4 of 8 people found the following review helpful
A vital contribution to understanding the Israel-Palestinian conflict
, 10 Oct. 2010
This review is from: The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited (Cambridge Middle East Studies) (Paperback)
Benny Morris's aim was to find out exactly what caused the departure of 700,000 Palestinian Arabs from areas of British Mandate Palestine and subsequently the State of Israel in the years 1947-9. By dint of painstaking, detailed research he has made as good an effort as anyone is likely to achieve. The years in question saw the British mandate draw to a close as the conflict between Palestinian Arabs and Jews intensified into low-scale civil war. In May 1948 the British departed, the State of Israel was declared and it was immediately invaded its Arab neighbours. Israel won its War of Independence at great cost, but many Palestinian Arabs abandoned or were forced to abandon their homes and they refer to this period as `al-Nakba' or `catastrophe'.
The author's sources were primarily the archives of the pre-State Yishuv, the Israeli, British, American governments and the UN. The expanded 2004 edition makes use of newly released information from Israeli cabinet protocols and Haganah / IDF archives. Documentation held by Arab states was not used as it's kept under lock and key due to the humiliating nature of their military defeat. Morris decided against using interview evidence from Jewish and Arab witnesses as decades had elapsed since the events and memories are often selected or distorted to fit a political narrative. The plentiful documentary evidence was deemed more reliable for the purpose of `establishing facts' and indeed this book is packed with detail.
The book is not a comprehensive history of Israel's War of Independence and you'll have to refer elsewhere if you're interested in the military operations. Also, the important historical context leading up to the events of 1947-49 is not covered. The focus is very much on the national and local decisions, operations and circumstances that led to the exodus of Arab town dwellers and villagers.
Ideally readers should be familiar with the geography of Palestine / Israel, because there are only three maps at the beginning of the book and it's difficult constantly to cross-refer to them from the text. Finding the location of an abandoned village involves searching through a long index in an untidy geographical order. This is the only practical weakness of the book. Small local maps should have been interspersed in the main body of text.
As someone from the pro-Israel side of the fence, this book often made uncomfortable reading, but it's better to know the truth about what happened than be ignorant. Collective self-delusion in politics means people fail to understand the other side. I for one now better understand Palestinian historical grievances. Interestingly, much Western anti-Israel sentiment relates to the military takeover of the West Bank and Gaza in June 1967. But it's abundantly clear that in Palestinian minds, the events of 1947-9 are what really hurt, hence their long-term and probably unrealistic insistence on the `right of return'.
For me, the biggest source of dismay was to read about the excesses of Jewish and Israeli forces during the war. Several small-scale atrocities and many other acts of brutality did occur in the course of the conflict. Sometimes the intention was to intimidate local Arabs into flight and sometimes revenge was the motive. There were also atrocities in the other direction, but generally the Israelis had the upper hand militarily and were in a position to expel Arab inhabitants from villages seen as a threat to Israeli forces and supply lines. Israel is a small country with long borders and few main roads so many villages fell into this category. That said, villages in areas away from the front lines, such as the western and central Galilee, were mostly left untouched. Often it depended whether a village was deemed hostile (usually, but not always Muslim) or friendly (often Christian, Druze or Circassian). For example, Nazareth back then was a Christian Arab town and was relatively unaffected by hostilities.
Overall, Morris concludes that the reasons for Arab flight were mixed. There were many instances of Arabs leaving their homes following orders from the Arab Higher Committee or local Arab commanders. In towns such as Haifa, wealthy Arab families left early in the conflict, followed by community leaders and this weakened and demoralised the remaining population. Economic hardship and food shortages were a contributing factor. Many fled following word of real or alleged massacres by Jewish / Israeli forces. And many fled simply to escape fighting as Israeli forces clashed with the invading Arab armies and bands of local and foreign irregulars.
A key question that Morris addresses is whether there was a `master plan' to expel Arabs from the territory of the future Jewish State. He concludes from the evidence that there definitely wasn't, but amongst most Israelis, including leaders such as Ben-Gurion, there was a tacit understanding that it was desirable not to have too large and threatening an Arab minority within the future state. Influential individuals such as Yosef Weitz, director of the JNF's Lands Department, argued for population transfer, but the final word usually rested with Ben-Gurion, who took a pragmatic line. He was mindful of world opinion and Israel's need for good relationships with the United States and other powers. Sometimes he gave verbal agreement to clearance operations like those at the strategic towns of Lydda and Ramle, but at other times he voiced restraint. When it came to decisions at the field command level, inconsistency ruled. There was no single, clear policy.
Readers should bear in mind that the Palestinian Arab leadership and Arab League rejected the UN Partition Plan of November 1947, so they bear primary responsibility for the war and subsequent dislocation. For Israel this was a war of survival in which one out of every hundred Jews was killed. It took place just three years after the end of the Holocaust and many of its participants had been traumatised by their harsh experiences in Europe. Some, particularly in the Irgun and IZL saw this war as an extension of the struggle against the Nazis. The fact that the leader of the Palestinians, the Mufti of Jerusalem, had been an active supporter of Hitler and the Nazis didn't help their cause.
If you're interested in this topic and are prepared for a long slog through detailed accounts of events, then this book is as thorough and authoritative as you can get.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews
Was this review helpful to you?