Ilan Pappe & Benny Morris: Where did the Arabs go in 1948?

Historians in the News

SO IS it to be 1967 or 1948? For watchers of the Middle East this question is shorthand for two different ways to think about the origins of, and solutions to, the long conflict between Israel and the Arabs of Palestine. In the eyes of the 1967 crowd, Israel was entitled to the borders it had before its abrupt expansion in the six-day war of that year. To make peace, the trick is therefore to create circumstances in which Israel will give up most or all of that land and allow an independent Palestinian state to arise in the West Bank and Gaza. That, as generations of failed peacemakers have discovered, is quite a tall order.

For the 1948 crowd, however, this way of thinking about the conflict is a mistake. They argue that peace is impossible unless Israel admits to and atones for the crime they say it committed nearly 60 years ago, in its independence war of 1948. That crime, they say, was deliberately to expel most of the Arabs of Palestine, close to 800,000 people, in order to be sure of having a Jewish majority for the Jewish state. Unless Israel somehow makes amends for this earlier catastrophe, which the Arabs call the nakba, peace is an impossibility.

Ilan Pappe, a political scientist at the University of Haifa, is one of the purest Israeli exponents of the 1948 view. He knows how provocative it is to choose the phrase “ethnic cleansing” for the title of his latest book. But ethnic cleansing, he insists, is precisely what occurred in the first Arab-Israeli war. It was, he says, a long-premeditated crime, implemented ruthlessly and then systematically denied. In 1948 the Zionists did not happen to wage a war that tragically but inevitably led to the expulsion of parts of the indigenous population. The ethnic cleansing of all of Palestine, he maintains, was the main goal all along.

Inside Israel, the historiography of 1948 has been in ferment for more than 20 years. Israel and its admirers once clung to a simple collective view about the circumstances of the state's birth. In a Solomonic judgment, the United Nations voted to divide the contested land into a Jewish state and an Arab state. The Jews accepted the plan, but the Arabs tried to strangle the Jewish state at birth. In the course of the war that followed, the Jews overcame vast odds, guaranteeing their survival and expanding the territory allotted to them under the original plan. In the course of the fighting, most of the Arab population fled.

The last bit of this over-simple narrative has by now been comprehensively debunked. In 1988 Benny Morris, an Israeli historian, published “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949”, challenging the view that most of the Arabs fled of their own accord, in panic or at the behest of the Arab states. In many towns and villages they were put to flight deliberately. Mr Morris said that there was no master plan to evict all the Arabs: many expulsions took place in the heat of battle and the fog of war. But he also argued that the idea of a population transfer had been carefully considered by David Ben-Gurion and the other Zionist leaders, and hovered behind their actions and deliberations.

Mr Morris and other “new historians” in Israel unleashed fierce argument. Other scholars accused Mr Morris of traducing Ben-Gurion through selective quotation. In a new version of “The Birth” in 2004, Mr Morris offered even more evidence of the extent to which the Zionist leadership hankered after a population transfer, and the alacrity with which they exploited the events of 1948 to bring one about. (Mr Morris also said, in an interview that stunned his supporters, that Israel was justified in uprooting the Palestinian “fifth column” once the Arabs had attacked the infant state, and that the number executed or massacred—some 800, on his reckoning—was “peanuts” compared with, say, the massacres in Bosnia in the 1990s.)

Mr Pappe, however, goes a good deal further than Mr Morris. He insists that there was indeed a master plan. On March 10th 1948, he asserts, 11 men met at the “red house”, the Tel Aviv headquarters of Israel's pre-state army, the Haganah, to put the final touches to Plan Dalet, “a plan for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine”. That evening, military orders were sent to units on the ground to prepare for the expulsion of the Palestinians. Mr Pappe calls this group of men the “consultancy”, an ad hoc cabal of political and military leaders dominated by Ben-Gurion. And population transfer did not just “hover” in the background of their thinking, he says. It was central from the start....

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Kenneth R Stow - 11/22/2006

No need to refer to the Pappe argument. He wears his bias on his sleeve and overstates at will. The point is that, and one sidedness. Morris, I feel sure, points not only to the actual number of Arabs who perished, but to the number of Israeli's who died, 6000, about 1% of the then Jewish population, that is, 3,000,000, expressed in terms of the current American population, or 1000 times the number who perished in the tragedy of the World Trade Center. Who would not say at the 1948 Israeli tragedy was unfolding, "enough is enough." It would be naive to imagine that Ben Gurion had not considered expulsion as the conflict following the partition plan of 1947 began to develop. It would be equally naive to believe that these considerations should not have turned into fact in the heat of battle. Unless, of course, one believes that Jews are to be submissive at all costs and all times, the words of Pope Alexander II in the year 1063.