Their Tragedy, and Ours
By Benny Morris | 24/02/2011
In 1968, historian Benny Morris, at the time an inducted soldier in the Israel Defense Forces, published “A Letter to a Palestinian” in The Jerusalem Post. At the request of Eretz Acheret, he has kindly attached an update to that letter
Benny Morris, 1968
I wrote this article when I was a 19-year-old soldier in the Israel Defense Forces, serving in the 50th Battalion of the Nahal Brigade. In my letter, I paid scant attention to the problem of future sovereignty over the Temple Mount; that fact demonstrates both a young soldier's naivete and a failure to understand the depth of the Palestinian-Israeli dispute's religious dimension, especially on the Palestinian side.
I apologize to the reader for the letter's propagandistic and somewhat emotional tone. The writer was very young. I have perhaps improved since then. Today, looking back and in view of both the knowledge that has been accumulated and the years that have passed since then, I felt the need for correcting some of the mistakes in that letter, for straightening out its distortions and, especially, for explaining how my views have changed.
Since that time, the Palestinians rejected the peace proposals of Prime Minister Ehud Barak at Camp David in July 2000 and those of American President Bill Clinton in December 2000, and they launched an anarchic terror campaign called the second intifada; I thus lost any desire to write to “a Palestinian.” With the possible exception of Sari Nusseibeh, there is no Palestinian whom I know very well or whom I even know at a distance that I should want to write to. What would be the use anyway? Peace, if it ever comes to this region, will be established by the balance of power, by coercion exerted by the world's powers, or by fatigue; goodwill is incapable of ushering in peace in this region.
What do YOU think?
Join the Readers' Forum here.
The beginning of the letter I wrote at the time reflects Israeli propaganda on the reasons for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem, and, I admit, I fell into the trap of the general discourse. Ever since the eighties, I have dealt to some extent with the subject and I wish to say the following: While it is true that the Palestinians are the victims of the Palestinian-Israeli dispute – along with the Jews – it is not true, as far as the Palestinians' situation as refugees is concerned, that they were victims of the stratagems of the Arab states, which “instructed” the Palestinians to flee their homes. In the course of the 1948 war, the Arab states neither instructed nor advised the Palestinians to abandon their homes. During the civil war between the Jewish and Arab communities in Palestine (from November 1947 to mid-May 1948), Lebanon, Jordan and Syria at times closed their borders and refused to issue visas in an attempt to stop the Palestinians from fleeing and entering their territories. In May and June 1948, they even broadcasted to, and instructed, the Palestinians to remain in their communities; in the case of those who did flee, these countries ordered them to return to their homes, adding that those failing to do so would be punished. From the summer of 1948 onwards, the Arab states tried, both directly and through the United Nations and the Western powers, to persuade the Palestinian refugees to return to their homes.
It should also be pointed out here that, at the time of the invasion, and intermittently during the months following the invasion, the invading Arab armies did instruct the residents of some villages to evacuate their homes, for military reasons. During the retreat of the Egyptian forces from southern Israel in October and early November 1948, Egyptian officers advised the Arab residents of Isdud (Ashdod), Majdal (Ashkelon) and the surrounding areas to retreat southward with their troops to the Gaza Strip.
What really happened in 1948
Alongside all the above, it should be recalled that, before the outbreak of the war in November 1947, the Arab League decided to allow women, elderly persons and children among the Palestinians to enter the territories of member states if war should break out in Palestine. In the course of the civil war, the Arab Higher Committee – the government of the Arabs in Palestine – as well as Arab commanders and local Arab officials instructed or advised the residents of dozens of Arab villages to evacuate completely or at least to evacuate the women, children and elderly persons in their village to the interior of the country or even to one of the Arab states, for military reasons and to prevent them from having to accept Jewish sovereignty. Indeed, many of Palestine's Arabs who became refugees did think that their refugee status would be temporary and that they would return to their homes on the wings of the victorious, invading Arab armies, or in the wake of the UN's or the West's intervention. Although the vast majority of Palestinian refugees did, in fact, flee the “cannons' thunder,” some of them were banished by the Jewish forces and all of the 700,000 refugees were denied permission to return to their homes, in the wake of both the Israeli government's decision in the summer of 1948 and the Israel Defense Force's rigid policy regarding the country's borders. (Nonetheless, some tens of thousands of refugees, primarily in the northern part of the country, did illegally reenter Israel, returning to their villages or to other places, and their residence there eventually became permanent.)
Moreover, two facts must be considered. First, the Palestinian refugee problem was created in the course of, and because of, the war. Had the Palestinians not initiated the war, no refugee problem would have emerged. Second, as a result of the war, some 700,000 Jews were banished from the Arab states to Israel; thus, in the final analysis, history has recorded an act of population exchange. In the case of both the Palestinian and Jewish refugees, there were elements of banishment and coercion and there was a massive loss of civilian property. A visitor from Mars would perhaps say that, despite the immense suffering of both Jewish and Palestinian refugees, this is an instance of some sort of moral balance, some sort of just equation.
I now wish to elaborate on the atrocities committed during the 1948 War. Both sides committed atrocities during the fighting; however, the stronger – and victorious – side, which captured some 400 Arab villages and Arab cities, is responsible for the majority of these actions. In my estimate, the Jewish forces – the Haganah, the Irgun, the Lehi (or Stern group), and the IDF – killed during the war (which lasted about a year), but not in the course of any battle, some 800 to 900 Arab civilians and prisoners of war in dozens of massacres. (For comparison's sake, in another civil war that took place later, in 1995, in Srebrenica, Bosnia – which is in Europe – Serbian forces, which were not fighting with their back against the wall, massacred approximately 8,000 Muslims in the course of only a few days.) In most cases, the massacres that occurred in the 1948 war were initiated by local commanders and were acts of revenge or actions committed in the “heat of battle,” although the concentration of the massacres carried out during “Operation Hiram” and during the week following that military operation (late October-early November 1948) in the north by soldiers attached to several different units (Golani in Eilaboun, the 7th Brigade in Safsaf, Saliha and Jish; the Carmeli Brigade in Hula in Lebanon; the 103rd Battalion in Arab al Muwassi) points to a general atmosphere, if not to deliberate actions carried out in accordance with explicit commands.
Like the Arab League's “Rescue Army” that was dispatched to help them, the Palestinians were unable, despite all their attempts, to capture even one Jewish community in the course of the war; thus, they did not have the opportunity to slaughter many Jewish civilians. Furthermore, they did not attain any victories in the wake of which many prisoners of war fell into their hands. Palestinians carried out massacres in December 1947 in the oil refineries in Haifa, following the killing of Arab laborers at the refineries' entrance gate by a unit of the Irgun, and in Kfar Etzion, when it fell in an attack by the Arab Legion, which was assisted in the assault by Palestinian villagers. In the ambush on the Mount Scopus convoy in April 1948, physicians and nurses were killed; however, this was an ambush carried out against a secured, armored convoy and it was an act of revenge for the slaughter of Arabs by Jews four days earlier in the village of Dir Yassin on the outskirts of Jerusalem. (Incidentally, some of those killed in the convoy were underground fighters who had split off from the mainstream Haganah and who had been wounded previously in the battle at Dir Yassin.)
The memory of Hebron
Undoubtedly, the Jewish military forces in 1948 still had vivid memories of the slaughter of Jewish civilians in Hebron in 1929 and were haunted by the memory of the Holocaust that had only recently taken place in Europe; they feared that a similar fate would befall the Jews in Israel should the nascent state be defeated in battle. Several sources note both the participation of Holocaust survivors (and new immigrants from Muslim countries who had suffered at the hands of the Arabs in the past) in the massacres of Arabs in 1948 and the memory of Hebron as the justification for the acts of revenge and the atrocities (for instance, in the village of Diumeh – the site of present-day Moshav Amatzia – at the foot of Mount Hebron in October 1948).
Arab spokespersons have frequently complained that the Palestinians have paid the price for the atrocities the Europeans committed against the Jews in the past, including the Holocaust. There is some, albeit rather limited, justice in this argument. It should be recalled that the Palestinians did have a hand – even if only indirectly – in the Holocaust in two ways. First, through their rebellion and their violence, the Arabs of Palestine pushed the British in the 1930s to close Palestine's gates to Jewish immigration, that is, to actual and potential Jewish refugees. Thus, in the final analysis, the rescue of many of the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust was thwarted. Second, Haj Amin El-Husseini, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who headed the Arab Higher Committee, and several of his close colleagues, spent the Second World War in the company of the Germans in Berlin, and Haj Amin even worked for the Third Reich's propaganda service against the Allies and collaborated in the recruitment of Muslims from Bosnia for service in the Wehrmacht. Obviously, he knew in the course of the war that Germany was engaged in the Jews' annihilation; however, there is no evidence that he actually collaborated in the annihilation itself. During the war, many Arabs hoped that the Axis powers would defeat the Allies (see, for example, the diary of Khalil al-Sakakini, a Jerusalem educator from the Katamon neighborhood).
It should be pointed out that, in general, the Palestinians were – and continue to be – indifferent to the suffering that the Jews experienced in Europe (and in Muslim countries, where they were also at times persecuted and murdered and where they lived as subservient subjects of their hosts for centuries). Thus, the Palestinians did not really understand one of the roots of Jewish strength in the twentieth century. Although, for the most part, the Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine did not display a sympathetic attitude toward the Palestinians' fate, it should be noted that, in the present generation, many Israeli Jews do acknowledge Palestinian suffering and their role in bringing about this suffering and are prepared to make territorial compromises, to some extent because of that acknowledgment. Nevertheless, there is no acknowledgement on the Palestinian side of either Jewish suffering in the past (which led many Jews to recognize that they must have a state of their own) or the suffering that they inflict on Israeli Jews today (through the suicide-bombing of buses, for example – a tactic in the present intifada that most Palestinians support, according to survey polls). In my opinion, this asymmetry is one of the most discouraging elements in the Palestinian-Israeli dispute.
The Americans' motives
Regarding the motives of the world's powers, I would reiterate the view that, throughout history, Soviet, and subsequently non-Soviet, Russia's policies have been driven by selfish interest. However, I would not say that about the United States, especially with regard to its policies on Israel and the Zionist-Arab dispute. Ideological and idealistic motives, including the protection and dissemination of Western, democratic values are the foundation today of America's battle against Islamic extremists. Moreover, ideological and idealistic motives are what led the U.S. to become involved in Vietnam in the 60s (defending both the free world and Western values). Such motives have certainly served America as guiding principles in its attitude toward Israel. The Holocaust's memory and its legacy – including a sense of guilt – were two of the factors that led President Harry S. Truman to support the UN partition plan for Palestine in 1947 and to recognize the State of Israel in 1948. The fraternity of two democratic states that have a Western culture and the partnership of two immigrant societies that have a pioneering mission have continued to serve as the basis for America's support of Israel in subsequent years. Consistent opposition over the years to U.S. support of Zionism and Israel has come from the State Department and the Defense Department in Washington, which formulate their policies regarding Zionism and Israel on the basis of what is good for America – that is, on the basis of cold, national interests. At the same time, it cannot be denied that donations to both the Democratic and Republican parties and to politicians as well as the concentration of Jewish voters in key states in America have encouraged generations of American politicians to support Israel. Nonetheless, at the base of American policy toward Israel also – and sometimes primarily – lie moral considerations or impulses.
A stubborn insistence on the “Right of Return”
It seems to me that when, at the time, I wrote that, should we fail to emerge from the vicious circle of continual wars, the “gray hills will spread a stench of corpses and, in the end, everything will be destroyed,” I was alluding to the possibility that the dispute would necessarily move on to the stage of unconventional warfare and that a nuclear war would turn this land into a place that neither of the parties to the dispute would be able to inhabit.
In that paragraph, I stressed the importance of the need for mutual recognition of, on the one hand, the demands and aspirations of both sides and, on the other, the legitimacy of their respective rights. Much to my regret, here as well, an abyss of asymmetry has yawned between Israelis and Palestinians; forty years ago, I was perhaps unaware of this abyss or of its eternal nature. Initially, both sides demanded all of Palestine as a basic political claim. However, in the 1930s and 1940s, against the background of Arab opposition and the Holocaust, the Jewish side adopted a realistic approach, under David Ben-Gurion's leadership, and accepted the principle of the partition of Palestine – perhaps the Jews even recognized that partition was justified. Thus, in 1937, the Zionist movement accepted the principle of partition (but not the numerical partition recommended by the Peel Commission). In 1947, the movement accepted the principle and the numbers of the UN partition plan for Palestine. However, in 1937, 1947 and even in 1978 (when Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat agreed to autonomy for the Palestinians on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip, which would have certainly led to the establishment of a Palestinian state), the Palestinian national movement rejected the principle of, and any plan for, partition. The Palestinian national movement demanded every inch of Palestine and continued to advocate that position in 2000, when Barak and Clinton again proposed partition. Regrettably – and this is the basis of my pessimism today, which is in stark contrast with the glowing optimism that I may have displayed in my article in 1968 – the Palestinian national movement continues to maintain, in backrooms and sometimes even publicly, that it has a claim to all of Palestine. Essentially and profoundly, both Hamas and Islamic Jihad are right: These organizations are sincerely and authentically expressing the Palestinian national movement's basic substance. Palestinian President Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas), even if his warmth is genuine, does not really represent the Palestinians (any more than Alexander Dubcek, first secretary of Czechoslovakia's Communist Party, represented Eastern European communism in 1968). Thus, any compromise that Abu Mazen will accept will not represent the Palestinian people's deep-seated ambitions and hope, and, thus, any compromise that Israel agrees to will either never be realized or will not stay in place for very long.
It should be noted that Abu Mazen has never backed down on the demand for the “Right of Return” for Palestinian refugees; this demand has been a kind of litmus test of the Palestinians' real intentions ever since 1948. If Abu Mazen attempts to make this compromise (and I am confident he will not attempt to do so), he will, in my opinion, be liquidated. As any Palestinian child knows, the realization of the “Right of Return” – that is, the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel territory within the June 4, 1967 borders (some four million refugees, according to UN estimates, or some five million, according to the Palestinians) – would mean the end of the Jewish state.
In adamantly insisting on the “Right of Return,” the Palestinians are not only saying that they lay claim to all of Palestine; there is also the implicit claim that Israel has no right to exist because it is a state founded on injustice and the theft of another nation's land. This asymmetry between the Jews' readiness for territorial compromise and the Palestinians' rejection of any partition of Palestine constitutes a fundamental obstacle to any peace settlement. (The obstacle is thus neither the territories occupied in 1967, whose return to Arab sovereignty I fully support, nor the Jewish settlements, whose removal I also support.) This is their tragedy, and ours.
The Jordanian-Palestinian state
In the article I wrote in 1968, I proposed a two-state solution: Israel in its June 4, 1967 borders (approximately) and a Palestinian-Jordanian state on both sides of the Jordan River.
Today, I would be happy to see an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement based on two states west of the Jordan (78 percent and 22 percent respectively). However, I am aware that a peace settlement based on such a partition will not last very long and will cause an explosion in the not-too-distant future. A Palestinian state consisting of most of the West Bank – including East Jerusalem – and the Gaza Strip would soon become very dissatisfied. It would be incapable of absorbing many refugees and its basic aspiration would be to expand territorially because of demographic and economic pressures, as well as ideological and political ones; it would seek to expand westward, at the expense of, and in opposition to, the Jewish state which robbed the Palestinians of (most of) their homeland. A shrunken state like that would pursue Israel into the heart of Tel Aviv and into the heart of Haifa if not in the first generation, then certainly in the second one. There would always be masses of refugees who would be cherishing this dream and who would ignite the flames of war.
If, on the other hand, a Palestinian-Jordanian state on both sides of the Jordan, were established, the “Jordanian option” that many Israel Labor Party members have advocated (although, the “Allon Plan” called for conceding only part of the West Bank), a basis for solving the dispute might be found. A large state, with a solid Palestinian majority and with extensive territories for development and for settlement, would (perhaps) neutralize the militant urge that has characterized the Palestinian national movement from its inception.
However, it is possible that this is only a pipe-dream. It is possible that a Palestinian-Jordanian state on both sides of the Jordan would only want more territory and that the needs of the Palestinian womb and the lust for revenge and for a pay-back that the Palestinians have developed vis-à-vis the Zionists and their state might drive them to aspire to the Jewish state's liquidation and to the (legal, in their view) reclaiming of all their ancestral lands. (An additional motive here would be the fact that the Arab-Islamic world refuses – and will continue to refuse for a very long time, if not forever – to recognize a Jewish presence in the Middle East.) After all, the territory of Israel in its June 4, 1967 borders is the bulk of the territories of historic Palestine, and none of the members of Hamas or Islamic Jihad would ever agree to concede them, even if they were to acquire the East Bank of the Jordan in the bargain. Much to my regret, as if I have noted above, these Jihadists express, in the final analysis, the Palestinian national movement's profound and unchanging aspirations. (We will again find conclusive evidence of that fact in the elections – if they are held – for the Palestinian parliament in another six months' time.)
Professor Benny Morris is a senior faculty member of the Department of Middle East Studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be'er Sheva
What do YOU think?
Join the Readers' Forum here.