Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Jihad, 1948

May 10th in Toronto was Palestine's House commemoration of 60 years since the al-Nakba began. For those not up to the Pally-lingo 'Nakba' or the 'catastrophe' began when five Arab armies declared war on the nascent Jewish state in 1948. Call it the logical consequences of being on the perpetual losing side of war.

Not to be too coy about it - the goal of the five Arab armies was to destroy the Jewish state. If the Arab armies had been successful, Israel would not exist and one can be reasonably sure - neither would Palestine. I suspect the borders of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt would all be considerably larger than they are now. Think I am wrong? Then ask yourself just why Jordan did not establish an autonomous state in the West Bank? Ditto for Egypt and the Gaza Strip. Alternatively, you could just review the history of the Syrian adventures in Lebanon.

Anyways, Benny Morris (yes that Benny 'Zionist Headache' Morris) has a new book out which really sounds interesting called, Jihad, 1948. The Jerusalem Post offers this review to tempt me:
Morris's new book, called 1948, reshapes half a century's published research on the first Arab-Israeli war, vitalizes it with his own extensive archival forays and weaves a tale so gripping that even an informed reader feels he is learning about the country's early history for the first time. (Disclosure: This writer worked at the desk next to Morris's in the newsroom of The Jerusalem Post when the world was younger.)

Morris's book on the refugees, which brought him international renown when published two decades ago, made him a hero to the political Left, which saw him boldly acknowledging the plight inflicted on the Palestinians by Israel. It made him anathema to the political Right, which saw him gratuitously granting comfort and political ammunition to the country's enemies. In subsequent interviews, Morris made it clear that both sides had him wrong: The tragedy which overtook the Palestinians was something that merited an honest historical account, he argued, but not an apology. The Arabs had started the war with the intention of driving out or annihilating the Jews. Furthermore, he says, if a large, demonstrably hostile and fast-growing Arab minority had subsequently remained in place, a Jewish state would not have taken root.

Despite the new book's title, the story it tells begins in 1881 with the onset of modern Jewish settlement in Palestine; the chapters devoted to the pre-1948 years are among Morris's most absorbing. A sense of déjà vu that the book sometimes evokes comes from recognition that the underlying state of play a century ago and 60 years ago is often still the state of play today.

The 1948 war was a conflict between two national movements, but something else underlay the passions, says Morris. "It was also a jihad. 'To wipe out the infidel' - that's what drove the masses in the squares of Cairo and Baghdad to demand war and that's what drove the Arab leadership in making war. I don't know how much they were thinking about the Palestinians."

The Jews were divided into contentious political camps but it was rare for them to employ violence against each other and they proved able to achieve broad unity on major issues in orderly fashion. However, differences within the Palestinian camp - between militants led by the Husseini family and the more moderate faction led by the Nashashibis - were bloody and debilitating to the Palestinian cause, a theme echoed in the current Hamas-Fatah face-off. Lack of common purpose was in abundant evidence. The Nashashibis as well as the Husseinis publicly condemned the influx of Jews but both secretly sold land to them and hundreds of Arabs collaborated with the Zionist intelligence agencies.

MORRIS DIVIDES the war into two segments. The "civil war" between Jewish Palestinians and Arab Palestinians, the latter supported by volunteers from Arab countries, lasted from December 1947 to May 1948. The militias had initial successes in cutting roads to Jewish settlements and imposing a siege on Jerusalem, but when the Hagana went over to the offensive in April it was able to decisively crush them.

The major test came when 20,000 troops from the Egyptian, Jordanian, Syrian and Iraqi armies crossed into Palestine following Israel's declaration of independence on May 14. (The Lebanese army did not cross the border but provided some artillery support. Israeli troops did later cross into Lebanon.) On paper, the Hagana outnumbered the invading Arab forces, but half the 30,000-person Jewish army, says Morris, was made up of rear-echelon troops, while the Arab contingents were all combat units. No less important, the Jews had no artillery when the war began and virtually no tanks, while the Arab forces had both.

"At this stage, when the Jews didn't have heavy equipment, motivation was a critical factor. They really did stop tanks with Molotov cocktails at Deganya and elsewhere, and at Kibbutz Nirim 60 members and a few Palmahnikim really did fight off 600 Egyptians."

Although the dispatch of the four armies to the Palestinian arena was seemingly a high point of Arab unity, that soon proved illusory. There was no effective joint command and each army had its own agenda. The clearest was that of Jordan's Arab Legion. King Abdullah intended initially to seize only territories assigned to the Arabs by the UN partition resolution. He changed his plan so as to include Jerusalem - designated by the UN as an international enclave - when the Jews began attacks on the Old City and he feared the loss of the Muslim holy places, says Morris. But he never attacked areas assigned by the partition plan to the Jews.

"The Jordanians came into the war to take the West Bank. The other armies were out to destroy Israel if they could but, if not, then to take as much land as they could and also to prevent the Jordanians from taking too much." The Egyptians, driving up the coast toward Tel Aviv, sent a column northeast through Hebron to Jerusalem not to support the Jordanians but, says Morris, in an effort to prevent the southern part of what became the West Bank from falling into Jordanian hands. Israeli attacks forced the Egyptians back.

The Jordanians blocked the road to Jerusalem at Latrun not with the intention of cutting off and capturing the Jewish half of Jerusalem as the Israelis believed, but to prevent the passage of Israeli reinforcements that might enable the Jews in Jerusalem to capture the Arab half of the city. Although Jordanian armored cars were stopped, with Molotov cocktails, when the Legion attempted to capture Notre Dame monastery on the seam between the two halves of the city, it had no intention of risking a plunge into the built-up Jewish neighborhoods. One of the first things the Jordanians did, says Morris, was to disarm the Palestinian militias and incorporate the West Bank into Jordan in defiance of the UN resolution and of the Palestinian elite who wanted a Palestinian state.
Who knows, maybe I should buy a copy, read it, and then, donate it to Palestine House – Toronto Victim Chapter.

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