Palestine’s Self-Inflicted Catastrophe
When it comes to the birth of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the Palestinian narrative has become the most widely repeated version of events: After World War I, Jews began immigrating to areas within Britain’s Mandate of Palestine with the Zionist dream of building a Jewish state. Jewish immigration dramatically increased at the end of World War II as a result of collective European guilt in the aftermath of the Holocaust. The Jews eventually established Israel as their illegal state after evicting the Arab population and plundering the Palestinian people and their homeland with the help of colonialist Europe. Israel’s independence is known in Arabic as the Nakba—the great catastrophe—and it created the Palestinian refugee problem, the biggest obstacle to solving the conflict today.
Enter Efraim Karsh, head of Mediterranean Studies at King’s College London, and his latest book, Palestine Betrayed. A preeminent historian on the Arab-Israeli conflict, Karsh sets out “to reclaim the historical truth” behind Israel’s creation. In doing so, he tests such Palestinian narratives and the conclusions of the “new historians”—revisionists such as Avi Shlaim, Ilan Pappe, and the early Benny Morris who in the 1980s rose to challenge the established narrative of Israel’s birth.
Karsh sets the record straight by drawing on Western, United Nations, Israeli, and Soviet documents declassified over the last decade, providing the correct context often missing in the selective focus of the “new historians” and altogether absent in the Palestinian narrative. His detailed examination of the historical records reveals that Israel’s establishment was not the main cause of the Palestinian refugee problem and the hardships that the population has faced thereafter. Instead, it was the result of actions taken by the Palestinian Arabs and their leaders.
Anger instigated by Arab leaders is the foremost recurring theme in Palestine Betrayed, and Karsh holds the mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin Husseini, responsible for the deterioration of neighborly relations between the Arabs and Jews during the Mandate period, and for the eventual “collapse and dispersion of Palestinian Arab society.”
Hajj Amin, known for his pan-Arab ambitions, “viewed the Palestinians not as a distinct people deserving statehood but as an integral part of a single Arab nation”—with himself as leader, and clean of Jews. To this end, Hajj Amin, an admirer and supporter of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany, launched a campaign to demolish the Jewish national revival by enraging his constituents with all the anti-Jewish rhetoric he could find, from verses in the Quran to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
But the Mufti was not alone in his aspirations to control Palestine at the expense of its inhabitants. It was Transjordanian King Abdullah’s “imperial ambitions” that eventually forced the newly formed Arab states to invade the day-old Israel in 1948 “not to save the Palestinian Arabs but to prevent the annexation of Palestine, in whole or in part, to Transjordan.” Karsh astutely points out that the Arab invasion following Israel’s independence “was more of a scramble for Palestine than an attempt to secure Palestinian national rights.”
However, instead of consolidating Arab rule over Palestine, “The 1948 war resulted in the total disintegration of Palestinian Arab society.” By the end of the Mandate in May 1948, some 340,000 Arabs had fled Palestine; by January 1949, that number swelled to 600,000—a direct result of Arab leaders’ coercion and invasion.
Indeed, the Mufti and heads of surrounding Arab countries were largely responsible for the flight of the Palestinian Arabs—a highly controversial point that Karsh proves remarkably well with a substantial body of sourced material and quotations from key British, Jewish, and Arab eyewitnesses. While there were instances in which Jewish forces expelled Arab villagers in the heat of battle, in most cases, Arab leaders and their armed militias forcefully drove the Palestinian Arabs from their homes, at first to use the houses as military bases and then to prevent them from becoming citizens of a prospective Jewish state. Many others fled of their own free will as the wartime security situation deteriorated.
At the heart of Palestine Betrayed, Karsh argues that the Palestinian people were—and still are—betrayed by their very own leaders who promised to act with their best interests in mind but instead acted on personal ambitions. Never relinquishing their dreams of a pan-Arab empire under their homage, each leader refused to establish peaceful relations with the Jews, condemning the Palestinian people to decades of war and statelessness.
“Had the Mufti chosen to lead his people to peace and reconciliation with their Jewish neighbors,” Karsh writes, “the Palestinians would have had their independent state” in accordance with the 1947 UN Partition Plan for Palestine, which the Jews accepted and Palestine’s Arab leaders did not.
The same applied to Yassir Arafat in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when he chose to pocket international aid and create terrorist networks rather than infrastructure necessary for an independent state. The same now applies to Mahmoud Abbas who refuses to accept Israel’s ‘Jewishness’ in a peace agreement but insists that Israel fully implement the right of return, “the Palestinian and Arab euphemism for Israel’s destruction.”
Palestine Betrayed is an extraordinarily well-documented account of the events leading up to Israel’s creation. It is the antidote to revisionist historians whose narrative casts the Palestinians as passive players in the conflict with no responsibility for their actions. The contexts of war and inter-Arab rivalry are the key components to understanding how events played out. At the same time, Karsh’s work demonstrates that Palestinian mythology continues to hinder all attempts at solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Indeed, the notion that Israel is solely responsible for creating the Palestinian refugee encourages Palestinian leaders and society to cling to the erroneous belief that Israel will welcome each refugee into the state as part of a peace deal. And as long as this remains a Palestinian redline, there is no hope for ending the conflict.