What really happened in 1948

by Yaniv Reich on November 4, 2009

Jaffa residents take their belongings after being expelled in 1948.

Jaffa residents take anything they can with them after being expelled in 1948.

The war of 1948 and the associated ethnic cleansing, which the Israelis recognize as the War of Independence and the Palestinians consider the Nakba (catastrophe), is an absolutely fundamental topic worth a lot of attention. I plan to tackle this complex issue in many stages. But the Borderline Crimes blog has an excellent description of some of the events surrounding this period, much of which summarizes the academic work of Israel historian Benny Morris’ The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem. The content of this posting is a great place to start learning about 1948:

I [an Israeli] measure everything against what I was taught in school. I never learned about 1948 in a history lesson (these only extended as far as the Holocaust. We learned a lot about the pre-state Zionist movement, but almost nothing about proper Israeli history). What I received was more mythical versions – the children’s books I read in third grade (there was a series on Zionist martyrs with colored covers – my favorite guy was from the Haganah, while my friend’s was from the IZL (Irgun), and we used to fight about who was braver). There were the pieces in the reader for first or second graders (I remember very vividly one about a lone kibbutznik standing up to Arab tanks), and the tedious but affecting ceremonies every year for Remembrance Day, which were designed to make us identify with the fallen soldiers (I immediately think of the poet Alterman’s line “we are the silver platter, upon which you were given the Jewish state”). The essence, of course, was that in 1948 the Arabs attacked Israel. It’s amazing how quickly every political discussion of the present, or of the future (one state? two states?) with anyone who has had this kind of education reverts back to this very basic point. This where the books I mentioned come in handy.

It turns out there was no unified collective of Arabs in 1948. The strongest Arab army, that of Jordan, did formally enter the war, but this was primarily in order to capture the areas allocated to the Palestinian state – not the Jewish ones. King Abdallah’s forces never advanced westwards towards Tel Aviv. Quite the opposite – they evacuated whole cities like Lydda and Ramle, and enabled the Zionists to take them over and expel their inhabitants. There was fighting around Jerusalem, but overall, their reaction was more complacent than aggressive.
But the Palestinian position was much more complex than that: because of the mufti’s [Haj Amin AlHusseini] previous violent record of executing his rivals, many opposed him and refused to join his forces. A whole series of Palestinian communities signed non-aggression pacts with their Jewish neighbors. Most were expelled anyway: for example, the inhabitants of Deir Yasin actually made an agreement with Giv’at Shaul, and refused to let Syrian and Iraqi volunteers to enter. Muhammed Nimer al-Hawwari, head of the Najjadah organization in Jaffa, went so far as to organize contingents to man Tel Aviv’s southern border so as to prevent attacks (Cohen, 2008:233). Many of these communities realized they would be unable to protect themselves in case of a war, and grudgingly accepted the partition plan.

Of course, there were also serious clashes and much intercommunal violence. The point is that the phrase “the Arabs attacked Israel” is false because there was hardly a coordinated Arab collective that attacked together, and also there was no pre-given Jewish Israel: almost half of the inhabitants of the Jewish state weren’t Jewish, so that the initial stages of the conflict were more of a mutual civil war. When the Arab states stepped in, they were entering a conflict with a state that had already expelled several hundred thousand of its potential citizens.

There is much more excellent material in the original post, which can be found here.

(Photo Credit: Palestine Remembered)

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