Thursday, June 19, 2008

Benny Morris on Israel’s War of Independence

As I was leaving Ben Gurion on my latest trip to Tel Aviv, I happened across the book 1948, Benny Morris' new history of the first Arab-Israeli war. I already had too many books clogging my carry-on luggage (not to mention the shelves in my library, a fact my wife reminds me of frequently), but I couldn't help picking it up. I just finished it tonight, and I have to say, I'm impressed. Given the paucity of primary Arab source material, the book is astonishingly fair and balanced. He doesn't hesitate to criticize the Arab armies and governments for their incompetence – but neither does he shrink from laying out astonishingly detailed evidence for Israeli "ethnic cleansing" during the lead-up to the invasion and afterwards.

My first exposure to the war of 1948, and Israel's actions in that war, came from Golda Meir's autobiography. In My Life, she, well, sugarcoats the reality of what happened to a great degree. She describes – more or less accurately, I believe – a visit that she made to Haifa in 1948, specifically to encourage the Arabs from fleeing to Lebanon, and she confesses that she was greatly disappointed that they chose to flee. The impression she gives is that the Haganah would have preferred to have the Arabs stay. Benny Morris shows otherwise, in sometimes excruciating detail. Golda probably did want the Arabs of Haifa to stay. But that's only part of the reality, which elsewhere consisted of massacres of civilians (by both sides), forced evacuations (by both sides), and the razing of captured villages (by both sides).

Morris points out that while the Israelis probably committed more abuses than the Arabs, this was largely because they captured more civilian areas and won more of the battles: they had much more opportunity to do so. And Morris is also clear that whatever the Haganah's eventual practice and occasional musings by Zionist leaders, it was Arabs who officially and originally espoused "expulsionist thinking". Jewish moves towards expelling Arabs arose primarily when it became clear that the Arabs fully intended to expel the Jews (or worse), and that peaceful coexistence was unlikely. The Arab rhetoric, of course, was far more violent than the Jewish rhetoric, and the Arab practice (when it could be put into practice) was as bad or worse. And of course, it was the Arabs, against the will of the international community, who launched the war in the first place, the war which resulted in al-Nakhba, the Disaster, which has haunted the Palestinians ever since.

That said, it's still exceedingly sad to read passages like this these:

"In practice, neither side, after capturing enemy positions, houses, or traffic, kept prisoners. Captured combatants were usually shot out of hand, or less frequently, after a brief incarceration and interrogation, freed. During the first stage of the civil war, Jews probably killed more POWs than vice versa simply because Jews overran more Arab positions." (p. 153)

"As the town's HIS commander, Yitzhak Levy reported on 12 April, 'The conquest of the village was carried out with great cruelty. Whole families – women, old people, children – were killed . . . Some of the prisoners moved to places of detention, including women and children, were murdered viciously by their captors.'" (p. 127)

"At Ghabisiya,south off Kabri, the villagers – with a tradition of collaboration with the Yishuv – greeted Carmeli with white flags. But the troops opened fire, hitting several villages, and then executed six more (allegedly because of the villagers' participation in the ambush of the Yehiam Convoy two months before). The villagers were subsequently expelled." (p. 166)

"Giv'ati's Fifty-second Battalion reported sending a patrol to the fields of Sawafir, Jaladiya, and Beit 'Affa, where 'a large number of Arabs were seen reaping . . . Most … were women and old men.' The patrol killed eight Arabs and detained three." (p. 303)

In context, when you understand that Israel saw itself as fighting for its life, these actions are perhaps comprehensible. No war has ever been fought without atrocities on both sides. Certainly the US did far worse in World War 2. But it is still sad.

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