This article is concerned with contemporary implications generated by the historiographical debate on the Palestinian refugee problem. The debate, ever since it started in the 1960s, was in essence a confrontation between two narratives: the Palestinian and the Zionist ones. Thus, historians on both sides were not only presenting documents and facts by were also adhering to their political positions on the subject. The contradicting historical versions revealed not only a disagreement on facts. More than anything else they exposed the deep gap existing between the enormous importance the Palestinian national movement and its historians attributed to the solution of the problem against the almost total negligence towards the question shown by the state of Israel and its historians. This article tries to show that the recent stages of the historiographical debate, fed by the emergence of a revisionist non-Zionist historiography in Israel, have helped to narrow down this gap. This process has been strengthened by the Oslo accord. Although, the accord is now probably dead for all intends and purposes, it should not be forgotten that it made the refugee problem a legitimate subject for future Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. This promise by itself, as we can see in the case of Jerusalem and the settlements, does not ensure an agreement or a solution. But should the refugee question be brought to the negotiation table, there would already be an Israeli historical version, albeit not the official one but nonetheless a professional one, which is quite close to the version put forwards for years by the Palestinian historiography. Historians on both sides would not, of course, determine the outcome of the peace process, should it be renewed, but they have an impact as I have tried to show elsewhere.[i]
This article is therefore an historiographical, rather then a historical, assessment on the making of the Palestinian refugee problem. It begins by what can probably be seen as the most recent historiographical contribution to the debate - the present day reaction of Zionist historians in Israel against the tendency of 'new historians' in Israel to accept many of the claims made over the years by Palestinian historians on the subject. Here we are interested not only in questioning some of the principal assumptions made by mainstream Israeli historians today, but primarily with exploring the logic and ideology underlying this hegemonic Israeli position on the subject. A logic still directing the present political system in Israel; i.e. it is a logic accepted by the two main parties in the country: Labour and Likkud. This logic is also deeply rooted in the perceptions of many members of the Israeli peace camp (centered around the 'Peace Now' movement).
The logic manifests a sweeping loyalty to the Zionist narrative, denying any Israeli responsibility for the making of the Palestinian refugee problem. This denial is driven by an apprehension, characteristic of many Israelis belonging to the Zionist Left from where most academicians still come, of facing the Palestinian demand for the 'Right of Return'. A demand that after all had been supported by the UN General Assembly resolution 194 (11 December 1948) and at least since 1987, in the wake of the peace policy adopted by the PLO, seemed feasible in the context of a successful peace process.[ii]
The second part of this article returns back, now ten years after, to revisit the historiographical debate on what caused the expulsion - a debate begun by a Palestinian challenge to some of the explanations put forward by 'new historians' in Israel.[iii] The article analyses the positions of both sides and puts forward a kind of a 'bridging' narrative of its own for what had happened in 1948 based on a common ground found between these two points of view.
The final part of the paper refers to the wider implications of the historiographical debate, at all its stages. The debate has and will have an impact on the current Israeli and Palestinian positions towards the so called Oslo 'peace process'. We are here mainly concerned with the way Israelis can or can not come to terms with the evil and negative role appropriated to them in the Palestinian historical narrative on the making of the refugee problem. The Israeli behavior is going to be fed by the present Palestinian position on the subject of return, which has ceased to be clear since Oslo, and by developments within the Israeli society itself. The bottom line argument of this article is that the crisis of identity in Israel as well as the chances of a genuine peace process are closely connected to a courageous and sincere Israeli review on the Zionist role in the making of the refugee problem. A review which would considerably effect the nature of the solution for the Palestinian refugee problem.
The Current Official Line of Argument
The official Israeli version shuns any responsibility for the making of the Palestinian refugee problem. According to this version the refugees were not expelled but fled before and during the 1948 war; encouraged by the local and external Arab leadership. The Arab League, according to this version, conveyed a message of self-confidence assuring those who would leave that they would return triumphantly once the dust of war would subside.
It was David Ben-Gurion who provided the first Israeli version of what had happened, one which in its basic arguments, is still accepted today by many professional historians in Israel. On 11 October 1961 he declared in the Knesset:‘The Arabs’ exit from Palestine...began immediately after the UN resolution, from the areas earmarked for the Jewish state. And we have explicit documents testifying that they left Palestine following instructions by the Arab leaders, with the Mufti at their head, under the assumption that the invasion of the Arab armies at the expiration of the Mandate will destroy the Jewish state and push all the Jews into the sea, dead or alive’.
Ben Gurion added also the ‘Domino effect’ theory: once the first wave of refugees left - in between October 1947 and March 1948, others soon followed suit. The call from the Arab leaders on the one hand, and the ‘Domino Effect’ on the other, appear in Ephraim Karsh’s book, the most recent attempt to defend the Israeli official version on the war.[iv]
The professional Israeli historians added logical and methodological reasoning to the Zionist narrative constructed so skillfully by David Ben-Gurion. The making of the refugee problem was inevitable claims Netanel Lorch who was the chief historian of the Israeli army. Despite his official position and his loyalty in his account to the Israeli official version of the war, even his interpretation was not ‘patriotic’ enough for his masters. As a result in 1959 he was forced to publish the account on the war he had prepared for the IDF, as a private publication.[v] He ran into trouble, so to speak, as he challenged several ‘truisms’ regarding the Israeli view on the military history of the war. However, when it came to an analysis of the refugee problem, he abided faithfully by the official line. Thus, as we stated, he argues that the Palestinians became refugees due to the demographic mosaic prevailing in Mandatory Palestine. They were the inevitable victims of a war fought against a very tense geographical proximity between the Jewish settlements and the Palestinian villages as well as a strained coexistence in the mixed Arab-Jewish towns of Haifa, Jaffa, Tiberias and Safad. There were also Jewish refugees, reminded us Lorch, as a proof that it was demography, rather then ideology or policy, which made the problem.[vi] An Israeli Geographer, Arnon Golan, has made a similar claim quite recently in a doctoral thesis where he equated, methodologically and thematically, the plight of the Jewish refugees with those of the Palestinian ones.[vii] The Jewish refugees were the inhabitants of the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem, of isolated settlements such as Gush Eztion and Mishmar Ha-Yarden as well as others in the Negev which were captured by the Egyptian army in the summer of 1948.
Let us examine these two arguments: the first about the inevitability of civil casualties in any civil war and the other, stemming from it, that there were therefore also Jewish refugees. Indeed one could agree that any war fought in an inhabited area is bound to create a refugee problem. In some cases the civilians who flee or leave their homes return once the fighting is over; in others they become refugees, uprooted from their country and waiting to be either repatriated or resettled elsewhere. However, the ‘inevitability’ argument ignores the scope of the human tragedy. The 1948 war was not the second world war which inevitably created masses of refugees. Nor was it a war similar in its magnitude to the regional wars of the second half of the twentieth century. We are talking here of a limited civil war followed by scattered campaigns after May 15 1948 between regular Arab armies and the Jewish forces. This military activity on both sides can not serve as a satisfactory explanation for the Palestinian mass exodus. After all, almost all the Palestinians (90 per cent) were uprooted from their original homes in the area occupied by Jewish forces during the war. Moreover, the argument of the inevitability does not explain why could not the Palestinians return to their homes.
As for the equation between the Jewish and Palestinian refugees this seems to be even a more doubtful line of reasoning. The Jewish refugees remained in Palestine and returned to their homes once they were repatriated as part of a POW exchange in the end of the fighting. They were prisoners of war, and were treated like that. Moreover, the sheer numbers speak for themselves: 750,000 Palestinian refugees vis-a-vis 5000 Jewish refugees.
Another argument put forwards by Lorch and which has been reproduced lately by Ephraim Karsh in his attack on the ‘new history’ in Israel (i.e., the revisionist Israeli historians challenging the official Zionist narrative) is that there could not have been an expulsion as a Jewish policy since the official policy of the Hagana (the main Jewish underground movement) was to encourage the Arab population to surrender. This line of argument is based on a simplistic reading of Plan D. We shall deal more deeply with this plan in the second part of this article which will reassess the findings of the ‘new historians’ and the Palestinian reactions to them. Here it would be suffice to explain that Plan D was prepared by the Hagana in March 1948 as general guidelines for the Jewish forces in an anticipation for a war both against the Palestinian community and the Arab armies.[viii] Will our readers contemplate the following instructions in Plan D and think whether this could be understood as a plan sensitive to the fate of civilians in the 1948 war:‘Operations against enemy population centers located inside or near our defensive system [that was an area within the designated Arab state according to the UN partition plan and which was adjacent to the Jewish state; it was seen by the Jewish Agency as a buffer zone] in order to prevent them from being used as bases by an active armed force. These operations can be carried out in the following manner: either by destroying villages (by setting fire to them, by blowing them up, and by planing mines in the debris), or in the case especially of those population centers which are difficult to control operations should be carried out according to the following guidelines: siege of the villages, conducting a search inside it. In case of resistance, the armed force must be wiped out and the population expelled outside the borders of the state’.[ix]
Almost all the Arab villages were regarded as military targets and the mixed towns fell within the areas regarded as crucial for military purposes. Only total surrender insured survival for these villages, but even that was not always granted[x]. Thus Izthak Rabin ordered to the eviction and destruction of the Abu Gosh village, despite its unconditional loyalty to the Jewish community (only a very intensive effort by Jewish intelligence officers, close to the Muhktar, averted the deed). Villages within areas regarded as of crucial strategic importance were doomed to be destroyed and evicted regardless of their willingness to surrender. Many other Palestinian villages and neighborhoods faced the fate awaiting them in Plan D, some because they resisted, other because they simply did not display openly a willingness to surrender (by waving the white flag).[xi]
Nonetheless, Israeli historians attach great importance to the fact that the Jewish military command differentiated between ‘friendly’ and ‘hostile’ villages as a proof for the sensitivity and moral aspect of the Zionist conduct. The differentiation between friendly and hostile villages was committed to paper but seems to have been totally ignored by the energetic officials working in the Jewish Agency’s Land Department. It was in particular, Yossef Weitz, who tried to evict as many Arabs as possible, regardless of their ‘friendliness’ or ‘hostility’. Weitz was very active in searching for fertile land, in encouraging local commanders to evacuate Arabs and generally in exploiting the state of anarchy for the acquisition of more and more land. The Jewish policy of reprisals (that is retaliating against local Arab attacks on Jewish settlements or convoys on the roads) provided the best opportunity for such activity. Thus, in places where the reprisals had already resulted in a large number of ruined and empty villages, as in Yadjur and Balad al-Shyach near Haifa, all that remained to do was to take over the land of the villages. It seems that if Weitz had had his way, even more evictions would have taken place, but there was no plan as ambitious as that on the Jewish side.[xii]
These arguments were challenged by a group of revisionist historians in Israel. Prominent among them was Benny Morris who, as would be elaborated later, blamed the IDF for the uprooting of at least 300,000 Palestinians and thus added another explanation, hitherto absent from Israeli historiography, for the making of the problem - Israeli expulsion. Against this revelation, the Israeli academic establishment presented a more sophisticated version of denial. It was Shabtai Teveth who took the lead in counter arguing in the name of the official version. In an article published in Middle Eastern Studies he provided a list of causes which led to the exodus. The bottom line of his argument is that only the Palestinians and the Arab governments are to be blamed for what happened in 1948.[xiii]
The principal factor causing the exodus was the flight of the urban upper class from Palestine, who had begun leaving already in September 1947. This was a voluntary exit of about 70,000 Palestinians, mainly from the mixed towns of Palestine. For Teveth the departure of this group is crucial for understanding what happened next. He has no doubts, as he states clearly in the article, that had the elite stayed the picture would have been different. But how different? Teveth sees the elite’s behaviour as setting a code of conduct for the rest of the population. Here Teveth reproduces the ‘Domino Effect’ put forward by Ben Gurion in 1961 and mentioned above. It started a series of flights, as he calls it. The elite’s departure undermined the moral and economic foundations of the society as a whole. The elite evicted vital civil service positions in the economic infrastructure of the towns. The collapse occurred around March and April 1948 and it was the fall of Haifa (on 21 April 1948) which played a particular important role in accelerating the process.
This line of argument accounts for the flight of tenth of the whole refugee population. It plays with “iffy” history; had they stayed, things would have become differently. Not an easy caustic connection to make. Nor is the ‘voluntary’ exodus so convincing. After all these members of the elite left while fighting had already begun. They were frightened by the noise of explosives and the sights of demolition around them and were aware of the growing number of dead and wounds among them. It has more to do with what one expects people to do in such situations. We are faced here thus with an accusation that the elite did not show enough resilience or commitment to the cause. Teveth presents us a harsh verdict on the Palestinian elite’s behaviour and he may or may not have a point, but what has this to do with the question of whether or not the Israelis are responsible for the exodus? Does it mean that with such an elite the rest of the Palestinians deserved an expulsion? Or does it mean that had they stayed, as did for instance, ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Husayni, and fought they could have changed the balance of power or foil the Zionist intentions? Elites leave their communities on the eve of disasters and can be condemned for that, but the important point is who brought the calamity upon the community in the first place.
Teveth then continues and explains that without the elite, the rest of the community fled. They did not flee, they were partly put on trucks, partly frightened by show of forces (such as impressive explosions near by) and party ran away from the fate which befell the people of Dir Yassin.[xiv] Could a more solid leadership have prevented a massacre had it stayed behind or would it had been massacred together with the rest?
Teveth is Ben-Gurion’s biographer, so there is no wonder he reproduces also Ben-Gurion’s argument about the encouragement given by Arab leaders to the Palestinians to leave.[xv] He provides one evidence: a call by the Mufti to women, children and old men to stay out of areas of danger. Hardly a call for a mass exodus of villages and city neighborhoods. Teveth argues that the Mufti saw as an area of danger the whole of Palestine and hence this was a call for a general eviction. He also explains that the Mufti hoped that a mass exodus of women and children would embarrass the Jews in the face of world public opinion and would grant the pretext for an Arab ‘invasion’ of Palestine. Teveth further asserts that the Arab generals wanted such eviction so that their armies would have a smooth ride into Palestine.
Erskine Childers has already proved to us that there was no call beyond the one mentioned by Teveth.[xvi] Moreover, this particular limited order, like so many orders of the Mufti, were not implemented. Before women and children were evicted, they were expelled with the men from their houses.
It is also quite difficult to find evidence or logic in the presentation of tactical calculations accompanying the eviction plan: either embarrassing the Jews in the eyes of the world or providing a pretext for invasion. Already in October 1947, the Arab leaders, including the Secretary-General of the Arab League, Azzam Pasha, informed the UN that partitioning Palestine was a casus belli as far they were concerned. They refrained from any action, hoping that the UN would recognizes the impracticability of partition in the face of the developing civil war in Palestine. Nor were they willing to risk a direct confrontation with the British forces still left behind in Palestine. As for public opinion in general, unlike the Zionist leaders and quite unfortunately for the Palestinians themselves, Arab and Palestinian leaders showed very little interest in world diplomacy. They failed to send a diplomat to the most crucial of the UN discussions on Palestine’s fate, when they had clear indication that the USA might change its pro-partition policy[xvii]. The diplomatic arena was dominated by the Jewish Agency exploiting skillfully the effect the Jewish Holocaust had on world public opinion.
As for the argument that the military establishment demanded eviction for an uninterrupted implementation of the invasion plan there seems to be a slight problem. There was no ‘invasion plan’, of any kind, nor was there any serious strategic thinking among any of the Arab military high commands. Only on 30 April 1948 was a plan devised.[xviii] This argument thus does not hold water, as do most of these arguments and as has been shown by the work of the ‘new historians’ in Israel, particularly by Benny Morris’ The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem.[xix]
Part Two: Revisiting the ‘New History’ and Its Palestinian Critiques.
The declassification of military documents in the Israeli archives relating to 1948 war shed new light on the Israeli refugee policy. These documents were systematically mined by Benny Morris in The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem. The book refuted many of the official Israeli explanations given till then for the making of the problem. When the book appeared several years later in Hebrew it was the first time ever that the Israeli public was exposed to a counter-narrative of the Israeli role in the making of the problem - and it was not a sympathetic one.
Like the Irish journalist Erskine Childers before him, Morris found no evidence of instructions or directions by the Arab Higher Committee, or any Arab government for that matter, to the local population of Palestine to leave the country. All he could trace was instructions by the Arab Higher Committee to local commanders to secure the evacuation of women, children and old men from the areas of danger.
His book is a diligent and comprehensive analysis of the Israeli action in almost every Palestinian village and neighborhood. The work lists a long number of cases were Palestinian civilians had been forcefully driven out of their homes and expelled outside Palestine. The book had three elements in it: a discussion on the causes of the exodus; revelations of Israeli atrocities during the fighting, and a charge sheet blaming the Israelis for their anti-repatriation policy. It is difficult to find a clear cut answer in his book to the question of the causes. Morris writes about the prominent role compulsory transfer played in Zionist policy, particularly since the 1930s, but in his conclusions gives the impression that the exodus was a mixture of flight and expulsion. The presence of transfer as an option in Zionist strategic thinking created an expulsionry mood, so to speak, but was not translated into a plan. There was no master-plan for expulsion, concludes Morris. The expulsions were the inevitable result of the war - they were local initiatives which won retrospective affirmation and understanding from the superiors concerned.
Morris’ position differed in its conclusions from the main claims made by Palestinian historians, the work of some, such as that by Nur Masalha was based on similar documentation.[xx] Masalha’s argument is quite straightforward. Ever since its very beginning, the Zionist movement had considered the compulsory transfer of the local population as the only possible way of settling the conflict in Palestine. It became an integral part of the Zionist strategy of survival and hence the uprooting of the local population was conditio sine qua non for the success of the Zionist project. The hope was that a voluntary transfer would be agreed upon, but towards the end of the Mandate, it was recognized that only a compulsory one could work.
Masalha see the transfer idea as a Zionist simplification, or reduction, of the ‘Arab problem’. An attempt by Zionist leaders to sell to their community, and to world public opinion at large, a schematic clear-cut solution to the conflict. The conflict was thus presented as a ‘Zero Sum Game’. The schematic solution was born after a more complicated, mainly a Marxist, analysis of the conflict, one based on the hope of creating affinity with the Arab working class, failed to attract Jews and Arabs alike. While Morris limits the category of expulsion to direct expulsion, Masalha widens the scope and includes in it psychological warfare, massacres, cutting of water and food supply as well as the undermining of the economical infrastructure.[xxi] Under such categories, many more Palestinians can be seen as victims of direct expulsionary Zionist policy. In fact, apart from the 70,000 who had left in the first wave, it includes everyone else.
The end-result of the war, i.e. the fact that so many Palestinians became refugees, led historians who had written before the declassification of the new material to assume that only a transferist Zionist policy could have caused such a mass exodus. After the declassification those who criticized Benny Morris, critiques such as Norman Finkelstine, claimed that the documents Morris himself has unearthed indicated how systematic was the Israeli policy of expulsion.[xxii]
But the main counter argument to Morris’ version did not use new documentation. It was the one put forward by Walid Khalidi (who like other Palestinian critiques on Morris, at times do not take into account how far Morris went as an Israeli historian). In my book The Making of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1947-1951, I have devoted several pages to the Morris-Khalidi debate.[xxiii] Let me here just capture the main points now that we are almost ten years after that debate started.
Walid Khalidi did not alter his main argument made in the 1960s about the existence of a Zionist master plan for the expulsion of the refugees. The declassification of new material and the appearance of Morris’ work did not change his position either. The reason is that he always related to a published document that of Plan D. Plan D was accessible in Hebrew and Khalidi translated it to English already in the 1960s. As we remarked and showed above, this is a straightforward document providing a series of military means by which Jewish forces can and should deal with the local population.
Morris writes on the plan, however, that it was a military programme:‘not a political blueprint for the expulsion of Palestine’s Arabs: it was governed by military considerations and was geared to achieving military ends. But given the nature of the war and admixture of the two populations, securing the interior of the Jewish state for the impending battle along its borders in practice meant the depopulation and destruction of the villages that hosted hostile local militia and irregular forces.’[xxiv]
Above all and eventually, and this is the main point made by Morris, plan D was not implemented at all. He describes a Jewish leadership, confused and indecisive, under the stress of ongoing war and thus failing to provide clear guidelines on any issue. Therefore, Morris attributes most of the expulsion decisions to local commanders who were probably not aware of Plan D. As I have written in my book, I found this argument hardly convincing. If I may I would like to quote again the counter argument: “If I plan to throw someone out of his flat, the fact that he had left before I had a chance to expel him, in no way alters the fact of my intention.’[xxv]
Walid Khalidi does not share Morris’ point of view. Like Nur Masalha after him, he puts the plan in a wider historical perspective and writes:‘Plan D...was the name given by the Zionist High Command to the general plan for military operations within the framework of which the Zionists launched successive offensives in April and May 1948 in various parts of Palestine. These offensives, which entailed the destruction of the bulk of the Palestine Arabs, were calculated to achieve the military fait accompli upon which the state of Israel was to be based’.[xxvi]
Khalidi and Morris agree that 70,000 refugees in the first wave fled, and that about 250,000 were expelled in the final stages of war. However, this accounts only for half of the refugee population. The dispute between the two is about the 350,000 or so who exited Palestine in between March and June 1948. While Morris thinks this half has left by its own accord, Khalidi argues it was expelled as well (a particular acute argument has being going on about the refugees of Haifa - around 65,000 in number). Zionist historiography cited Haifa as an example for a Jewish effort to persuade Arabs to stay - Morris, in this case, accepts the official version. Khalidi does not - he describes, as does more elaborately Nur Masalha, the means by which the Haifa population was driven out. Haifa was evicted in the wake of plan D, as were the Palestinian population of the mixed towns of Jaffa, Safad and Tiberias.[xxvii]
Plan D, by the way, specifically refers to the fate of the mixed towns, and views it against a certain political background which developed in March 1948 when the plan was composed. In that month the diplomatic fortunes of Zionism were dwindling. After the impressive successes in the end of 1947, when the Jewish Agency recruited both the USA and the USSR to support the partition plan, in March 1948 the American president, Harry Truman, developed second thoughts on the subject. He was willing to adhere to recommendations made by the State Department to replace partition with a regime of an international trusteeship in Palestine. Plan D was based on the assumption that military operations had to be swift and decisive before a possible change in American policy would freeze the military situation on the ground.
So Plan D was, in many ways, what Khalidi claims it was - a master plan for the expulsion of many Palestinians as possible. Moreover, the plan legitimized, a priori, some of the more horrendous atrocities committed by Jewish soldieries. It called explicitly for the expulsion of the Palestinians from the mixed towns and from locations deemed strategic by the military command. It was implemented - either by commanders who did it because they knew of the plan or by those who were not aware of it. They all implemented a policy of destruction and expulsion recommended by the Jewish Agency, as is clearly manifested in Plan D. Was this the policy for the war itself, i.e., for the period stretching from May 1948 to March 1949? Given the conduct of the Israeli army and its systematic expulsions, as so pedantically described in Morris’ book, one can at least say it had a significant barring on the IDF’s policy.
But Khalidi, and Nur Masalha, raise another important issue. They see Plan D as epitomizing Zionist ideology. Masalha presents Plan D as an ultimate expulsion scheme leaning on all the previous Zionist transfer programs. A plan materialized once the power to implement it was there. The impotence of the Arab world, the pro-Zionist world public opinion in the wake of the Holocaust and the impressive build-up of a state infrastructure on the Jewish side created the ideal conditions for its implementation. Khalidi shares this view, and the Palestinian Encyclopedia goes even further and relates to Herzel the original transfer plans.[xxviii] Was Plan D born out the Zionist ideology, as claimed by Khalidi as well? or was it an ordinary military plan, as argued by Morris?
Masalha and Khalidi it seems may have a somewhat reductionist view on Zionism. Zionist ideology did not center only around the idea of transfer. Zionist leaders offered, throughout the Mandatory period, other solutions as well, not all of them directly associated with transfer. Moreover, the leaders displayed, more then anything else, ambiguity. Thus, Moshe Sharett was moving from the extreme of a considerable compromise to the other extreme of transfer throughout his career as the head of the Political Department of the Jewish Agency.[xxix] But Masalha is right in claiming that expulsion was seen as a legitimate means, there were no moral scrupulous about it. Transfer was conceived as one of the more feasible solutions; it was rejected only on the bases of practicality and utility. I think he has clearly established in his book a connection between the expulsion of 1948 and the popularity of transfer in Zionist thought. Plan D was written in anticipation for the final confrontation between Zionists and Palestinians on who was going to rule Palestine. In view of such an all out confrontation any means seemed legitimate and useful. Unlike more peaceful times in the Mandatory period, on the eve of 1948 war, expulsion became the most favorable solution in the eyes of the military commanders and probably of David Ben-Gurion. His second in command, on the other hand, Moshe Sharret, still preferred a negotiated agreement on the partitioning of Palestine to a transfer.
The ultimate Zionist goal was survival of the Jewish community in Palestine at all cost. This was more important then saving Jews, even during the Holocuast. But for some prominent members in the movement survival could be achieved also by reaching an agreement with the other side. These leaders even predicted that there was a good chance that a local consent would be elicited. It would be given in recognition of the modernizing role Zionism played in Palestine and would be held by what the Zionists called ‘moderate’ Arabs. A moderation which was generously financed by the Jewish Agency when needed. It was in a way a typical Colonialist ‘Divide and Rule’ modem operandi based on modernizationist perceptions of reality. However, should there be resistance, or in Zionist discourse should the extremists have the upper hand, the Zionist settlers from the very beginning had been prepared to expel the local population.
Thus, to sum up this section, we may say that the expulsion was an inevitable result of Zionist presence, although it was not the principal aim of the Zionist movement. The distinction bares relevance to the third part of this article - do we seek a solution to the unjust presence of the Zionists in Palestine or do we seek a solution for the refugees. But before approaching this last part I would like to present a bridging narrative which is based on the common assumptions and claims of the ‘new historians’ and the Palestinian historians.
The common version agrees that the Palestinian exodus began with what can be called a voluntary flight of large segments of the elite (probably about 70,000 altogether who left the country by January 1948). The exodus of the elite undermined the steadfastness of the population although it is very doubtful that they had the power to face the Jewish takeover of the country, had they stayed behind. Being a voluntary departure it can not be directly related to Jewish policies, nor is there any documentation that expulsion was discussed among Zionist leaders immediately after the partition plan was accepted by the UN in November 1947. The elite left with the hope of returning - they left without their possessions nor did they sell their properties. They were never allowed to return.
The unanticipated departure so early on in the war by ten thousands of Palestinians does not exclude the possibility that the leaders of the Jewish community, sitting on their war plans in March 1948, did not contemplate the depopulation of Palestine. These discussions revealed the dissatisfaction of the Jewish Agency with the state allocated to the Zionist movement by the UN partition plan: the designated state envisaged the citizenship of almost an equal number of Palestinians and Jews. This is why despite the first wave of voluntary refugees, the Jewish authorities, soon after, did prepare an expulsion plan. They had to be expelled, they could not be seduced to leave. Most of these Palestinians were villagers strongly attached to their lands and homes and not easily intimidated by acts of war; nor did they have the means to travel.
It is easier to find a common ground on the historical narrative to what happened after May 15, 1948. From that moment, ‘new historians’ in Israel and Palestinian historians, share a clear notion of ‘what had happened’. It seemed that a coherent Israeli policy developed throughout May 1948. This began with the appointment of Yossef Weitz to head ‘transfer committees’. Where expulsion failed, transfer was encouraged, by every possible means (even by setting fire to the fields of Palestinian villages considered wealthy or by cutting water supply to city neighborhoods). Weitz convinced the Israeli government in May 1948 to confiscate any looted Arab harvest for the needs of the newly born state.[xxx] This policy of burning fields or confiscating them continued throughout the summer of 1948. In between April and the end of May, 300,000 more Palestinian became refugees. All were expelled - if we accept that fleeing one’s house, because the house of one’s neighbor was ransacked, is an expulsion. Towards the end of the war, with mass operations by Israel in the North and South of Palestine, several massacres were committed, adding their weight to the flight of the population. In ‘Ilabun, Sa’sa’a, Dawamiyya, Safsaf and Zurief, Palestinians were massacred.[xxxi] The atrocities, at least on that we may all agree, were not part of a master plan. In their case we can apply Morris’ explanation for most of the expulsions - ‘A la guerre comme ‘a la guerre. Although, it is still a subject for future research to examine the collective memory of many Palestinians alive from that period who recall a systematic, limited, executions after the occupation of each Palestinian village by Jewish forces.
In those last stages expulsion was even more systematic and the war ended with 750,000 Palestinians (half of the Arab population of Mandatory Palestine) becoming refugees. This figure is a conservative estimation provided by the UN and which is challenged by Palestinian demographers who tend to talk about 1 million.[xxxii] It began with the expulsion of 150,000 in the operations of October and November 1948 and ended with scattered transfer operations which continued long after the fighting had subsided, as late as the mid-1950s.
This was part of the anti-repatriation policy of the Israeli government in the face of the international effort to settle the conflict in Palestine. Whoever was involved in this peace process, be it the UN or the US and Europe, they all agreed that unconditional repatriation of the Palestinian refugees would be an integral part of any solution. From June 1948, Israel was engaged in a policy aiming at creating a fait accompli that would render repatriation impossible. In June 1948, Yossef Weitz wrote in a memorandum that there was a consensus among those responsible for the ‘Arab problem’ that the best way to deal with abandoned Arab villages was by ‘destruction, renovation and settlement by Jews’.[xxxiii] In August 1948 the Israeli government decided to implement Weitz’s ideas to the letter.
The prime objective was to demolish what was left of the abandoned Palestinian villages, almost 350 in all, so that the term repatriation itself would become meaningless. Moreover, Israel’s policy-makers required the land and the property for the absorption of the waves of new Jewish immigrants, from Europe and from the Arab countries.[xxxiv]
Whether this was an old Zionist dream come true, as claimed by the PLO charter, Masalha and Khalidi or whether it is, as I see it, a specific plan born out for the 1948 war, the important point is a growing consensus among Israeli and Palestinian historians about the Israeli expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948 (expulsion and the destruction of villages and towns). The desire to expel before and during the war seems to be quite evident. An expulsion followed by an anti-repatriation policy and a refusal to enter meaningful peace negotiations after the war. If indeed this was the ideological bent of the Zionists, it means that even if had the Palestinians accepted partition, they would have been expelled. But here we enter the dangerous zone of alternative history, not always a useful field of research. We can only reiterate once more that the Jewish state was designated to be a bi-national state (with the Arabs constituting 45% of its population). A scenario which would have defeated the Zionist dream of creating a nation-state. Nor did the Israeli army distinguish, as we have shown, between those who were or were not involved in actual fighting in its expulsion policy. But we would leave now this speculative field with these two remarks without speculating of their importance for an alternative history.
The gist of the common ground is a consensus between the ‘new historians’ in Israel and many Palestinian historians that Israel bare the main responsibility for the making of the problem. If Plan D is not seen a master-plan for expulsion, even Benny Morris agree it was not born out the blue - expulsion was considered as one of the principal means of building a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The plan reflected the mood of the Jewish soldieries before and after the war, a mood which is echoed very concisely in Ezra Danin’s words to Ben Gurion: ‘The Arabs of the Land of Israel, they have but one task left - to run away’.[xxxv]
The British and the Palestinian leadership share the responsibility. The British for the period which lasted until May 15, at least, when they were responsible for law and order. Expelling people meant that they were not fulfilling these functions. In fact, British policy makers were concerned only with the safety of their withdrawing troops and clerks and nothing more. As in India, chaos anarchy and bloodshed was left behind without anyone in Whitehall looking back ruminating in remorse about the negative British legacy.
The Palestinian leadership played a negative and important role in the dynamics of exodus. Not only did the political elite forsake its constituency in its most crucial hour; it also failed to give coherent guidance from its exile to the besieged communities in Palestine. The escape of those who were able to flee in relative security - the professional and business class from the major cities - augmented the terror and confusion.
An Israeli recognition of the central role the refugees play in the national ethos and memory of the Palestinians can be one of many fruits produced by the historiographical debate on the question of causality and responsibility. The next is a recognition] in the Israeli guilt. Another is a revision of the PLO’s demand for a transfer of the Jews out of Palestine as the only rectification of the past’s evils. I would like to conclude this article with some reflections on the contemporary implications of this debate.
Coming to Terms with the ‘Original Sin’.
There is no need to de-Zionise Israel in order to get Israelis to accept the above bridging narrative as a feasible version of past evens - including the casting of responsibility for what happened in 1948 on Israel. But recognition of that responsibility can undoubtedly contribute to a process of de-Zionization. But this is a futuristic predication I would not like to dwell on for too long. As I argued before, Zionism was more then just expelling Palestinians and many Zionists genuinely believed, like any colonialists, that they were modernizing Palestine and Palestinians. I would therefore separate the discussion on the 1948 exodus from a debate on the nature of Zionism. Such a debate is not focused on 1948, it owes more to the adoption of a colonialist perspective of Zionism and recognition of the inherent contradiction between democracy and a Jewish nation-state. These are more useful means for exploring the moral validity of Zionism - as a past ideology or a present institutionalized interpretation of reality. Israelis, such as the ‘new historians’ come closer to the Palestinian version of what happened in 1948, without necessarily sharing the Palestinian perspective on Zionism as a whole. The most important political implication is that this new Israeli perception may bare upon the chances of Israelis accepting, at least in principle, the Right of Return for the refugees of 1948.
Moving now out of historiography onto politics we would say that the political implication of the consensus described above is an Israeli recognition in the Palestinian historical interpretation of the 1948 war as the Nakba: a catastrophe. And acknowledging that the main component of this catastrophe is the making of the refugee problem - a problem which is at the root of the Arab-Israeli conflict. For many Israelis, particularly the young generation, this is not an easy concession. For them, even if they see themselves belonging to the peace camp - the formative year of the conflict, namely what it is all about is the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 war.
One can not however dissociate the two dates. These two historical junctures have much in common. In both, each of the two sides felt that the other had aimed at its annihilation. In both junctures, the Israelis came out with the upper hand, surviving the battle and retaliating by a mass uprooting of the local population. For the Palestinians, both the 1948 and the 1967 war ended with the making of a mass refugee problem. The refugee reality was the fertile ground on which the Palestinian national movement was re-born as it was the background against which it was easy to recruit the masses to the relentless struggle against the state of Israel.
Israel became a fait accompli in 1948 at the expanse of 750,000 Palestinian refugees. Israel ended victoriously the 1967 war and the price was an additional 400,000 refugees. In both cases the population was intentionally expelled and systematically uprooted. Two million Palestinians, given a very conservative estimate which incurs the natural demographic growth, are the living victims of the two wars - some of them are the victims of their leaders’ stupidity, most of them are the victims of the callousness of their enemies.
Fatah, founded in 1959, and overtaking the PLO in 1968, was the principal institutional manifestation of the Palestinian longing for revenge and of bringing back the lost time of pre-1948 Palestine. The PLO’s charter spoke of an armed struggle for the sake of the return of the refugees to their homes and of the elimination of the ‘Zionist Entity’ which was founded by ‘Nazi and Fascist means’.[xxxvi] The charter predicted the establishment of a secular democratic Arab state instead of Israel. The charter was taught in the refugee camps’ schools and its precepts fed the imagination of playwrights, novelists, and poets in their effort to express the living spirit of Palestinian nationalism.
The Palestinian armed struggle had many sources of inspiration. One of them were the psycho-historical explanation of Franz Fanon and his likes of the purifying and homogenizing effect an national armed struggle can have of the crystallization of a new identify for deprived anti-colonialist peoples. It seems that the leaders of the Palestinian armed struggle were also taken by liberation struggles all over the Third World. A particular influence carried with it the charismatic dogma of Mao Tze Tung. Mao’s ‘peasant revolt’ was emulated by Arafat in 1967 in the wake of the Israeli occupation with little success.
The failure of the Maoist approach had brought Palestinians closer to the Algerian model of a guerrilla warfare. A daily struggle against the Israeli army but also frequent terrorism against the civil population (including the hijacking of airplanes) was the admixture used between 1968 and 1978 by the PLO in the attempt to change the reality in post-mandatory Palestine. But to no avail.
The guerrilla and terror campaigns were not supported by world public opinion, nor did it help to bring a solution to the refugee problem. The UN from the very moment the 1948 war ended endorsed the right of every Palestinian refugee to return to their previous homes. But the international body had no sanction whatsoever. What counted was the positions of the two super-powers. Both supported the idea of partitioning Palestine, neither related to the fate of the refugees. The biggest success of the PLO had been in convincing at least the European Community, although a very marginal player in the politics of the conflict, to add the right of return to the outlines of a future settlement. But, in general world public opinion after 1967, very much to Israel’s convenience, dealt with the conflict as a process beginning in 1967, not beforehand. Israeli withdrawal from these territories occupied in 1967 in return for peace was the formula for peace. A large number of Israelis, large enough to bring a Labour government to power in 1992, believed that this was what the conflict was about and this was the only way to solve it.
The focus on the fate of the occupied territories delegated the refugee problem to the margins of regional and international diplomacy. Palestinians had a share in this process too. There was clash between conflicting Palestinian interests. Those under the harsh Israeli occupation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip were interested in its termination more than anything else, and found the PLO, in Beirut and later in Tunis, incapable of lending a hand. They preferred both direct confrontation, as well direct negotiations, with the Israelis. They were more successful then the PLO in bringing the Israelis and the Americans to the negotiating table exactly because it was convenient to the Israelis to deal with the post-1967 reality and put aside, and maybe forget about, the Palestinian victims of 1948. Nonetheless, the leadership of the occupied territories, once institutionalized in the form of Lajnat al-Tawjih,[xxxvii] sought a way of coordinating its policy with the PLO. The level of coordination reached its peak in the Madrid peace process, but already had come to the fore in the 18th PNC which recognized the principle of partition, on the basis of land for peace exchange, and accepted and the creation of two states in post-mandatory Palestine. The leadership inside and outside Palestine had for a while a common strategy which marginalized the Right of Return.
The Oslo accord has had so far catastrophic effects on that common strategy. It confronted the ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ with more then twenty five years of different existence’s as national communities. Each effected by the reality of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ - each developing its own set of expectations from the peace reality unfolding, by now disappearing, before their eyes. Those inside longing for the end of occupation and the creation of the state, those outside, still responsible for the fate of all the Palestinians, wishing for a peace reality which would enable the return of the refugees to their homes.
The PLO, until Oslo, was committed to the return of the refugees, not only in words but also in deeds. The armed struggle from Amman, Beirut and Tunis was for their sake and in their name. Ten Thousands of young Palestinians died (more than 40,000) in this struggle. The refugee camps delivered all this time a message of impermanence: huts build form temporary materials, an educational system conveying the message that there is no normal and real existence without return. Even now that the huts are made of bricks, they are not made of stones, and even when camps became integral neighborhoods of Amman, Beirut and Damascus, they still carry in their names and socio-geographical structure the Palestine of yester years and of the one to be. What may seem to the outside observer as a fictional, to the extreme, construction of reality, is in essence the only solid basis on which life can be sustained in the poor Palestinian refugee camps inside and outside Palestine.
This is not the place to explain why Oslo came about. Suffice here to mention that at first a coordination between the PLO leadership in Tunis and the Unified National Command, the body leading the Intifada, produced a series of steps, beginning with the Declaration of Independence of 1988, continuing with the first ever open US-PLO dialogue and culminating in the Madrid Conference. The Israeli elections of 1992, the impotence of the American pressure on Israel, the disintegration of the USSR and the mis-policy of Arafat in the Gulf Crisis ending in a financial bankruptcy have all brought the PLO closer to a direct negotiations with Israel. Clause Five, sub-clause 3 of the Declaration of Principles signed by the PLO and Israel on 13 September 1993 in Oslo mentions for the first time Israel’s recognition in the right of the Palestinians to bring to the negotiating table the future of the refugees. No more and no less.
The way the peace process has gone until now, Israel is not even ready to deal with less contentious subjects such as the settlements (both Labour and Likkud). Hence it is probably very far from willing to tackle the issue of refugees. The weakness of the Palestinian Authority vis-a-vis Israel, and its total reliance on it, ensure that this clause would not be dealt with in the near future. But it was brought to the fore and could be sustained there by two groups. One we already mentioned: the ‘new historians’ and their work. The other are the Israeli Palestinians who have re-discovered their Palestinian nationality and are playing now a more confident role in Israeli politics. It will stay in the fore also because of a growing Palestinian dissatisfaction with the Oslo accord. A dismay which ensure that the problem would stick out as a proof for the futility of the present peace process. The solution of the refugee problem will remain the prime condition for a successful perusal of genuine and comprehensive peace.
Israelis, leaders and common people alike, have a genuine psychological problem when faced with the refugee problem. This is indeed for them the ‘original sin’. It poses a huge question mark of the Israeli self-image of moral superiority and human sensitivity. It ridicules the Israeli oxymoron such as ‘the purity of arms’ or euphemisms such as the ‘Israeli defense forces’. It is all inserts doubts into the religious notion of the ‘chosen people’ and the political pretension of being the only democracy in the Middle East which should be wholeheartedly supported by the West. This predicament had brought in the past a series of repressions and self denials. It bred unrealistic political solutions, the most prominent of which was an alliance with the Hashemites in Jordan at the expanse of the Palestinians. It was accompanied by an intellectual struggle against the Palestinians, epitomized by the official Israeli fabrication of the land’s and conflict’s history. It culminated in 1982 with Sharon’s war of annihilation aiming at a physical destruction of both the PLO and the refugee land of Lebanon. It all failed.
Palestinian terrorism helped the Israelis evade the issue; Palestinian peace making helps the Israelis as well to evade the issue - that is as long as the peace sponsors accept the Israeli formula that only the results of the 1967 war are negotiable (this at least includes the fate of the 1967 refugees). But regardless of the Zionist repression and the PLO misconduct, both sides would have to solve the problem. Even the president of the very limited and crippled Palestinian Authority knows he can not sustain a reasonable amount of credibility and legitimacy if he openly, or implicitly, forgets or asks to forget the refugees. Israelis would find it difficult to relate to a tragedy or to a historical narrative in which they play a most evil role. Sometime, both sides would have to face the issue, and even with the American wish that every issue should be dealt in a business like manner, with no emotions or sentiments attached, it would be a very charged issue to deal with. It is a moral issue.
Martin Buber was aware of the need of Israel to relate not only to the a material and a political aspects of the refugee problem, but also to the moral dimension of it. He wrote in 1958 to David Ben-Gurion that peace was not just matter of compromise (namely partition or reparations) but also a reconciliation. He did not go far in his approach, but it was a start. In recognition of Israel’s responsibility for the making of the problem he suggested two things: one was that Israel would ask the UN to begin a peace process centered on the solution for the refugee problem. This was in 1958 when the problem was totally forgotten by world public opinion and when Ben-Gurion was only too happy to let the world forget about it. An Israeli initiative Buber claimed would indicate a willingness to bear responsibility. Secondly, Israel would allow a symbolic repatriation of refugees to its own territory as a principle recognition of the Right of Return, while demanding the resettlement of the others in other Arab states as well as the repatriation of the rest to the then Jordanian West Bank and Egyptian Gaza Strip.
The historiographical revisionism in Israel manifests in a way a symbolic recognition in Israel’s responsibility. How can it be translated to a concrete peace settlement, whether in the vain of Buber’s suggestions, or any other manner, is beyond the terms of this article. Suffice it here to point that repatriation, resettlement and compensation would have to be the three major components of such a solution. An Israeli recognition of the centrality of the refugee problem in the Palestinian historical narrative, collective memory and national ethos is the first step. A revision of the Israeli historical narrative is the second. These two had been taken by some, but not enough, Israelis. The rest would follow, given a continued Palestinian willingness to reconcile and a strong will for peace on both sides.
Ilan Pappe, historian, Haifa University