‘Ethnic cleansing’ by Israel in 1948?
Benny Morris, former revisionist historian, refutes Arab claims

Published: 2 March 2008
Briefing Number 211

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Summary: “ Israel ethnically cleansed the Arabs in 1948…”. This new Beyond Images Briefing reproduces a recent exchange of letters which appeared in the Irish Times, in which Israeli professor Benny Morris refutes this claim. Morris is formerly a leading figure among a group of revisionist Israeli historians who made this claim about Israel . So his current stance, and his arguments, are particularly important and persuasive.

Background: To appreciate the Morris letter below, a few words of background are necessary. The events of 1948 are not history. They impact upon today. Israelis are currently marking their ‘60 th birthday', taking pride in how the reborn Jewish state battled for survival in 1948. But on the other hand, Palestinian culture and self-image are shaped by their claims of “ethnic cleansing” of the Arab population. To them, 1948 spells naqba – catastrophe.

It's a clash of narratives. And a clash with ongoing consequences for today – for diplomacy, and the prospects of lasting peace.

Israeli historian and professor Benny Morris plays a unique role in the middle of this clash. In the 1990s he led the ‘new historian' movement in Israel, reconstructing what he and others refer to as the founding ‘myths‘ of Israel's history, and endorsing many of the claims of Israel 's detractors that Israel had systematically “cleansed” the “indigenous Arab population”.

But in recent years, Morris has changed his views. He now repudiates many of his previous arguments, and devotes time to rebutting the claims of ‘ethnic cleansing' which he previously had helped make respectable.

We're reprinting a good example of this, which appeared in the letters pages of the leading Irish newspaper the Irish Times in early 2008. We set out in full Benny Morris's response to a previous letter by Irish politician David Norris, and to a letter by a second correspondent, David Landy.

The arguments made by Benny Morris go to the heart of the bitter “clash of narratives” over the events of 1948.

Letter published in the Irish Times written by Irish politician Senator David Norris, 31 January 2008

[David Norris is responding to an earlier article in the Irish Times by the Israeli Ambassador to Ireland ….]

“The Israeli Ambassador has chosen to perpetuate the old canard that the Palestinians were in some bizarre way responsible for their own violent eviction from their lands in 1948 and that their leaders were complicit in this.

This is quite simply untrue, as readers of Richard Crowley's excellent recent book ‘No Man's Land: Despatches from the Middle East ' will realise. In this he quotes a very distinguished Irishman, the late Erskine Childers, a prominent UN diplomat and son of President Erskine Childers.

Dr Childers researched the situation thoroughly and discovered that in fact the BBC maintained records of all Middle Eastern broadcasts throughout 1948. These records still exist and are stored in the British Museum . He wrote an article in the Spectator magazine in 1961 in which he made the following categorical statement: “There was not a single order, or appeal, or suggestion about evacuation from Palestine from any Arab radio station, inside or outside Palestine , in 1948. There is repeated monitored record of Arab appeals, even flat orders, to the civilians of Palestine to stay put.”

On the other hand, Childers came to the uncompromising conclusion that “from the analysis of only some of the sources of the Arab exodus, it is clear beyond all doubt that official Zionist forces were responsible for the expulsion of thousands upon thousands of Arabs, and for deliberate incitement to panic.

I trust this puts the matter to rest.

Letter from David Landy, also published in the Irish Times

24 January 2008 [extracts]

No newspaper would entertain a letter promoting Holocaust denial, yet it does seem that Nakba denial is acceptable. True, the Holocaust, the murder of six million Jews, is not comparable to the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing of 750,000 Palestinians. However both Holocaust denial and Nakba denial have the same aim – to deny a racist crime in the past so that present day crimes may be excused.

Every serious historian of the past 20 years – whether Benny Morris, Ilan Pappe or Nur Masalha – has accepted that Plan Dalet (or Plan D) was an order for ethnic cleansing. This plan was actually adopted in March 1948, two months before any Arab army declared war on Israel , and the Zionist forces had ethnically cleansed over 300,000 Arabs before this war started.

An earlier correspondent repeats the farcical stories about Haifa 's mayor begging Arabs to stay, once sufficient numbers had been cleansed, yet fails to mention cities such as Lydda and Ramle whose entire population was deported en masse. Most seriously, he fails to mention why Israel did not, and does not, allow any of these ethnically cleansed people back to their own land in defiance of international law and human rights…..

Professor Benny Morris, letter published in the Irish Times

21 February 2008

Israel haters are fond of citing – and more often, mis-citing – my work in support of their arguments. Let me offer some corrections.

The Palestinian Arabs were not responsible “in some bizarre way” (David Norris, 31 January 2008 ) for what befell them in 1948. Their responsibility was very direct and simple.

The UN's partition plan of 1947

In defiance of the will of the international community, as embodied in the UN General Assembly Resolution of November 29 1947 (No 181, the partition plan) they launched hostilities against the Jewish community in Palestine in the hope of aborting the emergence if the Jewish state and perhaps destroying that community. But they lost; and one of the results was the displacement of 700,000 of them from their homes.

How did the Arabs come to be displaced?

It is true, as Erskine Childers pointed out long ago, that there were no Arab radio broadcasts urging the Arabs to flee en masse; indeed there were broadcasts by several Arab radio stations urging them to stay put. But, on the local level, in dozens of localities around Palestine , Arab leaders advised or ordered the evacuation of women and children or whole communities, as occurred in Haifa in late April 1948. And Haifa 's Jewish mayor, Shabtai Levy, did, on April 22, plead with them to stay, to no avail.

Most of Palestine 's 700,000 “refugees” fled their homes because of the onset of war (and in the expectation that they would shortly return to their homes on the backs of the victorious Arab leaders). But it is also true that there were several dozen sites, including Lydda and Ramleh, from which Arab communities were expelled by Jewish troops.

The displacement of the 700,000 Arabs who becames refugees – and I put the term in inverted commas, as two thirds of them were displaced from one part of Palestine to another and not from their country (which is the usual definition of a refugee) – was not a “racist crime” (David Landy, 24 January), but the result of a national conflict and a war, with religious overtones, from the Muslim perspective, launched by the Arabs themselves.

Plan D….

There was no Zionist plan or blanket policy of evicting the Arab population, or of “ethnic cleansing”. Plan Dalet (or Plan D) of March 10 1948 (it is open and available for all to read in the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) Archive and in various publications) was the master plan of the Haganah – the Jewish military force that became the IDF – to counter the expected pan-Arab assault on the emergent Jewish state. That's what it explicitly states and that's what it was. And the invasion of the armies of Egypt , Jordan , Syria and Iraq duly occurred, on May 15 1948 (the date of Israel 's declaration of independence).

It is true that Plan D gave the regional commanders carte blanche to occupy and garrison or expel and destroy Arab villages along and behind the front lines and the anticipated Arab armies' invasion routes. And it is also true that mid-way in the 1948 war the Israeli leaders decided to bar the return of the refugees (those “refugees” who had just assaulted the Jewish community), viewing them as a potential fifth column and threat to the Jewish state's existence. I for one cannot fault their fears or logic.

The demonisation of Israel , and Arab propaganda

The demonisation of Israel is largely based upon lies – much as the demonisation of the Jews during the last 2000 years has been based on lies. And there is a connection between the two.

I would recommend that the likes of Norris and Landy read some history books, and become acquainted with the facts, not recycle shopworn Arab propaganda. They might then learn, for example, that the ‘ Palestine war' of 1948 (the War of Independence, as Israelis call it) began in November 1947, not in May 1948. By May 14, close to 2000 Israelis had died – of the 5800 dead suffered by Israel in the whole war (ie almost 1 percent of the Jewish population of Palestine/Israel, which was about 650,000).

Yours sincerely

Prof Benny Morris

Further Beyond Images resources

See Beyond Images Briefing 206 in which we describe the Arab assault on the Jews of Palestine in the period November 1947 to May 1948. This is the untold history referred to in the last paragraph of Benny Morris's letter.