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The University of Michigan PressCopyright © 2007 Benny Morris
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Chapter OneBenny Morris
The New Historiography Israel Confronts Its Past
On 11 July 1948, the Yiftah Brigade's Third Battalion, as part of what was called Operation Dani, occupied the center of the Arab town of Lydda There was no formal surrender, but the night passed quietly. Just before noon the following day, two or three armored cars belonging to the Arab Legion, the British-led and -trained Jordanian army, drove into town. A firefight ensued. And the scout cars withdrew. But a number of armed townspeople, perhaps believing that the shooting heralded a major Arab counterattack, began sniping from windows and rooftops at their Israeli occupiers. The Third Battalion-about four hundred nervous Israeli soldiers in the middle of an Arab town of tens of thousands-fiercely put down what various chroniclers subsequently called a "rebellion" by firing in the streets, into houses, and at a concentration of prisoners of war (POWs) in a mosque. Israeli military records refer to "about 250" Arabs killed in the town that afternoon. By contrast, Israeli casualties in both the firefights with the scout cars and the suppression of the sniping were between 2 and 4 dead (the records vary) and 12 wounded. Israeli historians called the affair a rebellion in order to justify the subsequent slaughter; Arab chroniclers, such as Arifal-Arif, did likewise in order to highlight Palestinian resolve and resistance in face of Zionist encroachment.
Operation Dani took place roughly midway through the first Arab-Israeli War-the War of Independence in official Israeli parlance. The Arab states' invasion of the fledgling state on 15 May had been halted weeks before; the newly organized and freshly equipped Israel Defense Forces (IDF) were on the offensive on all fronts-as was to remain true for the remainder of the war.
On 12 July, before the shooting in Lydda had completely died down, Lt. Col. Yitzhak Rabin, the operation's officer of Operation Dani, issued the following order: "1. The inhabitants of Lydda must be expelled quickly without attention to age. They should be directed toward Beit Nabala. Yiftah [Brigade headquarters (HQ)] must determine the method and inform [Operation] Dani HQ and Eighth Brigade HQ. 2. Implement immediately." A similar order was issued at the same time to the Kiryati Brigade concerning the inhabitants of the neighboring Arab town of Ramle.
On 12 and 13 July, the Yiftah and Kiryati brigades carried out their orders, expelling the fifty to sixty thousand inhabitants of the two towns, which lie about ten miles southeast of Tel Aviv. Throughout the war, the two towns had interdicted Jewish traffic on the main Tel Aviv-Jerusalem road, and the Yishuv's leaders regarded Lydda and Ramle as a perpetual threat to Tel Aviv itself. About noon on 13 July, Operation Dani HQ informed IDF General Staff/Operations: "Lydda police fort has been captured. [The troops] are busy expelling the inhabitants ['oskim begeirush hatoshavim]." Lydda's inhabitants were forced to walk eastward toward the Arab Legion lines, and many of Ramle's inhabitants were ferried in trucks or buses. Clogging the roads (and the legion's routes of advance westward), the tens of thousands of refugees marched, gradually shedding possessions along the way. Arab chroniclers, such as Sheikh Muhammad Nimr al Khatib, claimed that hundreds of children died in the march of dehydration and disease. One Israeli witness at the time described the spoor. The refugee column "to begin with [jettisoned] utensils and furniture and, in the end, bodies of men, women and children." Many of the refugees came to rest near Ramallah and set up tent encampments (which later became refugee camps supported by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees [UNRWA] and hot beds of Palestinian militancy).
Israeli historians in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s were less than honest in their treatment of the Lydda-Ramle episode. The IDF's official Toldot Mu'hemet Hakomemiyut (History of the War of Independence), written by members of the General Staff/History Branch and published in 1959, stated: "The Arabs [of Lydda], who had violated the terms of the surrender and feared [Israeli] retribution, were happy at the possibility given them of evacuating the town and proceeding eastwards, to Legion territory: Lydda emptied of its Arab inhabitants.'
Two years later, the former head of the IDF History Branch, Lt. Col. Netanel Lorch, wrote in The Edge of the Sword, his history of the war, that "the residents, who had violated surrender terms and feared retribution, declared they would leave, and asked for safe conduct to Arab Legion lines, which was granted."
A somewhat less deceitful, but also misleading, description of the events in Lydda and Ramle is provided by Lt. Col. Elhannan Orren, another former employee of the IDF History Branch, in his Baderekh el Ha'ir (On the Road to the City), a highly detailed description of Operation Dani published by the IDF Press in 1976. Orren, like his predecessors, fails to state anywhere that what occurred was an expulsion and one explicitly ordered from on high (originating, according to Ben-Gurion's first major biographer, Michael Bar-Zohar, with the prime minister himself). Orren also repeats a variant of the 'inhabitants asked, the IDF graciously complied' story.
Yitzhak Rabin, ironically more frank than his chroniclers, inserted a passage in the manuscript of his autobiography, Pinkas Sherut (service notebook), that more or less admitted that what had occurred in Lydda and Ramle had been an expulsion. But the passage was excised by order of the Israeli government. (Subsequently, to everyone's embarrassment, Peretz Kidron, the English translator of Pinkas Sherut, sent the deleted passage to the New York Times, where it was published on 23 October 1979.)
The treatment of the Lydda-Ramle affair by past Israeli historians is illustrative of what can be called, for want of a better term, the Old or official History. That history has shaped the way Israelis and diaspora Jews-or at least diaspora Zionists-have seen, and in large measure still see, Israel's past; and it has also held sway over the way gentile Europeans and Americans (and their governments) see that past. This understanding of the past, in turn, has significantly influenced the attitude of diaspora Jews, as well as European and American non-Jews, toward present-day Israel-which effects government policies concerning the Israeli-Arab conflict.
The essence of the Old History is that Zionism was a beneficent and well-meaning, progressive national movement; that Israel was born pure into an uncharitable, predatory world; that Zionist efforts to achieve compromise and conciliation were rejected by the Arabs; and that Palestine's Arabs, and in their wake the surrounding Arab states, for reasons of innate selfishness, xenophobia, and downright cussedness, refused to accede to the burgeoning Zionist presence and in 1947 launched a war to extirpate the foreign plant. The Arabs, so goes the Old History, were politically and militarily assisted in their efforts by the British, but they nonetheless lost the war. Poorly armed and outnumbered, the Jewish community in Palestine, called the Yishuv, fought valiantly, suppressed the Palestinian "gangs" (knufiyot in Israeli parlance), and repelled the "five" invading Arab armies. In the course of that war, says the Old History-which at this point becomes indistinguishable from Israeli propaganda-Arab states and leaders, in order to blacken Israel's image and facilitate the invasion of Palestine, called on or ordered Palestine's Arabs to quit their homes and the "Zionist areas"-to which they were expected to return once the Arab armies had proved victorious. Thus was triggered the Palestinian Arab exodus, which led to the now forty-year-old Palestinian refugee problem.
The Old History makes the further claim that in the latter stages of the 1948 war and in the years immediately thereafter Israel desperately sought to make peace with all or any of its neighbors. But the Arabs, obdurate and ungenerous, refused all overtures, remaining hell-bent on destroying Israel.
The Old Historians offered a simplistic and consciously pro-Israeli interpretation of the past, and they deliberately avoided mentioning anything that would reflect badly on Israel. People argued that since the conflict with the Arabs was still raging, and since it was a political as well as a military struggle, it necessarily involved propaganda, the goodwill (or ill will) of governments in the West, and the hearts and minds of Christians and diaspora Jews. Blackening Israel's image, it was argued, would ultimately weaken Israel in its ongoing war for survival. In short, raison d'état often took precedence over telling the truth.
The past few years have witnessed the emergence of a new generation of Israeli scholars and a New History. These historians, some of them living abroad, have looked and are looking afresh at the Israeli historical experience, and their conclusions, by and large, are at odds with those of the Old Historians.
Two factors are involved in the emergence of this New History-one relating to materials, the other to personae.
Thanks to Israel's Archives Law (passed in 1955 and amended in 1964 and 1981), and particularly to its key "thirty-year rule," starting in the early 1980s a large number (hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions) of state papers were opened to researchers. Almost all the Foreign Ministry's papers from 1947 to 1956, as well as a large number of documents-correspondence, memoranda, minutes-from other ministries, including the Prime Minister's Office (though excluding the Defense Ministry and the IDF), have been released. Similarly large collections of private papers and political party papers from this period have been opened. Therefore, for the first time historians have been able to write studies of the period on the basis of a large collection of contemporary source material. (The Old History was written largely on the basis of interviews and memoirs, and at best it made use of select batches of documents, many of them censored, such as those from the IDF Archive).
The second factor is the nature of the New Historians. Most of them were born around 1948 and have matured in a more open, doubting, and self-critical Israel than the pre-Lebanon War Israel in which the Old Historians grew up. The Old Historians lived through 1948 as highly committed adult participants in the epic, glorious rebirth of the Jewish commonwealth. They were unable to separate their lives from this historical event, unable to regard impartially and objectively the facts and processes that they later wrote about. Indeed, they admit as much. The New Historians, by contrast, are able to be more impartial.
Inevitably, the New Historians focused their attention, at least initially, on 1948 both because the documents were available and because that was the central, natal, revolutionary event in Israeli history. How one perceives 1948 bears heavily on how one perceives the whole Zionist/ Israeli experience. If Israel, the haven of a much-persecuted people, was born pure and innocent, then it was worthy of the grace, material assistance, and political support showered upon it by the West over the past forty years-and worthy of more of the same in the years to come. If, on the other hand, Israel was born tarnished, besmirched by original sin, then it was no more deserving of that grace and assistance than were its neighbors.
The past few months have seen the publication in the West of a handful of New Histories, including Avi Shlaim's Collusion across the Jordan (1988); Ilan Pappé's Britain and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1948-1951 (1988); Simha Flapan's The Birth of Israel (1987); and my own The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 (1988). Taken together, these works-along with a large number of articles that have appeared recently in academic journals such as Studies in Zionism, Middle Eastern Studies, and the Middle East Journal-significantly undermine, if not thoroughly demolish, a variety of assumptions that helped form the core of the Old History.
Flapan's work is the least historical of these books. Indeed, it is not, strictly speaking, a history at all but rather a polemical work written from a Marxist perspective. In his introduction, Flapan-who passed away last year and was the former director of the left-wing Mapam Party's Arab Department and editor of the monthly New Outlook-writes that his purpose is not to produce "a detailed historical study interesting only to historians and researchers" but rather to write "a book that will undermine the propaganda structures that have so long obstructed the growth of the peace forces in my country." Politics rather than historiography is the book's manifest objective.
Despite its explicitly polemical purpose, Flapan's book has the virtue of more or less accurately formulating some of the central fallacies-which he calls myths-that informed the Old History. These were (1) that the Yishuv in 1947 joyously accepted partition and the truncated Jewish state prescribed by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly and that the Palestinians and the surrounding Arab states unanimously rejected the partition and attacked the Yishuv with the aim of throwing the Jews into the sea; (2) that the war was waged between a relatively defenseless and weak (Jewish) David and a relatively strong (Arab) Goliath; (3) that the Palestinians fled their homes and villages either voluntarily or at the behest or order of Arab leaders; and (4) that at the war's end Israel was interested in making peace but the recalcitrant Arabs displayed no such interest, opting for a perpetual-if sporadic-war to the finish.
Because of poor research and analysis-including the selective and erroneous use of documents-Flapan's demolition of these myths is far from convincing. But Shlaim, in Collusion, tackles some of the same myths-and far more persuasively. According to Shlaim, the original Zionist goal was the establishment of a Jewish state in the whole of Palestine. The acceptance of partition in the mid-1930s, as in 1947, was tactical, not a change in the Zionist dream. Ben-Gurion, says Shlaim, considered the partition lines of "secondary importance ... because he intended to change them in any case; they were not the end but only the be ginning." 12 To his son, Amos, Ben-Gurion wrote in October 1937: "My assumption is that ... a partial Jewish state is not an end but a beginning ... and it will serve as a powerful lever in our historical efforts to redeem the whole of the country." In June 1938, Ben-Gurion explained to the Jewish Agency Executive that he had agreed to the partition plan "not because I will make do with part of the country, but on the basis of the assumption that after we constitute a strong force after the establishment of the state we will annul the partition and expand through the whole Land of Israel."
Come November 1947, the Yishuv entered the first stage of the war with a tacit understanding with Transjordan's king, Abdullah, "a falcon trapped in a canary's cage," that his Arab Legion would take over the eastern part of Palestine (now called the West Bank), which had been earmarked by the UN for Palestinian statehood, and would leave the Yishuv alone to set up a Jewish state in the rest of the country. The Yishuv and the Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan, Shlaim persuasively argues, had conspired from 1946 to early 1947 to nip the (future) UN Partition Resolution in the bud and to stymie the emergence of a Palestinian Arab state. From the start, while publicly expressing support for the partition of the land between its Jewish and Arab communities, both Ben-Gurion and Abdullah aimed to frustrate the UN resolution and share among themselves the areas earmarked for Palestinian Arab statehood. It was to be partition-but between Israel and Transjordan. This "collusion" and "unholy alliance"-in Shlaim's loaded phrases-was sealed at a now-famous clandestine meeting between Golda Myerson (Meir) and Abdullah at Naharayim, on the Jordan River, on 17 November 1947.
This Zionist-Hashemite nonaggression pact was sanctioned by Britain, adds Shlaim. Contrary to the old Zionist historiography-which was based largely on the (mistaken) feeling of Israel's leaders at the time-Britain's foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, "by February 1948," had clearly become "resigned to the inevitable emergence of a Jewish state" (while opposing the emergence of a Palestinian Arab state). Indeed, he warned Transjordan "to refrain from invading the areas allotted to the Jews." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Making Israel Copyright © 2007 by Benny Morris . Excerpted by permission.
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