The ethnic cleansing of Palestine and the burden of proof among “liberal Zionists”

by Yaniv Reich on December 2, 2011

Aafter an overly long hiatus from Hybrid States due to extreme time pressure in other fields of my life, I read Gershom Gorenberg’s excerpt from his new book The Unmaking of Israel, which deals, ironically enough, with the making of Israel via the removal of 80 percent of the non-Jewish, indigenous population. A response to his rather odd arguments was to be a perfect re-introduction to Hybrid States activity.

But then Noam Sheizaf wrote the piece for me. Sheizaf highlights the weak and frankly silly assertion, made by Gorenberg, that early 20th century Zionists could not have been ethnic cleansers because of the existence of a little committee known as the Situation Committee. This group outlined plans for running the country-to-be, and these plans included provision of education and health services to Arab communities. In Gorenberg’s strangely uncritical reading, this constitutes “strong evidence” against ethnic cleansing.

Sheizaf writes:

Gorenberg goes on to quote plans made by the Situation Committee for civil services in the new state of Israel which include the Arab population; this is the “strong evidence to the opposite” he is referring to. Yet the reason “evidence [for plans of transfer] is missing,” is because Israel has never released these bits in the archives, like it did with most documents from that time. So the public papers reveal what’s necessary to be revealed and conceal the rest – and I have a feeling Gorenberg is falling for this trap. More importantly, by concentrating on the debate in the Jewish leadership before the war, Gorenberg omits the decisions on this issues that were made during the war.


These paragraphs create the impression that in some cases, local initiatives by commanders led to forced evacuations, but it wasn’t policy. Yet we know for example that by early July 1948, Ben-Gurion had ordered the army to expel the entire populations of the Palestinian towns Ramle and Lod. The orders were given to Yigal Alon, and carried out by Yitzhak Rabin. Many of the refugees were looted by IDF soldiers as they were leaving their homes (see for reference Benny Morris, 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli war, p.317 of the Hebrew edition; in a footnote Morris states that there is a censored part in the government’s meeting protocols dealing with the evacuation). This is the most famous case; there were others.

But Sheizaf lets Gorenberg off the hook too easily. Although many of the most sensitive records remain classified, we do know that the Haganah had conducted detailed cartographic work on Palestinian villages and had precise estimates of the Palestinian population across regions, as well as where there were real or imagined pockets of “resistance” to Zionist plans. We also know of the infamous Plan Dalet, which instructed military commanders to preemptively destroy (via “setting fire to, blowing up, and planting mines in the debris”) population centers “difficult to control continuously”. Plan Dalet specifically targets not only sites that might field “regular and semi-regular forces”, but even those that might be used by irregular, “small forces”, which can mean just about anything, as the liberal interpretation by military commanders demonstrates.

The most shocking omission from Gorenberg’s account of 1948, given that his entire argument rests on the existence of the Situation Committee, is his non-discussion of the Transfer Committee. I asked Gorenberg via Twitter whether his book discusses the Transfer Committee, but he failed to respond. This group, established days after Israel was founded, was comprised of leading Zionists such as Yosef Weitz (of the JNF), and was tasked with overseeing the permanent removal of Palestinians from their former villages. And as we know, they were extraordinarily successful in eliminating more than 400 Palestinian villages from the Zionist map, either through outright destruction or by renaming them and passing them and their material possessions on to Jews. What on earth could be considered ethnic cleansing if not this?

If Gorenberg hadn’t relied on such a puny measure of “strong evidence”, he could have found ample evidence that Zionists perpetrated an ethnic cleansing that was imagined and fantasized about for 50 years, implemented under remarkably clear military orders (even based on the limited evidence we currently know), institutionalized through an ethnic cleansing committee by another (euphemistic) name, and which created the foundational legal framework for excluding one ethnic group from civic and political life (i.e. established Israeli apartheid).

That he failed to do so says much about the ability of Gorenberg, and so-called “liberal Zionists” more generally, to confront the essential crimes of Zionism.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Clif Brown December 2, 2011 at 3:06 pm

I don’t understand the ongoing attempt to portray Zionism as a benign movement. The facts of history from before 1948 and after right up to the present moment indicate a determined drive by people with a clear agenda for “they are out, we are in”. If the effort was directed at allowing Jews to live in Palestine along with anyone else, there could be no objection to it so perhaps the defenders are wishing to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse. I know from reading Gorenberg’s blog, South Jerusalem, that he is genuinely opposed to the terrible treatment of the Palestinians. I believe he longs to find anything that could reconcile Zionism with his own sense of common humanity. It can’t be done.

2 Yaniv Reich December 2, 2011 at 6:46 pm

It’s true. One can imagine why Zionism was initially perceived by Jews as benign, but even in the medium-term Zionism appears to be one of the principal sources of insecurity even for Jews.

3 Steve Maher December 3, 2011 at 12:15 pm

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