Looking at 1948

1948: The First Arab-Israeli War by Benny Morris. New Haven: Yale University Press. 524 pp (including endnotes, bibliography and index). Hardcover, $32.50; ₤19.99.

Paul Scham

Paul Scham is adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute, Washington, D.C. and co-editor of Shared Histories: A Palestinian-Israeli Dialogue.

Benny Morris has been the enfant terrible of Israeli historians since the publication in 1989 of his book The Birth of the Arab Refugee Problem, at the cutting-edge of the first wave of revisionist or "new" historians (a term he coined) who have employed newly available documents and a different sensibility to question the received narrative of Israel's birth. Twenty years later, he is certainly the doyen, at the least, of the historians of "1948," which is not only the title of his new book but an elegant means of finessing a name for what Jews call Israel's War of Independence and Arabs refer to as the Nakba (catastrophe).
The story of Israel's birth and the Palestinian dispersion is one of the great sagas of the 20th century. The fact that its consequences are not settled-to put it mildly-adds importance and tension to the story.
Morris frames the conflict as an inevitable clash of two nationalisms, Jewish and "Palestinian Arab." He is not interested in alternative narratives or roads not followed. He deems the uncompromising anti-Zionism of the Jerusalem mufti, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, as the authentic and only relevant expression of Palestinian political attitudes at that time; thus he considers that if the Zionist project was to succeed, it had to prevail, not compromise.
Morris's history is not about personalities. While he recognizes individual choices matter-perhaps most of all those of David Ben-Gurion-he focuses primarily on their effects. The internal politics of the collective actors are discussed only insofar as they affect the conflict itself. It is stark Greek tragedy. Morris fully accepts, though he does not dwell on, the suffering of Palestinians, but leaves no doubt that he is absolutely certain as to who deserved to win, both morally and logistically.
In his clear and lucid prose he conveys the sweep of both the political and military conflicts, though it is clearly the latter that he loves to describe in-only occasionally-numbing detail. Although he contends the Yishuv was tardy in preparing for what he delineates as an inevitable and existential conflict, starting in late 1947, it did develop an extensive and effective network of cash and arms suppliers-the former primarily American Jews, the latter traders of all nationalities in the huge amounts of military surplus then available. In retrospect, the failure of Palestinian society and of the Arab states to prepare for the war made their defeat inevitable, touch and go as it seemed for a while at the time.
Uninterested as he is in individual psychology, Morris nevertheless stresses societal and military motivation as a key factor. He juxtaposes the Jewish population's perception that it faced a second holocaust-based both on the threats of Arab leaders and the recent memory of the first-combined with a mobilized and energetic society, against a traditional and stratified Palestinian population, which identified with its nationalist leaders, but whose organization and mobilization for war was never attempted, let alone managed. Crucially, it had already been badly weakened by the consequences of the revolt of 1936-39 when much of its leadership, both traditional and ideological, had been killed or had left the country, and intra-societal feuding had been exacerbated.
Soon after November 29, 1947, when the UN passed the partition resolution [Resolution 181], mandating but not supervising the establishment of a Jewish and Palestinian state on the failed British mandate, the Palestinians appeared to take the military initiative. Until about March 1948, irregular, mostly local bands ("gangs" in Jewish parlance), plus volunteers from neighboring countries and the semi-organized Arab Liberation Army (ALA) attacked Jewish settlements and, especially, essential transportation with some success but with little coordination or planning. Morris provides a nuanced and multi-faceted explanation of the factors underlying the shift that took place in late March and April to a wide-ranging and aggressive campaign by the Haganah. These included the completion of the reorganization of the Jewish forces into an army; the increasingly desperate situation of the 100,000 Jews in Jerusalem; the recognition of the likelihood of invasion by Palestine's neighbors when the Mandate would officially end on May 15; the need to head off a possible American-supported delay of partition and a bruited trusteeship plan for Palestine; and the appearance of arms shipments, especially from Czechoslovakia, though these would only turn into a flood after the British blockade ended with the Mandate.
In this second stage of the "civil war," which lasted until May 15, Israel implemented the famous - or notorious - Tochnit Dalet (Plan D), which provided for establishing Jewish military control of settlements, towns, and cities inhabited by Jews and clearing their neighborhoods of potential security threats by Palestinians, which in practice often led to their expulsion. Morris emphasizes that the purpose of the plan was largely to prepare for the expected invasion by the Arab states on that date. After a quick and bloody conquest by the Haganah in Tiberias and again in Haifa, local Arab leaders chose to evacuate their people. Though this had not been demanded by the victorious Jewish forces, the benefits of Arabrein cities and whole areas were immediately apparent to the Jewish leadership.
Morris does not flinch from describing the expulsions and occasional massacres by the Jewish forces which resulted in approximately 250,000 Palestinians fleeing by May 15. His figure for the total number of refugees by the end of the war was approximately 700,000. He also makes clear, as have other Israeli historians, that the allegations that Arab leaders had called for the Palestinians to leave have no foundation; on the contrary most Arab leaders quickly realized the mortal danger of evacuation and did all they could to halt it, which was not much.
On May 14, the State of Israel was proclaimed; the next day, five Arab states invaded. The first phase of the war was halted by a UN-imposed truce on June 11. When that expired, the initiative remained almost completely in Israel's hands, although the war dragged on until early 1949.
Benny Morris is a meticulous historian who does not shrink from documenting Israeli abuses. In his conclusion he boldly states: "[T]he Jews committed far more atrocities than the Arabs and killed far more civilians and POWs in deliberate acts of brutality in the course of 1948," though he emphasizes this is probably due to the fact that the Jews were far more successful in their military actions.
But he makes clear in his conclusion-which is his only political argumentation-that he is convinced Israel has nothing to apologize for. He takes Arab and Muslim threats seriously, and argues that Muslims are driven largely by a religious imperative. He believes the Arabs started the war; having done so, they are ill-placed to complain of Jewish responses. Moreover, he contends that there was a net exchange of populations, given the approximately 700,000 Jews who left or were driven out of Arab countries and came to Israel between the 1940s and 1960s.
There is little question that this is now the best single book on the 1948 war. Ironically, in his post-intifada, right-leaning orientation, Morris has performed a great service for the Israeli peace camp that had cast him out after his justifications of massacres and expulsions in a famous Haaretz interview in 2004. His lack of apologetics has made it possible for Israelis and Jews who previously accepted the received history of no Jewish brutality to start taking more seriously the claims of Palestinians that a Nakba did occur. Perhaps a "shared history" based on now-available facts and presented by Morris and others can help make a shared future more possible. Eventually.