In 1949 about 700,000 fewer Palestinian Arabs lived in the area that had become the state of Israel than had lived there in 1947. Explanations of how and why that came about have fueled bitter debate for half a century, and help sustain two contending national mythologies. The creation of a refugee population that now numbers four million has nourished within the Arab world a murderous hatred for the Jewish state and helped trigger three conventional conflicts and a terrorist campaign that with varying intensity has lasted since Israel's creation, and may well prove to be the spark that ignites an apocalyptic war. In 1988, in the first edition of this book, the Israeli journalist and historian Benny Morris examined the origins of this problem. He was motivated, he writes in this thoroughly revised and enormously enlarged edition, by neither ideological nor political commitment. Rather, he "simply wanted to know what happened." Rarely has a work of history examined a complex and morally fraught event with such cool precision and utter honesty. And rarely has a scholarly book proved so unsettling to so many people. Morris's conclusions—for which he was excoriated as both a PLO supporter and a "sophisticated Zionist propagandist"—undermined the national identity of Palestinians and Israelis alike. According to the Arab version of events, the Israelis, inspired by an inherently expansionist Zionist ideology, systematically drove out the Palestinians in accordance with a master plan of what we now call ethnic cleansing. For their part, Israelis were taught that the refugees left their homes largely on orders from Arab leaders. Morris demonstrated that neither version of history was sustainable. In what was in many ways a painstaking work of military history, he showed that the Palestinians fled or were expelled from their land as a result of war, not of Zionist or Arab design, and that the reasons for and timing of their exodus varied enormously depending on place and on myriad complex social, economic, and military factors. Arabs were angered by Morris's conclusion that the refugee problem was neither monocausal nor the consequence of nefarious Zionist strategy, and that hundreds of thousands of refugees had fled "not under Jewish orders or direct coercion" but owing to a collapse of morale caused by the absence of strong leadership and of a robust sense of national cohesion; and simply to avoid the line of fire (as civilians in war zones are wont to do). For their part, Israelis were dismayed by Morris's evidence that their military did clear scores of villages and expel tens of thousands of their inhabitants. They were exercised by his calm argument that long before their country's founding, its creators embraced the notion that to make an Arab land into a Jewish state required the "transfer" of its inhabitants—volitional if possible, compulsory if necessary. They were shattered by, or furiously denied, his proof that in the war of independence, a protracted struggle for what at first was national survival, Israeli atrocities and massacres sometimes accompanied martial valor. And they contested or only grudgingly accepted his careful demonstration that regardless of what impelled the displacement of the Palestinians, from the summer of 1948 on, Israeli policy unambiguously and often brutally sought to bar their return. ("In this sense," Morris points out, "it may fairly be said that all 700,000 or so who ended up as refugees were compulsorily displaced or 'expelled.'")
This new edition—which is 640 pages, compared with the original's 380—greatly enhances the book's initial strengths, supports but modifies its earlier conclusions, and deepens its sense of ambiguity as well as its implicit pessimism. Morris is a refreshingly old-fashioned historian, who firmly believes in the value of documents (as opposed to, say, interviews conducted fifty years after the events they relate), and he has fully and inventively exploited a flood of recently declassified Israeli files, principally from intelligence and military archives (the relevant Arab archives, of course, remain closed to scholars). The evidence Morris gleans from the intelligence papers gives a richer, often day-by-day picture of the Arab communities' disintegration, in Haifa and Jaffa especially, under the pressure of uncertainty and conflict. But more important, the military documents illuminate the muddy relationship between Israeli military operations and Palestinian flight. In case after case Morris shows that what could be construed as legitimate Israeli tactical goals—the need to secure a vital road, an exposed settlement or garrison, a border area, or the likely routes of invading Arab armies—required clearing hostile and potentially hostile forces from towns and villages and ensuring that those places not be used as future bases of enemy support. The concomitant combat or pacification efforts usually provoked Palestinian flight, and were often followed by expulsion if not. And as the war swung to the Jews' favor, the distinction between the militarily exigent and the politically desirable blurred: Israel's narrowly defensive combat operations gave way to opportunistic efforts to secure and bolster its still extremely vulnerable geostrategic position (security might demand that Israel clear its border areas of Arab settlements, but given its size and shape, virtually everyplace could be considered a border area), and to the even more ambitious but nebulous aim of ensuring that the emerging Jewish state's disruptive and potentially menacing Arab minority be as small as possible.