In recent years, a growing number of accounts of the 1948 war have corrected and exposed the founding myths of Israel, including claims by its leaders that the Palestinian people did not exist or were invented. The latest addition to this genre is independent scholar Rosemarie M. Esber’s meticulously documented history Under the Cover of War: The Zionist Expulsion of the Palestinians. While other recent books on the subject have relied on Israeli and Zionist archival sources, Esber uses British archives and oral testimonies from Palestinian survivors as well as previously used sources to demonstrate that there was a purposeful, systematic pattern by which Zionist forces depopulated Palestinian cities and villages before the end of the British mandate on 15 May 1948 and the subsequent intervention of Arab armies.
Esber’s account vividly illustrates those terrible six months between the adoption of the United Nations General Assembly resolution to partition Palestine and the expiration of the British mandate. Esber writes, “Rather than maintaining international peace and security, as mandated by its charter, the United Nations, by voting in favor of partition, contributed to the outbreak of the civil war in Palestine and the concomitant expulsion of the Palestinian Arabs.” This however is not to spare Britain responsibility for the Palestinian plight. Britain, Esber explains, acted only in the interest of a speedy British withdrawal from Mandate Palestine even when senior British officials knew of Zionist designs to expel the indigenous Palestinian population. Specific British policies accelerated and facilitated the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. For example, while simultaneously abandoning the imposition of domestic law and order, the British tipped off Zionist militias to their withdrawal plans, and prevented Arab regular army intervention to defend Palestinian cities and villages. Meanwhile starting in early February 1948 the entry of illegal Jewish immigrants who would become Zionist combatants went unhindered.
Although Esber devotes a whole chapter to the historical context leading up to that six-month period, the scope of her primary research is this time frame that she terms the “civil war” phase of the conflict. Her detailed account draws from careful examination of a rich array of available sources (many Zionist documents from the period are still classified, as are Arab state documents, and Palestinian documents were largely destroyed, confiscated or scattered during the dispossession). But Esber privileges what she considers under-utilized British archives which give a nearly hour-by-hour account of the last chaotic and violent days of the mandate, as well as recent interviews she conducted with more than 130 surviving witnesses mainly in the refugee camps of Lebanon and Jordan. From her extensive research, she concludes:
“[T]he creation of the Palestinian Arab refugees began in the convergence of a chaotic civil conflict, British inaction to suppress the escalating violence, and the Jewish Agency’s seizure of the opportunity presented by the cover of war to effect long-held aims of political Zionism: the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine with a population practically devoid of non-Jews. This was done by employing systematic and violent intimidation to drive out the native Palestinian Arab population, which consisted largely of disempowered women, children, and elderly people incapable of resisting.”
During this civil war period, Esber writes, “Zionist Jewish military organizations forced more than 400,000 Palestinian Arab inhabitants from their homes in about 225 villages, towns and cities in Palestine.” That comprises approximately half of the total number of Palestinians made refugees during the creation of the State of Israel, as well as half of the depopulated Palestinian cities and villages, the latter largely destroyed as part of the systematic campaign to erase Palestinian society.
Israel’s official narrative has long held that the “refugee problem” was the result of a war sparked in the wake of Israel’s 14 May 1948 “declaration of independence” on the eve of the British withdrawal, and what Israel describes as an Arab invasion designed to extinguish the nascent state. The implication of this claim is that had the Arab states not invaded on 15 May, Palestinians might not have become refugees. But given the sheer scale of the expulsions prior to May 1948, the Arab intervention might more accurately be described as a long overdue and ineffectual attempt to halt a well-planned campaign of ethnic cleansing that had been proceeding unchecked for months.
Esber’s reliance on Palestinian testimony is a unique contribution to scholarship on the creation of the State of Israel and the refugee crisis, and the first chapter of the book provides an evaluation of existing scholarly accounts of 1948. Since official history is typically written by the victor rather than the vanquished — a theme addressed by Palestinian historian Rashid Khalidi in his book Palestinian Identity: The construction of Modern National Consciousness — it is of course biased towards the former. However, referring to the dispossession of Palestine, Esber asserts, “The Nakba [catastrophe] is the Palestinians’ own story of tragedy and loss, and they are the most credible source to tell it.” Her use of British archives and other sources serves to corroborate these Palestinian accounts.
Esber also refers to Zionist sources quoted in Ilan Pappe’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine and Benny Morris’ The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, the latter of which she criticizes for omitting Palestinian oral testimony because the author believes it unreliable (though Morris depends on it for his narration of the ethnic cleansing of the Galilee). Esber also uses Morris’ own research to demonstrate the premeditated nature of the Palestinian expulsion, where Morris argues that Palestinian flight was an accident of the war, not the very purpose of it.
The breadth of Esber’s research however might be best demonstrated by the chart included as an appendix, listing causes of Palestinian flight between 29 November 1947 and 15 May 1948. The chart gives specific dates and population figures for each Palestinian city, town and village depopulated during this time period. For each population center, Esber provides numerical codes for the reasons (usually multiple) for Palestinian flight, contrasting her findings with Morris’, provided in a separate column.
According to Esber, Morris’ over-reliance on Zionist sources and neglect of Palestinian witness accounts leads him to the skewed conclusion that “deteriorating living conditions in the villages and urban areas, and the Zionists’ capture of nearby locales, were primary reasons Arabs evacuated.” On the contrary, Esber’s interviews with survivors found that refugees “consistently cited the violence of direct military attack, the trauma of civilian deaths in their communities from attacks, a rational fear of rape and massacre, threats of those or other atrocities, and ordered expulsion.” Many of Esber’s Palestinian informants identify the massacre at Deir Yassin and the decisive loss of Haifa as “the two most critical events of the civil war,” happening within two weeks of each other in April 1948.
Esber learns through her interviews that in most cases, Palestinian villagers stayed put until they were forcefully expelled, in a futile attempt to resist a much more powerful and organized adversary. “They also believed,” Esber concludes, “that they had to withstand Zionist attacks only until May 15, when the Arab armies, as repeatedly promised, would come to their rescue and foil the Zionist plan to form a Jewish state in Palestine. This contributed to the perception that evacuation — in the face of death — was a short-term risk.”
From Esber’s book it is clear that no powerful party was working in the interest of the Palestinian peasants and urban class who would be dumped by the truckload to the border with Lebanon or Jordan or, during the siege of Haifa, literally thrown into the sea. But it is their history that is painstakingly preserved here, and none too soon as this first generation ages in exile while their descendants fight for justice.
Maureen Clare Murphy is managing editor of The Electronic Intifada.