Benny Morris, Righteous Victims: A History of the
Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881–1999.
London: John Murray, 2000.
Review by Gareth Morley
It would exceed the tolerable bounds of triteness to point out the importance of history to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Pro-Arab and pro-Israel polemics alike revolve around claims about past events, notably the 1967 war which led to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the 1948 war which both established the state of Israel and created hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees. International proposals like the 2003 “Road Map” and unilateral Israeli decisions like the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the construction of the “security fence” through the middle of the West Bank are routinely compared to past partition schemes and evaluated in terms of the proportion of “Mandate Palestine” left to each side, more than half a century after that entity ceased to exist.
So it may not be surprising that controversial comments earlier this year by Benny Morris, Professor of History at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba and dean of the “New Historians” who have criticized official Israeli historiography from within, caused a stir unimaginable in Canada, where academic historians are in little danger of becoming controversial celebrities. To promote the release of a new edition of his Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem and a Hebrew version of his magisterial Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, Morris gave an interview to Haaretz and wrote an article for the Guardian of London. In the process, he managed both to annoy his old adversaries on the right by announcing his discovery of historic war crimes by the Israeli military and to shock his traditional supporters on the left by retrospectively approving of forcible transfer of Palestinians in the past and speculating about its acceptability in the near future.
Origins: The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem
Morris made his professional reputation with the 1988 publication of The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947–1949, a new edition of which has been issued this year. Morris addressed one of the most sensitive historical issues in the Israeli/Palestinian dispute: did the 700,000 Palestinian refugees created by the 1948 war leave their homes voluntarily under direction from their leaders, as maintained by Israel, or were they the victims of a systematic attempt by the nascent Israeli state to expel and dispossess them? The question seemed to many to go to the heart of the legitimacy of the Zionist project and its responsibility for the subsequent half century of Palestinian suffering.
Relying on declassified Israeli and British documents (Arab regimes being unwilling to share theirs with independent researchers), Morris undermined the traditional Israeli account. The reasons for Arab flight in 1948 were complex, motivated partly by intra-Palestinian disputes, economic collapse and an ordinary breakdown in order in Arab areas after the departure of British troops. However, large movements of refugees from Arab settlements generally occurred in the wake of Israeli attacks and were discouraged by the Arab political leadership. Morris showed that the idea of compulsory transfer of Arabs from Jewish-controlled territory was not the exclusive provenance of right-wingers like Ze’ev Jabotinsky (an admirer of Mussolini and founder of the Revisionist Movement, a lineal forerunner of the now-ruling Likud Party), but was the common, if unspoken, opinion of mainstream Zionist leaders, notably David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister. At least after April 1948, commanders of the mainstream Haganah, forerunner of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), including the war hero Yigal Allon, deliberately uprooted Arab settlements.