What Really Happened in Palestine, 1948?

            June 2013    
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The Nakba Golem

Palestine Betrayed by Efraim Karsh

Reviewed by Jack L. Schwartzwald

In May 1961, the weekly London publication, The Spectator, published an article entitled "The Other Exodus," which sought to place responsibility for the Palestine Arab refugee problem squarely on Israel's shoulders. The author, Erskine Childers, an Irish journalist, lamented the "widespread and especially Western lack of sympathy"[i] for the refugees' plight-a byproduct, he argued, of duplicitous Israeli propaganda that "falsely" portrayed the Arab states as the villain in the problem's genesis. Childers set out to deconstruct the pro-Israel case-noting that Arab radio broadcasts urged their minions in Palestine to stay put (not to leave as was claimed by Israel's defenders); that where Israelis did not directly carry out "massacres" (Deir Yassin) or forced expulsions (Lydda and Ramle), they purposefully induced flight with false rumors and ominous loudspeaker announcements ("Fly from Jerusalem before you are all killed!" "Unless you leave your homes, the fate of Deir Yassin will be your fate!"[ii]); that, in sum, the nascent Jewish state had the motive and the means to divest itself of its Arab citizenry, who would otherwise have comprised 45% of Israel's total population under the 1947 UN partition plan.

Childers' argument was a curious one since, until the early 1950s, the Arabs themselves freely admitted that the refugees' exodus was a flight, not an expulsion. Only on espying the political advantage of a new narrative did they attempt to charge the Jews with premeditated dispossession. Emerging as a true believer, Childers did what he could to popularize this new liturgy among Western audiences. But the indictment was only honed to perfection in the late 1980s when a cadre of Israeli researchers known collectively as the "new historians," declared that newly released archival materials "proved" Israel's culpability in creating the Arab refugee morass. (It may be added that they delivered these sad tidings to their stunned fellow countrymen with the sensitivity inherent in the title of Ilan Pappé's 2006 entry, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.)

In Palestine Betrayed (Yale University Press, 2010), Efraim Karsh, Professor of Middle East and Mediterranean Studies at King's College, London, refutes the revisionist accusation proffered by Childers and the "new historians," showing that what the archival materials actually "prove" is precisely the opposite: "that the claim of premeditated dispossession is not only baseless but the inverse of the truth." What was formerly recognized and acknowledged by both sides, says Karsh, has been "erased from public memory by decades of relentless pro-Arab propaganda. It is to reclaim the historical truth that this book has been written."[iii]

A project of such scope is an ambitious undertaking for a volume of 257 pages, but Karsh sacrifices neither breadth nor depth in the telling. Although the Arab riots of 1920, 1921 and 1929 coupled with the Arab Revolt of 1936-1939 lend an impression of constant tension between Arab and Jew during the period of the British Mandate (1920-48), Karsh demonstrates that "periods of peaceful coexistence were far longer than those of violent eruptions, and the latter were the work of a small fraction of Palestinian Arabs."[iv] Under the Turks, Palestine had not been a unitary entity, but was divided between the province of Beirut and the District of Jerusalem. The advent of the Zionist enterprise accelerated its consolidation into a land of opportunity with a consequent rise in the wealth and wellbeing of its Arab inhabitants. The result was not conflict, but cooperation-whether in building Jaffa's port, draining malarial swamps or in joint commercial enterprises such as the Arab-Jewish citrus growers' associations. To be sure, the Islamist view of Judaism was bigoted, but it was not pervasive. Indeed, the learned and influential Mufti of Jerusalem, Kamil Husseini (d. 1921), labored so fervently in the interest of peaceful coexistence, that the organizers of the proposed Hebrew University in Jerusalem invited him to lay the foundation stone at the institution's 1918 groundbreaking ceremony. (Seven years later, Egyptian Prime Minister Ziwar Pasha, lauded the university's inauguration as a "contribution to humankind."[v])

On the Jewish side, the desire for cooperation and peaceful coexistence was ubiquitous, while notions of dispossessing the Arabs were anathema. When the Peel Commission first suggested the partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states in 1937, floating the idea of a population exchange to assist in the process, the supposedly militant, Ze'ev Jabotinsky (the patriarch of Israel's modern Likud Party), replied, "The commission's report describes me as an extremist. But at least I never dreamt of demanding the Arab inhabitants of the Jewish state to emigrate."[vi]

The personification of the Zionist attitude, however, is found in the book's constantly rematerializing Jewish protagonist, David Ben-Gurion, who argued in 1915 that "Our renaissance in Palestine will come through the country's regeneration, that is: the renaissance of its Arab inhabitants,"[vii] and in 1918, that "had Zionism desired to evict the inhabitants of Palestine it would have been a dangerous utopia and a harmful, reactionary mirage."[viii] In a 1934 meeting with Arab interlocutors in which he promoted the idea of an independent Israel united in federation with the Arab states, Ben-Gurion explained that, "we are neither desirous nor capable of building our future in Palestine at the expense of the Arabs. The Arabs will remain where they are.."[ix]

Despite overwhelming evidence of the Jewish leader's sentiments, the "new historians" have attempted to portray Ben-Gurion in a diametrically opposite light-often by misquoting an October 5, 1937, letter from Ben-Gurion to his son, Amos. Karsh has fought and won this battle elsewhere.[x] In Palestine Betrayed, he simply quotes the letter without comment, and allows Ben-Gurion to make his own case. The pertinent clause runs: "We do not wish and do not need to expel Arabs and take their place. All our aspiration is built on the assumption-proven throughout all our activity in the Land [of Israel]-that there is enough room in the country for ourselves and the Arabs."[xi]

At a grassroots level Jewish hopes for coexistence were well received. At the diplomatic level, they encountered an impassable roadblock in the pan-Arab ambitions of the Arab world's leading political figures. The rulers of Syria, Iraq, Transjordan and Egypt all had visions of a Middle Eastern Arab empire, where, sadly, an independent Israel had no place. Hence, when the Peel Commission put forth its 1937 Palestine partition proposal, the leaders of Syria and Iraq hastened to prove their pan-Arab mettle by opposing it. Rising above the crowd as the saga's true villain, however, is Hajj Amin al-Husseini-the kinsman of Kamil Husseini, and his successor in the post of Mufti of Jerusalem. More intolerant of Jews (by several orders of magnitude) than Kamil had been tolerant, Hajj Amin saw anti-Semitic incitement as the avenue to power. According to Egyptian Prime Minister Ismail Sidqi, the Mufti "couldn't care less if the entire Arab world were destroyed so long as he achieved his own goals."[xii] The Arab Revolt of 1936-1939, commonly regarded as an Arab uprising against Palestine's Jews and the British Mandatory authorities, was to a greater degree the Mufti's bid to wipe out his peace-seeking Arab political rivals in Palestine. After being forced into exile, this "most important Arab Quisling" (as a British report referred to him) marketed himself to Hitler as leader of the Arab world. There was no basis for this claim in reality, but the Mufti hoped to bring it to fruition with Nazi support. (Meanwhile, notes Karsh, after the trauma of the Arab Revolt his supposed minions in Palestine "sought to return to normalcy and re-establish coexistence with their Jewish neighbors."[xiii])

In contrast to the Mufti, Abdullah, the Emir of Transjordan, at least had something constructive in mind when it came to the Jews. He wanted to absorb Palestine into his emirate, most especially its Zionist element, since he believed the Jews' economic and technological acumen would make the "enlarged Transjordan State.the most influential State in the Arab Middle East."[xiv]

By the time of the 1947 UN Partition Resolution recommending the partition of Palestine into separate Arab and Jewish states, the focus of these varied pan-Arab rivalries boiled down to King Abdullah's and Hajj Amin's competing ambitions for Palestine and the determination of the other Arab leaders to thwart either one achieving success. It was this comic opera, more than any other factor, that ensured the Arab world's mass intervention in the Palestine conflict upon Britain's withdrawal-turning what might have been a limited and solvable struggle into what Arab League Secretary Abdel Rahman Azzam dubbed "a war of extermination" against the Jewish state, "which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacre and the Crusades."[xv]

None of this, of course, is to respond directly to the plank of Childers and the "new historians." Under what circumstances did the Arab refugees leave? Did the Zionists drive them out? In his article, Childers triumphantly notes that, "There had allegedly been Arab radio broadcasts ordering the evacuation; but no dates, names of stations, or texts of messages were ever cited."[xvi] We are indebted to him for this revelation. There were indeed no "all points" radio bulletins calling upon the Arabs of Palestine to leave en masse, and if the world still labored under that formerly popular misconception, Karsh should not have had his chance to dazzle us by elucidating the sheer diversity of ways in which the Arabs of Palestine were cajoled from their homes by their own kinsmen. Far from being ousted by the Israelis (as Childers concluded after his fruitless search for the fabled radio broadcast), most of the refugees fled because they had no desire to be caught up in a war that was not of their own making (indeed, many Arabs had gone to Jewish settlements to celebrate a day after the partition resolution[xvii]), because public services broke down in their communities as the Mandatory authorities withdrew, because their political and military leaders took to their heels on the eve of battle (in Jaffa, Palestine's most populous Arab city, the city engineer locked up the city's water pumping station and departed[xviii]), because of plundering by their own supposed armed Arab protectors, because of fabricated reports of Israeli atrocities issued on Arab radio, or because they were ordered to evacuate by local political and military leaders (particularly the latter who were in the habit of seizing villages for use as guerilla bases[xix]).

In many instances, the Arab leadership sought to evacuate women and children only, with the intention of recruiting the men to fight. In almost every case, the men chose to evacuate with their families. In broad strokes, some of these facts will not be new to the reader. Karsh's accomplishment is that, after painstaking research, he has, in encyclopedic fashion, shown the specifics of where and when these incidents occurred-often on a village-by-village or even neighborhood-by neighborhood basis.

Childers' indictment in the Spectator did not end with the absence of all-inclusive evacuation orders on Arab radio, for he also made the converse observation that, "There is repeated monitored record of Arab appeals, even flat orders, to the civilians of Palestine to stay put."[xx] Again he is right. When the flight from Arab-controlled areas became a panicked flood, the Arab leadership did indeed call upon the inhabitants to stay where they were. What Childers neglected to mention was that the call only applied to Arab-controlled areas. To remain in Jewish-held territory was regarded by the Arab leadership as tacit recognition of Israel's right to exist-a crime tantamount to treason-and here the orders from above were entirely different. Tiberias, the first major city to fall into Jewish hands, was home to some 6,000 Arabs. The Jewish leadership pleaded with them to remain, but the Arab "national committee" at Nazareth ordered them out and, with reluctance, they left. That the same drama played out on a much larger scale in Haifa despite a tearful entreaty by the Jewish mayor, Shabtai Levy, is one of the war's best-known episodes. But even here Karsh has uncovered fascinating anecdotes. The reader learns, for example, that prior to the Haifa Arabs' departure the Hagana issued radio broadcasts urging them to stay (and ensuring their safety and their ability to go about their normal lives), while the city's rabbinate gave special authorization for Jewish bakers to bake bread to feed the hungry even though it was Passover.[xxi]

All told, tens of thousands were ordered out of the cities-yet a sad fact remains. For if Karsh proves that responsibility for the refugees' flight lies overwhelmingly with the Arabs, there were still instances-a bare fraction of the total, to be sure, but instances-in which Palestinian Arabs were driven from their homes by Israeli arms. And this brings us to the most ironic facet of Karsh's book-namely, that in the end it is not the myriad examples of Arab culpability that exonerates Israel, nor even the myriad examples of Israeli goodwill. Rather, absolution comes in the war's most glaring illustration of Arab civilians being evicted at Jewish hands: the forced evacuations of Lydda and Ramle.

A glance at the 1947 UN partition map reveals that, from a strategic standpoint, the area allotted to the Jewish state was militarily indefensible. At issue was the absence of open supply lines. Threatened with starvation, the 100,000 Jews of Jerusalem were the war's main hostages. There was no open supply road and no direct route from Tel Aviv, Israel's main logistics source. Jerusalem-bound Jewish convoys routinely sustained heavy casualties in ferrying basic supplies. Likewise, there was no open road to the Negev, comprising the bulk of the territory assigned to the Jewish state. Blocking the country's direct north-south and east-west supply routes, sat the Arab towns of Lydda and Ramle. At the outset of the war, the twin cities were home to roughly 35,000 souls, but by July 1948, the total had swelled to double that number due to an influx of refugees from elsewhere (most notably from Haifa). Moreover, the towns were heavily garrisoned and had been used as bases for attacks on Israeli convoys. The capture of these towns in July 1948 was therefore a strategic turning point in the war.

Plan D-the Hagana's operational plan to seize the initiative in protecting the fledgling Jewish state's communications and supply lines-did allow for the expulsion of Arab inhabitants from strategically important areas under specific circumstances. As Karsh notes, however, where it was done, the decision "was dictated exclusively by military necessity rather than political considerations.and applied only to sites that served as bases for attacks on Jewish targets (particularly key transportation arteries) which could not be kept from enemy forces after their conquest due to the unavailability of local forces.. Wherever one or more of these conditions did not apply, no harm was to be visited on Arab settlements and their inhabitants, who were to be incorporated into the nascent Jewish state as full and equal citizens ."[xxii] For many years, the fact that the IDF had forcibly evacuated Lydda and Ramle was treated as classified information. In the 1970s, Yitzhak Rabin attempted to recount the events in his memoirs only to have the passage deleted by order of an Israeli cabinet committee. In Rabin's words, the problem of what to do with the hostile armed populace was brought directly to Ben-Gurion who said nothing, but "waved his hand in a gesture which said, 'Drive them out!'"[xxiii]

Karsh examines this episode in detail, and his investigation reveals that there is much more to the story. The towns were taken in mid-July 1948 in a spectacular assault led by Moshe Dayan. When the shooting stopped, the mayor of Lydda requested terms. What were these terms-pack up and leave, for the position you occupy is strategically essential to us? No. The terms were that Arab fighters must surrender and all arms must be turned over within 24 hours, whereupon normal life could resume. The mayor left the meeting and toured the town to deliver the word, but when he arrived at the heavily fortified Lydda police station, the Arab garrison gunned him down in cold blood and then resumed the battle against the unsuspecting Israeli occupying force. It took three hours of panicked, bloody fighting before quiet was restored, whereupon terms were again discussed. What were the terms now? Pick up and leave-yes? No. The terms were that all arms must be surrendered within 24 hours or there would be "harsh retribution." After 24 hours not a single firearm had been turned over. The Israeli army lacked the resources to refight the battle ad infinitum. Hence, the towns were evacuated.

Although it was not meant to be, the rendition of this episode is the defining moment of Palestine Betrayed. A generation later, Yitzhak Rabin was still tormented by the memory, recording in his memoirs that, "Psychologically, [the Lydda and Ramle evacuation] was one of the most difficult actions we undertook," and that "great suffering was inflicted upon the [Israeli soldiers] taking part.who had been inculcated in values such as international brotherhood and humanness."[xxiv] If this is true, one may well question (as Karsh does) the actual meaning of Ben-Gurion's hand gesture. Did it truly mean, "Drive them out!" as Rabin's conscience required, or might it have been a show of exasperation by a man who had long dreamt of coexistence between Arab and Jew?

To put it in plain terms, even though the situation at Lydda and Ramle unambiguously met every "Plan D" criterion necessitating expulsion, the decision was only taken reluctantly and with enduring remorse. This is not the face of ethnic cleansing, but of survival-and of the heavy burden that can come with it in time of war.

Placed beside Karsh's meticulously documented prose, the offerings of an Erskine Childers or an Ilan Pappé appear as little more than polemicized babble. In the opening paragraph of his Spectator article, Childers places the number of Arab refugees at the end of Israel's War of Independence at 650,000. A few paragraphs later, he claims that 800,000 had already fled by May 14, 1948 (a full year before the conflict ended). The first figure may be correct.[xxv] But if so, the second is an absurdity. (It is also an absurdity in its own right.) Childers goes on to impugn the veracity of a 1948 article published in The Economist because its authors referred to the bloodletting at Deir Yassin (April 1948) as an "incident." "No impartial observer of Palestine in 1948 calls what happened at this avowedly non-belligerent, unarmed Arab village in April, 1948, an 'incident'.." writes Childers.[xxvi] He then recites his own propagandistic version-the chief merit of which is that it proves that Childers himself is "no impartial observer of Palestine in 1948." (For starters, the village wasn't "unarmed."[xxvii]) In Ilan Pappé's vast volume of work, a single example will suffice. In The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Pappé makes reference to Ben-Gurion's letter to his son, Amos (cited earlier). Where the letter says, "We do not wish and do not need to expel Arabs." Pappé quotes it as saying, "The Arabs will have to go."-a phrase that appears nowhere in the letter.[xxviii]

It is the attention to accuracy and detail that makes Karsh a scholar. It is the sloppiness, the misquotation and the distortion that make Childers and the "new historians" the conjurers of a Golem. If Childers, et al, truly sought evidence of attempted ethnic cleansing in the Arab-Israeli War of 1948-1949 (rather than seeking to haunt the collective Jewish psyche with a "crime" that never occurred), they could have found it before their noses in the fact that not a single Jew remained in the portions of Palestine controlled by the Arabs at war's end; or in Arab League Secretary Azzam's boast that, "We will start [the battle] and will not stop until victory has been achieved and our enemy has been thrown into the sea;"[xxix] or in the December 4, 1947, Arab attack on Tel Aviv's civilian Hatikva quarter, wherein Arab women accompanied the attackers, "bags and sacks in hand, eager to carry off the anticipated spoils."[xxx]

Childers begins and ends his Spectator article by quoting the following statement by former Israeli UN Ambassador, Abba Eban: "Unless we understand how [the Palestine Arab refugee] problem was caused we cannot rightly judge how it should be solved."[xxxi] His intention the second time was to cast the words back in Eban's face. Thanks to Karsh's labors, however, there can no longer be any doubt regarding the origin of the Palestine Arab refugee problem. Perhaps, at last, the world can rightly judge how it should be solved.

Jack L. Schwartzwald is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine at Brown University's Warren Alpert Medical School and the author of "Nine Lives of Israel" (McFarland Publishing, 2012)

[i] Erskine Childers, The Other Exodus. The Spectator, May 12, 1961. Reproduced in Walter Laqueur and Barry Rubin, ed., The Israel-Arab Reader. 5th Ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1995, pp. 122-8. (Quote is found on p. 122.)

[ii] Childers, op cit., pp. 125-6.

[iii] Efraim Karsh, Palestine Betrayed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010, pp. 5-7

[iv] Karsh, p. 14.

[v] Karsh, p. 48.

[vi] Karsh, p. 24.

[vii] Karsh, p. 22.

[viii] Karsh, p. 26.

[ix] Karsh, p. 29.

[x] See, for example, Karsh's Rewriting Israel's History. Middle East Quarterly, III:2, June 1996. http://www.meforum.org/302/rewriting-israels-history; and Benny Morris and the Reign of Error, Middle East Quarterly, VI:1, March 1999. http://www.meforum.org/466/benny-morris-and-the-reign-of-error

[xi] Karsh, p. 26. There has been a great deal of controversy over this letter. For a detailed discussion of a recent imbroglio, see the Ini and Van Zile article link cited in citation 14 below.

[xii] Karsh, p. 81.

[xiii] Karsh, p. 67.

[xiv] When Abdullah floated a similar proposal to Golda Meir at a secret meeting in 1948, he learned by hard experience that flattery really will get you nowhere.

[xv] Karsh, p. 209.

[xvi] Childers, op cit., p. 123.

[xvii] This according to a report in the December 1, 1947 issue of the Palestine Post, cited by Karsh, p. 109.

[xviii] Karsh, p. 157.

[xix] See especially Karsh, pp. 182-4.

[xx] Childers, op cit., p. 124.

[xxi] Karsh, pp. 138-9.

[xxii] Karsh, pp. 235-6.

[xxiii] Yitzhak Rabin, The Rabin Memoirs. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979, 1996, pp. 383-4.

[xxiv] Ibid.

[xxv] The number of refugees as of September 1948, according to a UN mediator report, was 472,000. British census figures put the pre-war Arab population of the areas that were ultimately incorporated into Israel at 809,000. The post-war figure for these areas was 160,000, meaning that a maximum of 649,000 could have become refugees during the course of the war (Mitchell Bard, Myths and Facts. Chevy Chase: American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, 2002, p. 124). After a scrupulous village-by-village accounting, Karsh (pp. 267-72) arrives at a figure between 583,121 and 609,071.

[xxvi] Childers, op cit., p. 124.

[xxvii] If Palestine Betrayed contains a lacuna, it is the absence of a detailed description of the Deir Yassin tragedy. It would be useful to have Karsh's input. The (Arab) Palestine Broadcasting Service issued reports of alleged atrocities committed by the Irgun and Lehi attackers, but the broadcaster himself, Hazam Nusseibi, later admitted that the accounts were fabrications (Bard, p. 135). Far from being unarmed, the village's Arab defenders put up an eight-hour resistance, which was not suppressed until the Irgun obtained assistance from a Palmach mortar team. The high Arab civilian death toll resulted largely from Arab fighters barricading themselves in homes containing civilian occupants, but also because at least one Arab fighter opened fire after surrendering, killing the Irgun commander and provoking return fire that killed many innocents. (For a more in depth discussion, see Bard, pp. 133-5; Samuel Katz, Battleground, New York: Taylor Productions, Ltd, 2002, pp. 18-19; and Zionist Organization of America, Deir Yassin: History of a Lie. ZOA publications, March 9, 1998.)

[xxviii] For a full discussion, see Gilead Ini and Dexter Van Zile, "Journal of Palestine Studies Compounds its Ben-Gurion Error." CAMERA, April 9, 2012. http://www.camera.org/index.asp?x_context=2&x_outlet=118&x_article=2219

[xxix] Arab League Secretary Abdel Rahman Azzam quoted in Karsh, p. 105.

[xxx] The same occurred in a January 14, 1948, attack on Kfar Etzion (see, Karsh, pp. 102-04). Both of these attacks were repulsed, but when Kfar Etzion finally fell in May 1948, the Arab attackers executed the civilian and military survivors alike in cold blood.

[xxxi] Childers, op cit., p. 122.


from the June 2013 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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