Once again, history becomes the battlefield in the Israel-Palestine conflict. And as usual, both sides in the debate have their self-serving versions.
In 2011, there is a lot less gray area in this history. Most of the history of 1948 is clear as far as the facts are concerned. Serious students of those facts can still disagree on
matters of interpretation, and honest scholarship, which is nonetheless influenced by the students’ own points of view as it is in all matters of history, is still often divided by the lines of the scholars’ sympathies.
What does get tiresome, though, is the willful distortion of history by politicians.
Let me try to set the record straight, at least for my readers. And let’s start with Abbas.
He wrote: “In November 1947, the General Assembly made its recommendation and answered in the affirmative [regarding partitioning Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state]. Shortly thereafter, Zionist forces expelled Palestinian Arabs to ensure a decisive Jewish majority in the future state of Israel, and Arab armies intervened. War and further expulsions ensued.”
There’s plenty of context missing here, of course. One cannot expect a textbook reading in the limited space of an op-ed. But it’s simply not the case that the UN passed its plan and the Zionists simply started expelling Arabs.
A Palestinian community that lost most of its leadership a decade before was already trading low-level attacks with the Yishuv (the pre-state Zionist community in Palestine). In response to the UN announcement, a three-day strike was called, several Palestinian attacks were made, larger than those before, and the two communities were quickly involved in a civil war.
In the event, there was a gradual progression among Yishuv decision-makers to increase their attacks on the towns and villages and, concomitantly, increase the flight of the Palestinians. Fighting had been going on for some time before the partition decision. But the initial escalation of violence in the wake of the UN vote was from the Palestinian side, emboldening the growing voice in the Yishuv calling for the forced expulsion of as many Arabs as possible.
Abbas also wrote: “Minutes after the State of Israel was established on May 14, 1948, the United States granted it recognition. Our Palestinian state, however, remains a promise unfulfilled.”
In fairness, there were good political reasons the Arabs who spoke in the international community for the Palestinians rejected the Partition Plan, and that rejection was certainly supported by the Palestinians. But they did in fact reject it, so blaming the US (which was quickly followed by the USSR) for recognizing Israel is a bit distorted as well.
So, that’s Abbas, but with Netanyahu…
Netanyahu said: “”It was the Arab armies, with Palestinian help, who attacked the Jewish state in order to destroy it.”
The Arab armies’ attack came after Israel’s declaration of independence on May 15, 1948. By that time, there were already around 400,000 refugees, about half of what would be the total number of refugees by the end of the war.
Netanyahu’s statement carries with it the full weight of the mythology that the Palestinian refugees were merely an unfortunate consequence of the war.
He subtly repeats the obvious lie that the Yishuv never intended to expel any Palestinians. This is contradicted by the records of the Hagana (the main militia under the direct control of the official Yishuv leadership) and of the central Jewish Agency and Yishuv leadership minutes, diaries and protocols, as cited repeatedly by Benny Morris (hardly a Palestinian sympathizer) in several books.
Netanyahu would have us believe that all Arabs just up and left what became Israel in order to lie in wait, in groups including women, children, the elderly and infirm, for the opportunity to destroy Israel.
“The Palestinian refugees were an outcome of that war, not a cause,” the prime minister said. “Some Palestinian leaders themselves urged the Palestinians to vacate the land in order to make it easier for the Arab armies to fight for the destruction of Israel.”
In fact, the record shows that, while there were some occasions where Arab leaders told villagers to remove themselves from an oncoming battle, the far greater effort was in trying, unsuccessfully as it turned out, to get people to remain in their towns.
A civilian fleeing a war is not just common, it’s universal, as is military commanders ordering civilians out of a battle zone. Painting this as anything other than civilians getting out of the line of fire is frankly obscene.
This is a sterling example of what I described yesterday—the Israeli view that the claims of Palestinian refugees is just a tool to destroy Israel. (Note: For my general view on the question of refugees and return, see that piece)
It is fair enough to say that Israel, as a Zionist state whose population remains overwhelmingly Jewish, faces a real threat from the idea of refugees all having the option to return behind the Green Line.
But it is not at all fair to reduce the issue to that alone.
Many Palestinian refugees were forcibly removed (Tochnit Dalet, or Plan D, was only the biggest and best-known program of expulsion; there were numerous others), others fled. And this has been the singular event in the lives of those Palestinians and their descendants.
Pretending otherwise, and pretending that Israel, which one way or another drove them out and barred their return has no responsibility for this reality has and will continue to be the most fundamental obstacle to ending this conflict.
Contrary to Abbas’ statements, Palestinians, despite their very weak position, were not completely without agency in escalating the conflict between the Partition Plan’s approval on November 29, 1947 and Israel’s declaration of independence and the subsequent Arab invasion on May 15, 1948.
But that distortion pales to insignificance next to Netanyahu’s blatant and shameless re-writing of the history recorded in Israel’s own archives. Abbas distorted, Bibi simply denied Israel’s clear actions that caused devastating and long-term harm to millions. We don’t tolerate that sort of thing regarding other historical tragedies, and we shouldn’t do so regarding this one either.
History, when carefully examined, rarely paints anyone in the way the partisans want them to be painted and that’s the case here. Until we can all discuss the realities of the past, how can we possibly reconcile for the future?