In the west and especially in the US, one of the least known elements of the story of the Israel-Palestinian conflict is the ugly story of how the Palestinians were uprooted from their land and homes leading up to and through the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. The heroic story of how the Jews, ‘a people without a land’ came to occupy ‘a land without a people’, was always based on a false premise. Palestine, far from being a largely unoccupied wasteland, was a bustling place, home to many people whose ancestors had lived there for millennia.
This ended in 1948 with their forcible expulsion when over 700,000 indigenous people (about three-quarters of the population) were expelled by the armed Zionist militia that later became the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) to make room for the influx of Jews from Europe and create a purely Jewish. This event is referred to as the ‘Nakba’ (that means ‘catastrophe’ in Arabic) and its details are little mentioned in the western press, which has developed into an art the suppression of inconvenient truths.
But truth is stubborn and those who seek it can find it. Take the case of Miko Peled. He is the son of Mattiyahu ‘Matti’ Peled and Zika Katsnelson-Peled. Both his parents came from families who were ardent Zionists, his father born in Haifa in 1923 and his mother in Jerusalem in 1926. Matti Peled became one of Israel’s top generals in the IDF, fighting in the 1948 and 1967 wars and at one time was the military governor of the Gaza strip.
Miko Peled has written a memoir The General’s Son: Journey of an Israeli in Palestine (2012) which has been reviewed by Alice Walker.
He has also written a long article, undoubtedly based on his book, that was published in late 2013 in The Link that is published by the organization Americans for Middle East Understanding. Peled’s piece is aimed at the US audience and is titled What Israel’s Best Friend Should Know and in its subtitle he says that “I would like Americans to know what my mother told me.”
Peled’s article begins by describing how his mother, who was an eyewitness to the Nakba, told him the disturbing story about what it was really like and in the process undermined his own beliefs about his history.
In the spring of 1948, the Haganah (the Zionist militia which later became the Israeli Defense Forces, or IDF) took the neighborhoods of western Jerusalem, including Katamon, Talbiye, and Bak’a, among others.
The inhabitants of these neighborhoods, like hundreds of thousands of Palestinians across the country, were forced to leave their homes and go into indefinite exile. The homes in these neighborhoods still stand, impressive houses built with distinctive Jerusalem stone. They generally have wide balconies overlooking front yards, a lemon tree in the backyard, high arched ceilings, and oftentimes an inscription with the date that the home was constructed. These were the homes of well-to-do Jerusalemite Palestinians who were all forced to leave, and never allowed to return.
The invading Zionist militia looted the furniture, rugs and other valuables such as rare books and manuscripts and, according to a 2013 documentary film by Benny Brunner, “The Great Book Robbery,” the Zionists even had a special librarian unit that followed the forces to collect and index the books they found. As the daughter of a member of the Zionist elite and the wife of a captain in the Haganah’s Giv’ati brigade, my mother was offered one of these looted homes, as were a handful of other Israeli families. She refused.
At this point my mother would add:
I knew the Palestinian families as a child growing up in Jerusalem. How could I take the home of another mother knowing full well that the rightful owners of these homes were now refugees?
And she would continue:
To see how the soldiers looted these homes, taking the rugs and furniture. How were they not ashamed? And you know, when the soldiers came into the homes, the coffee was still warm, sitting on the breakfast table.
And that was it. That was the story. We forced people to leave, we stole their possessions and we took their homes. How that story bothered me, for years. It bothered me because, in my mind, it couldn’t be true. I was taught that we are Israelis, we are the Jewish people, and we are righteous. We accepted the U.N. partition resolution of 1947 even though it only gave us a portion of Eretz Israel and not all of it, as we deserved. We wanted peace yet Arab bandits who wanted to kill us viciously attacked us and we acted humanely towards them, making sure not to harm women and children. We miraculously survived the war of 1948, defeated the advancing Arab armies and were able to establish a Jewish state in the land of Israel after 2000 years in exile.
So what was my mother saying? Why was my mother presenting a moral dilemma where there couldn’t be one?
He describes how the journey prompted by his mother’s disturbing remembrances led him to re-examine what he thought he knew about his own history and discovered that much of what he had been taught, and is still believed by many people in the US and the world, is false.
One aspect of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict that makes it unique is that the disagreement is not merely over land rights, or an interpretation of history, but rather over the facts themselves. The Israeli and Palestinian narratives are diametrically opposed in that they claim two separate sets of historical facts, creating a situation where no middle ground, no “balance” can be found. If two opposing histories are presented, then one of them must be wrong. And indeed one of them is wrong.
The Israeli narrative begins with the right of Jewish people to “return” to their ancestral homeland. This so-called “return” is their right because the Jewish people of today claim to be the descendants of the ancient Hebrews who resided on that piece of land some two or three thousand years ago. In response to intolerance by regimes in Christian Europe towards their Jewish population, the Zionist movement was established and took on the task of recreating a state for the Jewish people in their ancient homeland. After decades of diligence, and what can only be described as diplomatic ingenuity, Zionist leaders like my grandfather managed to convince the world that this was a valid argument. Their hard work and dedication paid off and, on Nov. 29, 1947, the United Nations passed Resolution 181 that called for the partition of Palestine, and the allocation of the larger part of the country for a Jewish state.
According to the Zionist narrative, the Arabs rejected the resolution and immediately Arab forces began attacking the Jewish community in an attempt to destroy what the Zionists were trying to build. This narrative claims that the Jewish community prevailed, despite being smaller and weaker than the Arabs, resulting in the establishment of the state of Israel on May 15, 1948. The war continued until cease-fire agreements were signed between Israel and the neighboring countries in January of 1949.
The Zionist version of the story claims that the Arabs of Israel, the Palestinians, were asked by the Zionist leadership to remain but that, prompted by their leaders, they opted to leave, which led to nearly one million Palestinians ending up in exile. If all this were true then why did my mother describe this as though taking an Arab home was a moral dilemma? They themselves chose to flee, did they not? There could be no moral dilemma if the story as I knew it were true.
This story is not only romantic and heroic, but it is also unbelievable. As a child I remember reading about battles won by the Zionist forces, tough battles which my father fought and won alongside his comrades in arms, men whom I knew and who had become living legends by the time I was old enough to meet them.
But as one grows older, hopefully, maturity sets in. One aspect of maturity is close examination of the stories we heard as children, and a close examination of the story of the birth of Israel reveals the following: by 1947 the Jewish community in Palestine numbered close to half a million people, mostly immigrants like my grandparents, and their children, my parents’ generation. The Palestinian community, numbered close to 1.5 million. This explains the Palestinian rejection of a plan that was to give a small community of Jewish immigrants the lion’s share of Palestine. While both communities had already begun developing institutions of state, one thing in which the Jewish community had invested heavily, while the Palestinians had not, was an armed militia.
By 1947 the Zionist militia numbered close to 40,000 armed, well-trained men, many of whom were trained by the British. There was no Palestinian equivalent to the Zionist militia. So the question that begs to be asked is: if the Palestinians had no armed militia, who then were the Arabs who attacked the Jewish community? Armies of neighboring countries intervened in Palestine, but that wasn’t until the fighting had been going on for months, and mostly after the British had left Palestine in May of 1948.
So, it turns out that the Zionist claim that Arabs attacked after rejecting the partition plan is false. Once the United Nations passed the partition resolution, the Zionist forces began an all out campaign that can best be described as an unprovoked terrorist attack for the purpose of destroying the indigenous Arab Palestinian community in Palestine through ethnic cleansing. My mother’s story was the first hint that what I was taught in school was not entirely true.
Families and nations try to pass on to their youth the version of history that puts themselves in the best light. As the children grow up, they tend to ignore those hints that what they learned while young may not be true. Peled is unusual in that as maturity set in, he took those hints seriously and made a close examination of the stories he heard as a child to try and uncover the truth. Many prefer to continue to wallow in their comforting mythical childhood beliefs, becoming increasingly rigid over time.
So what now? How can this seemingly intractable problem be addressed? In the next post, I will examine this question.