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Monday, November 20, 2006

The Threat from Within

'Israel: The Threat from Within': An Exchange
By Benny Morris, Reply by Henry Siegman

In response to Israel: The Threat from Within* (February 26, 2004)

To the Editors:

Henry Siegman ["Israel: The Threat from Within," NYR, February 26] simply, completely, does not understand the Middle East. How else explain his take on Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin who, he said, had just offered to "postpone...'military' operations in return for an Israeli withdrawal to its pre-1967 borders." Siegman hailed this "change in [Hamas] policy," even citing abstruse points of Jewish theology in support.

To say that Siegman is bamboozling his readers is the mother of all understatements. For decades, with commendable forthrightness and consistency, the leaders of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad have defined their goal as the destruction of Israel and its replacement with an Islamic Arab polity. (Palestinian Authority head Yasser Arafat has the same goal in mind and says as much either in code (publicly) or openly (when he believes he is not being taped).) The whole Arab world, with the Palestinians in the vanguard, continues to insist on Israel's illegitimacy and to hope for its disappearance. The dispatch of droves of suicide bombers into Israeli cities, by the fundamentalist organizations and Arafat's own "secular" Fatah, is merely the concrete manifestation, in microcosm, of this outlook.

What Yassin actually said (vide interview in Al Usbu'a, Cairo, January 19, 2004) was that his organization would suspend its attacks if Israel "ended the occupation...and [agreed] to the return of the Palestinian refugees to the homes from which they were expelled in the 1948 war and [agreed to] the establishment of a Palestinian state in the territories captured in 1967."

There are several problems here. Surprisingly, even Siegman noticed one of them: Yassin had not promised an indefinite truce; he could, after graciously accepting the territories from Israel, renew at will the assault on Israel. He had not promised "peace."

Secondly, Yassin had said nothing new. He had merely reiterated his agreement to a hudna (a temporary truce)—and this is sanctioned in Muslim theology (which is the theology Siegman should have been studying). It is all in the Koran. In 628, the Prophet Muhammad agreed to a year-long hudna, hudnat Hudeibiya, which he used to reorganize his forces and then, unilaterally, to break the truce and utterly destroy his erstwhile partners in nonbelligerency. This is exactly what Yassin is proposing vis-à-vis Israel, nothing more. (Arafat, incidentally, in a sermon in a mosque in Johannesburg back in 1994 had said the same thing about the Oslo accords—from his perspective, they were just another hudnat Hudeibiya.)

Lastly, Yassin had linked the suspension of hostilities to Israel's acceptance of a mass refugee return. And as every (Palestinian) child knows (though perhaps not Siegman), a return of the refugees—almost four million are on the UN rolls—would instantly lead to anarchy and the destruction of the Jewish state, which is why the Palestinians, from Arafat and Yassin down, continue to insist on it, and why both Barak and Clinton rejected it back in the negotiations of 2000.

In his article, Siegman repeatedly "cited" things I had said—with a consistency of distortion that is truly mind-boggling. Just to give one key example: I most emphatically never stated anywhere that "the dismantling of Palestinian society...and the expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians [were] a deliberate and planned operation intended to 'cleanse'...those parts of Palestine assigned to the Jews." Quite the opposite. Had Siegman bothered to read my books, he would have discovered that mainstream (Haganah–JewishAgency) Zionist policy, until the end of March 1948—meaning during the first four months of the war—was to protect the Arab minority in the Jewish areas and to try to maintain peaceful coexistence. Intentions changed only in April, when the Yishuv was with its back to the wall, losing the battle for the roads and facing potentially politicidal and genocidal pan-Arab invasion. And even then, no systematic policy of expulsion was ever adopted or implemented (hence Israel's one-million-strong Arab minority today). The Arabs have only themselves to blame for the (unexpected) results of the war that they launched with the aim of "ethnically cleansing" Palestine of the Jews. (Contemporary Arab apologists, always full of righteous indignation, conveniently forget this.)

And I did maintain, though the Ha'aretz interviewer Ari Shavit (unfairly) did not quote me in full, that had the 1948 war ended, in a demographic sense, more decisively, with either the Jews thrown into the sea or the Palestinians thrown completely into Transjordan, there establishing a state of their own (with all of Palestine west of the Jordan becoming Jewish), the Middle East would have enjoyed a far happier, quieter future, without much of the death and suffering we have witnessed since 1948. It is the demographically indecisive outcome of 1948, with the two populations still intermixed (and further intermixed by Israeli conquest and settlement of the territories since 1967), that has been one of the sources of continuing conflict. (This may not please liberal ears, but there have been cases in history of expulsions that, in the long term, have benefited both the expelling and expelled peoples (the mutual Greek and Turkish population "transfers" of the early 1920s being cases in point.)

I emphatically do not, as Siegman implies, support transfer (though I can foresee circumstances, in which Israel, attacked by the Arabs and (again) in existential, genocidal peril, might resort to similar actions). In present circumstances, transfer would be immoral and is in any case impractical. And I do not justify under any circumstances, murder, massacres, and rapes, as Siegman claims by (again) interweaving real quotes with his own syllogisms.

Benny Morris


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