Wednesday, 5 September 2018

Benny Morris on the Origins of the Palestinian Refugee Problem

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I used to think that the Arabs in Palestine left their homes (presumably from fear) and were not driven out in 1948, until an Israeli with whom I had lunch years ago told me that it was now known that in many cases the Arabs were expelled. A Jewish friend told me that the Arabs were advised by the Arab states in 1948 to leave their homes but this seems to be a myth. 

Researching the question today, because of a Facebook discussion, I found this passage on a webpage in a scholarly essay entitled The Debate About 1948 by Avi Shlaim, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 27:3, 1995, 287-304, reprinted in Ilan PappĂ©, ed., The Israel/Palestine Question (London: Longman, 1999) and thought it worth posting.





A third bone of contention between the old and the new historians concerns the origins of the Palestinian refugee problem. The question is: did they leave or were they pushed out? Ever since 1948 Israeli spokesmen have maintained that the Palestinians left the country on orders from their own leaders and in the expectation of a triumphant return. Accounts written by old historians echo the official line. Arab spokesmen have with equal consistency maintained that Israel forcibly expelled some 750,000 Palestinians from their homes and that Israel, therefore, bears the full responsibility for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem. The question of origins is thus directly related to the question of responsibility for solving the Palestinian refugee problem. Arab claims that the notion of forcible 'transfer' is inherent in Zionism and that in 1948 the Zionists simply seized the opportunity to displace and dispossess the Arab inhabitants of the country rendered this controversy all the more acrimonious.
Benny Morris in his book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem investigated this subject as carefully, dispassionately and objectively as it is ever likely to be. Morris found no evidence of Arab leaders issuing calls to Palestine's Arabs to leave their homes and villages nor any trace of a radio or press campaign urging them to flee. On the Israeli side, he found no blanket orders handed down from above for the systematic expulsion of the Palestinians. He therefore rejected both the Arab order and the Jewish robber state explanations. His much-quoted conclusion is that 'The Palestinian refugee problem was born of war, not by design, Jewish or Arab. It was largely a by-product of Arab and Jewish fears and of the protracted, bitter fighting that characterized the first Arab-Israeli war; in smaller part, it was the deliberate creation of Jewish and Arab military commanders and politicians.'[27] Benny Morris has already replied in detail to Teveth's criticisms and it would serve no useful purpose for me to give a blow by blow account of the battle between them.[28] But it seems to me that Teveth's position on the origins of the Palestinian refugee problem is about as sophisticated as the old saying haya ness vehem nassu - there was a miracle and they ran away. Anyone who believes that will believe anything.


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