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Exposing Israel's original sins

By Gideon Levy, Ha'aretz Book Review, 11/03/2000

"Correcting a Mistake - Jews and Arabs in Palestine/Israel, 1936-1956," by Benny Morris, Am Oved Publishers, 241 pages, NIS 64

Oh, we were so good (and did so many bad things). We were so right (and caused so many injustices). We were so beautiful (and our actions resulted in so much ugliness). And oh, we were so innocent and spread so many lies - lies and half-truths that we told ourselves and the rest of the world.We, who were born afterward, weren't told the whole truth; they only taught us the good parts, of which there were many. But, after all, there were also dark chapters which we heard nothing about. Instead, we were fed lies - there's just no other word for it.

They lied when they told us that the Arabs of Lod and Ramle "asked to leave their cities" (the head of the history department of the Israel Defense Forces). They lied when they told us that the murderous Kibiya operation was carried out by "enraged residents" (David Ben-Gurion). They lied when they told us that all the "infiltrators" were bloodthirsty terrorists, that all the Arab states wanted to destroy us and that we were the only ones who simply wanted peace all the time.

They lied; oh, how they lied. We didn't hear a thing about the horrific massacre in Safsaf; and not a syllable was uttered about the deportation plans.

The Arabs were always the bad guys. We were the absolute righteous, or the exclusive victims - or so we were told. Perhaps they didn't want to spoil it for us; perhaps they didn't want to ruin it for themselves. The huge celebration of a nation without a country that came to a country without a nation, settled it, caused its barren wilderness to blossom and established a glorious state - with exemplary, impeccable morality - should have been complete. As large, true and deserving as it may be, however, this celebration cannot be complete without recounting its entire history.

Historical mud-slinging

The time for telling the whole truth is well upon us. Over the past 12 years or so - and much to the distress of the "old" historians, whose enterprises are developing cracks - a number of "new" historians have taken up the challenge.

The rage with which the old historians are responding to the new historical enterprise is, perhaps, the entire story: If they had questioned their truths, which are beginning to crumble before their denying, repressive eyes, it is doubtful whether they would be so angry. After all, if they are so sure of themselves, why are they reacting so vociferously and making such a fuss? History, as the saying goes, will be the judge ... won't it?

As the doubts begin to surface, with Yitzhak Rabin, the banisher of the Arabs of Lod and Ramle, admitting his deeds even before the historian who tried to ignore and cover them up did, it is easy to understand the mud-slinging campaign that the old historians are waging against their new colleagues. With nowhere else to turn, this is their last resort. With no other sanctuary available, patriotism, as per usual, becomes the safe harbor.

Benny Morris certainly has a large stake in the new historical enterprise, even if it would have been better if he had let others determine that, "The turning point ... came in 1988, heralded, inter alia, in the first article in this compilation" (page 12). Morris' two earlier books - "Israel's Border Wars, 1949-1956: Arab Infiltration, Israeli Retaliation and the Countdown to the Suez War" (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1993), and "The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1948" (Cambridge Middle East Library, 1987) - are foundations for an understanding of the roots of the Israeli-Arab conflict.

If you want to understand the Palestinian uprising in the territories, go to these two books. If you want to understand why a settlement is impossible without a solution to the refugee problem, go to Morris. All the early-warning signs appear in his works. They show how our relationship with the Arabs began. Everything that followed, up until this very day, is anchored in their - and particularly our - original sins, which Morris and his colleagues have exposed.

Don't get me wrong. Among his colleagues, the new historians, Morris is certainly the least political and most Zionistic. His name doesn't appear on the protest petitions of the extreme left, and he defines himself as a Zionist, without reservations. He is more concerned with his historical findings than he is with their political and moral implications. Sometimes, his findings appear to cause him a certain discomfort, but you won't catch him voicing unequivocal moral assessments of his revelations, as chilling as they may be, particularly not to anyone who didn't know an Avraham (or Ibrahim) of those days.

He hasn't written ideological articles either. As assiduous a researcher, and as hard-working an in-the-field reporter (Morris began his professional life as a journalist) as he was, he presents the story and leaves us to draw most of the conclusions.

Morris' conclusions, one can safely assume, are a lot more forgiving than one would expect, and in this, lies his strength: Despite the claims leveled against the new historians, Morris does not home in on a target before embarking on his research. Neither does he hesitate to present findings that contradict or weaken his basic theories. For Morris, the experience determines the consciousness, and not vice-versa. A small ideologist and a significant historian - that's Morris in a nutshell.

His new book, "Correcting a Mistake," is a collection of articles that come together to form a gripping, infuriating collage of injustices committed between 1936-1956 by the Jewish community of Palestine, and thereafter, the state, against the native Palestinians.

No contrition

This time, in contrast to his other books, Morris doesn't focus on one particular issue. Contrary to the connotations stemming from the name of the book, this is not an expression of contrition. Morris doesn't present new findings to sweeten the previous bitter pills he asked us to swallow. Quite the opposite: Regrettably, the opening of the archives, which had been closed for some 50 years, and the exposure of new material has shed more light on the picture, which Morris had painted, in shadow, and which now, stirs up more fury than he first imagined.

"The Deportations of the Hiram Operation: Correcting a Mistake" is the title of the article from which the collection takes its name. "Sometimes a historian must correct a mistake," Morris writes, and the reader is riveted. Perhaps it never happened? Perhaps there were no deportations or massacres? Perhaps Morris was wrong and everything was done by the book?

Not a chance! Over a decade after the publication of "The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1948," Morris reveals that he did, indeed, make a mistake, but errors and omissions accepted. He believed Major General (res.) Moshe Carmel and other sources, who told him that no deportation orders were issued during the course of Operation Hiram, to be the dirtiest there was.

And now, the IDF archives have been opened and there we find a cable dated October 31, 1948, signed by Major General Carmel and addressed to all the division and district commanders under his command: "Do all you can to immediately and quickly purge the conquered territories of all hostile elements in accordance with the orders issued. The residents should be helped to leave the areas that have been conquered."

Perhaps this was the right thing to do; perhaps there was no alternative. But why lie all these years? Why didn't they say: "Righteousness encountered righteousness; a victim encountered a victim; and this was the inevitable result. We had to deport them. It was either them or us." It's a lot more convincing than lying about it. The only thing is, Carmel's deportation order isn't the whole truth which Morris reveals in "Correcting a Mistake."

Apparently, Carmel's troops carried out massacres in no less than 10 (!) villages in the north of the country. They would gather the men of these villages in the square, choose a few of them, sometimes dozens, stand them up against a wall and shoot them. Because the IDF has kept the relevant document under wraps, we know nothing about these massacres. We can only hope that this nonsense, this outrageous practice of keeping things confidential, passes from the world and that 52 years on, we will eventually learn everything - where we went wrong and the evil things we did.

Blood-chilling testimonies

In any event, Morris presents a number of blood-chilling testimonies, first hand, about the massacres carried out during Operation Hiram, the numbers of which are different to and far more serious than any other operation. No, he doesn't say that Carmel ordered the massacres; who knows, perhaps there's another confidential document that does, and Morris will have to correct another mistake. But, he deduces - based on the large number of incidents in this particular operation, their similar nature, and the fact that no one was punished in their wake - that the commanders understood Carmel's orders to be a stamp of approval for acts of murder that would make the residents of the villages flee.

Up until a short while ago, one could have run into the pleasant-mannered Carmel, who served as a government minister on behalf of the now-defunct Achdut Ha'avoda and Ma'arach parties, sitting in the Beit Ariella municipal library in Tel Aviv, seven days a week, and browsing through the newspapers like one of the pensioners. He was also among the very good people who did a number of very bad things.

Terrible things were done after the War of Independence, too; for example, in the town of Majdal in 1950. At that stage, Israel was already quite sure of itself - big, but not big enough, as far as it was concerned.

Some 10,000 Palestinians lived in Majdal before the war and, in October 1948, thousands more refugees from nearby villages joined them. Majdal fell in November and most of its residents and refugees fled wherever they could, leaving some 3,000 inhabitants, mostly women and the elderly. Orders in Hebrew and Yiddish were posted in the streets of the town, warning the soldiers to be aware of "undesirable" behavior on the part of the town's residents. "As was customary in such instances," the Israeli intelligence officer wrote, "the behavior of the population was obsequious and adulatory."

Majdal was too close to Gaza for Israel's liking. In December 1948, IDF soldiers "swept through" the town and deported some 500 of its remaining inhabitants. In 1949, Yigal Allon demanded "to transfer all the Arab inhabitants." Ben- Gurion objected. An inter-ministerial committee for the "transfer of Arabs from place to place" - yes, we had one of those as well - decided to thin out the population somewhat; another ministerial committee - "on abandoned property" - decided to settle Majdal with Jews.

From committee to committee, Majdal was "Judaized," until, with 2,500 Jewish residents, it became known as Migdal-Ad.

In December 1949, more Arabs were deported so as to vacate a few more houses - "abandoned property" - for a few more discharged soldiers. The IDF made the life of those Arab who remained a misery, hoping they'd get the message. The new commanding officer of the Southern Command, Moshe Dayan, rekindled the ideas of his predecessor, Yigal Allon.

"I hope that perhaps in the coming years, there will be another opportunity to transfer these Arabs [170,000 Israeli Arabs - G.L.] out of the Land of Israel," he said at a meeting of the Mapai faction, outlining its ideas while in uniform. Dayan backed up his words with actions: He submitted a detailed proposal for "the evacuation of the Arab inhabitants of the town of Majdal." The chief of staff agreed and Ben-Gurion authorized the plan. The government was circumvented, the Histadrut labor federation objected, and Rabin informed the residents.

The transfer began at the beginning of 1950, although the "official operation" took off in June. There were still those who spoke of dispersing the Arabs around the country; in the end, they were deported to Gaza. They were loaded onto trucks and dropped off at the border - "deliveries," as they were termed. Just to remind you again, the state already existed. The last delivery of 229 people left for Gaza on October 21; the Egyptians didn't bat an eyelid.

Back in Israel, the officials pondered over how to distribute the "abandoned" houses, most of which went to individuals who had some political clout. In 1956, Migdal-Ad changed its name to Ashkelon. To this very day, the former residents of Majdal live in the shacks and shanties of the refugee camps in Gaza.

How many Israelis know this story? How many have heard it before? How many have ever thought of the refugees on whose destroyed homes the city of Ashkelon was founded?

'Tearful assassin'

But the most enlightening and probably most significant document presented in the book is the journal of concerned-citizen Yosef Nachmani, perhaps the original tearful assassin, certainly not the last.

For 40 years, Nachmani spearheaded the Zionist enterprise in the Land of Israel - a high-ranking member of the pre-independence underground, Haganah; the director of the offices of the Jewish National Fund in Tiberias; and the man responsible for purchasing and settling land throughout the Galilee and Jezreel Valley regions.

Nachmani's beliefs underwent numerous upheavals all through his life: At first, he supported the transfer; then, he sobered up. At first, he was in favor of adopting a harsh approach; then, his conscience started eating away at him. At first, he dispossessed; then, he denounced. At first, he fired; then, he cried.

But above all, he was a fascinating observer. At least one particular portion of his journal requires repeating here: " ... the acts of cruelty committed by our soldiers. After they went into Safsaf, the village and its people raised a white flag. They separated the men from the women, tied the hands of some 50 to 60 peasants and shot and killed them, burying them in a single hole. They also raped a number of the women from the village. Alongside the wood, he [probably an eye-witness by the name of Freedman - G.L.] saw a few dead women, among them one who was holding her dead child in her arms ...

"In Salha, which raised a white flag, they carried out a real massacre, killing men and women, about 60 to 70 people. Where did they find such a degree of cruelty like that of the Nazis? They learned from them."

Bosnia? Kosovo? Chechniya? Rwanda? No, not at all; right here, and not that long ago.

Morris, as calculated as ever, concludes: "The fundamental change in the thoughts and actions of Nachmani between 1947-1949 leaves the observer with a sense of paradox and admiration and gives him a key to understanding Zionism and its success. Zionism has always had two faces: a constructive, moral, compromising and considerate aspect; and a destructive, selfish, militant, chauvinistic-racist one. Both are sincere and real ... The simultaneous existence of these two facets was one of the most significant keys to the success of Zionism" - shooting and weeping.

But, there were also incidents in which they shot - oh, and how they shot - and didn't weep at all. And lied. This is the picture that emerges from the chapter about the Israeli press at the time of the Kibiya affair, which expresses the dark side of the then already five-year-old state: no longer a community struggling to establish a country, but an orderly, victorious state, thought of as a democracy, with David Ben-Gurion, who lies, poker-faced, and its press, which brazenly conceals scandalous information from its readers and even lies knowingly - all for the glory of the State of Israel.

"First of all, the facts," as Morris writes. On the night of October 12-13, 1953, a group of infiltrators crossed the border into Israel, reached Yehud and threw a grenade into the home of the Kanias family. The mother and her two young children were killed. Retribution was two days in coming: Soldiers from the IDF commando unit (Unit 101) raided Kibiya, going from house to house, throwing in grenades and shooting indiscriminately. The result: 60 dead, most of them women and children.

The Israeli leaders did not make mention of most of these facts to the public, but worse still - a thousands times worse - neither did the Israeli press. The Mapai newspaper, Ha'dor, tried, at first, not to refrain from reporting a thing about the massacre; the other newspapers offered partial and even blatantly false versions of the story.

Morris, on the article in Ma'ariv by the legendary Azriel Carlibach: "There is hardly one sentence among Carlibach's words that does not defile, distort or twist the truth, either explicitly or implicitly; whereas the words of Radio Ramallah, as quoted in the Hebrew press, were almost all the simple truth."

Most of the press - aside from Kol Ha'am, and later Ha'aretz and Al Hamishmar, all of which expressed reservations - reported that the Kibiya killers weren't IDF conscripts, but rather outraged residents that went out to seek vengeance. Unit 101 or outraged residents? The press and then prime minister David Ben-Gurion knew, Morris writes, that this was a propaganda-like lie.

I read this chapter twice - once, before the outbreak of the "Al-Aqsa Intifada"; and then again, a short while thereafter. After my first reading, I was incensed by the Israeli press of old - a collaborator and distorter - and I took pride in the long way it has come since then.

After my second reading, and in the wake of the way in which the new Intifada has been covered by sections of the Israeli media, I was faced with the following question: Have we really changed, or perhaps, in testing times, does the Israeli press return to its bad old place of being the state's trumpet, just as it was in Kibiya, just as Morris describes? Then, the press inflamed passions by giving prominence to the Israeli victims (relatively few) and playing down the Arab ones (tenfold more), greatly enhancing the Israelis' sense of being the victim, the exclusive sufferers.

So, is there anything new under the sun?

The things that Morris writes about the Kibiya press hold true, in part, for the press of the past few days: "As a whole, the press approached the Kibiya operation as an enlisted press, justifying, no matter what, government policy and the actions of the IDF ... The feeling was that if the entire world was denouncing [Israel], then the press here must unite, to beautify and repel the criticism."

Some things never change.

Isn't it best for us to know about all these things? Isn't it important for us to know about all these things, particularly now, in such difficult times? That's where it all started. That's how it all began

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