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1948: Palestine betrayed

Zionist Jews were not interlopers in Palestine. The creation of the Jewish state was not an "original sin" foisted upon the Arab world. The tragic flight of the Palestinian refugees was overwhelmingly not the fault of the Zionists. To the contrary, at every momentous junction the Zionists opted for compromise and peace, the Arabs for intransigence and belligerency.

This, in summary, is how most people once understood the Arab-Israel conflict. Today, however, as Israel marks its Independence Day, an entire generation has come to maturity believing a diametrically opposite "narrative": namely, that the troubles persist because of West Bank settlements, because of Israeli building in east Jerusalem, because of the security barrier, because of heavy-handed Israeli militarism-in brief, because of a racist Zionist imperialism whose roots stretch back to 1948 and beyond.

The new view has been shaped by a confluence of factors: unsympathetic media coverage, an obsessive focus by the UN and others on Israel's alleged shortcomings, improved Arab suasion techniques, and the global Left's adoption of the Palestinian cause.  Added to the mix is the influence of Israel's own "New Historians," whose revisionist attacks on the older understanding have helped shape today's authorized academic canon.

Such attacks have themselves not gone altogether without challenge-and at least one prominent New Historian, Benny Morris, has since moderated his views. Outstanding among the challengers has been the scholar Efraim Karsh, head of the Middle East and Mediterranean Studies Program at King's College, University of London, and the author of a 1997 debunking of the New Historians entitled Fabricating Israeli History.

In his just-published book, Palestine Betrayed, Karsh zeroes in on the 1948-49 war, its background, and its consequences, in an analysis that re-establishes the essential accuracy of the once-classic account of the Arab-Israel conflict.  Basing itself on Arabic as well as Western, Soviet, UN, and Israeli sources, Karsh's is corrective history at its boldest and most thorough. Elliot Jager interviewed Efraim Karsh for Jewish Ideas Daily.

Who "betrayed" Palestine?

Palestine was betrayed by its corrupt and extremist Arab leadership, headed by Hajj Amin Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem. From the early 1920s onward, and very much against the wishes of their own constituents, these leaders launched a relentless campaign to obliterate the Jewish national revival, culminating in the violent attempt to abort the UN partition resolution of November 1947.

You dedicate this book to Elias Katz and Sami Taha. Who were they?

A native of Finland, Elias Katz won two Olympic medals in the 1924 Paris games before immigrating to Mandatory Palestine and becoming coach of the prospective Jewish state's athletic team for the 1948 games. A firm believer in peaceful coexistence, he was murdered in December 1947 by Arab co-workers in a British military base in Gaza. Sami Taha, scion of a distinguished Haifa family, was a prominent Palestinian Arab trade unionist and a foremost proponent of Arab-Jewish coexistence. He was gunned down by a mufti henchman in September 1947, at the height of the UN debate on partition.

What were the obligations of Great Britain under the Mandate for Palestine?

The League of Nations instructed the British to facilitate the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine as envisaged by the 1917 Balfour Declaration.

How did Britain fulfill these obligations?

Almost from the beginning the British authorities repeatedly gave in to Arab efforts to avert the implementation of the Mandate. Finally, in July 1937, Arab violence reaped its greatest reward. The Peel Commission, appointed by London, concluded that Arabs and Jews couldn't peacefully coexist in a single state and recommended repudiating the terms of the Mandate altogether in favor of partitioning Palestine into two states: a large Arab state, united with what was then called Transjordan, and a truncated Jewish state.

But hadn't the British "twice promised" Palestine, first to the Arabs and then to the Jews?

Certainly not. In his correspondence with Sharif Hussein of Mecca, which led to the Great Arab Revolt during World War I, Sir Henry McMahon, the British high commissioner for Egypt, specifically excluded Palestine from the prospective Arab empire promised to Hussein. This was acknowledged by the sharif in their exchanges and also by his son Faisal, the future founding monarch of Iraq, shortly after the war.

You bring to light a World War II conversation about atomic weapons between Nazi-SS chief Heinrich Himmler and the mufti Hajj Amin Husseini.

Yes. Arriving in Berlin in November 1941, and promptly awarded an audience with Hitler, the mufti spent the rest of the war in the service of the Third Reich, broadcasting Nazi propaganda and recruiting Balkan Muslims for the German killing machine. Himmler and the mufti spent hours ruminating on the absolute evil of the Jews. It was during one of these conversations, sometime in the summer of 1943, that Himmler gleefully told Hajj Amin of the Nazi "final solution," which by that time had led to the extermination of some three million Jews. He also confided the great progress made in developing a nuclear weapon that in Himmler's opinion would win the war for Germany. The mufti would never forget this conversation, boasting decades later in his memoirs that "there were no more than ten officials in the German Reich who were privy to this secret."

Arab historians and others now say that Israel's victory in the 1948-49 War of Independence was preordained, given the weakness of the Arabs.

Hardly. By April 1948, after four months of fighting against the mufti's men as well as an irregular pan-Arab force-dubbed the Arab Liberation Army-that had penetrated Palestine from outside, the Jewish position had become precarious. It was only after the Jews launched their first large offensive in early April, aimed at breaching the siege of Jerusalem, that the Palestinian Arab war effort began to unravel rapidly, culminating in total collapse and mass exodus by mid-May.

Then Israel proclaimed its independence.

Yes-and immediately the country was invaded by the regular armies of the neighboring Arab states. The previous succession of Jewish victories was checked, the nascent state was thrown back on the defensive, and the fight became a struggle for its very survival.  Ultimately, the newly-established Israeli army managed to turn the tables, at the exorbitant human cost of one percent of the new state's population.

At the village of Deir Yasin in April 1948, the Irgun,  a pre-state paramilitary force, is said to have massacred hundreds upon hundreds of innocent and unarmed men, women, and children.

According to a reliable report a day after the event, some 100 Arabs, including women and children, were killed in the fighting for the village. This figure is confirmed by Arif al-Arif, the doyen of Palestinian Arab historians, in his seminal Arabic-language study of the nakba (disaster), as Palestinians refer to the events of 1948-49.  Al-Arif stipulates heavy fighting on both sides, claiming that the villagers killed more than 100 Jewish fighters (the actual figure was four dead and 32 wounded). Of the 110 Arab fatalities, he alleges that only seven were killed in action while the rest were peaceful civilians murdered in their homes. By contrast, an intelligence report issued three days after the event by the Haganah, the main Jewish fighting force, underscored the operational incompetence and disarray of the attacking Irgunists as well as their lack of discipline, manifested among other ways in acts of plunder, but makes no mention of a massacre.

In Palestine Betrayed you come to essentially the same conclusion as does Benny Morris in his recent book 1948: namely, that the only party systematically interested in "transfer" or "expulsion" in this period was the Arabs.

Morris does seem to have tacitly disowned his early writings, not least by acknowledging that the underlying cause of the Arab-Israeli conflict was and is the adamant Arab and Muslim refusal to accept the idea of Jewish statehood in any part of Palestine. Millions of Arabs, Jews, and foreign observers of the Middle East fully recognized these facts as early as 1948; at that time, the collapse and dispersion of Palestinian Arab society were nowhere described as a systematic dispossession of Arabs by Jews. Regrettably, this historical truth has been erased from public memory.

But in the case of the town of Lydda, the Haganah did drive out Arab residents.

The Lydda expulsion of July 1948 was the only instance where a substantial urban population was driven out during the course of the war.  It stemmed not from a pre-existing plan but from a string of unexpected developments. Only when Israeli forces encountered stiffer resistance than expected was the decision made to "encourage" the population's departure to Arab-controlled areas a few miles to the east. The aim was to avoid leaving a hostile armed base at the rear of the Israeli advance and, by clogging the main roads, to forestall a possible counterattack by the Arab Legion.

This is not to deny that Israeli forces did on occasion expel Palestinian Arabs.  But these were exceptions that occurred in the heat of battle and were uniformly dictated by ad-hoc military considerations-notably the need to deprive the enemy of strategic sites where no Jewish forces were available to hold them.

You write that, in any case, hundreds of thousands of Arabs had fled Palestine while the British were still in place-that is, prior to Israeli independence.

That is correct. And this tells us that even if the Zionists had instigated a plot to expel the Palestinian Arabs-which they most certainly did not-Britain's extensive military presence in the country would have precluded the slightest possibility of a systematic "ethnic cleansing."  

What then was the catalyst for their flight?

The fear, disorientation, and economic privation that accompany all armed hostilities.  But to these must be added, crucially, the local Palestinians' despair of their own leadership, the role taken by that leadership in actively forcing widespread evacuations, and perhaps above all the lack of communal cohesion or of the willingness, especially at the highest levels, to subordinate personal interest to the general good.

You cite documents by Jewish figures in Haifa actually pleading with the city's Arab leaders not to flee.

They did not listen to such pleas, no doubt because remaining would have amounted to a tacit acquiescence in Jewish statehood.

The UN says there are 4.7 million Palestine refugees today. How many Arabs actually fled Palestine?

By the time of Israel's declaration of independence on May 14, 1948, some 300,000-340,000 Palestinian Arabs had fled their homes. By the end of the war several months later, the numbers had swollen to 583,000-609,000 refugees.

Why didn't Israel welcome them back afterward?

Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion told his cabinet on September 12, 1948 that if direct talks with the Arabs should culminate in a real peace, the  refugees would return. On the other hand, "Should [postwar arrangements] fall short of peace with the Arabs, we will not allow their return."

You contend that Palestinian Arabs, if left to their own devices, would have chosen coexistence.

Therein lay the great tragedy of the 1920-48 era.  Despite constant terror and intimidation, including the killing by Arab fanatics of moderates within their own community, peaceful coexistence with Jews was far more prevalent than were eruptions of violence, and the violence was the work of a small fraction of Palestinian Arabs.

It was the Arab leadership that rejected Jewish statehood even in a small part of Palestine-not from concern for the national rights of the Palestinian Arabs, but from the desire to fend off a perceived encroachment on the pan-Arab patrimony.

So the Arab war goal was not to create a Palestinian state?

It was common knowledge at the time that the pan-Arab invasion was more of a geopolitical scramble for Palestine than an attempt to secure the Palestinians' national rights. After 1948-49, neither Egypt nor Transjordan moved to establish an independent Palestinian entity in Gaza and the West Bank; this reflected the wider perception of the Palestine problem as a corollary of the pan-Arab agenda rather than as a distinct or urgent issue in its own right.

Abdel Rahman Azzam, the first head of the Arab League, once mused that it took centuries for the Arabs to reconcile themselves to having lost Spain; he wasn't sure they could ever adjust to losing any part of Palestine.

Unfortunately, the prospect of such an adjustment still seems far from auspicious. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, following in the footsteps of his recent predecessors, agreed to the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state provided the Palestinians recognized Israel's legitimacy as a Jewish state. Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian Authority's negotiator, reacted to this by warning that Netanyahu "will have to wait 1,000 years before he finds one Palestinian who will go along with him."

And so, more than six decades after the mufti condemned his people to statelessness, his reckless policies live on and are continually reenacted. Only when today's Arab leaders end this legacy of intransigence can the Palestinians hope to put their self-inflicted nakba behind them.

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Excellent interview -- its" about time Jews started countering the false Arab propaganda with the facts. We"ve just finished reading Leon Uris"s \The Haj\ and it details these events and the evil of the Mufti and his henchmen -- how they eliminated all moderate rivals who would have made peace with the Jews..

Posted by Gabrielle on 2010-05-17 12:31:51 GMT

Thanks for publishing this Ralph...I"m waiting for the book to arrive any day now. Altho" Karsh doesn"t mention it here, Morris has also just published recently an eminently readable and largely dispassionate account of the history of One and Two State solutions proposed over the last 75 years or so, a short book, and easy to read "One State, Two State" (March, 2010), strongly recommended (by me,anyway )...not an optimistic assessment when it comes to his final chapter "Where To?"....

Posted by George Peters on 2010-05-17 11:50:57 GMT