The Historiography of the 1948 Wars

1 November, 2008
Picaudou Nadine

The historiography of the 1948 events in Palestine remains a work in progress and a true battlefield, for in this case, writing history is one of the issues at stake in the conflict itself – to the point that claiming to review the facts only, dissociated from their interpretation, appears to be a huge challenge. “War of independence” to some and “catastrophe” (nakba) to others, these events are seen through the lens of foundational heroism to the former, and through that of the obliteration of an entire world to the latter. These conflicting narratives ceaselessly question the periodization and the qualification of the events that took place between November 29, 1947 – when United Nations resolution 181 proposed the partition of Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab – and January 1949, when the last ceasefire put an end to combat between the young state of Israel, born on May 14, 1948, and its Arab neighbors. Nonetheless, one must attempt to put forward a minimal framework of events in order to appreciate the issues at stake in their historiographical interpretation. To this end, one must first distinguish the Judeo-Palestinian inter-community conflict, which intensified after the partition plan was put forward, from the Israeli-Arab struggle that began after the Egyptian, Syrian, Transjordanian, Iraqi and Lebanese armies entered Palestine on May 15.

UN resolution 181 recommended the splitting of Palestinian territory, hitherto under the British Mandate, between a Jewish state, to be established upon 54% of its territory and an Arab state, to be created from the remaining 46%. Though there were no more than 10,000 Jews on the lands intended for the Arab state, only 55% of the population was Jewish within the boundaries of the future Jewish state. Jerusalem was to be a corpus separatum, an enclave under international trusteeship. The conflict between Jewish and Palestinian communities gradually intensified from December 1947, until a broad Zionist offensive – begun on April 4, 1948 in the framework of the Dalet Plan – etched out the irreversible reality of partition on the ground. A few days before the British Mandate officially expired and the state of Israel was unilaterally proclaimed, the UN map for partition was worth no more than a scrap of paper, and the exodus of Palestine’s civilian populations was taking the proportions of a mass uprooting of people, before the Arab armies had even entered this territory. They crossed its borders on May 15, joining the few thousand combatants of the Palestinian militias, the first of which were ‘Abd el-Qadir al-Husseini’s Jaysh Al-Jihad al-Muqaddas and the Arab Liberation Army (Jaysh al-Inqadh al-‘Arabi), a corps of Arab volunteers who had started arriving from Syria in January 1948 under the command of Fawzi al-Qawuqji. The Arab armies launched an offensive that lasted until the first ceasefire on June 11. When the fighting resumed on July 9, the Israeli army initiated a race against the Arab forces in order to prevent the implementation of the plan Bernadotte (the UN mediator) had prepared, proposing to entrust central Palestine, Jerusalem and the Negev to Transjordan, and to limit Jewish immigration. Great Britain managed to impose a second truce between July 19 and September 18; Israel violated it by seizing Galilee and the Negev desert before accepting the ceasefire. By the end of the 1947-1949 wars, some 750,000 to 800,000 Palestinians had fled their homes, out of a total Arab population estimated at 900,000 to 1 million before the exodus (Abu Lughod, 1971: 139-164). 65% of them stayed within the Palestinian borders (39% of them settled in the West Bank and 26% in Gaza); 14% sought refuge in Lebanon, 10% in Syria and 10% in Transjordan.

From the Arab and Palestinian point of view, the catastrophe paradigm has constantly fueled collective memory, as much as it has historiography. This does not necessarily mean, however, that we can concur with Abraham Sela’s diagnosis when he wrote, “Arab historiography of 1948 essentially consists of non-scientific literature, based more on collective memory than on critical historiography” (Sela, 1991: 125). Indeed, this observation lumps Palestinian and Arab historiography together in a questionable manner, and furthermore, it is based on a radical dichotomy between memory and history – the opposition of which modern historians now consider limited.

The plurality of issues in Arab historiography

The first Arab response to the 1948 defeat was not precisely historiographical. The very notion of nakba was a critical construction by the ideologues of Arab nationalism, to whom the defeat of Palestine was just a reflection, a sign of a broader Arab disaster, on the moral as much as on the material level. In fact, it was not so much the event itself that was qualified as nakba, but rather its meaning, as suggested by the title of the first book to impose this term, as early as 1948: Ma‘na al-nakba [The Meaning of the Catastrophe], by the Syrian philosopher and historian Constantin Zurayq. At the time, the point was not to write history so much as it was to learn from it the lessons necessary to reestablish Arab societies’ capacity for evolution. In this intellectual construction, Palestine was but the instrument of the ordeal inflicted upon Middle Eastern societies, an indicator revealing the historical crisis that was upon them.

Beyond this immediate philosophical and ideological response from a fraction of the Arab nationalist intelligentsia, there is no unified Arab narrative able to account for the 1948 defeat and respond to the Israeli national account. Arab historiographical production obeyed different national dynamics in different countries on the one hand, and imperative requirements of political legitimacy on the other. In states that had just emerged from colonial tutelage, the shock wave of the defeat of Palestine radically discredited the parliamentary and liberal regimes inherited from the mandate or protectorate systems, and opened the door to praetorian regimes. This major upheaval of the region’s political features weighed heavily upon the writing of history. This was done by protagonists of the event, publishing their memoirs one after the other, more than by professional historians. Military men most often attributed the responsibility for defeat to a betrayal by politicians and to internal divisions on the regional Arab scene.

Thus, in Iraq, the former chief of staff of the army, Salih Sa‘ib al-Jubury (Jubury, 1970) stigmatized the Egyptian government for prevaricating, denounced the Transjordanian Arab Legion’s refusal to help the Iraqis, rejected the accusations of passivity against his own troops, lamented the acute lack of weapons and ammunition, and charged politicians with abandoning the cause. Syrian historiography was characterized by the dread of Amman’s ambitions concerning Palestine and the entire Fertile Crescent. Damascus actually pushed Egypt into joining the war in order to prevent Transjordan from taking control of the territory attributed to the Arab state in the partition plan. In Egypt, the theme of politicians’ betrayal was pervasive. Thus, General Ibrahim Shakib (Shakib, 1986) unearthed the fake victory communiqués announcing the Egyptian vanguard’s advance all the way to the suburbs of Tel Aviv. On the whole, Egyptian historiography produced two recurrent arguments to explain the defeat: the corruption of King Farouk and his entourage – who were accused of having bought obsolete weapons – and the acceptance of the June 11 truce. This second point was considered a major political mistake that broke the Arab offensive and allowed the Israeli army to rearm with Soviet weapons, in violation of the international embargo. This type of interpretation was put forward in the context of an effort by the new military authorities – the Free Officers, who claimed to be regenerating the country and its political system – to delegitimize the former civilian regime.

The particularity of Transjordanian historiography was that it had to respond to the accusation that the Hashemite monarchy had entered into a secret agreement with Zionist leaders and Great Britain to divide Palestine between them. As a matter of fact, Amman annexed the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 1950. The first person to reveal this “collusion” across the Jordan – which Avi Shlaim confirmed a few decades later, based on Israeli documents (Shlaim, 1988) – was ‘Abdallah al-Tall (Tall, 1959), the former military governor of Jerusalem, who had resigned in 1949 and gone over to Nasserist Egypt. Al-Tall was later sentenced to death in absentia for his alleged responsibility in the assassination of King ‘Abdallah in 1951. But his was an isolated voice of dissidence in the field of Jordanian historiography, in which one was generally preoccupied with clearing the Hashemite regime of any suspicion of having betrayed the Arab cause, an accusation put forward by nationalist historiography. Thus, in his memoirs, the British Glubb Pasha (Sir John Bagot), the commander-in-chief of the Arab Legion (Glubb Pasha, 1957), endeavored to exonerate his army of various accusations leveled against it. This army had allegedly ignored the Iraqi and Egyptian calls for help, as well as those of the civilian populations of Lydda and Ramleh in July 1948. Similarly, the memoirs of Hazza al-Majali, a member of King ‘Abdallah’s entourage, present accepting the partition of Palestine as a tactical instrument used to implement a pragmatic policy, while concealing the contacts that had occurred between Zionists and Hashemites. However, Transjordanian historiography was not limited to the witness testimony of protagonists acting in response to purely political issues. As of the end of the 1970s, professional historians such as Salama Musa enjoyed partial access to national archives, and took advantage of the opening of British archives in 1978 to produce scientific works qualifying this analysis, without questioning the core of the official account, however (Musa, 1982). Thus, Salama Musa admitted there had been contact with the Zionists without directly implicating the Amir, and pleaded the limitations of Transjordan’s military forces and the constraints of the British alliance, in order to justify the Legion’s incapacity to respond to calls for help and to put the alleged political error of having accepted the first truce, into perspective. Nonetheless, beyond the variety of national contexts, the absence of a real public policy concerning archives, as well as the constraints upon freedom in the academic field, constituted structural obstacles to writing the history of 1948. This confirmed the sensitive character of any historiographical enterprise in political communities that had not been fully stabilized.

A reactive Palestinian historiography

For the Palestinians, different issues were involved. In their case, it is difficult to distinguish historiography from a memorial narrative rooted in dispossession and denial. Indeed, the Palestinians were confronted with a threefold denial. On one level, they faced denial of their existence, and they long remained invisible. Studying the first 19th-century photographs of the Holy Land (Sanbar, 2004), Elias Sanbar noted the Palestinians were already out of focus, either naturalized as if they were part of a genre painting, or represented as the living remains of antique characters, situated in a field whose meaning was defined by the text of the Old Testament. The 1948 exodus was also denied, made invisible by the near-absence of images of it, in spite of the presence of many foreign journalists and observers, just as though the image of the Palestinians driven away from their land had been covered up and erased by that of the Jews returning – those Jews “who recount a historic tragedy with the dimensions of an apocalypse,” in the words of Edward Said (Said 2001: 6). Palestinian remembrance of the exodus also fluctuates between the difficulty of representing the event oneself, and the exemplarity of one’s experience. 1948 was both an inaugural event and a blind spot of the narrative, which defines a “before” and “after” the tragedy; the exodus is normatively charged, a charge commensurate with the injustice suffered. In addition to the denial of their existence and the dematerialization of the exodus, the third level of denial is the erasing of the Arab past of Palestine and the “Judification” of its toponymy, which are the core of the young Israeli State’s symbolic appropriation of the territory.

First, Palestinians opposed this loss with an inventory-type literature, halfway between traditional chronicles and academic history. The monumental work of ‘Aref al-‘Aref (Aref, 1956-1960) gives a village-by-village account of the tragedies of war and exodus. The ten-volume opus of Mustafa Murad Dabbagh (Dabbagh, 1965-1976) is a genuine encyclopedia of the lost country, and the history of the manuscript itself – thrown overboard ship by a sailor from Jaffa in the debacle of abrupt flight, then patiently reconstituted in exile – constitutes a genuine metaphor of the Palestinians’ shared fate. However, it was the Zionist argument according to which the Palestinians had departed voluntarily which first elicited the Palestinian production of reactive historiography, exclusively centered on the haunting issue of the civilian exodus, its causes and its terms. Ten years after the event, Walid Khalidi was one of the first Palestinian historians to reject the theory according to which the Palestinians had departed voluntarily, in response to alleged calls by Palestinian and Arab leaders (Khalidi, 1959a). There is no trace of any such calls in the communiqués of the Arab Higher Committee (the instance representative of the Palestinian national movement), nor in those of the Arab League, or of the military command of the Arab armies or the Liberation Army. There was no reference to them either in the conclusions of the parliamentary investigation committee appointed by Nouri Said in Iraq, published in September 1949. Jewish and Arab radio recordings kept in the BBC archives in London do not mention them either, as the Irish diplomat and journalist Erskine Childers confirmed through his own research at the same period (Childers, 1961). On the contrary, Walid Khalidi’s work unearthed many calls for the Palestinians to stay and to resist. Just before the British administration departed, communiqués from the Arab Higher Committee or the National Committees of the main Palestinian towns were broadcast in April and May 1948, urging civil servants, police officers and religious personnel to continue carrying out their duties. The Arab Liberation army called for resistance and made threats against deserters. In Beirut, the Central Committee for Refugees asked the Lebanese authorities to refuse to issue residence permits to all men old enough to fight in Palestine. This research also revealed testimonials of the psychological warfare systematically waged by the Jewish, then Israeli, armed forces. In February, the Haganah radio reported cases of smallpox being introduced into Jaffa by Syrian or Iraqi volunteers. In April, the day before Haifa was taken, loudspeakers endlessly reminded people of the Deir Yassin massacre – carried out by Irgun dissidents on April 9 in the Jerusalem suburbs – and warned civilians against the savagery of “infiltrated” combatants, particularly the Iraqis, advising them to make sure women and children took shelter. On May 16, leaflets were dropped on Galilee from the air, inciting those who did not want “this cruel and merciless war” to leave. During the following months, defeatist information and reprisal threats combined to break the civilian population’s morale. All of these elements incited Walid Khalidi to reflect on where the Zionist tale of the Palestinians’ having left due to calls from their leaders, originated from. It may have been constructed in 1949, when Israeli leaders realized how damageable the refugee problem was for the young state’s image, and sought to attribute responsibility for it to the Palestinian and Arab leaders alone.

But the first Palestinian historiography did not just debunk Zionist theories about the exodus; it also offered a new periodization of events. Walid Khalidi was one of those who contributed to establish an idea that is now consensual: that there were two wars in Palestine. The first opposed Jews and Palestinians between December 1947 and mid-May 1948, and the second, which was a conventional war, took place between the Arab armies and Israel. We also owe Khalidi the emphasis upon the decisive role of the Dalet Plan (Khalidi, 1961), interpreted as a broad Zionist offensive intended to create a fait accompli on the ground before the end of the British Mandate. At this time, the United States seemed to be reconsidering the choice of partition, and contemplating temporary international trusteeship over the whole of Palestine. The Israelis engaged in a race to force their American ally’s hand and impose the immediate creation of the Jewish state, a race that required the crushing of Palestinian resistance and a mass exodus of civilians. Their rejection of the political proposals put forward by Arab leaders in March and April – creating a federal state or dividing the territory into cantons – seems to support this hypothesis. Much later, Elias Sanbar (Sanbar, 1984) took up Walid Khalidi’s historiographical contributions and developed them. Among these ideas were the necessity of breaking with the conflation of the two 1948 wars, as well as of considering the Dalet plan both as a tool for expelling populations and as an enterprise to rectify the 1947 borders. Admittedly, this first phase of Palestinian historiography long remained relatively inaudible, and incapable of responding systematically to the official Zionist account. Demystification of the historical conditions of Israel’s birth came from inside this state.

Ambivalent reactions to Israeli historiographical revision

Since the end of the 1980s, the little group of Israeli “New Historians” has undertaken to revisit the official historiography of the state’s foundation and of the glorious war of independence. The opening of Israeli State archives in 1978 – as well as those of the British Public Record Office – allowed it, and the national political context was an added incentive. After the traumatic experience of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and the first Intifada in 1988-1993, the debate that had been opened in a post-Zionist framework about the future of Israel as a Jewish state led to challenging the nation’s foundational myths.

The first to record them was Simha Flapan (Flapan, 1987): the Palestinians’ voluntary departure and the Arab states’ determination to destroy the state of Israel – which was forced into war even though it yearned for peace – were their main premises. Reinvestigating the issue of the exodus, Benny Morris (Morris, 1988) confirmed the absence of any Arab calls for the Palestinians to leave, and admitted a certain amount of Israeli responsibility. In fact, he identified four distinct phases in the exodus. From December 1947 to March 1948, he found no signs of an expulsion strategy. From April to June, the Dalet plan was intended, he wrote, to take control of the country so as to counter the risk of an Arab invasion, and did not constitute an expulsion plan; at the most, it gave local commanders a free hand to clear vital areas. However, from July onward and during the last two phases, Benny Morris recognized an expulsion tendency among the military units in the field, and recorded some atrocities committed against civilians. Nonetheless, he persisted in conceiving the exodus as a by-product of war and of the fears generated by the latter, in a context of structural weakness of Palestinian society.

Other historians analyzed the confrontation between Israel and the Arab coalition. Ilan Pappe opposed the idea that the young state had been born of its “miraculous” victory in the war (Pappe, 1988; Pappe 1992). Instead, he emphasized the key role of international diplomacy in the creation of Israel and the responsibility of Great Britain, which was anxious to prevent the creation of a Palestinian state that could only be the State of mufti Amin al-Husseini. As for Avi Shlaim (Shlaim, 1986), he concentrated on demonstrating that the Arab world’s will to destroy Israel had not been unanimous and focused on how Transjordan had proved the weakest link of the alleged Arab encirclement, bringing documentary evidence of the secret division of Palestine between the Hashemites and the Zionists, with Britain’s blessing. He depicted hesitant Arab states, conscious of their lack of preparation on the military level, and concerned with avoiding a confrontation with the British, as Egypt and Iraq were renegotiating their treaties with London at the time. In the end, they intervened to prevent Transjordan from appropriating Palestine as much as to fight the state of Israel, as if the first and foremost issue was regional inter-Arab equilibria. Eugen Rogan and Avi Shlaim (Rogan, 2001) undertook the collective rewriting of the 1948 wars and debunked the myth of an Israeli David facing an Arab Goliath, showing how the first truce increased the disparity between these two forces yet a little more in favor of Israel. Finally, the reexamination of Israeli history extended to the decisive years that followed the 1948 conflict, the years of the failure of peace with the Arab world. Avi Shlaim (Shlaim, 2000) put forward a broad interpretation attributing the responsibility for this failure to the intransigence of the Jewish state, which was not prepared to pay the price of peace, and soon became a country in favor of the status quo.

Palestinian reactions to these Israeli historiographical revisions were mixed. Some authors, such as Edward Said, Elias Sanbar and Saleh ‘Abd el-Jawad, welcomed this trend as a positive step in the deconstruction of the Israeli national narrative. Conversely, others saw in it a risk of consolidation of the foundations of this account and reinforcement of its legitimacy, after the discarding of its most outrageous myths; among these were Clovis Maksoud and Sharif Kanaana. Finally, others still, such as ‘Abd el-Qader Yassin or Fuad Mughrabi, proved relatively indifferent to what they regarded as an internal Israeli problem likely to ease the Israeli conscience, using the Palestinians as a mere pretext at best. However, the recent renewal of the Palestinian historiography of 1948 cannot be dissociated from these reexaminations of Israeli history. The exodus has remained at the core of the issues at stake, through its causes, its periodization or its conditions. Palestinian historians refuse to see it as a mere by-product of war and seek more structural explanations; they tend to consider it as the implementation of an ideological project that was an integral part of Zionism, thanks to the opportunity provided by the war.

Thus, working from Zionist archives, Nur Masalha (Masalha, 1992) carried out painstaking textual criticism of these sources, demonstrating that the transfer ideology was central to the strategic thought of Zionist movements as a solution to the “Arab question” that, far from being suppressed, had been posed right from the origin of Zionism. All Zionist trends had considered an organized evacuation of the indigenous population, he claimed. Only its feasibility and the practical details of its implementation varied from one trend of thought to another and according to circumstances. Similarly, the destination of this transfer differed: the future Palestinian state for the most moderate thinkers, or the neighboring Arab countries for the others. Nur Masalha took pains to establish how far back the idea of transfer dated: it was present in the foundational texts of the 1880s. He also focused on examining how it was related to other elements of the Zionist ideological view, such as the tendency to consider the Arabs of Palestine as a community rather than as a distinct people, Jewish exclusivism and separate development policies. He studied its evolution until the 1937 turning point, when the Peel plan to divide Palestine explicitly recognized the necessity of planning for a population exchange between the Jewish and the Arab state for the first time, drawing on the 1923 precedent between Turkey and Greece. Apparently, this idea came from a Ben Gurion/Rutenberg memorandum transmitted to Great Britain by the Jewish Agency in May 1937, establishing a necessary correlation between partition and transfer. Though the issue lost its significance when the Peel plan failed, it re-emerged in 1948; the concept of transfer underlay the dynamics of the Dalet plan, according to Nur Masalha. In a second volume (Masalha, 1997), he extended his analysis beyond 1948 to include the struggle against returning “infiltrators,” the expulsion of Bedouins from the Negev until the mid-1950s, as well as the issue of “refugees of the interior” (displaced persons) who were forbidden to return to their villages of origin. This was the case for Iqrit, Kfar Bir’im and Ghabsiyya, three Maronite villages near the Lebanese border as well as ‘Ayn Hud, on the outskirts of Haifa. By depicting the expulsion of Palestinians as a both logical and inevitable product of the Zionist project, Nur Masalha opposed Benny Morris, who had recognized that a Zionist consensus on the idea of transfer existed as of 1937 and may have opened the door to exodus, but refused to consider any causal link between ideological thought about transfer and action taken in the field during the war. On the one hand, Masalha stood for ideological intentionality, as though history could be conceived simply as the unfolding of an idea, beyond the impact of events and circumstantial dynamics; on the other, Morris privileged circumstantialist explanations and fact-based positivism, regardless of the global intelligibility of events. We probably should not construct such a radical dichotomy between these two approaches. Indeed, the risk of de-historicization exists just as much in contextual explanations, which contribute to the dilution of protagonists’ historical responsibility by invoking the long list of the war’s woes.

Palestinian reactions to Israeli historiographical revisions also took another form. To counter the sacralization of archives and the discourse of proof, which disqualify the validity of testimony a priori for the writing of history, Palestinian historians privileged the use of oral sources. Deprived of their history by “Israeli archive positivists” (Pappe, 2006a: 196) and faced with the destruction of their written heritage, they privileged the use of witness testimony in order to recover control of their own narrative. The loss of al-Jihad al-Muqaddas’ archives, in three steps, is a telling example of this phenomenon: one part of them was confiscated by the Transjordanian army in May 1948, another burned in East Jerusalem in 1967 by Faysal Husseini for fear of Israeli reprisals, and the rest was taken away by the Israeli army in 2001 when the Orient House was closed. It is no secret that to historians, the use of witness testimony is not risk-free. The illusion of being able to access reality through the voice of a direct witness to an event contributes to sacralizing testimony by occulting the fact that it is constructed after the event, and more so still, by obscuring the fact that no witness can testify outside of the testimonial position he/she is placed in. The injunction to witnesses to provide evidence of what they claim also presents the risk of becoming a weapon of denial. For the value of testimony comes from the credit accorded to the witness, who is always liable to be accused of partiality, or even fabrication. This risk was apparent during the Teddy Katz affair in Israel in 2000, after academic research was carried out in Haifa on the exodus of villagers from the South of Mount Carmel in 1948. In one of the villages concerned, Tantoura, over 200 people allegedly died at the hand of the Haganah’s Alexandroni Brigade on May 22-23. The particularity of this research was that it was based on witness testimony, both from surviving Arab villagers and from former soldiers from the brigade accused of these acts. Confronted with the virulent public debate provoked in Israel by the “Tantoura affair,” which was apt to turn into an indictment of the army and implicate state responsibility in the forced exodus of the Palestinians, the author retracted his statements. In an apology broadcast extensively by the media, he declared that he had not intended to recount a “so-called massacre” (Pappe, 2004).

In the field of Palestinian historiography, the pioneers of oral history worked with refugees of the diaspora, particularly in Lebanon, from the end of the 1970s. Nafez Nazzal (Nazzal, 1978) was the first to draw upon the testimony of survivors to write the history of the exodus from Galilee. Rosemary Sayyigh (Sayyigh, 1979) undertook to collect refugees’ memories at a time when the national movement, having reorganized in exile, was taking up the nakba paradigm again. But this time, it was to construct it as the beginning of Palestinian history, from which a redemption of the national community – embodied by the thawra or revolution – could unfold. From this point on, the refugees’ collective memory, deeply influenced by the national narrative, rearticulated the temporality of events around the following structure: the lost paradise of the past – the suspended present of exile – the awaited future of liberation and return.

However, it was during the 1980s and 1990s that oral history served the enterprise of making an exhaustive inventory of the towns and villages destroyed in 1948 and the conditions in which their populations were expelled, this time from witness testimony essentially gathered in the West Bank camps. The most ambitious of these projects was carried out by the Palestinian university of Bir Zeit, upon an initiative from the geographer Kamal ‘Abd el-Fattah – who had produced a first cartography of the destroyed villages as early as 1983 – and the anthropologist Sharif Kanaana – whose anthropological, rather than historical, ambition was to publish memorial monographs. Research was interrupted by the 1988-1993 closure of the university during the first Intifada, but it resumed afterward under the leadership of historian Saleh ‘Abd el-Jawad, not so much in view of analyzing representations of the exodus, as of collecting information so as to establish the facts. To this day, the project has produced twenty-seven monographs of villagers, published in Arabic by Bir Zeit University. In 1995, without any institutional support this time, the same historian launched a new project to collect the testimony of survivors; it was aptly called “A Race against Time.” At the same period, parallel research was carried out in the Palestinian diaspora and published in English, upon Walid Khalidi’s initiative (Khalidi, 1992). An instrument of re-appropriation of oneself in the face of the power of Israeli historiography, the oral history of 1948 also claimed to produce a grassroots version of the national narrative by giving the voiceless a voice.

Understanding the nakba

The most recent developments in Palestinian historiography have tended to broaden the spectrum of research on the 1948 wars. Thus, Saleh ‘Abd el-Jawad (‘Abd el-Jawad, 2006) has attempted to produce a finer periodization of these confrontations, proposing to rethink how they began. In fact, in a conflict more than in other types of occurrences, the issue of its origin affects the meaning of the event. In this case, the conventional view imposed by Israeli historiography fixed the beginning of Judeo-Palestinian clashes at November 30, 1947, thus attributing responsibility for them to the Palestinian and Arab refusal of the partition plan adopted the day before by the Assembly-General of the United Nations. Yet in spite of the strike initiated by the Arab Higher Committee, available sources note that Judeo-Arab relations remained relatively calm at the time, in contrast to the strong tensions between the British and the Zionists, which were generating internal divisions within the Zionist movement. The many non-aggression pacts passed between Palestinian towns or villages on one hand, and the Haganah or Jewish settlements on the other, prompt us not to interpret community relations purely in terms of the conflict framework. The first incidents were isolated acts, even though they did provoke reprisals liable to set off cycles of revenge. Saleh ‘Abd el-Jawad set the point of no-return, beyond which the skirmishes could be qualified as an inter-community confrontation, at December 11-13, 1948. The increasing number of case studies carried out also enables us to treat the issue of the conditions of exodus in greater detail, for it is on the local scale that we may claim to consider the full complexity of an event. Far from the conventional image of the sudden collapse of an entire society, which feeds into the Zionist theme of the exodus as a “miracle,” an unhoped-for solution to the “Arab question,” this research discloses the more complex image of successive waves of departures. Thus, at Safad, the work of Mustafa Abassi (Abassi, 2004), based on Israeli military archives as well as on documents from the Arab Liberation Army (ALA), and on memoirs and testimony from survivors, allowed him to define three waves of departures. The first began after the retreat of the British garrison on April 16 and internal disputes within the local ALA detachment; the second started after the May 2 massacre in the neighboring village of ‘Ayn Zaytoun, which had devastating psychological effects. The third began in the days that followed, during the Haganah bombings that emptied the town by way of the only road deliberately left open. Furthermore, the Palestinians mostly became displaced persons before becoming refugees, and only by considering this fact can one comprehend the full scope of the exodus.

One of the most recent issues addressed by Palestinian historiography, which entered the field of historians’ concerns relatively late, is linked to the role of massacres in the 1948 exodus. The case of Deir Yassin long remained as symbolic as it was isolated, as if it sufficed to summarize the tragedy of Palestinian victims. It had been revealed both by Israeli military witnesses’ testimony – such as that of the former Haganah intelligence chief for Jerusalem – and by Jacques de Régnier, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Palestine (Régnier, 1950), and had served as a key instrument in the Israeli army’s psychological warfare. As long as the 1948 events were marshaled by a collective memory conflated with Palestinian nationalist mobilization, one exemplary event sufficed to express the tragedy. But when the Palestinians began to write their history, the issue of massacres inevitably became one of the relevant factors in accounting for the mass exodus. Saleh ‘Abd el-Jawad (Saleh ‘Abd el-Jawad, 2007) carried out the most detailed study to date on this issue, inventorying nearly 70 cases of massacre. Eschewing the debate on Israeli intentions, he sought to remain in the field of empirical demonstration, though he did interpret a significant number of massacres as instruments of terror, which contributed to empty the land of its Arab inhabitants. After focusing on the definition of a massacre as the murder of civilians or prisoner combatants, perpetrated without military necessity by the agents of a state or a quasi-state, he lists different occurrences of this phenomenon, before and after May 15, 1948 (‘Abd el-Jawad, 2007: 104-124). He puts forward a precise typology of massacres, including reprisal raids after an attack on a Jewish settlement – without the victims’ responsibility in the attack having been established – such as at Khassas on December 18, 1947, as well as selective murders of fighting-age men listed as activists or chosen at random – like at Majd al-Kurum on November 5. ‘Abd el-Jawad also includes summary executions of prisoners, such as those carried out at ‘Ayn Zaytoun on May 2, in view of preparing the occupation of Safad, and indiscriminate murders of entire families like those committed at al-Dawayima, near Hebron on October 29, 1948 (a June 14, 1949 UN report placed the number of dead at 455, including 170 women and children, and listed many cases of atrocities). Civilians were also bombed from the air, at Beisan in mid-May for example, and populations were forcibly expelled, including from Lydda and Ramleh between July 11 and 13. At Lydda, after the collapse of organized resistance around the mosque of the city center, houses were evacuated one by one and columns of refugees were bombarded by the air force. In the neighboring town of Ramleh, even though the terrified notables had signed a non-aggression pact with the Israeli army, some 50,000 people were forced onto the roads without food or water at the height of the summer. To Saleh ‘Abd el-Jawad, just as to Nur Masalha, the recognition of the reality of ethnic cleansing in Palestine in 1948 now stands as a precondition to reconciliation between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. Thus, historiographical revision and political recognition are closely tied to each other. In fact, authentic reconciliation between the two peoples cannot take place if the origins of the conflict are ignored. This was plain to see when the Camp David II summit ran aground over the impossibility of a common reading of the Palestinian exodus of 1948.

Israeli historian Ilan Pappe shares this position; though they are rather unique in the field, his most recent works (Pappe, 2006) have marked a threshold in historiographical revision in Israel, at a time when the revival of Israeli-Palestinian violence is feeding into academic controversy to the point of splitting the historians’ community in Israel. To the scientific and political imperative of understanding the mechanisms of ethnic cleansing, Ilan Pappe adds the moral necessity – to himself as an Israeli citizen – of fighting any denial of crimes against humanity. In this sense, he goes further than Palestinian historians by proposing to replace the paradigm of war on the Israeli side and catastrophe on the Palestinian side, by ethnic cleansing, in order to account for the entire picture of events that occurred in Palestine between 1947 and 1949. Borrowing Drazen Petrovic’s definition of ethnic cleansing (Petrovic, 1994), Ilan Pappe presents the Dalet Plan – which emanated directly from Ben Gurion and the “heroic figures of the Israeli pantheon” – as the very embodiment of this strategy. He does so by demonstrating that it did not only contain general political directives, but also particular military orders to be carried out at once, without waiting for the end of the British Mandate. Furthermore, these orders specified detailed methods to be used, giving lists of villages and urban areas to be occupied and emptied in each of the twelve zones entrusted to the twelve brigades of the Haganah. Information files gradually built up during the 1940s carefully mapped out the Palestinian villages, their topography, economic resources and demographic composition; after the last update in 1947, they included lists of suspect persons, which later constituted key documents for expulsion or massacre policies. Ilan Pappe followed chronological logic and the phases of cleansing, beginning with the opening of the Tel Aviv – Jerusalem corridor, the “urbicide” in Galilee (Tiberias, Safad and Haifa), and the clearing of the coast. Then followed the escalation between June and September 1948 – marked by the expulsion of the inhabitants of Lydda and Ramleh, and the taking of Nazareth, where evacuation orders were finally canceled by Ben Gurion, who was concerned about the reaction of the Catholic world – and the final step from October 1948 to January 1949, which included the cleansing of northern Galilee and of the Negev. The ethnic cleansing policies comprised all acts intended to prevent refugees from returning, especially the destruction of villages emptied of their populations, replaced by Jewish settlements or “natural” pine forests, as well as the legal appropriation of the abandoned lands. This took place in a two-step process: holding the “absentees’ lands,” then selling them selectively to the sole benefit of Jewish citizens.

When Benny Morris reviewed the issue of the exodus from Galilee based on new military documents about Operation Hiram (October 28-31) (Morris, 2001), he introduced significant nuances into his earlier work. This issue was all the more important that he had initially used the case of Galilee in order to refute the idea that an expulsion strategy had existed. If it had existed, he had written, Galilee would have been the first area concerned, as it was conquered at the end of the war, when the army had the upper hand on all fronts; but in fact, the exodus had only affected half this area’s population. Morris later modified this statement based on new sources, recognizing that expulsion orders had been given for Galilee, and that around ten confirmed massacres and a dozen reported cases of rape had occurred there (Morris, 2001: 54 sq), even though his interpretations are quite restricted in view of the facts that have come to light.

Laila Parsons’ research (Parsons, 2001) shed light on the issue of the exodus from Galilee from a particular perspective, as she underlined the explicit policies of non-expulsion of the Druze. This was the case for Al-Rama, where the Christians left but the Druze were invited to stay, which Benny Morris fails to mention (Parsons, 2001: 65), as well as for Yanuh, a remarkable case of a village where the Druze resisted the Israeli army, disregarding a previous agreement with the latter – but they were not driven away, in spite of having reneged on their commitment (Parsons, 2001: 65). In Laila Parsons’ view, this differential treatment of communities bears witness to a certain degree of intentionality in the expulsion of the Arab populations of Palestine.

Though the Palestinian historiography of 1948 has gradually broadened its field of investigation, it has kept to the nakba paradigm, which reduces the Palestinians to the status of passive victims of Israeli policies, as the limited attention accorded by researchers to the 1947-48 battles, and to resistance by the Palestinians and Arab volunteers, illustrates. Thus, the Deir Yassin massacre eclipsed the battle of Deir Yassin. This was presumably a consequence of the type of sources that were used, and a side effect of the promotion of massacres to the status of objects of historical research in the study of contemporary conflicts. However, there were some noteworthy exceptions. Early on, Walid Khalidi, who was studying the case of Haifa (Khalidi, 1959b), made a detailed analysis of the forms of resistance implemented by the city’s National Committee, which took charge of supervising the civilian population and organizing local defense, though it lacked military experience. He also published an English translation of all the communiqués broadcast by the National Committee of Haifa, among other Palestinian documents from the 1948 war (Khalidi, 1998). More recently, Mustafa ‘Abassi (‘Abassi, 2004) re-examined the exemplary case of Safad, a town included within the borders of the Jewish state but which had a mostly Arab population; it had greatly contributed to fueling the myth of the Jewish David facing an Arab Goliath in Israeli historiography, and fed into the Jewish dread of destruction. ‘Abassi analyzed the forms of Arab resistance there and its limitations, as it was paralyzed by divisions in the city’s National Committee, internal disputes within the Arab Liberation Army, and the acute lack of ammunition four days before the town was taken by the Haganah.

There remains one other central issue that has not been explored satisfactorily to this day: the role of the British during the first phase of the war. In Haifa, evidence of collusion between local British commander Major-General Stockwell and the Haganah was conclusive: the British retreat ahead of schedule was first announced to the Zionist units who were able to take control of strategic locations on the hills overlooking the Arab neighborhoods, and subsequently to the Arab notables (Khalidi, 1959b). Elsewhere, in Jaffa or Safad for example, the British rather seemed to act as mediators; in any case, they proved incapable of safeguarding the civilian populations until their retreat.

Therefore, many issues remain to be examined before one can claim to put forward a global understanding of the 1948 events in Palestine. However, we cannot conclude this review of Arab and Palestinian historiography without observing that Palestinian historians have also endeavored to situate the 1948 defeat in a long-term historical framework, and to search for the underlying historical causes of this failure that was political before it was military. As early as 1984, Elias Sanbar (Sanbar, 1984) suggested replacing the question, “Why did the Palestinians leave in 1948?” with another: “Why the Palestinians lose the war?” – a war he considered had been lost as of 1939, when the 1936-39 revolt, called “war of independence,” failed and the first national movement was suppressed. Other historians analyzed the structural weakness of Palestinian society under the British Mandate, its level of institutional development that was much lower than that of the Jewish community (al-Hout, 1981), the factionalism of its elites (Khalaf, 1981), or missed political opportunities (Khalidi, 2001). But strictly speaking, this type of study is broader in scope than the historiography of 1948.

Selective bibliography

Arab Historiography

GEORGES, F. A., 2001, “Egypt and the 1948 War: internal conflict and regional ambition,” in ROGAN, E.I. and SHLAÏM, A., The War for Palestine. Rewriting the History of 1948, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.151-177.

GLUBB PACHA, 1957, A Soldier with the Arabs, London: Hodder & Stoughton.

JUBURY al -, S.S., 1970, Mihnat filastin wa asraruha al-siyasyya wa’l-‘askariyya, [The Palestinian Ordeal and its Political and Military Secrets], Beirut.

LANDIS, J. 2001, “Syria and the Palestine War: fighting King Abdallah’s Greater Syria Plan,” in ROGAN, E.I. and SHLAÏM, A., The War for Palestine. Rewriting the History of 1948, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp. 178-205.

MAJALI al-, H., 1960, Mudhakkirati, [My Memoirs], Amman.

MUSA, S.1982, (2nd ed. 1997), Ayyam la tunsa, al-urdun fi harb 1948, [Unforgettable Days, Jordan in the 1948 War], Amman, n.p.

ROGAN, E.I. 2001, “Jordan and 1948: the Persistence of an Official History,” in ROGAN, E.I. and SHLAÏM, A (eds.), The War for Palestine. Rewriting the History of 1948, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.104-124.

SHAKIB, I.1986, Harbu filastin 1948 : ru’ya misriyya [The 1948 Palestine War: An Egyptian Point of View], Cairo.

TALL al-, A. 1959, Karithat filastin, [The Disaster of Palestine], Cairo.

TRIPP, C. 2001, “Irak and the 1948 War: mirror of Iraq’s disorder,” in ROGAN, E.I. and SHLAÏM A., The War for Palestine. Rewriting the History of 1948, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, pp. 125-150.

ZURAYQ, C. 1948, Ma’anat al-nakba [The Meaning of the catastrophe], Beirut, Dar al’ilm lil malayin.

Palestinian Historiography

ABASSI, M. M., 2004, “The Battle for Safad in the war of 1948. A Revised Study,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, 36: 21-47.

ABDEL JAWAD, S., 2003, « Le Témoignage des Palestiniens entre l’historiographie israélienne et l’historiographie arabe : le cas de 1948 » in COQUIO, C. L’Histoire trouée. Négation et témoignage, Nantes: L’Atalante, pp.627-639.

ABDEL JAWAD, S., 2006 “The Arab and Palestinian Narratives of the 1948 War,” in ROTBERG, R.I., The Intertwined Narratives of Israel-Palestine: History’s Double Helix, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, pp.72-113.

ABDEL JAWAD, S., 2007, “Zionist Massacres: the Creation of the Palestinian Refugee Problem in the 1948 War,” in BENVENISTI, E., GANS, C. and HANAFI, S., Israel and the Palestinian Refugees, Berlin, Heidelberg, New York: Springer, pp. 59-127.

ABU LUGHOD, J. (ed.), 1971, The Transformation of Palestine, Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

AREF al-AREF, 1956-1960, Al-Nakba wa’l firdaws al-mafqud [The Catastrophe and the Lost Paradise], 1947-1952, Beirut: Maktaba al-‘Asriyya, 6 vol.

CHILDERS, E., 1961, The Spectator, 6933, London.

DABBAGH, M. M., 1965-1976, Biladuna Filastin [Our Country, Palestine], Beirut, 10 vol.

HOUT al- B., 1981, al-Qiyadat wa’l-Mu’assasat al-filastiniyya, 1918-1948 [Palestinian Leaders and Institutions, 1918-1948], Beirut: Institute of Palestine Studies.

HINDI, al-H., 1973, “Jaish al-Inqadh” [The Liberation Army], Shu’un Filastiniyya, [Palestinian Affairs], Part 1, 23: 27-58; Part 2, 24: 115-132.

KHALAF, I., 1991, Politics in Palestine: Arab Factionalism and Social Disintegration, 1939-1948, New York: Albany.

KHALIDI, R., 1997, Palestinian Identity: the Construction of Modern National Consciousness, New York: Columbia University Press.

KHALIDI, R., 2001, “The Palestinians and 1948: the Underlying Causes of Failure,” in ROGAN, E.I. and SHLAÏM, A., The War for Palestine. Rewriting the History of 1948, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 12-36.

KHALIDI, W., 1959a, “Why did the Palestinians leave?” Middle East Forum, 34-7: 21-24 and 35.

KHALIDI, W., 1959b, “The Fall of Haifa,” Middle East Forum: 35-12: 22-32.

KHALIDI, W., 1961, “Plan Dalet: The Zionist Master Plan for the Conquest of Palestine,” Middle East Forum: 37-11.

KHALIDI, W., 1986, “The Arab Perspective,” in LOUIS, R. and STOOKEY, R.W. (eds.), The End of the Palestinian Mandate, London: Tauris.

KHALIDI, W., 1988, “Plan Dalet: Master Plan for the Conquest of Palestine,” Journal of Palestine Studies, 18/1 : 4-37.

KHALIDI, W., 1992, All that Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948, Washington D.C., Institute of Palestine Studies.

KHALIDI, W., 1998, “Selected Documents of the Palestine War,” Journal of Palestine Studies, 27/3: 60-105.

MASALHA, N., 1992, Expulsion of the Palestinians: The Concept of Transfer in Zionist Political Thought 1882-1948, Washington D.C.: Institute of Palestine Studies.

MASALHA, N., 1997, A Land without a People: Israel, Transfer and the Palestinians, 1949-1996, London: Faber and Faber.

NAZZAL, N., 1978, The Palestinian Exodus from Galilee, Beirut, Institute of Palestine Studies.

PARSONS, L., 2001, “The Druze and the Birth of Israel,” in ROGAN, E. and SHLAÏM, A., 2001, The War for Palestine: Rewriting the History of 1948, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

REGNIER, J. de, 1959, A Jérusalem, un drapeau flottait sur la ligne de front, Neuchâtel, Editions de la Brunière, reprinted in KHALDI, W. (ed.), 1987, >From Have to Conquest. Readings in Zionism and the Palestinian Problem, Washington D.C., Institute of Palestine Studies.

SA’DI A., H. and ABU-LUGHOD, L., 2007, Nakba, Palestine 1948 and the Claims of Memory, New York: Columbia University Press.

SAÏD, E. and HITCHENS, C. (eds.), 2001, Blaming the Victims. Spurious Scholarship and the Palestinian Question, London, New York: Verso.

SANBAR, E., 1984, 1948 L’expulsion, : Livres de la Revue d’Etudes Palestiniennes.

SANBAR, E., 2004, Les Palestiniens. La Photographie d’une terre et de son peuple de 1839 à nos jours, : Hazan.

SAYYIGH, R., 1979, Palestinians: From Peasants to Revolutionaries, London: Zed Press.

SFEIR, J., 2006, “Le désastre et l’exode, al-nakba/al-hijra. Imaginaire collectif et souvenir individuel de l’expulsion de 1948,” in PICAUDOU, N. (ed.) Territoires Palestiniens de Mémoire, : Karthala/IFPO.

Israeli Historiography

FLAPAN, S., 1987, The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities, London: Croom Helm.

MORRIS, B., 1988, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

MORRIS, B., 2001, “Revisiting the Palestinian exodus of 1948,” in ROGAN E., SHLAÏM A., The War for Palestine: Rewriting the History of 1948, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.37-59.

MORRIS, B., 2004, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

PALUMBO, M., 1987, The Palestinian Catastrophe. The 1948 Expulsion of a People from their Homeland, London: Faber & Faber.

PAPPÉ, I., 1988, Britain and the Arab-Israeli Conflict 1948-1951, New York: St Martins Press.

PAPPÉ, I., 1992, The Making of the Arab-Israeli Conflict 1947-1951, London: Tauris.

PAPPÉ I., 2004, Les Démons de la nakba: les libertés fondamentales dans l’université israélienne, : La Fabrique.

PAPPÉ, I., 2006, (2nd ed. 2007), The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Oxford: Oneworld.

SELA, A., 1991, “Arab Historiography of the 1948 War: The Quest for Legitimacy,” in SILBERSTEIN, L.J. (ed.), New Perspectives on Israeli History: The Early Years of the State, London, New York: New York University Press, pp.124-154.

SHLAÏM, A., 1988, Collusion across the Jordan: King Abdallah, the Zionist Movement and the Partition of Palestine, New York: Columbia University Press.

SHLAÏM, A., 2000, The Iron Wall. Israel and the Arab World, New York: W.W. Norton.

Cite this item

Picaudou Nadine, The Historiography of the 1948 Wars, Mass Violence & Résistance, [online], published on: 1 November, 2008, accessed 17/05/2021,, ISSN 1961-9898
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