A catastrophe of their own making?

Morris notes that in the first months of the war, the Hagana's policy was defensive and few Arab villages were touched.

By ABRAHAM RABINOVICH
May 7, 2008 13:17

 
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Visiting Haifa at the beginning of May 1948 in the wake of the battle for the city and the flight of most of its Arab inhabitants, Golda Meyerson (Meir) was taken aback by the sight of coffee and pita left on tables in Arab houses, scenes which reminded her of the sudden uprooting of Jews in Europe during the Second World War. Back in Jerusalem, she described the exodus of Haifa's Arabs to her fellow members of the Jewish Agency Executive - the political leaders of the Yishuv - as "dreadful" and asked whether the city's Arabs who had chosen to leave might not be permitted to return. The vignette is a rare report of Israeli empathy during the War of Independence for uprooted Palestinians. A week after the future prime minister posed her question, four Arab armies invaded with the intention of snuffing out the newborn state. With that, any lingering humanitarian considerations gave way to cold strategic calculation. Morris notes that in the first months of the war, the Hagana's policy was defensive and few Arab villages were touched. Only in March did it draw up an offensive plan, Plan D, which outlined steps in anticipation of the invasion by regular Arab armies, such as securing vital roads and occupying strategic locations. The order gave brigade commanders the option of evicting inhabitants of villages and towns in their operational areas, many of which were bases for hostile activity. "Nowhere does the document speak of a policy or desire to expel 'the Arab inhabitants' of Palestine or of any of its constituent regions," writes Morris. As the struggle intensified, however, pressures to do just that mounted, first so as to clear the field of a hostile population and, subsequently, to append territory for a viable state. "The Israeli decision to bar a refugee return consolidated between April and August." At a cabinet meeting on June 16, foreign minister Moshe Shertok (Sharett) took note of the change. "Had anyone said that one day we should expel all of [the Palestinians], that would have been madness. But if this happened in the turbulence of war, a war that the Arab people declared against us, then that is one of those revolutionary changes after which history cannot be turned back." When plans for a score of new settlements were drawn up early in the war to secure sensitive areas, the planners placed them alongside abandoned Arab villages but not on the village sites themselves so that the refugees would have a place to return to. This approach was quickly dropped and orders were given not to allow the Arabs to return. The permanence of the refugee problem, writes Morris, stems from this "almost instant decision" in the summer of 1948. Captured Arab villages were razed and Jewish settlements built in their place. All Jewish settlements captured by the invading Arab armies - about a dozen - were likewise razed. MORRIS IS unflinching in describing the mass flight of the Palestinians and the tragic destruction of a society, unflinching too in his conviction that the Arabs brought their nakba, or catastrophe, upon themselves. Given the implacable Arab opposition to the creation of a Jewish state in their midst - an opposition made clear over the years by armed actions and chilling rhetoric - the Jews saw as existential the need to reduce the danger from a sizable Arab population in their own midst. Ben-Gurion referred to the obdurate nature of Arab hostility when he attempted, in a conversation years after the war, to depict the Arab mind-set and its negation of the Jews' historic connection to the land. "Why should the Arabs make peace? We have taken their country. Sure, God promised it to us, but our God is not theirs. There have been the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They only see one thing. We have come here and stolen their country." Expulsion of the Arabs, writes Morris, had never been part of the Zionist platform, and a sizable Arab minority would indeed be left in the country at war's end, constituting today some 20 percent of Israel's population. However, expulsion of the Jews - at least those who arrived after the Balfour Declaration - was a central plank of the Palestinian national movement from its inception. "Without doubt, Arab expulsionism fueled Zionist expulsionist thinking." The bulk of the 700,000 refugees fled their homes as battle approached their villages or even before. "Most likely expected to return within weeks or months on the coattails of victorious Arab armies or on the back of a UN decision or Great Power intervention." Despite his clearly pro-Zionist sentiments, Morris has no hesitation about spelling out atrocities committed by Jewish soldiers during the war. "The Jews committed far more atrocities than the Arabs and killed far more civilians and POWs in deliberate acts of brutality. In the yearlong war, Yishuv troops probably murdered some 800 civilians and prisoners of war." There were also a dozen reported cases of rape by Jews, few by Arabs. The disproportion is clearly connected with the fact that the Jews captured some 400 villages and urban areas while the Arabs captured only a handful of settlements. The regular Arab armies which captured these settlements committed no large-scale massacres of civilians or POWs. In several instances, like in Jerusalem's Jewish Quarter, they protected prisoners from the local population. Given that the war was fought in populated areas, writes Morris, and given the nature of similar wars elsewhere, "1948 is actually noteworthy for the relatively small number of civilian casualties both in the battles themselves and in the atrocities that accompanied them or followed." The incidence of rape, he says, was "extremely low." Total casualties, however, were the highest proportionally of any of Israel's wars. The Yishuv lost some 5,800 dead, almost 1 percent of the population. One quarter of the fatalities were civilians. In some of the fiercest battles at kibbutzim, women numbered up to a quarter of the defenders. Palestinian casualties are unclear. The Egyptians lost 1,400 dead and the other Arab armies each suffered several hundred dead. That the war did not entirely extinguish human sentiment is suggested by a report retrieved from intelligence files by Morris. In the chaos engulfing the Arab-inhabited Lower City of Haifa during the battle there, with residents trying to reach boats in order to escape, a Palmah scout in Arab dress saw an old Arab man sitting on steps and crying. "I asked him why he was crying," the scout wrote in his report, "and he replied that he had lost his six children and his wife and did not know where they were. I quieted him down. It was quite possible, I said, that the wife and children had been transported to Acre, but he continued to cry. I took him to the hotel... and gave him 22 pounds and he fell asleep."

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