Divided territory

The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited

Benny Morris <em>Cambridge University Press

Fifteen years ago, when their first major works appeared, the Israeli historians Benny Morris and Ilan Pappe might both have been described as Palestinian fellow-travellers. Morris's immensely detailed study of the 1948 Palestinian exodus, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, uncovered a widespread pattern of expulsions and occasional massacres - a process that the world would soon start calling ethnic cleansing. Still, Morris concluded that there had been no concerted Israeli blueprint for mass expulsion: "The Palestinian refugee problem was born of war, not by design." Ilan Pappe's taste was less for archival research than for broad historical overview, and for a relativist line of argument suggesting that our conceptions of historical "truth" depend very much on where we are looking from. The work of both authors, however, pushed towards the same conclusion - that many (though not all) of the Palestinians' grievances were justified.

Since those days, the two men's attitudes have diverged startlingly. Pappe has moved further to the left, becoming active in the Marxist Hadash party, advocating a binational Israeli-Palestinian state and describing himself as a "post-Zionist". Morris, by contrast, has swung dramatically to the right, suggesting in a series of articles and interviews that the main problem with the ethnic cleansing of 1948 was that it didn't go far enough. The Israeli crimes of this period, he now claims, were tragic and largely unavoidable by-products of a war that the Arabs had started. If the Arabs had won, they would undoubtedly have committed far worse atrocities. Morris invariably accompanies such pronouncements with sweepingly hostile generalisations about the Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims.

Given this, it might be reasonable to assume that one of these books would be impressive, the other strident and sloppy - and this is indeed the case. Except that it is Morris, with his deplorable views and monstrous arrogance, who has written the better work, while the more ethically sound Pappe has produced a sketchy and poorly written book.

A History of Modern Palestine promises much. In the first few pages, Pappe sets out a new approach to Palestinian history focusing on the underprivileged, the excluded and silenced: women, peasants and the poor. All of which sounds admirable - except that the book, far from being a history from below, is in fact a conventional "top-down" political narrative, especially when it gets to the more recent past. It is also cluttered with factual mistakes: the bibliography contains numerous misspelled names and inaccurate publishing details. As a result, it is hard to avoid suspecting that the whirlwind of political controversy in which Pappe has been engulfed in recent years has left him unable to concentrate properly on his writing.

Morris's reworked, expanded account of the 1948 expulsions is an altogether weightier affair. He adds a wealth of new detail, some of it appalling. The Israelis committed even more atrocities than he used to think - including many cases of rape. In the latter stages of the war, the killings became more systematic, and were covered up by senior officers and politicians from Prime Minister Ben-Gurion down. It appears that Ben-Gurion came much closer to planning and advocating systematic expulsion than Morris had previously imagined. The Israeli leadership understood that "transfer" was the guiding idea, and saw mass deportation as a legitimate solution to the "Arab problem".

Such findings, besides posing a profound challenge to Israel's self-image, and to the perceptions of other countries (not least America), make the amorality of Morris's personal views all the more abhorrent.

Stephen Howe is the author of Empire: a very short introduction (OUP)

Next Article