- The Washington Times - Friday, June 25, 2010

By Ephraim Karsh
Yale University Press, $32.50, 336 pages

About 2,400 years ago, Herodotus told us that the victors wrote history, but that has not always been the case. The distortion of historical fact for political purposes became most evident early in the last century under the communists. The Nazis refined it into a more subtle and pervasive weapon. Today, this distortion is commonplace, particularly in the Middle East where to paraphrase the Queen of Hearts in “Alice In Wonderland,” “History is whatever I want it to be.”

It is therefore with some relief that one picks up “Palestine Betrayed,” by Ephraim Karsh, a professor of history at London University. His book is a thoroughly researched, sound historical account of the struggles that ensued between the Jewish and Arab communities when the British decided to leave Palestine.

It should be noted that Mr. Karsh has been an advocate of Israel for some time, but for this book he delved at least as deeply into Arabic and British archives as he did into Israeli ones. He does not make personal judgments but quotes others, often Palestinians, sometimes British, who have strong opinions. However, in the beginning of the book, he does quote extensively from David Ben-Gurion and other Zionist leaders who reiterated that although the Jews in Palestine wanted their own state, they did not want to abridge the freedom of their Arab neighbors.

Rather, they wanted to live in harmony with them and collectively improve the economy for the benefit of all. They thought that the country, though small, was large enough to accommodate both growing communities.

This theme of tolerance and mutual benefit runs through all of Ben-Gurion’s writings and appears repeatedly in “Palestine Betrayed.” The Arab response to Zionist settlement, Mr. Karsh tells us, was of course far more mixed. The moneyed class, the landholders and effendis, did not particularly welcome the new Hebrew-speaking settlers. They were quite happy with the status quo and did not want to see it changed. Their feelings did not prevent them, however, from selling portions of their land to the Zionists at inflated prices.

The rural folk, the tenant farmers and a few artisans, made up their minds according to local conditions, but usually went along with their landlords. The religious establishment was fairly passive with the glaring exception of the Mufti of Jerusalem, who was virtually pathological in his views of the Zionists. His opinion of the British was equally extreme, and why a British governor appointed him Mufti (against some Arab opposition it should be noted) is a question that has yet to be answered satisfactorily.

The British eventually decided that governing Palestine was not worth the cost and that the U.N. was best able to decide its future. That body came up with a plan for partition, an independent Jewish state, an independent Arab state and the internationalization of Jerusalem. The Jews accepted while the Arabs rejected this plan, but the British decided to leave anyway. Mr. Karsh notes that during the chaotic time between the British announcement of their departure and their actual leaving, there was no real Arab governing body to speak of. Scattered fighting between the two communities ensued. A number of Arab villages made separate truce agreements with their Jewish neighbors that were carefully maintained until the arrival of regular Arab armies.

These truces originated with the common people, the villagers, not the landlords, and were faithfully adhered to until outside powers put them aside. The final departure of the British served as a signal for the invasion by five Arab armies into what had been the British Mandate. Abdullah, the Hashemite king of Transjordan, gladly took the opportunity. He had long envisioned a Greater Syria consisting of Syria, Palestine and Transjordan, with himself as king. The Jews would have their own area but would be subservient to the king’s central authority. His British-trained and -led Arab Legion established themselves in the West Bank and parts of Jerusalem but made no effort to incorporate established Jewish settlements.

The Egyptians entered rather reluctantly. They feared their army had not yet reached the stage of efficiency that such a venture required, and events proved them correct. The Iraqis and Syrians seemed more concerned with the large number of Palestinian guerrillas rather than national army movements, and the Lebanese made a demonstration.

The volunteer Jewish defense forces eventually prevailed after both suffering and inflicting grievous casualties. The Arabs called this time the Nakha, or catastrophe. The Israelis rejoiced because they had finally achieved an independent country, although at a heavy cost in lives.

In the book, Mr, Karsh addresses a subject long batted around by historians - that of the refugees. What caused their abandonment of the communities they lived in? The moneyed classes, who often had domiciles in other countries, didn’t want their families subjected to the whims of war and sent them abroad. Others who had the money followed suit. The villagers could not afford such measures but often abandoned their homes because if they stayed they feared they would be termed collaborators by the returning victorious Arab armies. In some cases, they left on the advice of Arab commanders who did not want to shell areas occupied by Muslim civilians.

In only one instance did the Haganah (the Israeli volunteer defense force) push inhabitants out. They had captured the city of Lydda, an important communications hub, and announced that all firearms should be turned in. Although the inhabitants had seemed willing to surrender, no weapons were forthcoming. A second announcement was equally unproductive. The Israelis were in a fix. They didn’t have enough troops to garrison the city, and they could not leave an armed city behind astride their supply lines. Lydda had to be abandoned by the inhabitants.

Refugee camps were organized and administered by the U.N. These camps still exist, still supported by the U.N., but because of natural increase, the refugees have virtually tripled in number, living expectedly dreary, wasteful lives. It might be noted that in the same year India and Pakistan exchanged more than a million people. There was considerable violence, and thousands were killed. Yet today the grandchildren of these one-time refugees lead normal lives and some have achieved considerable success. There is no reason, other than the blindness of their leaders, that the Palestinians cannot do the same.

Peace talks in the Middle East have been going on for decades with little result. It should be evident by now to even the most obtuse that what separates the two sides is simply the existence of Israel. The Israelis will never surrender their sovereignty. To do so would mean committing suicide. The Arabs seem unable to acknowledge this. If they ever actually do so, then all other disputes (border or otherwise) will become immediately solvable. But we grow old waiting for it to happen.

Sol Schindler is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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