1948: Palestine Betrayed (JEWISH IDEAS DAILY) Elliot Jager interviews Efraim Karsh, head of the Middle East and Mediterranean Studies Program at King´s College, University of London 04/20/12)
UNITED JERUSALEM Articles-Index-Top
Zionist Jews were not interlopers in Palestine. The creation of the
Jewish state was not an "original sin" foisted upon the Arab world.
The tragic flight of the Palestinian refugees was overwhelmingly not
the fault of the Zionists. To the contrary, at every momentous
junction the Zionists opted for compromise and peace, the Arabs for
intransigence and belligerency.
This, in summary, is how most
people once understood the Arab-Israel
conflict. Today, however, as Israel marks its Independence Day, an
entire generation has come to maturity believing a diametrically
opposite "narrative": namely, that the troubles persist because of
West Bank settlements, because of Israeli building in east Jerusalem,
because of the security barrier, because of heavy-handed Israeli
militarism-in brief, because of a racist Zionist imperialism whose
roots stretch back to 1948 and beyond.
The new view has been
shaped by a confluence of factors:
unsympathetic media coverage, an obsessive focus by the UN and others
on Israel´s alleged shortcomings, improved Arab suasion techniques,
and the global Left´s adoption of the Palestinian cause. Added to
the mix is the influence of Israel´s own "New Historians," whose
revisionist attacks on the older understanding have helped shape
today´s authorized academic canon.
Such attacks have themselves
not gone altogether without challenge-
and at least one prominent New Historian, Benny Morris, has since
moderated his views. Outstanding among the challengers has been the
scholar Efraim Karsh, head of the Middle East and Mediterranean
Studies Program at King´s College, University of London, and the
author of a 1997 debunking of the New Historians entitled Fabricating
In his just-published book, Palestine Betrayed,
Karsh zeroes in on
the 1948-49 war, its background, and its consequences, in an analysis
that re-establishes the essential accuracy of the once-classic
account of the Arab-Israel conflict. Basing itself on Arabic as well
as Western, Soviet, UN, and Israeli sources, Karsh´s is corrective
history at its boldest and most thorough. Elliot Jager interviewed
Efraim Karsh for Jewish Ideas Daily.
Who "betrayed" Palestine?
Palestine was betrayed by its corrupt and extremist Arab
headed by Hajj Amin Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem. From the early
1920s onward, and very much against the wishes of their own
constituents, these leaders launched a relentless campaign to
obliterate the Jewish national revival, culminating in the violent
attempt to abort the UN partition resolution of November
You dedicate this book to Elias Katz and Sami Taha. Who
A native of Finland, Elias Katz won two Olympic
medals in the 1924
Paris games before immigrating to Mandatory Palestine and becoming
coach of the prospective Jewish state´s athletic team for the 1948
games. A firm believer in peaceful coexistence, he was murdered in
December 1947 by Arab co-workers in a British military base in Gaza.
Sami Taha, scion of a distinguished Haifa family, was a prominent
Palestinian Arab trade unionist and a foremost proponent of Arab-
Jewish coexistence. He was gunned down by a mufti henchman in
September 1947, at the height of the UN debate on
What were the obligations of Great Britain under the
The League of Nations instructed the British to
establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine as envisaged by
the 1917 Balfour Declaration.
How did Britain fulfill these
Almost from the beginning the British authorities
repeatedly gave in
to Arab efforts to avert the implementation of the Mandate. Finally,
in July 1937, Arab violence reaped its greatest reward. The Peel
Commission, appointed by London, concluded that Arabs and Jews
couldn´t peacefully coexist in a single state and recommended
repudiating the terms of the Mandate altogether in favor of
partitioning Palestine into two states: a large Arab state, united
with what was then called Transjordan, and a truncated Jewish
But hadn´t the British "twice promised" Palestine, first
to the Arabs
and then to the Jews?
Certainly not. In his correspondence with
Sharif Hussein of Mecca,
which led to the Great Arab Revolt during World War I, Sir Henry
McMahon, the British high commissioner for Egypt, specifically
excluded Palestine from the prospective Arab empire promised to
Hussein. This was acknowledged by the sharif in their exchanges and
also by his son Faisal, the future founding monarch of Iraq, shortly
after the war.
You bring to light a World War II conversation
about atomic weapons
between Nazi-SS chief Heinrich Himmler and the mufti Hajj Amin
Yes. Arriving in Berlin in November 1941, and promptly
audience with Hitler, the mufti spent the rest of the war in the
service of the Third Reich, broadcasting Nazi propaganda and
recruiting Balkan Muslims for the German killing machine. Himmler and
the mufti spent hours ruminating on the absolute evil of the Jews. It
was during one of these conversations, sometime in the summer of
1943, that Himmler gleefully told Hajj Amin of the Nazi "final
solution," which by that time had led to the extermination of some
three million Jews. He also confided the great progress made in
developing a nuclear weapon that in Himmler´s opinion would win the
war for Germany. The mufti would never forget this conversation,
boasting decades later in his memoirs that "there were no more than
ten officials in the German Reich who were privy to this
Arab historians and others now say that Israel´s
victory in the 1948-
49 War of Independence was preordained, given the weakness of the
Hardly. By April 1948, after four months of fighting
mufti´s men as well as an irregular pan-Arab force-dubbed the Arab
Liberation Army-that had penetrated Palestine from outside, the
Jewish position had become precarious. It was only after the Jews
launched their first large offensive in early April, aimed at
breaching the siege of Jerusalem, that the Palestinian Arab war
effort began to unravel rapidly, culminating in total collapse and
mass exodus by mid-May.
Then Israel proclaimed its
Yes-and immediately the country was invaded by the
regular armies of
the neighboring Arab states. The previous succession of Jewish
victories was checked, the nascent state was thrown back on the
defensive, and the fight became a struggle for its very survival.
Ultimately, the newly-established Israeli army managed to turn the
tables, at the exorbitant human cost of one percent of the new
At the village of Deir Yasin in April 1948,
the Irgun, a pre-state
paramilitary force, is said to have massacred hundreds upon hundreds
of innocent and unarmed men, women, and children.
a reliable report a day after the event, some 100 Arabs,
including women and children, were killed in the fighting for the
village. This figure is confirmed by Arif al-Arif, the doyen of
Palestinian Arab historians, in his seminal Arabic-language study of
the nakba (disaster), as Palestinians refer to the events of 1948-
49. Al-Arif stipulates heavy fighting on both sides, claiming that
the villagers killed more than 100 Jewish fighters (the actual figure
was four dead and 32 wounded). Of the 110 Arab fatalities, he alleges
that only seven were killed in action while the rest were peaceful
civilians murdered in their homes. By contrast, an intelligence
report issued three days after the event by the Haganah, the main
Jewish fighting force, underscored the operational incompetence and
disarray of the attacking Irgunists as well as their lack of
discipline, manifested among other ways in acts of plunder, but makes
no mention of a massacre.
In Palestine Betrayed you come to
essentially the same conclusion as
does Benny Morris in his recent book 1948: namely, that the only
party systematically interested in "transfer" or "expulsion" in this
period was the Arabs.
Morris does seem to have tacitly disowned
his early writings, not
least by acknowledging that the underlying cause of the Arab-Israeli
conflict was and is the adamant Arab and Muslim refusal to accept the
idea of Jewish statehood in any part of Palestine. Millions of Arabs,
Jews, and foreign observers of the Middle East fully recognized these
facts as early as 1948; at that time, the collapse and dispersion of
Palestinian Arab society were nowhere described as a systematic
dispossession of Arabs by Jews. Regrettably, this historical truth
has been erased from public memory.
But in the case of the town
of Lydda, the Haganah did drive out Arab
The Lydda expulsion of July 1948 was the only
instance where a
substantial urban population was driven out during the course of the
war. It stemmed not from a pre-existing plan but from a string of
unexpected developments. Only when Israeli forces encountered stiffer
resistance than expected was the decision made to "encourage" the
population´s departure to Arab-controlled areas a few miles to the
east. The aim was to avoid leaving a hostile armed base at the rear
of the Israeli advance and, by clogging the main roads, to forestall
a possible counterattack by the Arab Legion.
This is not to deny
that Israeli forces did on occasion expel
Palestinian Arabs. But these were exceptions that occurred in the
heat of battle and were uniformly dictated by ad-hoc military
considerations-notably the need to deprive the enemy of strategic
sites where no Jewish forces were available to hold them.
write that, in any case, hundreds of thousands of Arabs had fled
Palestine while the British were still in place-that is, prior to
That is correct. And this tells us that
even if the Zionists had
instigated a plot to expel the Palestinian Arabs-which they most
certainly did not-Britain´s extensive military presence in the
country would have precluded the slightest possibility of a
systematic "ethnic cleansing."
What then was the catalyst for
The fear, disorientation, and economic privation
that accompany all
armed hostilities. But to these must be added, crucially, the local
Palestinians´ despair of their own leadership, the role taken by that
leadership in actively forcing widespread evacuations, and perhaps
above all the lack of communal cohesion or of the willingness,
especially at the highest levels, to subordinate personal interest to
the general good.
You cite documents by Jewish figures in Haifa
actually pleading with
the city´s Arab leaders not to flee.
They did not listen to
such pleas, no doubt because remaining would
have amounted to a tacit acquiescence in Jewish statehood.
UN says there are 4.7 million Palestine refugees today. How many
Arabs actually fled Palestine?
By the time of Israel´s
declaration of independence on May 14, 1948,
some 300,000-340,000 Palestinian Arabs had fled their homes. By the
end of the war several months later, the numbers had swollen to
Why didn´t Israel welcome them back
Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion told his cabinet on
1948 that if direct talks with the Arabs should culminate in a real
peace, the refugees would return. On the other hand, "Should
[postwar arrangements] fall short of peace with the Arabs, we will
not allow their return."
You contend that Palestinian Arabs, if
left to their own devices,
would have chosen coexistence.
Therein lay the great tragedy of
the 1920-48 era. Despite constant
terror and intimidation, including the killing by Arab fanatics of
moderates within their own community, peaceful coexistence with Jews
was far more prevalent than were eruptions of violence, and the
violence was the work of a small fraction of Palestinian
It was the Arab leadership that rejected Jewish statehood
even in a
small part of Palestine-not from concern for the national rights of
the Palestinian Arabs, but from the desire to fend off a perceived
encroachment on the pan-Arab patrimony.
So the Arab war goal was
not to create a Palestinian state?
It was common knowledge at
the time that the pan-Arab invasion was
more of a geopolitical scramble for Palestine than an attempt to
secure the Palestinians´ national rights. After 1948-49, neither
Egypt nor Transjordan moved to establish an independent Palestinian
entity in Gaza and the West Bank; this reflected the wider perception
of the Palestine problem as a corollary of the pan-Arab agenda rather
than as a distinct or urgent issue in its own right.
Rahman Azzam, the first head of the Arab League, once mused
that it took centuries for the Arabs to reconcile themselves to
having lost Spain; he wasn´t sure they could ever adjust to losing
any part of Palestine.
Unfortunately, the prospect of such an
adjustment still seems far
from auspicious. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, following in the
footsteps of his recent predecessors, agreed to the establishment of
a Palestinian Arab state provided the Palestinians recognized
Israel´s legitimacy as a Jewish state. Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian
Authority´s negotiator, reacted to this by warning that
Netanyahu "will have to wait 1,000 years before he finds one
Palestinian who will go along with him."
And so, more than six
decades after the mufti condemned his people to
statelessness, his reckless policies live on and are continually
reenacted. Only when today´s Arab leaders end this legacy of
intransigence can the Palestinians hope to put their self-inflicted
nakba behind them.
Return to Top
MATERIAL REPRODUCED FOR EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY