Q & A With Benny Morris
Benny Morris says he was always a Zionist. People were mistaken when they labeled him a post-Zionist, when they thought that his historical study on the birth of the Palestinian refugee problem was intended to undercut the Zionist enterprise. Nonsense, Morris says, that’s completely unfounded. Some readers simply misread the book. They didn’t read it with the same detachment, the same moral neutrality, with which it was written. So they came to the mistaken conclusion that when Morris describes the cruelest deeds that the Zionist movement perpetrated in 1948 he is actually being condemnatory, that when he describes the large-scale expulsion operations he is being denunciatory. They did not conceive that the great scribe of the sins of Zionism in fact identifies with those sins. That he thinks some of them, at least, were unavoidable.
Whereas citizen Morris turned out to be a not completely snow-white dove, historian Morris continued to work on the Hebrew translation of his massive work "Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001," which was written in the old, peace-pursuing style. And, at the same time, historian Morris completed the new version of his book on the refugee problem, which is going to strengthen the hands of those who hate Israel. In the past two years citizen Morris and historian Morris worked as though there is no connection between them, as though one was trying to save what the other insists on eradicating.
The book on the history of the Zionist-Arab conflict was published in Hebrew by Am Oved in Tel Aviv, while the Cambridge University Press published "The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited" (it originally appeared under the CUP imprint in 1987).
He is short, plump and very intense. The son of immigrants from England, he was born in Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh and was a member of the left-wing Hashomer Hatza’ir youth movement. In the past, he was a reporter for The Jerusalem Post and refused to do military service in the territories. He is now a professor of history at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be’er Sheva. He gives the observer the feeling that this agitated individual — who with his own hands opened the Zionist Pandora’s box — is still having difficulty coping with what he found in it, still finding it hard to deal with the internal contradictions that are his lot and the lot of us all.
Ari Shavit: In the month ahead, the new version of your book on the birth of the Palestinian refugee problem is due to be published. Who will be less pleased with the book — the Israelis or the Palestinians?
Benny Morris: The revised book is a double-edged sword. It is based on many documents that were not available to me when I wrote the original book, most of them from the Israel Defense Forces [IDF] archives. What the new material shows is that there were far more Israeli acts of massacre than I had previously thought. To my surprise, there were also many cases of rape. In the months of April-May 1948, units of the Haganah [the pre-State defense force that was the precursor of the IDF] were given operational orders that stated explicitly that they were to uproot the villagers, expel them and destroy the villages themselves.
At the same time, it turns out that there was a series of orders issued by the Arab Higher Committee and by the Palestinian intermediate levels to remove children, women and the elderly from the villages. So that on the one hand, the book reinforces the accusation against the Zionist side, but on the other hand it also proves that many of those who left the villages did so with the encouragement of the Palestinian leadership itself.
AS: According to your new findings, how many cases of Israeli rape were there in 1948?
BM: About a dozen. In Acre, four soldiers raped a girl and murdered her and her father. In Jaffa, soldiers of the Kiryati Brigade raped one girl and tried to rape several more. At Hunin, which is in the Galilee, two girls were raped and then murdered. There were one or two cases of rape at Tantura, south of Haifa. There was one case of rape at Qula, in the center of the country. At the village of Abu Shusha, near Kibbutz Gezer [in the Ramle area] there were four female prisoners, one of whom was raped a number of times. And there were other cases. Usually more than one soldier was involved. Usually there were one or two Palestinian girls. In a large proportion of the cases the event ended with murder. Because neither the victims nor the rapists liked to report these events, we have to assume that the dozen cases of rape that were reported, which I found, are not the whole story. They are just the tip of the iceberg.
AS: According to your findings, how many acts of Israeli massacre were perpetrated in 1948?
BM: Twenty-four. In some cases four or five people were executed, in others the numbers were 70, 80, 100. There was also a great deal of arbitrary killing. Two old men are spotted walking in a field — they are shot. A woman is found in an abandoned village — she is shot. There are cases such as the village of Dawayima [in the Hebron region], in which a column entered the village with all guns blazing and killed anything that moved.
The worst cases were Saliha (70-80 killed), Deir Yassin (100-110), Lod (250), Dawayima (hundreds) and, perhaps, Abu Shusha (70). There is no unequivocal proof of a large-scale massacre at Tantura, but war crimes were perpetrated there. At Jaffa there was a massacre about which nothing had been known until now. The same at Arab al Muwassi, in the north. About half of the acts of massacre were part of Operation Hiram [in the north, in October 1948]: at Safsaf, Saliha, Jish, Eilaboun, Arab al Muwasi, Deir al Asad, Majdal Krum, Sasa. In Operation Hiram there was a unusually high concentration of executions of people against a wall or next to a well in an orderly fashion.
That can’t be chance. It’s a pattern. Apparently, various officers who took part in the operation understood that the expulsion order they received permitted them to do these deeds in order to encourage the population to take to the roads. The fact is that no one was punished for these acts of murder. [David] Ben-Gurion silenced the matter. He covered up for the officers who did the massacres.
AS: Are you saying that Ben-Gurion was personally responsible for a deliberate and systematic policy of mass expulsion?
BM: From April 1948, Ben-Gurion is projecting a message of transfer. There is no explicit order of his in writing, there is no orderly comprehensive policy, but there is an atmosphere of [population] transfer. The transfer idea is in the air. The entire leadership understands that this is the idea. The officer corps understands what is required of them. Under Ben-Gurion, a consensus of transfer is created.
AS: Ben-Gurion was a "transferist?"
BM: Of course. Ben-Gurion was a transferist. He understood that there could be no Jewish State with a large and hostile Arab minority in its midst. There would be no such state. It would not be able to exist.
AS: I don’t hear you condemning him.
BM: Ben-Gurion was right. If he had not done what he did, a state would not have come into being. That has to be clear. It is impossible to evade it. Without the uprooting of the Palestinians, a Jewish State would not have arisen here.
AS: For decades you have been researching the dark side of Zionism. You are an expert on the atrocities of 1948. In the end, do you in effect justify all this? Are you an advocate of the transfer of 1948?
BM: There is no justification for acts of rape. There is no justification for acts of massacre. Those are war crimes. But in certain conditions, expulsion is not a war crime. I don’t think that the expulsions of 1948 were war crimes. You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. You have to dirty your hands.
AS: We are talking about the killing of thousands of people, the destruction of an entire society.
BM: A society that aims to kill you forces you to destroy it. When the choice is between destroying or being destroyed, it’s better to destroy.
AS: So when the commanders of Operation Dani are standing there and observing the long and terrible column of the 50,000 people expelled from Lod walking eastward, you stand there with them? You justify them?
BM: I definitely understand them. I understand their motives. I don’t think they felt any pangs of conscience, and in their place I wouldn’t have felt pangs of conscience. Without that act, they would not have won the war and the state would not have come into being.
AS: They perpetrated ethnic cleansing.
BM: There are circumstances in history that justify ethnic cleansing. I know that this term is completely negative in the discourse of the 21st century, but when the choice is between ethnic cleansing and genocide — the annihilation of your people — I prefer ethnic cleansing.
AS: And that was the situation in 1948?
BM: That was the situation. That is what Zionism faced. A Jewish State would not have come into being without the uprooting of 700,000 Palestinians. Therefore it was necessary to uproot them. There was no choice but to expel that population. It was necessary to cleanse the hinterland and cleanse the border areas and cleanse the main roads. It was necessary to cleanse the villages from which our convoys and our settlements were fired on.
AS: What you are saying is hard to listen to and hard to digest. You sound hardhearted.
BM: I feel sympathy for the Palestinian people, which truly underwent a hard tragedy. I feel sympathy for the refugees themselves. But if the desire to establish a Jewish State here is legitimate, there was no other choice. It was impossible to leave a large fifth column in the country. From the moment the Yishuv [pre-1948 Jewish community in Palestine] was attacked by the Palestinians and afterward by the Arab states, there was no choice but to expel the Palestinian population. To uproot it in the course of war.
Remember another thing: the Arab people gained a large slice of the planet. Not thanks to its skills or its great virtues, but because it conquered and murdered and forced those it conquered to convert during many generations. But in the end the Arabs have 22 states. The Jewish people did not have even one state. There was no reason in the world why it should not have one state. Therefore, from my point of view, the need to establish this state in this place overcame the injustice that was done to the Palestinians by uprooting them.
AS: And morally speaking, you have no problem with that deed?
BM: That is correct. Even the great American democracy could not have been created without the annihilation of the Indians. There are cases in which the overall, final good justifies harsh and cruel acts that are committed in the course of history.
AS: And you take that in stride? War crimes? Massacres? The burning fields and the devastated villages of the Nakba?
BM: You have to put things in proportion. These are small war crimes. All told, if we take all the massacres and all the executions of 1948, we come to about 800 who were killed. In comparison to the massacres that were perpetrated in Bosnia, that’s peanuts. In comparison to the massacres the Russians perpetrated against the Germans at Stalingrad, that’s chicken feed. When you take into account that there was a bloody civil war here and that we lost an entire 1 percent of the population, you find that we behaved very well.
AS: Besides being tough, you are also very gloomy. You weren’t always like that, were you?
BM: "My turning point began after 2000. I wasn’t a great optimist even before that…. When the Palestinians rejected the proposal of [Prime Minister Ehud] Barak in July 2000 and the Clinton proposal in December 2000, I understood that they are unwilling to accept the two-state solution. They want it all. Lod and Acre and Jaffa.
AS: If that’s so, then the whole Oslo process was mistaken and there is a basic flaw in the entire worldview of the Israeli peace movement.
BM: Oslo had to be tried. But today it has to be clear that from the Palestinian point of view, Oslo was a deception. [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat did not change for the worse, Arafat simply defrauded us. He was never sincere in his readiness for compromise and conciliation.
AS: Do you really believe Arafat wants to throw us into the sea?
BM: He wants to send us back to Europe, to the sea we came from. He truly sees us as a Crusader state and he thinks about the Crusader precedent and wishes us a Crusader end. I’m certain that Israeli intelligence has unequivocal information proving that in internal conversations Arafat talks seriously about the phased plan [which would eliminate Israel in stages]. But the problem is not just Arafat. The entire Palestinian national elite is prone to see us as Crusaders and is driven by the phased plan. That’s why the Palestinians are not honestly ready to forego the right of return. They are preserving it as an instrument with which they will destroy the Jewish State when the time comes. They can’t tolerate the existence of a Jewish State — not in 80 percent of the country and not in 30 percent. From their point of view, the Palestinian state must cover the whole Land of Israel.
AS: If so, the two-state solution is not viable; even if a peace treaty is signed, it will soon collapse.
BM: Ideologically, I support the two-state solution. It’s the only alternative to the expulsion of the Jews or the expulsion of the Palestinians or total destruction. But in practice, in this generation, a settlement of that kind will not hold water. At least 30 percent to 40 percent of the Palestinian public and at least 30 percent to 40 percent of the heart of every Palestinian will not accept it. After a short break, terrorism will erupt again and the war will resume.
AS: Your prognosis doesn’t leave much room for hope, does it?
BM: It’s hard for me, too. There is not going to be peace in the present generation. There will not be a solution. We are doomed to live by the sword. I’m already fairly old, but for my children that is especially bleak. I don’t know if they will want to go on living in a place where there is no hope. Even if Israel is not destroyed, we won’t see a good, normal life here in the decades ahead.
The above excerpt reprinted with permission of Haaretz.