Tue, Feb 03, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Uprising casts new light on Mideast conflict for historian


An audience with Benny Morris, the historian whose exposure of Israeli atrocities during the war of independence marked him out as a bete-noire of the nationalist right, provides a startling illustration of the corrosive impact of the intifada on Israeli opinion and the peace process.

Fifteen years after the publication of his landmark tome The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, Morris has now produced a new version with conclusions that have overturned the reputation of a man who still considers himself a leftist.

"There are circumstances in history in which ethnic cleansing actually turns things out for the better, makes things better," the 55-year-old history professor said in an interview here, in reference to the first Arab-Israeli conflict.

Some 700,000 Palestinians left their homeland, either forcibly or voluntarily, during the conflict which culminated with the proclamation of the Jewish state in May 1948.

Now numbering some 3.7 million, these refugees and their descendants constitute one of the principal obstacles to peace in the Middle East conflict.

Born several months after the creation of Israel, Morris, a former journalist who is now a professor of history at Ben Gurion university in the southern town of Beersheba, forged his reputation with his searing expose of the atrocities committed against the civilian Palestinian population during the first conflict.

In the eyes of the Israeli right, only a militant anti-Zionist could have penned such a book and delivered such ammunition to the enemy.

Since then the label of new historian has stuck.

It's a description Morris is happy with as it implies "looking afresh at Israel's past and revising that history on the basis of documentation."

"And if the revised history means Israel looks worse or reveals things which were not particularly favorable about Israel's behavior, so be it."

Morris' publishers have also just published a Hebrew version of Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001, a comprehensive history of the conflict which was first written in English at a time when the Oslo peace accords appeared to promise a brighter future.

"In the 1990s, I was cautiously optimistic that the Palestinians were really willing, they were sincere and they were really willing to accept a two-state solution," he said.

But his optimism has taken a pounding both from a deep immersion in the history archives and the launch of the intifada, or Palestinian uprising, at the end of September 2000.

"In the year 2000, it dawned on me that the Jews really were bigger victims," he said. "The people here who are in danger of actual annihilation and genocide are the Jews. The Arabs do not face that. The worst they face is expulsion."

Morris has also become increasingly convinced that the Palestinians are not prepared to compromise.

"They want the whole of Palestine. They want the destruction of the Jewish state."

Morris speaks without embarrassment of "a partial ethnic cleansing" which took place at the birth of the state of Israel.

"No Jewish state would have been established in 1948 without the displacement of 700,000 Arabs," he said.

He even appears to regret that the founders of the state did not expel all the Arabs.

"Had the war ended with the Jews in possession of and living west of the Jordan river in Palestine and Arabs of Palestine going across the Jordan ... the Middle East would have been a quieter place and the two peoples, in my view, would have been much happier."

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