The facts about 1948 – An open reply to Dr. Paul Hendler

An open letter to Dr. Paul Hendler in response to the article in the right hand column

From Maurice Ostroff

November 13, 2010

Dear Dr. Hendler

Although. it may be unintentional on your part, your oped of November 3, in the Cape Times misinforms readers and I trust that the facts that I present below will persuade you to issue a correction. (“Why Tutu was right – Behind Israel’s walls – the big lie”)

The Archbishop’s call for a boycott of performances in Israel by Cape Town’s renowned opera troupe was based on his erroneous presumption of apartheid in Israel. But as Tutu made absolutely no reference to Israel’s history, the views you expressed about the 1948 Israel-Arab war are not only inaccurate, they are completely irrelevant to the Archbishop’s call.

One can only wonder whether you have heard of the Hamas Charter when you state categorically that it is a myth that Israel has been and is under threat.

You quote New Historian, Benny Morris to support your view, but I invite readers to read what Benny Morris in fact told the Washington Post on March 11, 2007 and to judge for themselves whether Morris does indeed support you. This is what Morris said “My feeling during the first intifada was that they [the Palestinians] wanted us off their backs … My sense of the second intifada was that they both wanted us off their backs and they wanted to destroy us.

Moreover this is what Benny Morris wrote in a letter to the Irish Times of February 21, 2008. “In defiance of the will of the international community, as embodied in the UN General Assembly Resolution of November 29th, 1947 (No. 181), they [the Arabs] launched hostilities against the Jewish community in Palestine in the hope of aborting the emergence of the Jewish state and perhaps destroying that community. But they lost; and one of the results was the displacement of 700,000 of them from their homes.”

You also reject the historical fact that before 1948 the Jews in Palestine invited the Arabs to remain in the country and participate in the new state. Well, if you are interested in facts, I invite you to visit some of the peaceful Arab villages that accepted the invitation to stay and participate in the new state, which invitation you say was never offered. Take the Arab village of Abu Ghosh for example, that is today very popular for its excellent restaurants. Village leader Mohammed Abu Ghosh has been quoted as saying, “What we did, we did for Abu Ghosh, for nobody else. Others who lost their land, hated us then, but now all over the Arab world, many people see we were right. If everyone did what we did, there’d be no refugee problem . . . And if we were traitors? Look where we are, look where they are“.

Your claim that in 1948 the Jews had superior weapons and numbers is akin to asking readers to believe that the earth is flat.

In this matter I write as an eyewitness who participated in that war. My colleagues and I who took part, know how we were invaded by five armies in a Holy War intent on driving us into the sea – that the invaders included the British trained Jordanian Legion, the powerful, well equipped Egyptian army, navy and air force and the armies of Lebanon, Iraq and Syria.

From day one, Tel Aviv and other strategic targets were attacked and bombed with impunity by Egyptian Spitfires, DC-3 Dakotas and C-47 bombers and the Egyptian Navy bombarded Naharia as well as Tel Aviv. At that stage, Israel had no combat aircraft and no anti-aircraft artillery with which to defend itself.
Map by Saville Kaufman and Maurice Ostroff

Immediately Israel declared its Independence on May 14. 1948, the Arab League declared “Holy War”, with the publicly declared intention of driving the Jews into the sea. Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Egypt and Iraq invaded the newborn state. Among the first to fall were the isolated settlements of the Etzion Bloc, where the town of Efrat now stands.

We know for a fact how desperate and badly equipped we were. That our total population of only 600,000 included women, children and the elderly and that tragically 6,000 of us were killed in the War – i.e. 1% of our entire population, not to mention the seriously wounded.

Arab League Secretary, General Azzam Pasha declared, “This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the Crusades.”

The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin Al Husseini, who had met with Hitler in 1941 and had been involved in recruiting support for Germany among Muslims during WW2 proclaimed, “I declare a Holy War, my Moslem brothers! Murder the Jews! Murder them all!

Israel was left on its own to face the Arab onslaught. No one expected the Jewish State to survive. Even the CIA estimated that the Jews would not last more than a few weeks. But, against all reasonable expectations, Israel survived the onslaught.

On May 14, 1948, when Ben-Gurion proclaimed the State of Israel, he wrote in his diary: “The world was sure that within 10 days, at the most, not a soul would be alive in Israel.”

No less an authority than US Secretary of State George C. Marshall, warned Foreign Minister-to-be Moshe Sharett against signing Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Marshall reportedly told Sharett, “Believe me; I am talking about things about which I know. You are sitting there in the coastal plains of Palestine, while the Arabs hold the mountain ridges”. Contradicting your third hand opinion, Marshall who was deeply involved, said “I know you have some arms and your Haganah, but the Arabs have regular armies. They are well trained and they have heavy arms. How can you hope to survive.

Surprisingly, you accept New historian Illan Pappe’s interpretation of Plan Dalet despite the fact that Pappe is a dubious source of credible information. He strongly supported and continues to support a student, Teddy Katz, whose MA thesis centred on a fictitious massacre at Tantura in 1948 despite it having been proved in the Supreme Court to be a falsehood.

The verifiable facts are that Plan Dalet was defensive, not offensive, prepared in advance of the declaration of the state. It was to be activated only in the event of an attack initiated by the Arab side. This is evident from the text which states:

(a) The objective of this plan is to gain control of the areas of the Hebrew state and defend its borders. It also aims at gaining control of the areas of Jewish settlement and concentration which are located outside the borders [of the Hebrew state] against regular, semi-regular, and small forces operating from bases outside or inside the state…. Generally, the aim of this plan is not an operation of occupation outside the borders of the Hebrew state.

Like most states, including South Africa where you live, Israel is not above criticism, and we who live here are proud of our free press that often criticizes Israel very harshly. May I hope that you will accept the above observations in the constructive spirit intended.

This open letter is being publicized as will the reply I hope to receive from you.


Maurice Ostroff

Nov 3, 2010 Cape Times

Why Tutu was right
Behind Israel’s walls – the big lie

Paul Hendler

ARCHBISHOP Desmond Tutu’s call for a boycott of performances in Israel by South Africans has provoked the ire of the Israeli Embassy, Rhoda Kadalie (who sees critics of Israel as pro-ANC leftists who ignore far worse human rights abuses in our own country) and Sydney Kaye (Cape Times letters, October 28), who implies that Israel is responding legitimately to threats to its existence. The issue here is about historical truth. And how can we be sure of the “facts” that are propagated?

Dominant groups in society (such as the State of Israel in the Middle East) are able to propagate their viewpoints in a hegemonic manner.

It is said: “The truth will always out”; however, truth is elusive, and it has to be sought out, as it does not simply “appear” for all to see (if only they would open their eyes).

Hundreds of years ago, the Catholic Church suppressed Galileo and his heliocentric view of the universe (which today we know is the truth).

In the context of modern democratic rights and the freedom of speech, the views of Tutu and others cannot be suppressed in the same way – but they are systematically rubbished as irrational, devoid of truth and reinforcing an antiSemitic agenda. Their claim that they are in fact fighting a non-racial cause is then set against the alleged racist consequences of their actions, to further undermine them.

That Israel is, and has always been, under threat, from the birth of the state to the present day, is a myth perpetuated by Zionist ideology, and is borne out of the notion that before 1948 the Jews in Palestine invited the Arab Palestinians to remain in the country and participate in the new state.

Supposedly, this generous gesture was rejected by the Arabs who instead opted to leave the land of Palestine while it was being invaded by Lebanese, Iraqi, Syrian, Jordanian and Egyptian troops, on the assumption that they would return on the back of a victorious Arab military victory and drive the Jews into the Mediterranean Sea.

This myth was actively perpetuated by the Zionist youth movement that I participated in during the 1960s. Growing up in the South African Jewish community, less than a quarter of a century after the Holocaust and only a few years after the formation of the State of Israel, my generation internalised this view as the “truth” and it created a moral basis for “our” state which was consistent with our status as God’s chosen people who had almost been obliterated by Nazism.

The myth has been undermined by recent Israeli historiography. For instance, Bennie Morris ( 1948 – the First Arab-Israeli War, 2008) showed that Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Jordan were reluctant to confront the Haganah, Palmach, Irgun and Stern Gang (the Jewish community’s forces, which became the Israeli Defence Force after May 14 1948) because – with the exception of Jordan’s Arab Legion (led by the legendary John Glubb Pasha) – their forces were significantly inferior both in terms of military organisation and hardware.

These countries, as well as the small forces of Arab volunteers which had moved in to support Palestinian villages, were unable to procure arms due to a comprehensive arms embargo enforced by the US and Britain, while the IDF received significant shipments of arms from the Communist bloc.

Arab states’ leaders generally encouraged Palestinians to remain in their villages – with devastating consequences – rather than to flee. This questions the veracity of the “flee, return and drive them into-the sea” assumption.

Economically and politically, Palestinian society was fragmented (the nascent Palestinian movement having been smashed by the British mandatory power during the suppression of the 1936 revolt), hardly a basis for co-ordinated and organised population movement in and out of the country to take strategic advantage of an invasion by a regular force. Besides, why should settled peasants and villagers have trusted regular forces from foreign countries with whom they had little if any contact, to wage war on their behalf, to the extent that they would abandon their homes and livelihoods and run the risk of endemic poverty and displacement should this not have come to pass?

By Morris’s own account, much of the Palestinian population had already fled to inland areas or out of the country altogether by May 15 1948, the day that regular Egyptian, Iraqi, Syrian and Jordanian forces moved into Palestine (the Lebanese forces chose to stay on their side of the border), a flight consequent on armed and violent conflict with Zionists.

Morris’s history remains descriptive rather than analytical. He simply depicts the Palestinian refugees as victims suffering hardships in times of war, which explains nothing about what happened. He undermines, but stops short of challenging, the myth of the benign Israelis and the warlike, irrational Arabs.

Illan Pappe, one of the “new”Israeli historians, did address these questions ( The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, 2006). In 1947 the UN resolved that 499 000 Jews were to share a state with 438 000 Palestinians – these figures are significant because they indicate a tenuous Jewish majority in the designated Jewish state. Pappe found evidence of an elite group, which he refers to as “the Consultancy” (consisting of the heroes of Israel’s War of Independence, including David Ben Gurion), that between June 1947 and May 1948 debated how to create a state with a Jewish majority over as much of Palestine as possible. They came to the conclusion that this could only be achieved through transfer of the Arab population out of the territory. The strategy was encapsulated in Plan Dalet (D), which was a blueprint for ethnic cleansing, which is designated a crime against humanity in international treaties.

The orders which went out to various brigades that constituted the Jewish armed forces often explicitly used Hebrew terms for “cleansing” to describe their operations. Plan D referred explicitly to encircling villages, wiping out resistance and expelling the population beyond the borders of the state.

By September 1948, after the IDF had conquered large parts of the area designated as a Palestinian state, almost 800 000 people had been uprooted, 531 villages destroyed and 11 urban neighbourhoods emptied of their inhabitants. The evidence referred to is the diary of David Ben Gurion (Israel’s first prime minister), in the Ben Gurion archives, the private archive of Israel Galili (who was present at all the meetings of the Consultancy), and interviews with other members who participated in Consultancy meetings. Unlike Morris, Pappe also draws on oral testimony from Palestinian refugees, which he identifies as a serious gap in Morris’s research.

In rejecting the analogy of Zionism with apartheid, Kadalie and her daughter Julia Bertelsmann ( Franchising ‘Apartheid’: Why South Africans Push the Analogy, 2008) argued that apartheid was characterised by job reservation, separate amenities and disenfranchisement of the black majority, which were not actions taken by the Israeli state against its Arab citizens.

Notwithstanding Kadalie’s and the Israeli Embassy’s protestations, both apartheid South Africa and Israel share the fact that ethnic cleansing played a significant role in establishing both systems. In South Africa, between 1960 and 1983, 3.5 million people of colour were forcibly relocated from their homes in areas prescribed for whites, to other group areas, mainly Bantustans (Platzky and Walker, The Surplus people – Forced Removals in South Africa, 1985). As in the case of Zionism, apartheid required ethnically cleansed areas in which the “white population” would be the majority of the citizens. Both apartheid South Africa and Israel can be characterised as societies in which ethno-national control was extended over contested territory, through land ownership and land usage legislation (cf. Kedar and Yiftachel, Land Regime and Social Relations in Israel, in De Soto and Cheneval Realising Property Rights, 2006).

Questioning why Israel is singled out for criticism while other abusers of human rights, such as Robert Mugabe, are not, is a diversionary tactic. Tutu is on record for criticising the regime of Mugabe years ago. He can hardly be called an ANC hack, given his brave and principled stand against Thabo Mbeki regarding the latter’s autocratic style of governance as well as his administration’s policies on Zimbabwe, HIV/Aids and human rights abuses elsewhere in the world that South Africa avoided criticising in the UN.

Unquestioning support for Israel has been based on the assumption that the Jewish people are justified in their actions against the Palestinians (including the 1948 ethnic cleansing) to prevent being annihilated in an anti-Semitic, Gentile world, even if this means covering up or being economical with the truth. A different view of Jewish identity could be that we honour our six million martyrs through committing ourselves to uncovering the truth about all human rights abuses and war crimes, wherever and whenever they occur, and especially when they are committed in our name.

Dr Hendler is an independent analyst of social, political and economic processes and a practitioner who advises on urban development and human settlement.