Ilan Pappe’s black & white tale that he tells in an interview posted online at the History News Network is actually at odds with the complexities depicted by most of the “New Historians” with whom he is (ironically) identified. Take his depiction of conventional Zionist thinking:
… the old historical Israeli position was: Israel has no responsibility for the Palestinians becoming refugees, the Palestinians are responsible for this because they did not accept the peace plan, and they accepted the Arab call to leave the country. That was the old position. My position, and with this a lot of the New Historians agree, was that Israel is exclusively responsible for the refugee problem, because it planned the expulsion of the Palestinians from their homeland. Therefore it definitely bears the responsibility.
Other New Historians, like Morris and Segev, would say that both sides bore responsibility for the refugees: the Palestinians for rejecting compromise and going to war in the first place, the Jews for going beyond military operations that were absolutely necessary to safeguard Jewish lives and for not be willing to discuss any solution which might involve the return of at least some refugees. Still, Pappe’s notion of Israel’s “exclusive” responsibility for the refugees is a gross misinterpretation of the facts. Furthermore, he ignores the ways in which Palestinian refugees were purposely kept in camps and discriminated against in most Arab countries where they found refuge, in order to maintain this population as a weapon in the struggle against Israel.
The “David and Goliath” matter is also more complicated than he suggests. Israel triumphed because its soldiers were well motivated and well led and – critically – the Arabs failed to coordinate their attacks effectively. There’s little doubt that the Arabs would have won if they had launched a coordinated campaign by their invading armies at the same time that the Palestinian irregulars were still blockading the roads and keeping Jerusalem under siege. But they allowed the Jews to defeat them piecemeal.
Pappe does not have a dynamic view of the balance of forces, which changed dramatically several times. For example, the Jews were in desperate straights early in ’48 and turned things around with a series of concentrated counterattacks. Likewise, the Jews initially were very much on the defensive against the Egyptian army in May and June of ’48, because they had no tanks, no combat aircraft and no artillery (other than mortars) – all of which the Egyptians possessed – until they were equipped by arms purchases from abroad (mostly via Czechoslovakia at the initiative of the USSR) in the summer of ’48.
What you also get from Pappe are some reductionist flights of fancy. For example, the Jews who massively left Arab lands for Israel are depicted as being “de-Arabized” — convinced by the Zionists that they are not Arabs. Their cultural heritage was, in fact, devalued by the Ashkenazi (European) Jews who were the established majority and formed the political and economic elite when the waves of immigrants arrived from Arab countries. But it was the Arab world itself that treated its Jewish minorities as despised or distrusted “others.” If the Jews had been fully accepted as equals and comfortable in the Arab world, there was no way that they would have left.
There is also Pappe’s charge that the Jews were only accepting the UN partition plan for tactical reasons, with the intention of embarking upon ethnic cleansing when presented the opportunity. There are some documented quotes that support this view, but this argument ignores the historical words and deeds of the Mufti Hajj Amin al-Husseini (an active ally of Hitler during World War II) and other Palestinian leaders of that era, which substantiate their intention to destroy the Palestinian Jewish community. Zionist attitudes at the time were influenced by the observation that the uncompromising anti-Semitism of the Mufti and other Palestinian nationalists presented them with a life or death struggle; the all-out Arab attacks in response to the UN partition vote in November 1947 indicated that they were correct.
And the fact that Ben-Gurion did not press the Jews’ military advantage at the end of the 1948 war to reconquer the Old City of Jerusalem and to move on to conquer all of the West Bank (as Benny Morris, the dean of the New Historians, bitterly observed in a startling interview in Haaretz a few years ago) also undermines Pappe’s viewpoint. Pappe’s thesis similarly does not compute with Ben-Gurion advising from retirement after the great victory of 1967 that Israel should give up the conquered territories as quickly as possible.
There is probably more here that I could contend with, as well as some with which I can agree, but Pappe’s overall view is incredibly biased and tendencious. He is simply not a fair-minded scholar.