Shifting sympathy

The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich
May 24, 2008

1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War
By Benny Morris
Yale University Press, 524pp, $US32.50

THE Arab states that sent their armies against Israel the day of its founding in May 1948 failed to kill the Jewish state but succeeded in blocking a Palestinian state.

In his new book on Israel's war of independence, Israeli historian Benny Morris spells out the Arab dysfunction and Jewish cohesiveness that permitted 650,000 Jews to forge a state 60 years ago in the face of a hostile Arab world that outnumbered it 40 to one. In doing so, they belied the confident predictions of the CIA and the British military command that the Jewish state would be stillborn.

Morris gained prominence two decades ago with his first book, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, which revealed that many of the 700,000 refugees created by the 1948 war did not flee at the request of the Arab leadership, as Israelis had been led to believe, but were deliberately driven out by Israel in the course of the fighting. That revelation made him anathema to many of his countrymen.

Morris was one of the first of the so-called new historians in Israel who made use of newly opened state archives to revise the standard narrative of the country's early years. He made clear his leftist inclinations when, as a paratroop reservist, he refused to serve in the occupied Palestinian territories and spent three weeks in an army jail. With the passage of time, however, his sentiments shifted from sympathy for Palestinian suffering to disdain for what he saw as Arabic tribal culture centred on revenge and incapable of compromise. Neither sympathy nor disdain, however, would prevent him from attempting a balanced account of the struggle.

In his new book, a significant work that is likely to become the standard account of the first Israeli-Arab war, Morris acknowledges that the Palestinians suffered a grave tragedy, with half their 800 villages destroyed and the framework of their society shattered. He maintains, though, that Israel has nothing to apologise for. It was the Arabs, not the Jews, who rejected the two-state solution called for by the UN and who chose war instead. Had Israel lost, its fate would have been worse than that suffered by the Palestinians. The Arab armies razed every Jewish settlement they captured, about a dozen.

It was a war between a small, well-organised, semi-industrial society that the Zionists had created during the course of a half century and an agricultural Palestinian society with little sense of unity beyond the clan.

In launching their attacks after the UN decision in November 1947 to partition the country into Arab and Jewish states, the Palestinians fought as local militias, having failed to establish a national framework. The Jews initially adopted a defensive posture as they built up their military organisation and acquired arms. In April 1948, a month before the declaration of Israel's independence, the Haganah, the Jewish military arm, went on the offensive and quickly smashed the scattered Palestinian formations.

These battles were intended by the Haganah command to clear the ground for the main event: the invasion by the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and Syria following the British withdrawal on May 15, 1948. Brigade commanders were authorised to evict Arabs in their operational areas so as not to have to cope with the invading armies and local hostiles behind their lines.

But, Morris says, there was initially no overall plan for the permanent expulsion of Arabs. Early in the fighting, Israeli settlements were established alongside abandoned Arab villages but not on the village sites, which were to be left for the returning Arab residents.

As the fighting progressed, however, there was a turnabout as the demographic factor came to be seen as critical. In addition, the Jews saw an opportunity for territorial expansion that could provide defensible borders without an Arab minority too big to swallow. Orders then were given to expel those Arabs who had not already fled and to destroy empty villages to ensure the refugees did not come back.

"Had anyone said that one day we should expel all of (the Palestinians), that would have been madness," foreign minister Moshe Shertok said at a cabinet meeting in June. "But if this happens in the turbulence of war, a war that the Arab people declared against us, that is one of those revolutionary changes after which history cannot be turned back." Not all were expelled, however, and Arabs today constitute 20 per cent of Israel's population.

The Arab states that ostensibly came to the Palestinians' aid, Morris says, were in fact opposed to a Palestinian state, at least one led by Haj Amin el-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem, who had seized the leadership after bloodily suppressing his Palestinian opponents. Husseini feared that the Arab states wanted to carve up Palestine among themselves and he was right. Jordan's king Abdullah was prepared to live with a Jewish state if it accepted his annexation of that part of Palestinian territory that came to be called the West Bank. Egypt, meanwhile, had its eyes on the southern Negev and ended up with the part that came to be called the Gaza Strip.

Morris says the Arabs refused to recognise the UN's support of a Jewish state as an ethical statement by the world community. "The vote represented humanity's amends for 2000 years of humiliation and persecution of the Jews, the world's eternally stateless people." A more pragmatic view was taken by Israel's founding father, David Ben-Gurion. "Why should the Arabs make peace?" he asked a colleague rhetorically. "We've taken their country. Sure, God promised it to us, but our God is not theirs. There have been the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They only see one thing. We have come here and stolen their country."

In retrospect, the worst thing that could have happened to the Jewish state would have been Arab acceptance. Partition as envisioned by the UN would have left Israel with only a 50,000-person Jewish majority within its boundaries, a disparity that would have been reversed within a few years by the high Arab birthrate. The only way Israel could have survived in the long run was for the Arabs to have gone to war against it and lose.

Abraham Rabinovich is a Jerusalem-based contributor to The Australian.

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