Self-inflicted catastrophe

A rich account of '48 war and Arab flight.

Palestine Betrayed 311 (photo credit: Efraim Karsh)
Palestine Betrayed 311
(photo credit: Efraim Karsh)
The War of Independence, a fascinating and dramatic event, a cataclysm for some, has not found its bard, its Thucydides, the famous historian of the Peloponnesian war. This has not been for lack of trying. Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, an American-French duo of writers, attempted as much in their 1972 O Jerusalem!. Yoav Gelber and Dan Kurzman both have contributed books on the subject. With the publication of Benny Morris’s excellent study 1948 in 2008, it might seem another book on the war runs the risk of being unnecessary.
However Ephraim Karsh’s Palestine Betrayed tells in rich detail the story of the fall of the British Mandate and the rise of Israel, going a long way towards doing justice to the history at hand.
Israeli-born Karsh, an expert on the Middle East and professor at King’s College London, has attempted to present a new picture of the war.
Ostensibly, his work, which follows on the heels of his critique of the New Historians and a history of Islamic imperialism, seeks to set the record straight about the War of Independence. He is particularly interested in upending the mainstream view of the Nakba as something that befell Palestinians and showing that “Palestinian Arab leaders, from the early 1920s onward, and very much against the interests of their own constituents, launched a relentless campaign to obliterate the Jewish national revival.”
The first few chapters examine Mandatory Palestine’s Arab leadership, its diversity and various intrigues. Karsh sheds light on the 1936-1939 Arab revolt against the British and Jews, which turned into a civil war between Arab gangs.
Throughout he provides some new insights into the late Mandate period and includes new quotes and material. For instance, who recalls that Britain’s colonial secretary, Lord Moyne (Walter Guinness), told David Ben-Gurion in 1941, “Wouldn’t it be better if the Jewish state was established in East Prussia?” Perhaps this adds further understanding to the reason the Stern Gang, a Jewish underground organization, assassinated Moyne in Egypt in 1944.
General Sir Alan Cunningham, last high commissioner of Palestine, said of Zionism, “The forces of nationalism are accompanied by the psychology of the Jew, which it is important to recognize as something quite abnormal and unresponsive to rational treatment.”
It is hard to imagine how other writers on the Mandate period, such as Tom Segev, have come away from reading these quotes with the opinion that British officialdom was not anti-Jewish.
Karsh also sheds light on interesting Arab opinions on Zionism. By 1947 the Arab leadership had already realized that, despite their collaboration with the Nazis during the war, comparing Jewish actions to Nazism would resonate with Europeans. A Syrian delegate to the UN said “there is a basic similarity between Zionism and Nazism in that they were both based on racism.” This from an Arab nationalist, whose movement was based on race as well.
Karsh’s narrative of the War of Independence does an excellent job illuminating the opening round of hostilities between November 1947, when the partition plan was passed, to April 1948 when the Hagana launched its first largescale offensive, Operation Nahshon. This was a period of attacks by Arabs on virtually every Jewish settlement in the country with numerous small massacres carried out throughout Palestine.
It is the period that every historian who presents a critical view of the 1948 war, such as Ilan Pappe, struggles to ignore since it does not fit the narrative of Zionist forces conquering innocent Arab civilians.
Karsh next turns his lens on the Arab leadership during the period when the Arab population fled many of the villages and urban areas of Palestine. The author describes the National Committee, an Arab governing organ founded during 1947 in Haifa, and its failure to “grasp the severity of the situation.” Burdened by incessant infighting, disputes over trivial financial matters and strange scandals surrounding leading members of the Arab community in Haifa, the committee failed to come to grips with the situation. The result was the flight of 90 percent of Haifa’s Arab population.
Karsh reminds readers that Jaffa at the time was a mixed city with 50,000 Muslims, 16,000 Christians and 30,000 Jews. Today leftist Jewish Israeli activists and their Arab nationalist allies campaign against Jewish families living in “Arab” Jaffa. Karsh reminds us of the reality.
In Jerusalem the Arab Christian residents of Upper Baka formed an armed militia “not out of fear of the Jews, whose rule they openly preferred, but rather for dread of their Muslim brothers, who vowed to slaughter” them. There was a now forgotten wave of anti-Christian violence unleashed against Christian sites in Arab Katamon and elsewhere. This was the result of the introduction of foreign Muslim fighters, including Iraqis, Bosnians and Hebronite fanatics into Jerusalem in March 1948.
The rest of the study is devoted to examining why the Palestinians fled the country in 1948 and who is responsible for these events. For Karsh it is a “self-inflicted catastrophe” and he argues that at the time, before the narrative was changed by Palestinian aristocrats and their Western friends, most Palestinians blamed their leadership for terrible choices in the war. In a well-written epilogue the author shows that while less-educated Palestinians overwhelmingly (82%) supported a two-state solution in the 1990s, the upper classes and university educated barely (55%) supported peace. From Haj Amin al-Husseini to Yasser Arafat, as Karsh sees it, the Palestinians have been victims of their leaders.
In the end Palestine Betrayed is an interesting, well-written study that probably preaches to the converted, unless a few pro-Palestinian types purchase it by mistake because of the title.