It is important to note that the last time the question of Palestinian statehood took center stage at the General Assembly, the question posed to the international community was whether our homeland should be partitioned into two states. In November 1947, the General Assembly made its recommendation and answered in the affirmative. Shortly thereafter, Zionist forces expelled Palestinian Arabs to ensure a decisive Jewish majority in the future state of Israel, and Arab armies intervened. War and further expulsions ensued. Indeed, it was the descendants of these expelled Palestinians who were shot and wounded by Israeli forces on Sunday as they tried to symbolically exercise their right to return to their families’ homes.Now, what important historical facts does Abbas leave out?
1) The General Assembly, on November 29, 1947, voted to partition Palestine into two states, one Arab, one Jewish. That is correct. (To see a map of the partition plan compared with the armistice lines of 1949, see here). But what happened after that vote?
2) The Zionist leadership accepted the partition plan, despite their misgivings.
3) The Arabs did not accept the partition plan. Why does Abbas leave out this one extremely important fact? Does he imagine that because he left this fact out, his readers would also forget it?
4) The British, who held the mandate for Palestine, abstained on the partition resolution, and did nothing to help implement it.
5) Immediately afterwards, fighting broke in Palestine between the Haganah and local Arab militias (not yet Arab armies). The Zionists were more successful than the Arabs, and by the end of the mandate period, had succeeded in taking over a number of Jerusalem neighborhoods that had originally been Arab. (The Arabs, however, eventually held on to the entire Old City, forcing Jews to leave the Jewish quarter). When the British pulled out, armies from surrounding Arab countries invaded Palestine.
Gershom Gorenberg writes:
The conflagration began on November 30, 1947, the morning after the United Nations voted to partition British-ruled Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. A band of Arab fighters fired the first shots at a bus east of Tel Aviv, killing five Jews. The last military operation ended on March 10, 1949. In those fifteen months, Jewish forces defeated first the Arab irregulars of Palestine, then the invading armies of Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan. The new Jewish state’s borders, and its survival, were a product of victory. Yet in those same months, somewhere around 700,000 Palestinian Arabs became refugees....
By April 1948, Jewish Jerusalem and other communities were under siege by Arab irregulars, and the neighboring Arab countries were preparing to invade when British rule of Palestine ended in mid-May. Palestine’s Jewish community, the Yishuv, turned to offense. As Jewish forces advanced, [Benny] Morris wrote, Arab society disintegrated amid a “psychosis of flight,” a contagion of panic. However, “a small but significant proportion [of that flight] was due to direct expulsion orders.” The mix of panic and expulsion continued after Israel declared independence and began repelling the invasion. By June, Morris estimated, 200,000–300,000 Arabs had fled their homes.
In the war’s third stage, beginning that summer, there was “a growing readiness in [Israeli] units to expel” Arabs from towns and villages, even when General Staff orders discouraged such action, Morris said. One reason for the shift, he wrote, was that the unexpected exodus in previous months created hopes for a Jewish state that would have few Arabs. Another reason was a desire for vengeance against those seen as imposing a harsh war on the Jews.
Even more important, the new country’s government decided that those who left would not be allowed to return. That policy was the turning point. Combined with the increased expulsions, it transformed what happened in the chaos of a war into a lasting reality. Afterward, the two sides told such different stories of the war that they could have been describing separate planets....
Both sides committed atrocities. Morris estimates that in the course of the war, Jews murdered about eight hundred civilians and POWs. He found written evidence of about a dozen rapes by Jewish soldiers. Though he suspects that some cases were not reported, he says that relative to other wars, 1948 was marked by “an extremely low incidence of rape.” Arab forces also expelled or massacred Jews or prevented their return to places they had fled— but they could do so rarely, for the simple reason that the Arabs had few opportunities. They were losing on the battlefield. Nonetheless, Jordan’s Arab Legion emptied the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City; Arab fighters massacred about 150 Jewish defenders of the religious kibbutz Kfar ‘Etzion after they surrendered....
As Morris concentrates on the events leading to civil war, the pervading theme is that both Jews and Arabs lost control. In a “fatal twist,” the British cabinet decided not to help implement partition, and to keep the UN commission that had been assigned that task out of Palestine. The leaders of the weak Arab regimes feared popular fury if they did not stop partition, and they also feared each other’s designs. Both Egypt and Syria, for instance, suspected that Jordan wanted to annex all or part of Palestine. Within Palestine, Arabs and Jews shared feelings of dread. An Iraqi general, Ismail Sawfat, warned the Arab League that Arabs living in the territory destined for the Jewish state faced “destruction.” Jewish leaders thought they faced a second Holocaust.
The difference was that the Jews were organized and had a trained militia, the Haganah, that could be transformed into an army—and had nowhere to flee. The Arabs had village militias, and the option of flight. “Demoralization” set in among the Arabs, Morris writes. Yet by March 1948, the Jewish position was also desperate. The road to Jerusalem had been cut by local Arab forces; starvation loomed in Jewish areas of the city....
When the British withdrew, the Arab armies invaded. They had not agreed on a plan of attack. Arab leaders said they were protecting Palestinian Arabs, but they intended to exploit the cause for their own ends. They had no intention of creating a Palestinian state. Jordan wanted the West Bank; Egypt wanted to grab the southern half of the West Bank first.
The initial Jewish goal was not to be overrun. Once Israel gained the upper hand, it sought defensible borders, which meant gaining territory. At least some Israeli leaders, including Ben-Gurion, wanted to “reduce the number of Arabs.” The policy of not allowing refugees to return was partly defensive, to avoid a fifth column. But in a crucial cabinet meeting on the issue in June, Foreign Minister Moshe Shertok also described all “the lands and the houses” as “spoils of war,” and as compensation for what Jews had lost in a fight forced on them. He was not alone in seeing the exodus as an unplanned benefit of the battles. On the other hand, leaders of the socialist Mapam party objected to razing Arab villages, and said that once the fighting ended, the refugees should be allowed home. In a subsequent meeting in September, the cabinet rejected an immediate return and left the refugee question to be resolved when formal peace was achieved. In practical terms, this was a decision to make the exodus permanent. It was the critical moment when confusion, panic, and ad hoc choices gave way to a deliberate, fateful policy. For, as Morris writes, “peace never came, and the refugees never returned.”6) Israel declared itself a state on May 14, 1948, and the next day, the Arab armies invaded. Israel was immediately recognized both by the United States and the Soviet Union.
7) Over the course of the fighting, from November 1947 to May, 1949, Israel gained more land than it had been granted in the partition plan. For example, Jerusalem itself was partitioned by the fighting, with Israel keeping control of the Jewish neighborhoods in the western part of the city as well as taking control of some Arab neighborhoods, like Baka and Katamon, and some Arab villages, like Deir Yassin, where the Irgun and the Lehi committed a massacre on April 9, 1948. (Jerusalem was originally supposed to be a "corpus separatum," belonging to neither the Jewish nor the Arab state - see here for a map of Jerusalem according to the partition plan).
About 700,000 Palestinian Arabs became refugees - some fled the fighting to avoid being caught in a war zone, some fled because of Israeli atrocities like the massacre at Deir Yassin, and some were expelled by Israeli forces. For details, see Gorenberg's article excerpted above, and the three books he is reviewing in his article: 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War, by Benny Morris, Making Israel, edited by Benny Morris, and A History of Palestine: From the Ottoman Conquest to the Founding of the State of Israel, by Gudrun Krämer, translated from the German by Graham Harman and Gudrun Krämer.
8. Abbas presents the very complicated events of 1947 to 1949 as if they were only a tale of Palestinian victimhood. Notice how he erases any Palestinian agency. There is no mention of Palestinian Arab militias fighting against the Haganah. I find that surprising, since there are heroes of the fighting whom Palestinians still remember, such as Abd al-Qadir Husseini, who fell at the battle of the Castel on April 8, 1948. There is no mention of atrocities that Arabs committed against Jews (such as the massacre of a convoy of doctors and nurses to the Hadassah Hospital on Mt. Scopus on April 13, 1948, a revenge attack for the Deir Yassin massacre). I understand that no one wishes to point out the atrocities his own side committed, but for the sake of intellectual honesty one must acknowledge them, as I have tried to do here in this essay.
9. If Abbas is capable of blatant lying about the history of the conflict in an article that is being published in the New York Times, surely one of the most public and prestigious outlets one could hope to find, how can he be trusted in any way? I had hopes for Mahmoud Abbas, but after the agreement he came to with Hamas and after this highly deceptive essay, I don't see why anyone should pin their hopes for peace on him.
10. None of the above should be taken to absolve the current Israeli leadership, especially Prime Minister Netanyahu, for their dismal lack of effort in trying to make peace with the Palestinians, and for their active obstruction of any such effort. There's a reason why George Mitchell resigned from trying to mediate between the Israelis and the Palestinians - neither side really wants to talk peace.
11. Mahmoud Abbas' essay grade: F for disingenuous lying, and A for misleading rhetoric. I hope that none of my students have taken such liberties with historical truth as he has.
12. For another response, see Jeffrey Goldberg in his Atlantic blog: "Reciting this history is depressing, of course, because it means the two sides are still battling it out over what happened in 1948. A more constructive discussion would center on the aftermath of the 1967 war. Mahmoud Abbas won't be returning to Safed. But he could be president of an independent state of Palestine on the West Bank and Gaza with a capital in Jerusalem. If only he - and, of course, Prime Minister Netanyahu - could find a way to avoid rehearsing old grievances and instead work toward a future in which both parties don't get all that they want, but get enough to live."
13. Marc Tracy of Tablet Magazine has a good outline of why Abbas' account of the 1948 history is wrong, and why it's so dangerous - because it eviscerates the right of the state of Israel to exist.