Why did the British leave Palestine in 1948? Was it because of a general disintegration of the British Empire following World War II? Or was it because of a sustained political and military struggle by the Zionist movement? Neither of these, argues Israeli "new historian" Segev: it was because the 1936-39 Palestinian-Arab revolt "made the British sick of Palestine" and convinced them once and for all "that there was nothing left for them to do in Palestine." Segev brings no evidence in support of this odd thesis, which stands in stark contravention to the British perception of their political and strategic interests in Palestine in the late 1940s.
Far from seeing "nothing left for them to do in Palestine," British political and military decision-makers were eager to maintain substantial military presence there after the termination of the mandate, as a land bridge between their foremost clients at the time—Iraq and Egypt. Hence their tireless efforts to detach the Negev from Israel's territory and to forestall any Israeli-Transjordanian peace agreement that did not surrender this territory to Transjordan or Egypt. In the words of Sir Hugh Dow, the British acting consul-general in Jerusalem: "The Negev is of little value to the Arabs while of strategic value to us, and King Abdullah may well be content to let the Jews have it the moment he sees that he has no prospect of getting Gaza."
But Segev, like other "new historians," is not bothered with mere facts. His is the clear agenda of rewriting the saga of Israel's birth to cast the Jewish state in the role of the regional villain. In One Palestine, Complete, he portrays Palestinian Arabs as hapless victims of an unholy alliance between Zionism and the British mandate. This alliance, by leaving behind "much progress, especially among the Jews [and] much backwardness, especially among the Arabs," condemned the latter's national struggle to failure. To substantiate this claim, Segev waters down Arab aggression, he misrepresents Jewish objectives, and distorts British attitudes.
For example, in writing about the 1929 Hebron riots, in which sixty-seven Jews were brutally slaughtered, many dozens of others were wounded, property ransacked, and synagogues desecrated, Segev bends over backward to explain this senseless murderous spree which terminated a Jewish community dating back to biblical times. He also belittles its scope and significance: "The murder of Jews in Hebron was not a pogrom in the historic sense," he writes. "Unlike attacks on the Jews of Eastern Europe, the authorities did not initiate the Hebron riots, and the police did not simply stand aside." Moreover, "most of Hebron's Jews were saved because Arabs hid them in their homes."
Leaving aside Segev's inconsistent use of the term pogrom (elsewhere in the book he refers to the far less deadly riots of April 1920, in which five Jews were massacred, as a "pogrom") and his overstatement of the British attempts to contain the violence, the assertion that most of Hebron's Jews were saved by Arabs is false. A list compiled shortly after the pogrom, and confirmed by the town's two rabbis, identified a mere nineteen Arabs of the thousands participating in the pogrom as having helped the persecuted Jews. Equally false are Segev's claims that "many of the rioters were not from Hebron but from the surrounding villages," and that most of the victims were Ashkenazi Jews—murdered because of their being alien to the local Arabs. The truth is that the rioters saw no difference between shedding Ashkenazi or Sephardi blood.
Space allows but a brief glimpse into Segev's cavalier treatment of his facts. Thus, for example, the British were not received by the Arabs "as an army of liberation" when they occupied Palestine in 1917-18 but rather as an enemy of the Ottoman Empire. Similarly, it was Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, not Foreign Secretary Edward Grey, who sarcastically derided the Jews remarking "what an attractive community!" And Sir Ronald Storrs, the first British governor of Jerusalem, was no Zionist but a bitter enemy of the Jewish national cause.
"I usually have no difficulty in defending my theses," Segev once wrote, "but every factual error I discover detracts a year from my life." To judge by the many factual errors in One Palestine, Complete, Segev should be very concerned about his longevity. In fact, he should have heeded Sir Ronald Storrs' famous quip that "commentary may be free, but facts must be sacred."