Israeli History through Palestinian Eyes

Rashid Khalidi (2020) The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine

A Review by Howard Adelman – Part IX  War or Nakba

Khalidi with his predisposition to credit external powers with manipulating what went on in Palestine to advance his emphasis of Zionism as a colonialist outpost, argues that the dominant powers, the United States and the USSR, in effect determined the workings of UNSCOP, which they definitely did not. The majority recommendation “in favor of partitioning the country in a manner that was exceedingly favorable to the Jewish minority, giving them 56 percent of Palestine against the much smaller 17 percent for the Jewish state envisioned by the 1937 Peel partition plan,” was not a product of great power influence, nor, for that matter, of successful Zionist lobbying, as Abba Eban believed, but of a mixture of Palestinian failure to live up to modern concepts of rights and a need to deal with the Jewish refugees left in Europe.

Khalidi claims that, “The postwar realignment of international power was apparent in the workings of UNSCOP and in its majority report in favour of partitioning the country.” False! The committee’s recommendation did not mirror “precisely the desire of the Zionists” but rather their preference for partition as a compromise solution, UNSCOP operated, as it was intended, independently of great power influence. UNSCOP also operated independently of the foreign affairs departments of the states from which each of the eleven representatives came, with the exception of Holland and Australia; given the interests of their foreign affairs departments and ministers, those representatives were instructed to favour the pro-Palestinian position. The conclusion favouring partition came in spite of the initial propensities of most state representatives to oppose partition. Khalidi’s account of UNSCOP is a clear case of a predetermined conclusion being assumed that is not only unsupported by the evidence. but runs contrary to that evidence.

When, on 29 November 1947, the United Nations General Assembly voted for partition, Khalidi’s father, on instructions from his much older brother, had just briefed King Abdullah on how the “Arab-American Institute [that he headed] was working to change American opinion on Palestine, which, even then, was overwhelmingly pro-Zionist and largely ignorant of the Palestinian cause.” (See previous blog.) Then he very hesitantly delivered the message he had been instructed to transmit that, while Palestinians appreciated the king’s offer of “protection” (tutelage or guardianship), they were unable to accept. They did not want to come under Jordanian rule. The king was surprised and angry. He walked out just when a servant announced that the UN General Assembly had passed the partition resolution.

Khalidi claims that, “The resolution was another declaration of war” and in “blatant violation of the principle of self-determination enshrined in the UN Charter.” It was not! The resolution was a sincere effort to stave off war and to honour self-determination for both the minority Jewish population and the refugees eager to immigrate as well as the majority population through partition and creating two states. Even the minority report supported a confederation of two independent polities.

The Arabs rejected not only partition but even the recommendations of the minority report. The war followed. The first stage of the Nakba from the end of November to mid-May 1948 “witnessed successive defeats by Zionist paramilitary groups…of the poorly armed and organized Palestinians and the Arab volunteers who had come to help them.” In fact, the support came from the Arab Liberation Army and the surrounding Arab states. Further, Jews were on the defensive for the first three months until they received a shipment of arms from Czechoslovakia and could go on the offensive. For example, the Army of the Holy War under Abd-al-Qadir al-Husayni with volunteers from Egypt very successfully blockade Jerusalem at great cost in lives and equipment to the Haganah and Palmach in their attempts to break through the blockade with humanitarian aid. The Jews in the Negev and in North Galilee were in almost equal peril.

Reversals in favour of the Zionists came in April with a final successful relief of the Jerusalem blockade, but again at great cost in manpower and equipment. It helped that al-Husayni was killed in battle. The first Arab Liberation assault was a disaster in the battle at Mishmar HaEmek. The Druzim deserted the Palestinian side. The Jews consolidated their hold over Tiberias, Safed, Haifa and Jaffa. Palestinian morale was shattered and 100,000 fled or were forced to flee. Plan Dalet was a success for the Zionists and a dramatic failure for the Arabs.

While the Arab armies of Egypt, Syria and Iraq were a disorganized mess when they invaded the country after the British left on 15 May 1948, this was not true of Abdullah’s crack Arab Legion led by British officers. Abdullah was intent and succeeded in capturing and annexing the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Old City. 37,500 Palestine Jews were ethnically cleansed. Otherwise, the tale was a story of Arab defeat after defeat. The Zionists captured both the Negev and the whole of the Galilee. There was a corresponding exodus of Palestinians forced or induced to flee.

Of the 1.3 million Palestinians, 720,000 Palestinians became refugees, though in Khalidi’s depictions elsewhere, partial expulsion and partial flight became solely expulsion. “The expulsion of over half the Arab population of the country, first by Zionist militias and then by the Israeli army, completed the military and political triumph of Zionism.” But it was never “completed.” And flight versus forced departure were operational in roughly equal measure. 60,000 fled Jaffa, 60,000 fled Haifa, 30,000 fled West Jerusalem, 12,000 came from Safed, 6,000 from Beisan and 5,500 from Tiberias. People fled from smaller towns and villages as rumours of massacres raged like a wildfire through the Palestinian population.

In any case, other than Zionist perfidy, six factors, which Khalidi describes in detail, were to blame for the Palestinian setback:

  • Foreign interference
  • Fierce inter-Arab rivalry
  • Intractable Palestinian internal differences
  • The absence of modern Palestinian state institutions (a para-state)
  • Massive global shifts following the end of WWII
  • The Zionist leadership sophisticated knowledge of Western polities.

The first item above was negligible and certainly of much greater importance on the Arab side than on the Jewish one. The next three items were of central importance as Khalidi argues. The last two items are accurate, except the Zionists took credit for that recognition while Khalidi emphasizes Palestinian Arab ignorance of both the shift in international power and the importance of American domestic politics.

Nowhere does Khalidi indicate that the failure of the Palestinians and their Arab allies to accept partition was to blame, because, for him, it was a forgone conclusion that partition was wrong – at least, at that time. If they knew, as Khalidi claims, that the Zionists were militarily stronger than all the Arabs put together, why engage is such a self-destructive act? Khalidi’s presumed answer – the partition was unfair. 32% of the population (the Jews) were allocated 56% of the land while the majority, the Palestinians only got 42% – the remaining 2% to be allocated to a Corpus Separatum. But that is not his answer. Rather, partition itself was wrong according to Khalidi. It belied the right of self-determination of the majority.

Finally, the performance of the UN was at stake. The decision concerning partition was a process of sanctification by fire. Eleanor Roosevelt, who was on the U.S. UN delegation and did not support the Zionists or partition, went all out for partition when that was the recommendation of UNSCOP. The reputation of the UN was at stake. The Americans, whatever their internal differences, were determined that the solution remain a UN and not an American one. The efforts to corral votes in support of partition were strong because they supported the UN, not because partition served American interests.

However, diplomacy did not determine the result. Nor did American State Department pressure since the prevailing policy remained one of non-intervention, reinforced by the American State Department’s opposition to partition. It was not true that “Zionism, once a colonial project backed by the declining British Empire, became part and parcel of the emerging American hegemony in the Middle East.” It was a different matter with the White House that at the last minute adopted a strong pro-partition position and lobbied key wavering states (the Philippines, Liberia, Greece, Haiti) to obtain a two-thirds majority for the partition resolution. In the 29 November 1947 vote on partition, Greece shifted from abstention to a pro-Palestinian Arab position. However, nine other countries that previously abstained switched to supporting partition. The vote supporting partition passed by more than a two-thirds margin.

However, the result on the ground was not a product of diplomacy but of war. As a result of the Nakba, Israel ended up with 78% instead of 56% of mandatory Palestine.

In 1944, Winston Churchill did authorize the formation of a Jewish Brigade Group within the British Army. What is omitted is the fact that the Zionists in their “war platform” had declared the full commitment of the Jewish people to the war at Britain’s side. The Palestinian leader sided with Hitler. Second, the Zionists were opposed to the 1939 British White Paper even as they allied with Britain. The Palestinian Arabs opposed the White Paper and allied with Hitler even though the Jews were allocated a very tiny portion of the land in that White Paper. Third, the Jews during WWII were prescient and foresaw the displacement of the British by the Americans and actively sought American support. The Palestinians ignored this coming shift in world power. Fourth, the distribution of land between the two groups, the Jews and the Arabs, in the UN partition resolution was unfair to the Arabs, but only if the Jewish refugees from Europe are left out of the equation. For the international community and the Zionists, and contrary to the will of the majority of the Palestinian Arabs, the resettlement of those refugees was a central objective. For Ben-Gurion, persuasion in support of partition would make possible – not actual – “the transfer of millions and their entrenchment on the land and in the economy” so that “Palestine as a Jewish Commonwealth” would be supported.

Khalidi is correct. The ultimate goal of the Zionists, including Ben-Gurion, was a Jewish Commonwealth in Palestine. But the Zionists were willing to compromise in achieving this goal. The ultimate goal of the Palestinian Arabs was an Arab state in Palestine and they were unwilling to compromise and agree to even one square meter of that land being allocated to the Zionists. The Zionist Congress in Montreal on 19 January 1941 had endorsed that strategy. The Palestinians lacked a political organization that could endorse its goals democratically. In spite of deep divisions between the Zionists in Palestine and those in America, Zionists on both sides of the Atlantic were able to set aside their differences to achieve the larger goal. Both sides were determined to leverage Britain’s increasing dependence on American military and economic support for Britain. The Jews envisioned colonizing Palestine to provide a safe haven for European Jewry. The Palestinian Arabs were determined to ensure Palestinian self-determination at the expense of a refuge for Jews in Palestine.

There was no way to find a compromise between these two positions. War was necessary.

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