Myths and Realities: 1947- 1949

How Israel expelled the Palestinians

Thursday 1 May 2008, by Dominique Vidal

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

On May 14, Israelis will celebrate the 60th birthday of their state. For Palestinians, it will be 60 years since the Nakba, the catastrophe. During the past twenty years, a group of Israeli critical historians has searched through the material that was declassified 30 years after the war of 1948, in an attempt to revise the traditional account of the birth of their country... With courage, these researchers wanted to restore the truth - their truth - about the events of 60 years ago. Here is an outline of their work.

On November 29, 1947, the General Assembly of the United Nations decided to divide Palestine into a Jewish State and an Arab State, and a special international zone for Jerusalem and the holy sites. The Arab world refused and, on May 15, 1948, intervened against the Jewish State that was proclaimed the day before.

One year later, the war ended with a greatly altered partition: Israel’s win increased its territory by a third through the annexing of part of the stillborn Palestinian State, whose remaining lands passed into the hands of Jordan and Egypt. Moreover, several hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in Israeli occupied territories fled their homes.

On this last point, there have been two opposing views of history:
— For Arab historians, it was an act of expulsion. The majority of the 700,000 to 900,000 refugees were forced to leave as part of the framework of a military-political plan that included numerous massacres.
— According to traditional Israeli historiography, the refugees – there was a maximum of 500,000- left voluntarily, responding to the calls of Arab leaders. Also, the regrettable and rare massacres were carried out by a scant number of unauthorized and extremist troops.

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The "New Historians"

From the 1950s onwards, some influential Israelis began contesting the traditional narrative. As of the 1980s, Simha Flapan, Tom Segev, Avi Schlaïm, Ilan Pappé and Benny Morris joined them in their criticism; the latter, with his The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, blew the lid off of the scandal.

Of these historians, only Ilan Pappé defines himself as an anti-Zionist. The others declare themselves to be Zionists. In fact, Morris, has gone as far as to say, in an outrageous interview with the daily Haaretz, on January 8, 2004: "There are circumstances in history which justify ethnic cleaning".

To synthesize two decades of historical research in this space would be impossible. Let us just say that the "new historians" shake three myths of traditional Israeli historiography to their core.
The first is the mortal threat posed to Israel at the time. Contrary to the image of a frail Jewish State confronted by the juggernaut armies of a powerful Arab world, these researchers agree that Israeli armed forces possessed superiority in manpower, weaponry, training, coordination and motivation – except, perhaps, for the period between May 15 and June 11 of 1948.

Add to this advantage the political support of the United States, the diplomatic and military support of the USSR, as well as a tacit agreement reached between Golda Meïr and King Abdallah of Transjordan on November 17, 1947, just twelve days before the partition plan. Avi Shlaïm, in his Collusion across the Jordan, maintains that the Arab Legion- the only Arab army worth its salt at the time- was committed to not crossing into the territories allocated to the Jewish State in exchange for the possibility of annexing parts of those intended for the Arab State. In the end, that is exactly what happened.

The second myth confronted involved Israel’s desire for peace immediately following the war. The Lausanne conference has been studied by Avi Shlaïm and Ilan Pappé; the archives indicate that Israel came to Lausanne in order to obtain its admission into the United Nations. Since Lausanne, however, Israel seems to have forgotten about its signature on May 12, 1949 of protocols ratifying two U.N. resolutions regarding the partition plan and the right to return of Palestinian refugees. Walter Eytan, the co-Director General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, would write a month later, “My main purpose was to begin to undermine the protocol of 12 May, which we had signed only under duress of our struggle for admission to the U.N.” quoted in Ilan Pappé’s The Making of the Arab-Israel Conflict, 1947-1951.

The myth most seriously shaken, however, concerns the exodus of the Palestinians. According to Benny Morris, "there is no proof that the Arab States and the High Arab Committee wished for a mass exodus, or that they produced a general directive or calls inviting Palestinians to flee their homes" As for the famous exhortations of Arab radios, recorded at the time by the BBC, they were mere inventions.

In the weeks following the partition plan, 70,000 to 80,000 Palestinians left voluntarily; mostly the rich landowners and the members of the urban bourgeoisie. And afterward? The first assessment drawn-up by the Israel Information Services, on June 30, 1948, estimates that 391,000 Palestinians had already left the territories that were in the hands of Israel. This leads to a figure of 73% of departures being directly attributed to the Israelis.

Following the resumption of fighting in July 1948, the willingness to expel was no longer a doubt. A case in point is the operation of Lydda and Ramleh. "Expel them," David Ben-Gurion said to Igal Allon and Itzhak Rabin. They would evacuate some 70,000 Palestinian civilians. Similar scenarios took place until the spring, in both the North (Galilee), and in the South (the coastal plains and the Negev).

The summer of 1948 saw a spread of the policy of destruction or restructuring of Arab villages; the Law on "abandoned properties," which allows the seizure of all the properties of "absent" people, "legalizes" the confiscation of land.

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Was it planned or not?

Among the New Historians, the focus of the debate for the last ten years has concentrated on the nature of the exodus: was it planned or not? In his first book, Benny Morris concluded: "war, not Jewish or Arab design, gave birth to the Palestinian refugee problem." Thus reinforcing the idea of “transfer,” in the words of David Ben-Gurion, and demonstrating the latter’s role in its implementation in 1948. Morris brushes aside the possibility of a total expulsion plan and vindicates the Prime Minister and Defense minister of the young State of Israel. He nevertheless concludes: "Ben-Gurion clearly wanted as few Arabs as possible to remain in the Jewish State. He hoped to see them leave, but no expulsion plan was ever stated, and Ben Gurion always abstained from giving clear or written expulsion orders; he preferred that his Generals "understand" what he wished of them. He intended to avoid being lowered in the eyes of history to the rank of "the great evictor."

Fourteen years later, Morris would contradict his previous thesis during his aforementioned interview with Haaretz. He affirmed that, “a Jewish state would not have come into being without the uprooting of 700,000 Palestinians. Therefore, it was necessary to uproot them. There was no choice but to expel that population.” Surely, this is tantamount to recognizing that Israel did indeed transfer the Palestinians.

In fact, this is exactly what Ilan Pappé puts across in his new book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, where the expulsion of Palestinians is argued to be the outcome of a deliberate plan. His thesis is supported by the archives of Jewish defense groups such as Hagana and Palmah, the Israeli Defense Forces, as well as the diaries of David Ben-Gurion and other leaders, while also drawing on the testimonies of Palestinians.

The book opens in the headquarters of Hagana; on March 10, 1948, writes Pappé, eleven men “put the final touches on a plan for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. That same evening, military orders were dispatched to the units on the ground to prepare for the systematic expulsion of the Palestinians from vast areas of the country. The orders came with a detailed description of the methods to be employed.” Six months later, the historian continues, “[and] more than half of Palestine’s native population, close to 800,000 people, had been uprooted, 531 villages had been destroyed, and 11 cities were emptied of their inhabitants.” Hence Pappé’s objective for the work, "defending the ‘ethnic cleansing’ paradigm and inserting it for that of ‘war’".

It should be noted, however, that the term “ethnic cleansing” is problematic, in that it is anachronistic; it is rooted in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. Its connotation evokes mass slaughters, and while the war of 1947-1949 was certainly the stage of numerous massacres, it was never as deadly as the Yugoslav wars where a 140,000 people died; the war of 1947-1949 directly cost the lives of 6,000 Israelis and 15,000 Arabs.

One of the most disturbing facts that Pappé reveals is the files compiled of every Arab village in Palestine, complete with aerial reconnaissance, even before the Second World War. They included topographic, economic, sociological and demographic data, but also, the historian specifies, “an index of hostility [with regards to the Zionist project], based on the level of the village’s participation in the revolt of 1936.”

From 1943 onward, the files were systematized with the assistance of Palestinian informants, “the final update was finished in 1947 and included lists of ‘wanted’ persons in each village. In 1948, Jewish troops used these lists for search-and-arrest operations they conducted after occupying a locality. The men were all put in a line and those who appeared on the lists were identified, often by the same informant who had provided the original information... their head covered with a bag featuring two eyeholes, in order not be recognized. The men selected were often killed at once "

This synthesis of Israel’s New History explains why Yehouda Lancry, former Israeli ambassador to Paris and to the United Nations, wrote, "the ‘New Historians,’ despite the radicalism of Ilan Pappé, are as much luminaries of this obscure part of the Israeli collective conscience, as they are the forerunners of a firmer adhesion to mutual recognition and peace with the Palestinians. Their work, far from representing a source of annoyance for Israel, is an honour for their country and, what’s more, it is a duty, a moral obligation, an extraordinary assumption of responsibility for a liberating endeavour that registers, in the lives of Israelis, the crack lines and the healthy breaks that are necessary for the insertion of the discourse of the Other."

Dominique Vidal is a journalist for Le Monde Diplomatique and a historian. He is the author of “Comment Israël expulsa les Palestiniens (1947-1949)”.

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