1948: The First Arab-Israeli War

1948: The First Arab-Israeli War by Benny Morris

Published by Yale University Press, 524pp.


Benny Morris has the unique distinction of being criticised and often vilified by both Israelis and Palestinians because of his interpretation of the war of 1948 – and especially his appraisal of the exodus of around 6-700,000 Palestinian refugees. Thus, for some Israelis, no one was expelled, for many Palestinians, everyone was expelled. The complex truth, as Morris has meticulously shown over many years, is somewhere in between. This new book details the trauma of the 1948 conflict which the Israelis call ‘the war of independence’ and the Palestinians ‘the Nakba’, ‘the catastrophe’. Israelis have always characterised the 1948 war in the heroic idealism of ‘the purity of arms’ where moral codes of conduct were always upheld. The Palestinians, however, banished the very context of bitter conflict between opposing national movements – as if a well armed professional army had simply marched in and evicted peace loving villagers from their fields. Morris punctures these carefully nurtured images with research based purely on documents rather than the selective memory of eye witnesses.

Both sides did not take prisoners during the internecine war between Zionist Jews and Palestinian Arabs in the first half of 1948. Morris points out that 800 Arab civilians and POWs were murdered by Israeli troops while 300 Israeli civilians and POWs met a similar fate at the hands of the Arabs. Deir Yassin is remembered for the killing of 100-120 villagers including combatants as symbolic of the fate of the Palestinian Arabs. At Kfar Etzion, 106 men and 27 women who had surrendered to the Jordanian Legion and their British officers were slaughtered in mid-May 1948. Morris spares no harrowing details in dispelling the notion that this was a clean war.

The Jews believed that they were fighting for their very existence. Annihilation was the obverse of the coin. The pollster, Sari Sakakini, a Christian Arab, discovered in February 1941 that 88% of Palestinian Arabs favoured Germany and only 9% Britain. Indeed, it was not simply the memory of the Holocaust that was uppermost in the minds of the Israelis in 1948, but what would have happened if Axis forces had overrun Palestine. SS Obersturmbannfuhrer Walter Rauff and his einsatzkommando were on stand-by to carry out the liquidation of the Jews of Palestine – and they would have expected local participation in their efforts.

Many from the political and military leadership of the Palestinian Arabs had sought refuge in Germany during the war and were brought back to lead the struggle against the Zionists after it. The Arab Higher Committee proclaimed that the Jewish population of Palestine should not exceed a sixth and that only those who had lived in Palestine before 1920 would be admitted to the benefits of citizenship. The very idea of partition was rejected time and again by its leadership.

Morris argues that during the inter-communal war, both sides strove to control the roads and that few were expelled in ‘the psychosis of flight’ which followed the killings at Deir Yassin and the Arab media campaign around it which counter-productively terrified Palestinian Arabs. The expulsions came later on in 1948 at the hands of local commanders Yigal Allon and Moshe Carmel, both members of the Marxist Zionist Achdut Ha’avodah party.

Morris argues against the view that Plan D, formulated in early March 1948, was a blueprint for the systematic expulsion of the Palestinian Arabs. The plan was essentially directed towards securing the areas earmarked for a Jewish State under UN Resolution 181 prior to the expected invasion of Israel by the Arab states as soon as the British had left. It was therefore important to control those roads which lead to the entry points of invasion on the borders. Local commanders were given the option of clearing out militiamen and evicting hostile villagers positioned on these roads – even destroying their villages if deemed militarily necessary. Morris argues that nowhere does the document speak of ‘a policy or desire to expel “the Arab inhabitants” of Palestine or any of its constituent regions; nowhere is any brigade instructed to clear out “the Arabs”’. The voluminous Haganah documentation of early April does not contain any reference to Plan D’s implementation and there are only occasional references to it in the weeks that followed.

The projected invasion ran into trouble straight away. The Lebanese forces were prevented from entering in the north by its own Maronite citizens and the reservations of the Shi’ites. Abdullah of Jordan, always reticent, changed his battle plans towards securing control of the West Bank rather than supporting the pan-Arab intention of strangling Israel at birth.

Few archives are open on the Arab side to analyse the military thinking behind the invasion. On the other hand, Morris has raided Israel’s, more or less, open archives to present the black spots in its history to a sometimes doleful, sometimes annoyed, domestic public. One accusation directed previously at Morris is that he has not consulted Arabic sources. In this book, a colleague has researched the Arabic press of the period for meaningful comment. Even so, it is not the same as documents located in archives. If a genuine peace does break out in the region, then hopefully it will be accompanied by an archival glasnost as well.

Times Literary Supplement 20 June 2008


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