1948 Revisited

May 14, 2008 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

May 14, 2008
Number 05/08 #06

Israel’s 60th Anniversary celebrations led to much comment on the real circumstances of 1948, and especially the causes of the Palestinian refugees from that war. Below are three good comments on that history from prominent Israeli academics.

First up, Prof. Shlomo Avineri, arguably the doyen of Israeli political scientists, explores in detail what actually led to the refugee exodus in 1948, which, he argues, continues to afflict Palestinian society – namely Palestinian failures in terms of building the political and social frameworks of nationhood.  He points out that in the 1936-39 revolt,  Palestinians killed each other in much larger numbers than the British or Jews, and a similar failure to unite occurred in 1948. He argues that something similar is occurring today in terms of Hamas/Fatah battles. For his take on this neglected reason for the plight of Palestinians, CLICK HERE.

Next up, Prof. Benny Morris, the best known of the so-called “new historians” who have attempted to revise Israeli history in recent years, reviews what he has learned from his studies of what happened in 1948. He says that while his research gave a revised picture of the refugee exodus of 1948, people are wrong to assume this made him a dove. In reality, he says, his reading of the history of Palestinian rejectionism and refusal of any compromise, which he says was “deep-seated, consensual and consistent” and also contained a clearly religious component, convinced him that no two-state solution was in the offing either from Arafat or today. For Morris’ take on what he learned from the 1948 history, CLICK HERE. More comments on what Morris’ findings in his latest book tell us about 1948 comes from American columnist and editor Jonathan Tobin.

Finally, Dr. Yossi Alpher, formerly head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and now co-editor of the Bitterlemons.org publications dedicated to Palestinian-Israeli dialogue and debate, explains why he feels no need to apologise for the 1948 Palestinian “Naqba”. He argues that while he understands and empathises with the Palestinian narrative more than most Israelis, the moral calculus of 1948 was simple –  Israel has more legitimacy than most of the states in the world, was attacked illegally, and did what it had to do simply in order to survive. He also points out that the Palestinians have, repeatedly and unfortunately, missed or destroyed opportunities to set up their own state. For why this committed Israeli dove has no guilt about 1948, CLICK HERE.

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The real Nakba

By Shlomo Avineri

Haaretz, May 9, 2008

When the Palestinians mark what they call the “Nakba” (catastrophe) on May 15, they would do well to consider that their real failure did not occur in 1948: It had already happened earlier, and it continues to happen now. The real Nakba occurs before our eyes – and theirs – every day, at every hour, and Hamas’ violent coup in Gaza is only the most recent example of it.

While Palestinians may see themselves, with much justification, as the victims of the Zionist movement’s successful establishment of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel, the reasons for their historical failure should be sought elsewhere: in the inability of the Palestinian national movement to create the political and social institutional framework that is the necessary foundation for nation-building. The history of national movements teaches us that national consciousness, strong as it may be, is not enough: Movements that could not create the institutional system vital for their success failed.

It would be a mistake to underestimate the power of the Palestinian national movement, as quite a few members of the Zionist camp did in the past; it is an error that many continue to make today. But it was Haim Arlosoroff – then a young man in his early 20s – who as early as 1921 recognized that what the Zionist movement faced was not a series of violent events, but a national movement.

The Palestinian national movement, however, has been accompanied by a long string of failures, which have been rooted in its inability to form frameworks of consensus and solidarity; these failures weakened and fragmented it, and it seems that this is a problem the Palestinians have not been able to overcome to this day.

The first and sharpest expression of this failure came in the years 1936-1939, during the Palestinian uprising against British rule. This rebellion failed not only because it was brutally suppressed by the British colonial authorities or because the Haganah (pre-state underground) forces were able to defend the Yishuv (Jewish community in Palestine). What happened is that the Palestinians were unable to establish institutions that would be acceptable to all parts of Arab society in the country, and when internal disputes arose over the nature of the struggle, the rebellion evolved into an intra-Palestinian civil war. More Palestinians died at the hands of rival armed Palestinian militias than were killed in clashes with the British army or with the Haganah. Within Palestinian society there is tendency to suppress the memory of this violent struggle, which took place between the militias associated with the Husseinis and those tied to the Nashashibis. But this suppression only deepens the failure and makes it more difficult to draw lessons from it.

A similar failure came in 1948: Although most of Palestinian society was opposed to the plan for the partition of Palestine adopted by the United Nations on November 29, 1947, the Palestinians proved unable to create a unified military and political apparatus for confronting the Yishuv. The Arab Higher Committee was never more than a group of traditional dignitaries, and it did not oversee an effective system comparable to the Yishuv’s “state-in-the-making.” The violent Palestinian resistance to the partition plan consisted of attacks by armed militias in the Jerusalem area, in the Galilee and around Jaffa, militias that operated without centralized coordination and guidance.

The Palestinian defeat was to a large extent the result of an inability to establish a central military command. The leaders of the militias – Abdel Qader al-Husseini, Fawzi al-Qawuqji, Hassan Salameh – never answered to any central authority, and if the Yishuv referred to the militias as “gangs,” the term had propagandist value, of course, but it also contained a great deal of truth.

Critical movements

Anyone familiar with the history of the Yishuv may comment, and accurately, that the Jews had their own splinter groups that refused to accept the authority of the majority, which called itself “the organized Yishuv.” This is true, of course – but at the critical moments it was David Ben-Gurion who made the fateful decisions, thus ensuring the unity of command and of political legitimacy. The Altalena affair [a violent 1948 confrontation between the newly formed Israel Defense Forces and the Irgun, one of the pre-state militias] was the watershed moment in this matter, and so the fledgling state guaranteed what German sociologist Max Weber has called the defining feature of state sovereignty: the existence of a monopoly based on the legitimate use of force. The same did not happen within the Arab community in Palestine in 1948.

The consequences were swift in coming: not only a failed struggle with the Yishuv, but an inability to extract from the defeat even a remnant of national authority. Had the Arab community possessed a leadership with broad legitimacy, it presumably would have been able to create a Palestinian national entity in those parts of Palestine that remained under Arab control. But even when an “all-Palestine government” was established in Gaza, headed by the mufti, it was an Egyptian puppet government, which could never impose its authority on the West Bank, then under Jordanian control, and it soon disappeared. Palestinian history might have been different if the Palestinians had had institutions and an organizational system capable of confronting the Egyptian occupation in Gaza and the Jordanian annexation of the West Bank, and which might have tried to extricate a Palestinian state even out of the clutches of the 1948 defeat.

When confronting this series of failures, the Palestinians tend to attribute them to their own weakness and to the difficult conditions that prevailed after the military defeat to Israel. In some ways this is true, but it is irrelevant: National movements are not built under convenient conditions; they must always face enemies, foreign rulers, occupation. We need not go very far to compare the Palestinian failure with the success of the Algerian national movement, which confronted an occupying regime far stronger and crueler than the Zionist movement, and yet managed to create an organizational, diplomatic and military system that not only successfully confronted the French, but was able – not without problems – to create the foundation for an independent Algerian state.

The de facto shattering of the Palestinian Authority following the Hamas coup in Gaza is the extension of this failure. Even now the Palestinians are inclined to blame Israel, the Americans, the international community; but the real, essential responsibility ultimately lies with the Palestinians themselves. Elections were held, Hamas won, Fatah lost – and both groups have been unable to sustain a framework whose legitimacy is accepted by both sides. Fatah and Hamas, after all, are not just two parties operating within a democratic consensus: They are also armed militias, and their electoral strength is to a large extent rooted in their military power. All pan-Arabic attempts to unite them, such as the Mecca agreement brokered by Saudi Arabia last year, have failed in the face of this reality, which shows that ultimately power in Palestinian society grows (as Mao Tse-tung once said in a different context) out of the barrel of a gun.

Hamas’ violent military coup in Gaza against what was supposed to be the locus of Palestinian legitimacy is only a repetition, under different conditions, of the Palestinian gang wars of 1938-9. The fact that there is no model of an Arab democratic state to follow also does not help.

To be clear: These words are not written in order to question the legitimacy of the Palestinian movement or the Palestinians’ right to a state. They are meant to point out a profound internal social failure, one the Palestinians avoid confronting and which many Israelis ignore, since so much of the Israeli discourse on the Palestinian issue is conducted from the narrow perspective of security concerns. Moreover, parts of the Israeli left, rightfully troubled by the ongoing occupation, avoid holding the Palestinians responsible in any way for their situation, out of reasons of political correctness. Such a patronizing approach is not helpful to the Palestinians.

What is now happening in Gaza is the real Palestinian Nakba: the tendency to blame outside factors only blurs matters. Clearly, Palestinian society is in distress, and much of it is owing to 40 years of occupation. But this is a too-easy excuse: In the years after 1945, it would have been easy for the Yishuv to blame British rule, the Arab opposition, and the trauma of the Holocaust, and to wallow in the mire of self-righteousness as a way of explaining why a Jewish state could not be established under such difficult circumstances. But the framework of the Zionist movement, as established by Herzl, with its elected institutions, its multi-party pluralism anchored in a basic solidarity, and the formulation of national authority despite the instances of dissent and splintering – all these provided an organizational and institutional foundation that made it possible to marshal the human and economic resources necessary for coping with the harsh reality that followed the UN partition resolution.

The fate of the Palestinians now lies in the balance, and it is in their own hands. Those who look at their history will have trouble imagining Fatah and Hamas settling their dispute by creating a joint, legitimate framework. Perhaps Egypt or Saudi Arabia can foster the signing of some piece of paper or another, like the Mecca agreement. What matters, however, is not a piece of paper but an effective organizational and institutional framework and a commitment to shouldering the burden of a common legitimacy, which is necessary for constructing a nation. Such a framework must encompass the disarming of militias and entrusting one national authority with a monopoly on the use of force. Without this, there will also be no chance of an agreement with Israel, which is vital for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

These things should be said clearly, as difficult as they may be: If the Palestinians do not find a way to extricate themselves from their harsh historical reality, they ultimately will not have a state. It will be bad for them, and bad for Israel.

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From Dove to Hawk

A prominent Israeli historian explains why, after decades of research about the Jewish state, he now holds out little hope for reconciliation between Jews and Palestinians.

Benny Morris- Special Guest Columnist

Newsweek,  May 8, 2008

I remember the moment when the Palestinian diaspora began to interest me, professionally. It was in Rashidiye Camp, outside Tyre, in June 1982, just after the Israel Defense Forces had scythed through on their way north to oust the Palestinian Liberation Organization from Lebanon. A journalist at the time, I picked my way through the devastated buildings. Most of the men had fled or been detained or killed by the Israelis, but I was struck by a group of old women hunched over a tabun, an outdoor oven, making pita bread far from their homeland. A few weeks later a stash of documents produced in 1948 by the Palmah—the strike force of the Haganah, the main Zionist underground in Palestine—was opened for me, revealing why and how many of these people had been displaced as Israel was born.

My historical account of that event, published a few years later, was greeted with some acclaim by Palestinians and their sympathizers—and much shock by Israelis, who had been brought up to believe, or to pretend to believe, that the Palestinians had fled their homes four decades earli­er because of orders or advice from their leaders. In certain places, at certain times, there had been such advice and orders, of course. But there had also been Israeli expulsions, as well as the chaos of British withdrawal and economic hardship and anxiety about an uncharted future under Jewish rule. In most places it was the flail and fear of onrushing hostilities that had set some 700,000 Arabs on the roads.

Myself and several other young Israeli historians were dubbed revisionists and commonly assumed to be doves. But what brought me to my conclusions about 1948 were the facts, not my political views. Contrary to current historiographic discourse I believe there is such a thing as the Truth—what, why and how things happened—and I’ve always sought it in my research. If I’ve since come to a much bleaker opinion about the possibility of reconciliation between Jews and Palestinians—many would now call me a hawk—it is also because of that research.

During the 1990s, as the Oslo peace process gained momentum, I was cautiously optimistic about the prospects for peace. But at the same time I was scouring the just opened archives of the Haganah and the IDF. Studying the roots of the Arab-Israeli conflict—in particular the pronouncements and positions of the Palestinian leadership from the 1920s on—left me chilled. Their rejection of any compromise, whether a partition of Palestine between its Jewish and Arab inhabitants or the creation of a binational state with political parity between the two communities, was deep-seated, consensual and consistent.

Haj Amin al-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem and leader of the Palestinian national movement during the 1930s and 1940s, insisted throughout on a single Muslim Arab state in all of Palestine. The Palestinian Arab “street” chanted “Idbah al-Yahud” (slaughter the Jews) both during the 1936-1939 revolt against the British and in 1947, when Arab militias launched a campaign to destroy the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine. Husseini led both campaigns.

So when Yasir Arafat rejected Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s two-state proposals at Camp David in July 2000, and then President Clinton’s sweetened offer the following December, my surprise was not excessive. Nor was I astounded by the spectacle of masses of suicide bombers launched, with Arafat’s blessing, against Israel’s shopping malls, buses and restaurants in the second intifada, which erupted in September 2000. Each suicide bomber seemed to be a microcosm of what Palestine’s Arabs had in mind for Israel as a whole. Arafat’s rejectionism and, after his death, the election of Hamas to dominance in the Palestinian national movement, persuaded me that no two-state solution was in the offing and that the Palestinians, as a people, were bent, as they had been throughout their history, on “recovering” all of Palestine.

I found that current events had echoes in the historical record, and vice versa. The founding charter of Hamas repeatedly refers to the victory of Saladin over the medieval crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, and compares the crusaders to the Zionists. In researching my new history of the 1948 war, I was struck by the fact that this analogy, usually overlooked or ignored by previous historians, suffused the statements and thinking of Palestinian leaders and the leaders of the surrounding Arab states during the countdown to, and the course of, the war. A few days before Arab armies struck at Jewish forces in Palestine, Abd al-Rahman Azzam, secretary general of the Arab League, told the British minister in Transjordan their aim was to “sweep the Jews into the sea.”

If the documents I studied 20 years ago painted Palestinians tragically, as the underdog, this record did the opposite. It has become clear to me that from its start the struggle against the Zionist enterprise wasn’t merely a national conflict between two peoples over a piece of territory but also a religious crusade against an infidel usurper. As early as Dec. 2, 1947, four days after the passage of the partition resolution, the scholars of Al Azhar University proclaimed a “worldwide jihad in defense of Arab Palestine” and declared that it was the duty of every Muslim to take part.

This history has deepened and reinforced my pessimism, itself bred by the failure of Oslo. Those currently riding high in the region—figures like Hamas’s Ismail Haniyeh and Khaled Meshaal, Hizbullah’s Hassan Nasrallah and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—are true believers who are convinced it is Allah’s command and every Muslim’s duty to extirpate the “Zionist entity” from the sacred soil of the Middle East. For all its economic, political, scientific and cultural achievements and military prowess, Israel, at 60, remains profoundly insecure—for there can be no real security for the Jewish state, surrounded by a surging sea of Muslims, in the absence of peace.

Morris’s most recent book on Israeli history is the recently published “1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War.

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A just cause

by Yossi Alpher

Bitterlemons.org, 12/5/08

Last Thursday we Israelis celebrated Independence Day. Later this week, Palestinians mark Nakba Day. For sixty years now, these two events have constituted conflicting perceptions of the same seminal event. It is only the vagaries of the Hebrew calendar that separate them.

I was interviewed last week by a Palestinian journalist friend regarding my feelings on the eve of Israel’s sixtieth anniversary of independence. Being at heart a “security person” I remarked that, on balance, we have a lot to celebrate: the Arab world by and large is no longer fighting us but rather seeking peace in order to confront the common enemy, Iran and its proxies and allies. That enemy looms ever larger, but we are strong and getting stronger.

“But doesn’t the Nakba still weigh heavily on your celebrations?” my Palestinian friend pressed me.

I paused to reflect. My reply had focused on Iran–the prism through which Israel now views its security surroundings–not Palestine. “No”, I replied. “Tomorrow at our Independence Day barbecue I’ll raise a glass with my family, look them in the eye and tell them that our cause has been fair and just. For at least one day of the year, we have nothing to complain about.”

Let there be no mistake: I have dealt with the Nakba and its consequences day in and day out for more than 40 years. More than most Israelis, I can empathize with the Palestinian “case” and even step into the other side’s shoes when the need arises. Yet the Nakba does not weigh on my conscience when I celebrate Israel’s independence or for that matter on any other day of the year.

By arguing that Israel was “born in sin” 60 years ago, the Palestinian Nakba narrative target’s Israel’s legitimacy in the most profound way. Yet Israel as a sovereign state enjoys more international legitimacy than virtually any other country. We were created by both the League of Nations (ratifying the Balfour Declaration) and the United Nations (UNGAR 181). Two of our Arab neighbors have made peace with us, thereby recognizing us. In contrast the Palestinians, backed and at times manipulated by the Arab world, have done nearly everything possible to avoid setting up their own state.

They rejected 181 in 1947 and attacked us, thereby precipitating war and exile. They avoided creating a state in the West Bank and Gaza between 1949 and 1967, created UNWRA to legitimize their narrative by perpetuating rather than solving their refugee problem, rejected Egypt and Israel’s offer of autonomy in 1978, failed at state-building under Oslo after 1993, invoked suicide terrorism that alienated some of their most ardent Israeli supporters, and failed again at consolidating some of the territorial foundations of a state after Israel withdrew unilaterally from Gaza in 2005.

Israel undoubtedly contributed to these failures, most spectacularly since 1967 with the settlement movement in the West Bank. But for Palestinians to blame us for their disasters or to assume that, because some of us devote our efforts to reaching a just solution to the conflict the Nakba must be weighing on our conscience, does a huge disservice to the Palestinian cause.

Indeed, perhaps the biggest difference between Palestinians and Israelis on the occasion of this sixtieth anniversary of their Nakba and our independence is that they blame everyone but themselves, having long ago adopted the role of history’s victim, while we constantly blame ourselves, having at some early point in our renewed national history resolved to be a nation of complainers and doomsday purveyors, constantly bemoaning our faults and anticipating disasters. We give our detractors endless ammunition with which to criticize us. When our hapless prime minister remarks that unless we get out of most of the West Bank (which we definitely should do), “Israel is finished”, we can only blame ourselves for looking and feeling bad–indeed, for perpetuating the conflict by encouraging our most intractable enemies.

One of the most negative aspects of Israeli-Palestinian interaction yearlong is that our political system produces coalition governments that are seemingly incapable of dealing effectively with the Palestinian issue. Every single Israeli governing coalition over the past 20 years has fallen over the Palestinian question; the current Olmert government will inevitably follow suit, unless corruption does it in first.

After reflection, let me add one more thought to my reply to the Palestinian journalist’s question about the Nakba weighing on the Israeli conscience. The plight of the Palestinian people since 1948, the horrors of flight and the depravations of refugee status should be understood by Jews better than anyone else in the world, regardless of their root cause. Worse, the Palestinian dilemma has become our dilemma as we increasingly internalize the cruel truth that unless Palestinians achieve statehood and stability we can never fully consolidate our own dream of a Jewish and democratic state.

Back in 1948, we did what we had to do for sheer survival and with a clear conscience. Today, we have nothing to be ashamed of and everything to be proud of. But there is still a lot we can and must do–for us Israelis as well as for Palestinians–until Palestinians have their own independence day.-Published 12/5/2008 © bitterlemons.org

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former special adviser to PM Ehud Barak.

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