—   The sharp point of dissent   —

Section: Middle East
14 August 2005

Fuming for Israel: the Case of Alan Dershowitz

5. Palestinians, Expansionism and Expulsion

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And so to chapters nine, ten, eleven and twelve, which are broadly concerned with the dispossession of the Palestinians following the 1947 partition plan. Let's begin with chapter nine.


Would the UN have partitioned off an area for a Jewish state in which an Arab majority resided? I ask a silly question only for comparison with the manner in which Dershowitz rephrases it: 'Were the Jews a minority in what became Israel?' His two-page stroll through this non-issue allows him to avoid some substantive questions on the nature of the UN partition.

The area that the UN allocated for a Jewish state in 1947 comprised some 2500 square km more than the proposed Arab state: the Zionists therefore would obtain more than half of 'a territory of which they owned scarcely 7 per cent, and of which they represented only 32 percent of the population.'[1] A 1945 survey which divided Palestine into sixteen districts found that there was not a single one in which the proportion of Jewish land ownership was greater than that of Arab. Arab land ownership in Palestine was at an average of 72.25%, and this disparity became even greater when public land was excluded from the survey.[2]

The proposed Jewish state was to be imposed against the will of the roughly 400,000 Arabs[3] who were to be circumscribed by its borders, and would perforce suddenly find themselves, their families and their land inside a foreign country controlled and peopled by European settlers, the vast majority of whom had arrived scarcely a generation ago.[4] They would be enclosed within a society whose openly stated purpose would be to keep them eternally in a minority, and in which, as Finkelstein puts it, 'non-Jews, even if enjoying full rights of citizenship, could hope to figure, at best, as an excrescence on the body politic.'[5] That the Arabs could not be expected to view such a development with equanimity does not seem to occur to Dershowitz. But the issue was made moot by the brutality of what came next: even this Arab minority was too large for the Zionists to tolerate, and the acolytes of Ben-Gurion and Begin had little interest in allowing them to stay. Beneath the umbra of the war which followed, the Israelis substantially expanded their territory and drove out of it approximately 750,000 of its inhabitants, a matter which we will consider shortly.


Dershowitz makes up for the long-windedness of chapter ten's title - 'Has Israel's Victimization of the Palestinians Been the Primary Cause of the Arab-Israeli Conflict?' - with the brevity of the argument therein. (I turned the second page to find myself looking at chapter's end.) As we shall see, having chained himself to the demonstrably false Arab-only rejectionist thesis, chapter after chapter that Dershowitz bases on this argument comes asunder. Here he avers 'the reality' that 'Arab rejection of Israel's right to exist has long been the cause of the problem.'[6] From this amazing premise it presumably follows that the creation of Israel, which was openly predicated on the erasure of Palestine, was merely a secondary cause of the conflict which sprang primarily from the rejection of such an erasure by the indigenous population. Thus the effect is the problem, not the cause.

With this cart now nicely unhitched from the horse, we find that the nag gallops away entirely. In the next breath Dershowitz tells us that 'this reality is beyond reasonable dispute.'[7] And apparently it is only 'in recent years' that 'the mainstream Palestinian leadership has finally said - though not without some ambiguity and backpedaling - that they accept the existence of Israel'.[8] Since the Israelis was playing truant during a very important lesson given at the UN in 1974, we can presume that they just couldn't have heard about the PLO's announcement to the world that it was willing to accept a state in the West Bank and Gaza. Neither, it seems, has Dershowitz.

During the course of the 1948 conflict, the Zionists carried out some conspicuous massacres of their own, news of which propagated quickly through the terrified local population and induced a wave of flight. On April 9, 110 people were killed at the village of Deir Yassin by Begin's Irgun and Shamir's LEHI. In the words of Meir Pail, a Haganah officer who was present at the time:
The men of the Irgun and LEHI came out of their hiding places and began to 'clean out' the houses. They fired on everyone they saw, including women and children; their commanders did not try to stop the massacre. I begged the commander to order his men to cease fire, but in vain. At that moment, 25 Arabs had been loaded onto a lorry. They were taken to the quarry between Deir Yassin and Givat Shaul, where they were killed in cold blood.[9]
Another Israeli soldier, Zvi Ankori, who arrived later, testified that 'I went into six or seven houses. I saw genital organs cut off, and women's bellies mangled. By the look of the bullets in the bodes, what had happened was murder, pure and simple.'[10]

Into this tapestry of gore Dershowitz tries to weave some insidious euphemisms. 'Some' children and old people were killed; the event was 'called' a massacre; and there is 'considerable dispute concerning the circumstances of these deaths' - in summary, the event was 'an isolated although tragic and inexcusable blemish on Israeli paramilitary actions in defense of its civilian population.'[11] Quite how a civilian population is defended by having families slaughtered in their homes is never explained. It should be emphasized that as a coda to this Grand Guignol, future Prime Minister Menachem Begin dispatched a note to those responsible, saying: 'Accept congratulations on this splendid act of conquest. Tell the soldiers you have made history in Israel.'[12] And from Chomsky we learn that 'in 1980 the remaining ruins [of Deir Yassin] were bulldozed to prepare the ground for a settlement for Orthodox Jews. Streets were named after units of the Irgun which perpetrated the massacre ...'[13]

This Carthaginian treatment of a single Arab village is merely a microcosm of what took place on a vast scale after the 1948 war. Once the Palestinians had fled or were expelled, village after village was physically extirpated by the Israeli army to ensure that the inhabitants who had lived there for generations would have nothing to come back to. Scores of Lidices were created all over the freshly-destroyed Palestine, and any of the 369 emptied towns not subjected to this scorched-earth policy were hurriedly populated with squatters. Having helped themselves to the property, the Israelis then found themselves legally blameless: banana-republic laws were devised legalizing the theft of 'abandoned property'. Despite all this, Dershowitz insists that these events are, at worst, a secondary cause of the conflict. How 'Arab rejection' becomes the dominant problem in the face of all this is far from clear.

In fact, an argument asserting that 'Arab rejection' was at the root of the conflict requires us to imagine a world in which no Arab rejectionism existed at this time. Dershowitz's claim that '[h]ad the Arabs accepted the U.N. partition, there would have been a large, contiguous Palestinian state alongside a Jewish state'[14] is belied - once again - by the Zionist themselves. Yigal Allon, for example, stated that had it not been for the intervention of the regular Arab armies, 'there would have been no stop to the expansion of the forces of Haganah who could have, with the same drive, reached the natural borders of Western Israel ...'.[15] It's crystal clear from the writings of Ben-Gurion and Begin that the Zionists saw the whole of Palestine as their domain and intended to take it all. The only difference between the two was that Ben-Gurion was a hard-headed realist who saw an initially smaller State of Israel as an important first step in the plan to take over the entire territory, and Begin was an ideologue who, as we have seen, rejected on principle anything other than total Zionist dominion over Palestine. Recall that Ben-Gurion rejected partition as early as June 1938, stating that acceptance of the Peel Commission plan was
only a stage in the realization of Zionism and it should prepare the ground for our expansion throughout the whole country through Jewish-Arab agreement ... the state, however, must enforce order and security and it will do this not by moralizing and preaching 'sermons on the mount' but by machine-guns, which we will need.[16]
Therefore it is plain that without a countervailing force, the sheer number of dispossessed Palestinians and destroyed or expropriated villages would have been far higher. (Israel, despite opposition from five neighbouring armies, still managed to expand by roughly a third the territory allotted to it under the UN plan.) In short, were it not for the practical expression given to the 'Arab rejection' which Dershowitz believes is the locus of the problem, the problem would have been far worse.


Chapter eleven, like others in the book, exhibits Dershowitz's proclivity for believing that he can somehow exculpate one side by showing that their opponents were just as bad. From the premise that 'Israel defended itself against a genocidal war of extermination', it does not, however, follow that 'the Israeli War of Independence [was not] expansionist aggression.'[17] The two, I'm afraid, are not mutually exclusive, and although I have already expended no small amount of ink on the substance of the latter, one must plough on in the face of assiduous denial.

Despite clear motive (a goyimrein Israel) for, and overwhelming evidence of a organised effort to expel the Palestinians, Dershowitz still cannot permit himself to believe it. Since he relies upon the writings of Israeli historian Benny Morris to prove his case, he cannot fall back on the Morris-debunked canard that 'Arab broadcasts' were responsible for the flight of the Palestinians; nor does he make any serious effort to rehash the myth that the Palestinians left their country largely at the behest of other Arab nations. Instead, we find in chapter twelve that blame is assigned in the most blandly general terms that will still leave Israel fully exculpated. To wit: 'The problem was created by a war initiated by the Arabs.'[18]

In dealing with this proposition it's interesting to briefly explore Dershowitz's tangential claim that during the 1948 war 'the pattern of past [sic] and future fighting was thus established': that while the Arabs have not hesitated to assault 'soft civilian areas', 'the regular Israeli army has not responded by targeting Arab population centers such as Amman, Damascus and Cairo'.[19] That's an interesting list. The capitals of all Arab countries conterminous with Israel are mentioned - except one. The missing city, of course, is Beirut. And if we interpolate briefly to recount the ferocious destruction which Israel rained down on this 'soft civilian area' during its second invasion of Lebanon, it will become obvious why.

During the months of July and August 1982, Israel, having positioned around Beirut 700 tanks and 210 155-175mm guns,[20] subjected the city to a savage bombing campaign from land and air, at one point dropping 10,000 artillery shells in one day.[21] On June 21, the opening day of the bombardment, the IDF 'fired shells at the rate of one a minute into the residential quarters of west Beirut'.[22] The weapons used included cluster bomblets (which the Israelis denied use of), phosphorous shells (which subject to unquenchable fires any person or building sprayed with their contents), and bombs which can penetrate every floor of an apartment block, detonating only upon impact with the ground, collapsing the building upon itself with the inhabitants still inside.[23] In such a sanguinary atmosphere it is not surprising to find that peace efforts were unwelcome. Shlaim mentions that '[o]n 10 August [US envoy Philip] Habib submitted a draft agreement to Israel. At this point, Sharon, impatient with what he regarded as American meddling, ordered unprecedented saturation bombing of Beirut in which at least three hundred people were killed.'[24] In fact, this bombing was not without precedent. London Independent reporter Robert Fisk, who stayed in west Beirut throughout the blitz, vividly describes the events of six days earlier:
They fell at the rate of one shell every ten seconds. Phosphorous shells exploded down Hamra Street, blasting through the walls of L'Orient Le Jour and devastating the American United Press International bureau. To call the gunfire indiscriminate was an understatement. It would also have been a lie. The Israeli bombardment of 4 August was, we realised later, discriminate. It targeted every civilian area, every institution in west Beirut - hospitals, schools, apartments, shops, newspaper offices, hotels, the prime minister's office and the parks. Incredibly, the Israeli shells even blew part of the roof off the city's synagogue ...
     The refugees in Sanaya park did not stand a chance. They had no concrete protection. They had tents. By the time I reached Sanaya, there were women standing among the trees, wailing and shrieking like animals, covered head to toe in blood or wandering through the cordite smoke in a dream.[25]
So much for tohar haneshik.[26] That's just one city. A fuller rebuttal of Dershowitz's claim that 'the regular Israeli army has not responded by targeting Arab population centers' would require us to ponder - inter alia - the wave of 400,000 refugees driven north during Israel's April 1996 Operation Grapes of Wrath, a massive assault on south Lebanon whose stated target was 300 Hezbollah militiamen;[27] the accompanying Qana massacre in which a UN compound was shelled, slaughtering 109 refugees;[28] the October 1956 Kufr Qassem massacre, during which 47 civilians were machine-gunned to death by Israeli Border Police for failing to observe a curfew imposed at thirty minute's notice, just before they returned home from work;[29] regular tank assaults and rocketing of the occupied territories by Israeli helicopter gunships; the destruction of the Jenin refugee camp in April 2002; and so on.

But the bombardment of Beirut took place in 1982. Did the Israelis avoid targeting civilian areas during the 1948 conflict? The answer, interestingly, allows us to simultaneously examine Dershowitz's claim that Israel was not intent on 'expansionist aggression'.

The notorious Plan D (never mentioned by Dershowitz), which was formulated by the Haganah in March 1948 and implemented in April-May, was essentially a Zionist offensive to conquer the entire area of the proposed Jewish state outlined by the partition plan. By definition, it meant the capture and control of Arab population centres, and thus sanctioned the expulsion of civilians therein. Or, in Morris's words: 'To win the battle of the roads, the Haganah had to pacify the Arab villages and towns that dominated them: pacification perforce meant either the surrender of the villages or their depopulation and destruction.'[30] Sections of Plan D itself put the lie to denials that there was ever a plan to remove the autochthonous population:
These operations may be carried out in the following manner: the villages may be destroyed (by fire, explosives, or laying mines in the debris) or search and control operations may be mounted by surrounding the village and closing the circles. Should resistance be met, the armed elements should be wiped out and the population expelled beyond the borders of the state.[31]
It's worth noting that 'the first and largest wave of refugees occurred before the official outbreak of hostilities on 15 May.'[32] That is, before the declaration of war by any of the Arab states against the state of Israel, which itself had not yet been declared. So it's difficult to swallow Dershowitz's thesis that the Palestinian refugee crisis was 'created by a war initiated by the Arabs' since the expulsions were already well under way before any of the regular Arab armies had set foot in Palestine. The part that massacres such as Deir Yassin might have played in attracting non-Palestinian Arab armies to save their brethern goes unexamined. Once again, we find that Zionists are more forthcoming than Dershowitz. As early as 1940, onetime deputy chairman of the Jewish National Fund Joseph Weitz wrote that 'there is no other way than to transfer the Arabs from here to the neighbouring countries, to transfer all of them; not one village, not one tribe should be left.'[33] Mapai member Zvi Shiloah is quoted as saying: 'In 1948, we deliberately, and not just in the heat of the war, expelled Arabs.'[34] And in the words of former LEHI member Yisrael Eldad: 'Had it not been for Deir Yasin, half a million Arabs would be living in the state of Israel. The state of Israel would not have existed. We must not disregard this, with full awareness of the responsibility involved.'[35]

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1 Alain Gresh and Dominique Vidal, The New A-Z of the Middle East, I. B. Tauris, London, 2004, p. 244. See also Hirst, p. 257
2 Source: See map, Appendix IV in Henry Cattan, The Palestine Question; Croom Helm, Kent, 1988. p. 389
3 This figure varies slightly depending on the account one reads. Gresh & Vidal place the figure at 405,000; Dershowitz cites the UN estimate of 397,000; Morris describes an Arab population of 'close to 400,000' (Benny Morris, Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist Arab Conflict 1881-2001, Vintage Books, New York, 2001, p. 184). The Jewish population in this proposed state is estimated to have been roughly half a million, again with little disagreement among commentators.
4 By the end of the fourth Aliyah (in 1931), there were approximately 175,000 Jews in Palestine, less than a fifth of the total population, the majority of whom had arrived following World War I.
5 Norman Finkelstein, Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict, Verso, London, 1995, p. 12
6 Dershowitz, p. 70
7 Dershowitz, p. 71
8 Ibid.
9 Quoted in Gresh and Vidal, p. 64
10 Ibid.
11 Dershowitz, p. 81 et seq.
12 Quoted in Barghouti, in Roane Carey (Ed.), The New Intifada, Verso, New York, 2001, p. 168
13 Chomsky, p. 166
14 Dershowitz, p. 69
15 Quoted in David Hirst, The Gun and the Olive Branch: The Roots of Violence in the Middle East, (Third Edition), Nation Books, New York, 2003, p. 267
16 Quoted in Masalha, p. 7
17 Dershowitz, p. 74
18 Dershowitz, p. 79
19 Dershowitz, p. 75
20 See Robert Fisk, Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War (Third edition), Oxford University Press, Britain, 2001, p. 262
21 Chomsky, p. 311
22 Fisk, Pity the Nation, p. 258
23 See Fisk, Pity the Nation, p. 247; Chomsky, p. 218
24 Avi Shlaim, The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World, Penguin, London, 2000, p. 413
25 Fisk, Pity the Nation, p. 314
26 'Purity of arms'
27 Avi Shlaim has commented that 'Israel's strategy was the equivalent of using a bulldozer to weed a garden.' (Shlaim, p. 560)
28 The Israelis claimed that the event was an accident and denied the rumour that one of their surveillance drones had been monitoring the area at the time. Videotape evidence of a drone aircraft over the compound at the time of the shelling - stills of which were published in the London Independent - later forced a retraction of this story. (See Fisk, Pity the Nation, p. 682 et seq.)
29 See Chomsky, p. 158; Cattan p. 126
30 Quoted in Kirsten E. Schulze, The Arab-Israeli Conflict, Longman: London & New York, 1999, p. 14
31 Quoted in Gresh & Vidal. P. 78
32 Shlaim, p. 31
33 Quoted in Hirst, p. 255
34 Quoted in Nur Masalha, Imperial Israel and the Palestinians, Pluto Press, London, 2000, p. 53
35 Quoted in Masalha, p. 46