Sunday, June 1, 2008

Uri Avnery's 1948: A Critique

If you want to sort the political sheep from the goats in the Palestine/Israel fold, just look at the positions taken by pundits on the Palestinian Nakba (Catastrophe) of 1948-1949. Uri Avnery is a case in point. Avnery is the 84 year-old veteran leader of Israel's peace movement, Gush Shalom (Israeli Peace Bloc), and an often perceptive and insightful commentator on the Israel/Palestine conflict. Yet his recent essay, 1948* (10/5/08,, reveals a major blind spot. In fact, at many points, I thought I was reading Benny Morris.

[*In which he states that his wartime reports from that era "will soon appear in English."]

Avnery views the first Arab-Israeli war as two wars: that waged by Zionist forces against the Palestinians (from the UN partition resolution of 29/11/47 until the proclamation of the state of Israel on 14/5/48), and that waged by Zionist forces against Arab military intervention after 15/5/08. He misrepresents the first as an "ethnic war" of the kind that wracked the Balkans in the 1990s. In doing so he overlooks the fact that the great bulk of the Jewish community in Palestine had only entered the country over the previous 30 years, under British imperial sponsorship and protection, and against the wishes and interests of its indigenous Arab inhabitants. Although both the Palestine and Balkan conflicts are characterised by acts of ethnic cleansing, the latter clearly lacked the colonial context that pertains in Palestine, which is more accurately described, from 1948 to the present, as a war between a colonial-settler movement and an indigenous population.

Avnery writes, "At the time, I hoped until the last moment that [the war] could be avoided... " Really? Avnery played an active part in a movement which expressly aimed to create an exclusively Jewish state in a land inhabited by a non-Jewish majority, and he hoped that the inevitable clash "could be avoided"? Did he really expect the Palestinians to just stand by as their homeland was carved up by the Bushs and Blairs of the day? And this despite their violent opposition to an even earlier partition proposal in the 30s? Avnery then writes, "In retrospect it is clear to me that it was already too late." One is compelled to ask, why only "in retrospect"?

Avnery continues, "The Arab side was determined to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state in the country which they (rightly) considered an Arab country. That's why the Arabs started the war." Hello? What is this talk of "the Arabs [starting] the war"?

In hoping that the war could have been avoided, but realising in retrospect that it was already too late by 1948, Avnery implies that, at some earlier point, war could have been avoided. If so, when? He doesn't say. Could it be that the Zionist idea itself, with its goal of creating a Jewish state in a non-Jewish land, is to blame for the 1948 war? When Yusuf Diya-uddin Pasha al-Khalidi, the mayor of Jerusalem in 1899, wrote to Zadok Khan, the chief rabbi of France, advising that, since Palestine was already inhabited, the Zionists should "in the name of God let Palestine be left alone," maybe Herzl, who was shown the letter, should have taken his advice. In retrospect, would that not have been the better course? But Avnery doesn't go there, presumably because blaming the war of 1948 on the Zionist project itself would only undermine his faith in that project. Hence his glib talk of "the Arabs starting the war."

And can he be serious about the following? "When I enlisted at the beginning of the war, we were totally convinced that we were faced with the danger of annihilation." Annihilation? Surely not at the hands of the Palestinians? Hillel Cohen, in his 2008 study of Palestinian collaborators, wrote of a pervasive "unwillingness to do battle" on the part of the Palestinians and claimed that "Senior figures in the Shai and Jewish Agency concluded that the Arabs of Palestine were not interested in fighting. They also deduced that Jewish offensive actions had increased the ranks of Palestinian fighters." (Army of Shadows: Palestinian Collaboration with Zionism, 1917-1948, pp 232 & 234). The leadership of the Haganah, in a 25/3/46 memorandum to the Anglo-American Committee, exhibited no such fear: "As far as the strength of the Arabs of Palestine is concerned, we are in possession of well-founded information. There is no doubt that the Jewish force is superior in organization, training, planning and equipment, and that we ourselves will be able to handle any attack or rebellion from the Arab side without calling for any assistance from the British or Americans. If you accept the Zionist solution [partition and a Jewish state in the greater part of Palestine] but are unable or unwilling to enforce it, please do not interfere, and we ourselves will secure its implementation." (Quoted in Before Their Diaspora, Walid Khalidi, p 306)

At the hands of the Arab armies then? Israeli historian Ilan Pappe has written: "In public, the leaders of the Jewish community portrayed doomsday scenarios and warned their audiences of an imminent 'second Holocaust'. In private, however, they never used this discourse. They were fully aware that the Arab war rhetoric was in no way matched by any serious preparations on the ground... they were well informed about the poor equipment of these armies and their lack of battlefield experience and... training... The Zionist leaders were confidant that they had the upper hand militarily and could drive through most of their ambitious plans. And they were right." (The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, p 46) The Arab states' lack of enthusiasm for war was also evident in their failure to intervene before May 15, 1948, by which time the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, including areas of the UN-proposed Arab state, was well under way. It is difficult to imagine how the Avnery we know today could have fallen back then for propaganda about "annihilation."

Avnery's refusal to acknowledge that ethnic cleansing was perpetrated by Zionist forces prior to the Arab military intervention in May, 1948, is astonishing. He writes, "The hundreds of Arab villages throughout the country dominated the main arteries that were crucial to our survival... In the middle of May, when the expected intervention of the Arab armies was approaching, we were already in possession of a contiguous territory. This was not yet 'ethnic cleansing' but a by-product of the war. Our side was preparing for the massive attack of the Arab armies and we could not possibly leave a large hostile population at our rear. This military necessity was, of course, intertwined with the more or less conscious desire to create a homogenous Jewish territory. In the course of the years, opponents of Israel have created a conspiracy myth about 'Plan D[alet]', as if it had been the mother of ethnic cleansing. In reality that was a military plan for creating a contiguous territory under our control in preparation for the crucial confrontation with the Arab armies." Benny Morris has said much the same thing: "There was no Zionist 'plan'... of evicting the Arab population, or of 'ethnic cleansing'. Plan D... was the master plan of the Haganah... to counter the expected pan-Arab assault on the emergent Jewish state." (Quoted in my 11/5/08 post, Benny Unhinged)

For both Avnery and Morris, it seems, as long as there's a war going on, moving the civilian population on with a spot of shock and aware is justified and cannot be described as ethnic cleansing. Yet wasn't World War 1, for example, the context for the ethnic cleansing/genocide of the Armenians by the Turks? After the Turkish defeat at Sarikarmis, and during the Allied assault at Gallipoli, the Turkish leadership, fearing an attack on Anatolia itself and viewing the Armenians as a potential fifth column (Avnery's "large hostile population at our rear"), moved in earnest to eliminate them. (See A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide & the Question of Turkish Responsibility, chapter 4, Taner Akcam)

Both Avnery and Morris play down the significance of Plan D, which provided for the destruction of Palestinian towns and villages and the expulsion of their inhabitants: yes, they admit, there was a plan, but it wasn't The Plan. Avnery slips the following in almost as an afterthought: "The military necessity was, of course, intertwined with the more or less conscious desire to create a homogenous Jewish territory." More, I would suggest, rather than less. Ilan Pappe's coupling of Plan D with the desire to create an Arabrein Jewish state is surely more accurate: "Plan Dalet was not created in a vacuum. It emerged as the ultimate scheme in response to the way events gradually unfolded on the ground, through a kind of ad-hoc policy that crystallized with time. But that response was always inexorably grounded in the Zionist ideology and the purely Jewish state that was its goal. Thus, the main objective was clear from the beginning - the de-Arabisation of Palestine - whereas the means to achieve this most effectively evolved in tandem with the actual military occupation of the Palestinian territories that were to become the new Jewish state of Israel." (Quoted in my 11/5/08 post, Benny Unhinged)

Without any reference to the manifest injustice of the UN partition plan for Palestine*, Benny Morris has written propagandistically of the Palestinian Arabs "defying the will of the international community, as embodied in the UNGA Resolution of November 29, 1947 (No 181)" (Quoted in my 7/5/08 post, Bend It Like Benny). Avnery's reference to it is not much better: "The Arab spokesmen... demanded the withdrawal of the partition resolution. The Jewish side stuck to [it wanting] to prove that it was possible." The latter assertion is simply not true. Zionist forces did not stop at the 54% of Palestine assigned to the Jews by the partition resolution, but went on to overrun a further 24%, conducting operations in the UN-proposed Arab state from April to May, 1948. Nor did they 'stick to' the partition plan's recommendation that Jerusalem be separate from both the Jewish and Arab states.

[* See my 14/3/08 post, The Israeli Occupation of Federal Parliament 3.]

Both Avnery and Morris fudge the issue of responsibility for the Nakba. Here's Avnery: "But the reality of the war itself caused the mass exodus." And here's Morris: "Most of Palestine's 700,000 'refugees' fled their homes because of the flail of war..." (Quoted in my 7/5/08 post, Bend It Like Benny). The reality of war/the flail of war, take your pick. It's euphemisms all round, folks. Anything to avoid acknowledging the ugly reality of Zionist ethnic cleansing.

Avnery does, however, concede as much in his discussion of war No. 2: "[A]fter the advance of the Arab armies was halted, a deliberate policy of expelling the Arabs became a war aim on its own." But even that is heavily qualified by the rider, "For truth's sake, it must be remembered that this was not one-sided. Not many Arabs remained in the territories that were conquered by our side, but, also, no Jew remained in the territories that were conquered by the Arabs, such as the Etzion Bloc kibbutzim and the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem. The Jewish inhabitants were killed or expelled. The difference was quantitative: while the Jewish side conquered large stretches of land, the Arab side succeeded in conquering only small areas." Avnery sounds not unlike your average Zionist propagandist here: the massive violence of the perpetrator is balanced, even cancelled, by the counter-violence of the victim; the overwhelming, state-of-the-art firepower of the IDF by the homemade Qassems of Hamas; the million odd Israeli cluster bombs in south Lebanon by the two Type-81 cluster strikes of Hezbollah (See Lebanon/Israel: Hezbollah Hit Israel with Cluster Munitions During Conflict,, and so on.

Avnery writes that "The real decision was taken after the war: not to allow the 750,000 Arab refugees to return to their homes." Ah yes, the real decision. Does he really believe, tooth-fairy style, that only after "we had received orders to kill every Arab who tried to return home" (See his account below of his wartime experiences), not to mention the wholesale destruction and theft of the refugees' villages, homes, lands, and businesses during the war, that such a decision was made? One longs for the honesty of a Yeshayahu Ben Porat? "Yeshayahu Ben Porat was a member of the Haganah during this period. He noted that while he had been in the Zionist youth movement, he 'was trained to despise the Arab population'. He was taught that he must one day struggle for a Zionist state that would be goyim rein. 'They did not educate us in the perspective that there will be a Jewish state here where Arabs and Jews will live together. The hidden thought and sometimes the overt thought was: they will go away and we shall stay'. Ben Porat later recalled that on the eve of the conflict most Jews believed, 'we needed a war with the Arabs. In the kibbutzim they looked at the Arab villages in the vicinity and they divided up their land in their thoughts." (The Palestinian Catastrophe: The 1948 Expulsion of a People from Their Homeland, Michael Palumbo, p 37)

Avnery writes of his war record thus: "When the war broke out, I immediately joined a combat brigade (Givati)... the place of every decent and fit young man at such a time was in the combat units... At the beginning of the war I was a private soldier in the infantry and fought around the road to Jerusalem [ in the UN-proposed Arab state?], and in the second half I served in the Samson's Foxes motorized commando unit on the Egyptian front... Throughout the war I wrote up my experiences... I reported that we had received orders to kill every Arab who tried to return home." And did he carry them out? He doesn't say.

Israeli activist, author, and one-time political ally of Avnery Uri Davis has commented that: "[T]o my knowledge [Avnery] has yet to account for his activities, possibly war crimes, in the 1948-49 war as a soldier with the Giv'ati battalion commando unit 'Samson's Foxes' directed... by such criminal 'orders of the day' as were issued in the daily battle sheets of the political commissar of the Giv'ati battalion, Abba Kobner, a survivor of the Nazi occupation of Europe and the Kobna Ghetto rebellion, who turned to Nazi rhetoric himself, issuing such battle sheets as Battle Sheet dated 12.7.1948 entitled 'Aju al-Yahud (The Jews Have Come): The Night of Raid and Purge: 'Indeed we broke the spirit of the enemy and also rent their bodies open. But the enemy strength is still there. It is an enemy. It is an army. Though we are confidant that the dung of the corpses of the invaders [will fertilize] our fields into blossom...' After all, Uri Avnery is reported to have taken part in the Samson's Foxes operation in the Palestinian Arab village of 'Ibdis, subsequently destroyed and razed to the ground... and to have participated in operations where the Samson's Foxes were ordered to move from Arab village to Arab village and 'shoot at anything that moved, man, woman, child, camel or donkey'* as well as to have taken part in operations in the south where the Samson's Foxes commandos 'raced with their jeeps after all those [Arabs] like hunters hunting rabbits' (Yair Lev, The Subject: Uri Avnery, Guerilla Pictures, 2002). Uri Avnery does not deny his participation in these operations - but claims that he did not shoot." (Apartheid Israel: Possibilities for the Struggle Within, pp 147-148)

[*In his essay, Avnery writes of the modus operandi of Samson's Foxes: "In general, things happened this way: in the course of the fighting, an Arab village came under heavy fire. Its inhabitants - men, women and children - fled, of course, to the next village. Then we fired on the next village, and they fled to the next one, and so forth, until the armistace came into force..."]

I leave the last word to Uri Davis: "Uri Avnery and Gush Shalom are aware that the laws on war crimes are not subject to the statute of limitations and perpetrators can be brought to trial anywhere, anytime. They have joined their voices to those inside Israel and abroad condemning the war crimes perpetrated by the Israeli occupation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as well as cautioned against the prospects of Israeli attempts to orchestrate the mass expulsions of Palestinians from the post-1967 occupied territories under the cover of the US-led illegal attack on Iraq. Yet, given Avnery's own failure and the failure of his camp to engage in self-critical assessment of their political choices in 1948, condemn the war crimes perpetrated by the Israeli army in the course of the 1948-49 war, and motivate prosecution for these war crimes, their peace advocacy today is tainted in that it betrays the rights of those most victimized by the political Zionist settler colonial project in Palestine, the 1948 Palestine refugees and their descendents, some 4 million people today." (p 148)

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