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Revisionism on the West Bank

by Benny Morris 06.22.2010
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Efraim Karsh, Palestine Betrayed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010), 336 pp., $32.50.

EFRAIM KARSH’S title is, of course, ironic. For close on a century, Palestinians and other Arabs have accused Britain of “betraying the Arabs” and, particularly, the Arabs of Palestine. In the wake of World War I, the British (“Perfidious Albion”), so the charge went, failed to uphold their wartime promises to Hussein ibn Ali, the sharif of Mecca and leader of the anti-Ottoman revolt in Hijaz, regarding Arab self-determination and independence. More specifically, according to this interpretation, in a letter from October 1915, Britain promised Palestine to the Arabs—and then went ahead and gave it, in the Balfour Declaration of 1917, to the Jews. The British went on to conquer Palestine and in 1920, to establish a mandatory government that promoted and protected the Zionist enterprise and suppressed Palestinian Arab nationalism, thus paving the way for the coup de grâce of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, when the Jews trounced the Palestinians and established Israel over 78 percent of Palestine’s landmass, and the Jordanians, with British encouragement, took over almost all the rest (the West Bank). Karsh, a professor of Middle East and Mediterranean Studies at King’s College London, has a radically different take. Palestine Betrayed, a review of the history of the years 1920–1948, is strongly focused on the 1948 war between the Jewish community in Palestine, which declared statehood in May 1948, and the country’s Arab population and the surrounding Arab states. Karsh charges that both (a) the British betrayed the Jews and ultimately reneged on their commitment to support Jewish statehood, and (b) the Arab leaders, both inside and outside Palestine, betrayed Palestine and the Palestinians—by rejecting the various compromises proposed by the international community and leading them carelessly into both a revolt against the British (1936–1939) and then eight years later into a war against the Jews which resulted in disaster for both the Palestinians and the Arab states. Instead of looking after the welfare of the Palestinians, their leaders and the heads of the surrounding countries consigned them to a refugeedom that has persisted for the past six decades.

FOR THE uninitiated, there is something commendable aboutPalestine Betrayed. For decades a political scientist who, from armchairs in north Tel Aviv and north London, churned out volume after volume about the geopolitics and strategic concerns of the Middle East (Soviet-Syrian arms deals, Saddam

let’s recall. from (the anti-Semitic) Haj Amin al-Husseini through (the devious) Yasser Arafat to (the forthright and murderous) Hamas and (the seemingly benign) Mahmoud Abbas. In Palestine Betrayed. face up—are Avi Shlaim. long before. etc. All too often it gives off the smell of shop-soiled propaganda. unfortunately. . I fear.) based mainly on newspaper clippings and conjecture. formerly of Haifa University and now a teacher at Exeter University.) Many readers. I feel. But most historians probably won’t bother to work out these interminable referential puzzles if only because they will have been put off. serves also as a full-throated rebuttal of the Israeli New Historiography of the late 1980s. Prominent among the objects of Karsh’s attacks—let me put the cards on the table. and. as its minor branch. (Occasionally. by the way. Karsh marshals a vast panoply. irrefutably from the history) and in some measure with his history as well. an Iraqi-born British historian from Oxford University. Karsh argues that throughout its existence. instead of merely taking to task this or that New Historian. if only because each of Karsh’s endnotes. he culls also from Arab memoirs and newspapers. Which is very annoying. enters yet another duplicitous round of negotiations with Israel and the United States. Put simply. FIRST. I say this despite the fact that I am in almost complete agreement with Karsh’s political conclusions (which in some way emerge naturally and. by the palpable one-sidedness of Karsh’s narrative. and that the Zionists and Israel also had a share in bringing about the tragedy of 1948 and the events on either side of that revolutionary year. at base denying the legitimacy of Zionism. the Palestinian national movement has rejected every offered compromise with Zionism and has demanded all of Palestine as its patrimony—and consistently rejected partition and a two-state solution. of course. Karsh has now graduated to historiography based. as it should be.” which somewhat preceded his actual descent into the bowels of the contemporary documentation. the Palestinian Authority or Palestine Liberation Organization (which. refers to anywhere between five and twenty particular documents. with few exceptions. Karsh takes his readers back to a pure Manichaean view of the past. This. And. yours truly. let me quickly note. which refers the reader to documentation in Israeli. on archives. Now. British and American archives. lost the general elections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip to Hamas back in 2006). the explicitly anti-Zionist Ilan Pappé. TO the political implications. Karsh has put together a “history” of his own which. This change of habit or discipline was apparently precipitated by his now-famous assault in the 1990s on Israel’s revisionist “New Historians. but this time with extensive endnotes. remains the outlook of the Palestinian leadership today. This uncustomary method of piling up the references usually obviates any possibility of identifying the source of any specific quotation carried in the text.Hussein’s ambitions. which tried to show that the Middle East conflict wasn’t a simple struggle between good (Zionists) and evil (Arabs). will feel stifled by the sheer weight of dusty memoranda and correspondence.

at war’s end the Israelis did all they could to achieve peace. as President Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah II of Jordan surely must realize. Ottoman officials. NOW. supported and protected the Zionist enterprise. taken as a whole. It is in these that Karsh fails. but. British officials struggled against the Zionist aim of Jewish statehood and pumped up Palestinian nationalism. And of the most peace minded of them. urban notables incited them to resist the Zionist influx. TO Karsh’s history. King Abdullah I of Jordan. the masses were sucked into the cycle of belligerency. there’s some truth in all of this. had only a marginal effect. the Palestinians were almost consistently supported in their rejectionism by the rulers of the surrounding Arab states. What’s more—and this is really the focus of the book—the Palestinian refugee problem was created mainly by the Palestinian leaders themselves and by Arab officials who called on the Palestinians to evacuate their homes.” KARSH’S PORTRAYAL of Britain’s role is one-sided and without nuance. quoting the Palestine Post.Moreover. democratic. clerics. much depends on the historian’s selection of documents and on his judgments about where the burden of proof lies. offering concession after concession. between 1917 and 1937. But the Arab leaders would have none of it. during the Palestine Mandate. Abdullah was no more accepting of Jewish national aspirations than any other Arab leader. such a refugee return would result in short order in Israel’s demise. which signed peace treaties with Israel in 1979 and 1994 respectively. and Karsh concedes grudgingly that there were a few. The British government. have maintained a “cold” nonbelligerency with the Jewish state and continue to support the “right of return” of the Palestinian refugees. Karsh says. 1947]”—but is this really representative of how the Arabs greeted the partition vote?) But in the end. (Indeed. If implemented. most Palestinians. Karsh argues. In all such works. In 1938–1939 the Chamberlain government indeed reneged on this . the leaders of Egypt and Jordan. “Arabs joined in [Jewish] celebrations [of the UN partition vote of November 29. Even today. This is what Karsh tells his readers: The Arabs of Palestine were enamored with the Zionist settlers and appreciated their economic beneficence—but fanatical or jealous or competitive educated Arabs. “For all his affability. And the Arabs’ war was supported by the British. according to Karsh. and fails dismally. Lastly. Indeed.” Of course. Karsh writes. which they wrongly depicted as minatory. they even favored the establishment of a separate Palestinian Arab state. to employ an out-of-use British Mandate word. In 1948. up until May 1948—and even beyond—the Zionist leaders continuously pleaded with the Palestinians to stay put and enjoy life in the emergent. Israeli expulsions. just as their leaders launched a war of extermination against the Jewish community in Palestine/Israel. egalitarian State of Israel. continued to ignore the call of the extremists. Later. it is “tosh.

in the crunch. To be sure. the result would have been a massive slaughter of Jews. In February 1948. London cut off arms supplies and ammunition to its Arab client states. perversely perhaps for such a gung-ho Zionist. and other Zionist leaders’ peaceful intentions. for instance. moved from Israel to Britain in the 1970s). in line with the UNimposed arms embargo (which Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. and Britain itself abstained in the crucial ballot). as Karsh would have it? There is no knowing.” and so on. 1948. the Arab leaders going to war in 1948 were very sparing in publicly describing their goals and “exterminating” the Jews never figured in their public bombast. I refrained from reusing it after discovering that its pedigree is dubious. is more accurate). there is Ben-Gurion’s statement that “the Arab[s] [in Israel] will enjoy full civic and political equality. Karsh suffers from a clear anti-British bias (though he himself. He calls the British camps in Cyprus where Jewish illegal immigrants bound for Palestine were incarcerated during 1945–1948 “concentration camps” (“detention camps. defied). which Britain appears to have goaded the Jordanians into seizing). severely curbing Jewish immigration (just as the Nazis were closing in on Europe’s Jews. 1948(Yale University Press. Indeed. but Whitehall instructed its ambassadors worldwide not to advise their host countries either way. arming Israel. I myself in the past have used the one divergent quote. Our author continuously quotes Israel’s first prime minister. by Arab League Secretary-General Abdul Rahman Azzam from May 15. and the Arab countries would have liked to crush the Jewish state at inception or at least to badly hurt it. But in my recent history of the war. as if politicians’ public pronouncements should necessarily be taken at face value. Karsh also repeatedly insists that the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem . the Palestinians sought to prevent the emergence of a Jewish state. desires and policies. ON TO the refugee issue (and in particular to Karsh’s unrelenting assertion that the Jews had only the most benign and noble desire to incorporate the Palestinians into their new state). For example. But was “extermination” their war aim. in which he allegedly spoke of a “war of extermination” and a “momentous massacre” à la the Mongols. the British did not vigorously oppose partition (and Jewish statehood) at the United Nations in November 1947 (Karsh says. the British supported the planned Jordanian takeover of the area today called the West Bank and cautioned Jordan not to invade the areas designated for Jewish statehood (except for the Negev. The Arab objectives in the 1948 war are not entirely clear given the complete absence of access to the Arab states’ archives.commitment and adopted an appeasing tack toward the Arabs. 2008). THIS LACK of nuance extends to the Arab side as well. and in May of that year. David Ben-Gurion. But. And it is quite possible that had either won the war. who were desperate for a safe haven) and supporting Arab-majority rule over Palestine.” the common usage. that then–British Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin “fought tooth and nail” against it.

the Zionist movement’s land-holding institution. And it flies in the face of everything we know about Danin himself. local notables and municipal heads . a preeminent Arab-affairs expert. a leading figure in the Jewish National Fund. until the Israeli military police managed to gain full control. A Zionist Under Any Condition (Kidum. there is no contemporary document asserting that the Jews pleaded with the Arabs to stay. he was a member of the shadowy three-man “Transfer Committee. as far as I know. There is not a breath of this in Karsh’s book. not of Jewish military attacks or expulsions.” headed by Yosef Weitz. And they were fairly open to an Arab refugee return thereafter. . 1948: “We promised the [remaining] residents a peaceful and dignified life . it is a complete fabrication. and that Jaffa’s few remaining Arabs were for weeks thereafter subjected to a regime of spoliation (houses were confiscated. At one point.” What Karsh fails to tell his readers is that the agreement allowed for the return of the town’s inhabitants. Karsh tells us: At the request of the Haganah commander-in-chief [sic]. many years later.was mainly the result of orders or advice from the Palestinians’ own leaders or outside Arab officials. the Haganah (which became the Israeli Defense Forces or UN after the founding of Israel). then emptying at a staggering pace. And while there are one or two instances in which second-tier Jewish leaders actually appealed to the Arabs to stay (most notably Haifa Mayor Shabtai Levy’s appeal on April 22. traversed Arab villages in the coastal plain. As to Tiberias. physical attack. In fact. again. on occasion. . . 1987). The Jews. 1948). residents forcibly moved from place to place). Karsh provides no contemporary documentation to support the story and. who from March to April 1948 was a leading proponent of expelling (“transferring”) the Arabs. certainly during the first four to five months of the war. after the notables of Jaffa signed a surrender accord on May 13. this is a matter of honor and [reflects] the hard moral core of our army. wanted and asked their Arab neighbors to stay. vandalism and. Israel Galili. and Karsh’s story appears to be based (he doesn’t actually give the reference) solely on the recollections. A peek at the relevant endnote indicates that Karsh has based this passage solely on the memoirs of former–senior Israeli intelligence officer Ezra Danin. a commitment that Israel failed to honor. . in an attempt to convince their inhabitants to stay put. of a local Jewish official. by and large—and with very good reason—the Jews of . Karsh adds that the Jewish leaders in the town of Tiberias later that month “famously pleaded” with the Arabs to stay. he tells us. in early April a Jewish delegation comprising top Arabaffairs advisors. We see this one-sided take again in Karsh’s quotation of a communiqué issued from the main Jewish militia.

. that the members of the leading notable families—those who led the Palestinian national movement—including Husseinis and Nashashibis. Again. with the Jews taking them by night and the Arabs using their numerical and material superiority to regain them the following day. Karsh’s description of Israel’s position on this issue is highly misleading and propagandistic.e. neighbors who for weeks and months had been shooting at them. quite rightly. Israel’s local and national leaderships were firmly opposed to a refugee return (in my view. In describing the first weeks of the 1948 war. In fact. is on the disintegration of Palestinian society and the incompetence and venality of its ruling class. the Palestinian leader. sold land to the Zionists while they were busy castigating Zionism and all its works. He even quotes Ben-Gurion as saying in October 1948 “we will not close the door to them”—when Ben-Gurion is actually on record. When Karsh nonetheless strays into the military dimension. But Haj Amin al-Husseini. Karsh tells us. even if one senses occasionally that he is beating a dead horse. named after the settlement in northern Israel which was the target of the initial Arab assault. he almost invariably gets it wrong. I have no idea what Karsh’s description refers to or is based on. Karsh relates the story of Jaffa mayor Yousef Heikal’s efforts to reach a nonbelligerency agreement with neighboring Jewish Tel Aviv. from either side (surely the key matters in most wars). vetoed this and called for “jihad against the Jews. Actually. He writes of the last days of the battle of Mishmar Haemek. on the . THE BOOK provides almost no understanding of the war’s military developments. one stronghold was subjected to no fewer than eleven consecutive Arab attacks. He ascribes the January 1948 attack on Kibbutz Kfar Szold. for example. If this is a test of the historian’s mettle. saying flatly that he opposed a refugee return. Karsh crashes in flying colors.Palestine were happy to see their neighbors depart. in order to allow the citrus crop to be harvested and exported. the returnees would have been a potential or actual fifth column). 1948] the two sides battled over these sites. strategic considerations or operations. Where he is illuminating and persuasive. time and again during the preceding and following months. April 11–15.” The crosspurposes of the national leaders living in exile and their subordinate military bands inside Palestine and the local leaderships was to seriously weaken the Palestinian cause. that: For the next five days and nights [i. from June 1948 onward. the last five days were characterized by the Haganah simply taking one Arab village after another. leaders say different things at different times to different audiences—and it is the historian’s task to elucidate when the leader is speaking pro forma and when he is expressing his real views.

He writes of “scores of Jews” massacred by Arabs in Safad in 1929. By “the time of the first truce” (i.” This is a gross piece of ignorance. most of them kibbutzim. Yigael Yadin. was his deputy and actually ran the show for most of 1947–1948 since Dori was often away sick. had fallen] to the invading [Arab] forces. taken by the Syrians.” He was no such thing. helped trigger the flight of Tiberias’s Arabs six days later.e.border with Syria.) Karsh—and in this he strongly resembles his erstwhile bête noire Pappé—has scant respect for facts. who held the defense portfolio in the Jewish Agency Executive. near the Sea of Galilee) fell [i.” and to “Ard Saris.” (Haganah/IDF documents often misspelled Arab village names and invented some. to the Arab Liberation Army. or chief of general staff as it was called. For instance. 1948). he repeatedly calls Israel Galili the Haganah’s “commander in chief.” Actually. Actually.” None of these actually existed nor exist. Above them was David Ben-Gurion. actually. and so on.. and Yad Mordechai and Nitzanim. Even the geography of Palestine seems beyond Karsh’s ken (which is surprising as he did spend some years in Israel). The Haganah attack and conquest of Khirbet Nasir al-Din on April 12. Here is how the hierarchy broke down: Yaakov Dori was commander in chief. He says that the Arabs in the riots of May 1921 killed “ninety” Jews (actually. and Neve Yaakov.. the Jewish dead numbered forty-seven). which depopulated the village. not a kibbutz) and of “Mishmar Haemek kibbutz in the western Galilee” (actually it is at the western edge of the Jezreel Valley). had fallen by then: the four Etzion-bloc kibbutzim. Atarot. which became the Provisional Government of Israel once the country became independent. Kalia and Beit Ha’arava. The fall of each settlement was a major trauma for the Yishuv (the Jewish community in Palestine). Galili actually held a slot titled “head of the National Staff of the Haganah. it began on June 11. even Karsh should know better. THE MISINFORMATION is endless. neither did “Arab Quz. it was the other way around. A cluster of settlements. And it’s not just the blow-by-blow that Karsh gets wrong. as head of operations. north of Haifa. the attack was carried out by the Arab Fa’ur bedouins. He speaks of “Hartuv kibbutz” (it was a moshava. eighteen were killed.” a political function which meant that he served as Ben-Gurion’s assistant or deputy. all taken by the Jordanian Arab Legion. not a kibbutz (a collective settlement)—was not alone. Karsh tells us that the collapse of the Arab community in Tiberias “triggered” flight from the neighboring Arab village of “Nasr al-Din. He also confuses the players involved. Masada and Sha’ar Hagolan. “only one Israeli kibbutz (Mishmar Hayarden. taken by the Egyptians. but the historian’s task is to check. . Karsh writes. and Mishmar Hayarden—a moshav (a cooperative settlement).e. 1948. The list continues. Karsh refers to the Arab villages of “Shumali” and “Mansuriya.

Why Yale University Press (which printed my last two books) published this title is beyond me. one Jewish. But they never invaded Israeli territory as earmarked by the UN partition resolution of 1947. which provided for the establishment of a Jewish state. after the first four weeks of the war. But his cabinet and people. He refrained from taking the plunge—and in 1951 he was assassinated by a Palestinian gunman. Abdullah wasn’t a Zionist. Abdullah negotiated with Israel. to use Israel Foreign Ministry official Yaakov Shimoni’s phrase) or “an arrangement and an understanding” (sidur vehavana. Ramle and Latrun—all within the area of the UNearmarked Palestinian Arab state. his forces occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem in May 1948 and fought fierce battles with the Haganah. True.” or as he called it. And during late 1948–1951. True. Jordan “joined the renewed pan-Arab attack on Israel. . Ben-Gurion himself acknowledged in 1952 that “he [Abdullah] wanted peace with Israel” (if only because he feared that. in Golda Meir’s words) with the Jewish Agency to divide Palestine between himself and a Jewish state. in its absence. He did not suffer from the knee-jerk anti-Semitism and opposition to Jewish nationalism that characterized most of his fellow leaders. Before 1948. clearly has it wrong.” This is simply untrue. in Lydda. he was forever trying to persuade the Jews to accept “autonomy. In July. enthralled by the black and white. after the 1948 war’s first truce. But in 1937 he accepted the proposals of the Peel Commission (the British board of inquiry charged with examining the future of the Palestine Mandate). the Jews would take the West Bank away from him). a “Jewish republic. And in November 1947. it was the Israelis who attacked. now mostly Palestinians. Karsh writes that in July. Jordan.” within his expanded Transjordanian kingdom. held him back.And on the last point—Abdullah’s rejection of peace and Israeli statehood— Karsh. which divided the British Mandate into two states. the other Arab (save for some reconnaissance patrols in the Negev). Abdullah reached an “agreement” (heskem. cleaved to a completely defensive posture and nowhere attacked Israel.