The Israeli and Palestinian narratives reflect, in part, the national identities and perceived histories and experiences of each people. Our respective narratives are built on historical fact and myth. In the interests of finding a way to peace between our two peoples, I believe it is necessary to clarify what is the objective truth of the history of this conflict, to confront it honestly, to acknowledge the pain of the other, for each side to accept responsibility for what has taken place, and then to somehow transcend all that to find a way to partition the land for the sake of peace and security for our two peoples.
The following is hardly exhaustive, but it is an attempt to clarify what actually happened the 1948 war. (see Part I)
Claim/Myth: Arabs formed a majority of the population in Palestine and the Zionists were colonialists from Europe who had no claim to or right to the land of Israel.
Fact: Jews have continually lived in the Land of Israel since at least the time of David (1000 B.C.E.). Since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by Rome in 70 C.E. Jews who were forcibly removed or who fled to the Jewish Diaspora have prayed towards Jerusalem and yearned for a return. No other religion, people, ethnicity, or nationality can claim as long an historical, religious and emotional tie to a particular land as the Jewish people have had with the Land of Israel and the holy city of Jerusalem.
At the time of the 1947 UN Partition resolution, the Arabs had a majority in western Palestine as a whole. But the Jews were in the majority in the area allotted to them by the UN Partition resolution (a small but contiguous area along the coast and in parts of the Galilee).
A major reason for the Arab majority was that many thousands came from neighboring Arab countries (e.g. Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Transjordan, and Egypt) to find work, opportunity, education, and health care as a result of improved conditions brought about by the rapid development of the land by Zionist pioneers in the first part of the 20th century. Most of these Arab population numbers (i.e. an increase of 630,000 people, or 75.2%) were people from other Arab countries and were NOT Palestinians. A Palestinian Arab was defined as one who resided in Palestine for at least 2 years, even if his/her origin was from elsewhere. However, many Arabs have lived on the land for centuries and they too claim this land (“Palestine”) as their ancestral heritage.
Claim/Myth: Most of the area of Israel was once Arab owned.
Fact: According to British government statistics, prior to the establishment of the State of Israel, 8.6% of the land area now known as Israel was owned by Jews, 3.3% by Arabs who remained there and 16.5% by Arabs who left the country. 71.6% of the land was owned by the British government. Under international law, ownership passed to Israel once it was established and approved as a member nation by the United Nations in 1948. (Survey of Palestine, 1946, British Mandate Government, p. 257).
Claim/Myth: The establishment of Israel violated the right of Palestinian Arabs to self-determination.
Fact: The United Nations had offered self-determination and separate states to both Arabs and Jews in western Palestine in 1947. The Jews accepted the offer and the Arabs unanimously rejected it and went to war to “drive the Jews into the sea” (per President Gamel Abdel Nasser of Egypt). This war had followed decades of Arab terrorist attacks on innocent Jews throughout the area of Jewish settlement.
Claim/Myth: Israel expelled the Palestinians in 1948 and took over Palestinian land.
Fact: There is general agreement among Israeli historians on the left and the right that many Arabs were forced to leave their homes and villages in 1948. Of the 700,000 Palestinians who left about 300,000 were forcibly expelled by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) whereas between 100,000 and 200,000 left on their own. The reasons for the flight of the rest is unclear.
There is disagreement, however, among these same historians about the nature of the expulsions (i.e., whether there were explicit orders from the leadership of the Yishuv to expel Palestinians, or whether the expulsions were spontaneous responses to military conditions on the ground as carried out by local leaders).
The debate is over Tokhnit Dalet (Plan D), the military plan that called for expulsions near or behind enemy lines or in hostile villages. The Israeli historian Benny Morris argues that the evidence doesn’t show an intentional program designed ahead of time, but rather a spontaneous response to military conditions by low-level commanders in the field. Others argue (using Morris’ own evidence) that documents show a plan for mass expulsions from above, that is, that Tokhnit Dalet was the realization of the “transfer impulse” under the cover of military language. Still other scholars take a middle position, arguing that Tokhnit Dalet was originally intended as a purely military and small-scale operation, but that once Palestinians were “encouraged” to leave and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had attained military superiority, it was understood that the long-term interests of Israel were served by having as few Palestinians as possible remain within the Green Line (i.e. the 1949 Armistice Line).
Many Palestinians, however, fled their homes and villages out of fear of what their own leaders were telling them would happen to them when the Jews would enter their villages and cited the massacre by Jewish extremist paramilitary units of more than 100 men, women and children at Deir Yassin near Jerusalem as evidence of what the Jews would do to them. Others fled because their leaders promised that when the Jews would be defeated they could return home and enjoy the booty of the vanquished Jews. After they fled, Israel took over their villages, leveling many and planting fields.
What now? How one regards the historic facts and each people’s narrative will either advance or hinder a negotiated two-state solution and partition of the land. The meaning of Jewish and Palestinian nationalism in the minds and hearts of their peoples, the ability to acknowledge the national legitimacy of the “other,” to acknowledge the pain and suffering of the other, and then to compromise for the sake of peace, justice and security for each people are essential to a negotiated outcome of this conflict.
We Jews are and have always been an ever-hopeful people. We are also a people of memory, and the pain and victimization we have experienced in our history are long and deep. The Palestinians too have been bruised and victimized by history, by their leaders, and by the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. The key question for us both is whether we can transcend our pain, fear and hatred for the sake of finding a better future for ourselves and the other.