Opinion |

Dear Benny Morris, Read Your Own Work on Israel and Ethnic Cleansing

The historian is admitting that the number of Arabs who remained in Israel in 1948 was not 160,000, as he first claimed, but less than 143,000.

Ehud Ein-Gil
Ehud Ein-Gil
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In this 1948 photo from the UNRWA archive, Palestinian refugees stand outside their tent in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip.
In this 1948 photo from the UNRWA archive, Palestinian refugees stand outside their tent in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip.Credit: AP
Ehud Ein-Gil
Ehud Ein-Gil

Attacking may be the best defense in soccer, but not when it comes to the search for historic truths.

Prof. Benny Morris wrote on these pages (on October 10), in his attempt to support his claim that “there was no ethnic cleansing” in 1948, that by the end of that year, “about 160,000 Arabs remained in Israeli territory.” The historian ignored the fact that after the 1949 Armistice Agreement with Jordan, 28 villages were transferred to Israel, along with their residents and refugees who had found asylum there. Thus, the number of Arabs who initially “remained” within Israel proper was actually smaller.

In response to his article, I wrote (in “Israel did do ethnic cleansing in 1948. My father’s words prove it,” Oct. 20) that Israel had to take in 35,000 residents and refugees. Instead of admitting his mistake and confirming that the number of Arabs who “remained in Israel” was less than 160,000, Morris decided to respond by attacking (“‘Ethnic cleansing’ and pro-Arab propaganda,” Oct. 23): “the number of Palestinians who fell under Israeli control was about half the number Ein-Gil cites” – namely, 17,500.

In other words, Ein-Gil is wrong, not Morris. However, behind this “correction” lies an admission of error. The historian is actually admitting that the number of Arabs who remained in Israel was not 160,000, as he first claimed, but less than 143,000, as he now states.

Let’s examine what Morris himself wrote in his book, “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem” (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989): “Abdullah and the British feared that the cession, which involved handing over 15-16 villages to Israeli rule, would precipitate a new wave of refugees, 12,000-15,000 strong.” This wasn’t an estimate of the number of people living in those villages, but an assumption about the number of residents and refugees who would choose not to be annexed to Israel, or who would be expelled. In the same paragraph Morris quotes the British consul-general in Jerusalem, who said that preparations must be made to absorb a further 20,000 refugees, who “will almost certainly be driven out on some pretext or other” from the territories handed over to Israel.

Indeed, the Israeli government considered this, and Morris quotes Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett saying that, “security interest[s] dictate to be rid of them.” Under American pressure Israel was forced to promise that no harm would befall these villagers. Morris summarizes: “Apparently it was felt that there was no ‘clean’ way to ‘persuade’ the Arabs to leave. The inhabitants of the main villages – Baka al-Garbiyeh, Taibeh, Qaqun, Kalansua, Kafr Qasem, Tira and the Wadi Ara villages – did not budge and were allowed to stay.” (Qaqun is wrongly listed here; the village was captured in early June 1948 and was included in the list of abandoned villages, which, according to Morris’ same book a “transfer committee” was preparing to demolish, after receiving approval from Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion on June 5, 1948).

Benny Morris.Credit: Yanai Yechiel

Israel had a problem getting rid of permanent Arab residents, but areas transferred to its jurisdiction included thousands of refugees from other villages. According to Morris’ book, “1,200-1,500 such refugees living in and around Baka al-Garbiyeh on the night of June 27 were ‘forcefully and brutally’ (in Sharett’s phrase) pushed across the border.”

The area contained thousands of other refugees, whose fate is not mentioned by Morris. It is mentioned, however, in “The Present Absentees,” a book in Hebrew by Hillel Cohen: “There were 4,000 refugees in the area when Israel entered it, wrote Immanuel Merkovsky, the first military governor in the ‘triangle’ [this strip of Arab villages and towns within Israel], in a letter to his commander Maj. Gen. Elimelech Avner, the head of the military administration of the Arab communities. IDF forces told representatives of these villages that they did not want any more refugees, so these representatives helped to quickly transfer these refugees over the border.”

“There are now no more refugees in the area, except for a few individuals with extra privileges or recommendations,” reported Merkovsky on June 30, 1949, five weeks after his troops entered the area. According to another estimate (by Maj. Goel Levitzky, of the military administration), 8,500 refugees were expelled from this area after it was transferred to Israel.

However, Morris did quote Sharett’s words from the end of July, 1949, regarding the residents of villages Jordan had transferred to Israel: “This time ... the Arabs learned the lesson; they are not running away ... [There were] at least 25,000-30,000 ... whom we could not uproot.”

Thus, after Israel managed to “uproot” 4,000 to 8,500 refugees, there were 25,000-30,000 Arabs who remained. Even if one accepts the lower estimate (25,000 remaining and 4,000 expelled), Israel received 29,000 Palestinians after the Armistice Agreement was signed; perhaps they even numbered as many as 38,500. Both these figures are closer to the number I mentioned, 35,000, than to Morris’ estimate (17,500), quoted when he corrected my “error.”

All that remains is to cite the description in his book of how another area was completely “ethnically cleansed”: “In a few villages which remained standing along the border with Jordan at the end of 1948 or early in 1949 there were still a few residents [U]ltimately these villages were emptied and wiped from the face of the earth. Some were resettled by Jews.”

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