By Efraim Karsh, head of Mediterranean Studies at King’s College, University of
London, and the author most recently of Islamic Imperialism: A History (Yale).
Mr. Karsh gratefully acknowledges the generosity of Roger and Susan Hertog in
supporting the research on which the present article is based.
Sixty years after its establishment by an internationally recognized act of
self-determination, Israel remains the only state in the world that is subjected to
a constant outpouring of the most outlandish conspiracy theories and blood
libels; whose policies and actions are obsessively condemned by the
international community; and whose right to exist is constantly debated and
challenged not only by its Arab enemies but by segments of advanced opinion
in the West.
During the past decade or so, the actual elimination of the Jewish state has
become a cause celebre among many of these educated Westerners. The
“one-state solution”, as it is called, is a euphemistic formula proposing the
replacement of Israel by a state, theoretically comprising the whole of historic
Palestine, in which Jews will be reduced to the status of a permanent minority.
Only this, it is said, can expiate the “original sin” of Israel’s founding, an
act built (in the words of one critic) “on the ruins of Arab Palestine” and
achieved through the deliberate and aggressive dispossession of its native
This claim of premeditated dispossession and the consequent creation of the
longstanding Palestinian ‘refugee problem’ forms, indeed, the central plank in
the bill of particulars pressed by Israel’s alleged victims and their Western
supporters. It is a charge that has hardly gone undisputed.
As early as the mid-1950’s, the eminent American historian J.C.
Hurewitz undertook a systematic refutation, and his findings were abundantly
confirmed by later generations of scholars and writers. Even Benny Morris, the
most influential of Israel’s revisionist “new historians”, and one who went out
of his way to establish the case for Israel’s “original sin”, grudgingly stipulated
that there was no “design” to displace the Palestinian Arabs.
The recent declassification of millions of documents from the period of the
British Mandate (1920-1948) and Israel’s early days, documents untapped by
earlier generations of writers and ignored or distorted by the “new historians”,
paint a much more definitive picture of the historical record. They reveal that
the claim of dispossession is not only completely unfounded but the inverse of
the truth. What follows is based on fresh research into these documents, which
contain many facts and data hitherto unreported.
Far from being the hapless objects of a predatory Zionist assault, it was
Palestinian Arab leaders who from the early 1920’s onward, and very much
against the wishes of their own constituents, launched a relentless campaign to
obliterate the Jewish national revival.
This campaign culminated in the violent attempt to abort the UN
resolution of November 29, 1947, which called for the establishment of two
states in Palestine. Had these leaders, and their counterparts in the neighboring
Arab states, accepted the UN resolution, there would have been no war and no
dislocation in the first place.
The simple fact is that the Zionist movement had always been amenable to the
existence in the future Jewish state of a substantial Arab minority that would
participate on an equal footing “throughout all sectors of the country’s public
life”. The words are those of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founding father of the
branch of Zionism that was the forebear of today’s Likud party.
In a famous 1923 article, Jabotinsky voiced his readiness “to take an
oath binding ourselves and our descendants that we shall never do anything
contrary to the principle of equal rights, and that we shall never try to eject
Eleven years later, Jabotinsky presided over the drafting of a constitution for
Jewish Palestine. According to its provisions, Arabs and Jews were to share
both the prerogatives and the duties of statehood, including most notably
military and civil service. Hebrew and Arabic were to enjoy the same legal
standing, and “in every cabinet where the prime minister is a Jew, the
vice-premiership shall be offered to an Arab and vice-versa.”
If this was the position of the more ‘militant’ faction of the Jewish national
movement, mainstream Zionism not only took for granted the full equality of the
Arab minority in the future Jewish state but went out of its way to foster
In January 1919, Chaim Weizmann, then the upcoming leader of the
Zionist movement, reached a peace-and-cooperation agreement with the
Hashemite emir Faisal ibn Hussein, the effective leader of the nascent pan-Arab
movement. From then until the proclamation of the state of Israel on May 14,
1948, Zionist spokesmen held hundreds of meetings with Arab leaders at all
levels. These included Abdullah ibn Hussein, Faisal’s elder brother and founder
of the emirate of Transjordan (later the kingdom of Jordan), incumbent and
former prime ministers in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Iraq, senior advisers of
King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud (founder of Saudi Arabia), and Palestinian Arab elites
of all hues.
As late as September 15, 1947, two months before the passing of the UN
partition resolution, two senior Zionist envoys were still seeking to convince
Abdel Rahman Azzam, the Arab League’s secretary-general, that the Palestine
conflict “was uselessly absorbing the best energies of the Arab League”, and
that both Arabs and Jews would greatly benefit “from active policies of
cooperation and development”.
Behind this proposition lay an age-old Zionist hope: that the material
progress resulting from Jewish settlement of Palestine would ease the path for
the local Arab populace to become permanently reconciled, if not positively well
disposed, to the project of Jewish national self-determination.
As David Ben-Gurion, soon to become Israel’s first prime minister, argued in
December 1947: “If the Arab citizen will feel at home in our state, . . . if the
state will help him in a truthful and dedicated way to reach the economic,
social, and cultural level of the Jewish community, then Arab distrust will
accordingly subside and a bridge will be built to a Semitic, Jewish-Arab
On the face of it, Ben-Gurion’s hope rested on reasonable grounds. An inflow of
Jewish immigrants and capital after World War I had revived Palestine’s hitherto
static condition and raised the standard of living of its Arab inhabitants well
above that in the neighboring Arab states.
The expansion of Arab industry and agriculture, especially in the field of
citrus growing, was largely financed by the capital thus obtained, and Jewish
know-how did much to improve Arab cultivation. In the two decades between
the world wars, Arab-owned citrus plantations grew sixfold, as did
vegetable-growing lands, while the number of olive groves quadrupled.
No less remarkable were the advances in social welfare. Perhaps most
significantly, mortality rates in the Muslim population dropped sharply and life
expectancy rose from 37.5 years in 1926-27 to 50 in 1942-44 (compared with
33 in Egypt). The rate of natural increase leapt upward by a third.
That nothing remotely akin to this was taking place in the neighboring
British-ruled Arab countries, not to mention India, can be explained only by the
decisive Jewish contribution to Mandate Palestine’s socioeconomic well-being.
The British authorities acknowledged as much in a 1937 report by a
commission of inquiry headed by Lord Peel: “The general beneficent effect of
Jewish immigration on Arab welfare is illustrated by the fact that the increase in
the Arab population is most marked in urban areas affected by Jewish
development. A comparison of the census returns in 1922 and 1931 shows
that, six years ago, the increase percent in Haifa was 86, in Jaffa 62, in
Jerusalem 37, while in purely Arab towns such as Nablus and Hebron it was
only 7, and at Gaza there was a decrease of 2 percent.”
Had the vast majority of Palestinian Arabs been left to their own devices, they
would most probably have been content to take advantage of the opportunities
afforded them. This is evidenced by the fact that, throughout the Mandate era,
periods of peaceful coexistence far exceeded those of violent eruptions, and the
latter were the work of only a small fraction of Palestinian Arabs.
Unfortunately for both Arabs and Jews, however, the hopes and wishes of
ordinary people were not taken into account, as they rarely are in authoritarian
communities hostile to the notions of civil society or liberal democracy. In the
modern world, moreover, it has not been the poor and the oppressed who have
led the great revolutions or carried out the worst deeds of violence, but rather
militant vanguards from among the better educated and more moneyed classes
So it was with the Palestinians. In the words of the Peel report: “We
have found that, though the Arabs have benefited by the development of the
country owing to Jewish immigration, this has had no conciliatory effect. On
the contrary . . . with almost mathematical precision the betterment of the
economic situation in Palestine meant the deterioration of the political
In Palestine, ordinary Arabs were persecuted and murdered by their alleged
betters for the crime of “selling Palestine” to the Jews. Meanwhile, these same
betters were enriching themselves with impunity. The staunch pan-Arabist Awni
Abdel Hadi, who vowed to fight “until Palestine is either placed under a free
Arab government or becomes a graveyard for all the Jews in the country”,
facilitated the transfer of 7,500 acres to the Zionist movement, and some of his
relatives, all respected political and religious figures, went a step further by
selling actual plots of land.
So did numerous members of the Husseini family, the foremost
Palestinian Arab clan during the Mandate period, including Muhammad Tahir,
father of Hajj Amin Husseini, the notorious mufti of Jerusalem.
It was the mufti’s concern with solidifying his political position that largely
underlay the 1929 carnage in which 133 Jews were massacred and hundreds
more were wounded – just as it was the struggle for political preeminence that
triggered the most protracted outbreak of Palestinian Arab violence in 1936-39.
This was widely portrayed as a nationalist revolt against both the ruling
British and the Jewish refugees then streaming into Palestine to escape Nazi
persecution. In fact, it was a massive exercise in violence that saw far more
Arabs than Jews or Englishmen murdered by Arab gangs, that repressed and
abused the general Arab population, and that impelled thousands of Arabs to
flee the country in a foretaste of the 1947-48 exodus.
Some Palestinian Arabs, in fact, preferred to fight back against their inciters,
often in collaboration with the British authorities and the Hagana, the largest
Jewish underground defense organization. Still others sought shelter in Jewish
neighborhoods. For despite the paralytic atmosphere of terror and a ruthlessly
enforced economic boycott, Arab-Jewish coexistence continued on many
practical levels even during such periods of turmoil, and was largely restored
after their subsidence.
Against this backdrop, it is hardly to be wondered at that most Palestinians
wanted nothing to do with the violent attempt ten years later by the mufti-led
Arab Higher Committee (AHC), the effective ‘government’ of the Palestinian
Arabs, to subvert the 1947 UN partition resolution. With the memories of
1936-39 still fresh in their minds, many opted to stay out of the fight. In no
time, numerous Arab villages (and some urban areas) were negotiating peace
agreements with their Jewish neighbors; other localities throughout the country
acted similarly without the benefit of a formal agreement.
Nor did ordinary Palestinians shrink from quietly defying their supreme
leadership. In his numerous tours around the region, Abdel Qader Husseini,
district commander of Jerusalem and the mufti’s close relative, found the
populace indifferent, if not hostile, to his repeated call to arms. In Hebron, he
failed to recruit a single volunteer for the salaried force he sought to form in
that city; his efforts in the cities of Nablus, Tulkarm, and Qalqiliya were hardly
Arab villagers, for their part, proved even less receptive to his demands.
In one locale, Beit Safafa, Abdel Qader suffered the ultimate indignity, being
driven out by angry residents protesting their village’s transformation into a hub
of anti-Jewish attacks. Even the few who answered his call did so, by and
large, in order to obtain free weapons for their personal protection and then
There was an economic aspect to this peaceableness. The outbreak of
hostilities orchestrated by the AHC led to a sharp drop in trade and an
accompanying spike in the cost of basic commodities. Many villages, dependent
for their livelihood on the Jewish or mixed-population cities, saw no point in
supporting the AHC’s explicit goal of starving the Jews into submission. Such
was the general lack of appetite for war that in early February 1948, more than
two months after the AHC initiated its campaign of violence, Ben-Gurion
maintained that “the villages, in most part, have remained on the sidelines”.
Ben-Gurion’s analysis was echoed by the Iraqi general Ismail Safwat,
commander-in-chief of the Arab Liberation Army (ALA), the volunteer Arab
force that did much of the fighting in Palestine in the months preceding Israel’s
proclamation of independence.
Safwat lamented that only 800 of the 5,000 volunteers trained by the
ALA had come from Palestine itself, and that most of these had deserted either
before completing their training or immediately afterward. Fawzi Qawuqji, the
local commander of ALA forces, was no less scathing, having found the
Palestinians “unreliable, excitable, and difficult to control, and in organized
warfare virtually unemployable”.
This view summed up most contemporary perceptions during the fateful six
months of fighting after the passing of the partition resolution. Even as these
months saw the all but complete disintegration of Palestinian Arab society,
nowhere was this described as a systematic dispossession of Arabs by Jews.
To the contrary: with the partition resolution widely viewed by Arab
leaders as “Zionist in inspiration, Zionist in principle, Zionist in substance, and
Zionist in most details” (in the words of the Palestinian academic Walid Khalidi),
and with those leaders being brutally candid about their determination to
subvert it by force of arms, there was no doubt whatsoever as to which side
had instigated the bloodletting.
Nor did the Arabs attempt to hide their culpability. As the Jews set out to lay
the groundwork for their nascent state while simultaneously striving to
convince their Arab compatriots that they would be (as Ben-Gurion put it)
“equal citizens, equal in everything without any exception”, Palestinian Arab
leaders pledged that “should partition be implemented, it will be achieved only
over the bodies of the Arabs of Palestine, their sons, and their women”.
Qawuqji vowed “to drive all Jews into the sea” . Abdel Qader Husseini
stated that “the Palestine problem will only be solved by the sword; all Jews
must leave Palestine”.
They and their fellow Arab abetters did their utmost to make these threats
come true, with every means at their disposal. In addition to regular forces like
the ALA, guerrilla and terror groups wreaked havoc, as much among
noncombatants as among Jewish fighting units. Shooting, sniping, ambushes,
bombings, which in today’s world would be condemned as war crimes, were
daily events in the lives of civilians.
“nnocent and harmless people, going about their daily business”,
wrote the U.S. consul-general in Jerusalem, Robert Macatee, in December
1947, “are picked off while riding in buses, walking along the streets, and stray
shots even find them while asleep in their beds. A Jewish woman, mother of
five children, was shot in Jerusalem while hanging out clothes on the roof. The
ambulance rushing her to the hospital was machine-gunned, and finally the
mourners following her to the funeral were attacked and one of them stabbed
As the fighting escalated, Arab civilians suffered as well, and the occasional
atrocity sparked cycles of large-scale violence. Thus, the December 1947
murder of six Arab workers near the Haifa oil refinery by the small Jewish
underground group IZL was followed by the immediate slaughter of 39 Jews by
their Arab co-workers, just as the killing of some 100 Arabs during the battle
for the village of Deir Yasin in April 1948 was ‘avenged’ within days by the
killing of 77 Jewish nurses and doctors en route to the Hadassah hospital on
Yet while the Jewish leadership and media described these gruesome events for
what they were, at times withholding details so as to avoid panic and keep the
door open for Arab-Jewish reconciliation, their Arab counterparts not only
inflated the toll to gigantic proportions but invented numerous nonexistent
The fall of Haifa (April 21-22), for example, gave rise to totally false
claims of a large-scale slaughter, which circulated throughout the Middle East
and reached Western capitals. Similarly false rumors were spread after the fall
of Tiberias (April 18), during the battle for Safed (in early May), and in Jaffa,
where in late April the mayor fabricated a massacre of “hundreds of Arab men
and women”. Accounts of Deir Yasin in the Arab media were especially lurid,
featuring supposed hammer-and-sickle tattoos on the arms of IZL fighters and
accusations of havoc and rape.
This scare-mongering was undoubtedly aimed at garnering the widest possible
sympathy for the Palestinian plight and casting the Jews as brutal predators.
But it backfired disastrously by spreading panic within the disoriented
Palestinian society. That, in turn, helps explain why, by April 1948, after four
months of seeming progress, this phase of the Arab war effort collapsed. (Still
in the offing was the second, wider, and more prolonged phase involving the
forces of the five Arab nations that invaded Palestine in mid-May.) For not only
had most Palestinians declined to join the active hostilities, but vast numbers
had taken to the road, leaving their homes either for places elsewhere in the
country or fleeing to neighboring Arab lands.
Indeed, many had vacated even before the outbreak of hostilities, and still
larger numbers decamped before the war reached their own doorstep. “Arabs
are leaving the country with their families in considerable numbers, and there is
an exodus from the mixed towns to the rural Arab centers”, reported Alan
Cunningham, the British high commissioner, in December 1947, adding a month
later that the “panic of middle class persists and there is a steady exodus
of those who can afford to leave the country”.
Echoing these reports, Hagana intelligence sources recounted in mid-December
an “evacuation frenzy that has taken hold of entire Arab villages”. Before the
month was over, many Palestinian Arab cities were bemoaning the severe
problems created by the huge influx of villagers and pleading with the AHC to
help find a solution to the predicament. Even the Syrian and Lebanese
governments were alarmed by this early exodus, demanding that the AHC
encourage Palestinian Arabs to stay put and fight.
But no such encouragement was forthcoming, either from the AHC or from
anywhere else. In fact, there was a total lack of national cohesion, let alone any
sense of shared destiny. Cities and towns acted as if they were self-contained
units, attending to their own needs and eschewing the smallest sacrifice on
behalf of other localities. Many ‘national committees’ (i.e., local leaderships)
forbade the export of food and drink from well-stocked cities to needy outlying
towns and villages.
Haifa’s Arab merchants refused to alleviate a severe shortage of flour in
Jenin, while Gaza refused to export eggs and poultry to Jerusalem; in Hebron,
armed guards checked all departing cars. At the same time there was extensive
smuggling, especially in the mixed-population cities, with Arab foodstuffs going
to Jewish neighborhoods and vice-versa.
The lack of communal solidarity was similarly evidenced by the abysmal
treatment meted out to the hundreds of thousands of refugees scattered
throughout the country. Not only was there no collective effort to relieve their
plight, or even a wider empathy beyond one’s immediate neighborhood, but
many refugees were ill-treated by their temporary hosts and subjected to
ridicule and abuse for their supposed cowardice. In the words of one Jewish
intelligence report: “The refugees are hated wherever they have arrived”.
Even the ultimate war victims – the survivors of Deir Yasin – did not escape their
share of indignities. Finding refuge in the neighboring village of Silwan, many
were soon at loggerheads with the locals, to the point where on April 14, a
mere five days after the tragedy, a Silwan delegation approached the AHC’s
Jerusalem office demanding that the survivors be transferred elsewhere. No
help for their relocation was forthcoming.
Some localities flatly refused to accept refugees at all, for fear of overstraining
existing resources. In Acre (Akko), the authorities prevented Arabs fleeing Haifa
from disembarking; in Ramallah, the predominantly Christian population
organized its own militia – not so much to fight the Jews as to fend off the new
Muslim arrivals. Many exploited the plight of the refugees unabashedly,
especially by fleecing them for such basic necessities as transportation and
Yet still the Palestinians fled their homes, and at an ever growing pace. By early
April some 100,000 had gone, though the Jews were still on the defensive and
in no position to evict them. (On March 23, fully four months after the outbreak
of hostilities, ALA commander-in-chief Safwat noted with some astonishment
that the Jews “have so far not attacked a single Arab village unless provoked
By the time of Israel’s declaration of independence on May 14, the numbers of
Arab refugees had more than trebled. Even then, none of the 170,000-180,000
Arabs fleeing urban centers, and only a handful of the 130,000-160,000
villagers who left their homes, had been forced out by the Jews.
The exceptions occurred in the heat of battle and were uniformly dictated by
ad-hoc military considerations – reducing civilian casualties, denying sites to
Arab fighters when there were no available Jewish forces to repel them – rather
than political design.
They were, moreover, matched by efforts to prevent flight and/or to
encourage the return of those who fled. To cite only one example, in early April
a Jewish delegation comprising top Arab-affairs advisers, local notables, and
municipal heads with close contacts with neighboring Arab localities traversed
Arab villages in the coastal plain, then emptying at a staggering pace, in an
attempt to convince their inhabitants to stay put.
What makes these Jewish efforts all the more impressive is that they took place
at a time when huge numbers of Palestinian Arabs were being actively driven
from their homes by their own leaders and/or by Arab military forces, whether
out of military considerations or in order to prevent them from becoming
citizens of the prospective Jewish state.
In the largest and best-known example, tens of thousands of Arabs were
ordered or bullied into leaving the city of Haifa on the AHC’s instructions,
despite strenuous Jewish efforts to persuade them to stay.
Only days earlier, Tiberias’ 6,000-strong Arab community had been
similarly forced out by its own leaders, against local Jewish wishes. In Jaffa,
Palestine’s largest Arab city, the municipality organized the transfer of
thousands of residents by land and sea; in Jerusalem, the AHC ordered the
transfer of women and children, and local gang leaders pushed out residents of
Tens of thousands of rural villagers were likewise forced out by order of the
AHC, local Arab militias, or the ALA. Within weeks of the latter’s arrival in
Palestine in January 1948, rumors were circulating of secret instructions to
Arabs in predominantly Jewish areas to vacate their villages so as to allow their
use for military purposes and to reduce the risk of becoming hostage to the
By February, this phenomenon had expanded to most parts of the country. It
gained considerable momentum in April and May as ALA and AHC forces
throughout Palestine were being comprehensively routed. On April 18, the
Hagana’s intelligence branch in Jerusalem reported a fresh general order to
remove the women and children from all villages bordering Jewish localities.
Twelve days later, its Haifa counterpart reported an ALA command to evacuate
all Arab villages between Tel Aviv and Haifa in anticipation of a new general
In early May, as fighting intensified in the eastern Galilee, local Arabs
were ordered to transfer all women and children from the Rosh Pina area, while
in the Jerusalem sub-district, Transjordan’s Arab Legion likewise ordered the
emptying of scores of villages.
As for the Palestinian Arab leaders themselves, who had placed their reluctant
constituents on a collision course with Zionism in the 1920’s and 1930’s and
had now dragged them helpless into a mortal conflict, they hastened to get
themselves out of Palestine and to stay out at the most critical moment. Taking
a cue from these higher-ups, local leaders similarly rushed en masse through
High Commissioner Cunningham summarized what was happening with
quintessential British understatement: “You should know that the collapsing
Arab morale in Palestine is in some measure due to the increasing tendency of
those who should be leading them to leave the country. . . . For instance, in
Jaffa the mayor went on four-day leave 12 days ago and has not returned, and
half the national committee has left. In Haifa the Arab members of the
municipality left some time ago; the two leaders of the Arab Liberation Army
left actually during the recent battle. Now the chief Arab magistrate has left. In
all parts of the country the effendi class has been evacuating in large numbers
over a considerable period and the tempo is increasing.”
Arif al-Arif, a prominent Arab politician during the Mandate era and the doyen
of Palestinian historians, described the prevailing atmosphere at the time:
“Wherever one went throughout the country one heard the same refrain:
‘Where are the leaders who should show us the way? Where is the AHC? Why
are its members in Egypt at a time when Palestine, their own country, needs
Muhammad Nimr al-Khatib, a Palestinian Arab leader during the 1948 war,
would sum up the situation in these words: “The Palestinians had neighboring
Arab states which opened their borders and doors to the refugees, while the
Jews had no alternative but to triumph or to die.”
This is true enough of the Jews, but it elides the reason for the refugees’ flight
and radically distorts the quality of their reception elsewhere. If they met with
no sympathy from their brethren at home, the reaction throughout the Arab
world was, if anything, harsher still.
There were repeated calls for the forcible return of the refugees, or at
the very least of young men of military age, many of whom had arrived under
the (false) pretense of volunteering for the ALA. As the end of the Mandate
loomed nearer, the Lebanese government refused entry visas to Palestinian
males between eighteen and fifty and ordered all “healthy and fit men” who had
already entered the country to register officially or be considered illegal aliens
and face the full weight of the law.
The Syrian government took an even more stringent approach, banning from its
territory all Palestinian males between sixteen and fifty. In Egypt, a large
number of demonstrators marched to the Arab League’s Cairo headquarters and
lodged a petition demanding that “every able-bodied Palestinian capable of
carrying arms should be forbidden to stay abroad”.
Such was the extent of Arab resentment toward the Palestinian refugees
that the rector of Cairo’s al-Azhar institution of religious learning, probably the
foremost Islamic authority, felt obliged to issue a ruling that made the sheltering
of Palestinian Arab refugees a religious duty.
Contempt for the Palestinians only intensified with time. “Fright has struck the
Palestinian Arabs and they fled their country”, commented Radio Baghdad on
the eve of the pan-Arab invasion of the new-born state of Israel in mid-May.
“These are hard words indeed, yet they are true”. Lebanon’s minister of the
interior (and future president) Camille Chamoun was more delicate, intoning that
“The people of Palestine, in their previous resistance to imperialists and
Zionists, proved they were worthy of independence”, but “at this decisive stage
of the fighting they have not remained so dignified”.
No wonder, then, that so few among the Palestinian refugees themselves
blamed their collapse and dispersal on the Jews. During a fact-finding mission
to Gaza in June 1949, Sir John Troutbeck, head of the British Middle East
office in Cairo and no friend to Israel or the Jews, was surprised to discover
that while the refugees “express no bitterness against the Jews (or for that
matter against the Americans or ourselves) they speak with the utmost
bitterness of the Egyptians and other Arab states. “We know who our enemies
are”, they will say, and they are referring to their Arab brothers who, they
declare, persuaded them unnecessarily to leave their homes. . . . I even heard it
said that many of the refugees would give a welcome to the Israelis if they
were to come in and take the district over.”
Sixty years after their dispersion, the refugees of 1948 and their descendants
remain in the squalid camps where they have been kept by their fellow Arabs
for decades, nourished on hate and false hope. Meanwhile, their erstwhile
leaders have squandered successive opportunities for statehood.
It is indeed the tragedy of the Palestinians that the two leaders who determined
their national development during the 20th century – Hajj Amin Husseini and
Yasir Arafat, the latter of whom dominated Palestinian politics since the
mid-1960’s to his death in November 2004 – were megalomaniacal extremists
blinded by anti-Jewish hatred and profoundly obsessed with violence.
Had the mufti chosen to lead his people to peace and reconciliation with
their Jewish neighbors, as he had promised the British officials who appointed
him to his high rank in the early 1920’s, the Palestinians would have had their
independent state over a substantial part of Mandate Palestine by 1948, and
would have been spared the traumatic experience of dispersion and exile.
Had Arafat set the PLO from the start on the path to peace and
reconciliation, instead of turning it into one of the most murderous terrorist
organizations in modern times, a Palestinian state could have been established
in the late 1960’s or the early 1970’s; in 1979 as a corollary to the
Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty; by May 1999 as part of the Oslo process; or at
the very latest with the Camp David summit of July 2000.
Instead, Arafat transformed the territories placed under his control in the
1990’s into an effective terror state from where he launched an all-out war (the
‘al-Aqsa intifada’) shortly after being offered an independent Palestinian state in
the Gaza Strip and 92 percent of the West Bank, with East Jerusalem as its
In the process, he subjected the Palestinian population in the West Bank
and the Gaza Strip to a repressive and corrupt regime in the worst tradition of
Arab dictatorships and plunged their standard of living to unprecedented
What makes this state of affairs all the more galling is that, far from being
unfortunate aberrations, Hajj Amin and Arafat were quintessential
representatives of the cynical and self-seeking leaders produced by the Arab
political system. Just as the Palestinian leadership during the Mandate had no
qualms about inciting its constituents against Zionism and the Jews, while
lining its own pockets from the fruits of Jewish entrepreneurship, so PLO
officials used the billions of dollars donated by the Arab oil states and, during
the Oslo era, by the international community to finance their luxurious style of
life while ordinary Palestinians scrambled for a livelihood.
And so it goes. Six decades after the mufti and his henchmen condemned their
people to statelessness by rejecting the UN partition resolution, their reckless
decisions are being reenacted by the latest generation of Palestinian leaders.
This applies not only to Hamas, which in January 2006 replaced the PLO at the
helm of the Palestinian Authority (PA), but also to the supposedly moderate
Palestinian leadership – from President Mahmoud Abbas to Ahmad Qureia
(negotiator of the 1993 Oslo Accords) to Saeb Erekat to prime minister Salam
Fayad- which refuses to recognize Israel’s very existence as a Jewish state and
insists on the full implementation of the ‘right of return’.
And so it goes as well with Western anti-Zionists who in the name of justice (no
less) call today not for a new and fundamentally different Arab leadership but
for the dismantlement of the Jewish state. Only when these dispositions
change can Palestinian Arabs realistically look forward to putting their
self-inflicted ‘catastrophe’ behind them.