General introduction

Page last updated 29 Oct 2015


The history of the Israeli Palestinian conflict and the Israeli “New Historians”

History is always contested but in no other conflict do the emotional stakes seem higher, nor the arguments between competing narratives to have gone on so long and been fought with such bitterness as is apparent in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

For a very long time, the dominant story in the West was a Zionist one, going something like this: After two thousand years of exile, and only three years after Hitler’s attempted genocide of the Jewish people had been defeated, the Jews had returned to their ancient homeland. As if by a miracle the Jewish David had stood up against the attempts of the Arab nations, cast as Goliath, to strangle the new-born state. In “a land without people for a people without land” they had set about “making the desert bloom”, rebuilding their ancient kingdom in a modern, egalitarian form. The new Israeli society, symbolised by the socialist kibbutz movement, was lionised in the West, accepted as a beacon of light in an otherwise dark and murky Middle-East.

There were dissenting voices but they were on the margins. Palestinians told a different story, of a forced uprooting from their lands, but most of this was “mere” oral history and was ignored. So too was the work of writers like Erskine Childers and Walid Khalidi, who were already presenting convincing evidence of the Palestinian story, five decades ago and more.

The key to understanding the long conflict between Zionism and the Palestinians can be found in the work of the Israeli “New Historians”, so-called because they were the first historians to work from Israeli government archives. Israel adopted the British 30-year rule for releasing classified material, so in 1978, 30 years after the formation of the state, the archives began to be opened. The Israeli historians who wanted to be objective went to work on them, and their first books came out in 1988. The group is generally considered to comprise five people: Simha Flapan, Benny Morris, Ilan Pappe, Tom Segev and Avi Shlaim.

Starting in 1988 and continuing as more archive material has become available, their books have revealed the major causes of the conflict. In so doing, they have generally confirmed the conclusions of Arab historians who worked from oral testimony, and conversely have disproved the assertions of the traditional “Zionist” historians whose work has been shown to contain a lot of nationalist myth-making.

The main issues revealed by the New Historians are:

* When the first Zionist settlement in Palestine started in 1888, roughly 96 percent of the population was Palestinian, the big majority being Muslim mostly living in sedentary agricultural communities, and the small minority being Christian living mostly in the major towns. The other 4 percent of the population was Jewish, called the “Old Yishuv” (Old Settlement), concentrated in the four “holy” towns of Jerusalem, Hebron, Safad and Tiberias.

* The dominant Zionist philosophy was to create a specifically Jewish state in Palestine, not to share the land, despite the population demography.

* There was sporadic and growing inter-communal violence almost from the first Zionist settlement, as the Zionists’ intentions became clear to the Palestinians.

* In the war that resulted from the United Nations Partition Plan of 1947, the Zionist forces expanded the 55 percent of Palestine allotted to them to 78 percent of Palestine. 700,000-750,000 Palestinians fled from that 78 percent, about half being expelled by the Zionist forces at gunpoint and the rest fleeing in fear. The forced exodus and the refusal to allow them to return changed a small Palestinian majority into a large Jewish majority, and thereby created Israel as a Jewish state in fact as well as in name. Zionists call the war the “War of Independence” and Palestinians call it the “Nakba” (the Catastrophe).

* The 1967 War was a war of choice on Israel’s part, not a justified pre-emptive war. The Israeli public, and Jews around the world, believed that Israel was in imminent danger of being attacked, but the Israeli political and military leadership knew better.

Some key books written by the New Historians

Simha Flapan
The Birth of Israel, Myths and Realities (1987)

Benny Morris
The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited (1988, rev. 2004)
Righteous Victims (1999)

Ilan Pappe
The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (2006)
The Making of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1947-1951

Avi Shlaim
Collusion Across the Jordan: King Abdullah, the Zionist Movement and the Partition of Palestine (1998)
The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World

Tom Segev
1949: The First Israelis (1984, English 1998)
1967, Israel, the War and the Year that Transformed the Middle East


This section ORIGINS OF AND BACKGROUND TO THE CONFLICT is broken into a number of sub-sections that often overlap and relevant materials will often be found under more than one of these sub-sections. They are:

a) General introduction
b) Timelines and maps

c) From earliest times to the present – introductions and overviews
d) The Palestinian refugees

e) From 1948 to 1967
f) Oslo and after
g) Gaza’s special history

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