Israel’s founding myth: A barrier to peace

The ruins of the Palestinian village of Kfar Bir’im, destroyed in 1949. It is now an Israeli national park. (Charlotte de Bellabre, Maan Images)

Barry Lando, Truthdig, IMEU

Jul 24, 2007

Forget about Hamas, the wall, Gaza and the occupied territories. There can be no peace in the Middle East until Israel and the Palestinians deal with one key issue: the Palestinian demand that Israel recognize their right of return. That demand is based on the Arab charge that the Zionist state created the refugee problem in the war of 1948-49 by a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing. It’s an accusation that Israel’s leaders have consistently rejected. Jewish soldiers could never commit such crimes. It was the Arabs themselves, they say, who created the refugees.

It has become increasingly evident, however, that the Israeli position is, in fact, a self-serving myth created when the Jewish state was born, perpetuated ever since by the country’s leaders and still blandly accepted by Washington.

The myth goes like this: In 1948, when the Arabs attacked the newly declared state of Israel, the Arab population fled by the hundreds of thousands. They left not because of attacks by Israeli soldiers but because of the calls of their own Arab leaders, who guaranteed them a speedy return once the Arab armies had triumphed over the upstart Jewish state. Indeed, they fled despite the attempts of many Israelis-as was movingly portrayed in the film Exodus -to convince their Palestinian neighbors to remain. Why should such treacherous people have the right to return? Not to mention the fact that their return by the millions would spell the end of Israel as a Jewish state.

This is the story that Israel’s leaders and Jews throughout the Diaspora have clung to for more than half a century. But since the early 1990s a new generation of Israeli historians and investigative journalists-drawing on formerly classified documents as well as recollections of Israeli leaders of the War of Independence-has demolished the traditional Israeli position.

According to their research, the Palestinians fled their villages not in response to a call from Arab leaders but because of a concerted campaign of terror-including massacres and rape-perpetrated by military units of the newly declared Israeli state.

As Gideon Levy, a leading columnist from Haaretz, put it, “1948 was Israel’s finest hour, the culmination of a mad dream: the formation of an independent Jewish state.” At the same time he declared, “it was our darkest hour, in which we committed war crimes on a large scale. And did so in all good conscience.”

The key point, often overlooked, is that in 1948, Resolution 181 of the U.N. General Assembly didn’t just call for the creation of the single state of Israel from the British mandate of Palestine. In fact, it recommended dividing Palestine into two separate countries-one predominately Arab, the other Jewish-to be joined by an economic union.

According to Sylvain Cypel, a leading correspondent for Le Monde, the full version of that U.N. resolution was never published in its entirety in Hebrew. The reason for that may be simple. From the beginning Israel’s future leaders were determined that the Jewish state, carved out of the British mandate, would be just a first step toward the eventual takeover of all the land of Palestine. As David Ben Gurion, who would become Israel’s first prime minister, confided to Labor Party members in 1941, “As soon as we gain power, once our state is established we’ll annul [the partition] and will spread out over all the territory of Israel.

” There was, however, an obvious demographic hitch to such ambitions. If the Palestinians were allowed to remain on their lands, their numbers would overwhelm the Jews – the Jewish state would be stillborn. In fact, according to Benny Morris, one of the first of the new Israeli historians, European Zionist leaders had secretly discussed plans for transferring the Arab population out of Palestine as far back as 1937 in Zurich. They had few illusions that the relocation of up to 500,000 Arabs could be peacefully achieved. “It is hard to imagine a transfer without recourse to force,” Ben Gurion later wrote in 1941.

Such blunt talk was for internal use only. Outwardly, a different myth was already being prepared. “They lied, oh, how they lied,” thundered Gideon Levy. “The Arabs were always the bad guys, and we were the just, absolute, and sole victims. That’s what we’ve been told.”

Indeed, after thoroughly researching Israeli archives, Morris found that not only was there no evidence that Arab leaders had called upon their people to flee in 1948-49, but that records revealed exactly the opposite: “In no case did a Palestinian population abandon its homes before an attack.” To the contrary, Israeli intelligence services had actually intercepted calls from Arab leaders asking Palestinians either to remain in their homes or to return if they had already fled.

Morris and other Israeli historians concluded that the Palestinians’ flight was-as the Arabs had long claimed-the result of a purposeful policy of Israeli forces, whose communiques at the time spoke openly of “cleansing” or “purifying” the conquered Arab villages.

According to Gen. Yigal Allon, in May 12, 1948, as his men approached each Arab town, they tossed in tracts with the message in Arabic, “if you don’t flee immediately, you will all be slaughtered, your daughters will be raped.” Those were not empty threats.

“The reality,” writes Cypel in his newly published book, Walled, “is that the expulsion was desired, coordinated, and accomplished by systematic atrocities against, and killing of, civilians, with town properties razed on order (at first on a very unequal fashion from one area to another), and that nearly half of this expulsion was carried out even before the Arab states attacked Israel.”

To read the full article, please visit Truthdig.com.
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Related stories
The untold stories
Nakba: Palestine, 1948, and the Claims of Memory, by Ahmad H. Sa’di and Lila Abu-Lughod
FAQ on the Nakba
The persistence of memory
Do Palestinian refugees have a right to return to their homes?
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