1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War

By Streicker, Joel | Shofar, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War


Streicker, Joel, Shofar


1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War, by Benny Morris. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008. 524 pp. $32.50.

Benny Morris's new book gives no hint of the controversies that have swirled around his historical work and political pronouncements for rhe past rwo decades. He is best known as a founder of the new historians' school, which has dedicated itself to critiquing normative Israeli assumptions about the founding and nature of the state. In particular, his earlier work argued that Israel's leaders were responsible for creating the Palestinian refugee problem in prosecuting the 1948 War of Independence. After he published The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, in 1988, 1948 and After, in 1994, and Righteous Victims, in 1999, mainstream historiography and ordinary Israelis could no longer comfortably deny the murder and expulsion of Palestinian civilians during the War of Independence.

Understandably despised by the right, he has also been criticized by historians on the left for his work's supposed pro-Israel bias. Lately, Morris has also gained notoriety for statements that the massacres and expulsions were necessary given the threat of genocide faced by the nascent state. Moreover, in the wake of the second intifada, Morris has expressed pessimism about Arab interest in a lasting peace with Israel. Morris's new book, 1948, is both consistent with his earlier work on the 1948 War and a radical departure.

The bulk of the book consists of a detailed, workmanlike account of the war. The tone is sober, straight out of the just-the-facts-ma'am school of history writing - there is no conceptualizing or situating of the work within the context of contemporary historical debates. Description of military strategy and tactics predominate, along with consideration of how the political and, to a lesser degree, social environment placed constraints on and provided opportunities for both Israeli and Arab leaders in their conduct of the war.

Readers interested in military strategy and tactics will appreciate the book's comprehensiveness on this score, while others will be drawn in by the sheer drama of the war, with its interweaving of military and political action, told clearly and swiftly. However, a book that concentrates so heavily on battle will also inevitably suffer from nearly inscrutable passages. Even with the book's excellent maps, developments are at times difficult to follow for readers who do not know the area's geography well or who are unfamiliar with military concepts.

Nevertheless, I suspect that most readers will focus more on Morris's conclusions, which are restricted to the book's short final chapter. And well they should, as there the author brings together a number of critical points sprinkled throughout the narrative. Moreover, nearly all figure prominently in current arguments regarding the respective sides' claims to sympathy, moral superiority, and historical justice.

Morris's conclusions regarding the fact that civilian massacres by Israelis were an important factor in creating the Palestinian refugee problem are consistent with his previous work. As in that work, Morris in 1948 narrates how Israelis murdered civilians on a number of occasions, precipitating Palestinian flight, and in other instances also expelled Arab villagers.

However, Morris retreats from assertions in his earlier work that the Zionist leadership embraced a doctrine of expulsion before and during the war. On the contrary, Morris argues that expulsion was never central to Zionist ideology or Israeli military-political strategy. The Israeli impulse to expel Palestinians emerged in response to the Arab leadership's own fierce expulsionist rhetoric, as well as to European antisemitism. Nevertheless, the killings were mostly limited to the civil war phase, in which neither side had the capability of creating prisoner of war camps because the British were still in control of Palestine. …

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