The entire debate between the old and the new historians revolves round the question of moral responsibility for the consequences of the first Arab-Israeli war.

It is a pleasure and a privilege to be here although the subject of this session – the Palestinian catastrophe (Nakba) — is a tragic one.

And I feel doubly guilty towards the Palestinians. As an Englishman, I am ashamed of my adopted country’s astonishing record of duplicity and betrayal going all the way back to the Balfour Declaration. As an Israeli, I am burdened by a heavy sense of guilt for the monumental injustice and never-ending suffering that my people have inflicted on the Palestinians since the beginning of this conflict over 100 years ago.

As the starting point for my remarks on the new history of 1948 and the Palestinian Nakba, I would like to take Edward Said, a friend and a guide, for whom there was a moving memorial meeting in the Friends House only two days ago.

Edward was an intellectual with an astonishingly broad range of interests but he was no historian. Yet he immediately grasped the significance of the new history that began to emerge in Israel in the late 1980. He made two points in this connection:

1. Palestinians can accept the new history as an honest, genuine version of events because it conforms to their own experiences in 1948. This is in contrast to the old history which Palestinians see as the propaganda of the victors.

2. The fact that Israeli scholars started subjecting the behaviour of their own community in 1948 to serious scrutiny in light of the evidence, would encourage Palestinian scholars to do the same. Rashid Khalidi and Nur Masalha are just two examples of this trend.

War for Palestine

The traditional Zionist rendition of the events of 1948 is familiar to all of you. It lays all the blame for the war and its consequences on the Arab side. This is a nationalist version of history and, as such, it is simplistic, selective, and self-serving. It is, essentially, the propaganda of the victors. It presented the victors as victims, and it blamed the real victims – the Palestinians – for their own misfortunes.

Yet, until the 1980s, this one-sided narrative went largely unchallenged outside the Arab world.

The 40th anniversary of the creation of the State of Israel in 1988 was accompanied by the publication of four books:

Simha Flapan, The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 Ilan Pappé, Britain and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1948-1951 Avi Shlaim, Collusion across the Jordan.

Between us we challenged many of the myths that have come to surround the birth of Israel and the first Arab-Israeli War.

We came to be known collectively as the new historians or the revisionist Israeli historians. The publication of our books triggered the war of the historians.

There are 4 main bones of contention in the debate about 1948:

1. Britain’s policy in the twilight of the Palestine mandate 2. The military balance in 1948. 3. Arab war aims 4. The causes of the Palestinian refugee problem.

Let us review these issues briefly one by one.

1. British policy towards the end of the Palestine mandate

Zionist leaders at the time, and Zionist writers subsequently, portrayed Britain’s policy as savagely hostile to the Yishuv.

The main charge was that Britain armed and encouraged her Arab allies to resist the birth of the Jewish state by force.

A special place was reserved in Zionist demonology for Ernest Bevin, the foreign secretary of the Labour government. Bevin was portrayed as a great ogre, as a monster in human form.

I was 3 years old at the time and we lived in Baghdad and my mother used to say to me: ‘If you don’t eat your porridge, Mr Bevin will come and take you away.’ The threat never failed to work.

Ilan Pappé drove a coach and horses through the traditional Zionist account of British policy.

His argument is that Britain was resigned to the emergence of a Jewish state but supported her client, King Abdullah of Jordan, in his efforts to pre-empt their common enemy, the Grand Mufti, Hajj Amin al-Husseini. The key to British policy is Greater Transjordan at the expense of the Palestinians.

Hostility to the Mufti and to a Mufti-led state was an important and constant factor in British policy in 1947-49.

So there is a case to be made against Britain during this critical period in the struggle for Palestine. The case is not that Britain tried to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state but rather that it helped to abort the birth of a Palestinian state.

2. The Military Balance

The old historians saw the 1948 war as an unequal struggle between a Jewish David against an Arab Goliath, as a desperate, heroic, and ultimately successful Jewish struggle against overwhelming odds.

The heroism of the Jewish fighters is not in question. Nor is there any question that the first round of fighting was indeed a struggle for survival.

Yet, throughout the war, the IDF outnumbered all the Arab forces, regular and irregular, operating in the Palestine theatre.

Estimates vary, but the best estimates suggest that on 15 May 1948 Israel fielded 35,000 troops whereas the Arabs fielded 20 – 25,000. The problem of the IDF was not manpower but firepower. Its firepower was negligible.

But during the first truce Israel violated the UN embargo and imported arms from the Eastern bloc: artillery, tanks, aircraft.

Illicit arms imports decisively tipped the military balance in favour of Israel. The Israelis now not only outnumbered but also outgunned their opponents.

The final outcome of the war was not a miracle but a reflection of the underlying Arab-Israeli military balance. In this war, as in most wars, the stronger side won.

3. Arab War Aims

The third question is why did the neighbouring Arab states send their armies into Palestine upon expiry of the mandate?

The standard Zionist answer is that all the Arabs were united and that their aim was to destroy the Jewish state and to throw the Jews into the sea. The reality was more complex.

The Arab coalition facing Israel in 1948 was one of the most deeply divided, disorganised, and ramshackle coalitions in the history of warfare.

There was no agreed Arab strategic plan for the conduct of this war. The Arab armies were ill-prepared and ill-equipped for prolonged warfare. Most of the Arab military leaders were incompetent.

There were dynastic rivalries at play between King Farouk of Egypt and the Hashemite rulers of Jordan and Iraq. Syria and Lebanon also felt threatened by King Abdullah’s ambition to make himself master of Greater Syria.

All the Arab armies intervened ostensibly in order to help the Palestinians. But they treated the Palestinians with brutality and with contempt. The Arab League promised the Palestinians money and arms. It did not keep its promise, thereby helping to seal their fate.

In short, the Palestinians, in their hour of need, were let down by the Arabs and they have been let down ever since.

4. The causes of the Palestinian refugee problem

This is a very controversial question and one which lies at the heart of the Arab-Israeli dispute. The question is: Did they go or were they pushed?

The origins of the refugee problem are intimately connected with the question of responsibility for solving this problem. Here we have two diametrically opposed versions.

The official Israeli version maintains that the Palestinians left the country on orders from their leaders and in the expectation of a triumphal return after the Arab armies had swept all before them. Israel was thus in no way responsible for turning the Palestinians into refugees.

The Arab version maintains that the Palestinians did not leave of their own accord: they were pushed out. Israel expelled them and Israel therefore has to give them a choice between and a return to their homes or compensation.

Benny Morris, in his 1988 book, studied the birth of the Palestinian refugee problem thoroughly, carefully, and objectively.

He found no evidence of Arab calls on the Palestinians to leave their homes, but nor did he find evidence of a Zionist master-plan for the expulsion of the Palestinians. He therefore rejected both the Arab order and the Jewish robber state explanations.

The refugee problem, he concluded, was a by-product of the war.

Countless reviewers pointed out that Benny Morris’s conclusion did not correspond to the evidence he had unearthed. The evidence suggests a far higher degree of Israeli responsibility for the mass flight of the Palestinians.

Sure, there were many different reasons for the Palestinian exodus but the single most important reason was Israeli political, military, and psychological pressure.

We now have a term to describe what Israel did to the Palestinians in 1948 which did not exist then – ethnic cleansing. So let us call a spade a spade.

Benny Morris himself has veered to the extreme right since the outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada. He now thinks that Ben Gurion made a mistake in allowing a Palestinian minority to stay inside the state of Israel in 1948. He should have expelled the whole lot.

In my humble opinion, Benny Morris’s current ideas are complete rubbish and they don’t deserve to be taken seriously. He used to be a Young Turk and he has become an old jerk! But his early scholarship is still valuable because it documents the extent of Israel’s responsibility for displacing and dispossessing the Palestinians.


The entire debate between the old and the new historians revolves round the question of moral responsibility for the consequences of the first Arab-Israeli war.

The old historians say that the new historians charge Israel with original sin. My reply is that it is the old historians who cling to the doctrine of Israel’s immaculate conception.

The evidence that we have at our disposal today, makes it patently clear, and indeed beyond dispute, that the creation of the state of Israel involved a monumental injustice to the Palestinians.

Unless and until Israel acknowledges its share of the moral responsibility for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem, this dispute will not be solved.

Does the new historiography have any broader significance beyond the war of the historians? Does it have any relevance to the quest for peace today? Once again, Edward Said answered these questions in the affirmative. He pointed out that if Israelis and Palestinians are to learn to coexist peacefully side by side, it is essential that they understand their own history and each other’s history. It is not enough for each side to examine critically its own actions in 1948. We must have a common and comprehensive picture of what happened in the war in order to deal with its consequences, in order to find a solution to this tragic conflict.