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Exclusive Book & Movie Reviews:
Revisiting the Palestinian Refugee Issue
The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited by Benny Morris, Cambridge University Press, 2004, $40

by Mitchell Bard


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Benny Morris was one of the original post-Zionists, who made his reputation by publishing Jewish man bites dog research suggesting that the Jews were more responsible for the Palestinian refugee problem than the Arabs. He has since partially recanted, swayed in large measure by the Palestinian uprising and Yasser Arafat’s rejection of Barak’s offer of a Palestinian state at Camp David in 2000. He now more clearly states in interviews and articles that the Palestinian refugee problem was the result of the Arab decision to go to war to destroy the nascent state of Israel.

Despite this change of heart, the revised edition of his book on the origins of the refugee problem still places substantial blame on Israel. The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited is an impressively researched study, which benefited from the declassification of a trove of documents since he wrote his original book. Still, as thorough as Morris has been, he is still limited by the near total lack of access to Arab sources and the continued classification of some Israeli material.

The book goes into excruciating detail, documenting the behavior of Jews and Arabs it seems in every village in Israel/Palestine. The gist of Morris’s case is cogently summarized, however, in the conclusion, so you can save time and money by simply reading this chapter in the Library. The second sentence really says it all: “The war [1940] and not design, Jewish or Arab gave birth to the Palestinian refugee problem." He concludes that “there was no pre-war Zionist plan to expel ‘the Arabs’ from Palestine….” The lack of a policy to expel the Palestinians is evident by the fact that a large minority – 150,000 Arabs – remained in Israel. Morris also correctly relates that tens of thousands of wealthy Arabs left voluntarily, most before the war began. Though Morris ignores much of the evidence that Arab leaders called on the Palestinians to leave, he does document how Palestinian leaders promoted the depopulation of many villages. He also shows how the Arab–initiated evacuations demoralized the remaining Arabs and stimulated their flight.

Once the Arabs invaded, the morale of the Palestinians was further undermined by the ease with which the Jewish army captured many key objectives, and by the failure of the Arab armies to deliver on their promise to drive the Jews into the sea. Morris also documents cases where the Jews did in fact expel the Palestinians, and a few instances where he alleges atrocities were committed. While a few of the specific examples he found are new, the overall thrust of the book supports the conclusion of my article on the subject published nearly two decades ago, that is, a large number of wealthy Palestinians left in anticipation of the war, a relatively small number were expelled from a handful of villages, some Arabs were encouraged to leave, and the vast majority left to avoid being caught up in the middle of a war.


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