Ben-Gurion and (re)writing the history of the Nakba

Posted: May 17, 2013 by Rex Brynen in 1948
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Haaretz today has a long piece today by doctoral student Shay Hazkani (New York University) on early Israeli government efforts to obfuscate the forced displacement of Palestinians in 1948.

The Israeli censor’s observant eye had missed file number GL-18/17028 in the State Archives. Most files relating to the 1948 Palestinian exodus remain sealed in the Israeli archives, despite the fact that their period as classified files − according to Israeli law − expired long ago. Even files that were previously declassified are no longer available to researchers. In the past two decades, following the powerful reverberations triggered by the publication of books written by those dubbed the “New Historians,” the Israeli archives revoked access to much of the explosive material. Archived Israeli documents that reported the expulsion of Palestinians, massacres or rapes perpetrated by Israeli soldiers, along with other events considered embarrassing by the establishment, were reclassified as “top secret.” Researchers who sought to track down the files cited in books by Benny Morris, Avi Shlaim or Tom Segev often hit a dead end. Hence the surprise that file GL-18/17028, titled “The Flight in 1948” is still available today.

The documents in the file, which date from 1960 to 1964, describe the evolution of the Israeli version of the Palestinian Nakba ‏(“The Catastrophe”‏) of 1948. Under the leadership of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, top Middle East scholars in the Civil Service were assigned the task of providing evidence supporting Israel’s position − which was that, rather than being expelled in 1948, the Palestinians had fled of their own volition.

Ben-Gurion probably never heard the word “Nakba,” but early on, at the end of the 1950s, Israel’s first prime minister grasped the importance of the historical narrative. Just as Zionism had forged a new narrative for the Jewish people within a few decades, he understood that the other nation that had resided in the country before the advent of Zionism would also strive to formulate a narrative of its own. For the Palestinians, the national narrative grew to revolve around the Nakba, the calamity that befell them following Israel’s establishment in 1948, when about 700,000 Palestinians became refugees.

By the end of the 1950s, Ben-Gurion had reached the conclusion that the events of 1948 would be at the forefront of Israel’s diplomatic struggle, in particular the struggle against the Palestinian national movement. If the Palestinians had been expelled from their land, as they had maintained already in 1948, the international community would view their claim to return to their homeland as justified. However, Ben-Gurion believed, if it turned out that they had left “by choice,” having been persuaded by their leaders that it was best to depart temporarily and return after the Arab victory, the world community would be less supportive of their claim.

Most historians today − Zionists, post-Zionists and non-Zionists − agree that in at least 120 of 530 villages, the Palestinian inhabitants were expelled by Jewish military forces, and that in half the villages the inhabitants fled because of the battles and were not allowed to return. Only in a handful of cases did villagers leave at the instructions of their leaders or mukhtars ‏(headmen‏).

Ben-Gurion appeared to have known the facts well. Even though much material about the Palestinian refugees in Israeli archives is still classified, what has been uncovered provides enough information to establish that in many cases senior commanders of the Israel Defense Forces ordered Palestinians to be expelled and their homes blown up. The Israeli military not only updated Ben-Gurion about these events but also apparently received his prior authorization, in written or oral form, notably in Lod and Ramle, and in several villages in the north. Documents available for perusal on the Israeli side do not provide an unequivocal answer to the question of whether an orderly plan to expel Palestinians existed. In fact, fierce debate on the issue continues to this day. For example, in an interview with Haaretz the historian Benny Morris argued that Ben-Gurion delineated a plan to transfer the Palestinians forcibly out of Israel, though there is no documentation that proves this incontrovertibly.

Even before the war of 1948 ended, Israeli public diplomacy sought to hide the cases in which Palestinians were expelled from their villages…

Despite the title of the article, the piece doesn’t really provide clear evidence of what Ben-Gurion knew or believed when, and what the balance was between outright falsification and “spinning” a narrative that Israeli leaders themselves found comfortable to accept as truth. Still, it is an interesting piece of research based on archival sources, and well worth reading.

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