As the 75th anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba, or ‘catastrophe’, is marked on Monday at the United Nations, pro-Israel advocates have been pushing an alternative version of historical events that positions Israel as the victim and the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians as self-inflicted.
This Israeli narrative contends that as soon as David Ben-Gurion declared the independence of the Jewish state on 14 May 1948 five major Arab armies invaded historic Palestine to wage – along with the Palestinians – a “war of annihilation” against Israel and “push Jews into the ocean”.
The outnumbered Israelis defended themselves and won the war, and in the process, Palestinians fled their homes.
“These are foundational narratives for Israeli Jews and also Diaspora Jews - they are taken as obvious truth,” Dr Yair Wallach, historian, and senior lecturer in Israeli studies at SOAS, told The New Arab.
“They connect 1948 (and Israel) with the Jewish memory of persecution; they provide justification for what Israel did to Palestinians as ‘self-defence’; and it informs the understanding that Israel's very existence is always in danger, and it is force and force only that guarantees the security of Israel.”
Prominent historians, including Israelis, however, have thoroughly documented how this narrative is inconsistent on multiple levels with what transpired on the ground.
They argue that the Arab armies sent to Palestine were outnumbered by the Israeli army and that the Arab armies’ goal was limited to preventing a Palestinian defeat and full ethnic cleansing, stopping refugee floods into their territories, and annexing some parts of historic Palestine to their states.
“It is clear that the Arab military effort was primarily directed at a failed attempt to save Palestinians,” Dr Wallach told The New Arab. “To be sure, there was also a rejection of partition and [an] attempt to prevent it, but the talk of ‘genocide’ has no basis whatsoever.”
Jordan, which had the strongest Arab army in the 1948 war, had actually accepted the 1947 UN partition plan of historic Palestine in secret meetings in 1947 with Golda Meir, then head of the Jewish Agency’s political department. In return, Jordan’s King Abdullah wanted to annex the Arab part to Jordan, according to the Israeli historian Benny Morris.
However, in the 45 days leading up to the 1948 war, Zionist militias in mandate Palestine carried out 13 offensive military operations including eight outside the borders of the area allotted to the Jewish state in the partition plan. Zionist aggression included the infamous Deir Yassin massacre on 9 April, which played a central role in spreading fear and terror among Palestinians.
After this massacre, Jordan’s king came under pressure to act. But even then, he secretly met with Golda Meir again and offered full Jewish autonomy under his rule after he annexed historic Palestine, which she rejected. “He is going to this business [that is, war] not out of joy or confidence, but as a person who is in a trap and can't get out,” Golda Meir later stated.
Even when the Jordanian army entered Palestine, the King’s goal was only to fight in the Arab part of partitioned Palestine “while trying to avoid war with the Yishuv and refraining from attacking the territory of the UN-defined Jewish state”, according to Morris.
The Egyptians, who had the largest Arab army in the 1948 war, weren’t much different. The Egyptian prime minister was hesitant to go to war, and British agents intervened to convince the Egyptian king to send troops to Palestine.
King Farouk’s main motives were to prevent the Jordanian king from claiming leadership of the Arab struggle and potentially capture southern Palestine for Egypt, according to the Israeli historian Efraim Karsh.
The Egyptian troops he sent into Palestine were relatively symbolic, and their first communiqué from Cairo described their mission as “merely a punitive expedition against the Zionist ‘gangs’” as later recounted by the Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Furthermore, the Lebanese army decided not to take part in the war at the very last minute because of Maronite objections after they reached a secret agreement with David Ben-Gurion who offered them financial bribes, according to the Israeli historian Yoav Gelber.
Syria was primarily interested in capturing northern Palestine, while Iraq’s leaders were eager to bring the Fertile Crescent region under its leadership, according to Karsh. Iraqi troops that crossed into the northern West Bank quickly became “stationary” in the triangle of Jenin, Tulkarem, and Nablus after they unsuccessfully tried to attack the Israeli settlement of Gesher. Karsh argued the Iraqis were “notorious for their idleness before the truce”.
The Palestinian population objected to partitioning their homeland and losing 56% of it to a Jewish minority, most of whom arrived as immigrants from abroad. Palestinians argued that the UN partition plan violated the principle of self-determination, and Arab leaders rhetorically echoed this call. But opposing partition didn’t mean opposing all Jewish presence in Palestine.
Dr Wallach told The New Arab that “the official Palestinian position (in 1946-7) was that recent migrants (about a third of the Jews) would have to leave Palestine”. He argues that, nonetheless, this opposition to recent Jewish migrants fed into an “existential” fear amongst Israelis.
However, Prof. Gelber asserts that the Arab regimes’ goal “was not and could not be ‘pushing Jews into the sea’,” and argues that their “propagandist slogans” and rhetoric were aimed at "mobilizing domestic support for lame politicians".
While Arabs wanting to “push Jews into the sea” has always been a questionable claim, in 1948 Palestinians were forced to evacuate by boats from Haifa after a Haganah (Zionist militia) officer ordered his troops to “kill any Arab you encounter; torch all inflammable objects, and force doors open with explosives”.
Further undermining Israel’s narrative is evidence of the limited number of troops the five Arab states sent into Palestine, which “evenly matched” the Israeli army at the start of the war. Israeli manpower grew further during the war until their numbers reached more than 90,000 combatants compared to only 68,000 Arab fighters.
Even had the Arab armies won the war, this wouldn’t have necessarily meant expelling the Jewish population.
In fact, the head of the Arab section in the Jewish Agency in 1948, Josh Palmon, reported that although Fawzi Qawuqji, the commander of the Arab Liberation Army, was interested in taking over large parts of Palestine, “he thought [Jews] could live very happily under him. And I'm sure some Jews would have done good business under him. [Some Jews] would be in key positions in his administration, in charge of finance, he would have allowed some to do well in trade. All, of course, under his rule”.
In terms of the ambitions of Jewish militias, however, there is strong evidence to support the opposite. Zionist leaders had intentions to forcefully depopulate large parts of Palestine of its inhabitants to create a Jewish state, even if there was no war.
As early as 1937, Ben-Gurion ordered the preparation of the ‘Avnir plan’ for the military conquest of all of Palestine in the event of British withdrawal. Palestinian historian Rashid Khalidi argues that this plan formed the blueprint for the creation of ‘Plan Dalet’ in March 1948, which aimed to expand the Jewish state’s borders beyond the UN Partition Plan and seize as much territory as possible and expel as many Palestinians as possible.
The premeditated aim of ethnically cleansing Palestinian villages was reflected in the words of the Haganah’s Chief of Operations, Yigal Allon, who said that "if it wasn’t for the Arab invasion there would have been no stop to [Israel's] expansion".
Even after Israel was founded, the Israeli military continued to invade and forcefully depopulate Palestinian villages for years.
For example, al-Majdal was depopulated in 1950 when Ben-Gurion ordered the Israeli army to put its inhabitants on trucks and deport them to Gaza.
Even the village of Huj, whose inhabitants once sheltered and protected Zionist Haganah militants from the British in 1946, was violently depopulated, looted, and destroyed by Israeli military two weeks after Israel’s founding.
The Israeli town of Sderot, which now overlooks the besieged Gaza Strip, was built in its place.
Muhammad Shehada is a Palestinian writer and analyst from Gaza and the EU Affairs Manager at Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor.
Follow him on Twitter: @muhammadshehad2