The birth of the Palestinian refugee problem revisited

reviewed by Philip C. Wilcox Jr, Middle East Policy Council (Cambridge University Press, 2004, 641 pps.) Philip Wilcox Jr. is President of the Foundation for Middle East Peace.

“Israeli historian Benny Morris is a peculiar case. A respected revisionist historian who was once a dovish liberal Zionist, he now feels betrayed by the Palestinians and has adopted the angry vocabulary of the far right. Morris’s books have earned him a leading reputation among Israel’s “new historians,” whose myth-breaking reexamination of Zionist history raised hopes that Israelis would take a more objective view of their past and come to terms more easily with their Palestinian neighbors. Morris’s 1988 book, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem,1947-1949, shattered the myth that the Palestinians left their  homes voluntarily in 1948 and proved that they fled or were expelled in the midst of war.”…

“But, apart from Morris’s views on the current scene, his books should be judged on their merits. His new The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisitedis an expanded and much more fully documented version of his 1986 workIt confirms his original conclusion that, for the most part, 700,000 – 750,000 Arabs fled or were expelled due to actions of Israeli forces in 1948. Drawing on recently declassified Israeli documents, Birth Revisited reinforces this conclusion with voluminous detail.”

“Morris’s account in Birth Revisited is doubtless the most complete and scholarly work of its kind about the 1948 exodus. But, as he acknowledges in his preface, it is not the last word. Morris admits his preference for working with documents and regrets that he had no access to closed Arab archives. Nevertheless, his account would have been richer and less dominated by the Israeli perspective if he had sought more interviews with Palestinian refugees and scholars.”

“As in the original Birth, Morris finds no evidence supporting the old Zionist version that the Palestinians left in 1948 because Arab leaders ordered them to do so, promising that they could return to their homes after the Jews were destroyed. In Birth Revisited Morris cites new evidence of requests from Arab leaders for Palestinian women and children to leave villages threatened by the war. But he does not claim this was a dominant factor in the overall exodus.”

“Birth Revisited also offers new evidence of brutality by Israeli forces against civilians. For example, he documents some two dozen massacres besides the well-known massacre at Deir Yassin outside of Jerusalem, news of which spread rapidly and helped accelerate the flight of the Arabs. There were also about a dozen cases of rape by Israeli troops. (Three Arab massacres of Jews during the war are mentioned in passing but are outside the scope of the book.)”…

“Benny Morris has done a great service by illuminating the tragedy of the Palestinians in 1948 and breaking old myths in a way that could reshape Israeli understanding of the Palestinian cause and support reconciliation and a decent compromise. Unfortunately, the intifada has reversed this process. It also seems, for the moment, to have unhinged Morris, who has put aside his scholarly detachment and succumbed to popular emotion and partisan demagoguery. In blaming the current impasse entirely on the Palestinians, Morris is in danger of becoming just another “righteous victim.” (read more)


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