The Jihad That Wasn't

Reviewed by Yoav Gelber

1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War by Benny Morris
Yale University Press, 2008, 523 pages.

The basic facts of the first Arab-Israeli war are well known but worth repeating. On November 30, 1947, the day after the United Nations General Assembly voted to partition British Mandatory Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, local riots broke out among the country’s Arab population. Under the shadow of the vanishing British Mandate, they spread like wildfire in the following weeks, ultimately engulfing the entire land in a bloody ethnic war between Jews and Arabs.
From December 1947 until the beginning of April 1948, the fighting took place in mixed towns, isolated settlements, the roads leading to them, and the Negev desert. The “civil war” phase of hostilities pitted the defense organization of the Jewish Yishuv—the Hagana—against Palestinian irregulars and volunteers from the Arab states who were organized within the framework of the Arab Liberation Army (ALA), established by the Arab League as an alternative to direct intervention by the Arab states and their regular forces. During this period, fighting was limited to local skirmishes, ambushes, a few Arab attempts to storm Jewish settlements, and retaliatory strikes and preemptive raids by the Hagana on Arab villages and transportation.
The situation changed in April, however, when the final phase of British withdrawal began. With the ruling power gone, the two sides enjoyed much greater freedom of action, and the Hagana exploited the situation to the utmost. Within six weeks, it had defeated and dispersed both the Palestinian combatants and the ALA. In the process, a quarter of a million Palestinians had fled their homes to Arab-held territory or the neighboring Arab states.
The ALA’s disintegration and the collapse of the Palestinians left the Arab governments with no other option but to intervene. Their invasion of Palestine opened a new stage in the war: a full-scale military confrontation between the newborn State of Israel and an alliance of seven Arab countries, which between them mustered four armies—the Egyptian, Transjordanian, Iraqi, and Syrian.
Though it paid a heavy price, the newly formed Israel Defense Forces (IDF) successfully blocked the invasion and retook the initiative. The result was a crushing defeat for the Arabs. Instead of saving the Palestinians, the Arab invasion increased their plight, costing them more territory and creating more refugees. Having entered the war as members of a coalition, the Arab states were forced to end it through separate negotiations in order to avoid the total destruction of their expeditionary forces at the hands of the IDF. These talks produced a series of cease-fire and then armistice agreements between Israel and Egypt, Transjordan, Lebanon, and Syria. The Palestinians, who had started the war, temporarily disappeared from the stage of history. They dispersed as refugees across the entire Middle East and were forgotten by the regional powers and the international community alike.
These are the basic facts regarding the 1947-1948 war, known to Israelis as the “War of Independence” and to Palestinians as the “Nakba”—the catastrophe. About these facts there is almost no dispute. About everything else to do with the war, however, from the smallest details to the grandest strategies, there is nothing but dispute. In this ongoing controversy over the events of 1948, which for both peoples residing in the Land of Israel touches the rawest of nerves, a unique place is reserved for Benny Morris.
A professor of history in the Middle East studies department of Ben-Gurion University, Benny Morris published his first book, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, in 1987 and immediately caused a firestorm of controversy. The book’s impact shifted the public and academic spotlight from Israel’s victory in 1948 to the suffering of the Palestinians during the war and its aftermath. In the years since then, Morris has been attacked by Jewish and Arab historians alike, to say nothing of the vicious criticisms leveled against him by those who have not even read a single one of his works. It is not difficult to understand why: The book profoundly undermined the Israeli narrative of the war, which held that the Arab leadership was responsible for the creation of the refugee problem by calling for the Palestinians to flee, assuring them that they would be able to return in the wake of the victorious Arab armies. This being said, Morris also repudiated the Arab narrative of 1948, which claimed that Israel intentionally expelled the Palestinians according to a prearranged plan. Regrettably, Morris’s Jewish critics ignored this aspect of his work. Arab readers, for their part, did the same, quoting only those select portions of Morris’s book that reinforced their version of events.
Although Morris was at first identified with Israel’s “new historians”—who take a critical and generally pro-Palestinian view of the Arab-Israeli conflict—he gradually integrated into the mainstream of Israeli historiography. Some post-Zionist historians, from whom he has since distanced himself, claim that Morris has changed his political spots in the wake of the second Intifada. These scholars, captive to the post-modern idea that there is no such thing as objective history, refuse to accept the possibility that a true historian relies on the facts to reach his conclusions and does not impose his own convictions or ideology on the evidence, as they themselves tend to do. Morris has not undergone a sudden conversion. Like any good historian, he has simply been influenced by the accumulated source material.
In his most recent book, 1948, Benny Morris returns to the War of Independence and examines it from a comprehensive perspective. The book lays out the political and diplomatic background of the war, analyzes the aims and strategy of the belligerents, and describes the development of the refugee problem. Most prominently, it deals with the military aspects of the confrontation: the balance of forces between the rival armies; their organization, training, and strategy; and, above all, the story of the war itself—the actions and operations of the forces in the field. Morris’s aim in 1948 appears to have been to write the definitive account of the War of Independence. And indeed, he almost succeeds in doing so—with emphasis on the word “almost.”
So many books have already been written about the 1948 war that it is difficult for any historian to come up with a completely original perspective on the subject. From time to time, laborious archival research leads to new discoveries, but most historians work along lines of investigation that have already been laid out for some time. Although 1948 is, primarily, a synthesis, Morris does propose two important innovations that will likely arouse considerable discussion.
The first concerns the political struggle that took place behind the scenes at the UN before and during the November 29, 1947, vote on partition. Morris deftly explicates the remarkable diplomatic developments that took place between Britain’s decision to submit the question of Palestine to the UN in February 1947 and the vote on partition nine months later: the establishment of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP); the Exodus affair, which took place while the UNSCOP commissioners were visiting Palestine; the kidnapping and execution of two British sergeants by the Irgun, etc. The most fascinating part of this chapter deals with the Jewish Agency’s efforts to mobilize international support for the UNSCOP recommendations in order to secure the required two-thirds majority in the General Assembly. Morris also provides a sharp analysis of the rivalries—both overt and covert—between the various Arab states, and the mutual suspicions that obstructed their military preparations and ensured the failure of any potentially advantageous political coalition between them.
The second innovation offered by Morris is a pioneering attempt to put the war of 1948 in the context of the “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West. In order to prove this, Morris quotes from the public statements of Arab leaders, such as the Saudi king Ibn Saud; representatives of the religious establishment, such as the ulamah (a council of religious scholars) of al-Azhar University; and spokesmen for popular Islamic movements, the Muslim Brotherhood foremost among them. During 1948 and even before, all of these figures made explicit references to the prevailing hostility between Muslims and Jews that has marked their relationship since the seventh century. They emphasized the holiness of Palestine and exalted the righteousness of the “martyrs” who volunteered to die for it. To strengthen his claim, Morris also quotes comments by Western diplomats like Alec Kirkbride, the British envoy to Transjordan, who reported on the eve of the Arab invasion that “no Muslim can contemplate the holy places falling into Jewish hands.”
On the basis of this evidence, Morris argues that the 1948 war was not a struggle between competing nationalisms, but, in fact, a Muslim holy war against the hated agents of the West. Many in the Arab world, he claims, saw the assault on the Yishuv as a jihad intended to save the holy places of Jerusalem from the infidels. According to Morris, most historians tend to ignore this aspect of the war and the religious rhetoric that accompanied it. They prefer, he claims, to present it as a solely national struggle—which it was not.
Undoubtedly, this is a daring and provocative idea. There may be something in it, but Morris raises it only in the concluding chapter of 1948, and, as a result, his analysis of the supposedly jihadist nature of the war is decidedly limited. Put bluntly, the evidence he presents to support his thesis is simply insufficient.
Emblematic of the problem is Morris’s reliance on statements made by Ibn Saud regarding the Jews and Zionism. While it is true that Wahhabi Saudi Arabia has long been known as the most extreme of the Arab states in its relationship to Zionism, it is important to note that the Saudis did not take part in any of the Arab-Israeli wars. It appears, therefore, that despite his rhetoric, religion played at best a secondary role in Ibn Saud’s foreign policy. His interest in Palestine stemmed more from his desire to constrain his rivals, the Hashemites, than from his opposition to the Jewish Yishuv. It is therefore difficult to see a letter he sent in 1943 to President Roosevelt as convincing proof of the essentially religious character of a war which broke out five years after it was written.
The other statements Morris quotes also fail to tip the scales in his favor. A single comment on the issue by Transjordanian politician Samir al-Rifa’i to the effect that “the Jews are a people to be feared…. Give them another twenty-five years and they will be all over the Middle East” is particularly slight evidence considering al-Rifa’i’s involvement in the negotiations between the Jewish Agency and King Abdullah of Transjordan both before and after the war. Nor was al-Rifa’i in any way opposed to the West. Moreover, King Abdullah’s two proclamations about liberating the holy places—issued in February and April 1948 and reported by Kirkbride—can be easily explained by motivations other than religious zeal. The second declaration, for instance, was directed at his Arab allies no less—and perhaps more—than the Jews.
One cannot escape the feeling that, in general, Morris grants far too much importance to the militant Islamic rhetoric of the period in question. If, as the Muslim Brotherhood declared in 1938, the fight for Palestine was the inescapable duty of every Muslim—an obligation which the mufti of Cairo reiterated ten years later—there is no way to avoid the conclusion that the Muslims of the time were not particularly zealous. There appears to have been a wide discrepancy between the fiery rhetoric of Muslim religious leaders—particularly in Egypt—and the practical response of the faithful. Indeed, one suspects that Morris’s interpretation of this particular aspect of the war is somewhat anachronistic and is perhaps unduly influenced by current trends in the Muslim world—specifically the rise of Al-Qaida, Hamas, Hezbollah, and other radical Islamic organizations. 

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