To the Editor:
Efraim Karsh makes selective use of evidence in order to argue that the Palestinian Arabs were not expelled by the nascent Jewish state [“1948, Israel, and the Palestinians—The True Story,” May]. He makes no mention of the fact that some 50,000 Arab residents of Lydda and Ramle were forced from their homes and made to march on foot toward Arab battle lines in the east. Yitzhak Rabin, then a military commander, wrote in his memoirs that “there was no way of avoiding the use of force and warning shots in order to make the inhabitants march.” After encountering the condition of these refugees in Ramallah, the UN diplomat Count Bernadotte wrote that he had never seen “a more ghastly sight.”
By relying almost exclusively on biased Israeli sources, Mr. Karsh ignores the personal testimony—in the form of memoirs, letters, and works of history—by Palestinian victims of the Israeli expulsion. Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, to cite just one example, has written heartbreakingly about the Palestinians who fled the coastal city of Jaffa in the spring of 1948. The Israelis, as he records, had conquered the Arab sections of Tel Aviv and were threatening an invasion of Jaffa’s population centers. Meanwhile, word had come of the events at Deir Yasin, in which dozens of Arab civilians were murdered by Jewish militias like the Stern Gang and the Irgun.
Mr. Karsh also ignores third-party testimony, such as that of the distinguished Jewish intellectual Arthur Koestler, who wrote that the Israelis conducted “ruthless dynamiting of block after block” of Arab neighborhoods.
New York City
To the Editor:
Efraim Karsh refers to the 1948 battle of Deir Yasin as an example of an “atrocity” that sparked revenge killings of Jews by Arabs. “Perceived atrocity” would be more accurate. Although Arab sources at the time claimed that Irgun forces had massacred hundreds of villagers, there is not a single impartial eyewitness account to substantiate that allegation. All parties agreed that there was bitter house-to-house fighting between Jewish and Arab forces.
Some officials of the Jewish Agency and Hagana in 1948 repeated the Arabs’ accusations in order to smear their Irgun rivals, but Israel’s Labor government refuted the allegation in 1969. That year, a pamphlet issued by the Foreign Ministry under Abba Eban called the massacre claim “a fairy-tale” and a “big lie.” The pamphlet even pointed out that the “the Jewish Agency and the Hagana were in no position to ‘admit’ or ‘contradict’ anything, as their defense units did not take part in the battle, nor could they have known at first hand of the circumstances in which civilian casualties had been caused.”
New York City
Efraim Karsh writes:
Martin Harris charges me with selective use of evidence in relying on “biased Israeli sources” and ignoring the testimony of “Palestinian victims of the Israeli expulsion.” But as the annotated version of my article on the COMMENTARY website makes eminently clear, the vast majority of my research involved Arab sources, ranging from captured documents to contemporary radio broadcasts and press dispatches to political and military memoirs to real-time intelligence reports based on raw information gleaned from a wide variety of Arab sources (e.g., agents and informants, phone tapping, conversations with Arab politicians and activities, etc.). It stretches credulity to label authentic minutes of Arab League debates, correspondence between Arab military commanders and political leaders, or the mufti’s personal diary, to mention a few examples, as “biased Israeli sources” just because these documents are deposited in Israeli (and to a lesser extent in British and American) archives.
Nor is it clear why these first-hand accounts should carry less weight than Arthur Koestler’s third-hand testimony. Koestler was not even in Palestine during the period covered in my article (November 30, 1947 to May 14, 1948), and his battlefield accounts were (as he put it) “pieced together” in the weeks following his arrival on June 4, 1948 as he toured the country with other foreign correspondents, under official Israeli auspices, speaking mainly to Israeli Jews.
This should have made Koestler an accomplice to my putative sin of “relying almost exclusively on biased Israeli sources.” But then it is doubtful that Mr. Harris has actually consulted Koestler’s book on the saga of Israel’s rebirth, Promise and Fulfillment: Palestine 1917-1949. If he had, he might have realized that in sharp contrast to the half-line quote cited in his letter (and apparently copied from an anti-Israel website), the book is hugely sympathetic to the Jewish national cause, laudatory of Jewish courage and fighting ethics, and scathing about Arab political and military conduct. Here is a salient passage:
Deir Yasin owes its notoriety to the fact that it was an exception; and at least the Jews committed no individual acts of sadism. . . . But elsewhere the corpses of Jews who had fallen into Arab hands were often found castrated and with their eyes gouged out. . . . [B]efore leaving Tel Aviv I had got hold of a collection of photographs which I had passed on to Alexis Ladas of the United Nations Commission. They showed grinning men in Arab uniform posing for the photographer with their bayonets plunged into stacked heaps of naked mutilated corpses, and the like. . . . I mention this subject with reluctance; to pass over it in silence would mean minimizing the bravery of Jews going out on lonely patrols or convoy escorts. For this sort of thing did not start with the war; from the days of the first Jewish settlements, when a Jew was found murdered on the road he had nearly always been mutilated.
Mr. Harris is on more solid ground in describing Arabs leaving Jaffa as fleeing—for there was no expulsion whatsoever from the city. But he is wrong to attribute their departure to a “Deir Yasin effect.” True, the inflation of the tragedy—in which, as Robert Weintraub aptly notes, dozens of Arab villagers were killed in the course of a fierce battle—to a massacre of gigantic proportions spread panic within the disoriented Palestinian society and accelerated its flight. But the exodus from Jaffa, like that from other localities throughout Palestine, began well before Deir Yasin.
Flight from the city’s border neighborhoods ensued within hours of the November 1947 resolution to partition Palestine, and hemorrhaged as fears of a violent backlash were vindicated. Affluent families left for other locales in Palestine or for countries like Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Cyprus. The poor were reduced to sleeping rough in the streets or squatting in deserted buildings. By the beginning of 1948, some 25,000 people—more than a third of the Arab population of Jaffa—had fled. By the time the Jewish Irgun forces began their offensive in the morning hours of April 25, in what inaugurated the final round in the battle for Jaffa, the city’s 70,000-strong Arab community had dwindled to about 20,000-30,000 residents. Within a fortnight the city had virtually emptied, despite a spirited attempt by some 4,500 British troops, supported by airplanes, tanks, armored cars, and field artillery, to shore up the situation.
“Really the Arabs are rabbits,” Sir Henry Gurney, Chief Secretary to the Palestine Mandate Government and no friend of Zionism or Jews, recorded in his diary on May 5:
Ninety percent of the population of Jaffa have just run away, and only some 5,000 now remain. Yesterday the municipal engineer locked the door of the water-supply pumping station, and walked off. The [British] army have taken it on. The mayor has gone, without even saying goodbye, and the remnants of the [Arab irregular] Liberation Army are looting and robbing. This is what the Palestine Arabs get from the assistance provided by the Arab states.
Among the early escapees was Hisham Sharabi, later to become a well-known intellectual. In an autobiography published in 1978 he asked himself “how we could leave our country when a war was raging and the Jews were gearing themselves to devour Palestine.” His bitter answer:
There were others to fight on my behalf; those who had fought in the 1936 revolt and who would do the fighting in the future. They were peasants . . . [whose] natural place was here, on this land. As for us—the educated ones—we were on a different plane. We were struggling on the intellectual front.
The American-Palestinian academic Ibrahim Abu Lughod, then an eighteen-years-old high-school student in Jaffa, was no prouder of the circumstances of his own “desertion” (as he called it). “There was a Belgian ship,” he recalled,
and one of the sailors, a young man, looked at us—and the ship was full of people from Jaffa, some of us were young adults—and he said: “Why don’t you stay and fight?” I have never forgotten his face and I have never had one good answer for him.
The town of Lydda was a different case; there, in the heat of battle in July 1948, Arab residents were forced out by Israeli troops. (Contrary to Mr. Harris’s claim, parroted from his anti-Israel website, there was no expulsion whatsoever from Ramle). In an earlier piece in COMMENTARY (“The Palestinians and the Right of Return,” May 2001) I addressed the peculiar circumstances of the Lydda episode, but it lay outside the scope of my recent article, which focused on the five-and-a-half-month war preceding Israel’s proclamation on May 14, 1948.
This period, commonly known as the “civil war” phase of the 1948 war, is often overshadowed by the later, more dramatic phase that began with the concerted pan-Arab attack on the newly declared Jewish state. Yet it was during these earlier months that Palestinian Arab society disintegrated, with some 300,000-340,000 of its members taking to the road. The pan-Arab invasion did little to reconstitute this society, and instead triggered another wave of some 150,000-200,000 escapees. In any case, the Arab states were more interested in incorporating whatever parts of Palestine they could occupy than in establishing an independent Arab state in the territory.
I intend to examine the pan-Arab invasion and its implications for the Palestinian Arabs in a forthcoming study. Suffice it to say here that the similarities to the first phase are striking. Had the Palestinian Arab leaders and their counterparts in the neighboring Arab states accepted the UN partition resolution, Palestinian Arab society would not have collapsed and dispersed as it did. Had the Arab states opted for peace with Israel instead of attempting to destroy it at birth, the second wave of escapees would have been averted; an Arab state would have been established in part of Palestine; and those Arabs who fled during the civil war might have been able to return to their homes—whether in Israel or in the newly-established Arab state.
Above all, in neither stage of the war was there a Jewish design to dispossess the Palestinian Arabs. As I demonstrated in my article, most of them fled for the reasons commonly associated with war: fear, disorientation, economic privation. But to these must be added disillusionment with their own leadership, the role taken by that leadership in forcing widespread evacuations, and a lack of communal cohesion or the willingness to subordinate personal interests to the general good.