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1948: The first Arab-Israeli war

Benny Morris
Yale University Press, 524pp

1948Don't read this book unless you've got a strong stomach. It is a history of ethnic cleansing, bloody massacres and gang rapes. The victims were the Palestinians. But the book also offers a sad warning about how an academic's ideological presuppositions, especially when tied to nationalism, can colour his scholarship. At times Morris seemed to be straining to show that the whole sorry series of events that Palestinians call the Nakba ('Catastrophe') was not a pre-planned war crime, but a haphazard consequence of the supposedly aggressive intentions of the Arab states.

Morris is credited as one of the founding 'revisionist' historians who emerged after the 1982 Lebanon war, researching newly released Israeli archives. The information in them was devastating for Zionist propaganda. When I became an evangelical Christian, I remember Christian-Zionist articles and trashy books parroting the Israeli line that that the Zionist forces treated the Palestinians well save on a few isolated occasions. All that was a lie. To understand what happened in Palestine in 1948, think back to the TV images of Bosnia and Kosova in the 1990s: essentially, that was what the Palestinians suffered. One only has to talk to Palestinian refugees to learn this, but Morris has based his book mainly on Israeli archives. He should have toured Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan and the West Bank too.

Morris is a good writer, and though this thick volume is daunting at first glance, it is a rewarding read. To say it is thorough is an understatement - its detail is breathtaking. It provides an excellent resource for the history of the Nakba - with major reservations. The problem is that Morris has changed since his first treatment of the subject, apparently as a consequence of disillusionment after the Second Intifada. Perhaps this explains why he fails to follow-through on his observations in the book.

The narratives of atrocity against Palestinians are sickening. It must be acknowledged that at times Jewish settlers were also massacred or expelled, but on nothing like the same scale. Indeed, there were cases where Palestinians protected Jews. Many Palestinian villages refused to co-operate in military actions against Jewish settlements. Yet none of this saved them - they were damned because of their race and religion. Indeed, Morris notes that the main Palestinian body, the Arab Higher Committee, and also the Arab League, 'never issued a general call to arms or a blanket order to attack "the Yishuv"'. In contrast, the Irgun and Stern Gangs engaged in indiscriminate terrorism, and the Haganah by April 1948 intended 'to evict the Arabs'. By May 1948 - before any Arab armies had entered the land - up to one hundred thousand Arabs had been 'displaced'.

The most infamous example of atrocity occurred in Deir Yassin, when Irgun and Stern terrorists attacked the village in April, and massacred whole families, children included, and 'raped a number of girls'. Other examples of rape come from in Jaffa, involving among others, a twelve-year old girl. In listing such instances of gang rapes, Morris fails to examine the cultural context. In Middle Eastern society, when a girl is raped, she either keeps quiet or she may be the victim of an honour killing; at best, she will be disowned and cast out. Saddam used rape as a weapon in Kurdistan and Kuwait. In ordinary situations, Arab/Muslim men may fight when attacked; if the honour of their womenfolk is at stake, they will run. Thus the use of rape by Zionist forces in 1948 not about lust, but ethnic cleansing and terror.

Other noteworthy cases include Lydda (now Lod) and Ramleh. 'Pilgrims' using Lod Airport may wish to reconsider of the terrible events that happened there. Ben-Gurion 'obsessively' determined that the towns 'had to be destroyed'. Indeed, 'From the first, Ben-Gurion and the IDF commanders had thought in terms of depopulating the two towns'. Morris comments how townspeople were massacred in the mosque, but not that the same thing happened to Christians in church. However, he is clear that a definite order came to expel the remaining inhabitants. All this undermines the idea of a voluntary exodus; indeed, Morris shows how the Arab leadership urged their people to stay.
Where Morris fails is his insistence that the ethnic cleansing was, at least at first, haphazard, rather than planned. Contradicting this, he acknowledges that as far back as the 1930s, Weizmann and Ben-Gurion were openly talking of 'transfer' of the Palestinians. Indeed, he notes that Herzl, the founder of Zionism, advocated it.

He fails to take on board Laila Parsons' refutation of his earlier writing on this score (his contribution to a book called The War for Palestine: Rewriting the History of 1948, in 2001). She showed that no Druze were expelled by Israel, even where they resisted, whereas even when Christians didn't resist, they were ethnically cleansed, notably in the mixed Christian-Druze village of al-Rama. As Parsons noted, if Muslim and Christian Palestinians were generally expelled, and Druze were left unmolested, 'then this selectivity… would indicate that at least a degree of intentionality or design had affected the process of expulsion'.

Morris also proposes the ridiculous 'population swap' argument about the migration of Jews from Arab countries. Yet, apart from the fact that the Palestinians did not cause this, and did not want to be swapped, he ignores the implications of the dates involved. All of them follow 1948, and indeed, usually occurred in the 1950s. Moreover, in Libya, Aden and Morocco, these countries were then under direct European rule, and Iraq and Egypt were British puppets. Further, in each case, the departure of Jewish communities followed riots, not government action; one can compare Islamophobic attacks in Western lands after 9/11 and 7/7. Morris never mentions that the Arab states all invited Arab Jews back. Then again, it does not suit Israeli propaganda to mention this; it might encourage the idea that they should reciprocate. One can only hope that anti-Arab racism will decline sufficiently to effect this soon.

Anthony McRoy