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Commentary

In '48, Israel Did What It Had to Do

January 26, 2004|Benny Morris | Benny Morris is a professor of Middle Eastern history at Ben-Gurion University in Israel. "The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited" is being published by Cambridge University Press this month.

On July 12, 1948, Israeli soldiers battling the Arab Legion and local irregulars in the towns of Lydda and Ramle, just south of Tel Aviv, were ordered to empty the two towns of their Arab residents. Over two days, between 50,000 and 60,000 inhabitants were driven from their homes. Many were forced to walk eastward to the Arab Legion lines; others were carried in trucks or buses. Clogging the roads, tens of thousands of refugees marched, shedding their possessions along the way.

The expulsions, conducted under orders from then-Lt. Col. Yitzhak Rabin, were an element of the partial ethnic cleansing that rid Israel of the majority of its Arab inhabitants at the very moment of its birth. Earlier, in the 1930s and 1940s, a near consensus had emerged among Zionist leaders on the necessity of "transfer." They believed that it was critical to buy out or drive out the Arab inhabitants from the areas destined for Jewish statehood, both to make way for Jewish immigrants and to remove the Arabs who opposed, often violently, the establishment of such a state.

The idea of transfer never crystallized into a formal Zionist policy -- there was no master plan and, of course, not all Palestinians who became refugees in 1948 were expelled like the Arabs of Lydda and Ramle. Indeed, most fled because they feared the ravages of war or because they were advised to do so by their leaders. But one way or another, transfer was accomplished; 700,000 Palestinians left the country, and the refugee problem that has haunted Israel ever since was born.

For unearthing that dark side of 1948 in my book "The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949," which appeared in 1988, I was vilified by the Zionist establishment as "anti-Zionist" and "pro-PLO" -- which I never was. As one of the country's "new historians," I was accused of seeking to shatter the founding myths of the Israeli state and of going out of my way to lend moral weight to the Palestinian cause.

That, of course, is untrue. I was simply a historian seeking to describe what happened.

In fact, today -- after looking afresh at the events of 1948 and at the context of the whole Arab-Zionist conflict from its inception in 1881 until the present day -- I find myself as convinced as ever that the Israelis played a major role in ridding the country of tens of thousands of Arabs during the 1948 war, but I also believe their actions were inevitable and made sense. Had the belligerent Arab population inhabiting the areas destined for Jewish statehood not been uprooted, no Jewish state would have arisen, or it would have emerged so demographically and politically hobbled that it could not have survived. It was an ugly business. Such is history.

How can what happened be justified? In November 1947, the leadership of Palestine's Arabs had rejected the United Nations' plan to partition the country into a Jewish and an Arab state -- and instead launched attacks on the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine, to prevent the emergence of the state of Israel. These attacks snowballed into full-scale civil war. In May 1948, the armies of Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq invaded the country to support their Palestinian "brothers" (or simply to seize chunks of Palestine for themselves). It was three years after the Holocaust. For Israelis, it was a war for survival; had they lost, there would have been, they had no doubt, a vast slaughter.

The 700,000 Palestinians who were displaced came from the villages and urban neighborhoods that had served as bases of the militia and irregulars who had for months assaulted Jewish convoys and settlements. They were seen as an existential threat and, when conquered, their villages were leveled. Subsequently, Israel, with a total of about 750,000 Jews, refused to allow back the displaced Palestinians, many of whom had fought against it and would have constituted a massive potential fifth column. Denied absorption in the host Arab states, they became, and remain, along with their descendants, "refugees."

Israel's decision was not unprecedented, nor was it necessarily immoral. Something similar had happened in the early 1920s when a Greek invasion of the Turkish mainland triggered a Turkish counterattack, in which almost all the Greeks living in Asia Minor were expelled. In response, in northern Greece, the Turkish minority was uprooted and expelled to Turkey. For centuries, Turks had oppressed Greeks, and Greeks and Turks had slaughtered one another. The mutual uprooting of these minority communities removed major bones of contention and, ever since, the two peoples have lived in relative peace (except where they remained ethnically intermixed, in Cyprus). While the "population exchange" was no doubt traumatic, in the long run both peoples have vastly benefited.

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