A Miraculous Victory, An Open Wound

A controversial Israeli historian looks back at the 1948 war of independence.

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Reviewed by Glenn Frankel
Sunday, June 1, 2008; Page BW08


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.

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