In an Al-Monitor article ironically titled “The tragedy of Palestinian revisionism,” veteran Israeli columnist Ben Caspit engages in his own shameful revisionism about the roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the reasons for its persistence. In the process, he reveals his own deeply bigoted attitude, historical ignorance, and intellectual dishonesty.
Caspit’s commentary—including what he patronizingly terms “a crash course in history”—is essentially an outraged rejoinder to another article published previously by Al-Monitor, a report about Acre, a “mixed” Jewish-Palestinian city in Israel, written by West Bank-based Palestinian writer and editor Linah Alsaafin.
Caspit launches his assault on Alsaafin’s article by openly denying “the ‘ethnic cleansing’” of Palestine, his use of quotation marks around the phrase signifying his belief that it wasn’t really ethnic cleansing at all. He writes that Alsaafin merely “contends” Palestine was ethnically cleansed in 1948, presenting it as though it is a completely unsupported claim rather than a well-documented historical fact.
He offers his readers a “short reminder” that in 1947, the United Nations “adopted a historic decision to partition the land of Israel between Arabs and Jews.” Even though the “area that was awarded to the Jews was much smaller than the area of the historic land of Israel,” the Israelis showed their willingness to compromise by reluctantly accepting.
On the other hand, the recalcitrant Arabs, who never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity, made their “first fatal mistake” by rejecting partition. Instead, they raised the Goliath force of “seven regular Arab armies” that “invaded” the “practically defenseless” new state of Israel. Playing the role of David, Israel, Caspit argues, had a “negligible” military with “neither weapons nor soldiers.”
The defenseless, weaponless Israel “nevertheless was able to vanquish its enemies and even expand the areas under its control.”
Where to begin dissecting this nonsense?
The “UN Created Israel” Myth
First of all, the United Nations emphatically did not create the state of Israel. This is a popular myth.
U.N. General Assembly Resolution 181 neither partitioned Palestine nor conferred to the Zionist leadership under David Ben-Gurion any legal authority for the May 14, 1948 unilateral declaration establishing the state of Israel.
Caspit’s comparison between the Biblical land of Israel and the U.N-proposed area for the Jewish state is irrelevant. As the fact-finding King-Crane Commission appointed by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson pointed out in 1919, the Zionists’ claim “that they have a ‘right’ to Palestine, based on an occupation of 2,000 years ago, can hardly be seriously considered.”
What is relevant, however, is that the majority Arabs owned more land in every single district in Palestine, and that at the time of the unilateral declaration of Israel’s existence, the Jewish community owned only about 6.9% of the land.
The U.N. Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) observed in its 1947 report that Arabs were “in possession of approximately 85 percent of the land.” A subcommittee further observed that “The bulk of the land in the Arab State,as well as in the proposed Jewish state, is owned and possessed by Arabs” (emphasis added).
UNSCOP, nevertheless, offered its majority proposal that the Jewish state be comprised of 55% of the land of Palestine.
In other words, the committee, operating within the historical framework of Western colonialism and racism, recommended that land be taken away from the Arabs so that it could be given to the Jews. The UNSCOP report explicitly rejected the right of self-determination for the Arab Palestinians, saying this principle was “not applied to Palestine, obviously because of the intention to make possible the creation of the Jewish National Home there.”
This rejection of Arab rights was in violation of the spirit and letter of the very U.N. Charter under which the committee was operating, which enshrined self-determination as a universal right that the organization was ostensibly intended to uphold.
Naturally, the Arabs rejected this racist proposal that explicitly denied them their rights, as though they were somehow less than human.
In his own telling, however, Caspit casts Arabs as genetically predisposed to rejectionism. “If the Arabs had said ‘Yes’ back in the day,” he writes, “what we would have seen today is a prosperous Palestinian state over more than half the territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. But Arabs — as they invariably do — said, ‘No.’”
The Zionist Military Goliath
Caspit’s claim that the Jews were defenseless, having no weapons or soldiers, is clearly a fiction as the combined Arab forces could not possibly have been defeated had the proto-Israeli forces been as weak as Caspit suggests.
In fact, the Zionists had an established and very capable paramilitary force, the Haganah (“defense” in Hebrew), which had been in existence for nearly three decades. Furthermore, the Zionist fighting forces actually outnumbered the indigenous Palestinian resistance groups between December 1947 and May 1948, when the State of Israel was unilaterally declared into existence. From May 1948 to January 1949, when the Armistice Agreements were signed between Israel and Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, as Israeli historian Benny Morris has written, “[I]t was superior Jewish firepower, manpower, organization, and command and control that determined the outcome of battle.”
There were also a number of armed Jewish militias, such as the terrorist organizations Irgun and the Stern Gang, which participated alongside the Haganah in the ethnic cleansing of the indigenous Palestinian population, including the infamous massacre that took place at Deir Yassin on April 9, 1948.
The Deir Yassin massacre came one month before the Arab armies supposedly “invaded” the “defenseless” new nation.
By the time Israeli statehood was declared, 300,000 Arabs had already been ethnically cleansed from the land that would become the “Jewish state”.
When the armistice agreements were signed in 1949, three-quarters of a million Palestinians had already been forcibly expelled from or fled their homes in fear of further massacres.
This was not an unexpected outcome. The ethnic cleansing of the Arabs of Palestine had long been planned by the Zionist leadership.
Ethnic Cleansing and Transfer
The King-Crane Commission, for instance, reported nearly three decades before that in discussions with representatives of the Zionist movement, “the fact came out repeatedly … that the Zionists looked forward to a practically complete dispossession of the present non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine.”
The Zionists’ military offenses against defenseless Arab villages began in late 1947.
In March 1948, the Zionist leadership formalized its policy of ethnic cleansing with “Plan D” (for Dalet, the fourth letter of the Hebrew alphabet), which outlined how a “compulsory transfer”, as David Ben-Gurion called it, would be carried out; namely, by destroying villages, wiping out any indigenous resistance, and expelling the Arab population.
Months later, as the prospect of an Arab response to Zionist terror and violence became a possibility, Ben-Gurion told his military commanders in the Haganah that they should not be deterred or distracted by any potential offensive measures taken by Arab armies, because “the cleansing of Palestine remained the prime objective of Plan Dalet.”
Neighboring Arab states barely managed to muster a response to the ethnic cleansing operations. It was not until after the Zionists declared the state of Israel (without defining its borders) that neighboring states sent military forces, including voluntary militias, to help defend the Palestinians from the Zionists’ offensive operations.
Most of the fighting took place in areas UNSCOP had designated as belonging to the future proposed Arab State.
Of all the Arab armies, Jordan’s Arab Legion was the strongest contingent and only actively defended the territory today known as the West Bank as part of what Israeli historian Ilan Pappé has referred to as a “tacit alliance King Abdullah had made with the Zionist movement.”
Beyond this, the Arab armies were uncoordinated, their supply lines inadequate, and what antiquated and often inoperable weapons they had were scarce due to an embargo put in place by their usual suppliers Britain and France. Meanwhile, Israeli forces were being regularly armed and equipped by the ascendant Soviet Union and in its nascent proxies in Europe.
Denying Palestinian Existence
Caspit ignorantly remarks that “Arabs have only themselves to blame” for the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who became refugees as a result of the ethnic cleansing.
He continues by announcing that “Palestine is a state that has never existed”. He writes that, in 1947, “there was no Palestine, only the British Mandate.”
He goes even further with the racist assertion that “The Palestinian people and the Palestinian state are a modern invention” with “no history”; “There were never such a people”, he declares, until Israel began its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967.
While it is true that Palestine was never recognized as an independent state, the fact remains that the territory, formerly part of the Ottoman Empire, was known for millennia as “Palestine.” The indigenous inhabitants of the land have long been referred to as Palestinians, by foreigners and natives alike.
For instance, from 1911 to 1948, a biweekly newspaper called Filastin, published in Jaffa by the journalist and poet Issa Daoud El-Issa and his cousin Yusef, consistently called upon Christian and Muslim “Palestinians” to oppose Zionist colonization and support Palestinian nationalism and independence.
What Caspit calls only the “British Mandate” in his effort to deny Palestine’s existence was in fact formally known as “The Palestine Mandate”, by which the League of Nations appointed Great Britain as the Mandatory (i.e., Occupying Power) for “the administration of the territory of Palestine” until such time as it became independent (Palestine was the only one of the formerly Mandated territories whose independence was not ever recognized, for the racist and colonialist reason already discussed).
Caspit’s argument here rests on the implicit racist logic that since the Arab Palestinians had never exercised self-determination, it was legitimate to continue denying them that right—a familiar refrain in Zionist propaganda that dates back years before Israel even came into existence.
The essence of this racist ideology was outlined by Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann. In a May 1918 letter to Lord Arthur Balfour (for whom the infamous “Balfour Declaration” was named), Weizmann railed against the way Britain was administering its occupation of Palestine during the First World War, as “their only guide in this difficult situation was the democratic principle, which reckons with the relative numerical strength, and the brutal numbers operate against us, for there are five Arabs to one Jew.” As such, he worried that “the present state of affairs would necessarily tend towards the creation of an Arab Palestine, if there were an Arab people in Palestine.”
His meaning was not that there were no Arabs inhabiting the land, but that they did not meet the criteria for a “people”, and thus their right to self-determination could easily be denied. He further noted that Palestinians—whom he described as “treacherous” and “arrogant”—would have no success in galvanizing a national movement as he deemed the indigenous peasants to be “at least four centuries behind the times,” while their moneyed countrymen were “dishonest, uneducated, greedy, and as unpatriotic as he is inefficient.”
David Ben-Gurion echoed this racist sentiment in 1936, declaring that “there is no conflict between Jewish and Palestinian nationalism because the Jewish Nation is not in Palestine and the Palestinians are not a nation.”
Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir more famously reiterated this racist Zionist propaganda in 1969, “It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.”
How very puzzling, then, that Ben-Gurion would refer to this nonexistent people in 1936 when describing the Arab revolt that year as “an active resistance by the Palestinians to what they regard as a usurpation of their homeland by the Jews” (emphasis added; note that in his usage, “Palestinians” referred specifically to the Arabs, even though the term was also used at the time to refer to native Jewish inhabitants of the territory).
Caspit attempts to further characterize Palestinian statelessness as resulting from the Palestinians’ decision to spurn generous Israeli offers, first under Ehud Barak and again under Ehud Olmert, “to get back 95% of the area that was occupied in 1967.”
In fact, according to Dr. Ron Pundak, who was a member of the official Israeli negotiating team at the 2000 Camp David negotiations Caspit refers to, Barak initially demanded the Palestinians accept Israeli annexation of 12% of the West Bank, with no territorial compensation.
By the end of the talks, Barak was still demanding the Palestinians cede 9% of their land in the West Bank to Israel with only 1% of Israeli land as compensation.
The claim that Barak “offered 95% and an additional 5% in compensation,” Pundak wrote, “is an attempt at rewriting history.”
Barak also insisted, of course, on annexation of occupied East Jerusalem, a non-starter for Palestinian negotiators.
Similarly, as the Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported, what Olmert demanded of the Palestinians in his 2008 proposal was that they accept Israeli annexation of nearly 7% of some of the best West Bank land with a less than a one-to-one land swap consisting mostly of areas in the Judean Desert.
Another condition Olmert placed on the Palestinian Authority was that it oust the elected Hamas government in Gaza. And, of course, Olmert also insisted on annexation of East Jerusalem.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas understandably dismissed the offer as a “waste of time.”
Such proposals from Israel are “concessions” only in terms of what Israel wants. In terms of what either party isentitled to under international law, Israel has conceded nothing; every single legal concession has come from the Palestinian side, which has already given up 78% of the land of Mandate Palestine to the state of Israel and seeks to establish its own state on only 22% of historic Palestine.
Under international law, every inch of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, are “occupied Palestinian territory.” Why should the Palestinians settle for anything less than their rights? How is it that the side expected to surrender its rights and make all concessions is characterized as the unreasonable party?
Consensus and Rejection
Caspit closes his article by declaring that the only reason the Palestinians do not already have a state is because they refuse to accept international consensus on a two-state solution, which calls for complete Israeli withdrawal and the establishment of a Palestinian state along the pre-June 1967 lines, with minor and mutually agreed revisions to the final border.
The truth is just the opposite: the Palestinians have long accepted the two-state solution, and it is Israel that has long rejected it. Indeed, the U.S.-led, so-called “peace process” is the strategy by which the United States and Israel have long blocked implementation of this solution.
In fact, Israel’s rejection of the two-state solution has been explicit.
For instance, in a speech to the Knesset on October 5, 1995, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin explained what the Oslo agreements meant in declaring that “the permanent solution lies in the territory of the State of Israel made up of Eretz Yisra’el as it was under the British Mandate”, with “a Palestinian entity” that is “less than a state” serving as an enclave where the Palestinians can reside.
“We will not return to the lines of 4 June 1967,” Rabin declared, as called for under U.N. Security Council Resolution 242.
Current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu similarly outlined Israel’s explicitly rejectionist policy in June 2009, which has been reiterated numerous times since.
Among Israel’s current demands in negotiations with the Palestinians are that, in addition to ceding major swaths of the West Bank where Israeli settlements have been constructed in violation of international law, the Palestinians must recognize Israel as a “Jewish state,” meaning they must surrender the internationally recognized right of refugees to return to their homeland and accept the ethnic cleansing of Palestine and confiscation of Arab land as legitimate.
The Israelis also refuse to allow the Palestinians to exercise sovereignty over their own territory. Instead, their “state”—if that is what they choose to call it—must remain “demilitarized,” meaning they must effectively surrender their right to self-defense.
Israel would maintain control over Palestinian airspace, as well as its borders, including along the Jordan River.
The title of Caspit’s article is, ironically enough, appropriate. But the real tragedy is the dishonest revisionism about the conflict offered by him and others who share his inherently racist attitude and propensity for intellectually bankrupt arguments.