Forget about Hamas, the wall, Gaza and the occupied territories. There can be no peace in the Middle East until Israel and the Palestinians deal with one key issue: the Palestinian demand that Israel recognize their right of return. That demand is based on the Arab charge that the Zionist state created the refugee problem in the war of 1948-49 by a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing. It’s an accusation that Israel’s leaders have consistently rejected. Jewish soldiers could never commit such crimes. It was the Arabs themselves, they say, who created the refugees.

It has become increasingly evident, however, that the Israeli position is, in fact, a self-serving myth created when the Jewish state was born, perpetuated ever since by the country’s leaders and still blandly accepted by Washington.

The myth goes like this: In 1948, when the Arabs attacked the newly declared state of Israel, the Arab population fled by the hundreds of thousands. They left not because of attacks by Israeli soldiers but because of the calls of their own Arab leaders, who guaranteed them a speedy return once the Arab armies had triumphed over the upstart Jewish state. Indeed, they fled despite the attempts of many Israelis — as was movingly portrayed in the film “Exodus” — to convince their Palestinian neighbors to remain. Why should such treacherous people have the right to return? Not to mention the fact that their return by the millions would spell the end of Israel as a Jewish state.

This is the story that Israel’s leaders and Jews throughout the Diaspora have clung to for more than half a century. But since the early 1990s a new generation of Israeli historians and investigative journalists — drawing on formerly classified documents as well as recollections of Israeli leaders of the War of Independence — has demolished the traditional Israeli position.

According to their research, the Palestinians fled their villages not in response to a call from Arab leaders but because of a concerted campaign of terror — including massacres and rape — perpetrated by military units of the newly declared Israeli state.

As Gideon Levy, a leading columnist from Haaretz, put it, “1948 was Israel’s finest hour, the culmination of a mad dream: the formation of an independent Jewish state.” At the same time he declared, “it was our darkest hour, in which we committed war crimes on a large scale. And did so in all good conscience.”

The key point, often overlooked, is that in 1948, Resolution 181 of the U.N. General Assembly didn’t just call for the creation of the single state of Israel from the British mandate of Palestine. In fact, it recommended dividing Palestine into two separate countries — one predominately Arab, the other Jewish — to be joined by an economic union.

According to Sylvain Cypel, a leading correspondent for Le Monde, the full version of that U.N. resolution was never published in its entirety in Hebrew. The reason for that may be simple. From the beginning Israel’s future leaders were determined that the Jewish state, carved out of the British mandate, would be just a first step toward the eventual takeover of all the land of Palestine. As David Ben Gurion, who would become Israel’s first prime minister, confided to Labor Party members in 1941, “As soon as we gain power, once our state is established we’ll annul [the partition] and will spread out over all the territory of Israel.”

There was, however, an obvious demographic hitch to such ambitions. If the Palestinians were allowed to remain on their lands, their numbers would overwhelm the Jews — the Jewish state would be stillborn. In fact, according to Benny Morris, one of the first of the new Israeli historians, European Zionist leaders had secretly discussed plans for transferring the Arab population out of Palestine as far back as 1937 in Zurich. They had few illusions that the relocation of up to 500,000 Arabs could be peacefully achieved. “It is hard to imagine a transfer without recourse to force,” Ben Gurion later wrote in 1941.

Such blunt talk was for internal use only. Outwardly, a different myth was already being prepared. “They lied, oh, how they lied,” thundered Gideon Levy. “The Arabs were always the bad guys, and we were the just, absolute, and sole victims. That’s what we’ve been told.”

Indeed, after thoroughly researching Israeli archives, Morris found that not only was there no evidence that Arab leaders had called upon their people to flee in 1948-49, but that records revealed exactly the opposite: “In no case did a Palestinian population abandon its homes before an attack.” To the contrary, Israeli intelligence services had actually intercepted calls from Arab leaders asking Palestinians either to remain in their homes or to return if they had already fled.

Morris and other Israeli historians concluded that the Palestinians’ flight was — as the Arabs had long claimed — the result of a purposeful policy of Israeli forces, whose communiqués at the time spoke openly of “cleansing” or “purifying” the conquered Arab villages.

According to Gen. Yigal Allon, in May 12, 1948, as his men approached each Arab town, they tossed in tracts with the message in Arabic, “if you don’t flee immediately, you will all be slaughtered, your daughters will be raped.” Those were not empty threats.

“The reality,” writes Cypel in his newly published book, “Walled,” “is that the expulsion was desired, coordinated, and accomplished by systematic atrocities against, and killing of, civilians, with town properties razed on order (at first on a very unequal fashion from one area to another), and that nearly half of this expulsion was carried out even before the Arab states attacked Israel.”

Another Israeli historian, Gail Ehrlich, concluded that a dozen massacres of more than 50 victims each were committed during Israel’s War of Independence, apart from about 100 killings of smaller groups and individuals. He described a “conspiracy of silence” surrounding those massacres, which were carried out by elite Israel troops and continued even after the creation of the state of Israel.

“When the first expulsions were undertaken no local officer received an order to stop them,” says Cypel, who lived for 12 years in Israel and served in the army. “Everyone understood from then on what direction was to be followed, without any need for an explicit formulation.”

In 2004, Benny Morris wrote a new study concluding there had been far more “ethnic cleansing” — far more massacres and rapes than he had originally thought. The Israeli fighters had been given explicit orders “to uproot the villagers, expel them and destroy the villages themselves.” In October 1948 in the Galilee, he said, “There was an unusually high concentration of executions of people against a wall or next to a well in an orderly fashion. This can’t be chance. It’s a pattern.” The orders for expulsion followed the visit of Prime Minister Ben Gurion to the headquarters of the units that undertook them.

According to Cypel, “Of the 875,000 Palestinians who found themselves in the expanded State of Israel at the end of the war, only 150,000 were left after the new expulsions following the cease fire with the Arab states. The others, that is 82 percent, were driven out, half of them by military force, the rest under the combined influence of threat, terror, and a deep feeling of abandonment and powerlessness.”

What sealed their fate was the decision of the Israeli government in 1948 to refuse to allow any Palestinians who had fled — no matter what their motive — to return to their homeland. At the same time, Israeli residence was offered to anyone in the world who could claim Jewish ancestry.

As if to destroy evidence of the Palestinian past, over the following years some 400 out of 500 Palestinian towns and ancestral villages were burned, dynamited and bulldozed, obliterated from the maps of Israel.

When the war in Kosovo broke out in 1999 an Israeli editorialist wryly wrote, “How lucky we were then there was no CNN in 1948 or the whole world would have been able to see in Palestine the images we are seeing today.”

The particular irony in all this is that it has traditionally been Israel demanding that other countries acknowledge their own past moral failings, specifically with regard to the Holocaust. There is, of course, no comparison between the horrors of the Shoah and the campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Palestinians. But that fact, say some Israeli writers, should not absolve the Zionist state from recognizing the less than glorious episodes in its own history.

“Maybe we had to act as we did,” says Gideon Levy. “Maybe there was no other way possible. But why lie all these years? Why not say, ‘One right came up against another, one victim came up against another, and the result was inevitable. We had to drive them out. It was them or us.’ That would be much more persuasive than the lie. It would also lead to peace.”

Most Israelis are still unwilling to take that step. They cite the fear of being overwhelmed and annihilated by a flood of returning Palestinians. But most Palestinian and Arab leaders are under no illusions that Israel would ever open its doors to the 4 million refugees. What they ask from Israel is formal recognition of what actually happened in 1948-49 — a recognition that would entail the Zionist state’s assuming some responsibility for finally resolving the refugee problem. The great majority of Palestinians, they acknowledge, would never return.

That was the kind of deal that Yasser Arafat sought in the ill-fated Camp David talks of 2000: a face-saving accord that would have allowed him to claim victory, even though he and everyone knew there would not be a real right of return. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, however, refused to cede any ground on the issue. The claim that Israel’s offer at the time was more than generous, says Cypel, was false — another case of Israeli myth making.

In fact, negotiations in following years between leading Israelis and Palestinians made it clear that a compromise on the issue was very much within reach.

Six months after the failed Camp David talks, for instance, at Taba, Barak’s former minister of justice, Yossi Beilin, submitted a draft proposal acknowledging that “the nascent state of Israel was drawn into the War of 1948-1949, which had its victims and led to suffering on both sides, including the displacement and expropriation of the civilian Palestinian population. … Since that time the refugees have for decades lived without dignity, citizenship, or property.” Israel, he promised, “will be an active partner in closing this terrible chapter.” The proposal offered the refugees several options: return to Israel within limits to be agreed on, repatriation to a future Palestinian state, or relocation in their current host countries or elsewhere, much of this to be underwritten by additional international financing.

“For the first time,” says Cypel, “Israel was admitting the illegitimacy of its demand that the Palestinians forget their own history.”

Speaking to his fellow Israelis, Beilin attempted to make them understand that “it is impossible to ask the Palestinians to give up the right of return. If we ask them, there will be no final record.” Ehud Barak, however, broke off the Taba talks.

Similar draft negotiations two years later in Geneva, which resulted in the Palestinians agreeing to limits on their right of return and Israel undertaking to compensate the heirs of Palestinians it had expelled, ended after the talks were denounced by Ariel Sharon.

Four years later, Israeli leaders and the great majority of its people still refuse to accept responsibility for the refugee problem. It boils down, says Cypel, to a question of appearances.

Despite Israel’s great accomplishments, he says, there is still widespread apprehension among Israelis about any questioning of the country’s self-image of moral superiority and perpetual victim of aggression. “The revelation of the slightest flaw, the revelation of the least stain, whether in the past or … the present, seems to evoke such fear that it challenges not only the existence but the very legitimacy of this society in the eyes of a large majority of its own members.”

While Israel’s difficulty in dealing with its own past may thus make some sense, much more remarkable is how successful the Israelis have been in convincing American leaders to play along with their founding myth.

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