The 1948 Arab Invasion of Israel Deconstructed

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Israeli novelist David Grossman’s article, "Guests Can Be Shown the Door," in the New York Times Magazine " looked at the discrimination Palestinians face as a minority in Israel (December 13, 1992, p. 40). In it Grossman also repeated one of the half-truths about the birth of Israel that has sustained Zionists in Israel and in the West since 1948. An examination of some of the circumstances surrounding the Arab invasion of Israel in May 1948 reveals how accounts such as Grossman’s continue to distort history.

Eight paragraphs into his article, Grossman wrote that although Israel’s Palestinians "enjoy full equality…in practice they are discriminated against in almost all areas of life." The "tragedy" of Israeli discrimination against its Arab citizens "came into being on May 14, 1948, when Israel declared its independence. Immediately thereafter, five Arab armies invaded, determined to destroy it. The war was long and bloody, and when it ended only 156,000 Arabs were left within Israel: they now number some 900,000…18 percent of Israel’s population."

The traditional picture Grossman portrayed of a hapless Israel, struggling for its existence against implacable Arab armies, began to crumble in the early 1980s with the publication of the diaries of Moshe Sharett (1979) and David Ben Gurion?s War Diaries (1982) and with the release of thousands of declassified documents from the Israeli State Archives. The new information led to the appearance of important books and articles revising previous notions of the birth of Israel by such Jewish and non-Jewish writers as Simha Flapan, Livia Rokach, Benny Morris, Avi Shlaim, Tom Segev, Michael Palumbo and others.

The New Historians

Simha Flapan, perhaps the most accessible of the "revisionist," historians, played an active role during the war of 1948 as a member of Mapam, the United Workers Party. In his landmark book, The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities (New York: Pantheon, 1987) Flapan wrote that "like most Israelis, I had always been under the influence of certain myths that had become accepted as historical truth" (p. 8).

Flapan divides his book into seven sections, each addressing a myth associated with the birth of Israel. Examining "Myth Five," Flapan argues that it was not the Arab invasion which brought on war, but rather the decision by the Jewish leadership to declare statehood on May 14. Flapan contends that documents show that the "Arabs had agreed to a last minute American proposal for a three-month truce on the condition that Israel temporarily postpone its Declaration of Independence. Israel’s provisional government rejected the American proposal by a slim majority of 6 to 4." (p. 9)

Ethnic Cleansing, 1947

The reason the Americans and the international community were alarmed as May 14 approached was that a calamitous communal war had broken out immediately after passage of the U.N. Partition Resolution of November 29, 1947. In the war between the stronger Jewish forces and the less prepared Arab community, parallels can be drawn to the ethnic cleansing that is going on in Bosnia.

Like the Serbs today, the Jewish forces generally did everything they could to force the Palestinians to flee their cities, towns and villages. The Arab flight which numbered 60,000 by the end of March 1948, increased dramatically after April 9, 1948, the date of the infamous Dir Yassin massacre, when Menachem Begin’s Irgun (with the tacit complicity of Ben-Gurion’s Haganah) slaughtered more than 100 civilians from a "friendly" Arab village near Jerusalem.

News of the massacre, including cases of rape, spread quickly throughout the Arab community and led to the terrified mass flight of civilians in search of safety. Before the middle of May ’48 almost 300,000 Palestinians had fled.

Avoiding Repatriation

One reason that Ben-Gurion opted for Statehood on May 14 despite international opposition was because he understood that if he held back and a truce was effected, a new Israeli State might well be forced to repatriate the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians already made refugees. Moreover, by mid-May, there remained more than 500,000 Palestinians in areas that the Jewish forces controlled or desired for their state. Ben-Gurion had no intention of allowing such a large Arab minority to remain in Israel and therefore he chose war. In the end, more than 750,000 Palestinians were exiled forever from their homes.

Flapan also argues that an unprepared Arab nation entered the war reluctantly. The Arab forces were divided politically and, contrary to myth, they were no match for the Jewish forces in numbers either.

Flapan cites figures which indicate that the combined Arab armies totaled no more than 25,000 troops; including 10,000 Egyptian troops, 4,500 Transjordanian troops and perhaps 3,000 troops from Palestine itself, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon respectively. In contrast, all estimates of front-line Jewish troops, united under a single command, put the number at least at 25,000. In addition, some estimates of Jewish forces are as high as 60,000 or 90,000 more if settlement troops, irregular forces and others are counted. (Flapan, p. 196) With these figures in mind, it is easier to see how Ben-Gurion could gamble on a unilateral declaration of the state of Israel on May 14, and war.

Qualified Sympathy

That Grossman ignored these findings goes hand in hand with his remarks a few paragraphs later that reveal the gap that exists between himself and the Palestinians — despite the sympathy he also expressed. Grossman mentions instances of anti-Arab discrimination such as the fact that there has never been in Israel an Arab Supreme Court Justice, nor has there been an "Arab member of the executive committee of the Israel Broadcast Authority." Moreover, as he noted "half of those living under the poverty line in Israel are Arabs?These are grave facts." Yet, once again he went on to qualify these facts with his own notion of "the geopolitical circumstances in which this serious discrimination was born and preserved." Israel’s four million Jews, he reiterated, "feel–with justice — that they are a miniscule and ever-threatened minority in the midst of the enormous Muslim world surrounding them."

Here he ignores the reality of an Israel, with U.S. backing, as the dominant power of the region. Today we find a post-Gulf War Middle East where Egypt is marginalized and Iraq is shattered and isolated. Syria — the only remaining, semi-independent adversary–has reason to fear each time top Israeli military leaders speak openly of the need to attack it. Grossman failed to take into account the fact that Israel’s control of Arab territory and water resources in Palestine, Syria and Lebanon is the critical reason for an unstable and hostile Middle East.

While Grossman spoke of the six wars that Israel has endured, he did not mention that Israel either initiated or was indirectly responsible for all of them — including the October 1973 War which was a consequence of Golda Meir’s hardline policy of refusing to make any concession to the Arabs.

Who Suffers?

He spoke of the Arab countries’ economic boycott by the Arab countries and of Israel as the target of terrorist attacks, but said nothing about the Arabs’ legitimate fears in the region. He then made the following statement: "On the average, since Israel was born, there has been almost no day in which an Israeli citizen has not suffered injury from an Arab." Since Grossman cited no figures to back up this statement, one can only guess at the nature of the injuries that he includes. Does he refer to violent attacks, or does he include verbal insults and accusing glances? His emphasis on Israeli suffering without placing it in the context of the oppression and suffering Palestinians have endured every day since 1948 betrays the denial, even by many Israeli intellectuals, of the darker side of the birth of Israel.

By referring to the "injuries" perpetrated daily by Arabs, Grossman allowed for further "moral" justification for what the Israelis euphemistically call "transfer," — the mass expulsion of the Palestinian people from what remains of their homeland. The Rabin government’s decision in mid-December to expel 415 Palestinians from the Occupied Territories illustrates how quickly and easily such intolerance can be translated into action.

At the beginning of his article, Grossman described an incident in Israel at a summer camp for Jewish and Arab youngsters. The example he chose highlighted the fears of a Jewish boy of about 14, "a somewhat clumsy and pale type" who ran away into the forest rather than spend the night in a tent with Arab boys. Once we understand that what Grossman relates can be used as a rationale for expelling the "Other," just as it was in 1948, the choice of anecdote and the article’s title, "’Guests Can Be Shown the Door,’" seem to make more sense. Grossman’s clumsy boy can be interpreted as a symbol of Jewish Israelis, trapped in fear and hysteria by their leadership and by their nation’s history of oppressing the Palestinians in their midst.

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