Is Israel the product of ethnic cleansing?

One oft-made charge is that Zionists relied on systematic “ethnic cleansing” in order to create Israel. We are told that European Jews came to Palestine fully intending to throw out the indigenous population, and that is what they did. Some claim that ethnic cleansing is routinely practiced by Israeli Jews today.

At the other end of the spectrum, Israel’s apologists deny or wish away solid evidence unearthed by Israeli and other historians of deliberate expulsions of Palestinians during the 1947-1948 war.

Is there a third narrative that gets closer to the truth of what happened in what Israelis call the “War of Independence“ and Palestinians call the “Nakba” (catastrophe)?  

Ethnic cleansing hasn’t been defined under international law. It is a direct translation of a Serbo-Croatian phrase that described the vicious slaughter of civilians perpetrated by Serbs and other groups in the former Yugoslavia. One United Nations Special Commission described it as “…a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.” It is a volatile, explosive term, and people who apply it to the Zionists can marshal troubling historical facts that need to be acknowledged. 

Those making the case for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, such as the Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, often cite statements by pre-state Zionist leaders in favor of the voluntary transfer of Arabs. For example, Theodor Herzl mentioned the transfer idea in his diary (just once), and the notion was endorsed at other junctures by prominent Zionists before Israel was founded.  But it is possible to acknowledge that and still disagree that the Zionists had a pre-meditated plan to violently expel their Arab neighbors. 

Proposals to share the land…

When considering the ethnic cleansing claim, it’s important to take into account the many statements by pre-state Zionist leaders expressing a desire to share the land with the Arabs, and proposed political arrangements that would enable peaceful co-existence.

For example, in 1929, David Ben-Gurion, who eventually became Israel’s first Prime Minister, called for a single, binational state, although he soon rejected the idea as unrealistic. In 1931, he wrote: “The Arab community in Palestine is an organic, inseparable part of the landscape. It is embedded in the country. The Arabs work the land, and will remain.” (See here for other examples).

Some of the Jews’ proposals to share the land were offered in private meetings, so they were clearly not public relations gestures. Had there been a longstanding, secret commitment to kick out the Arabs, why would the Jews have spent so much time and energy coming up with plans for living together with them? All suggestions for rapprochement were summarily rejected by Arab leaders, with a few isolated exceptions.

…and to transfer Arabs

It is also true that the idea of a peaceful, voluntary population transfer as part of a diplomatic settlement became more popular among Zionist leaders in the mid- to late-1930s.  But the context was ongoing violence initiated by Palestinian Arabs (the so-called “Arab Revolt”) and their refusal—as the Nazis grew in power—to agree to any Jewish immigration. At that point, a continued, violent confrontation between Arabs and Jews seemed almost inevitable. So an arrangement in which a portion of the Arab population settled outside of Palestine’s borders was considered a way to stave off ethnic conflict – to prevent war.

That idea seems inhumane and heartless now; at the time, separating warring ethnic and religious groups via population transfers or exchanges seemed perfectly reasonable, and it remained a popular idea among moderate world leaders before and after World War II. 

A tragedy with many authors

What about the more than 700,000 Palestinian Arabs who lost their homes in 1947 and 1948?

What happened to those Palestinians was a terrible tragedy that had many authors. But the traditional Zionist narrative is correct in its most important claim: local Palestinian Arabs and invading armies from Arab states initiated the war that created the Palestinian refugee problem. The Jews did not want that war. It is impossible to know whether a refugee problem would have existed without it. As Mark Lewis puts:

While Zionism for decades exhausted efforts at achieving an understanding with Palestine’s Arab population, some still choose to belittle this record with a perfunctory glance, and cling to mere words as all the proof of ethnic cleansing they need. Even within the realm of statements and opinions, however, contradictory viewpoints regarding transfer are as clear as it gets. What the sum of these mixed opinions, ideas, and musings leaves us is the speculative, academic game of predicting whether or not Zionists would have expelled Palestinian Arabs in the absence of hostilities.

It was a brutal war. Atrocities were committed by both sides. A portion of the Arab population was forcibly expelled from villages and neighborhoods that were used as bases to attack Jews; many fled in fear. Palestinian refugees were prevented from returning. Almost all traces of hundreds of Arab villages were erased by the Israelis after the war.

Some of the Jewish combatants’ behavior during Israel’s violent birth was morally indefensible, but that doesn’t mean they implemented a policy of deliberate and widespread ethnic cleansing. That term is usually associated with the kind of vicious slaughter of civilians perpetrated by Serbs and other groups in Bosnia or the savage murders of Hutus by Tutsis in Rwanda. When people put the acts of Zionist combatants in the fog of war in 1947 and 1948 into the same category, they are distorting a very complex historical record.

Historian Benny Morris has written unvarnished accounts of Israeli behavior, including violent expulsions of Palestinians, during this war. He has concluded that when Palestinians were expelled it was generally done because of purely military considerations, based on tactical judgments of what was necessary to win a war that the Jews did not start and could not afford to lose. And he contends that “there was no Zionist `plan’ or blanket policy of evicting the Arab population, or of `ethnic cleansing.’” The Third Narrative