1948 was a holy war for Arabs, historian says

Historian Benny Morris spoke at McGill. (Photo: Irwin Block)Historian Benny Morris spoke at McGill. (Photo: Irwin Block)

Israeli historian Benny Morris came to town last month for a lecture promising “new perspectives” of the 1948 War – the war to defend and solidify the newly independent Jewish state, called the Nakhba or catastrophe in Arabic.

The McGill lecture, part of a series titled “Anti Semitism in Comparative Perspective,” got off to a rocky start when a pro-Palestinian activist stormed in and accused Morris of being a racist. Facing a hostile reaction from the audience, the man soon departed.

The seminar room overflowed with interested non-students, which seemed to surprise organizer, Michelle Whiteman, acting for the New York-based sponsor, Institute for the Study of Global Anti-Semitism and Policy. Kosher pizza arrived promptly for McGill students, but others—professors, authors, journalists, and non-students
passionate about Israel, were forced to stand and sit on the floor.

Much of the material in the speech is covered in Morris’s book, the magisterial 1948: The First Arab-Israeli War. Some in the audience, who had not read the book and were unfamiliar with the historiography of the conflict, appeared surprised with Morris’s assertion that most of the 700,000- plus displaced Arabs were forced out by the
actions of Jewish forces in the war and did not leave their homes voluntarily.

The thrust of his lecture was that the war was promoted by important figures in the Arab world as a Jihad, or holy war, and not just a struggle for territorial hegemony.

On Dec. 2, 1947, just days after the UN General Assembly passed a resolution to partition historic Palestine into Jewish and Arab-ruled sections, the Ulama or chief scholars of Sunni Islam of Al-Azhar University in Cairo– the leading university of the Arab World– issued a fatwa calling on the world’s Muslims to launch a Jihad to destroy the incipient Jewish state. It was reiterated by the Ulama, in April 1948, days before the Egyptian Army and three other Arab armies attacked Palestine, giving the campaign a “religious imprimatur.” The fatwa was reissued later that year.

“It was clear the Arabs had lost the war,” Morris said, but reissuing the Fatwa signaled it was meant “to stand for future years, for future generations, for whatever bout there will be against the Jews.”

As noted in his book and repeated at the conference, Matiel Mighannam, a Lebanese Christian woman who headed the Arab Women’s Organization in Palestine, affiliated with the Arab High Command, told an interviewer: “The UN decision has united all Arabs as they have never been united before, not even against the Crusaders.” She added that a Jewish state had no chance to survive and “All the Jews will eventually be massacred.”

Morris cited other sources to demonstrate that the conflict was conducted in a climate of Jihad, even if not that many Arab volunteers came to Palestine for the struggle based on the holy-war dictum.

As for goals in the 1947 Arab-Jewish civil war that preceded the invasion of historic Palestine by Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Jordan, “the Jewish community fought for its survival.”

In March-April 1948, the focus shifted as the Jewish community sought to extend the territory beyond the three parcels, or 6,000 square miles of Palestine’s 10,000 square miles, that the UN resolution allocated for Jewish sovereignty. Since the Arab side rejected partition, and an invasion was imminent, the Jewish leadership then
decided to expand its territorial allotm ent by an additional 2,000 square miles.

A third war aim, Morris asserted was “to reduce the number of Arabs in the Jewish state as it emerged – if you like, to expel Arabs. The idea of expelling the Arabs was never adopted as policy by any of the major political parties, the cabinet, or the general staff of the army,” he said.

“But there was an atmosphere of transfer. Some units kicked out Arabs, and the government decided in June 1948 not to allow refugees to return, a decision, which was periodically reiterated. This can be seen as an expulsive decision, but that’s the expulsive element of official policy.”

As for Palestinian war aims, the researcher faces a formidable obstacle because of a lack of archival material. “We don’t have firm proof of what the Palestinians wanted as they went to war, and the Palestinians themselves were disorganized,” he noted. What is clear is that the phrase “throwing the Jews into the sea” appears only very rarely in Palestinian and Arab states’ discourse, he has found.

Morris said the war created two additional refugee problems apart from the 700,000-plus Palestinian Arabs, 500,000 of whom ended up in Gaza, which came under Egyptian control, and the West Bank, then under Jordanian control: some 70,000 Palestinian Jews were internally displaced by the conflict and then, some 700,000-800,000 Jews were compelled to leave their historic homes within Muslim states in the Middle East and North Africa.

“They were all essentially victims of the war,” Morris observed, starting with a pogrom that resulted in 70 Yemeni Jews being murdered in Aden, followed by similar events in Aleppo, Syria, where 75 Jews were slaughtered, and
Bahrain, where shops were looted and the synagogue destroyed. These events “intimidated the Jews into flight,” starting with the Jews of Yemen, and followed by Iraqi and Egyptian Jews in 1948, 1949, and 1950, and then the Jews of North Africa in the late 1950s and 1960s.

Morris blamed the current impasse on Hamas and Fatah, which, he said, were not interested in a two-state solution or making peace with a Jewish state. This is particularly true of Hamas, which rules Gaza, and Fatah leaders, who control the West Bank and the Palestinian Authority, and fear “the Hamas gunmen behind them.

“They feel all of historic Palestine is Arab land.”

He added that the current situation is untenable, seen by the world community as immoral. The Israeli occupation is seen as more painful than the Arab refusal to agree to a compromise settlement, as proposed as recently as 2000 and 2008, he asserted.

“The choice facing Israel: stay in place indefinitely, or withdraw unilaterally, as Israel did in Gaza.”

Any withdrawal should allow some Jewish settlements to remain in the West Bank, he suggested, since there is no logical reason why Jews should be barred from a Palestinian state, while some 1.7 million Arabs account for one-fifth of Israel’s majority Jewish population.


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