believer in the value of the paper trail: documents establish fact; interviews with participants are too subjective.

The documents were also one reason that Morris’s account had so resounding an effect. For Israelis, the testimony of IDF records was harder to push aside than conflicting testimony of those who lived through 1948. Besides that, Morris had committed an Oedipal act: killing the memories of his father’s generation, the generation of the country’s founders. Older historians “lived through 1948 as highly committed adult participants in the epic, glorious rebirth of the Jewish commonwealth,” he said in the 1988 Tikkun essay republished in Making Israel. “They were unable to separate their lives from this historical event,” and could not be relied on. The fury of the reaction from older writers and scholars reflected the passions of a conflict between generations.

Yet Israel had also changed—another reason that the new account had so strong an effect. Two decades had passed since Israel’s conquest of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The 1982 invasion of Lebanon, as Shlaim writes, shattered Israelis’ conviction that their country used force only when it had no alternative. Morris, born in 1948, wrote with the sensibility of those who had come of age in 1967, who had reason to be concerned about Israel’s reckless use of power.

Morris’s broad conclusions—as stated in the 1988 “New Historiography” essay—provoked the strongest criticism. The idea that 1948 had been a battle of “David and Goliath” was a myth, he wrote. “The stronger side won…. The Yishuv was better armed and had more trained manpower than did the Palestinians.” Likewise, facing the Arab armies, Israel had more soldiers and better organization. Following the war, he argued, Israel’s leaders were not eager to reach peace at the price of territorial concessions. “In Tel Aviv, there was a sense of triumph and drunkenness that accompanied victory,” he asserted. Today, reading those assessments, what’s most strik- ing is how well they describe Israel—after 1967.

In another essay in Making Israel, the left-wing former Knesset member and IDF officer Mordechai Bar-On addresses the conflicting advantages of the participant’s view and the scholar who comes later. Bar-On fought in 1948 and later became a historian. Living inside events, he writes, a person may have no idea of the larger picture. As “stories are told and retold,” they “become distorted by prejudice, loyalties, presumptions and even political interests.” Nonetheless, the participant reaches back to recall “the mood of the time” and how the battle appeared from the inside, which is also part of history. Bar-On could have added that even someone sifting through files long afterward builds a story that is shaded by loyalties and presumptions. A scholar can crack myths, and still be captive to the mood of the day.

At the end of his 1988 essay, Morris suggested that “what is now being written about Israel’s past” might “in some obscure way serve the purposes of peace and reconciliation.” The intifada had just erupted in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, pushing the Palestinian issue into the center of Israeli politics. Since then, a peace process with the Palestinians began and failed, and a second, more violent uprising has erupted and burned out. By now, as Morris wrote recently in a Newsweek column, he has “come to a much bleaker opinion about the possibility of reconciliation.”5

The change in his views, he asserts, is strictly the result of his continuing research—the work that underlies his new book, 1948. In Israeli archives, he says, he studied statements of Arab leaders in Palestine from the 1920s on, and discovered how unwilling they were to accept either a binational state or partition between Jews and Arabs. He says he found that the Arab side had regarded the conflict with Zionism as not just a national struggle but also a “religious crusade against an infidel usurper,” and that on the eve of the invasion of Palestine in 1948, Arab League Secretary General Abd al-Rahman Azzam spoke of “sweep[ing] the Jews into the sea.” The new material led him to conclude that the Jews were the underdogs in 1948. It lessened his surprise when, in Morris’s words, Yasser Arafat “rejected Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s two-state proposals at Camp David in July 2000,” and it made him regard each Palestinian suicide bombing as “a microcosm of what Palestine’s Arabs had in mind for Israel as a whole.”

Again, past and present appear tangled. Morris’s views today are typical of Israeli ex-leftists who became embittered after Palestinians refused to accept what most Israelis regarded as generous peace initiatives. Writing in defense of Ehud Barak in 2002 in these pages, Morris argued that the diplomatic collapse of 2000 was “really very simple”—Barak and Bill Clinton proposed “a historic compromise and the Palestinians rejected it.” (Morris’s article was a response to Robert Malley and Hussein Agha’s far more nuanced analysis, in which they showed that Israel, the Palestinians, and the United States all contributed to the diplomatic disaster.)6 And like a good many other intellectuals, Morris appears shocked by the rise of political Islam. Morris is using Arab statements from sixty or eighty years ago to make sense of today’s stalemate; but it seems he is also reading those statements through the lens of today’s events.

That said, Morris is a stunningly thorough excavator of the archival record. And telling the story of the 1948 war as a whole restores a balance lacking from his narrower accounts of the refugee problem. In the wider picture, the Jewish side in Palestine was fighting “to survive the onslaught and establish a Jewish state.” At times, Morris writes, survival was in doubt. The Palestinian exodus is part of that larger picture.

Both sides committed atrocities. Morris estimates that in the course of the war, Jews murdered about eight hundred civilians and POWs. He found written evidence of about a dozen rapes by Jewish soldiers. Though he suspects that some cases were not reported, he says that relative to other wars, 1948 was marked by “an extremely low incidence of rape.” Arab forces also expelled or massacred Jews or prevented their return to places they had fled— but they could do so rarely, for the simple reason that the Arabs had few opportunities. They were losing on the battlefield. Nonetheless, Jordan’s Arab Legion emptied the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City; Arab fighters massacred about 150 Jewish defenders of the religious kibbutz Kfar ‘Etzion after they surrendered. In Morris’s telling of this complex tale, the reader can discern both the disappointed dove and the dedicated chronicler.

One can begin with how Morris sets the scene. His original book opened with a few sparse sentences on the birth of Zionism in nineteenth-century Europe, Jewish immigration to Palestine, and conflict with Palestinian Arabs. This time, he leaps back much further: “The Jewish people was born in the Land of Israel, which it ruled, on and off, for thirteen centuries,” until the Romans crushed the last, brief Jewish bid at independence in the second century CE. Later Muslim rulers never treated it as a separate province. By the nineteenth century it was an “impoverished backwater”—albeit one where Arabs outnumbered Jews by a ratio of eighteen to one.

Morris’s underlying point here is that Jews were returning to their ancient homeland. In itself, this is correct, and is essential background to the events of 1948. But it is also a classic Zionist account, and is just one face of history. Seen from the other direction, foreigners were coming to settle the land, to colonize it. The argument between these accounts is like a debate over whether water is really oxygen or really hydrogen. That both are partly true is the starting point of the tragedy of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Yet when writing history, it is terribly difficult to avoid a choice, and the choice is influenced by the writer’s times. While Morris mentions the Palestinian view, his opening pages place this book more firmly—and more defensively—within a Zionist perspective than his previous writing.

In the years of British rule, as Morris writes, the quickly growing Jewish community in Palestine developed quasi state institutions and armed forces that allowed it to fight effectively in 1948. The Arab population was politically fragmented, without effective institutions. It turned down compromises in the form of the Peel Commission proposals for partition in 1937 and then the UN partition plan a decade later. Morris now sees the influence of Islam as a key reason for Arab hostility toward Jews and Zionism, perhaps the preeminent reason. For Arabs, the 1948 war “was a war of religion as much as, if not more than, a nationalist war over territory.” He cites a hadith—a tradition ascribed to Muhammad—that was regularly quoted at the time, apparently by Islamic activists: “The day of resurrection does not come until Muslims fight against Jews…until the trees and stones shout out, ‘O Muslim, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.’”

To balance this perspective, it is worth reading A History of Palestine, by Gudrun Krämer, a German scholar of Islamic studies. In Krämer’s description, Palestine’s Arabs faced a blocked road to political development. The British “denied the Arabs any political representation for as long as they refused to accept the Mandate Treaty.” But accepting the treaty meant accepting the Balfour Declaration—with its promise of a Jewish “national home”—and renouncing self-determination. The exception was the British appointment of Amin al-Husseini—a Palestinian aristocrat with a background more nationalist than Islamic—as mufti of Jerusalem, and creation of a Supreme Muslim Council headed by him. This was just one factor in the “gradual Islamization of Arab politics in Palestine,” Krämer writes. Trying to stop Jewish land purchases and political intentions, al-Husseini and other Arab spokesmen developed the idea of Palestine as a sacred trust given to all Muslims. Exploiting Islam, al-Husseini succeeded in making Palestine a pan-Arab and pan-Islamic issue.

So rather than being the foundation of Arab opposition to Zionism, Islam was itself transformed by nationalism. Anti-Jewish texts could be pulled from the attic of tradition in response to political circumstance. The hadith about the trees and stones, for instance, appears in early Islamic compendiums, but according to David Cook of Rice University, an expert on Islamic apocalyptic thought, has been widely quoted only in recent decades. The rewriting of religion to serve ultra-nationalist aims should be familiar to Israeli historians, who have seen the same process unfolding in Judaism since 1967. After the Israeli victory that year, a group of rabbis and Orthodox activists emerged who made settlement and permanent Israeli rule over the conquered land into fundamental religious values, transmuting both theology and Jewish religious law. Religion is protean. Describing Islam as an unchanging force is ahistorical, and makes any accommodation between it and Israel appear unimaginable.

As Morris concentrates on the events leading to civil war, the pervading theme is that both Jews and Arabs lost control. In a “fatal twist,” the British cabinet decided not to help implement partition, and to keep the UN commission that had been assigned that task out of Palestine. The leaders of the weak Arab regimes feared popular fury if they did not stop partition, and they also feared each other’s designs. Both Egypt and Syria, for instance, suspected that Jordan wanted to annex all or part of Palestine. Within Palestine, Arabs and Jews shared feelings of dread. An Iraqi general, Ismail Sawfat, warned the Arab League that Arabs living in the territory destined for the Jewish state faced “destruction.” Jewish leaders thought they faced a second Holocaust.

The difference was that the Jews were organized and had a trained militia, the Haganah, that could be transformed into an army—and had nowhere to flee. The Arabs had village militias, and the option of flight. “Demoralization” set in among the Arabs, Morris writes. Yet by March 1948, the Jewish position was also desperate. The road to Jerusalem had been cut by local Arab forces; starvation loomed in Jewish areas of the city.

Morris is at his best describing the intricate and chaotic progression of the war. The illusion of comprehensive strategies on both sides often disintegrates, in his telling, into impromptu decisions and desperate measures. A key example is the Jewish offensive beginning in April. Previous accounts have described it as implementing the Haganah’s “Plan D.” Drawn up by the Haganah chief of operations, Yigael Yadin, Plan D aimed at taking control of the land assigned to the Jewish state, opening the road to Jerusalem, and preparing for defense against the coming Arab invasion. In pro-Palestinian histories, Plan D has been described as a program for expelling the country’s Arabs.

In fact, Morris explains, there was never a decision by leaders of the Jewish forces to carry out Plan D. Responding to immediate crises, the Haganah launched local operations. These actions added up to a shift toward taking the offensive and in retrospect roughly fit Plan D. Nor was there a plan for ethnic cleansing of the country. Villagers sometimes fled as soon as Haganah units approached. But Plan D, as written, allowed commanders to destroy captured villages, especially if they resisted conquest. It was a way to keep the enemy forces—meaning the villagers—from returning to their base. In the actual fighting, this tactic became more common. At that stage, it was a war of communities, not of states; it was cruel and desperate; at stake was survival. Both sides killed prisoners. The British, still nominally in charge though concerned mainly with their own withdrawal, would not have allowed POW camps.

When the British withdrew, the Arab armies invaded. They had not agreed on a plan of attack. Arab leaders said they were protecting Palestinian Arabs, but they intended to exploit the cause for their own ends. They had no intention of creating a Palestinian state. Jordan wanted the West Bank; Egypt wanted to grab the southern half of the West Bank first.

The initial Jewish goal was not to be overrun. Once Israel gained the upper hand, it sought defensible borders, which meant gaining territory. At least some Israeli leaders, including Ben-Gurion, wanted to “reduce the number of Arabs.” The policy of not allowing refugees to return was partly defensive, to avoid a fifth column. But in a crucial cabinet meeting on the issue in June, Foreign Minister Moshe Shertok also described all “the lands and the houses” as “spoils of war,” and as compensation for what Jews had lost in a fight forced on them. He was not alone in seeing the exodus as an unplanned benefit of the battles. On the other hand, leaders of the socialist Mapam party objected to razing Arab villages, and said that once the fighting ended, the refugees should be allowed home. In a subsequent meeting in September, the cabinet rejected an immediate return and left the refugee question to be resolved when formal peace was achieved. In practical terms, this was a decision to make the exodus permanent. It was the critical moment when confusion, panic, and ad hoc choices gave way to a deliberate, fateful policy. For, as Morris writes, “peace never came, and the refugees never returned.”7

This is a story where many actions are horrifying, most of all when they are understandable. Perhaps that is a definition for tragedy. In this case, it defies the author’s efforts to reach clear judgment on who is at fault. Morris suggests that Palestinian nationalists had a clear goal of expelling the Jews, and that “Zionist expulsionist thinking” was “at least in part a response.” His own evidence suggests another reading: once the United Nations voted to partition Palestine but could not enforce its own decision, a bitter war was almost inescapable between two communities; each was certain its existence was at stake. Both flight and expulsion followed as if fated. How many Jews and Arabs would lose their homes depended on the balance of forces in battle. The Jews won. That Israeli writers can more easily reexamine their own side’s actions may be one of the fruits of victory.

The conflagration of 1948 was the war that began all Arab–Israeli wars. This will not be the last history of it, and not only because new papers will come to light, perhaps from still-sealed Arab archives. If the story is retold after peace—by Benny Morris or someone else—the facts and the motives will necessarily look different. It might be easier to see both Jews and Arabs with greater sympathy, as human beings caught in a storm. In the meantime, Morris has indeed served the purpose of reconciliation, by making a fuller picture of what happened in 1948 part of Israeli memory. For that he deserves gratitude.

  1. 5

    Benny Morris, “From Dove to Hawk,” Newsweek, May 8, 2008, available at www.newsweek.com/id/136085.

  2. 6

    See Benny Morris and Ehud Barak, “Camp David and After—Continued,” The New York Review, June 27, 2002. This was written in reply to “Camp David and After: An Exchange (2. A Reply to Ehud Barak),” by Hussein Agha and Robert Malley, The New York Review, June 13, 2002.

  3. 7

    In his 2004 book, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, Morris described the harsh consequences:

    but if a measure of ambivalence and confusion attended Haganah/IDF treatment of Arab communities during and immediately after conquest, there was nothing ambiguous about Israeli policy, from summer 1948, toward those who had been displaced and had become refugees and toward those who were yet to be displaced, in future operations: Generally applied with resolution and, often, with brutality, the policy was to prevent a refugee return at all costs. And if, somehow, refugees succeeded in infiltrating back, they were routinely rounded up and expelled (though tens of thousands of “infiltrators” ultimately succeeded in resettling and becoming Israeli citizens).

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