Sunday, January 28, 2007

# Posted 10:24 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

THE BIRTH OF THE PALESTINIAN REFUGEE PROBLEM is the title of the first book written by Israeli historian Benny Morris. When first published in the late 1980s, it provoked a harsh reaction from numerous Israelis who felt that Morris had slandered the founding fathers of the Jewish state. Morris has continued to publish on the subject of Palestinian refugees, although his politics have shifted to the right (in an Israeli context).

I’ve taken an interest in Morris’ work because of an ongoing discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict I’ve been having with a colleague of mine, whose assessment of the conflict is diametrically opposed to my own. Roughly speaking, I’m pro-Israeli and she’s pro-Palestinian. We’re both for human rights and against violence, especially against civilians, but those shared principles are rarely enough to produce consensus when it comes to the politics of the Middle East.

Recently, my colleague has raised the question of the 700,000 or so Palestinian refugees who fled their homes during the Arab-Israeli war of 1948-1949. Arabs refer to this flight as the nakhba, or catastrophe. For many advocates of the Palestinian cause, the nakhba was a historic injustice that fatally compromised the legitimacy of the Jewish state.

But what, precisely, was the nakhba? My limited knowledge of the subject derives from Benny Morris’ 1999 survey of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, entitled Righteous Victims. However, I read the book in 2001, so my recollections of its content were vague at best until I stopped by the library today to refresh my memory.

In the coming months, I intend to read two full books on the subject of the refugees. One is Morris’ latest contribution to the debate, entitled The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited. The other is The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine by Ilan Pappe, an academic historian from Israel whose choice of title indicates his position on the subject.

But for the moment, I thought I would post a series of quotations from Righteous Victims that summarize Morris’ view of the nakhba. All the quotations are from a section of the book entitled the “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem”. (pp.252-258) Morris writes:

Why 700,000 people became refugees was hotly disputed between Israel and its supporters and the Arabs and theirs. Israeli spokesmen – including “official” historians and writers of textbooks – maintained that the Arabs had fled “voluntarily”, or because the Palestinian and Arab states’ leaders had urged or ordered them to leave, to clear the ground for the invasion of May 15 and enable their spokesmen to claim that they had been systematically expelled.

Arab spokesmen countered that Israel had systematically and with premeditation expelled the refugees. Documentation that surfaced in massive quantities during the 1980s in Israeli and Western archives has demonstrated that neither “official” version is accurate or sufficient.

The creation of the problem was almost inevitable, given the geographical intermixing of the population, the history of Arab-Jewish hostility since 1917, the rejection by both sides of a binational solution, and the depth of Arab animosity toward the Jews and fears of coming under Jewish rule.
The last sentence of that quotation may hint at why pro-Palestinian writers tend to resent Morris as well. How can he write about “the depth of Arab animosity toward the Jews” without writing about the depth of Jewish animosity toward the Arabs? I consider his phrasing to reflect a reasonable judgment based on the evidence, but to those who disagree, his phrasing may seem like an argument by assertion.

Regardless, my sense is that pro-Palestinian writers tend to grudgingly acknowledge Morris’ legitimacy as a scholarly contributor to the ongoing debate, in contrast to, say, Alan Dershowitz, whose opinions they confidently dismiss out of hand the way I would those of Noam Chomsky.

But getting back to the subject, I think it’s important to provide some more detail about Morris’ account of the nakhba, even though the paragraphs above provide a reasonably good summary. According to Morris, the refugee crisis developed in four stages during the war, which I will describe below.

But first, Morris points out that Zionist leaders such as David Ben-Gurion considered the forcible transfer of Palestinians to be necessary and just. As the future Prime Minister said in 1938, “I support compulsory transfer. I do not see in it anything immoral.” Other influential Israelis agreed, although both they and Ben Gurion felt that it would be best not to make their opinions known.

This position, however, does not seem to have resulted in any clear plan to force out the Palestinians. Rather, the refugee crisis developed in a series of unplanned stages:
The first was between December 1947 and March 1948, when the Yishuv [Jewish community in Palestine] was on the defensive and upper- and middle-class Arabs – perhaps as many as seventy-five thousand – fled, mainly from the mixed cities, or sent their dependents to the West Bank, Lebanon, Egypt, Syria or Transjordan. In this context their can be no exaggerating the detrimental effect on Arab morale of the IZL and LHI [i.e. Israeli militant/terrorist groups’] bombing campaigns in the big towns…

This was the background to the second stage, the mass flight from urban neighborhoods and rural areas overrun by the Jewish forces during spring 1948. The earlier flight of the elite sapped popular morale and gave the masses an example to emulate.

The principal cause of the mass flight of April-June was Jewish military attack, or fears of such attack. Almost every instance…was the direct and immediate result of an attack on and conquest of Arab neighborhoods and towns. In no case did a population abandon its homes before an attack; in almost all cases it did so on the very day of the attack and in the days immediately following. And flight proved to be contagious. The fall of, and flight from, the big cities – principally Haifa and Jaffa – radiated pessimism and despair to surrounding villages…

The slaughter on April 9 of the villagers of Deir Yassin, augmented by Arab atrocity propaganda regarding what happened there, both reinforced and symbolized [the tendency toward flight]. Fear that the same fate might befall them propelled villagers to flight, and this “atrocity factor” was reinforced periodically during the months of fighting by other Jewish massacres, especially in October…Altogether about two to three undred thousand Arabs fled their homes during this second stage of the exodus.
I’m guessing that many of you, like me, would be interested in further details about those massacres, as well as their magnitude relative to Arab massacres. However, I don’t have such information on hand at the moment.

Anyhow, before this post gets too long, let’s move on to stages three and four. The political and military environment for these stages was very different, since they followed the official founding of the Jewish state and the subsequent declarations of war by its neighbors. Morris writes:
The pan-Arab invasion of May 15 clearly hardened Israel’s resolve regarding the Palestinian civilian population, for good military and political reasons.
That of course is a judgment, with which pro-Palestinian writers would vigorously disagree. However, I tend to agree. Once invaded by Arab neighbors who rejected its right to exist, Israel had to be much more cautious about a resident Arab population that clearly sympathized with the invaders. But how far does caution go before it becomes provocation and abuse? I don’t have an answer to that question just yet. So back to the narrative:
In the third and fourth stages of the exodus, in July and October-November 1948, about three hundred thousand more Arabs became refugees, including the sixty thousand inhabitants of Lydda and Ramle who were expelled by IDF troops…

During the second half of the war, there was far less “spontaneous” flight. Most of the exodus at this time was due to clear, direct causes, including brutal expulsions and deliberate harassment.

Ben-Gurion clearly wanted as few Arabs as possible to remain in the Jewish state. But there was still no systematic expulsion policy; it was never, as far as we know, discussed or decided upon at Cabinet or IDF general staff meetings.
Finally, there was unusual coda to these events, in terms of discussions about allowing refugees to return. One relatively deficient offer from the Israelis would have resulted in the return of 65,000 refugees. The terms of a second offer were that:
Israel might be willing to incorporate the Gaza Strip into its territory and absorb the Strip’s population of 60,000 native inhabitants and 200,000 refugees. In this way, Israel would have done more than its fair share toward resolving the problem – which, its officials tirelessly argued, was not of their own making. (Or, as Ben-Gurion was fond of telling Western interlocutors, “Israel did not expel a single Arab.”)

The offer was seen by the Arabs as far too little, and most of the Arab states insisted that Israel take back all of the refugees.
At least according to Morris, those are those facts. What, then, is their significance, especially their moral significance? The nakhba was certainly a great tragedy, for which its victims deserve considerable sympathy.

A moral evaluation of the first two stages of the flight would seem to rest on one’s evaluation of the Palestinian Arabs’ fears. Was flight the only rational response to Jewish occupation, given that several massacres had taken place? Or did Arabs mainly fear that the Jews would treat them as Arabs treated vulnerable Jewish populations in the past?

An alternative hypothesis is that during the first two stages, those who fled had reasonable expectations of returning to their homes once the war was over. As Morris points out, the upper- and middle-classes had fled violence before, only to return to their homes.

Then, the pan-Arab invasion of May 1948 changed the situation dramatically. The stakes were raised tremendously for both sides. A strong case can be made that the Jewish side was fighting for its very existence. The Arab side faced the prospect that any land lost to the Jews would be lost forever.

For the moment, I’m still not sure how I feel about compulsory expulsion, planned or unplanned. Was it a military necessity? Was any effort made to conduct expulsions in a humane manner? If one sees the war of 1948-1949 as a war for Jewish survival, then these questions may become secondary.

But even if it weren’t a war for survival, the Israeli offer to accept back a significant number of refugees strikes me as morally significant. The Israelis sought a compromise solution that shared out the burden of settling the refugees. Of course, if one sees the nakhba as entirely the Israelis’ fault, then no compromise is just.

Yet from my perspective, it is the pan-Arab invasion of May 1948 that was the most important cause of the nakhba. As I see it, there was no reason for this invasion to happen, other than a total unwillingness by Arabs states to accept the existence of a Jewish neighbor. If not for the invasion, half of the refugees might never have left and the other half might have been resettled, even in their own homes.

I will close this very long post with another question. How do pro-Palestinian writers justify the invasion of May 1948? As an effort to protect and liberate the Arabs of Palestine? As an effort to reverse the emergence of a colonial state whose very existence was an injustice?

For the moment, I can’t imagine any moral argument that would justify untrammeled aggression. Then, as now, compromise is the only hope for peace. Instead, one side refused to accept the existence of the other.

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(19) opinions -- Add your opinion

How do pro-Palestinian writers justify the invasion of May 1948?

A more pressing question is how does Israel justify littering South Lebanon with American made cluster bombs?
Don't forget to include UNRWA: From Danial Pipes:

Here's a puzzle: How do Palestinian refugees differ from the other 135 million 20th-century refugees?

Answer: In every other instance, the pain of dispossession, statelessness, and poverty has diminished over time. Refugees eventually either resettled, returned home or died. Their children - whether living in South Korea, Vietnam, Pakistan, Israel, Turkey, Germany or the United States - then shed the refugee status and joined the mainstream.

Not so the Palestinians. For them, the refugee status continues from one generation to the next, creating an ever-larger pool of anguish and discontent.

Several factors explain this anomaly but one key component - of all things - is the United Nations' bureaucratic structure. It contains two organizations focused on refugee affairs, each with its own definition of "refugee":

The U.N. High Commission for Refugees
The difference between the results of the Armenian genocide by the Turks (1915), the Jewish genocide by the Germans (1940-1945) and the Arab displacement by the Jews (1948) is that 50 years later the Germans and Turks enjoy a more mono-ethnic society and are considered solid citizens of the world while the Jews are reviled. Anti-Semitism no?
Both Benny Morris and Ilan Pappe call the Nakba a case of ethnic cleansing. So in that, at least, there is no difference between the two.

The difference is that Morris believes the ethnic cleansing was justifiable, since he believed that having a Jewish state was a higher moral good than allowing the rights to life, liberty, and property to the native Arabs.

He believes the 1948 War was not a nationalist struggle that was started (with the Balfour declaration), funded, and led by Europeans on historically Arab land, as the Arabs believe, but rather a struggle for Jewish survival that transcended all other considerations.

This is a contention that can and should be debated on its merits. But denying the ethnic cleansing is, in the opinions of Morris and Pappe, neither honest nor useful.

And by the way, is Tim Hoepfner saying he wished Israel could have perpetrated and gotten away with genocide like Germany and Turkey? If so, I am speechless.

He also states without commentary that "Jews are reviled." Again, I am speechless. Last I checked, they were one of the most successful and respected branches of the human family. As a physics major, it is simply astounding to me what a disporportionate number of the guiding lights of science were/are Jewish. Etc.

It is Israel's corrupt and lawbreaking government that people (including many Israeli friends of mine) have a problem with. We believe that settlement expansion, collective punishments, and firing cluster munitions onto vast civilian areas are counterproductive to regional security. (So, obviously, are suicide bombings and other criminal terrorist acts.) If Israel would agree to comprehensive negotiations based on international law, as Abbas begged them to do during all of 2005, we believe Israelis could finally live in peace with secure borders.

Shalom and Salaam.
You also might consider reading Efraim Karsh's Fabricating Israeli History. My understanding is that he criticizes both Morris and Pappe for their renditions of history. Thus, you might want to read Karsh, whom I've been told is a highly-regarded scholar, for a different version of history than you're likely to find in Morris or Pappe.
You should read Efraim Karsh


Must read articles by efraim karsh




Dear Anonymous,

I know Ms. River and you won't get anywhere by telling her to read Karsh. She's read him before. She has read many, many books on this subject.

Sadly, I have to say that I don't think that you and your friend are going to resolve your differences by digging deeper into the History/details of 1948.

That doesn't mean that historical accuracy does not have an important place. However, I find (and have found) that it simply does not provide "answers" in the sense of conflict resolution, although it can sharpen and sophisticate people's sense for why they disagree.

In another context, I called it arguing with history in a vain attempt to find a "first cause". There is no silver-bullet understanding from the I/P historical record, which, unearthed and comprehended by the rational brain of all involved, will produce accord on why what happened happened or what to do about it, given that understanding.

In the end, the refugee problem was created as part of a conflict. It was and is perpetuated, not as the poster writes about because of UNRWA, but to prevent Israel from consolidating her (military) gains. For this reason, many crafty Israelis repeatedly try to have the 'refugee problem' settled ex-negotio - but I don't think that makes sense to do, except as a way to dispell the kind of caustic, pervasive attitude that Arafat used to promote, namely that there would *never* be a compromise on ROR.

So far as I know, Israel has said that friends and families of those displaced being first in the queue to return (and many have). Their compromise position is that the State will/can accept a certain number of "refugees" on an annual basis, and folks who aren't refusing that are arguing about just how many makes sense.

Reportedtly, there was something circa $30billion of third-party money on the table to pay compensation, during the Clinton era talks. Whenever people throw up their hands and ask what I think could be done right away, I suggest that people could start visibly funding a ROR trust. It will never be as much as is asked, but it will could have a catalytic affect on pre-negotiations.
"But there was still no systematic expulsion policy; it was never, as far as we know, discussed or decided upon at Cabinet or IDF general staff meetings."

You did have your irony detector on when you typed that, did you?
I may often disagree with his politics, but I must second the commentary by Amicus in that those who study the tragic history of this conflict all too often are searching for a “first cause” or a “silver bullet”. This is a situation where no party comes to the table with clean hands. The search for wrongdoing, such as making assertions about “Israel's corrupt and lawbreaking government”, or similar allegations about the Palestinians, is endless. And in this respect, even those who might otherwise dismiss Alan Dershowitz out-of-hand might acknowledge his call for a statute of limitations on the list of grievances.

Granted blame generally constitutes an important part of reconciliation and healing. Victims need to have their complaints and claims acknowledged, often as a form of vindication. However, this need for victims may have to take a back seat in order for them to achieve their material objectives. For example, a victim may need to forego an acknowledgement of wrongdoing by a major corporation in order to receive compensation. The acknowledgement of wrongdoing or assertion of blame actually gets in the way of resolving the problem.

Thus, the parties must make a decision as to what degree fighting for principle matters more than achieving a return for Palestinian refugees. This is not to discount the importance of history. Each side may use historical analyses to advance their positions. But at the end of the day, if the writing of history (ie, assertion of blame) becomes their ultimate objective, then it will come at a high cost.

So, I second the notion that a compromise on a ROR is necessary and desirable. And starting a ROR trust sounds like a good idea, at least at first glance.
Israel is the largest refugee camp in the world.

Over 50 years, a million Jews fled from Arab countries, another million from the USSR. If one applies the UNRWA criteria, these Jews and their descendants are refugees, and the state of Israel is a refugee camp.

The Palestinian claim to a "right of return" can only be negociated along with a Jewish "right of return".

How do pro-Palestinian writers justify the invasion of May 1948?

Technically I am not pro-Palestinian, but I'll give it a go.

The removal of Arab residents was seen as a necessity by B-G and others in leadership positions. Also the fractual territory of the original Jewish state was very difficult to defend. B-G could not have tolerated allowing a Jewish Israel to be jeopardised both territorially and ethnically.

For the moment, I can’t imagine any moral argument that would justify untrammeled aggression.

Perhaps as an attempt at pre-emptive self defense; attacking ASAP to stop the Israellis gaining strength enough to solve Israels known territorial and ethnic problems in the only realistic manner.
my wife and family are arabs from the galilee and are now integrated into israeli society. it might be because they are christian that they have never said anything about 1948, good or bad. it is a non-issue, mainly because they are content with their unprecedented freedom in israel (because they have seen what life is like in other countries for christians).

what i have noticed also, as mentioned in the article, is that there is no compromise in the equation - it is all, or nothing. nothing is preferrable to having something, and that is to the complete shame for arabs.

why do palestinians seek israeli citizenship and access so eagerly? why do israeli arabs abhor the notion of being a part of the PA? and why do east jerusalem residents, when given the choice, choose israeli residence over palestinian residence? they are hypocritical, for sure.

there is no sign of compromise on the side of arabs (cessation of terror does not count as a concession) and israel has the right to see some concrete concessions from them for a change. it is the least the arabs should do.
David Your posts have become too frequent and FAR TOO LONG for busy people
It is becoming more and more obvious that the political talk is just delaying the inevitable in the Middle East - all-out war over religious differences and land. We hope that the politicians can peacefully resolve the conflicts but sadly it is the military wars that cut to the chase. Only to have the politicans interfer too quickly with the war's outcome and leave more unsettled issues for more later talk amd wars.
You say you're concerned about preventing civilian deaths on both sides. But then how do you justify the constant "mistakes" that the Israeli army makes, that range from using white phosphorus to shelling residential blocks to hitting a beach in Gaza to using cluster bombs in southern Lebanon?

There are just too many mistakes, and they point to a policy, applied both in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, of using a policy of collective punishment on civilians who are not involved in fighting in hostilities.
"why do palestinians seek israeli citizenship and access so eagerly? why do israeli arabs abhor the notion of being a part of the PA? and why do east jerusalem residents, when given the choice, choose israeli residence over palestinian residence? they are hypocritical, for sure."

Think about what you're asking. The clear answer is that some Palestinians would prefer to live in Israel rather than Palestinians because they value their lives. I mean that literally: they value being able to walk down the street without being plugged with bullets in a firefight between opposing factions. Because that's what Gazans are subject to, to the point that they can barely walk outside in safety.

Other areas besides the Gaza Strip are also violent.
"As I see it, there was no reason for this [1948] invasion to happen, other than a total unwillingness by Arabs states to accept the existence of a Jewish neighbor."

In the context of today, or even the last thirty-some years I would agree. But the 1948 invasion in its own context is more like one people reacting against another for what it saw as an illegal land-grab (the way people have been reacting since the first cave man took another caveman's cave, essentially), rather than Arabs reacting against Jews in the context of some larger anti-Semitic movement laced in the geostrategies of East and West. The distinction, if valid (and I think it is) tends to get lost in contemporary debates that see all invasions and attacks in the Arab-Israeli wars from the same incongruent perspective.
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