Gershom Gorenberg and ‘The Mystery of 1948’

An excerpt of Gershom Gorenberg’s book published on Slate promises to shed more light on the Palestinian refugee question, but ends up blurring Israel’s part in creating it

Palestinian refugees in 1948 (photo: wikimedia, Israeli copyrights expired)

Slate has published a few experts of Gershom Gorenberg’s book, “The Unmaking of Israel.” I like Gorenberg very much, and I think he is doing a very important job regarding the Israeli settlements (check out his excellent blog for more). Still, I haven’t read his book yet (I hope to review it here sometime in the future), so I don’t know if the provocative title of the published piece, The Mystery of 1948: Did Israel actually plan to expel most of its Arabs in 1948? Or not?, was chosen by Gorenberg or the editors of the magazine who posted it, because I am not sure whether Gorenberg actually intended to resolve “The Mystery of 1948.”

In the beginning of the piece, Gorenberg discusses some of the internal debate regarding the Palestinians before the beginning of hostilities. He states that Zionist leaders were concerned about the size of the Palestinian population, and that at the time—the late 40’s, right after the WWII—transfer of population was not unheard of. Gorenberg ends this part in saying that

… evidence is missing to back up the claim that the Jewish leadership planned from the start to expel the Arabs. In fact, there is strong evidence for the opposite: The leaders of the state-to-be expected and planned for the Arab population to stay put. That evidence comes from the report of the opaquely named body known as the Situation Committee.

Gorenberg goes on to quote plans made by the Situation Committee for civil services in the new state of Israel which include the Arab population; this is the “strong evidence to the opposite” he is referring to. Yet the reason “evidence [for plans of transfer] is missing,” is because Israel has never released these bits in the archives, like it did with most documents from that time. So the public papers reveal what’s necessary to be revealed and conceal the rest – and I have a feeling Gorenberg is falling for this trap. More importantly, by concentrating on the debate in the Jewish leadership before the war, Gorenberg omits the decisions on this issues that were made during the war.

This is the part in the article dedicated to 1948:

In April—perhaps while a typist in Tel Aviv was working on the mimeograph stencils of the Situation Committee Report—the nascent Jewish army known as the Haganah went on the offensive. It aimed at taking control of the land assigned to the Jewish state, opening the road to Jerusalem, and preparing for defense against the coming Arab invasion. In some places, Jewish commanders expelled Arabs from conquered villages. In many more, panic led to mass flight, especially after fighters from Irgun and Lehi, far-right Jewish undergrounds, perpetrated a massacre in the village of Deir Yassin outside Jerusalem.

By early May, Shertok was speaking of the “astounding” and “unforeseen” Arab exodus, as if describing an unexpected inheritance. Going back to the status quo ante was unthinkable, he said. When Israel’s provisional government discussed the issue in June, the consensus was to prevent the refugees from returning. The policy was partly defensive, to avoid a fifth column. But in the June cabinet meeting, Shertok also described all “the lands and the houses” as “spoils of war,” and as compensation for what Jews had lost in a war forced on them.

Afterward, as the fighting continued, cases of the Israeli army expelling Arabs grew more common. The decision to prevent return was the turning point, transforming what began in the chaos of war into a choice.

These paragraphs create the impression that in some cases, local initiatives by commanders led to forced evacuations, but it wasn’t policy. Yet we know for example that by early July 1948, Ben-Gurion had ordered the army to expel the entire populations of the Palestinian towns Ramle and Lod. The orders were given to Yigal Alon, and carried out by Yitzhak Rabin. Many of the refugees were looted by IDF soldiers as they were leaving their homes (see for reference Benny Morris, 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli war, p.317 of the Hebrew edition; in a footnote Morris states that there is a censored part in the government’s meeting protocols dealing with the evacuation). This is the most famous case; there were others.

I have to say that I don’t know to what extent Arabs were expelled and how many of the fled, and whether expulsion was a well-conceived plan or an “opportunity” sized by the Israeli leaders. I am not sure that things were that coherent during the war of 1948, which was basically a civil war (with the participation of outside forces). Still, when debating the issue of the refugees, it’s important to note that the expulsion of some Palestinians and the flight of others didn’t necessarily have to lead to the creation of the refugee problem: It was the Israeli decision right after the war to prevent them from returning and confiscate their land and their homes that did it. Some Palestinians who fled from the battle tried to come back to their homes even before the war ended, in weeks and months after their departure – yet they were prevented from doing so by the IDF. This act, and the introduction of “the absentee law” which turned the confiscation of property into a formal policy, makes the entire debate on the Israeli leadership’s pre-war intentions a bit meaningless, I think.

In the months after the war, Palestinian farmers were still crossing the borders into Israel in attempts to harvest their crops, believing that they would be able to go back to their homes. IDF soldiers were ordered to shoot at anyone trying to “infiltrate” the state of Israel.

Read also:

Why Jews need to talk about the Nakba: My personal journey