Opinion |

'Ethnic Cleansing' and pro-Arab Propaganda

Daniel Blatman’s indirect comparisons with the Germans’ crimes against the Jews and others don’t reflect a serious way of writing history.

Benny Morris
Benny Morris
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An Arab, armed with a sub-machine gun, stands guard at Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall on Feb. 23, 1948.
An Arab, armed with a sub-machine gun, stands guard at Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall on Feb. 23, 1948.Credit: AP
Benny Morris
Benny Morris

It’s a pity my critics Daniel Blatman and Ehud Ein-Gil don’t read things carefully, if they read at all; I’m referring to their Haaretz pieces claiming that Israel perpetrated ethnic cleansing. Had Blatman read my book “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949” – which was published in English in 1988 and in Hebrew in 1991, with an expanded English edition in 2004 – he would have seen that my opinions about the history of 1948 haven’t changed at all.

My conclusions about the emergence of the Palestinian refugee problem haven’t changed in those books, or in my book “1948,” which was published in English in 2008 and in Hebrew in 2010. Some Palestinians were expelled (from Lod and Ramle, for example), some were ordered or encouraged by their leaders to flee (from Haifa, for example) and most fled for fear of the hostilities and apparently in the belief that they would return to their homes after the expected Arab victory.

And indeed, beginning in June, the new Israeli government adopted a policy of preventing the return of refugees – those same Palestinians who fought the Yishuv, the prestate Jewish community, and tried to destroy it.

As for my change of opinion, it changed during the 1990s about only one thing – the Palestinians’ willingness to make peace with us. At the beginning of the decade, I thought maybe something had changed in the Palestinian national movement and they were willing to recognize reality and arrive at a compromise of two states for two peoples.

But in 2000, after Yasser Arafat’s “no” at Camp David (which was backed by his successor Mahmoud Abbas), and in light of the second intifada and the nature of that intifada, I realized they weren’t interested in peace. Unfortunately, the situation hasn’t changed since.

In 1947-1948 there was no a priori intention to expel the Arabs, and during the war there was no policy of expulsion. There are clearly Israel-hating “historians” like Ilan Pappe and Walid Khalidi, and perhaps also Daniel Blatman, going by what he has said, who see the Haganah’s Plan Dalet of March 10, 1948, as a master plan for expelling the Palestinians. It isn’t.

Had Blatman and Ein-Gil actually read the plan – which was made public back in the '70s – they would have seen it was intended to craft strategy and tactics for the Haganah to maintain its hold on strategic roads in what was to become the Jewish state. It also sought to secure the borders in the run-up to the expected Arab invasion following the departure of the British. Blatman’s contention that Plan Dalet “discussed the intention of expelling as many Arabs as possible from the territory of the future Jewish state” is a malicious falsification. These are the words of a pro-Arab propagandist, not of a historian.

Quoting the wrong sentences

The plan included general guidelines for the various brigades and battalions concerning conduct toward rural Arab villages and urban Arab neighborhoods. Regarding the villages, the plan explicitly states that the inhabitants of villages that fight the Jews should be expelled and the villages destroyed, while neutral or friendly villages should be left untouched (and have forces garrisoned there).

As for Arab neighborhoods in mixed cities, the Haganah field commanders ordered that the Arabs of the outlying neighborhoods be transferred to the Arab centers of those cities, like Haifa, not expelled from the country.

In other words, this wasn’t a plan to “expel the Arabs,” as Blatman and Ein-Gil claim about the document. Ein-Gil quotes from the document only thee sentences that touch on the option of expulsion – not the sentences that instruct the brigade and battalion commanders to leave Arab populations in place.

Incidentally, Ein-Gil’s description of the occupation of the village of Al-Qubab – with its empty houses after its inhabitants had simply run away – is not exactly a description of violent and cruel ethnic cleansing. And his musings on the question of what the Jews would have done had they found Arabs inside those houses don’t testify to ethnic cleansing in 1948.

Moreover, in the territory that was transferred to Israel after the armistice agreement between Israel and Jordan in 1948, the number of Palestinians who fell under Israeli control was about half the number Ein-Gil cites.

Meanwhile, if there had been a master plan and a policy of “expelling the Arabs,” we would have found indications of this in the various operational orders to the combat units, and in the reports to the command headquarters, like “We carried out the expulsion in accordance with the master plan” or “with Plan Dalet.” There are no such mentions.

In the tens of thousands of Haganah/Israel Defense Forces operational documents from the relevant months (April to June 1948), I found only one mention of an operation carried out in accordance with Plan Dalet. (It regarded a certain operation of the Alexandroni Brigade, to the best of my recollection, but I’m abroad at the moment and don’t have the document in front of me).

It’s well known that tens of thousands of Arabs remained in the territory of the Jewish state – in Haifa and Jaffa, in Jisr al-Zarqa and Fureidis, in Abu Ghosh and Ein Nakuba, in the Galilee and the Negev.

I did indeed say that in April-June 1948, both in the Haganah and in the Yishuv in general, there was an “atmosphere of transfer,” and this is understandable in light of the circumstances: constant attacks by Palestinian militias over four months and the expectation of an impending invasion by the Arab armies aimed at annihilating the Jewish state to be and perhaps the people as well.

Split responsibility

All this necessitated occupation and the expelling of villagers who ambushed, sniped at and killed Jews along the borders and the main roads. Circumstances did not allow a detailed examination of the deeds, intentions and opinions of each and every villager, though Blatman and Ein-Gil apparently believe that this is how warfare in built-up areas should have been conducted with the means at the Yishuv’s disposal in 1948. But as I wrote, the vast majority of Arabs fled, and the officers of the Haganah/IDF had no need to face the decision of whether to expel them.

It’s true that at the start of my career I “determined that Israel is responsible for the mass flight of the Palestinians in 1948,” as Blatman claims. I’ve always said the responsibility is split among the Yishuv/Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab countries – with enormous responsibility lying with the Palestinians who started the conflict.

I’m not an expert on ethnic cleansing around the world (I assume that few people see Blatman as such an expert), but I definitely understand something about the subject. In the case of the Serbs in Yugoslavia, Belgrade adopted a policy of ethnic cleansing from the outset and applied it systematically. At Srebrenica in 1993, over two days, they slaughtered 9,000 Muslims and in various places raped thousands of women in an organized way.

If those are the characteristics of ethnic cleansing, then ethnic cleansing was not carried out in Israel in either of the two stages of the war, which the Arabs started. And incidentally, on a topic about which I am indeed knowledgeable, Blatman is wrong.

It’s true that at the end of World War I tens of thousands of Armenians remained in Asia Minor (Blatman brings this up to imply a parallel between the Armenian genocide and the fleeing of the Arabs in 1948). But in the third phase of the Armenian genocide, from 1919 to 1924, nearly every victim was expelled and murdered. (This, no doubt, is news to Blatman “the expert.”)

Anyone who reads Blatman cannot help but notice that he implies a comparison between what Hitler did to the Jews and what the Jews did to the Arabs of the Land of Israel. He even hints – again, deviously – at a comparison between the acts of the Yishuv and the acts of the Germans in German South-West Africa (later Namibia) at the beginning of the 20th century, when they murdered tens of thousands of the indigenous Herero people.

These comparisons are immoral and reflect a propagandistic intention, as well as a nonserious way of writing history. Finally, Blatman defines me as “the darling of the settler right.” The man is insolent. I’ve always opposed the settlement project in Judea and Samaria and the Gaza Strip, and I still do.

Prof. Benny Morris, a historian, is the author of “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited.”

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