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Purity of Arms

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Remembering 1948 the way it was  E-mail

Originally published in the Jerusalem Post http://www.2nd-thoughts.org/id38.html

Congratulations to Prof. Benny Morris for having the courage to publicly reconsider some of his earltier conclusions and for acknowledging that Israel did what it had to do in 1948. (The Jerusalem Post, February 10). Apart from a few points with which one might take issue, Morris's article offers a balanced summary of the conflict, in marked contrast to his earlier writings, which emphasized Israel's alleged wrongdoings.

Morris complains that as a new historian he has been accused of seeking to shatter the founding myths of the Israeli state and of lending moral weight to the Palestinian cause. The problem is that his works did not shatter myths; they treated historical facts about the nature of Israel's birth as myths. That he lent moral weight to the Palestinian cause is proven by the eagerness with which his exaggerations of Israel's warts are still eagerly amplified and quoted out of context on anti-Israel web sites.

To his great credit, Morris acknowledged this in a July 2001 article in The Guardian. He wrote that Israel's critics latched on to those of his findings that highlighted Israeli responsibility, while ignoring the fact that the problem was a direct consequence of the war Arab states had launched. Also disturbing in his Post article is Morris's claim that the expulsions from Lod and Ramle were ordered by Yitzhak Rabin as part of a dark policy of ethnic cleansing, unjustifiably injecting this emotional term, coined decades later during the Bosnia conflict.

This allegation goes against overwhelming evidence of the IDF's humanitarian doctrine. For example on July 15, David Ben-Gurion issued an unequivocal order warning against the desecration of monasteries and churches and ordering merciless firing on soldiers caught looting. Omission of this type of information in the article creates a distorted picture. Morris bolsters his theory of a deliberate policy of ethnic cleansing by inferring a correlation between what he considers a near-consensus reached in the 1930s and 1940s among Zionist leaders on the necessity of transfer and the events in Lydda. ]Can any intelligent reader accept that the musings by Zionists abroad had any influence on events in the heat of battle in 1948 Israel? Significantly, in this same article, Morris contradicts his own thesis by admitting that the idea of transfer never crystallized into a formal Zionist policy, and that most of the Arabs fled voluntarily. He even concedes that some left because they were advised to do so by their leaders. The claim that Rabin gave the order to expel the inhabitants of Lydda is suspect.

It was Yigal Allon, not Rabin, who was responsible for Operation Dani, during which Lod and Ramle were captured. The claim that Rabin gave the order was made in a 1979 article in The New York Times, based on a revelation by the translator of Rabin's memoirs, who leaked passages which had been deleted from the book by order of a ministerial committee. But in the same Times article Allon himself is quoted as saying: "I was [Rabin's] commander, and my knowledge of the facts is therefore more accurate. I did not ask the late Ben-Gurion for permission to expel the population of Lydda. I did not receive such permission and did not give such orders."

To avoid distorting history it is essential to refer to the events leading up to the expulsion. Operation Dani was aimed at relieving Jerusalem and neutralizing the threat posed by Arab forces in the Lod/Ramle bulge, which contained thousands of troops including units of the highly trained Arab Legion.

The Arabs were attempting to cut off Tel Aviv from the southern part of the country by linking up with the Egyptian army at Ashdod. Israeli forces included Moshe Dayan's battalion, which captured Lod and Ramle. How to understand the circumstances? The vital importance of the capture of these towns was later confirmed by colonel el-Tel of the Arab Legion, who wrote that the fall of Lydda and Ramle marked the end of Arab threats to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Mike Isaacson, who now lives in Pretoria, South Africa, served as a Mahal volunteer in Dayan's battalion. This is how he described his experience to me:

"On July 10 when the battalion attacked Lydda, the Arab leadership surrendered. Lydda's leaders were told they could continue to live in peace, provided they surrendered their arms and accepted Israeli sovereignty. They agreed. "Leaving only a few soldiers as guards, the battalion left Lydda to return to Ben Shemen. However, when two Arab Legion armored cars appeared on the horizon the next day, giving the impression that Legion reinforcements were arriving, the Lydda Arabs reneged on their agreement. They didn't give the Israeli soldiers in the town the choice of being expelled. They slaughtered them. "In the meantime, the battalion was surprised to find itself in Ramle sooner than intended. Instead of taking the road to Ben Shemen, the leading vehicle, driven by Jimmy Kantey, had in error turned towards Ramle at the crossroad.... "As a consequence of the massacre of the Israeli soldiers, the troops on returning to Lydda could not accept a fifth column in their midst and forced thousands of families out of the towns during the next three days.

Most were put on buses to Transjordan. Others, less fortunate, made their way walking the few miles to the Jordanian lines. "The history for the Arab refugees would have taken a different turn if the Lydda residents had not reneged on their surrender agreement. It should also be borne in mind that hundreds of expellees returned during the following months, and that both Lydda (now known as Lod) and Ramle still contain sizable Arab populations...." AS WITH the Israeli soldiers in Lydda, other Jewish sectors captured by Arabs were never given the option of expulsion.

A notable example: On May 12, when the Jordanians struck Kibbutz Etzion, the battle lasted until the last handful of survivors, without arms and ammunition, raised their hands in surrender, only to be mowed down by machine gunners. Personal accounts reveal a more truthful picture of events than selective quotations of extracts from archives by historians who have to make assumptions about the significance and context of the records they examine.

It is not too late. While there are still a few survivors of the War of Liberation alive, it would be valuable if our historians would interview as many as possible so as to obtain a realistic concept about the creation of the State of Israel and the motivation of the people who participated in it. True, personal recollections may be embellished, and time may have fogged some memories. But if one interviews several people in different parts of the world who participated in the same events, there will be enough common essentials to lend credence to the gist.

The writer, a Mahal volunteer in the War of Independence and one of the pioneers of Israel's radar, commanded one of the state's earliest radar stations.

Footnote added in 2009

In an interview with the BBC in 1997, Hazem Nusseibeh, who had been an editor of the Palestine Broadcasting Service's Arabic news service in 1948, explained that one of the major reasons the Palestinians fled in 1948 was a story that he and Palestinian leader Hussein Khalid had fabricated about a massacre and rapes at Deir Yassin. They invented this story in the hope of encouraging Arab countries to enter the conflict, but it misfired.

He said "This was our biggest mistake", because Palestinians fled in terror and left the country in huge numbers after hearing the false atrocity claims.

See http://maurice-ostroff.tripod.com/deir_yassin.html