Palestine Betrayed (by the Palestinians)

by Norman Berdichevsky (September 2012)

by Efraim Karsh
Yale University Press, New Haven
342 pages, 30 photos, 5 maps, appendices and notes

This book ranks as absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in learning what happened during the last years of the British Mandate in Palestine and the widespread fighting that followed the U.N. resolution on partition until the end of the hostilities in early 1949. It effectively wipes out the oceans of ink spilt in convincing much of present world opinion and hypnotizing the present generation of Palestinian Arabs that the nakba (disaster) that befell them was inevitable or the fault of Jewish design, intransigence, or duplicity. The “Betrayal” in the title is self-betrayal by the Palestinian Arab leadership who led the people they claimed as their charge into a dead end. The leadership is condemned by its own archives and eye-witnesses in tens of thousands of documents released by the British Foreign Office that serves as the source material for much of the book.

It was the Palestinian Higher Arab Committee (HAC) which willfully misguided, misinformed, and inflamed a large section of public opinion among the Arab community that there could not be any compromise and all who spoke or acted on its behalf were “traitors.” These traitors who all worked for Jewish-Arab cooperation and understanding include such luminaries as the Arab mayor of Haifa, Hassan Shukri (targeted by assassins numerous times), Labor leader Sami Taha and many lesser Arab officials and politicians as well as village chieftains (all assassinated) who worked closely with the Histadrut and refused to cooperate with the many strikes called by the reactionary and extremist leadership within HAC headed by the notorious Haj-Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem.

Efraim Karsh is a brilliant scholar with the appropriate linguistic tools including fluent Arabic, Hebrew, and English. The evidence marshaled is indeed impressive inasmuch as a good deal of it comes from British Mandatory officials hostile to the Zionist enterprise and the HAC immediately after the “nakba” in the period 1948-1955 before the concerted campaign to rewrite history and turn it upside down.

Karsh’s Palestine Betrayed follows shortly after the magnificent work of Hillel Cohen, whose book Army of Shadows; Palestinian Collaboration with Zionism 1917-1948 surveyed the entire period of the Mandate from 1920 onwards (reviewed in the February 2009 edition of New English Review, “Arab Support for Zionism, 1917-1948“).

Prof. Karsh has uncovered much evidence that many Palestinian Arabs had a sense of betrayal of their cause by their own leadership which he found in the candid admissions made among Palestinian refugees in Gaza. This view is confirmed by Sir John Troutbeck, head of the British Middle East Office of Middle East Affairs in Cairo and a long-time opponent of Zionism who was sent on a fact-finding mission and unequivocally found little or no bitterness toward the Jews, the British, or the Americans and was told, time and again, by refugees that their Arab brothers in HAC persuaded them unnecessarily to abandon their homes. Karsh quotes Troutbeck from his interviews with Arab refugees in Gaza: “I have even heard it said that many of the refugees would give a welcome to the Israelis if they were to come in and take the district over.” (page 2)

Such views regarding the HAC were corroborated early on by the Syrian historian Qustantin Zuraiq and the Palestinian leader and spokesman Musa Alami that it had become clear even after the invasion of the country by the armies of the surrounding Arab states that the masses who had placed trust in their leadership were thoroughly demoralized by its ineffectiveness, disorganization, self-interest, and corruption.

Today, we are told by eminent spokespersons of the Palestinian Arabs cause such as Hanan Ashrawi and the head of the Palestinian Authority, President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), himself a historian—of sorts—whose research has led him to deny the Holocaust, who are listened to keenly by Western journalists, that we should believe their claims. These claims all rely on the standard narrative so easily accepted as gospel by many so-called journalists of Jewish treachery, evil intentions, cunning and the almost unlimited power of Jewish interests abroad funneling resources to the Zionists in America, Britain and Russia (in the spirit of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion).

The Palestinian Arab narrative eagerly swallowed today by so many naïve pundits and instant experts totally ignores the history of the Arabs in Palestine since Ottoman time. It obscures the complete lack of any wider identity than identification with the native tribe, clan, religion, and village that prevailed in Ottoman Palestine among the Arab population. This absence of a wider sense of destiny was more than sufficient for the Ottoman authorities to win the continued loyalty of the Palestinian Muslim population and most Christian Arabs, the so-called Great Arab Revolt notwithstanding. The Lawrence of Arabia myth and Lawrence’s alliance with the acknowledged leader at the Paris Peace Conference in Versailles, the Emir Faisal Ibn Hussein of Mecca, made the Arab revolt a factor in Arab affairs and British interests.

It quickly diminished when Faisal was expelled from Mecca and was compensated by the British with his desert kingdom in Transjordan (in spite of the fact that the land both east and west of the Jordan River were promised as a Jewish National Home) and his clan was given a major role to play in Iraq and in Palestine. No Palestinian Arab spokes-person today is ready to admit that the same first prestigious Arab national leader with a recognized international stature befriended the Zionist movement, welcomed Jewish settlement in Palestine, and insisted that there was no irreconcilable barrier to future friendship and cooperation between the two peoples. Faisal proclaimed:

We Arabs, especially the educated among us, look with the deepest sympathy on the Zionist movement…and we regard the Zionist demands as moderate and proper. We will do our best, insofar as we are concerned to help them….we will wish the Jews a most hearty welcome home.”

The enormous gap between such a statement from the most prominent Arab nationalist leader in 1920 to the subsequent extremist leadership of the HAC under the ultra-reactionary Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin Al-Husseini is the true narrative of the betrayal of Palestine and the promise of becoming the most developed and prosperous country in the turbulent Middle East. What is novel for the reader today is the revelation that it was largely among traditional, rural, and conservative Muslims and of course, among the Bedouin that the Balfour Declaration and Jewish settlement were initially welcomed. The Arabs took advantage of the new considerable opportunities to sell marginal land to the Jews and take advantage of improvements in trade, transportation, administration, industry, health, education, and welfare.

Karsh documents the expansion of Arab industry and agriculture, especially related to the cultivation of citrus, olives, cereals, and grapes, and traces how the conservative but moderate religious leadership of the effendi class was displaced by the extremist Muslim forces of the Husseinis and the jockeying for power with the growth of Pan-Arab nationalism. An especially revealing and fascinating chapter of the book, “The Most Important Arab Quisling,” traces the role of the Mufti in undercutting the Nashashibi clan. The latter had cooperated with the British Mandatory government and their Jewish neighbors in the 1936-39 “Arab Uprising.” Ironically, the Nashashibi efforts at demonstrating loyalty and moderation were constantly rebuffed by the British, intent on mollifying the most extreme nationalist and Muslim religious voices within the Arab community.

Important information from first-hand sources follows the actual fighting between irregular Arab forces before the U.N. Partition Resolution in November 1947, the proclamation of the State of Israel in May 1948, the invasion of the country by the regular Arab armies immediately afterwards, until the cessation of hostilities in January 1949. The picture that emerges differs completely from the contemporary nakba view that dominates Arab thinking.

Chapters five through nine present a wealth of documented detail of five major facets of the hostilities and diplomatic maneuvering. They are:

1. The unpreparedness of the Jewish underground forces to undertake combat in large formations with heavy weapons against the array of regular Arab armies and the total lack of air cover.

2. The general unwillingness of large segments of Arab society, notably to participate in attacking their Jewish neighbors;

3. The lack of any concerted design to purposely drive out large numbers of Arab civilians from their homes;

4. The wholly opportunistic and venal campaigns launched in the neighboring Arab states to drum up religious Islamist and nationalist passions against the native Jewish populations (as well as the British and even Greek colonies in their midst);

5. The attempts to backslide by the American State Department and abandon the Jews to their fate rather than risk alienating important economic and strategic interests and alliances with the surrounding Arab states.

All of these essential facts are wholly denied or ignored by the current nakba narrative. Striking evidence of point three is provided by three independent sources—one Palestinian Arab, one British, and one American. They are Farid Saad, head of the local Arab “National Committee” in Haifa, the head of the American Consulate in Haifa , Aubrey Lippincot who cabled Washington on April 28, 1948 just a few weeks before Israel’s Declaration of Independence, and Hugh Stockwell, Commander of British forces in the Northern part of the country. All of them witnessed Haganah attempts to persuade the civilian Arab population of Haifa to remain in the city. Karsh presents convincing evidence of the scores of Arab villages that independently of the AHC signed non-aggression agreements with neighboring Jewish settlements, kibbutzim, and towns not to permit their homes to be used as bases for attacks. Many of the Arab villages where the population objected strongly to the presence of foreign Arab military forces who tried to press-gang them into joining in the hostilities ejected them or even provided Jewish settlements with important information.

This book is meticulously documented with original sources and is a real page-turner that is hard to put down. It is essential to any understanding of what really happened between 1920 and 1948. We learn how divided and at odds with each other different factions were among the Palestinian Arabs, the appeasement of Arab interests by the British, the rivalries among various Arab leaders and their jealousies and reluctance to see King Abdullah of Transjordan profit from any relationship with the Zionists, and even the readiness of the French in Syria and Lebanon to revel in the difficulties of the British administration in Palestine. What also emerges clearly from Karsh’s research is the desire of the Zionist movement’s leaders from the Labor-Left wing of Weizmann and Ben-Gurion to the so-called “Far Right” of Jabotinsky and the Revisionists to reach some kind of accommodation that did not envision the expulsion or disinheritance of the Palestinian Arabs.

Karsh has been attacked by the so-called Israeli “New Historians,” notably Benny Morris (who, has since recanted many of his initial claims), Avi Shlaim, and Ilan Pappé whose views Karsh interprets as stemming from their desire to find a comfortable academic setting among many European and American historians critical of Israel. He cites numerous contradictions, erroneous citations, and mistranslations in their research that for a period made them well received by those who have made their career based on the nakba narrative.

Karsh’s unassailable conclusion states that….

Even if the Yishuv (Jewish community) had instigated a plot to expel the Palestinian Arabs, which it most certainly did not, the extensive British military presence in Palestine until the end of the mandate, which severely constrained Jewish military capabilities (from the prohibition of the bearing of arms and the confiscation of weapons and arrest of fighters, to the restriction of movement and repeated military interventions on the Arab side), would have precluded the slightest possibility of systematic “ethnic cleansing.”

And so it was that in the four months of fighting that followed the passing of the partition resolution vast numbers of Palestinian Arabs fled their homes even though the Jews were still on the defensive and in no position to drive them out. (p. 237)

The book is accompanied by 60 pages of notes to direct sources, thirty vivid photos and 5 informative maps that aid in making the events leap out from the page. The book also aids the reader with a list of “Dramatis Personae” and a detailed appendix of the Arab population of each city, town, and village on the eve of hostilities.

Iranian scholar Amir Taheri, based in Europe, evaluated Karsh’s previous book Islamic Imperialism with high praise. He wrote: “Anyone interested in the debate about the place of Islam in the modern world should read this book…Karsh offers a new approach….. Karsh does not hide whose side he is on in this contest. Muslim readers would respect him because, while he designates Islam as an adversary, he respects them.” The same may be said of his research and writing in Palestine Betrayed.

Norman Berdichevsky's latest book is The Left is Seldom Right.

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Norman Berdichevsky contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all his contributions, on which comments are welcome.


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