NOTE: I use the term “Palestinian” in various forms in this piece. But for the sake of variety (and to avoid repetition), or in order to portray the attitudes of some of the historical subjects, I use the term “Arab” at times, meaning it to be interchangeable with “Palestinian.” This usage is not meant to be pejorative or prejudicial.
الارشيف يكشف: دافيد بن غوريون وصف الفلسطينيين في اسرائيل بالحمير
Large portions of this post are translations of Adam Raz’s Haaretz (Hebrew) article or summaries of his ideas. Adam Raz is an Israeli archival historian who has delved deeply into the historical record and discovered the minutes of early Israeli debates within the ruling Party (Mapai). There is anything but dry, dusty history in these pages of notes. The arguments then, inform the predicament Israel continues to face as it tries and largely fails to address the status of its Palestinian citizens.
After May 1948, when Israeli forces won independence and defeated the Arab armies arrayed against them, the new nation’s leaders faced a critical question: what to do with the “Arabs” of Israel (“the Arab Question”). Though there was a concerted effort to expel (the Nakba) as many as possible both before and during the war which led to as many as 1-million fleeing for their lives, at least 150,000 remained within Israel. Though no Palestinians within Israel offered any resistance to Israeli forces during the War, Israel still viewed them with suspicion. For that reason, it enacted the Absentee Property Law which both forbade expelled Palestinians (“infiltrators”) from returning and reclaiming their homes; and declared that property that was “abandoned” by the expellees would revert to the State. It would then most often be transferred to new Jewish owners. In this fashion, 400 existing Palestinian villages were destroyed during hostilities and afterward, and Palestinian properties in major towns and cities like Jerusalem were wrested from their original owners and given to Jews.
As Israel’s founder, David Ben Gurion and his government pondered what should be done with the remaining Palestinian residents of the new state, they decided to place them under military law. This provision, originating under the British Mandate, was first invoked before the War and designed to place Arab residents under strict regulation. It also meant to monitor their activities under regulations which permitted authorities to detain and imprison anyone who was a perceived threat. Though the provision was at first thought to be temporary, it was not removed until 1966, a dark blot on Israel’s claim to be a country for all its citizens, Jewish or not.
During this process, Ben Gurion’s cabinet debated the nature of relations between the State’s Jewish and Palestinian citizens. Not surprisingly, Ben Gurion and his protegé, Shimon Peres, were the hawks on the issue. They were joined by then-General Moshe Dayan. They suspected the “Arabs” and believed an iron fist was necessary to show them who was boss. Otherwise, they feared the Palestinian minority would eventually rise up in rebellion. Raz, in his article, calls them the “segregationists,” who sought to separate Jews and Palestinians to the greatest extent possible.
Though today we see an Israeli government and political class that is both ideologically extreme, ultra-nationalist and racist, in the early days there was a somewhat more diverse set of ideas and attitudes in play regarding the Palestinians.
Even at this early stage in Israeli history, Party mandarins recognized they were dealing with a powder keg which could explode and tarnish the reputation of the new state. While the internal Party deliberations were conducted freely within its confines, there were strong concerns that leaks to the press might lead to pressure on Israel to improve conditions of the Palestinians in Israel. That must be avoided at all costs.
Moshe Sharett, the foreign minister in the new government and a dove, laid the ethical foundation for the debate:
This [the Arab Question] is one of the foundational questions of our national policy and the future of our state. The question will be a determining factor of the morality of our state. Our very moral stature as a state is dependent on this test and whether we pass it or fail.
Sharett, along with Pinchas Lavon, championed the notion of “integration.” His faction in government objected to the hawkish projection of power toward the Palestinians, which was promoted by Ben Gurion. Instead, he emphasized the necessity of promoting the notion of peace and reconciliation with the Palestinian minority.
Israel’s first president, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, who had four decades earlier ordered the first political murder of a Palestinian Jew (Israel de Haan), joined with the doves on the “Arab Question:”
What is the approach of the State toward the [Palestinian] minorities? Do we wish for them to remain within the State in order to be integrated [“absorbed”] into it; or do we wish for them to leave [i.e. be expelled] the State? We proclaimed [in the Declaration of Independence] equality for all citizens without regard for race. Did we mean this for a time when there would no longer be an “Arabs” in the State? If so, we perpetrated a fraud.
Even in those early days, the doves in government feared the “T” (Transfer) word and used it to castigate their political opponents. In other words, there was a strong impulse among the hawks to expel the remaining Palestinians in Israel. Ben Gurion saw the Arab minority as a “fifth column” and called it that during these deliberations.
Sharett, on the other hand, saw this attitude as “simplistic” and believed that good relations between the Jewish majority and the minority depended first and foremost on the Jews themselves; and not on the loyalty of the Palestinians to the State. He declared: should we continue “fanning the flames” of enmity (as he believed Ben Gurion was doing) or shall we extinguish them?
Interestingly, neither the hawks nor the doves differed much on the idea of depopulation of the Arab minority. They both favored it in order to bolster a Jewish majority. They only differed in the methods of achieving this end. Ben Gurion favored doing it forcefully, while Sharett favored using “peaceful means” to persuade them to leave. He warned that if Israel used cruel methods involving deprivation to achieve this end, that it would give Israel a black eye and be a chillul ha-shem [desecration of God’s name].
Dayan, despite being a senior IDF commander, participated regularly in these Mapai party meetings and helped craft public policy. There was no separation, even then, between the military and political echelon. He not only advocated “transfer” of the Palestinian population from Israel, he rejected the notion that it should be permitted to serve in the army. He argued against offering Palestinians full citizenship and rejected the notion that they should be compensated for the loss of their lands. He opposed any act that could be construed as conciliatory toward the Arab minority. He argued:
I hope that in future years there will be yet more opportunities to effect the transfer policy of the Arabs from Israel.
Lavon quipped with bitter irony about this notion:
It’s well-known that we are the best socialists in the world…even as we plunder the Arabs.
The doves also opposed military rule over the Palestinians even at that early stage. Only months before he resigned as defense minister in the 1950s, Lavon spoke out against military occupation:
The State of Israel cannot resolve the Arab Question through Nazi means. Nazism is still Nazism if it is perpetrated by Jews.
Returning to the issue of giving Palestinians the franchise, Ben Gurion had completely pragmatic reasons for finally agreeing to permit them to vote. He believed the 40,000 who had registered would vote for Mapai rather than its rivals. Simply put, he needed those votes.
However, initially he sought to restrict the number of Palestinians who would be permitted to register, which is why only 40,000 did so. Sharett on the other hand, believed that as many Palestinians as possible should be included in the franchise, otherwise the life of a Palestinian would be worth little and they would be treated “like dogs instead of human beings.”
The Sharett faction also strongly opposed the Absentee Property law, which effectively stole from Palestinians the lands and homes they left behind when they were expelled. MK David HaCohen said:
I’m not sure it was clear to all of us when we voted for this, what a dog [“donkey”] it was. According to the law, when an Arab dies his inheritance isn’t passed on to his wife, but to the custodian for absentee property [the State]. We cannot declare we are in favor of equality for all citizens while such a law exists.
These laws which we are enacting regarding the Arab residents of Israel can’t even be compared to the laws enacted against Jews during the Middle Ages, at a time when they were deprived of all rights. This is a direct contradiction between our declarations and our acts.
Another Party leader declared that Mapai:
…From an ethical point of view should be a movement which doesn’t lie. But in this matter we are living a total lie.
All the books and articles written and the speeches delivered, both internally and publicly, have no meaning when they are compared to what we are doing in practice.
…There is no way we can demand that other nations treat their Jewish minority any better than we treat the Arabs here. We are losing this argument completely. And we are lying at the [Socialist] Internationale, lying to ourselves and lying to the nations of the world.
Ben Gurion advocated for maintaining martial law against the Palestinian minority up to the last second. In 1962, he derided those like Sharett who lobbied for its repeal. He called them “naïve” and argued that they didn’t “understand” Arabs. He warned of what might happen in outrageously racist terms:
There are those living under the illusion that we are a nation like all other nations, that the Arabs are loyal to Israel and what happened in Algiers cannot happen here.
We look at them [Palestinians] like donkeys. They gratefully take what we give them. It doesn’t matter to them.
You and those like you [who support the end of martial law] will be responsible for the destruction of Israel.
Opponents of BG’s hawkish view disagreed with his Algiers analogy. They argued precisely the opposite: that easing military rule would likely decrease the chance of such a civil revolt.
One of the doves spoke out during Party deliberations against the normalization of this discrimination against Palestinian citizens:
We’ve accepted this [discrimination], we’ve grown accustomed to it. It’s become the order of the day. No Arab in Israel can, nor will accustom himself to being deprived economically and educationally–to be a second-class citizen.
The world does not understand what the real situation is here. If it knew it would not permit us to show our faces.
Peres too, was among the most hardline of the hardliners (though ironically lionized in his death as a lover of peace with the “Arabs”). He rejected easing martial law:
Marital law does not oppress the Arabs. In fact, the Arabs themselves created the need for martial law–that is, those who infiltrate Israel. As long as such a danger exists we must appreciate the need for martial law.
The last word on this belongs to Ben Gurion, who said, revealingly, that:
The moment that the separation between Jews and Arabs is eliminated and they are at our level [of rights], if there is no longer a concept of war among the world’s regimes, I have not a shadow of a doubt that Israel will be eradicated and no memory of the Jewish people will remain.
In other words, Ben Gurion believed that the only means of maintaining Arabs in “their proper place” should they ever get the notion that they should have rights equal to Jews, would be all-out war. Amazingly, these are views held most passionately by Israel’s current far-right government. Though Ben Gurion was a leader of the Labor Party, today he would be a passionate advocate of virtually every policy advocated by the Likud. And that is a sad, depressing thought.