Commentary Magazine

The Palestinian Myth

Stateless people, marginal to every society, carry with them the aura, the mystery, of the stranger. Seeming not quite human, they are regarded by “proper” humans with a mixture of repugnance and awe. In the case of Jews and Gypsies, repugnance has usually dominated, but in the case of the Palestinian Arabs, the most recent arrivals to the stateless condition, the balance is reversed, in that much of the world now regards them with a significant degree of awe. Indeed, the Palestinian mana is so strong that Yasir Arafat, their spokesman, could enter the UN flaunting a holster, and in the name of peace call for the politicide of a member nation, itself a creation of the United Nations. Clearly, Arafat's legitimacy, his charisma, derived from roots deeper than Third World petulance, or the anti-Zionism of the Soviet bloc.

Arafat's UN triumph was a sign that a new myth (or a new version of an old myth) had been legislated into received, historic truth. In the months since his appearance, the Palestinian cause has been now at the forefront, now in the background, of the political drama in the Middle East. With the successful signing of the latest accord between Egypt and Israel in the Sinai, however, it seems clear that the focus of attention will again shift to the Palestinians, and to their by-now established version of the history of their displacement from their land.

In its essentials the revised myth of the Palestinians reads like this: Israel came into being via a historic and genocidal crime. By cunning, terror, and overwhelming force the Israelis stole a land from its rightful owners, the innocent Palestinians, a people they almost destroyed through murder and deracination. Apparently, this is a lie whose time has come: it was first circulated by the Palestinian Arabs themselves, but it has since been taken up and embellished by Third World leaders of all kinds, by the Chinese and, in a milder version, by the Soviets, by many “progressive” Europeans, by UN officials, by liberal clergy in this country, by elements of the American Left, and—since Jews also like to be where the action is—even by some alienated Israelis, Reform rabbis, and American Jewish university students.

Perhaps the most sophisticated and plausible statement of the revisionist myth comes from the Arab political scientist, Walid El-Khalidi, who asserts that overwhelming Jewish military power dictated an aggressive, attacking Zionist policy even before the partition plan of 1947 was ratified by the UN.1 In order to implement the UN plan against the wishes of the native Arabs, Dr. El-Khalidi claims, the Jews had to take offensive action so as to drive out the Palestinians before May 1948, and while the British forces were still in place, to prevent a rescue invasion by the armies of the neighboring Arab states. El-Khalidi asserts that this monolithic and confident Zionist plan unrolled in two stages. The first, “Plan C,” called for harassment of harmless Palestinian villages, and reinforcement of isolated Jewish strong-points already established in predominantly Arab areas. Well armed, but short on time, the Haganah from the outset had to attack ruthlessly; El-Khalidi claims that only the heroism of the Palestinians kept the Israelis from accomplishing all their aims in the first days of the war. Despite “repeated attacks on sleeping villages,” he asserts, the Palestinian peasantry stood firm, and no Arab community was evacuated in the period from November 1947 (when fighting first broke out) until the end of March 1948.

Their timetable upset by stubborn Arab resistance, the Israelis, according to El-Khalidi, then escalated their terror tactics, and moved to “Plan D” (Dalet) in which eleven well-armed and trained brigades of the Palmach, the Irgun, and the regular field army moved systematically to “cleanse” Arab Palestine of its native inhabitants in areas evacuated by British forces but not yet open—since the Mandate was still in force—to regular Arab armies. El-Khalidi insists that Plan Dalet was not opposed by significant Arab military forces, regular or otherwise: the Jews moved against Palestinian communities not for tactical reasons, but with the sole purpose of destroying their inhabitants, or bringing about their panicked flight. The Haganah pursued this genocidal plan until the last days of the British Mandate, when the regular Arab forces were finally free to intervene to rescue their Palestinian brothers and halt the Jewish onslaught.

In the guise of historical research, El-Khalidi has written a morality tale, a kind of fable in which the forces of good are strong in spirit but weakly armed, while the forces of evil are cowardly but possess the biggest battalions. Though the historical truth has been stood on its head, the Jews did after all win; hence the belief that the initiative and weaponry must have been with them. I am personally bored with the whole debate over what has been called Zionist original sin. But Jewish silence—particularly on the part of those who were witness to the times—can be taken as another evidence of Jewish guilt, and can thus help to spread the myth of Jewish sin. As one who served in a Haganah squad established shortly after the partition decision of 1947 (and which trained in the Sharon plain, one of the first areas to be evacuated by the refugees), let me then try to correct at least part of the record concerning who the refugees were, how they became refugees, and who was responsible for their flight.


The pivotal charge in El-Khalidi's scenario is that the Jewish Yishuv was prepared and eager for war even before partition, that it seized and held the initiative from the very outset. Would that this imputation of strength were true—some very good people might still be alive. In actual fact, however, the Haganah lacked defensive as well as offensive capability in 1947, and whatever alphabet of so-called “Plans” it may or may not have harbored, the Haganah was neither prepared nor willing to launch an offensive at that time. Even before the war of independence began, the Yishuv was already war weary. A very significant percentage of the total Jewish population had recently served in the Allied forces during World War II; in addition there was the nerve-wracking struggle against the British, involving stern reprisals, which had continued ever since. If the Yishuv had one main priority in 1947 it was free immigration, the right to bring in, without hindrance, the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, a priority which took precedence even over statehood. The Arab-inspired British White Paper of 1939, restricting Jewish immigration to Palestine just before the European Holocaust began, had taught the Zionists a vital lesson: control over Jewish immigration could only be entrusted to Jews, and Jews could exercise this trust only within some framework of statehood. A state meant Jewish police and immigration officials at the ports; it meant Jewish politicians in charge of immigration policy; and it meant a Jewish majority to uphold the Law of Return.

Equating the state with free immigration, and with release from British rule, the Yishuv greeted the first news of partition with almost frantic public rejoicing, not the spirit customarily associated with a mobilized war machine. That initial mood of hectic optimism, based on a desperate belief that the Arabs, like the British, would accept the partition of Palestine, lasted until the Arab attacks began. Arab irregulars, as well as disguised Syrian and Iraqi regulars, quartered themselves in strategic Arab communities and with increasing boldness attacked Jewish settlements, cities, and vital road links. The Haganah at first conserved its strength and relied mainly on static defense against these assaults. Thus, for example, though Jaffa, a predominantly Arab town, later fell to Jewish forces, Tel Aviv did not initially assault Jaffa. Rather, Jaffa put heavy fire into Tel Aviv; even the turret of the highest mosque in the Mansheih quarter was pressed into service of the Jihad, serving as a sniper's nest.2

The British presence, moreover, contrary to El-Khalidi's assertions, was far from favorable to the Haganah. While the British forces did not effectively block the entry of quasi-regular and irregular forces from Arab countries, they did continually hamper Jewish defense and retaliatory operations. My own squad, for example, while training in a British-controlled region, had to maintain the farce that we were on a training course for sports instructors. On patrol or training missions we hid our weapons; otherwise the British troops quartered nearby would have either killed us, jailed us, or confiscated our guns.

But El-Khalidi's most incredible rewriting of history concerns the initial firepower of the Haganah. True, the Jews did have—as he claims—some 10,000 rifles, but he fails to mention that these were of every make and caliber that had been imported or smuggled into the Middle East since Ottoman days. The same was true for the 600 machine guns reputedly in Haganah armories: many were ultra-simple and dangerously unreliable Sten guns, mostly constructed, cottage-industry fashion, in underground Haganah workshops. Like the polyglot collection of rifles, they were not the standardized, reliable automatic weapons required for the brigade-level offensive sweeps that El-Khalidi and other Arab apologists have injected into the historical record. And, finally, whatever the extent of the Haganali armory, it was not at the outset available for mobile operations, but was rather dispersed, mainly under piles of dung, in the “slicks” as they were known—secret storerooms of the kibbutzim scattered around the country. Such concealment served to keep weapons out of British hands, and available for local defense, but by the same token it made them less accessible to pan-regional striking forces.

Thus, my own unit, consisting of more than 100 men, and presumably training as a commando unit of the elite Palmach, fielded in toto about fifteen weapons, a museum of antiquated pieces, and no mortars or heavy machine guns to back up even a modest attack. So we played soldier in the soft Palestinian springtime, charging with sticks through poppy fields, and assaulting Roman ruins whose original builders, no doubt better armed than our Beaver Troop, could have repelled us without trouble. But it did not remain fun and games for long: our relatively disarmed condition was bitterly dramatized when the combat veterans among us were called out to participate in the first large-scale operation—code-named Nachshon—undertaken by the Haganah. This was a desperate, costly, and finally unsuccessful operation whose goal was not to disinherit the Palestinians of their land, but to lift the dangerous Arab siege of Jewish Jerusalem, by opening the blocked road from Tel Aviv. Unexpectedly, instead of moving out with the assault convoys, some of our men returned to camp. They had refused to fight after their unsentimental commanders revealed that there were not enough guns to go around, and that unarmed soldiers should “take weapons from those who fall.” These boys had fought before, and were willing to fight again, but they could not stomach the idea of waiting (and even hoping) for a comrade's death, so as to inherit his weapon. So much for the overwhelming armed might of the Haganah in the first months of the war of independence.


That the Arabs often transformed themselves into refugees almost casually, and despite our evident weakness, is one of those facts that the current Palestinian line is designed to obsfucate. Thus, Sidn'a Ali, the Arab village next to our base, was evacuated before we had even established our camp, and while the protective British were still present in force. Its residents left behind one caretaker as a sign that they would return, presumably when the Jews and their unpleasant little war and unwelcome little state were finished. The fact of this period, as so many participants in these long-ago events have testified, is that our Arab neighbors, with thousands of their fellow residents of the Sharon plain, evacuated their lovely and fertile region without clear provocation, and not—as El-Khalidi claims—after a last-ditch stand, or after the British left them defenseless. They left long before we could have moved against them, even if we had wanted to. Some no doubt departed because they did not wish to be relatively suspect and unwelcome minority persons in the Jewish state. Others probably left because they were afraid of what the Haganah might do to them once it had gathered its powers. But in very many cases they moved almost reflexively, away from the threat of war itself. They did not leave because of a special genocidal Jewish fury, but because the noise, smell, and disorder of battle frightened them. In the Palestinian case panic was increased by the early flight of well-to-do Arabs, who at the first sign of trouble left for Beirut and other well-appointed Levantine resorts. Arabs are by and large a people who rely on their “notables” for practical guidance and emotional support, and as the front of war moved toward them, they saw no option but to follow the example of their leaders.3

And indeed it did not then—just as it does not now—require a Jewish plan of genocide or even a Jewish invasion to create masses of Arab refugees. The Israelis, for example, save for a one-day strike at the Fatah base of Karameh, have never crossed the Jordan in force, yet, during the 1968-70 “War of Attrition,” the East Bank of the Jordan was largely abandoned by its inhabitants. The Israelis did not cross the Suez Canal until the final days of the Yom Kippur War, but the population of the canal-bank cities had long ago fled, leaving ghost towns behind. The Arqub region of Southern Lebanon, where the PLO has established its main guerrilla force, is also empyting out, and for the same reason: the guerrillas strike; the Israelis retaliate against the bases that the PLO—for both propaganda and logistical purposes—locates in villages; and the peasantry, caught in the middle, turns refugee, without any Israeli need—or intent—to “cleanse” the land of them.

There is no doubt that Jews can fight as brutally as Christians or Arabs, and there is no doubt that in some cases they welcomed and even stimulated the Arab flight from Palestine. My point is that Jewish wishes—for Arab flight, or against it—did not much matter. The bulk of Arabs moved away from the track of war, rather than away from Jews per se. In effect, the Palestinians gambled with history, and lost: their leaders and elites assumed that the Arab armies would destroy the Jews, and it seemed reasonable to get away while this messy and dangerous business proceeded. The lower classes and the peasantry followed their leaders, assuming that they could return to their villages and—God willing—inherit the well-appointed Jewish holdings as well, when the war ended. Logically, given the unequal balance of forces, this is the way things should have turned out. And the Palestinian refugees, fixated on the dream that failed, the dream that rationalized their flight, still demand this ending today. They should return to their homes and groves, as they remember them, and the Jews should be gone, or subdued.

Finally, the real contrast is not between merciless, imperializing Jews and innocent Palestinians; it is between a people, the Jews, who stood in place and paid the butcher's bill of history—over 6,000 dead (2,000,000 in U.S. equivalents)—and a people, the Palestinians, who did not. Again, the Arab calculus was reasonable; but it was not the calculus of a people with the deep attachment to their olive groves or the profound sense of nationhood that is now claimed for the Palestinians. The 300,000 or so Jews who had been brought in during the war from Displaced Persons camps and from North Africa were largely settled—for want of any other convenient space—in abandoned Arab quarters of Jaffa, Haifa, Jerusalem, Safed, Tiberias, and Ramleh. This is not to grant—as Arab propagandists claim—that the Jews turned the Arabs into refugees so as to make room for their own DP's. In reality, things worked the other way: the Israelis could accelerate the ingathering of Jews—particularly those from North Africa, an unexpected load—because of the space that the Palestinian Arabs had made available by their unpredicted flight. Presumably, if the Arabs had not left in such large numbers, the Israelis would still have emptied the detention camps of Cyprus, and the DP camps of Europe, and they would have created some kind of shelter for the immigrants; but, having the windfall of gratuitous Arab space, they were glad enough to use it for resettlement, and thus rid themselves of at least one major problem.

In effect, then, the Arabs brought about, through the war that they themselves started, and their flight from that war, the fait accompli that made their mass return to their former homes well-nigh impossible. One could argue that the Israelis should have decided against their own people, evicting the immigrants from their new homes in favor of the needs and moral claims of their enemies. But this would have been to act as no one in history has ever acted or been expected to act; and in any case the state of Israel had been created to receive Jews, not to disinherit them again.

In short, where the Arabs now propose a grand design, a long-prepared and thoroughly worked-out Zionist plan to decimate and deracinate the Palestinians, the actual events were much closer to the sloppy, disorderly patterns of human history. It was a dirty, nasty little war fought at close quarters by intertwined populations, Semitic cousins who had learned over more than fifty years to dislike and fear each other. But when all is said and done, it was war itself that was the beast, and not the Jews. The beast ravaged both peoples, but the Arabs were the first to break and run from it.


Before the Palestinians were sanctified, this less flattering account of their flight was implicitly—at times, explicitly—accepted by front-line Arab countries as well. El-Khalidi insists that the Palestinians stood fast until March 1948, but in actuality by January of that year their exodus had already reached such proportions that the Palestine Arab Higher Committee asked neighboring countries to refuse visas to the runaways. In conformity with this request, Syria for a while even closed its borders to the refugees, on grounds that they were behaving in a disgraceful fashion; and these sentiments were echoed by King Farouk of Egypt, as he berated “the Palestinian Arabs who ran away, leaving their houses and lands empty, giving a chance for a large Jewish immigration and putting Palestine in danger of a Jewish majority.” Similarly, Radio Damascus in August 1948: “The Arabs of Palestine are responsible for the heavy losses of the armies in Palestine and the present unfavorable situation. They ran away in the face of a threat by a small minority and spend more time talking over their own affairs than fighting for their country.”

Islam is a martial religion; not surprisingly, then, the refugees' sense of defeat—and by Jews!—was compounded by the scorn of their Arab hosts. Fawaz Turki, a young refugee intellectual, writes poignantly in his book, The Disinherited, of the insults that he suffered as a boy from his Lebanese neighbors: “‘You Palestinian sons of whores who sold your land to the Jews and then ran away!’” The verbal scorn was underwritten and emphasized by internment: the refugee camps meant, among other things, that the Arab world regarded the Palestinians as a stigma, as a source of shame to be kept out of sight.

A deep sense of shame, indeed, is to my mind the hidden side of the much vaunted Palestinian rage against the Jews, the real root of their own investment in the myth of the genocidal Jew. The refugees who look across the border see that those Arabs who chose to stay in Israel—for all their “second-class” status—made the better choice. The refugees have retroactively salvaged their honor and stifled their shame by revising history, by claiming that their own flight and their own fear were directly proportional to Jewish strength and malice. They sacrificed their children's birthright because they were afraid; and now they justify themselves to their disinherited sons by claiming that they fled for their children's sake. El-Khalidi's vision of “Plan Dalet” is only a more sophisticated retelling of the myth that refugee parents fed their children: “The Jews came against us with everything, and we had nothing; they came with American cannons and American planes. They tortured, raped, and murdered. To save your life and the honor of your sister I had to go away from our village.” The father's need for justification is the author of his conviction; and with each retelling the myth becomes more credible to him and to his audience. The sons believe the story of the fathers' victimization and their own disinheriting; and like good sons they go back, as guerrillas, to avenge their fathers.4

The fathers conjure a Jewish Attila to excuse their panicked flight from Palestine; and the sons use the same mythic image to justify their own expensive failures in guerrilla warfare. Despite better finances and more publicity than most underground movements have ever enjoyed, the Arab guerrillas have not done well: before the PLO was honored by the UN, it was not popular in most West Bank areas; worse yet, the fedayeen are routinely betrayed by their own captured fighters, even without the stimulus of torture. But Jews can always be blamed for Arab defeat: the PLO insists that their captives only break security because of the heinous punishments—electric shocks to the genitalia is one of their favored complaints—that the Zionists inflict on them.


And so it goes: each Arab regime plagued with internal difficulties now looks outside rather than inside to find the cause and the solution of its troubles—it looks to the Zionist Jew, the “imperialist-colonialist” cancer within the Arab world. The Israeli Jew who was first used to excuse the Arab defeat in 1948 now becomes the outward metaphor of everything that Arabs cannot tolerate in their national life: they have learned to wrap all their troubles into one neat ball, call it “Israel,” and attempt to extirpate it in this convenient form. Thus, every important Arab revolutionary leader or movement—Qaddafi of Libya, Nasser of Egypt, the Ba'ath of Syria and Iraq—starts with brave attempts to revolutionize the inner structure of society, but ends by devoting major energy to military adventures against Israel. Finally, it is always easier to define the Jew as the reactionary and to war against him, than to deal with the terrible contradictions of Arab society itself. The final paradox comes when “Maoist” revolutionaries seek and receive subsidies from the oil sheiks who should be their natural enemies. As they write their large checks to the Fatah, to the PFLP, or to As-Saiqa, these benefactors must mutter to themselves, “Go, play with death on the borders of Israel—and leave me alone.” Thus, the ever-elaborated, ever-enriched myth of the Jew as perpetrator of genocide, as racist, as colonialist-imperialist implant into the Arab homeland, becomes one of the prices exacted from historic truth in order to insure some uneasy peace within and among Arab societies themselves.



1 W. El-Khalidi, “Plan Dalet,” Middle East Forum, November 1961.

2 It is no longer remembered, but the first refugees of that bitter little war of 1947 were not Arabs: they were Yemenite Jews from the polyglot sector between Jaffa and Tel Aviv. The Yemenite Jews are not now celebrated as refugees: their fellow Jews—unlike the Arabs—did not put them into refugee camps, but instead accepted them into the Ashkenazi quarters of Tel Aviv. Until Jaffa was taken by the Haganah, virtually every apartment house in Tel Aviv had a Yemenite family camped in its lobby and using the cooking and sanitary facilities of the regular tenants.

3 There were of course exceptions, Arab villages that held out for a long time, and were only subdued at considerable Jewish expense. The large village of Tireh, on the south flank of the Carmel range, troubled Jewish traffic on the Haifa-Tel Aviv highway for more than six months, and forced the Haganah to use armored buses and armed guards on the stretch of road commanded by its snipers. Though cut off behind Jewish lines, Tireh was not taken until the very end of the British Mandate. Then, too, the fighters of Deir Yassin exacted over forty Jewish casualties before their village was taken by Irgun and Sternist troops who retaliated by massacring inhabitants.

4 If the refugees' investment in the myth of the genocidal Jew is at least understandable (though based on a falsehood), far less explicable, and less excusable, is the perpetuation of the myth by certain Christian clergymen in the United States. Thus, the Quakers' “even-handed” document, The Search for Peace in the Middle East, calls for the “just recognition of claims denied to the abused Palestinian people” without even noting Palestinian responsibility for starting the war that turned them into refugees. Thus, too, on Palm Sunday 1972, the Very Rev. Francis B. Sayre Jr., Dean of the National (Episocopal) Cathedral in Washington, sermonized against Israeli governance of a united Jerusalem: “Now the Jews have it all. But even as they praise their God for the smile of fortune, they begin almost simultaneously to put Him to death” [emphasis added]. As if Jerusalem could ever be altogether theirs—or anyone's! But now oppressed become oppressors: Arabs are deported; Arabs are imprisoned without charge; Arabs are deprived of the patrimony of their lands and homes; their relatives may not come to settle in Jerusalem; they have neither voice nor happiness in the city that after all is the capital of their religious devotion too!” In his zeal to pile up charges Dean Sayre forgets that Mecca, rather than Jerusalem, is the “capital” of the Arabs' “religious devotion.” But one may doubt whether he is as vitally concerned with infringements of Arab rights in Jerusalem as he is with the fact that it is Jews who now rule that city, for while Jerusalem is not the capital of Islam, it is the capital of Christianity; Dean Sayre pleads the Muslim's cause, but he clearly wants the Jews out of his capital. And like the ancient founders of Christianity, he disputes the Jewish claim to Jerusalem, and to divine favor, by resorting to the charge of deicide: those, he suggests, who once crucified Christ in Jerusalem are presently crucifying Palestinians there. Behind much liberal clerical concern for the rights of Palestinians there undoubtedly lurks this transmogrified idea of the Jew as Christ-killer which Dean Sayre explicitly avers here.


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