Israeli History through Palestinian Eyes

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

A Review by Howard Adelman – Part X  1949-1967

Though Khalidi stresses over and over again the importance of self-determination for the Palestinian people in the face of Israeli opposition and the recalcitrance of Arab countries, and though he continued to regard Israel as a colonial settler state, there are some lacuna but only a few contradictions with current Israeli histories of the period.

The Nakba had terrible after-effects on Palestinians.

  • The 160,000 Palestinians who remained in Israel were made citizens but were regarded as a potential fifth column; until 1966, they lived under strict martial law; (Martial law put in place in 1957 in Jordan was only lifted in the mid-1990s.)
  • 30% of them were IDPs, Internally Displaced Persons, or refugees under the UNRWA definition (45,800);
  • The balance of the 720,000 Palestinians who fled or were forced out, that is roughly 675,000[i], left in phases:

Before March 1948             100,000      (The Notables)

April-June 1948                  300,000      Both fled and were expelled

July 1948                              60,000      From Lydda and Ramle

Oct.-Nov 1948                    215,000      Negev and Galilee

                                           675,000

  • Another estimated 40,000 were forced out after the Armistice, but that number was offset by 40,000 that repatriated;
  • Much of the Arab land of those that fled was expropriated, including the majority of arable land;
  • That land, along with the “abandoned” properties of the refugees who left, was placed either under the Israel Lands Authority or under the Trusteeship of the Jewish National Fund, the charter of which restricted the allocation of such land only “for the benefit of the Jewish people”;
  • Under the latter, Arabs could not even buy back their own land;
  • Palestinian Israeli citizens were subject to military travel restrictions which cut them off from intercourse with Palestinians outside Israel.

The claimed distribution of refugees in 1949 was as follows:

  • Egypt                               10,000
    • Gaza                              230,000
    • Iraq                                  15,000
    • Israel                                46.000
    • Jordan                              20,000
    • Lebanon                         100,000
    • Syria                              210,000
    • West Bank                     280,000

Total                                 911,000

Eventually, scholarly research, by both Palestinians and Westerners, settled on a figure of 720,000. Janet Abu Lughod was the main initial demographer who facilitated this revision.

The Israeli proposal at the Lausanne Conference to annex Gaza and grant citizenship to the 300,000 residents and refugees there was not accepted. Gaza was also not annexed by Egypt. The people of Gaza, both resident and refugee, remained stateless. Jordan granted the refugees in Jordan proper and in the West Bank, when it annexed the area, full citizenship. Lebanon, unlike Jordan, would not grant its Palestinians citizenship – except, while the Maronite Christians were the strong political power in Lebanon, for a small percentage who were Christian. The rest of the Palestinians were very restricted in their employment and educational opportunities as well as in the ability to own property. Syria was more accommodating than Lebanon. There, while not granted citizenship, Palestinians were made permanent residents with all the rights attached thereto except citizenship. Thus, except for Jordan, Palestinians everywhere in the Arab world were generally worse off than those who remained in Israel as second-class citizens.

By 1960, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) had no need to resettle Jewish Palestine refugees (37,500); they were absorbed by the new State of Israel. UNRWA also gave up any serious effort to resettle Arab Palestine refugees through land reclamation or other development efforts. By the end of the 1950s, UNRWA switched to what became its dominant role, the Ministry of Education (as well as Health and Housing) for the Palestinians in the diaspora. As a result, many refugees, after they acquired their education or skills training, resettled in Gulf States like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, as well as in Northern Africa (Libya and Algeria). They became the backbone of the educational system as well as occupying other professional technical roles, such as engineers, medical personnel and skilled technicians.

In the meanwhile, militants among the Palestinians in exile launched raids into Israel, but the Israeli reprisals on the host countries were devastating. Hence, “Arab leaders often raised the question of Palestine [in the UN} because of popular pressure, but refrained from actually doing anything about it out of fear of Israel’s might and the disapproval of the great powers.” Lacking forceful representation, the Palestinians tried to forge a government in exile in Gaza, but it was opposed by Jordan; nothing came of the effort. The Palestinian old guard with all its internal divisions had been totally sidelined. Except in Israel. There, Palestinians made up the bulk of the membership of Mapam, the Israeli Communist Party, while the leaders remained Jewish. In 1951, one Arab from Mapam was elected to the Knesset.

Finally, the inchoate efforts of the Palestinian refugees to organize politically in the diaspora culminated with the formation of Fatah in 1959. In addition to dealing with the Israeli enemy, Fatah had to negotiate with recalcitrant Arab governments or ones that wanted to use the Palestinian cause to advance their own agenda. By 1964, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) as an umbrella group for all the factions was established. Egypt, which according to Khalidi, had prioritized domestic economic development, became caught up between a stronger and stronger Israel and increased Palestinian militancy in Gaza that kept launching feda’yin raids into Israel, only to be met with disproportional and massive reprisals, a situation that initially brought down upon the Palestinians the wrath of the Egyptian security services and military until late 1954 when Egypt backed such raids.

In Israel, a political conflict arose between the advocates of an iron fist, such as David Ben Gurion, and those interested in compromise with respect to the return of some of the land captured in 1948 and the return of more than a token number of refugees. However, Prime Minister Moshe Sharett, the voice of the latter position, resigned as Prime Minister in 1956 and Ben Gurion was left free “to launch” the Suez War in partnership with France and Britain.

In spite of President Eisenhower’s rage at Egypt for switching its arms sources in September 1955 to the Soviet bloc, the decision to launch the Suez War brought onto the three amigos (Britain, France and Israel) the wrath of President Eisenhower as well as and virtually the whole apparatus of the State Department, which had remained very unsympathetic to Israel. (Cf. David Tal (2021) “United States-Israeli Relations (1953-1957) Revisited,” Israel Foreign Relations 26:1, 24-46, https://doi.org/10.2979/israelstudies.26.1.02) However, according to Tal, “Eisenhower aimed to preserve and increase American influence in the Middle East in a way that would not put Israel at risk, but would respond to concerns voiced at home about his policies toward Israel and the surrounding nations” with a “policy of ‘friendly impartiality’ toward Israel, attentiveness to Israel’s military and economic needs, and sensitivity to the views of American Jewry.”

In the American position as articulated by Khalidi, Egypt only launched its rearmament program in 1955 in response to Israeli militancy and only turned to the USSR for arms because they had been turned down by the Americans. For even though the Americans were wary of entanglement with Israel, “every US administration since Harry Truman’s has been staffed by people making policy on Palestine whose views indicate that they believe Palestinians, whether or not they exist, are lesser beings than Israelis.” I have already suggested that such a claim had no factual basis that I have been able to find.

The surprise is the way Khalidi put the situation. The government (of Egypt) “ordered its military intelligence services to help the Palestinian militants they had previously suppressed to launch operations against Israel. The response to this new development was not long in coming, and it was devastating. Thus a few bloody raids launched in the early 1950s by small Palestinian militant groups, actions taken against the wishes of most Arab governments, ultimately led to Israel launching the Suez War of October 1956.” In other words, though Israel initiated the war, it was instigated by Palestinian raids.

In that short war and the effort to round up feda’yin, Israel was accused of atrocities in Gaza:

  • Nov. 3: executing 275 male Palestinians in Khan Yunis
  • Nov. 12: killing 111 in Rafah Camp
  • Nov. 1-21: 66 were shot.

Total 458

At the time, Israel neither acknowledged nor denied any wrongdoing.

However, superiority in training, discipline and equipment wins wars, not brutality. That was confirmed in spades by the events of The Six Day War in 1967. Rashid Khalidi is correct. While I at the time was shaking in my boots – in total contradiction to my anti-Zionist sentiments at the time – absolutely fearful to the very marrow of my bones that Israel would be annihilated and thrown into the sea – Israeli military superiority guaranteed it a crushing victory over the combined forces of Egypt, Syria and Jordan. Israel was not in existential peril as I feared. This did not mean that I gave Israel my blanket support. When Israel won such a swift and decisive victory, I was deeply relieved. I was also determined to shut my critical mouth until I learned a lot more about the Israeli-Arab conflict and, more importantly, about my deeply conflicted mental outlook towards the Zionist state. Why had I been so emotionally upset if I did not believe that Israel should exist in the first place?

Khalidi argues that my version at the time of the key cause of open warfare was not Egypt closing the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping. Rather, “A key cause was the rise of militant Palestinian commando groups.” This certainly was an important catalyst as the incursions of militant Palestinian guerillas based in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan had increased significantly. But they did not pose an existential threat to Israel. And that is Khalidi’s precise point – the discrepancy between the propaganda about the cause and the real instigation on the ground.

Much of Egypt’s army and air force was entangled in the Yemen civil war. Egypt had moved troops into the Sinai and demanded the removal of UN peacekeeping forces in response to a series of guerilla attacks on Israel from bases provided by the Syrian regime that had come to power in 1966. By 1967, the USSR was warning Syria of an imminent surprise attack by Israel, which instigated Syria going on full alert. Egypt acted to demonstrate its unambiguous support for Syria. In Cairo, on 30 May, King Hussein signed a mutual defence pact with Egypt. Israel, fearing an attack, initiated a preemptive operation. This was the casus belli that justified Israel’s long-planned air strike against the air power of all three Arab regimes – Egypt, Syria and Jordan.

What is going on here? Is Khalidi justifying the Israeli attacks and tracing them back to Palestinian guerilla action and Egypt-Syria rivalry? He is. For that transforms the conflict into a primarily Israeli-Palestinian one from an Arab-Israeli one. Further, he literally had a front row seat, even though it was located at the back of the visitor’s gallery to the deliberations of the UN Security Council where his father worked in the Division of Political and Security Council Affairs specializing on the Middle East. By the fifth day of the war, the decisive defeat was apparent to all. Israel occupied Gaza, the Sinai Peninsula, East Jerusalem and the West Bank as well as the Golan Heights and was advancing towards Damascus. The UNSC played its typical role and ordered cease fires. Israel ignored the resolutions on the ground at the same time as it accepted them diplomatically and moved against Quneitra forty miles of a flat plain from Damascus. While American ambassador Arthur Goldberg employed delaying tactics in Security Council acrimonious debates, Israel gained an additional nine hours to advance its position.

A new era was in place – “the armored spearheads on the ground were Israeli, while the diplomatic cover was American.” After all, Israel had sought and been given advance approval from the U.S. for a preemptive attack. In Khalidi’s interpretation, UNSC Resolution 242 enabling the ceasefire was the third stake after the 1917 Balfour Declaration and the UNGA 1948 partition resolution driven into the heart of Palestinian self-determination. Once again, the Palestinians had been sold out.


[i] This figure and the distribution of those who fled or were forced out are drawn from my own research.

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