Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The Complex Year Of 1948

Benny Morris is not out to make any friends with his recent book, 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War . Morris became famous in the late 1980s as the father of what has become called the school of New Historians in Israel. He was the first to revisit the State of Israel's history and break through the glorified myths of its founding.

His first book focused on the origins of the "Palestinian Problem" and demonstrated that much of it was caused by Israeli expulsions and even war atrocities designed to scare Arabs into fleeing. This book made him the darling of the Israeli political left and the enemy of the right. (More on Morris, his work and criticisms of it can be found at his Wikipedia page: link.)

This latest book, almost 20 years later, puts the expulsions and scare tactics into their historical context. In excruciating detail, Morris describes the political and military environment as they progressed from the UN's vote partitioning Palestine in November 1947 through the end of fighting in early 1949. Battles are described in minute detail, down to the number of troops and different types of arms on each side. While this makes for slow reading, it gives readers a feel for the pressures, strategies and mistakes on each side, through the progression of the war.

Most significantly, Morris shows that Israeli expulsions of Arabs were almost entirely for strategic reasons. At first they were for military reasons, such as controlling attack routes through which Arab armies were likely to march. Later they were more for political reasons -- the nascent and weak Israeli government was concerned about holding territory that they were incapable of governing. Many of the atrocities were also understandable. For example, in one battle a platoon was forced to retreat without removing their fallen colleagues. When they were able to return to their position, a half hour later, they found the bodies of their collagues mutilated, with their genitals cut off and placed in their mouths. On finding that, they turned around and killed the prisoners of war they had captured. Proper behavior? No, but understandable. There were other atrocities committed, many indefensible (there is never an excuse for rape) and some that even led to jail time for the perpetrators.

Overall, Morris points out that while Israelis committed more misdeeds -- such as killing prisoners and expelling civilians, it was because as the victor they had many more opportunities. Morris also points out that Israeli atrocities are not comparable to those occurring in more recent years, such as in Serbia.

Those on Israel's right will not be happy that Morris is sticking to his claim that Israelis committed atrocities during the war for independence. Those on the left don't want to hear his mitigating explanations of those atrocities. All in all, this is the kind of book that will make Morris unwelcome throughout Israel.

Personally, I don't expect to find that Israeli soldiers acted like perfect gentlemen during that war. Many of those soldiers were right out of concentration camps and were finally able to defend themselves. All of the soldiers were fighting against an enemy that wanted to destroy them, and often an enemy that hid among civilians. Additionally, any war brings out the worst in men. Someone who reads Morris' book with those expectations will be proud of the overall war, even if occasionally disappointed by certain actions and decisions.

Reviews of the book around the web:

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