Friday, May 21, 2010

The Middle East that could have been


by Efraim Karsh,

Efraim Karsh argues that the Palestinian-Jewish struggle might have ended peacefully in 1947-- if only Arab leaders hadn't opted for war


"There is no place in Palestine for two races. The Jews left Palestine 2,000 years ago. Let them go to other parts of the world, where there are wide vacant places."

--Hajj Amin Husseini, 1936

"We do not wish and do not need to expel Arabs and take their place. All our aspiration is built on the assumption--proven throughout all our activity in the Land of Israel --that there is enough room in the country for ourselves and the Arabs." --David Ben-Gurion, 1937

On Nov. 29, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution calling for the partition of Palestine into two independent states -- one Jewish, the other Arab -- linked in an economic union. The city of Jerusalem was to be placed under an international regime, with its residents given the right to citizenship in either the Jewish or the Arab state.

For Jews all over the world, this was the fulfillment of a millenarian yearning for national rebirth in their ancestral homeland. For Arab political and intellectual elites, it was a shameful surrender of (a however minute) part of the perceived pan-Arab patrimony to a foreign invader. In Jewish localities throughout Palestine, crowds danced in the streets. In the Arab capitals there were violent demonstrations.

"We are happy and ready for what lies ahead," the prominent Zionist official and future Israeli prime minister Golda Meyerson(Meir) told thousands of revellers in Jerusalem. "Our hands are extended in peace to our neighbours. Both States can live in peace with one another and co-operate for the welfare of their inhabitants."

To this, however, the response of the Arab Higher Committee (AHC), the effective "government" of the Palestinian Arabs, headed by the militant ex-mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin Husseini, was an all-out war. In the five-and-a-half months between the passing of the UN resolution and the end of the British mandate, the former mufti's forces, assisted by a sizeable pan-Arab irregular army, carried out thousands of attacks on their Jewish neighbours in an attempt to prevent them from establishing their state.

This failed, and by the time the last British high commissioner for Palestine, General Sir Alan Cunningham, left the country and the state of Israel was proclaimed on May 14, 1948, Palestinian Arab society had all but disintegrated, with 300,000-340,000 of its members fleeing their homes to other parts of Palestine and to the neighbouring Arab states.

A concerted attack by the regular Arab armies on the nascent Jewish state within hours of its proclamation proved equally counterproductive. Rather than drive the Jews into the sea, as promised by the Arab League's secretary-general, Abdel Rahman Azzam, the assault served to confirm Israel's independence within wider boundaries than those assigned by the partition resolution, albeit at the exorbitant human cost of 1% of its population, and raised the number of refugees to about 600,000 -- nearly half the country's Arab population.

Yet nowhere at the time was the collapse and dispersion of Palestinian Arab society -- al-Nakba, "the catastrophe," as it would come to be known in Palestinian and Arab discourse -- described as a systematic dispossession of Arabs by Jews. To the contrary: With the partition resolution widely viewed by Arab leaders throughout the region as "Zionist in inspiration, Zionist in principle, Zionist in substance and Zionist in most details" (in the words of the Palestinian academic Walid Khalidi), and with those leaders being brutally candid about their determination to subvert it by force of arms, there was no doubt whatsoever as to which side had instigated the bloodletting and the attendant defeat and exodus.

As Sir John Troutbeck, head of the British Middle East Office in Cairo and no friend of Israel or the Jews, discovered to his surprise during a fact-finding mission to Gaza in June 1949: "While [the refugees] express no bitterness against the Jews (or for that matter against the Americans or ourselves) they speak with the utmost bitterness of the Egyptians and other Arab states. 'We know who our enemies are,' they will say, and they are referring to their Arab brothers who, they declare, persuaded them unnecessarily to leave their homes ... I even heard it said that many of the refugees would give a welcome to the Israelis if they were to come in and take the district over."

In his influential 1948 pamphlet The Meaning of the Catastrophe ( Ma'na al-Nakba), which introduced the term into the Palestinian and Arab historical vocabulary, the Syrian historian Qustantin Zuraiq spoke of the flight -- not the expulsion -- of some 400,000 Arabs. So did the prominent Palestinian Arab leader Musa Alami. "If ultimately the Palestinians evacuated their country, it was not out of cowardice, but because they had lost all confidence in the existing system of defense," he wrote in October 1949. "They had perceived its weakness, and realized the disequilibrium between their resources and organization, and those of the Jews. They were told that the Arab armies were coming, that the matter would be settled and everything return to normal, and they placed their confidence and hopes in that."

It was only from the early 1950s onward, as the Palestinians and their Western supporters gradually rewrote their national narrative, that Israel, rather than the Arab states, became the Nakba's main, if not sole, culprit. The ex-mufti led the way by casting his countrymen as the hapless victims of a Jewish grand design to dispossess them of their patrimony, as a steppingstone to regional domination, and this fantastic claim was quickly picked up by many of his contemporaries.

Some ascribed these supposed designs to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a virulent anti-Semitic tract fabricated by the Russian secret police at the turn of the 20th century, from which the Jewish leadership allegedly drew inspiration and operational guidelines; others attributed them to religious and historical sentiments. All viewed Zionism as omnipotent, with tentacles that reached the world's most powerful spots. In the words of the prominent Islamist leader in mandatory Palestine, Muhammad Nimr Khatib: "We are fighting an organized, educated, cunning, devious and evil people that has concentrated the world's wealth and power in its hands ... We are fighting the forces that have prevailed over the entire world, we are fighting the power that buried Hitler and defeated Japan, we are fighting World Zionism that has Truman in its pay, enslaves Churchill and Attlee, and colonizes London, New York, and Washington."

Echoing this obsession with the demonic power of "World Zionism" some four decades later, Walid Khalidi attributed the Nakba to "the vast chasm in the balance of power between, on the one hand, the resources of the World Zionist Organization and its sponsors in London and Washington, and, on the other hand, those of the pre-industrial Palestinian community"; while Edward Said put the supposed Jewish machinations in similarly stark terms, claiming that "from the beginning of serious Zionist planning for Palestine (that is, roughly, from the period during and after World War I), one can note the increasing prevalence of the idea that Israel was to be built on the ruins of ... Arab Palestine."

If it is understandable for leaders and politicians, culpable for their nation's greatest ever disaster, to revert to hyperbole and lies in their quest for personal and collective exoneration, it is inexcusable for future generations of scholars and intellectuals to substitute propaganda for incontrovertible facts. Yet such is the state of Palestinian and Arab historiography that the foremost, indeed the only comprehensive, study of the Nakba was written in the 1950s, without the necessary detachment and introspection, let alone access to the minefield of archival source material that has subsequently come to light, by the mandatory official, politician, journalist and historian Arif Arif.

Younger generations of Palestinian scholars and intellectuals have avoided the Nakba. They have, of course, evoked, lamented and apportioned blame for this tragedy at every possible turn, yet none has attempted to explore what actually transpired: why and how it happened.

It is a historical irony that, since the late 1980s, much of the Palestinian historiography has been written by Israeli "new historians" -- younger, politically engaged academics and journalists who claim to have discovered archival evidence substantiating the anti-Israel case. These politicized historians have turned the saga of Israel's birth upside down, with aggressors transformed into hapless victims and vice versa. Rarely mentioned in these revisionist accounts are the Arabs' outspoken commitment to the destruction of the Jewish national cause; the sustained and repeated Arab efforts to achieve that end from the early 1920s onward; and the no less sustained efforts of the Jews at peaceful coexistence.

Rather than unearth new facts or offer novel interpretations, the "new historians" have recycled the standard Palestinian Arab narrative of the conflict. The recent declassification of millions of documents from the period of the British mandate and Israel's early days, documents untapped by earlier generations of writers and ignored or distorted by the "new historians," paint a much more definitive picture of the historical record, and one that is completely at odds with the anti-Israel caricature that is so often the order of the day.

They reveal that there was nothing inevitable about the Palestinian-Jewish confrontation, let alone the Arab-Israeli conflict, corollaries, on the one hand, of the total rejection of the Jewish right to national self-determination, and, on the other, of the desire to annex Palestine, or parts of it, to the neighbouring Arab states, or to a prospective regional empire; that the claim of premeditated dispossession is not only baseless but the inverse of the truth; and that far from being the hapless victims of a predatory Zionist assault, it was Palestinian Arab leaders who, from the early 1920s onward, and very much against the wishes of their own constituents, launched a relentless campaign to obliterate the Jewish national revival which culminated in the violent attempt to abort the UN partition resolution.

Had these leaders, and their counterparts in the neighbouring Arab states, accepted the resolution, there would have been no war and no dislocation in the first place, for the simple reason that the Zionist movement was amenable both to the existence of a substantial non-Jewish minority in the prospective Jewish state on an equal footing, and to the two-state solution, raised for the first time in 1937 by a British commission of inquiry and reiterated by the partition resolution.

That they chose to reject this solution and to wage a war of annihilation against Palestine's Jewish community amounted to nothing short of a betrayal of their constituents, who would rather have co-existed with their Jewish neighbours yet instead had to pay the ultimate price of this folly: homelessness and statelessness.

Efraim Karsh,

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.



No comments:

Post a Comment