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The Historiography of the 1948 Wars

Last modified: 1 November 2008
Nadine Picaudou

November 2008

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Nadine Picaudou, The Historiography of the 1948 Wars, Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence, [online], published on 1 November 2008, accessed 20 October 2014, URL : http://www.massviolence.org/The-Historiography-of-the-1948-Wars, ISSN 1961-9898

 Understanding the nakba

The most recent developments in Palestinian historiography have tended to broaden the spectrum of research on the 1948 wars. Thus, Saleh ‘Abd el-Jawad (‘Abd el-Jawad, 2006) has attempted to produce a finer periodization of these confrontations, proposing to rethink how they began. In fact, in a conflict more than in other types of occurrences, the issue of its origin affects the meaning of the event. In this case, the conventional view imposed by Israeli historiography fixed the beginning of Judeo-Palestinian clashes at November 30, 1947, thus attributing responsibility for them to the Palestinian and Arab refusal of the partition plan adopted the day before by the Assembly-General of the United Nations. Yet in spite of the strike initiated by the Arab Higher Committee, available sources note that Judeo-Arab relations remained relatively calm at the time, in contrast to the strong tensions between the British and the Zionists, which were generating internal divisions within the Zionist movement. The many non-aggression pacts passed between Palestinian towns or villages on one hand, and the Haganah or Jewish settlements on the other, prompt us not to interpret community relations purely in terms of the conflict framework. The first incidents were isolated acts, even though they did provoke reprisals liable to set off cycles of revenge. Saleh ‘Abd el-Jawad set the point of no-return, beyond which the skirmishes could be qualified as an inter-community confrontation, at December 11-13, 1948. The increasing number of case studies carried out also enables us to treat the issue of the conditions of exodus in greater detail, for it is on the local scale that we may claim to consider the full complexity of an event. Far from the conventional image of the sudden collapse of an entire society, which feeds into the Zionist theme of the exodus as a “miracle,” an unhoped-for solution to the “Arab question,” this research discloses the more complex image of successive waves of departures. Thus, at Safad, the work of Mustafa Abassi (Abassi, 2004), based on Israeli military archives as well as on documents from the Arab Liberation Army (ALA), and on memoirs and testimony from survivors, allowed him to define three waves of departures. The first began after the retreat of the British garrison on April 16 and internal disputes within the local ALA detachment; the second started after the May 2 massacre in the neighboring village of ‘Ayn Zaytoun, which had devastating psychological effects. The third began in the days that followed, during the Haganah bombings that emptied the town by way of the only road deliberately left open. Furthermore, the Palestinians mostly became displaced persons before becoming refugees, and only by considering this fact can one comprehend the full scope of the exodus.

One of the most recent issues addressed by Palestinian historiography, which entered the field of historians’ concerns relatively late, is linked to the role of massacres in the 1948 exodus. The case of Deir Yassin long remained as symbolic as it was isolated, as if it sufficed to summarize the tragedy of Palestinian victims. It had been revealed both by Israeli military witnesses’ testimony – such as that of the former Haganah intelligence chief for Jerusalem – and by Jacques de Régnier, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Palestine (Régnier, 1950), and had served as a key instrument in the Israeli army’s psychological warfare. As long as the 1948 events were marshaled by a collective memory conflated with Palestinian nationalist mobilization, one exemplary event sufficed to express the tragedy. But when the Palestinians began to write their history, the issue of massacres inevitably became one of the relevant factors in accounting for the mass exodus. Saleh ‘Abd el-Jawad (Saleh ‘Abd el-Jawad, 2007) carried out the most detailed study to date on this issue, inventorying nearly 70 cases of massacre. Eschewing the debate on Israeli intentions, he sought to remain in the field of empirical demonstration, though he did interpret a significant number of massacres as instruments of terror, which contributed to empty the land of its Arab inhabitants. After focusing on the definition of a massacre as the murder of civilians or prisoner combatants, perpetrated without military necessity by the agents of a state or a quasi-state, he lists different occurrences of this phenomenon, before and after May 15, 1948 (‘Abd el-Jawad, 2007: 104-124). He puts forward a precise typology of massacres, including reprisal raids after an attack on a Jewish settlement – without the victims’ responsibility in the attack having been established – such as at Khassas on December 18, 1947, as well as selective murders of fighting-age men listed as activists or chosen at random – like at Majd al-Kurum on November 5. ‘Abd el-Jawad also includes summary executions of prisoners, such as those carried out at ‘Ayn Zaytoun on May 2, in view of preparing the occupation of Safad, and indiscriminate murders of entire families like those committed at al-Dawayima, near Hebron on October 29, 1948 (a June 14, 1949 UN report placed the number of dead at 455, including 170 women and children, and listed many cases of atrocities). Civilians were also bombed from the air, at Beisan in mid-May for example, and populations were forcibly expelled, including from Lydda and Ramleh between July 11 and 13. At Lydda, after the collapse of organized resistance around the mosque of the city center, houses were evacuated one by one and columns of refugees were bombarded by the air force. In the neighboring town of Ramleh, even though the terrified notables had signed a non-aggression pact with the Israeli army, some 50,000 people were forced onto the roads without food or water at the height of the summer. To Saleh ‘Abd el-Jawad, just as to Nur Masalha, the recognition of the reality of ethnic cleansing in Palestine in 1948 now stands as a precondition to reconciliation between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. Thus, historiographical revision and political recognition are closely tied to each other. In fact, authentic reconciliation between the two peoples cannot take place if the origins of the conflict are ignored. This was plain to see when the Camp David II summit ran aground over the impossibility of a common reading of the Palestinian exodus of 1948.

Israeli historian Ilan Pappe shares this position; though they are rather unique in the field, his most recent works (Pappe, 2006) have marked a threshold in historiographical revision in Israel, at a time when the revival of Israeli-Palestinian violence is feeding into academic controversy to the point of splitting the historians’ community in Israel. To the scientific and political imperative of understanding the mechanisms of ethnic cleansing, Ilan Pappe adds the moral necessity – to himself as an Israeli citizen – of fighting any denial of crimes against humanity. In this sense, he goes further than Palestinian historians by proposing to replace the paradigm of war on the Israeli side and catastrophe on the Palestinian side, by ethnic cleansing, in order to account for the entire picture of events that occurred in Palestine between 1947 and 1949. Borrowing Drazen Petrovic’s definition of ethnic cleansing (Petrovic, 1994), Ilan Pappe presents the Dalet Plan – which emanated directly from Ben Gurion and the “heroic figures of the Israeli pantheon” – as the very embodiment of this strategy. He does so by demonstrating that it did not only contain general political directives, but also particular military orders to be carried out at once, without waiting for the end of the British Mandate. Furthermore, these orders specified detailed methods to be used, giving lists of villages and urban areas to be occupied and emptied in each of the twelve zones entrusted to the twelve brigades of the Haganah. Information files gradually built up during the 1940s carefully mapped out the Palestinian villages, their topography, economic resources and demographic composition; after the last update in 1947, they included lists of suspect persons, which later constituted key documents for expulsion or massacre policies. Ilan Pappe followed chronological logic and the phases of cleansing, beginning with the opening of the Tel Aviv – Jerusalem corridor, the “urbicide” in Galilee (Tiberias, Safad and Haifa), and the clearing of the coast. Then followed the escalation between June and September 1948 – marked by the expulsion of the inhabitants of Lydda and Ramleh, and the taking of Nazareth, where evacuation orders were finally canceled by Ben Gurion, who was concerned about the reaction of the Catholic world – and the final step from October 1948 to January 1949, which included the cleansing of northern Galilee and of the Negev. The ethnic cleansing policies comprised all acts intended to prevent refugees from returning, especially the destruction of villages emptied of their populations, replaced by Jewish settlements or “natural” pine forests, as well as the legal appropriation of the abandoned lands. This took place in a two-step process: holding the “absentees’ lands,” then selling them selectively to the sole benefit of Jewish citizens.

When Benny Morris reviewed the issue of the exodus from Galilee based on new military documents about Operation Hiram (October 28-31) (Morris, 2001), he introduced significant nuances into his earlier work. This issue was all the more important that he had initially used the case of Galilee in order to refute the idea that an expulsion strategy had existed. If it had existed, he had written, Galilee would have been the first area concerned, as it was conquered at the end of the war, when the army had the upper hand on all fronts; but in fact, the exodus had only affected half this area’s population. Morris later modified this statement based on new sources, recognizing that expulsion orders had been given for Galilee, and that around ten confirmed massacres and a dozen reported cases of rape had occurred there (Morris, 2001: 54 sq), even though his interpretations are quite restricted in view of the facts that have come to light.

Laila Parsons’ research (Parsons, 2001) shed light on the issue of the exodus from Galilee from a particular perspective, as she underlined the explicit policies of non-expulsion of the Druze. This was the case for Al-Rama, where the Christians left but the Druze were invited to stay, which Benny Morris fails to mention (Parsons, 2001: 65), as well as for Yanuh, a remarkable case of a village where the Druze resisted the Israeli army, disregarding a previous agreement with the latter – but they were not driven away, in spite of having reneged on their commitment (Parsons, 2001: 65). In Laila Parsons’ view, this differential treatment of communities bears witness to a certain degree of intentionality in the expulsion of the Arab populations of Palestine.

Though the Palestinian historiography of 1948 has gradually broadened its field of investigation, it has kept to the nakba paradigm, which reduces the Palestinians to the status of passive victims of Israeli policies, as the limited attention accorded by researchers to the 1947-48 battles, and to resistance by the Palestinians and Arab volunteers, illustrates. Thus, the Deir Yassin massacre eclipsed the battle of Deir Yassin. This was presumably a consequence of the type of sources that were used, and a side effect of the promotion of massacres to the status of objects of historical research in the study of contemporary conflicts. However, there were some noteworthy exceptions. Early on, Walid Khalidi, who was studying the case of Haifa (Khalidi, 1959b), made a detailed analysis of the forms of resistance implemented by the city’s National Committee, which took charge of supervising the civilian population and organizing local defense, though it lacked military experience. He also published an English translation of all the communiqués broadcast by the National Committee of Haifa, among other Palestinian documents from the 1948 war (Khalidi, 1998). More recently, Mustafa ‘Abassi (‘Abassi, 2004) re-examined the exemplary case of Safad, a town included within the borders of the Jewish state but which had a mostly Arab population; it had greatly contributed to fueling the myth of the Jewish David facing an Arab Goliath in Israeli historiography, and fed into the Jewish dread of destruction. ‘Abassi analyzed the forms of Arab resistance there and its limitations, as it was paralyzed by divisions in the city’s National Committee, internal disputes within the Arab Liberation Army, and the acute lack of ammunition four days before the town was taken by the Haganah.

There remains one other central issue that has not been explored satisfactorily to this day: the role of the British during the first phase of the war. In Haifa, evidence of collusion between local British commander Major-General Stockwell and the Haganah was conclusive: the British retreat ahead of schedule was first announced to the Zionist units who were able to take control of strategic locations on the hills overlooking the Arab neighborhoods, and subsequently to the Arab notables (Khalidi, 1959b). Elsewhere, in Jaffa or Safad for example, the British rather seemed to act as mediators; in any case, they proved incapable of safeguarding the civilian populations until their retreat.

Therefore, many issues remain to be examined before one can claim to put forward a global understanding of the 1948 events in Palestine. However, we cannot conclude this review of Arab and Palestinian historiography without observing that Palestinian historians have also endeavored to situate the 1948 defeat in a long-term historical framework, and to search for the underlying historical causes of this failure that was political before it was military. As early as 1984, Elias Sanbar (Sanbar, 1984) suggested replacing the question, “Why did the Palestinians leave in 1948?” with another: “Why the Palestinians lose the war?” – a war he considered had been lost as of 1939, when the 1936-39 revolt, called “war of independence,” failed and the first national movement was suppressed. Other historians analyzed the structural weakness of Palestinian society under the British Mandate, its level of institutional development that was much lower than that of the Jewish community (al-Hout, 1981), the factionalism of its elites (Khalaf, 1981), or missed political opportunities (Khalidi, 2001). But strictly speaking, this type of study is broader in scope than the historiography of 1948.

Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence® - ISSN 1961-9898