A Miraculous Victory, An Open Wound
A controversial Israeli historian looks back at the 1948 war of independence.

Reviewed by Glenn Frankel
Sunday, June 1, 2008


A History of the First Arab-Israeli War

By Benny Morris

Yale Univ. 524 pp. $32.50

In a zero-sum world, one side's gain must be exactly balanced by another's loss. In such a world, violence is inevitable, compromise is betrayal, neutral observers are enemies, and the only heroes are those willing to take the contest to its logical, lethal conclusion. And the only histories worth publishing are those that validate your own self-sustaining myths.

The remorseless, zero-sum conflict between the state of Israel and the Palestinians has been going on for three score years, and despite the sadly belated efforts of a lame-duck Bush administration, there is no end in sight.

The fault-line was clearly visible in mid-May: While Israelis sang "Happy Birthday" to themselves to celebrate the 60th anniversary of their independence, Palestinians were mourning 60 years of al-Naqba, "the Catastrophe."

Each side's narrative is self-contained and in total conflict with the other. In the Israeli version, Holocaust survivors redeemed their ancestral homeland against extraordinary odds by defeating bloodthirsty Palestinian terrorists and five Arab armies, while thousands of Arab civilians abandoned their homes under the directive of leaders who promised glory and spoils upon their return. The Arab counter-narrative depicts Palestinians as hapless victims of a vastly superior Jewish army, backed by the United States and Britain, waging a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing according to a plan laid out before the first shot was fired.

Both accounts contain elements of truth. Neither one was constructed for the sake of veracity, however. Each was useful in mobilizing members of a particular tribe to sustain the conflict: Israelis in their beleaguered fortress-state; Palestinians in their refugee camps, some still fondling the keys to their lost homes. The narratives have nurtured their separate identities -- and their enduring grievances.

Benny Morris, born in 1948 on a kibbutz, is a charter member of a generation of Israeli historians who have challenged his country's founding narrative and deepened our understanding of the roots of the conflict. A former Jerusalem Post correspondent with a doctorate from Cambridge University, he first came to prominence with his 1988 book, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, a ground-breaking, revisionist account of how Israeli forces uprooted and expelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinians during Israel's independence war. His new book is an ambitious, detailed and engaging portrait of the war itself -- from its origins to its unresolved aftermath -- that further shatters myths on both sides of the Israeli-Arab divide.

Morris splits the war into two distinct phases. The first was a civil war between Jewish and Palestinian militias that began in November 1947, when the United Nations General Assembly approved the partition of British-run Palestine into two countries, one dominated by Jews, the other by Palestinian Arabs. Despite early setbacks, the main Jewish military force, known as the Haganah, rolled up major victories and forced much of the Arab population to flee. The key moment, according to Morris, came in early April when the Haganah took the offensive and seized as much land as possible before the planned British military departure. "Palestinian Arab society fell apart and was crushed by a relatively poorly armed and, in many ways, ragtag Jewish militia," Morris writes.

The second phase was the Pan-Arab invasion by the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq (Lebanon stayed largely on the sidelines) after Israel's declaration of independence on May 14, 1948. The Israelis won that struggle as well, expanding the territory of the new Jewish state well beyond the original partition lines and expelling hundreds of thousands more Palestinians in the process.

Along the way, Morris seeks to separate fact from legend. It's true, Morris notes, that the Arab states had a combined population of 40 million, while the Jewish community, known in Hebrew as the Yishuv, numbered a mere 650,000. But the Yishuv, led by the indomitable David Ben-Gurion, "had organized for war. The Arabs hadn't." Arab Palestine, lacking a great leader or unifying principle, amounted to a series of disparate towns, villages and clans rather than a coherent nation, and it succumbed readily to a spirit of powerlessness and fatalism.

As for the war that followed, the combined Arab militaries were far stronger than the Haganah, Morris argues, if not in manpower then certainly in equipment and firepower. But Israeli forces had some "home court advantages" over the four invading armies, such as a unified command, internal lines of communication, familiarity with the terrain and a commitment to protect their homes and families. By the end of the war, they outnumbered the Arab soldiers almost 2 to 1 and produced smashing victories on virtually every front.

Morris is remarkably even-handed when he sifts through the evidence of atrocities. During the civil-war phase, he says, neither side paid much heed to the possible injury or death of civilians, and both sides executed prisoners. In the more conventional fighting that followed, the killing of civilians and prisoners of war mostly stopped -- except for a series of atrocities committed by Israeli troops in the Palestinian town of Lydda in central Israel and in the Galilee. "In truth," writes Morris, "the 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."

Morris doesn't attribute this to any greater morality on the Arab side but rather to the fact that the victorious Israelis captured some 400 Arab villages and towns, while the Arabs overran fewer than a dozen Jewish settlements. By his tally, Palestinians slaughtered some 190 Israelis in two large-scale massacres, while Israeli troops probably murdered some 800 Arab civilians and prisoners of war. But in comparison to modern slaughterhouses like Bosnia or the Congo, the atrocities were relatively limited. The 1948 war "is actually noteworthy for the relatively small number of civilian casualties," Morris concludes.

As for the 700,000 Palestinian refugees, he rejects the claims of other revisionist historians -- most notably Ilan Pappe in his 2006 book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine-- that the expulsions were part of Plan D, drawn up by Zionist leaders and military officers in Tel Aviv in March 1948 and carried out with relentless precision. Morris contends that the plan called for the destruction only of villages that resisted conquest, not those that were quiescent. "Nowhere does the document speak of a policy or desire to expel 'the Arab inhabitants' of Palestine," he writes, adding that "nowhere is any brigade instructed to clear out 'the Arabs.' "

Why is all of this worth re-adjudicating six decades after the event? Because none of it has been resolved. For Israelis, 1948 is central to the legitimacy of the Jewish state. For Palestinians, it is an open wound; if the refugees were unfairly expelled, then they should be allowed to return.

One weakness of Morris's book is that he can offer little documentation of the Arab side. Most of the archives of countries like Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and Syria remain off-limits. Too often Morris ends up speculating about the perceptions and motives of Arab leaders because he lacks the documentation that enriches his treatment of the Israeli side.

Morris himself is a controversial figure in the conflict over the conflict. As an army reservist in 1988, he protested Israel's occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip by refusing to report for duty during the first Palestinian uprising; he spent three weeks in jail as a consequence. But after the second intifada broke out in 2000, he condemned Palestinian suicide bombers as "barbarians" and said the early Israelis were right to have expelled their Arab neighbors. "When the choice is between destroying or being destroyed, it's better to destroy," he told the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz.

Despite his personal views, Morris strives to give a balanced view of the conflict. The collapse of the Arab military effort caused a chain reaction of coups and assassinations that brought down many of the old regimes. Leaders were killed or discarded in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Jordan. "But 1948 has haunted, and still haunts, the Arab world on the deepest levels of collective identity, ego, and pride," Morris writes. "The war was a humiliation from which that world has yet to recover." ยท

Glenn Frankel, who teaches journalism at Stanford University, is a former Jerusalem bureau chief for The Washington Post.

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