'I haven't revealed any smoking gun," says Benny Morris, sitting in a Jerusalem cafÃ©.
That muffled drumbeat on the eve of publication of his latest book - a history of the War of Independence - may be reassuring to Israelis still shaken by the smoking gun he laid on the table with his first book. That tome, on the Palestinian refugees, revealed that many of those who fled in 1948 were deliberately uprooted by Israel.
Morris's new book, called 1948, reshapes half a century's published research on the first Arab-Israeli war, vitalizes it with his own extensive archival forays and weaves a tale so gripping that even an informed reader feels he is learning about the country's early history for the first time. (Disclosure: This writer worked at the desk next to Morris's in the newsroom of The Jerusalem Post when the world was younger.)
Morris's book on the refugees, which brought him international renown when published two decades ago, made him a hero to the political Left, which saw him boldly acknowledging the plight inflicted on the Palestinians by Israel. It made him anathema to the political Right, which saw him gratuitously granting comfort and political ammunition to the country's enemies. In subsequent interviews, Morris made it clear that both sides had him wrong: The tragedy which overtook the Palestinians was something that merited an honest historical account, he argued, but not an apology. The Arabs had started the war with the intention of driving out or annihilating the Jews. Furthermore, he says, if a large, demonstrably hostile and fast-growing Arab minority had subsequently remained in place, a Jewish state would not have taken root.
Despite the new book's title, the story it tells begins in 1881 with the onset of modern Jewish settlement in Palestine; the chapters devoted to the pre-1948 years are among Morris's most absorbing. A sense of dÃ©jÃ vu that the book sometimes evokes comes from recognition that the underlying state of play a century ago and 60 years ago is often still the state of play today.
The 1948 war was a conflict between two national movements, but something else underlay the passions, says Morris. "It was also a jihad. 'To wipe out the infidel' - that's what drove the masses in the squares of Cairo and Baghdad to demand war and that's what drove the Arab leadership in making war. I don't know how much they were thinking about the Palestinians."
The Jews were divided into contentious political camps but it was rare for them to employ violence against each other and they proved able to achieve broad unity on major issues in orderly fashion. However, differences within the Palestinian camp - between militants led by the Husseini family and the more moderate faction led by the Nashashibis - were bloody and debilitating to the Palestinian cause, a theme echoed in the current Hamas-Fatah face-off. Lack of common purpose was in abundant evidence. The Nashashibis as well as the Husseinis publicly condemned the influx of Jews but both secretly sold land to them and hundreds of Arabs collaborated with the Zionist intelligence agencies.
MORRIS DIVIDES the war into two segments. The "civil war" between Jewish Palestinians and Arab Palestinians, the latter supported by volunteers from Arab countries, lasted from December 1947 to May 1948. The militias had initial successes in cutting roads to Jewish settlements and imposing a siege on Jerusalem, but when the Hagana went over to the offensive in April it was able to decisively crush them.
The major test came when 20,000 troops from the Egyptian, Jordanian, Syrian and Iraqi armies crossed into Palestine following Israel's declaration of independence on May 14. (The Lebanese army did not cross the border but provided some artillery support. Israeli troops did later cross into Lebanon.) On paper, the Hagana outnumbered the invading Arab forces, but half the 30,000-person Jewish army, says Morris, was made up of rear-echelon troops, while the Arab contingents were all combat units. No less important, the Jews had no artillery when the war began and virtually no tanks, while the Arab forces had both.
"At this stage, when the Jews didn't have heavy equipment, motivation was a critical factor. They really did stop tanks with Molotov cocktails at Deganya and elsewhere, and at Kibbutz Nirim 60 members and a few Palmahnikim really did fight off 600 Egyptians."
Although the dispatch of the four armies to the Palestinian arena was seemingly a high point of Arab unity, that soon proved illusory. There was no effective joint command and each army had its own agenda. The clearest was that of Jordan's Arab Legion. King Abdullah intended initially to seize only territories assigned to the Arabs by the UN partition resolution. He changed his plan so as to include Jerusalem - designated by the UN as an international enclave - when the Jews began attacks on the Old City and he feared the loss of the Muslim holy places, says Morris. But he never attacked areas assigned by the partition plan to the Jews.
"The Jordanians came into the war to take the West Bank. The other armies were out to destroy Israel if they could but, if not, then to take as much land as they could and also to prevent the Jordanians from taking too much."
The Egyptians, driving up the coast toward Tel Aviv, sent a column northeast through Hebron to Jerusalem not to support the Jordanians but, says Morris, in an effort to prevent the southern part of what became the West Bank from falling into Jordanian hands. Israeli attacks forced the Egyptians back.
The Jordanians blocked the road to Jerusalem at Latrun not with the intention of cutting off and capturing the Jewish half of Jerusalem as the Israelis believed, but to prevent the passage of Israeli reinforcements that might enable the Jews in Jerusalem to capture the Arab half of the city. Although Jordanian armored cars were stopped, with Molotov cocktails, when the Legion attempted to capture Notre Dame monastery on the seam between the two halves of the city, it had no intention of risking a plunge into the built-up Jewish neighborhoods. One of the first things the Jordanians did, says Morris, was to disarm the Palestinian militias and incorporate the West Bank into Jordan in defiance of the UN resolution and of the Palestinian elite who wanted a Palestinian state.
As the war continued, with intermittent truces, both sides grew in strength. By the end of the year, the Hagana had 110,000 men under arms, while the Arab forces numbered 60,000-80,000. By this time only the Egyptian army was engaged in active combat.
The UN partition resolution had allocated 6,000 square miles to the Jewish state. By war's end, an additional 2,000 square miles had been won in the field.
WHEN THE WAR had started, 630,000 Palestinian Jews had faced twice as many Palestinian Arabs. The latter held a greater part of the country and were assured the intervention of the Arab armies on their side when the British left. How, then, did the Jews prevail?
"They were far better organized for war," says Morris. "There was command and control, logistics, intelligence. Kibbutzim had trenches, barbed-wire fences and perimeter lighting. Much of this was done during the civil war before the real attack came."
Also, he says, the Jews were fighting with their backs to the wall. "They were fighting with their families alongside them and the Holocaust at their back, only three years earlier."
The Arabs were also fighting for hearth and home but knew that if defeated they would find refuge at no great distance.
At the end of May the first fighter planes arrived from Czechoslovakia. There would be 20 serviceable aircraft at war's end. The bulk of the pilots and ground crew were foreign, with probably more than half the pilots Christian. A number of non-Muslims served with the Arab forces, including a few SS veterans.
In the confrontation between the Yishuv and the Palestinians, writes Morris, societal differences were a major factor. "One [society] highly motivated, literate, organized, semi-industrial; the other backward, largely illiterate, disorganized, agricultural." Arab society was also deeply divided along social and religious lines. "For Palestinian men, loyalty lay mainly with family, clan, village and occasionally region. Nationhood remained a vague abstraction."
The basic history of the War of Independence until a few years ago was a book written in the 1950s, The Edge of the Sword by Netanel Lorch, founder of the IDF Historical Division. In the 1990s, official archives began making accessible previously classified material on the war. This was tapped by historians Yoav Gelber and David Tal to publish books in 2000. Official archives were also the principal source for Morris, who does not believe in relying on live testimony from participants or even, if he can help it, memoirs.
"People forget and distort. Collective memory becomes confused with personal memory. And as long as a conflict is ongoing, everybody will tilt [their testimony]. I decided I would do without memoirs unless there was such a big black hole that I had to fill it somehow."
He did not even rely on the memoirs of David Ben-Gurion, the central figure in the story. "He was wholly history-conscious all his life. He doesn't lie but he omits a lot, which of course is lying."
Ben-Gurion, who apparently didn't trust memory either, would compile his diary in real time. One official describes sitting down opposite him and seeing the white-maned head lowered as Ben-Gurion transcribed their ongoing conversation into a notebook. When Ben-Gurion's head rose, the visitor knew the conversation was over. Aware that history would be looking over his shoulder, Ben-Gurion would edit the diary afterward.
"We have the diaries of others who participated in meetings in which expulsion of Arabs was discussed," says Morris. "Ben-Gurion, in describing these same meetings in his diary, would not write 'expulsions.' He would say we discussed renovation of villages or settlement of Jews in villages."
In retrospect, Morris regrets not having interviewed one player who was still alive when he began working on the book - Yitzhak Rabin, who was a senior Palmah commander in 1948. "He was a very honest man."
What Morris does rely on are official documents like operational orders, battle reports, intelligence reports and diplomatic analyses. Cabinet protocols are an important source. In the US, Morris notes, cabinet meetings are not recorded, while in Britain, cabinet minutes are taken but only a terse prÃ©cis reaches print. This is aimed at giving ministers greater leeway in expressing themselves.
In Israel, a stenographer records the cabinet discussions verbatim and types them up. Ministers are able to amend their words in the printed draft but almost always these changes are limited to matters of style, since the other ministers will see the changes. On extremely sensitive subjects, entire pages are occasionally blanked out. Morris believes that the blanked-out sections from the 1948 protocols include a discussion on the expulsion of Arabs from Lod and Ramle which sat astride the main road between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
A major hole for any historian of the Israel-Arab conflict is the absence of access to Arab records from any period. "Their archives are closed," says Morris. "To everybody. We don't even know what's in them."
Although an occasional document might be leaked or sold, Morris says, that is an out-of-context finding, not the product of serious archival research. Because of the presence of British officers in the Arab Legion, some material from Jordan did reach the British public records office, which Morris also researched together with American archives. Indirect access to the Arab side was available through Israeli intelligence reports, POW interrogations and diplomatic reports, including from foreign military and political attaches.
Morris hesitates to use the word "great" when asked to evaluate Ben-Gurion as a leader. "Ben-Gurion devoted all his life to accumulating power - personal power and then for his nation. He was both a gambler and cautious. He was always pushing things but pulled back when he had to."
As prime minister during the war he made critical operational decisions, but he also twice overrode his military advisers and ordered attacks on Latrun which proved costly failures.
One of Ben-Gurion's most important moves was to steer the Zionist movement away from the concept of a Greater Israel to partition. He had been enthusiastic about the recommendation of the British Peel Commission in 1937, whose partition proposal included transfer of Jews and Arabs out of the territory designated for the other group.
"He had resigned himself to the necessity of partitioning Palestine," says Morris. "He may have pushed during the war for expanding the Jewish part, and adding Jerusalem, but he never seriously thought of capturing all the Land of Israel."
Why not? "Maybe because of international circumstances. Maybe because of morality. Maybe he felt that the Palestinians deserved a chunk of Palestine."
The writer is author of The Yom Kippur War.
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