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The NYT Misrepresents the History of the Israeli–Palestinian Conflict

A welter of factual errors and misleading judgments has produced a distorted description of the 1948 War.

· 12 min read
The NYT Misrepresents the History of the Israeli–Palestinian Conflict

As we saw from the savage Hamas assault on southern Israel on 7 October, the Palestinians have certainly been active protagonists in their more-than-century-long battle against Zionism and Israel. But the New York Times would have it otherwise. Indeed, the underlying narrative in their magazine piece of 6 February 2024, “The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and the Long Shadow of 1948,” is that the Palestinians have always lacked agency and have no responsibility for anything that has befallen them over the decades. This, plus a welter of factual errors and misleading judgments, has produced a seriously distorted description of the history of the first Arab–Israeli war and its origins.

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The Times article consists of a lengthy “discussion” between Arab and Jewish scholars (three ostensibly from each side) and comments and clarifications (and mis-clarifications) by Emily Bazelon, the NYT staff writer who moderated the dialogue and put the piece together. Five of the six people involved can hardly be deemed experts on either the Arab–Israeli conflict or the 1948 war. Only one—Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington—has published works of some relevance: The Road Not Taken (1991), on the clandestine post-1948 Arab–Israeli peace talks, and The War for Lebanon (1984), on the Israel–PLO war of the early 1980s. During the discussion, the three Arab panellists—Nadim Bawalsa, an associate editor of the Journal of Palestine Studies; Leena Dallasheh, who is writing a book on Nazareth in the 1940s and ’50s; and Salim Tamari, a sociologist from Bir Zeit University in the West Bank—almost uniformly toe the PLO (or Hamas) line, which is indistinguishable from propaganda.

The drift of the Times article is that the innocent Arabs of Palestine just sat back and watched, as suffering victims, as the Zionists, Israel, and some international actors, principally Great Britain, did their worst.

This is pure nonsense.

Throughout the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, Palestine’s Arabs consistently rejected all proposals for a political compromise and flatly demanded all of Palestine, “from the river to the sea.” And they did not restrict their activities to roundtable discussions. In April 1920, May 1921, and August 1929, Arab mobs, whose passions had been whipped up by religious and political leaders, attacked their Jewish neighbours and passers-by in Jerusalem, Jaffa, Hebron, and Safad, killing dozens in what amounted to a succession of pogroms. (The New York Times studiously avoids this word, referring to them only as “assaults.”)

Emily Bazelon informs readers that the first bout of violence took place when the 1920 Muslim Nebi Musa festivities in Jerusalem “turned into a deadly riot,” in which “five Jews and four Arabs [were] killed.” Neither she nor any of the panellists mention that an Arab mob attacked, murdered, and wounded Jews or that the crowd of perpetrators chanted “nashrab dam al-yahud” (‘we will drink the blood of the Jews’). Nor does she tell us that the crowd shouted, “Muhammad’s religion was born with the sword,” according to eyewitness Khalil al Sakakini, a Christian Arab educator. After three days of rampage and despoliation, British mandate security forces finally restored order, killing all or most of the four Arabs Bazelon mentions in the process. The findings of the subsequent British investigation are included in the July 1920 Palin Report, which states: “All the evidence goes to show that these [Arab] attacks were of a cowardly and treacherous description, mostly against old men, women and children—frequently in the back.”

During the May 1921 pogroms, which encompassed Jaffa, Hadera, Rehovot, and Petah Tikva, dozens of Jews were killed, and women were raped. In the efforts to restore peace, British security forces killed dozens of the attackers. Leading contemporary Zionist journalist Itamar Ben-Avi wrote: “The Islamic wave and stormy seas will eventually break loose and if we don’t set a dike … they will flood us with their wrath … Tel Aviv, in all her splendour … will be wiped out.” 

The August 1929 riots were deliberately incited by the mufti of Jerusalem, the country’s senior Muslim cleric, Haj Muhammad Amin al Husseini, who was soon to emerge as the leader of the Palestine Arab national movement. He and his aides told the Arab masses that the Jews intended to destroy Al Aksa Mosque on the Temple Mount and build a (third) Jewish temple on the site, and that they had “violated the honour of Islam and raped the women and murdered widows and babies.” The resultant riots started in Jerusalem and quickly spread throughout Palestine. Dozens of Jews were massacred, and many Jewish women were raped, in the area around Jerusalem, and in Hebron and Safad. The British High Commissioner, John Chancellor, condemned “the atrocious acts committed by bodies of ruthless and bloodthirsty evildoers … upon defenceless members of the Jewish population [with] … acts of unspeakable savagery.” The British Shaw Commission, which investigated the multiple pogroms, concurred.

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Bazelon comments that in 1929 the “Palestinians rebelled” against the British and “violence first broke out over control of the holy sites in Jerusalem.” (Throughout the New York Times piece, Bazelon uses the phrase “violence broke out,” instead of explicitly stating that the Arabs assaulted the Jews, though she does concede that in 1929 Jews were massacred in Hebron and Safad). The Canadian Derek Penslar of Harvard University, one of the three Jewish panellists, explains that “Muslims thought … that the Jews were planning to take over the Temple Mount” and recommends to readers Israeli historian Hillel Cohen’s book Year Zero of the Arab–Israeli Conflict: 1929, which argues that the Jews and the Arabs were equally to blame for the violence of that year. Indeed, Cohen writes that Jews—not Arabs—initiated the cycle of murders in Jerusalem that set off the countrywide violence. Penslar’s sympathies seem clear here and elsewhere—as when he remarks that “Many Zionists wanted to believe that they represented progress,” the implication being that he thinks otherwise.

The panellists then discuss the crucial years 1936–39, when the Arabs rebelled against the British—the Arabs like to call the previous bout of violence, of 1929, a “rebellion,” though it wasn’t—and the British, partly in response, eventually switched from supporting Zionism to supporting the Arabs. In November 1936, during a pause in the fighting, the British sent the Peel Commission to investigate matters and propose a solution. The commission, composed of eminent jurists, ex-diplomats, and academics, recommended that the British abandon the Mandate and that Palestine be partitioned into two states: a Jewish state, on 17 percent of the land; and an Arab state on most of the rest. The British were to retain Jerusalem and Bethlehem, together with a thin corridor to the Mediterranean.

Penslar admits that the Palestinians “rejected partition out of hand.” This is true. But he adds: “The Zionists split over the proposal. Some [opposed partition] … More pragmatic Zionists accepted partition in principle but rejected [the 17 percent share, as they desired a larger state].”

This is a misleading attempt to project even-handedness. The inexpert reader is left with the impression that neither the Zionists nor the Arabs endorsed the proposed compromise. In fact, against the backdrop of the Arab Revolt and the looming threat of the Holocaust in Europe, the representatives of the Zionist movement, led by David Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weizmann, abandoned their traditional claim to all of Palestine and resigned themselves to partition—although they did hope to negotiate a greater share of Palestine to be earmarked for Jewish statehood. As Weizmann at one point put it, because of the acute need for a safe haven for European Jewry, the movement would accept a state “even the size of a tablecloth.”

The New York Times describes the 1948 War in the same euphemistic terms as the Arab attacks of 1920, 1921, and 1929. The 1948 War, Bazelon explains, simply “broke out.” This is an obfuscation. What actually happened is that the Arabs of Palestine and the surrounding Arab states rejected the United Nations General Assembly partition proposal of 29 November 1947, Resolution 181, and the following day, militiamen/terrorists ambushed two Jewish buses near Tel Aviv and snipers fired at Jewish passers-by in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, thus initiating the civil war between the Jews and Arabs of Palestine. In May 1948, following the Palestinian failure to halt the establishment of a Jewish state, the armies of the neighbouring Arab states invaded the country.

A similar distortion of the historical record informs the experts’ discussion of the international context of the conflict. Blame is laid at every doorstep except that of the Arabs. The British, who ruled Palestine from 1917–18 until mid-May 1948, are portrayed as gung-ho pro-Zionists and Arab bashers. The reality was more nuanced. True, in November 1917, London issued the Balfour Declaration, which expressed support for the establishment of a Jewish “national home” in Palestine. But during the first years of British control, the rulers were frankly hostile toward the Zionist enterprise and in the years that followed, while they protected the Zionist enterprise—albeit avoiding any explicit endorsement of Jewish statehood—the British sporadically curbed Jewish immigration to Palestine. In 1938–1939, the British definitively switched sides: they turned against Zionism and supported Arab majority rule over Palestine, as presaged in the White Paper of May 1939. This remained British policy until the last days of the Mandate. Even as World War Two was raging, the British naval blockade prevented Jews from escaping the Holocaust in Europe and reaching Palestine’s shores. London stopped supporting Jewish statehood and abstained from the crucial November 1947 UN vote on partition. In the 1948 war, the British supported the Arabs in various ways, including by supplying them with arms, continuing the anti-Jewish blockade of the country’s shores until mid-May 1948, and threatening to intervene directly against the IDF in the south (though it is true that the Mandate government in Jerusalem and the withdrawing British troops generally behaved even-handedly—a fact misrepresented in both Israeli and Palestinian historiography). Panellist Tamari is therefore quite mistaken when he concludes: “The British were largely complicit in the [1948] Arab defeat.”

But the article’s worst historical distortions concern the events surrounding the Second World War. Penslar claims that “between 9,000 and 12,000 Palestinians fought for the Allied forces in World War II.” In fact, as far as I know, it is doubtful whether any Palestine Arabs actually “fought” during the war, though perhaps some 6,000 of Palestine’s 1.2 million Arabs signed up with the British and served as cooks, drivers, or guards in British installations in Palestine. By comparison, around 28,000 of Palestine’s Jews—out of a population of around 550,000—joined the British army, and many of them actually fought in North Africa and Italy in 1941–1945.

This talk of Palestine Arabs “fighting” alongside the British is, at best, misleading. Palestine’s Arabs—like most of the Middle East’s Arabs—would have preferred a Nazi German victory and the defeat of the Western democracies. The British were seen as the common enemy of the Germans and the Palestinians. As Sakakini, a Palestinian nationalist, relates in a diary entry of 1941, the Arabs of Palestine “had rejoiced when the British bastion at Tobruk fell to the Germans,” and “not only the Palestinians rejoiced … but the whole Arab world.”

This support for Hitler wasn’t merely a matter of the old adage that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.” Muhammed Amin al-Husseini, the leader of the Palestine national movement, was an outspoken antisemite. He aided the 1941 pro-Nazi revolt in Baghdad. When it collapsed, he fled to Berlin, where he spent the rest of the war years enjoying a handsome salary for his work as a Nazi propagandist and a recruiter of Balkan Muslims for the SS. 

Palestine’s Arabs thus assisted in the destruction of European Jewry in two ways: They successfully pressured the British into closing the gates of Palestine to European Jews fleeing the Holocaust; and they supported Germany’s efforts to win the war. In radio broadcasts from Berlin, Husseini called on the Arab world to rebel against Britain and “kill the Jews.”

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