Atlases are never as neutral as they seem. Buried deep in this giant handsome atlas is a statement of purpose: "Firstly the obliteration of Palestine history and lost memory (place names, records, etc.) can be reversed and re-recorded.... This Atlas ... is a step in the right direction. Secondly, the reconstruction of the Palestinian landscape is quite feasible from [sic] physical point of view." The second point defines, if somewhat obscurely, the book's political goal, which is to delegitimate Zionism and Israel and to promote the re-Palestinization of Palestine/the Land of Israel, through a process that includes the return of the refugees and the dismantling of the Jewish state.
To recover Palestinian history and memory, Salman Abu Sitta, a former member of the Palestine National Council and a leading proponent of the return of Palestinian refugees to what is now Israel, attempts to re-create Palestine as it was before the Nakba (catastrophe, in Arabic), or the war of 1947-1949...
The book is divided in two: a hundred-page General Review, in which Abu Sitta narrates the historical background and the war of 1948 and describes aspects of the economy of British Mandate Palestine, bolstered by myriad tables and graphs; and then the Atlas itself, with almost three hundred pages of maps....
The maps are straightforward and scientific. Far less so is the historical and descriptive narrative that precedes them. Abu Sitta's narrative is unabashedly propagandistic and often factually wrong. His promotion of the Palestinian case is relentless and his vilification of Zionism and Israel merciless. And he does not shrink from chicanery and manipulation of the highest (or lowest) order. The devil is in the details, and when it comes to numbers Abu Sitta is quite a devil.
He is forever inflating and, correspondingly, deflating numbers--Arab and Jewish population figures, Arab and Jewish landholdings. The presumption seems to be that the fewer Jews or the less Jewish-owned land in Palestine at any given time, the less legitimate are the Jewish national claims. So on page eleven we find Abu Sitta asserting that the country's population in 1914-1915 consisted of 602,000 Muslims, 81,000 Christians, and 38,754 Jews. Past histories have asserted that there were between 60,000 and 85,000 Jews in Palestine at the time. Abu Sitta gives a reference for his "38,754"--page ten in Justin McCarthy's The Population of Palestine, a classic work on Palestine's demography during late Ottoman and British Mandate times. And, indeed, 38,754 appears in Table 1.4D in McCarthy. But then, on pages twenty-three and twenty-four, McCarthy re-calibrates the official Ottoman Government statistics, taking account of permanent "tourists," and so on--and concludes that "the total Jewish population of Palestine in 1914 was thus approximately 60,000."
Is this mistake a fluke? Did the Palestinian researcher simply overlook some relevant passages? I'm afraid not. The mendacity here is systematic. There are dozens of cases in which there is no correspondence between Abu Sitta's assertions in the text and the references that he purportedly bases them on. On page sixty, he tells us: "There were massacres in 1948 [at] al-Tira and Qazaza. In al-Tira old and infirm men and women were burnt alive by [Israelis] pouring gasoline over them." He refers us to his footnote 230: "About 30-50 old villagers were burnt alive. See Table 3.2." We turn to Table 3.2, which lists 205 alleged Israeli War Crimes, where it says, under the heading Tira--"28 al-Tira villagers who sought refuge in 'Ayn Ghazal burned alive there." The source for this is given as "[Walid] Khalidi, [All That Remains], 198, UNTSO." But in All That Remains, Khalidi's encyclopedic survey of the Arab villages depopulated and destroyed in 1948, it says this: "The Secretary General of the Arab League reported that 28 refugees from al-Tira were burned alive there in late July. But a United Nations observer [from UNTSO] visited the area on 28 July and found 'no evidence to support claims of a massacre,' according to UN Mediator Count Folke Bernadotte."
Abu Sitta practices a similar deceit in relation to the Arab al Samniyya tribe in western Galilee, Number 192 in Table 3.2: "30 Oct. 1948: Operation Hiram: emptied the village; extensive looting in and around the villages; several hundred taken as prisoners and several hundred killed." He again cites "Khalidi, pp. 5-6." (Note Abu Sitta's almost imperceptible switch from "village" to "villages," and his reference first to prisoners and then to "several hundred killed," implying, perhaps, a slaughter of POWs.) But a look at the relevant passage in Khalidi reveals a different picture. Khalidi writes, under "Arab al Samniyya":
Safsaf, some 25 kms. to the east of Arab al Samniyya ... fell before dawn on 29 October 1948; on 30 October it [Safsaf] was the scene of one of several massacres committed during the operation [Hiram] ... The following day, an Israeli army spokesman, quoted in The New York Times, said that several hundred of the area's defenders had been killed and another several hundred taken prisoner.
For Abu Sitta, this is proof of a massacre at Arab al Samniyya.
In general, Abu Sitta is eager to inflate the number of Jewish atrocities in 1948. (He never mentions Arab atrocities.) But his table of "205 [Jewish] War Crimes" (Table 3.2) mostly refers to the destruction of houses and Arab deaths in battle; only a fraction refer to real atrocities. And the list brims with hyperbole and errors. In Number 193, under "Azazma" (a Negev Bedouin tribe), he writes: "Jan. 1949, People were shot by machineguns and from helicopters"; but Israel possessed no helicopters. Though this is an atlas about 1948, the killing of British troops and alleged atrocities committed in the 1950s and even the 1960s are thrown in for good (or bad) measure, merely to inflate numbers.
Abu Sitta is similarly unreliable about landholdings. He asserts that "over 92 percent of the land held by Israel today was confiscated from Palestinians"; and that "Arabs and other non-Jews" owned 24,670,000 dunams, and the Jews 1,514,000 dunams, of Palestine's land surface. He cites the British Mandate government's classic Survey of Palestine, II, Table 2, page 566 as his source. But he doesn't tell his readers that the category "Arab and other non-Jewish" owners includes state lands, and that the Survey from 1946, and the Supplement to Survey of Palestine from 1947, state that only 5.2 million dunams were actually owned by Jews and Arabs. The rest (mostly in the Negev) was state land. Hence, in reality, Jews owned about 6 to 7 percent of Palestine's land surface, and the Arabs owned around 20 percent, and the rest was public or state-owned. And, given that no Palestinian Arab state was established, Israel was Mandate Palestine's successor state and heir to the state lands. Abu Sitta also fails to tell his readers that many if not most Palestinian notable families, including the Husseinis, Nashashibis, al Alamis, Dajanis, Abd al Hadis, and so on--the leaders of the Palestinian national movement--sold land to the Jews, and that the meagerness of Zionist purchases was largely dictated by a lack of funds, not by any Arab indisposition to sell.
For Abu Sitta, the story of Zionism, and of the Zionist-Arab conflict, begins with the Balfour Declaration of November 1917, when the British sold what he regards as the Palestinian Arab patrimony down the river. He makes no mention of the three-thousand-year connection of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel; of the pogroms in Russia in the early 1880s; or of Arab harassment--and occasional murder--of the Zionist settlers before 1917. He then nimbly flits over the mass Arab attacks (or pogroms) against the settlers in 1920, 1921, and 1929, calling them "clashes" and "incidents." In the last of these, unmentioned by Abu Sitta, 133 Jews were murdered, 66 of them defenseless ultra-orthodox Jews in Hebron knifed and axed by an Arab mob.
From reading this Atlas, the reader will not know that it was the Palestinian Arab onslaught on the Jewish community in Palestine in November to December 1947 that provoked Jewish counter-violence, which then triggered the Arab exodus; and that it was the follow-up invasion of the country by the armies of the surrounding Arab states in May to June 1948 that turned what might have been an ephemeral phenomenon into a still larger tragedy, consolidating and finalizing, as it were, the refugee status of the fleeing communities. Instead Abu Sitta tells a different story: first, that "the idea of population transfer had always been a major component of Zionist theory and practice"; and second, that the Jews may have danced deliriously in the streets on November 29, 1947, when the news broke of the U.N. General Assembly endorsement of partition, but in reality they always wanted and aimed for the creation of a Jewish state encompassing the whole of the Land of Israel and had always planned for the expulsion of the Arab inhabitants.
...The reader will come away from this Atlas believing that the Zionists in 1947-1949 unleashed a pre-planned campaign of "ethnic cleansing" against hapless Palestinian Arab villagers and townspeople, who were simply sitting at home embroidering folksy shirts.
As to the first assertion, Abu Sitta refers the reader (footnote forty-three) to works by the Israeli Arab historian Nur Masalha, who has indeed always argued that the Zionist movement, from the first, intended to expel the Arabs and pre-planned the 1948 expulsion. But the history of the idea of "transfer" among the Zionist leaders is more nuanced. ...More often and more consistently, from 1881-1947, the Zionist leaders spoke of overcoming the problem of the Arab majority by massive Jewish immigration, possibly coupled with partition, so that the area allotted for Jewish statehood would have a Jewish majority. "Transfer" was never adopted as the platform of the Zionist movement or of any of its main political parties. Nor did the Yishuv enter the 1948 war with a plan or policy of expulsion. Indeed, as late as March 24, 1948, Israel Galili, chief of the Haganah National Command, issued a secret blanket order to all units to abide, in their behavior toward the Arab communities inside the designated Jewish state areas, by the Zionist movement's long-standing policy of co-existence and mutual respect for life and property. Similarly, the powerful settlement executives, when planning in secret sessions from December 1947 to January 1948 the future rural development of the Jewish state, explicitly brushed aside all thought of transferring the Arab minority out of the Jewish state. The protocols of their deliberations are available and open to scholars, as is Galili's order--if only Palestinian historians and geographers would deign to visit the archives in their "research." (This Atlas parades several hundred footnotes, but none indicates that Abu Sitta ever visited an archive.)
As to the second assertion, that the Jews never really accepted partition, it is an outright falsehood. It is true that in 1937, in response to the Peel recommendations, the Zionist leadership, while formally accepting the principle of partition, was ambivalent, with Ben-Gurion secretly hoping that acceptance would enable the Zionists to take over all of Palestine, in stages, down the road. But in 1947, following the Holocaust, the mainstream of the Zionist movement was willing to take whatever history had to offer, and the Jewish Agency Executive, the Yishuv's "government," accepted the U.N. partition plan, and the enthusiasm of the dancing crowds in the streets was genuine. To undermine this picture, Abu Sitta trots out a series of contrary quotations by Ben-Gurion--but they are all from statements made or letters written in 1937-1938, in response to the Peel recommendations, in completely different circumstances. Abu Sitta does not tell his readers this, and implies that the statements were a response to the 1947 partition plan. This is chicanery.
But let us return to Abu Sitta's brief acknowledgements that a war--which for the Jewish community in Palestine was a war for survival--was actually going on in 1948. Here is his description of the war's beginning:The UN recommendation to divide Palestine into two states heralded a new period of conflict and suffering in Palestine ... Palestinians declared a three-day general strike on December 2, 1947 in opposition to the plan, which they viewed as illegal and a further attempt to advance western interests in the region regardless of the cost to the native population. The day after the UN adopted Resolution 181 ... the Zionist leadership called upon all Jews in Palestine aged 17-25 to register for military service. David Ben-Gurion ... immediately put "Plan C" (Gimel), finalized in May 1946, into action.... Plan C ... aimed to put pressure on the local Palestinian population.... The [Jews] had 185,000 able-bodied males aged 16-50, mostly military trained.... The Palestinians had about 2,500 militia men.... They had old rifles, few machine guns, no artillery and no tanks ... no central command and no wireless communications. At best they were only able to mount defensive operations, rushing to a village after cries of help.... In December 1947, the Haganah attacked the Arab quarters in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Haifa, killing 35 Arabs.... In the first three months of 1948, Jewish terrorists carried out numerous operations, blowing up buses and Palestinian homes. Even at this stage, early signs of ethnic cleansing became apparent.
This is a dishonest account. A more accurate description would go something like this: the U.N. General Assembly voted by more than a two-thirds majority in favor of partition and the establishment of Jewish and Arab states. The Palestinians and the Arab states rejected the resolution and vowed to prevent its implementation. Throughout the Arab world the cry went up for "jihad." On November 30, 1947, the day after the partition vote, Arab gunmen ambushed two Jewish buses near Petah Tikva, killing seven passengers and wounding others, and Arab snipers began firing from Jaffa into Tel Aviv's streets, killing a passerby and wounding others. These attacks marked the start of the war. The Arab Higher Committee, the Palestinian Arab community's "government," called for a general strike, in the course of which an Arab mob poured out of Jerusalem's Old City and looted and torched the New Commercial District. The civil war had begun.
The Jewish Agency hoped the violence would blow over, and for ten days the Haganah remained completely on the defensive. But with the British failing to suppress the disorganized Arab onslaught, the Haganah began to mobilize on December 9. The Haganah, a national organization with a unified command structure, had 35,000 members, and the two dissident organizations, the Irgun and the Lehi, had another 3,500 men between them. None had artillery or tanks. From then on, Haganah (and the Irgun and Lehi) units began to retaliate following Arab attacks. These reprisals, especially those by the dissident Irgun and Lehi organizations, which were often terroristic, contributed to the snowball effect and helped to widen the conflagration.
The Palestinian Arabs--owing to disunity and incompetence, not to goodwill or pacifism--had never managed to put together a national militia, or to arm themselves properly. Palestinian military power consisted of separate village militias, roving armed bands that attacked Jewish settlements and convoys, and then, from January 1948, four thousand troops, with artillery, of the Arab Liberation Army (ALA), who infiltrated the country from Syria after being trained and armed by the Arab League. This hodgepodge of irregulars managed by late March 1948 to halt Jewish convoy traffic and to besiege, and to mortally threaten, isolated Jewish communities, notably Jerusalem. By then, tens of thousands of Arabs and Jews, fearing war's fury, had moved out of embattled or vulnerable urban and rural areas. For the Palestinians, this marked the start of the refugee exodus. (Incidentally, Plan C, never implemented, was defensive, and designed only to thwart Arab attacks on Jewish settlements and Jewish traffic.)
Between November 1947 and March 1948, the Jews remained strategically on the defensive, and did not conquer or destroy Arab villages. (There were two exceptions, Qisariya and Arab Sukrir.) Things changed radically in early April 1948: the Haganah, with its back to the wall, especially in Jerusalem and along the roads, and facing imminent invasion by the Arab states' armies, switched to the offensive, and within six weeks overran Arab areas, including Jaffa and (Arab) Haifa, and defeated the Palestinian militias, inducing chaos and mass flight. The Jewish militias in 1948 never "blew up buses" (except empty ones), as Abu Sitta says--but it is a nice propagandistic touch, given the reality of the past few years, in which Palestinian suicide bombers have frequently targeted crowded Jewish buses.
The figure 185,000 for Jewish troops at the start of 1948 is preposterous. The Israeli army, the IDF, at its maximal mobilization, reached 110,000 at the start of 1949. In truth, the forces in Palestine during the civil war half of 1948 (November 1947 to mid-May 1948), were more or less evenly matched in terms of armed manpower. The roughly eight hundred Arab villages and towns of Palestine had, between them, some 25,000 to 30,000 armed men (albeit with inadequate ammunition stockpiles). Add to this the reasonably well-armed roving bands and the ALA, and one gets a force about equal to the Haganah's. The Haganah probably had fewer arms, but they were better munitioned.
But the real difference lay in organization and mentality. The Jews were relatively well organized, and thought and acted like a nation. The Palestinians were not organized, and mostly acted out of a village-centered mentality: there was no national mobilization; each village fought alone, and fell alone, and those not engaged kept their distance from the trouble. The Palestinians had only themselves to blame for their poor preparation and performance in 1948.
As with the Palestinian onslaught on the Yishuv in November to December 1947, so with the onslaught of the Arab states' armies on Israel in mid-May 1948--we are treated to half-truths and downright lies. "None" of the Arab invading armies, Abu Sitta tells us, "had the intention to exceed the limits of the Arab state in the Partition Plan.... Syrian forces ... tried and failed to capture two Israeli settlements south of Tiberias.... The Arab Legion [Jordan's army] maintained defensive positions in the Old City of Jerusalem.... [The] Egyptian [Army] ... like the other Arab forces, at no point ... attempt[ed] to enter the designated Jewish state."
Some of what he says here is true: the Syrian Army did fail to take the kibbutzim Degania Aleph and Degania Bet on May 20; the Arab Legion did maintain "defensive positions" in the Old City. But really we are being treated to a big lie, which always contains small truths. The Syrian Army, after invading Israel and before being bested at the Deganias, conquered and destroyed two kibbutzim, Masada and Shaar Hagolan, on May 18, inside Israel; the Iraqi Army invaded Israeli territory and unsuccessfully assaulted Kibbutz Gesher and nearby positions before moving to the northern West Bank; and the Egyptian Army, while halting, or being forced by the IDF to halt, at Isdud (Ashdod) in early June 1948, invaded and conquered Israeli territory between the Gaza Strip and Beersheba and between Majdal (Ashkelon) and Beit Jibrin. Lastly, while the Jordanian Army did not invade Israeli territory, it did much more than take up "defensive positions" in the Old City of Jerusalem. It conquered, and razed, the Jewish Quarter of the Old City and took up positions in Latrun, Lydda, and Ramle, blocking the main Tel Aviv-Jerusalem road and laying siege to the holy city. And on May 12- 14, before the pan-Arab invasion began, the Legion attacked and destroyed the settlements of the Etzion bloc.
In short, the neighboring Arab states (save for Lebanon) and Iraq simultaneously, on May 15, attacked Israel, its settlements, and its territory. One of their aims was to destroy, or at least to mortally wound, Israel, if not to eradicate the Yishuv. The documentary proof is abundant. The Arab armies' actions in mid-May speak louder than a thousand atlases. That the Arab armies were "ill-prepared" and incompetent does not diminish the fact of their aggression. And there can be little doubt that had the invading armies, including Jordan's, encountered no or weak resistance, they would have pushed on to Tel Aviv.
It is also well to recall, as Abu Sitta does not, that, as the Palestinians launched their war against the Yishuv, and as the Arab states with ever-increasing fervor between December 1947 and early May 1948 threatened to join them, most Zionists had one, or rather two, memories at the forefront of their minds: Hebron in 1929 and Europe in 1939-1945. Most were sure that, given half a chance, Arab mobs and gunmen would massacre them and their families, as they had done in Hebron in 1929, and re-enact a slaughter to rival the recently concluded catastrophe in Europe. Such things were hardly unimaginable. After all, none other than Azzam Pasha, the secretary general of the Arab League, had warned in mid-May that the pan-Arab invasion would resemble the Mongolian rape of Baghdad in 1258, when 800,000 people were allegedly slaughtered.
So the Yishuv was determined not to give the Arabs half a chance, and to do what was necessary to assure its survival. In April and early May, this required--as Ben-Gurion and the Haganah brass saw it, and who really can fault them?--the destruction of Arab militia bases along the main roads between the Yishuv's centers of population, and along its borders, which were about to be invaded by the Arab armies. This was a civil war between irregular militias, and the Arab villages were the Arab militias' bases (as the Jewish settlements were the Jewish militia's bases). This was the grim logic behind the Haganah's conquest and demolition of the Arab villages in its operations in the spring of 1948: either overpower the Arab forces or go under.
Abu Sitta's Atlas suffers from acute inflation of Arab refugee and village numbers. At one point he speaks of 935,000 refugees in 1948, though most historians would put the true number at around 700,000 (as did the U.N. in 1949). He also speaks of 530 Arab villages and "244 smaller villages" depopulated in 1948, though most historians, including Walid Khalidi, put the figure at around 400.
But it is not only modern history that suffers through Abu Sitta's efforts to blacken Zionism and enhance the Palestinian case; the ancients, too, are dragged in. Longevity enhances territorial claims. Hence Abu Sitta asserts (as do the Palestinian Authority textbooks used in Gaza and the West Bank) that the Palestinian Arabs are the direct descendants of the Canaanite tribes conquered and suppressed by the Israelites back in the Second Millennium B.C.E. He writes, regarding Jerusalem, that "during all periods of history [starting with the Canaanites of 5000 years ago], and in spite of [sic] succession of rulers, the bulk of [sic] population remained the same stock." Abu Sitta is here positing a genealogical link between the Canaanites and the Arabs, so as to further the Palestinians' territorial claims.
Now it is quite possible, indeed it is probable, that "Canaanite" genes passed down the ages through the successive ethnic groups that inhabited the country to the Arab invaders in the seventh century. But to say that Cannanites and Palestinian Arabs are of the "same stock" is stretching it. ...
But a common gene pool is only one element, and not the most significant element, of peoplehood. Far more important are a shared language and culture, a common history and historical consciousness, and, often, a common religion. And to say that the Palestinians are descendants of the Canaanites in these respects is absurd. The Palestinians are Arabs, in their language, culture, religion, and history. Palestinians remember the battle of Ein Jalut and Saladin and the Crusades; they recall the glories of the Arab Middle Ages; some even lament the fall of Muslim Spain. But ask a Palestinian to name Canaanite or Philistine kings, and he will look at you as if you fell from Mars.
At the same time Abu Sitta does his best to dissociate the Jews from Palestine. He concedes that "the Jews occupied [Jerusalem] from about 1,000 BC to 586 BC, when it was conquered by the Persians [sic--it was the Babylonians]." But he then says that the Persians were followed by the Greeks, the Romans, and the Muslim Arabs, who conquered the city in 636 C.E. He omits any mention of the Jewish presence in, and rule over, parts of Palestine and Jerusalem between the thirteenth and eleventh centuries B.C.E. and between 586 B.C.E. and the fifth and sixth centuries C.E., and the place of Jerusalem--and the Land of Israel in general--in the Jewish national and religious imagination during the following fifteen centuries in the Diaspora.
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