Middle East References
January 26, 2004
In '48, Israel Did What It Had to Do
In '48, Israel Did What It Had to Do: By Benny Morris
Benny Morris is a professor of Middle Eastern history at Ben-Gurion University in Israel. "The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited" is being published by Cambridge University Press this month.
On July 12, 1948, Israeli soldiers battling the Arab Legion and local irregulars in the towns of Lydda and Ramle, just south of Tel Aviv, were ordered to empty the two towns of their Arab residents. Over two days, between 50,000 and 60,000 inhabitants were driven from their homes. Many were forced to walk eastward to the Arab Legion lines; others were carried in trucks or buses. Clogging the roads, tens of thousands of refugees marched, shedding their possessions along the way.
The expulsions, conducted under orders from then-Lt. Col. Yitzhak Rabin, were an element of the partial ethnic cleansing that rid Israel of the majority of its Arab inhabitants at the very moment of its birth. Earlier, in the 1930s and 1940s, a near consensus had emerged among Zionist leaders on the necessity of "transfer." They believed that it was critical to buy out or drive out the Arab inhabitants from the areas destined for Jewish statehood, both to make way for Jewish immigrants and to remove the Arabs who opposed, often violently, the establishment of such a state.
The idea of transfer never crystallized into a formal Zionist policy — there was no master plan and, of course, not all Palestinians who became refugees in 1948 were expelled like the Arabs of Lydda and Ramle. Indeed, most fled because they feared the ravages of war or because they were advised to do so by their leaders. But one way or another, transfer was accomplished; 700,000 Palestinians left the country, and the refugee problem that has haunted Israel ever since was born.
For unearthing that dark side of 1948 in my book "The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949," which appeared in 1988, I was vilified by the Zionist establishment as "anti-Zionist" and "pro-PLO" — which I never was. As one of the country's "new historians," I was accused of seeking to shatter the founding myths of the Israeli state and of going out of my way to lend moral weight to the Palestinian cause.
That, of course, is untrue. I was simply a historian seeking to describe what happened.
In fact, today — after looking afresh at the events of 1948 and at the context of the whole Arab-Zionist conflict from its inception in 1881 until the present day — I find myself as convinced as ever that the Israelis played a major role in ridding the country of tens of thousands of Arabs during the 1948 war, but I also believe their actions were inevitable and made sense. Had the belligerent Arab population inhabiting the areas destined for Jewish statehood not been uprooted, no Jewish state would have arisen, or it would have emerged so demographically and politically hobbled that it could not have survived. It was an ugly business. Such is history.
How can what happened be justified? In November 1947, the leadership of Palestine's Arabs had rejected the United Nations' plan to partition the country into a Jewish and an Arab state — and instead launched attacks on the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine, to prevent the emergence of the state of Israel. These attacks snowballed into full-scale civil war. In May 1948, the armies of Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq invaded the country to support their Palestinian "brothers" (or simply to seize chunks of Palestine for themselves). It was three years after the Holocaust. For Israelis, it was a war for survival; had they lost, there would have been, they had no doubt, a vast slaughter.
The 700,000 Palestinians who were displaced came from the villages and urban neighborhoods that had served as bases of the militia and irregulars who had for months assaulted Jewish convoys and settlements. They were seen as an existential threat and, when conquered, their villages were leveled. Subsequently, Israel, with a total of about 750,000 Jews, refused to allow back the displaced Palestinians, many of whom had fought against it and would have constituted a massive potential fifth column. Denied absorption in the host Arab states, they became, and remain, along with their descendants, "refugees."
Israel's decision was not unprecedented, nor was it necessarily immoral. Something similar had happened in the early 1920s when a Greek invasion of the Turkish mainland triggered a Turkish counterattack, in which almost all the Greeks living in Asia Minor were expelled. In response, in northern Greece, the Turkish minority was uprooted and expelled to Turkey. For centuries, Turks had oppressed Greeks, and Greeks and Turks had slaughtered one another. The mutual uprooting of these minority communities removed major bones of contention and, ever since, the two peoples have lived in relative peace (except where they remained ethnically intermixed, in Cyprus). While the "population exchange" was no doubt traumatic, in the long run both peoples have vastly benefited.
Or consider Czechoslovakia at the end of World War II. In the 1930s, the Czechs' Sudeten German minority had helped Hitler subvert the Czech Republic. At the end of the war, the Czechs and Russians expelled the Sudeten minority to Germany, both as an act of revenge and to prevent future irredentist subversion. The Czechs and Germans have lived in peace ever since.
In the Middle East, the Israelis faced a similar situation, and they did what they had to do; indeed, Arab aggression forced them to do it. Had most Palestinians not left the country, there would be no Israel today.
In fact, as it turned out, the events of 1948 did not completely solve Palestine's ethnic problem. The Israeli leadership, shackled by moral inhibitions and restraints imposed by the Great Powers, refrained from a full, systematic expulsion. More than 150,000 Arabs remained inside Israel proper, and they now number more than 1 million (a full 20% of Israel's population). And Israel, provoked by the Arabs, in 1967 occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip and, in its foolishness, retained them, adding 3 million more Arabs, many of them 1948 refugees and their descendants, to its control.
Since 2000, after rejecting fair Israeli-American peace proposals, the Arabs of the occupied territories have waged a terrorist war against Israel. On one level, no doubt, they simply seek the removal of Israeli rule. But on another — to judge from the utterances of the fundamentalist Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and various secular Fatah spokesmen — they ultimately seek Israel's destruction.
The masses of suicide bombers dispatched by Palestinian society into Israel's cities to blow up coffee shops and buses spell out in microcosm, for most Israelis, the intended fate of Israel itself, each charred bus representing a little Holocaust. Certainly there is enough hatred there, as spontaneous mass celebrations erupt in the Palestinian cities each time news reaches them of a successful suicide attack.
And in October 2000, in an act of solidarity with their brothers in the territories, tens of thousands of Israeli Arabs took to the streets, throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails in Jaffa and Lydda and Wadi Ara, chanting "Itbah al Yahud" ("slaughter the Jews") and calling for the "liberation" of all of "Palestine."
Which leads the historian to wonder whether, had 1948 ended differently — with the total separation of the two peoples and the creation of a Palestinian state in what is today Jordan — both peoples would have enjoyed richer and freer lives. Perhaps, content with statehood, the Palestinians would have gradually dropped the struggle.
As it is, the populations remain intermixed, and Arab birthrates and violence threaten to overwhelm the Jewish state, forcing Israelis to defend themselves in ways that many find unacceptable. As things stand, endless violence seems to be in prospect. And down the road, Palestinian violence may suck the Arab states and Israel, all armed with nonconventional weaponry, into a new, giant conflagration. Perhaps complete separation, a cleaner cut in 1948, would have benefited all.
Two-State Solution Again Sells Palestinians Short
Two-State Solution Again Sells Palestinians Short: By George Bisharat, George Bisharat is a professor at the University of California's Hastings College of Law.
SAN FRANCISCO — It is a tragic irony that, more than 55 years ago, one desperate people seeking sanctuary from murderous racism decimated another — and continue to oppress its scattered survivors to this day. In 1948, about 700,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homeland, their land and possessions taken by the new Jewish state of Israel. This included the Jerusalem home of my grandparents, Hanna and Mathilde Bisharat, which was expropriated through a process tantamount to state-sanctioned theft.
Today, many assume that to achieve Middle East peace, we Palestinians must surrender our right to return to our homes and homeland. Millions of Palestinians — with memories and photographs of our stolen properties, keys to our front doors, and an abiding sense of injustice — are expected to swallow our losses in order to facilitate a "two-state solution."
But it's not that simple. Although Israel has claimed that Palestinians willingly abandoned Palestine after being urged to leave in radio broadcasts by Arab leaders, a review of broadcast transcripts by Irish diplomat Erskine Childers in 1961 revealed that Palestinians were exhorted by Arab leaders to stay, not leave their homes. In fact, Yigal Allon, commander of Palmach, the elite Zionist troops, and later Israeli foreign minister, launched a whispering campaign to terrorize Palestinians into flight.
Nor were we simply unintended victims of a war launched by the Arab states against Israel. As far back as the late 19th century, leaders of Political Zionism (the movement to create a Jewish state in Palestine) advocated "transfer" of the Palestinians, by force if necessary. In 1948, Jews owned only 11% of the land allocated by the United Nations to the Jewish state — not enough for a viable economy. As David Ben-Gurion said in February 1948 before he became prime minister of Israel: "The war will give us the land. The concepts of 'ours' and 'not ours' are peace concepts only, and in war they lose their whole meaning."
Zionist leaders knew that an Arab minority of 40% would challenge the Jewish demographic dominance they sought. Hence, nearly half of the Palestinian refugees ultimately expelled were forced out before the Arab states attacked Israel in May 1948. Israeli historian Benny Morris documented 24 massacres of Palestinian civilians, some claiming hundreds of unarmed men, women and children, during subsequent fighting. Thousands more Palestinians were, like the residents of Majdal (now Ashkelon) — a southern coastal city 15 miles north of the Gaza Strip — chased across the border into Gaza after the armistice of 1949.
Palestine had to be "cleansed" of its native population to establish Israel as a Jewish state. Ironically, those who today protest that the return of the refugees would destroy Israel unwittingly confirm this viewpoint, for the refugees are simply the Palestinians and their offspring who would have become Israeli citizens had they not been exiled.
Israel's denial of responsibility for the refugees and rejection of their repatriation (intransigence that was condemned early on by a U.S. official as "morally reprehensible") is nearly as offensive as the original expulsion itself. Israel welcomed immigrant Jews from all over the world but shot Palestinians who tried to return to recover movable property, harvest the fruit of their orchards or reclaim their homes. Oxford professor Avi Shlaim concluded in his book "The Iron Wall" that "between 2,700 and 5,000 [Palestinian] infiltrators were killed in the period 1949-56, the great majority of them unarmed."
Nothing the Palestinians had done merited this treatment, something the international community has consistently recognized. A 1948 U.N. resolution recognizing the Palestinian right of return has been annually — and almost unanimously — reaffirmed ever since. The Palestinian right of return is also supported by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
The two-state solution envisioned today would probably ameliorate the conditions of the one-third of the Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. There, Palestinians face incessant military attacks that have demolished homes and orchards and killed an average of nearly 70 Palestinians per month over the last three years. A smothering matrix of closures, curfews and checkpoints restricts movement and has caused unemployment to soar to more than 70% and threaten Palestinian children with malnutrition. Meanwhile, Israeli settlers, shock troops in the grinding 36-year campaign to seize and colonize yet more Palestinian land, speed through the West Bank and Gaza Strip on "Jewish only" roads. The oppressive features of Israeli military occupation were entrenched long before Palestinians resorted in the mid-1990s to the desperate — yet still indefensible — tactic of suicide bombings to slow the colonizing juggernaut.
But this two-state solution would not address the concerns of 1.2 million Palestinians living in Israel as second-class citizens. Palestinian citizens there possess formal political rights — that much Israel can afford after expelling most Palestinians in 1948. But these Palestinians have restricted access to land (most real property in Israel is owned by the state or the Jewish National Fund and is leased to Jews only). They are also forced to carry identity cards that brand them as non-Jews, and they cannot serve in the armed forces (the key to many benefits in Israeli society). Palestinian towns and villages are starved of resources, with many lacking connections to the country's electrical or water systems. Government policies, from immigration to family planning, are designed to counter the "demographic threat" Israelis fear in the higher birthrate of Palestinian citizens. Israeli law enshrines the principle that Israel is the "state of the Jewish people," and it lacks firm guarantees of the legal equality of all citizens.
Nor would the two-state solution fairly redress the rights of diaspora Palestinians — permitting us only return to a new, already overcrowded and underfunded "statelet" in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
There is no bar to implementing the Palestinians' right of return. If there is room in Israel for a million Russian immigrants (including many non-Jews), there is room for those Palestinians who would elect return over other legal options. The sole obstacle is Israel's desire to maintain a "demographic balance" favorable to Jews.
Why is it self-evident that our international legal rights should give way to cement dominance of Jews over Palestinians in Israel? Why is this assumption unquestioned — especially in the U.S., which fought a civil war for the ideal of equal rights under the law? How do claims that are 2,000 years old trump our rights when we have modern deeds in hand? Why should Palestinians pay for a European holocaust? Why do U.S. officials — including our two Democratic senators in this multicultural state — unconditionally support Israel with billions in tax dollars while ignoring glaring contradictions between Jewish exclusivism and truly democratic values? Would Americans tolerate any group placing its religious symbol on the national flag, appropriating the state for some citizens rather than all and pursuing policies systematically giving privileges to its members over others?
Palestinians are prepared to sacrifice for a just and therefore lasting peace, but not to simply formalize our dispossession and exile or our institutionalized subordination in Israel.
Isn't it time to explore a way for Jews to co-inhabit Israel/Palestine without excluding, dominating and oppressing Palestinians? The past cannot be undone — but the future can be. We, Israelis and Palestinians together, should be seeking to form a society founded on tolerance and mutual respect for each other's humanity, a country that would truly be the "light unto nations" that Israel always aspired to be. When title to our home is restored — and the rights of its current occupants have been fully respected — I hope one day to stand in front of it with my family and welcome neighbors and visitors of all faiths and backgrounds, as my grandparents did before 1948.