Arabs shaped their own destiny in 1948

The Myth of Palestinian Victimhood

The Israeli war of independence may have ended with a decisive victory on the battlefield in early 1949, but the war over the war still rages in academic circles. For more than twenty years, a furious debate has raged in Israel between the so-called "New Historians" and, for lack of a better label, "traditionalist historians." In a nutshell, the New Historians consider the Jewish state to be the villain of the drama while traditionalist historians lay the blame on the Arab world.

Now Karsh, head of Mediterranean Studies at King's College London and the first traditionalist historian to systematically rebut the New Historians in his earlier book, Fabricating Israeli History,[1] has put the most devastating nail yet in the revisionists' coffin. In this well researched and well written work, based almost entirely on Israeli, Arab, and British documents, Karsh places special emphasis on the Arab side of the story. Through extensive use of Arab primary sources, an approach rarely employed by the New Historians, Karsh paints a picture in which the Arabs are no longer reduced to playing the part of passive "objects" of history, powerless to influence their own destiny but rather become its active "agents," shaping their own future for better or worse.

Karsh's sweeping history begins in the decades of the British Mandate, highlighting the massive socioeconomic benefits obtained by the Palestinian Arabs as a consequence of the pre-state Jewish community or yishuv's steady development and assistance. In contrast to the latter's willingness to reach a reasonable political compromise on the basis of the mutual recognition of national rights—witness its endorsement of the 1937 Peel partition proposal, which would have created a tiny Jewish state alongside a much larger Arab one in western Palestine—the intransigent, self-serving leadership of the Palestinian Arabs and the Arab states would not reconcile themselves to Jewish sovereignty in any part of the territory, all the while fanning the flames of conflict with calls to pan-Arab and Islamist ambitions.

While Karsh does examine the leading events of the war of independence, Palestine Betrayed focuses mainly on the collapse of Palestinian Arab society, a process, he makes clear, begun well before the actual end of the British Mandate. In doing so, he also offers a compelling rebuttal of two central New Historian myths, namely that the Zionist leadership formulated and then acted upon a policy of "ethnically cleansing" the Palestinian Arab population and that it collaborated with Transjordan to deny the Palestinian Arabs a state of their own.

In regard to the first contention, Karsh demonstrates beyond any reasonable doubt that the dispersion of the Palestinian Arabs constituted a self-inflicted calamity. For starters, during the mandate period, the Palestinian Arabs, in contrast to the Jewish community, utterly declined to develop those national institutions that are so vital to sustaining any population during wartime (e.g., health and welfare organizations), so the masses had no system of support when hostilities began. Additionally, while Palestinian Arab leaders, epitomized by the "Nazi mufti," Hajj Amin el-Husseini, pressed the masses to join the war, sometimes even threatening recalcitrant individuals or reluctant villages, they themselves promptly fled the fighting for safer havens, often not even waiting for battles to start. As one might expect, the masses followed suit. Karsh goes on to trace in considerable depth how both the Palestinian Arab leadership and neighboring Arab states deliberately orchestrated the flight of the populace on numerous occasions, particularly in the cases of the mixed cities of Haifa, Jaffa, and Jerusalem.

Palestine Betrayed makes clear that most of those Arabs who would become refugees actually began their self-imposed exile either before the Jewish community took the offensive in April 1948 or before Jewish forces approached their homes. By mining Jewish, Arab, and British documents, Karsh demonstrates conclusively that in many places, especially in the mixed cities during the civil phase of the war (November 1947—May 1948), the local Jewish authorities repeatedly and sincerely urged the Palestinian Arab leadership and public to remain in their residences and live in peace with their Jewish neighbors. Those Arab city dwellers and villagers who took this advice—and there were apparently quite a few villages that entered into "non-aggression" pacts with their Jewish neighbors—were almost always left alone by Jewish forces.

Karsh concedes that some Palestinian Arabs were driven out of their homes by Jewish forces with the only large-scale incidents taking place in the towns of Lod and Ramle. However, these expulsions were carried out on grounds of military necessity, were not part of any premeditated "transfer" policy, and involved a relatively small percentage of the total refugee population. These removals, one might add, were directed principally against Palestinian Arabs who had taken an active part in the war and who constituted an immediate threat to nearby Jewish populations or lines of communication.

The author also makes mincemeat of the second contention that a Zionist-Transjordanian conspiracy, with the connivance of the British, cheated the Palestinian Arabs out of a state of their own. Karsh shows that while the Zionist leadership tried to negotiate with the Transjordanian leadership from time to time, it demanded at all times that the latter respect both Jewish and Palestinian Arab sovereignty. Moreover, as he points out, the notion that Great Britain would have been willing to collaborate with the Zionist leadership about anything is absolutely ludicrous in light of its non-support for the United Nations partition resolution, its frequent covert and overt support of the Arab war effort, and its attempt to manipulate the United Nations-appointed Bernadotte mission (tasked with ending the fighting) to subvert the very existence of a Jewish state or, at least, cut it down to minuscule dimensions.

In an enlightening and instructive epilogue, Karsh asserts that in terms of their attitude toward Jewish national rights, neither the Palestinian Arabs nor the Arab world has advanced much beyond its original, annihilationist agenda. Six-and-a-half decades after the establishment of the Jewish state, both still refuse to make genuine peace with the idea of Jewish sovereignty in any portion of the Land of Israel.

By relying on the available, original sources, Karsh stitches together a seemingly irrefutable case for the validity of the traditionalist narrative, possibly bringing to an end once and for all the New Historian phenomenon as a sustainable historiographical project.

David Rodman is the author of Arms Transfers to Israel: The Strategic Logic Behind American Military Assistance (Sussex Academic Press, 2007) and Defense and Diplomacy in Israel's National Security Experience: Tactics, Partnerships, and Motives (Sussex Academic Press, 2005).

[1] See Daniel Pipes, "Brief Reviews, Fabricating Israeli History: The 'New Historians'" (London: Frank Cass, 1997), in Middle East Quarterly, Sept. 1997, p. 90.