Opinion

Yes, Benny Morris, Israel Did Perpetrate Ethnic Cleansing in 1948

The Israeli historian is right about one thing: The understandings that the Arabs should be expelled in 1948 were not carried out in full.

In this 1968 photo from the UN Relief and Works Agency archive, Palestinian refugees arrive in east Jordan in a continuing exodus from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
AP Photo/UNRWA Photo Archives

A good historian always examines his conclusions. If he comes to the conclusion that things he wrote previously require a reassessment, he is obligated to face that. But a historian who, at the start of his career, determined that Israel is responsible for the mass flight of the Palestinians in 1948 and later changed his views until he became the darling of the settler right, is a pathetic phenomenon. Benny Morris has followed that path.

He has betrayed two key duties of the historian: to be open-minded and recognize the extensive research literature that directly relates to his own areas of research; and not to distort his own previous conclusions due to current political insights. [Morris’ “Israel conducted no ethnic cleansing in 1948,” Haaretz, October 10, was in response to Daniel Blatman’s “Netanyahu, this Is what ethnic cleansing really looks like,” Haaretz, October 3.]

On March 10, 1948, the national Haganah headquarters approved Plan Dalet, which discussed the intention of expelling as many Arabs as possible from the territory of the future Jewish state. Morris wrote about it in his book “1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War” (2010). He stated that the plan aroused a historiographical dispute, with pro-Palestinian historians claiming it was a master plan for expelling the Arabs living in Israel. He claimed that a careful examination of the plan’s wording leads to a different conclusion.

Whose different conclusion? That of scholars who are experts on ethnic cleansing? Or legal experts who grappled with the problem? No, that of Morris, of course. He does not accept the definition of ethnic cleansing that was carried out by the Jews in 1948. Perhaps there was a “mini” ethnic cleansing in Lod and Ramle. Perhaps some marginal massacre (Deir Yassin), which caused the panicked flight of Palestinians.

The problem is that these are precisely the circumstances that lead to ethnic cleansing. Had Morris bothered to properly study the documents of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, he would understand why his statements would be considered absurd at any serious scientific conference.

The following was stated by the prosecutor in the trial of Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian-Serb leader who was convicted of responsibility for the ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Bosnia: “In ethnic cleansing ... you act in such a way that in a given territory, the members of a given ethnic group are eliminated. ... You have massacres. Everybody is not massacred, but you have massacres in order to scare those populations. ... Naturally, the other people are driven away. They are afraid ... and, of course, in the end these people simply want to leave. ... They are driven away either on their own initiative or they are deported. ... Some women are raped and, furthermore, often times what you have is the destruction of the monuments which marked the presence of a given population ... for instance, Catholic churches or mosques are destroyed.”

Exactly as in 1948: Implied instructions, silent understandings, sowing fear among the population whose flight is the objective; the destruction of the physical presence left behind. In his first book on the subject, “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949” (1989 in English), Morris wrote: “The attacks of the Haganah and the Israel Defense Forces, expulsion orders, the fear of attacks and acts of cruelty on the part of the Jews, the absence of assistance from the Arab world and the Arab Higher Committee, the sense of helplessness and abandonment, orders by Arab institutions and commanders to leave and evacuate, in most cases was the direct and decisive reason for the flight – an attack by the Haganah, Irgun, Lehi or the IDF, or the inhabitants’ fear of such an attack.”

About 15 years ago, however, Morris changed his mind. In his book “Correcting a Mistake: Jews and Arabs in Palestine/Israel, 1936-1956” (2000), he stated: “The majority of the abandonments [by the Palestinians] from most of the places, most of the time I attributed to attacks by Jewish forces. Sometimes a historian has to correct a mistake.” Hats off to a historian who admits an error. But Morris’ professional integrity is tested in light of what he told Ari Shavit (Haaretz, January 2004): “I don’t think that the expulsions of 1948 were war crimes. I think he [Ben-Gurion] made a serious historical mistake in 1948 he got cold feet during the war. In the end, he faltered. If he was already engaged in expulsion, maybe he should have done a complete job.”

At the same time, Morris argues that Ben-Gurion “never gave an order to expel the Arabs.” Indeed, no such written order has been found. And the reader will wonder: So there was an order to expel, or perhaps expulsion without an order? Or perhaps there was a mass expulsion, but it was incomplete so therefore it’s not ethnic cleansing? And does Morris regret the fact that no order was given to complete the ethnic cleansing? Morris is fortunate that he doesn’t engage in Holocaust research. He might have been capable of claiming that it wasn’t Hitler who ordered the “Final Solution,” since, as we know, no written order by him to murder European Jewry was ever found.

The expulsions were not war crimes, says Morris, because it was the Arabs who started the war. In other words, hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians who belong to the side that began the fighting have to be expelled. Maybe Morris would agree that the genocide carried out by the Germans against the Herero in 1904-1908 was justified since, after all, the Herero began the rebellion against German colonialism in Namibia.

Morris is right about one thing: The understandings that the Arabs should be expelled were not carried out in full. There were commanders who obeyed to the letter; there were others who didn’t. That’s exactly why some 160,000 Arabs remained inside the State of Israel in 1949. Just as tens of thousands of Armenians remained in Turkey after World War I, because there were government officials who didn’t carry out orders to the letter to expel or murder them. Fortunately, in 1948 there were IDF commanders who refrained from doing what they knew they could do without being held to account. If it weren’t for them, the war crime committed by Israel would have been even greater.

The writer is a historian.