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It's Time to Stop Keeping Score: Both Sides Committed Massacres in 1948

Avi Shilon
Avi Shilon
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The 1948 Palestinian exodus, known in Arabic as the Nakba.
Credit: CPA Media Pte Ltd / Alamy Stock
Avi Shilon
Avi Shilon

Alon Schwarz’s film “Tantura” is sparking intense discussions on what happened in the village of Tantura during the War of Independence, joining a number of similar discussions as of late on episodes from 1948. For example, the matter of the massacre in the village of Deir Yassin came up again in the wake of the film "Born in Deir Yassin,” by Neta Shoshani, as well as the book “Deir Yassin- The End of a Myth,” by Eliezer Tauber. Historian Adam Raz added fuel to the fire when, in order to shift the discussion from university history departments to the public, he decided to release his findings on 1948 through the press rather than in academic journals.

It is no coincidence that historians and artists have been returning to ’48 lately. It derives in part from a greater openness about the war. On both sides of the political map, the Nakba is no longer a taboo subject that must be denied or played down. On the contrary: In recent years, there have been threats from the right of another “Nakba,” and as the Zionist left is weakening, it is making way for a left that was once considered radical. A left that wants to talk about ’48 and not ’67. (In that case, though, why not go all the way back to the 1917 Balfour Declaration?)

Meanwhile, discussions about the war tends to focus on one particular question: Was there a deliberate massacre of the Tantura captives, or something else, as Professor Yoav Gelber and others argue? Regarding Deir Yassin as well, the tendency is to examine whether almost 250 people, including women and children were murdered there as originally claimed, or whether the number killed was much lower, and mainly made up of men, and not a deliberate act, as Tauber claims. Striving to unearth details is part of the public interest and of the work of historians, and also requires us to ask how much oral testimonies, especially later ones, can be relied on in making determinations, as Raz does.

But the real problem in understanding 1948 is a different one. The fact is that massacres occurred in many of the battles, since that was the nature of the war. The first stage of the war, from November 29, 1947, until the declaration of the state’s founding, was civil war, as Benny Morris has described outstandingly in his books. A civil war is exactly what the name implies: civilians killing civilians, indiscriminately, from both sides.

The second stage, when Arab armies invaded, did not consist of armed battles between formal armies but rather attempts by combatants – many of whom had no military training – to kill as many as possible on the other side in order to conquer territory. Some of the incidents of expulsion of Palestinians also occurred because there was no orderly preparation to seize positions in hostile territory, and no camps were erected to hold captives (and also, obviously, due to demographic concerns, which from the beginning were at the core of the dispute.)

Of course, the value of examining specific events such as the murder of captives cannot be minimized. But in many ways, the current debate over what happened in ’48 is akin to trying to analyze football through the lens of soccer, and then being utterly shocked every time players pile up on top of each other.

The War of Independence should be understood as the boiling point in a process of “[pre-State] settlement colonialism,’ or as the fulfillment of Zionist national aspirations against the backdrop of Arab opposition. At this point, all of those involved committed massacres. Therefore, rather than keeping score, it is more important to understand the nature of the war and what lessons can be learned for the present.

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