For the record

From the archive (legacy material)

Benny Morris | The Guardian | 14 January 2004

In 1948, thousands of Palestinians fled their homes in what is now Israel, and became refugees. Both sides have blamed each other ever since. But new documents show neither is entirely innocent, argues Benny Morris
First, there were the faces, the old Palestinian women huddled around a smoking, outdoor stone oven among the ruins of the Rashidiye refugee camp near Tyre in June 1982, days after the Israeli army had scythed through southern Lebanon. Their menfolk had fled northward to the PLO bastion in Beirut, or had been killed or captured and were undergoing interrogation in Israeli detention camps. The women told me that they originated in the village of Al Bassa, in northern Galilee. They had fled Palestine in 1948.
Then, in December 1982, came the first fading, pre-Xerox photocopies, neatly stacked in files in an archive outside Tel Aviv. They recorded the doings during late 1947-1948 of the Palmah, the strike force of the Haganah, the main Jewish underground militia in Palestine. They were still classified but I had been given access. Some of the documents, such as Lieutenant-Colonel Yitzhak Rabin’s order to the Yiftah Brigade of July 12 1948 to expel the inhabitants of the just-conquered Arab town of Lydda, shed light on the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem.
The faces and the documents together sparked my interest and I began to research and write my book, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949. The book that emerged undermined both the official Zionist and the traditional Arab narratives. The documents showed that the 700,000 or so Arabs who had fled or been driven from their homes in the area that became the state of Israel in 1948-49 had not done so, by and large, on orders from or at the behest of Palestinian or outside Arab leaders, as Israelis were educated to believe; but, at the same time, they had not been expelled by the Israelis in compliance with a preset master plan or in line with a systematic policy, as the Arabs, in their demonisation of Israel, have been taught.
The picture that emerged was a complex one – of frightened communities fleeing their homes at the first whiff of grapeshot, as they or neighbouring villages were attacked; of communities expelled by conquering Israeli troops; of villagers ordered by Arab commanders to send away women, children and the old to safety in inland areas; and of economic privation, unemployment and general chaos as the British mandate government wound down and allowed the two native communities to slug it out. The better-organised, economically more robust and ideologically more cohesive and motivated Jewish community weathered the flail of war; Palestinian society fell apart.
The book’s publication by Cambridge University Press in 1988 (and, in Hebrew in 1991 and Arabic, abridged and without my permission, in 1993), caused a ruckus. The Israeli academic establishment and publicists branded me “pro-PLO” (at the time, meeting with PLO officials was punishable by imprisonment), while most Palestinian academics, at least publicly, said the book was “sophisticated Zionist propaganda”. But over the years the book won over doubters and was adopted as a basic text in courses on the modern Middle East in most Israeli and western universities.
But the critics failed to note the work’s major methodological flaw – the relative lack of basic military and intelligence documentation describing the operations that led to the Palestinian exodus. According to Israel’s archives law, military documentation was to remain sealed for 50 years, intelligence documents for longer. But during the 1990s, the Haganah and IDF archives began to open up their files from 1948 to public scrutiny. At the same time, additional papers became available in other archives, including the protocols of the 1948 Israeli cabinet deliberations. While this giant declassification did not alter my main conclusions from 1988, the new documents shed a great deal of light on all major aspects of the creation of the refugee problem.
This has allowed me, in The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, to enhance the treatment of pre-1948 Zionist thinking about transferring – or expelling – the Palestinian Arabs, which Arab critics had accused me of downplaying. Zionist historians, meanwhile, had charged that I had accorded the subject too much significance and that the pre-1948 Zionist leadership had never supported transfer. The newly available material shows that the Israeli critics were wrong: the Zionist leadership in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, from David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister, through Chaim Weizmann, the liberal president of the World Zionist Organisation, and Menahem Ussishkin and Zeev Jabotinsky, had supported the idea. In 1928, Frederick Kisch, the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, told Weizmann that he had “always been hoping and waiting for” a solution of “the racial problem of Palestine” by way of a transfer of its Arabs to Mesopotamia. And, in 1930, he wrote that “it should not be impossible to come to an arrangement with [King] Faisal [of Iraq] by which he would take the initiative in offering good openings for Arab immigrants … There can be no conceivable hardship for Palestinian Arabs – a nomadic and semi-nomadic people – to move to another Arab country where there are better opportunities for an agricultural life.”
On January 30 1941, Weizmann met with the Soviet ambassador to London, Ivan Maiskii, where they spoke of a possible solution to the Palestine problem. According to Weizmann’s account, Maiskii said “there would have to be an exchange of populations. Dr Weizmann said that if half a million Arabs could be transferred, two million Jews [from Europe] could be put in their place. That, of course, would be a first instalment … Mr. Maiskii’s comment was that they in Russia had also had to deal with exchanges of population. Dr. Weizmann said that the distance they had to deal with in Palestine would be smaller; they would be transferring the Arabs only into Iraq or Transjordan.”
But this did not translate into an expulsion masterplan; there was no such plan or policy in 1948. Indeed, as late as March 24 1948, the high command of the Haganah had instructed all its units to recognise “the full rights, needs and freedom of the Arabs in the Jewish state without discrimination, and a striving for coexistence with freedom and respect”.
But this pre-1948 transfer thinking had been significant: it had readied hearts and minds in the Jewish community for the denouement of 1948. From April, most Jewish officers and officials had acted as if transfer was the state’s desire, if not policy.
No doubt, Arab fright and flight was leavened by reports of real and imagined Jewish atrocities – and there were many real ones, as the recently released documentation shows. Pillage was almost de rigueur, rape was not infrequent, the execution of prisoners of war was fairly routine during the months before May 1948 (the country was under British administration and the Haganah had no PoW camps), and small- and medium-scale massacres of Arabs occurred during April, May, July and October to November. Altogether, there were some two dozen cases.
Birth Revisited describes many more atrocities and expulsions than were recorded in the original version of the book. But, at the same time, a far greater proportion of the 700,000 Arab refugees were ordered or advised by their fellow Arabs to abandon their homes than I had previously registered. It is clear from the new documentation that the Palestinian leadership in principle opposed the Arab flight from December 1947 to April 1948, while at the same time encouraging or ordering a great many villages to send away their women, children and old folk, to be out of harm’s way. Whole villages, especially in the Jewish- dominated coastal plain, were also ordered to evacuate. There is no doubt that, throughout, the departure of dependents lowered the morale of the remaining males and paved the way for their eventual departure as well.
Where do these new findings leave the question of responsibility for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem? And what do they signify with respect to the current political impasse and conflicting Israeli and Palestinian political-diplomatic agendas?
Looking at the big picture, there can be no avoiding the simple Arab argument “No Zionism – no Palestinian refugee problem”. But adopting such a slogan means accepting the view that a Jewish state should not have been established in Palestine (or, presumably, anywhere else). Neither can one avoid the standard Zionist rebuttal: “No war – no Palestinian refugee problem”, meaning that the problem wasn’t created by the Zionists but by the Arabs themselves, and stemmed directly from their violent assault on Israel. Had the Palestinians and the Arab states refrained from launching a war to destroy the emergent Jewish state, there would have been no refugees and none would exist today.
Since the start of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the early 1990s, the Palestinian leadership has demanded that Israel both accept responsibility for the creation of the refugee problem and accept the refugees’ “right of return”, as embodied in UN general assembly resolution 194 of December 1948. From June to August 1948, the Israeli cabinet endorsed a policy of barring a return, arguing that a mass return of those who had fought and tried to destroy the Jewish state would mortally threaten the state’s existence.
This argument is as valid today as it was in 1948. Israel today has five million Jews and more than a million Arabs. Were 3.5 to 4 million Palestinian refugees – the number listed in UN rolls – empowered to return immediately to Israeli territory, the upshot would be widespread anarchy and violence. Even if the return were spread over a number of years or even decades, the ultimate result, given the Arabs’ far higher birth rates, would be the same: gradually, it would lead to the conversion of the country into an Arab-majority state, from which the (remaining) Jews would steadily emigrate. Would Jews really wish to live as second-class citizens in an authoritarian Muslim-dominated, Arab-ruled state? This also applies to the idea of replacing Israel and the occupied territories with one, unitary binational state, a solution that some blind or hypocritical western intellectuals have been trumpeting.
To many in the west, the right of refugees to return to their homes seems natural and just. But this “right of return” needs to be weighed against the right to life and well-being of the five million Jews who currently live in Israel, about half of whom were born in the country, have known no other country and have no other homeland. Wouldn’t the destruction or, at the least, the forced displacement of these 5 million – and this would be the necessary upshot of a mass Palestinian refugee return, whatever Arab spokesmen say – constitute a far greater tragedy than what befell the Palestinians in 1948 and, currently, a graver injustice than the perpetuation of the refugeedom of fewer than 4 million Palestinians?