1948: The First Arab-Israeli War

James Barker | Published in History Today

For the first time since it had conquered the West Bank and Gaza Strip during the June 1967 Six Day War, the Israeli army found itself on the back foot, portrayed by the world’s media as a badly-disciplined bunch of uniformed thugs who seemed to delight in beating up ordinary Palestinians and shooting at their children with live rounds. For a nation about to celebrate its fortieth anniversary, the Intifada was a sobering reminder of the limits of military power and worrying evidence of the corrosive effects of the occupation of Palestinian land. The soul-searching it immediately provoked among Israelis happened to coincide with a wave of revisionist histories that took a critical look at the founding myths surrounding the establishment of the Jewish state in May 1948 and the difficult first years of its existence. Nearly all the authors – Ilan Pappe, Simcha Flappin, Tom Segev and Benny Morris himself – were Israeli, proof of the contention that Israelis are often their own fiercest critics.

In his book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, published in 1988, Benny Morris almost single-handedly discredited the fairy tale that insisted that all the 750,000 Palestinian Arabs who had fled their homes in 1948 had either done so voluntarily or had heard messages on Arab radio stations ordering them to leave. Intended to absolve the Jewish state from any responsibility for the Palestinian refugee problem, this myth was never taken very seriously by Israelis themselves but it became an article of faith among Israel’s supporters in the West. Consequently, the revelations in Morris’s book about the part Jewish fighters in 1948 played in driving Palestinians from their homes and levelling their villages and killing them if they dared to return became almost as big a story for some Western journalists as the Intifada itself. So Morris joined the steady stream of Israeli and Palestinian politicians and community activists who came to savour the relaxed atmosphere and the exquisite cardomum-flavoured coffee at the American Colony in exchange for a hectic round of interviews with the foreign news media.

Published to coincide with Israel’s sixtieth anniversary, 1948 is a companion volume to The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem. With clarity and authority, Morris describes the tangle of competing ideologies, beliefs, preoccupations and fears on all sides of the first Arab-Israeli conflict, which the Israelis now call the War of Independence and which the Palestinian Arabs simply call al-Nakbar – the Catastrophe. It is a very complex story, involving three main players: the British, psychologically and financially exhausted by a recent war which they had nevertheless won, exasperated by a sophisticated Jewish underground campaign which they were incapable of defeating and anxious to divest themselves of the whole sorry mess without jeopardizing their powerful interests in the Middle East or American economic support; the Arabs inside Palestine and in the neighbouring Arab states, buoyed up by bravado and some blood-curdling rhetoric but in reality totally outclassed organizationally and ultimately materially by their smaller but far more determined Zionist enemy; and the 650,000 Jews of Palestine themselves, for whom national sovereignty and independence appeared to be the only barrier between themselves and a new Holocaust. The abdication by Attlee’s government of its responsibilities in Palestine is a truly shameful episode in British imperial history but Morris credits the majority of the British who served there with behaving honourably, despite severe provocation from the Irgun and the Stern Group. He is frank about the excesses committed by Jewish troops during the fighting and, although it is clear he has little sympathy for the Arabs, it is difficult to fault his analysis of the myriad causes of their defeat.

However, in assessing the importance of jihadist rhetoric among the Arabs in their struggle with the Jews, Morris has, in my view,  mistakenly transposed the West’s post-9/11 perceptions of extreme Islamic political discourse onto the very different circumstances that existed in Palestine and in the rest of the Arab world in the first half of the twentieth century. To be sure, as far as ordinary Jews in Palestine were concerned, the level of Arab hatred and violence in 1920, 1921, 1929 and 1936 was pretty frightening, but he uses this fact to avoid any serious analysis of the impact on ordinary Arabs of Jewish extremism – in deed as well as in word – throughout the same period. Whilst detailing the massacre of Arab civilians by Jewish fighters at places like Deir Yassin in April 1948 and Dawayima the following October, the explanations he offers for these killings do not adequately take into account the motivation of the Jewish perpetrators.

The sad truth is that by 1948 the majority of Jews and Arabs in Palestine had grown accustomed to fearing and hating the other side but in the final analysis, the threats and insults they aimed at each other were not as important as the terrible things they actually did and the reasons they had for doing them. As Benny Morris openly acknowledges, Jews were responsible for the majority of atrocities in 1948, largely because they were victorious. No doubt the Arabs would have behaved just as badly had they won. He ends the book with this thought – ‘Whether 1948 was a passing fancy or has permanently etched the region remains to be seen’. This conclusion is far bleaker than anything he would have written in 1988 at the time Israel celebrated its fortieth anniversary.


James Barker is currently researching and writing a book about the British in Palestine 1917-48


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