DISCUSSION: Palestinians' right of return is 'legal, moral and possible'



In his reply to my article, "55 years of oppression: Palestinians demand freedom!" (Green Left Weekly #539), Sol Salbe (GLW #541) correctly notes that it was the United Nations General Assembly, and not the UN Security Council, that voted for the partition of Palestine.

However, in 1947 the General Assembly was even more heavily dominated by the colonial and European powers than it is today. Many former colonial territories, now largely African, Asian and Arab nations, were not included in this vote of just 53 countries. There was also considerable controversy about the role of the USA in securing a positive vote by bringing "certain Latin American republics into line" with "diplomatic intimidation" and "terrific pressure" (see Quigley Palestine and Israel: A Challenge to Justice
quoted in Jews for Justice, The Origin of the
Palestine - Israeli Conflict, Znet, 2002, p. 8).

Salbe reminds us that the Australian labour movement supported Zionism and that Labor Party leader Herbert Evatt played "a pivotal role" in the process of partition. This does not make partition right or just. At that time, both the ALP and Evatt were open advocates of the White Australia Policy and therefore it should come as no surprise that they also supported Zionism.

Salbe contends that we "lose credibility" if "we claim that [the Palestinians] were all expelled". He reminds us that "many feared for their lives and fled". This amounts to a rehashing of the moderate Zionist line that the Palestinian refugee population "was born of war, not by design". It is an account that seeks to limit or preclude Israel's direct accountability for what happened in 1948.


In fact, the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes was the express policy of the Zionist leaders and as Norman Finkelstein writes, Palestinians "were expelled systematically and with premeditation". Finkelstein's account refers to the operational guidelines of the Haganah's (regular Zionist forces) "Plan Dalet", which constituted nothing less than "a strategic-ideological anchor and basis" for expulsions by military commanders.

That many Palestinians were not directly expelled at gunpoint and simply fled their homes under artillery fire or from the threat of massacres and atrocities is not contested. However, the overwhelming balance of evidence, including the stated aims of Zionist leaders, leads us to conclude that what was being undertaken was a systematic program of ethnic cleansing to relieve the future Jewish state of its Palestinian majority. I refer readers to Nur Masalha's seminal work Expulsions of the Palestinians: The Concept of 'Transfer' in Zionist Political Thought.

Examples of "outright expulsions" are many, some of which, like those of Lydda, Ramle and Galilee are staggering in their scale and brutality. In the cases of Lydda and Ramle, more than 60,000 Palestinians were expelled in "Operation Dani", during which a young Israeli lieutenant-colonel named Yitzhak Rabin issued the following order: "The inhabitants of Lydda must be expelled quickly and without attention to age" (
Masalha The Historical Roots of the Palestinian Refugee Question' Palestinian Refugees: The Right of Return, ed. Aruri, 2001)

Walter Lacquer, The Israel-Arab Reader, 1970).

British support

Salbe then questions whether "London facilitated the large scale migration of European Jews to Palestine", believing instead that the British "played one nation against the other".

This simply is not the case. In 1917 the Balfour Declaration stated clearly: "His Majesty's government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object" (cited in Lacquer, The Israel-Arab Reader).

This was affirmed again in the Churchill White Paper of 1922 and the MacDonald letter of 1931. Under the British mandate, which controlled all entry and exit to Palestine, the population of Jews in Palestine increased from 83,790 in 1922 to around 650,000 in May 1948 (figures from Ian Bickerton, The Arab Israeli Conflict, 1986).

The only time the British restricted Jewish immigration to officially 15,000 new immigrants per year, was following the 1939 white paper. This was not due to the British playing one group against another, but, as even Ahron Bergman concedes in his A History of Israel (2003), "simply because of strong opposition by the Arab majority in Palestine to the Jewish project and subsequent British attempts to pacify the Arabs and find some middle way between Arab and Jewish demands and this, inevitably, led to a watering down of previous pledges to the Jews". After a costly three-year-long Palestinian rebellion and strike against British colonial rule, they were forced to make some concessions on the eve of the second world war.

Salbe then disputes whether the Arab armies were outnumbered and outgunned in 1948, although I certainly agree that, especially Transjordan, they were as much interested in grabbing Palestinian land as defeating Israel.

Maxime Rodinson, in his book Israel and the Arabs (1970), notes that Jewish numbers were at first about equal to those of the Arab forces, but that their lines of communication (and therefore supply) were much less extended. In the final phase of the war, there were 60,000 Jewish soldiers facing 40,000 Arabs.

Furthermore, what Salbe describes as the "effective military fighting force" of Transjordan stopped fighting early on in the post-May part of the 1948 war. The Arab Legion was commanded by a Briton, John Bagot Glubb, who answered to London and the British installed puppet king, Abdallah.

This account runs counter to a longstanding and core Zionist narrative. Israelis call 1948 the "war of independence" and for them it begins on May 15 when the Arab armies invaded, intent on destroying the "defenceless" new state. The myth of a defenceless Israel relying on its skill and "purity of arms" to defeat vastly superior Arab forces bent on its destruction has been one of the most prevailing, disturbing — and historically inaccurate — myths propagated.

In fact, the war began with the implementation of Plan Dalet on April 1, 1948 and the intermittent guerrilla warfare between Arab irregulars and vastly superior Zionist forces in the months before the Arab armies entered Palestine in May 1948.

In answer to Salbe's question, "Were there really massacres in 110 villages?". There were at least 110. As Nur Masalha writes in "The Historical Roots of the Palestinian Refugee Question", published in Palestinian Refugees: The Right of Return (2001, edited by Nasseer Aruri): "According to the Israeli military historian, Arieh Yitzhaki, about 10 major massacres (defined as more than 50 victims in each massacre), and about 100 smaller massacres (of individuals or small groups) were committed by Jewish forces in 1948 49... Another Israeli historian ... goes even further to suggest that each battle in 1948 ended with a massacre."

A colonial-settler state

These figures only represent those massacres that were recorded. Finkelstein correctly questions even the accounts of sympathetic Israeli historian Benny Morris for the "uncritical" handling of Israeli archival materials. Such history represents the narrative of the victor and recalls a contemporary debate concerning the violence at the heart of the establishment of another colonial-settler state — Australia.

Salbe feels "uneasy" at the quote I used from David Ben-Gurion and questions whether he really wrote, "During the assault we must be ready to strike the decisive blow: that is either to destroy the town or expel its inhabitants so our people can replace them". Salbe writes, "nowhere in my library or on the internet (in Hebrew or English) have I seen it".

Ben-Gurion was quoted here from Masalha's article, who sourced it directly to his Yoman Hamilhamah [War Diary]. This is not an unusual quote from this key Zionist leader, who as early as 1938 declared: "I support compulsory transfer [of Arabs]. I don't see in it anything immoral."

Finally, Salbe reminds us that many of the orange trees and olive groves that the Palestinians wish to return to are no longer there or could not compete in a globalised economy. This entirely misses the point.

As the title of Salman Abu Sitta's article (<http://www.caabu.org/press/briefings/right_of_return.html> states, the Palestinians' right of return to their land and homes is "legal, moral and possible". The September 2000 call by the Popular Organisations of the Refugee Camps of the West Bank was a call to return home. The orange trees and olive groves are clearly metaphorical references to the land from which they were expelled and to which they still hope to return.

My article attempted to demonstrate the historical continuity of Israel's occupation of Palestine, including the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It firmly located the oppressive and apartheid-policies of Israel in the practices of colonisation and ethnic cleansing that led to the establishment of the Zionist state.

The charge of historical inaccuracy is a serious one. But the narrative that I choose to support is one that is as much as possible unobscured by the unreliable accounts of the coloniser, the rewriting of history from the perspectives and practice of power, and the distortions of romantic exclusionist myths of colonial state building.

[Nikolai Haddad is a member of Sawiyan-Coalition for Palestine, a solidarity group based in Sydney.]

From Green Left Weekly, June 18, 2003.

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