Support and criticism for NPR’s series on the history of the Palestine-Israel conflict

Dear NPR News,

I have so far found Mike Shuster’s treatment of the history of the Palestine conflict to be a reasonable and serious overview, given the difficulty of summarizing one hundred years in what adds up to just a few minutes. And I applaud NPR for making this effort.

Today’s installment began with the enormous problem of Jewish refugees in Europe after World War II as accelerating the need and demand for Jewish immigration into Palestine, and that many of these refugees had no alternative. It was an unfair ommission not to mention that a major reason for this crisis is that the United States and Great Britain refused to take in the refugees for a large number of whom Palestine would not have been the first choice. This suited the Zionists whose main purpose was to boost the Jewish population in Palestine at all costs very well.

The discussion about the exodus of most of the Palestinian population from their homeland in 1947-48 helpfully dispensed with some of the most pernicious lies that have been propagated, principally that the Palestinian people conveniently got up and voluntarily left their homes, or did so after calls by Arab states, something that would surely be unprecedented in human history if it were true. (By the way, this lie is still constantly repeated by Elie Wiesel)

But Shuster’s chronology of events was somewhat incomplete with the result that it could be misleading. According to Shuster, the UN voted to partition Palestine on November 29, 1947. After that, according to Shuster, “skirmishes” broke out between Arabs and Jews. Then, he says, on May 14, 1948 Israel declared independence and on May 15 five Arab armies intervened.

Although Shuster correctly pointed out that the Arab armies were weak, disorganized and presented no real challenge to Israel, with the result that Israel ended up controlling seventy eight percent of Palestine, Shuster is wrong to refer to what happened between November and May as “skirmishes.” It was in fact a major and critical phase of the conflict.

Many of the events and massacres which forced Palestinians out of their homes occurred before May 15, in other words before the intervention of any Arab armies. The massacre at Deir Yassin, for instance, which Shuster mentioned without giving the date, occurred on April 9. This massacre which was advertised by the Zionists in order to terrify Palestinians into leaving is indeed credited with accelerating the flight. Similarly, Benny Morris, in his seminal work “The birth of the Palestinian refugee problem” quotes Ben-Gurion celebrating the fact that most of the Palestinian villages in and around west Jerusalem had been cleansed of all “strangers” (i.e Palestinians) by February 1948, something he predicted would happen throughout the country if the Jews “hold on.” The Arab armies did not invade the areas which had been allocated by the UN to the Jewish state.

These are very important and often misunderstood points, because when you take account of the facts about how many Palestinian villages had already been attacked and depopulated by Zionist forces prior to May 15, then from a Palestinian perspective the Arab intervention could have been viewed not as an attempt to “destroy Israel,” — something they were clearly incapable of doing — but as a belated effort to save something of Palestine. In the event, for the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who had already been displaced or forcibly expelled by May 15, it was much too little much too late. Because the official Israeli narrative has been so dominant in the United States for so long, the notion that the war began in earnest only after May 15, fits well with the stereotype of Arab aggression in which Israel only fights to defend itself, but this incomplete narrative silences the experience of Palestinians every aspect of whose lives continue to be shaped by those events.

I continue to listen with interest and appreciation to NPR’s series.


Ali Abunimah