The Arab-Israeli war of 1948 has no doubt been a subject that has generated intense controversy in historical debate. Historians that have engaged in debate battles over the causes of the Arab-Israeli war have met considerable criticism, often being accused of partisan bias. Authors have also been charged of misuse of history and accused of pursuing an agenda that is either supportive of the Israelis or the Palestinians.
Given the intense contention that this debate has generated, it is essential to examine the history of the historiography of the Arab-Israeli war. This paper thus explores on the history of the Arab-Israel conflicts from 1948 to the present. It seeks to answer the question: why did Israel agree to a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979Exploring on the historiography of the Arab-Israeli war will help in providing a more complex and fair-minded understanding of the past and aid in preserving at least the prospect of reconciliation between both the Israeli and the Arab community in the future.
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The paper thus provides a critical exploration on the historiography of the Arab-Israel conflict with the aim of enabling the reader to gain an informed understanding of the contending explanations for the causes of the Arab-Israel wars after 1948. It seeks to address the extent to which the Zionist movement or the Arab community was to blame for the Arab-Israeli war, and to explore on the reasons as to why Israel eventually agreed to sign a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979.
The Arab-Israeli war of 1948 has no doubt been a subject that has generated intense controversy in historical debate. Historians who are seeking to know the truth about the Israeli-Palestinian war have met considerable criticism, often being accused of partisan bias. Authors have also been charged of misuse of history and accused of pursuing an agenda that is either supportive of the Israelis or the Palestinians (Shlaim 2000). Indeed the debate about the Arab-Israel war has been made personal, acrimonious and bad-natured.
The controversial debate continues to evoke criticism with the ‘new’ and ‘old’ historians engaging in intense debate. The impact that these debates are having on the understanding of the causes of Arab and Israeli war is significant and goes well beyond the academic. Given the intense contention that this debate has generated, it is essential to explore on the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict from 1948 to the present. This will help in providing a more complex and fair-minded understanding of the past and will also aid in preserving at least the prospect of reconciliation between both the Israeli and the Arab community in the future.
This paper thus explores on the history of the Arab-Israel conflicts from 1948 to the present. It seeks to answer the question: why did Israel agree to a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979The paper critically explores on the historiography of the Arab-Israel conflict with the aim providing an informed understanding of the contending explanations for the causes of the Arab-Israel wars after 1948.
2.0 History of Arab-Israeli war
2.1 End of British Mandate, 1949
With World War I coming to an end, both the Arabs and the Jews felt betrayed because rather than gaining their independence, the French and the British took control of the region (Fraser 1995). The Palestinian region came under the control of the British as a mandate granted by the League of Nations (Ashton 2007). Britain’s acceptance of Palestine as a mandate was driven by the need to establish a Jewish national home.
However, both the Jews and the Arabs were frustrated by ritainactions. When the time for establishing the Jewish state approached, the Arabs voiced their oppositions resulting in the British turning to the UN for help (Ashton 2007). With the mandate failing to satisfy both the Arab and the Jewish community, the UN General Assembly announced their intention to end the mandate and recommended the partitioning of Palestine into three separate areas: Jewish State, Arab state and International zone (Fraser 1995).
However, the Palestinians argued that the UN recommendation was contrary to the principle of self-determination. They vehemently opposed the establishment of a Jewish state. On the other hand, the UN recommendation was received by the Zionists with enthusiasm such that the Zionists agreed to implement the proposal regardless of the Arab opposition (Kamrava 2005). With the implementation of the UN partition resolution, the Arab and Jewish conflict grew more intense and raids and counter-reprisals from both communities became more evident.
The British mandate came to an end on the 14th of May 1948 (Kamrava 2005). Israel proclaimed their victory of independence in the same day. However, the new state of Israel was on the following day invaded by Arab armies from Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Trans-Jordan (Fraser 1995). Despite their determination, these Arab armies failed to defeat the Israelis. The UN later on in July 1949 persuaded the Arab states to sign separate armistice agreements with Israel, with the exception of Iraq (Sayigh & Shlaim 1997).
2.2 Continuing tensions in between 1949 and 1956
A number of issues seem to have plagued the Arab-Israeli relations. Among this was the refugee question. Nearly 725,000 Arabs had to flee from Israel to resettle in the neighbouring Arab territories (Sayigh & Shlaim 1997). The Palestinian refugees argued that they had been forced to flee, a claim that was vehemently opposed by the Israelis. In fact, the Israelis argued that refugees had been persuaded by the Arab leaders to flee from Israel. Another issue that is believed to have contributed to the Arab-Israel war was the view that the Israelis had acquired Palestinian property. The Arab leaders thus demanded to be compensated by the Israelis. However, these demands of concessions were rejected by the Israeli community.
The search for peace between the Arab and Israeli community was further complicated by the tensions between the former Soviet Union and the United States (Sayigh & Shlaim 1997). Israel was viewed by the Arab community as a tool of Western imperialism since Western funds were used to bolster the economy of Israel. At the same time, the Soviet Union offered military and economic aid to many of the Arab states and communist countries. The conflict was further exacerbated by the deployment of a United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) in Middle East which was set up to patrol the frontiers between Egypt and Israel (Shlaim 2004).
2.3 The six-day war, 1967
However, in 1967, Egypt made certain demands that required the UNEF to exits its territory. They threatened Israel by sending troops to the Sinai Peninsula. They also closed off the Strategic Strait of Tiran as an act of provocation thereby denying the Israeli access to the Red Sea (Shlaim 2004). Such provocative actions prompted Israel to reciprocate by launching an attack against Egypt which spread quickly to Syria. This led to the six-day war that destroyed the Arab armies. After the war, Israel took control over the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza strip from Egypt; control of the Golan Heights from Syria; as well as the West Bank from Jordan (Kamrava 2005).
2.4 Periods between 1960s and 1970s
In between the 1960s and 1970s, the UN passed the Resolution 242 which called for the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Egypt and an end to war (Fraser 1995). The resolution also sought to address the Palestinian refugee problem by calling for a ‘just settlement’, and further called for both the Israel and Arab states to respect their independence and rights to co-exist in harmony and peace (Fraser 1995). In 1973, a further step was made with the passing of the UN Security Council Resolution 338 which ensured that the proposals put forth in Resolution 242 were implemented.
2.5 Yom Kippur war of 1973
However, the Israelis believed that they were more powerful and as such thought that they could maintain the status quo. Determined to regain back the acquired Sinai Peninsula, the Egyptian president – Anwar Sadat – arranged with Syria for a surprise attack against Israel (Kamrava 2005). This attack which was later named Yom Kippur occurred during the holy month of Ramadhan lasting for 3 weeks. It led to the death of many of the Israelis.
Despite the surprise attack, Israel soon recovered and seized the offensive against both Syria and Egypt (Kamrava 2005). However, the war finally came to a stalemate when the United Nations, the United States and the Soviet Union intervened. The secretary of state to the US negotiated for an end in conflict between the two Arab and Israeli communities. Finally, Israel agree to withdraw its forces from the Golan Heights and Sinai Peninsula (Kamrava 2005)
2.6 Israeli Peace Treaty – 1979
In 1978, a meeting was convened by President Carter at Camp David in Washington DC which was meant to bring together both the Arab and the Israeli community. Convinced by the urgent need to establish a comprehensive and lasting peace, President Sadat of Egypt and Menachem Begin – Israeli Prime Ministerfinally agreed to sign the peace treaty (Fraser 1995). The treaty was a detailed implementation of the principles agreed upon at Camp David and was indeed an important step to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict and establishing comprehensive peace across the Middle East (Fraser 1995).
3.0 Traditional Zionist and revisionist versions
Whilst there has been a progress towards establishing peace between the Israelis and the neighbouring Arab community, a new kind of war has recently emerged among Israeli historians. The traditional Israeli historians have begun to engage in debate battles with the new historians over the Arab-Israeli conflict, with the later challenging the Zionist rendition of the emergence of the state of Israel.
Until the 1970s, the debate on the Arab-Israel conflict was largely dominated by the ‘old’ or ‘mobilized’ history which portrayed Israel as under serious threat and the dominant view that Israel had been forced to enter into a series of wars by its Arabs neighbours (Avi 2001). According to the traditional Zionist version, the British mandate of Palestine ensured the establishment of a Jewish state without opposition from the’ (Shlaim 2004). They also argue that the Arab refugees left of their own accord and that the Arab community had planned to invade and destroy the infant Jewish state. They argued that the political deadlock that ensued was solely caused by Arab intransigence (Shlaim 2004). Such views sought to exculpate the Jewish state from allegations made against it including claims that it had acquired Palestinian property and that it had driven away the Arab refugees from their homes.
Ironically, there emerged a group of Israelis that gave intellectual power to the Palestinian argument. In the late 1980s, an array of self-styled “revisionist” or “new historians” emerged to debunk what it viewed as a distorted ‘zionist narrative’ (Karsh 1996). Headed by Simha Flapan, Ilan Pappe, Benny Morris and Avi Shlaim; this group of ‘new’ historians offered a radically contrary perspective to that of the “old” history. They argued that Israel was to a large extent responsible for the Palestinian refugee crisis and ultimately for the raging war that led to the development of the state of Israel and fragmentation of Palestine. The ‘new’ historians hold of the view that Zionism was an aggressive and expansionist national movement and an offshoot of European imperialism that led to the raging Arab-Israeli conflict (Karsh 1996).
In an attempt to implicate the Jewish community, the new Historians have concentrated on the short period of war that occurred between 1947 and 1949. Deriding alternative interpretations as old, the ‘new’ historians dismiss the notion of Arab animosity and hostility towards the Jewish community as nothing more than just a Zionist myth (Efraim 2000). They point out that the Jewish acceptance of 1947 UN resolution was merely an act and that the Jewish were not sincere. They have sought to distort archival evidence and fabricated or invented their own image of the Israeli history (Efraim 2000).
The fabrication of Israeli history by the “new” historians has no doubt significantly impacted on the understanding of the causes of Arab-Israeli conflict. The Primary works of most of these authors have made new archival material available to wide audiences. Their work has already impacted on the popular perceptions of the historical roots of the Arab-Israeli war. Their accounts also seem to play a greater part in breaking down the remaining psychological barriers that continue to impede the search for a comprehensive and just peace in the Middle East (Shlaim 2004).
Of particular influence is Morris’s ground breaking work. For example, Morris’s analysis of the dynamics and causes of Arab-Israeli war between 1949 and 1956 presents a compendious account of the political motives, the insecurities, military recklessness, moral callousness and tactical miscalculations that characterized the response of Israel to the presence of the Palestinian refugees along its border (Ian 1997). There are other ‘revisionist’ works which have had the same sort of impact and altered the views and understanding of Israeli politics and history. However, Morris’s work has been particularly influential and has formed the basis of most ‘revisionist’ works.
Of course, it had long been asserted by experts in the region that there was little truth to the Israeli accounts of the Arab refugee question. Even prior to the 1980s opening of the Israeli archives, it had long been suspected in academic circles that the displacement of Arab refugees primarily lay in the terror of a population panicked into flight by intimidation, bombardments, force evacuations and massacres (Ian 1997).
Another important tactic which has more often been employed by most authors is presenting the Arab Israeli war as the heroic struggle for a peaceful Jewish state (Morris 2007). Most authors have presented the Arab-Israeli conflict in terms of “David” vs. “Goliath”, comprising of a monolithically hostile Arab world and a resentful, treacherous and powerful British Empire (Morris 2007). However, most of the Israelis have felt outraged by the suggestion that they are conquerors, a perception held by the Palestinians (Shlaim 2004). On the other end, the Palestinians have regarded themselves as victims of the Arab-Israeli war.
There is no denying that the debate about Arab Israeli conflict has generated intense controversies with the ‘new’ historians challenging the Zionist rendition of the emergence of the state of Israel. However, the ‘new’ accounts suffer from the lack of robust evidence. For example, there seems to be no truth to the Palestinian view that the Arab refugees had been forcefully evicted by the Israelis.
There is also no evidence to prove a Zionist plan to expel the Arab refugees from Palestine nor is there evidence of a pre-war ‘transfer’ thinking and cases of expulsion (Karsh 1999). The Palestinian refugee problem that resulted was inevitable, especially given the history of Arab-Jewish hostility over 1881-1947, their geographical intermixing in a minute country, the depth of Arab animosity towards the Jewish community, the structural weaknesses of the Arab society and the fear of falling under Jewish rule (Morris 2004).
Clearly, the debate on this subject has become highly polemical with views that aim at scoring political points rather than providing an academic understanding of the historiography and the causes of Arab-Israeli war. Historians seeking to pursue the root causes of the conflict have often been accused of partisan bias. Authors have also been charged of misuse of history and accused of pursuing an agenda that is either supportive of the Israelis or the Palestinians.
It is obvious that new historians, in their effort to score political points and to suit their contemporary political agendas, have systematically distorted archival evidence and fabricated the Israeli history. The Minor criticisms of the revisionist accounts should not detract the reader from the reality about the Arab-Israel conflict. The “new” historians will undeniably continue to attach the veracity of the traditional Zionist version with an attempt to fabricate the Israel history.
While the debate on the causes of Arab-Israeli conflict remains highly contentious, it is a fact that Egypt and Israel eventually came to terms, ending the conflict that had marred the Middle East for 20 years. Convinced of the urgent necessity to establish a comprehensive and lasting peace in Middle East, Israel eventually agreed to sign a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979.
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Shlaim, A., 2004. ‘The war of the Israeli Historians’. Annales, 59:1 [viewed on 26th February 2012] available from
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