Sharon takes Mideast conflict back to history books

Israel's prime minister-elect, in the throes of forming a new government, is known to be a militant nationalist. Ariel Sharon's view of history is that the Zionists unequivocally have justice on their side in the conflict over what is known to Jews as the Land of Israel and to Palestinians as Palestine.

At the top of his domestic agenda is a revamping of school curricula to redress "a weakening of the roots." The phrase, according to Mr. Sharon's adviser, Ra'anan Gissin, refers to a loss of faith among the young generation of Israelis in the justice of their cause and in the Zionist ethos of redeeming Israel as the land that inherently belongs to the Jewish people.

It's more than an academic or historical debate. Israeli and Arab perceptions about the origins of the Israeli state could prove central to reaching - and selling - any peace accord. Thus, Sharon's moves signal a hardening stance on the issue of Palestinian refugees.

Israeli faith, says Mr. Gissin, has been eroded in part by what he terms "post-Zionist" historians, those who apportion respon- sibility to the fledgling state's leadership for the Palestinian refugee problem and, in his view, portray Israeli history as a seizure of land that did not be-long to the Jews.

And just as Sharon prepares to reinforce his peoples' view of their inherent rights, a recent request for historical texts raises questions about his efforts.

Benny Morris, a Cambridge-educated historian who teaches at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba, requested the release of excised cabinet statements and other documents about the fighting in 1948. That's the year Israel was created that Arabs refer to simply as "the catastrophe" because of the exodus and/or expulsion of more than 600,000 Arabs. But the request was denied by Yossi Beilin, the justice minister.

Dr. Morris wanted them for revisions of his book, "The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-49." In the book, Morris pointed to a middle ground between the Palestinian view of an expulsion and the Israeli depiction of a mass flight, concluding that "The Palestinian refugee problem was born of war, not by design, Jewish or Arab. It was largely a by-product of Arab and Jewish fears and of the protracted fighting that characterized the first Israeli-Arab war."

Morris believes the thrust of his original arguments still stand in light of documentation that has since been made available. He wants access to the archives to complete a picture he's put together from other sources.

According to Israeli law, classified documents are to be released after 40 years, unless they harm state security, foreign relations, or the privacy of individuals. In this instance the closure of the archival material was reaffirmed out of concern that opening it would harm Israel's foreign relations, according to Evyatar Frizel, the state archivist.

'I can understand the hesitations of Beilin that splashing stories of Israel Defense Force atrocities would harm the negotiations with the Palestinians," says Morris. "But this must be put against the more general argument that there will be endless negotiations with the Palestinians and Arab states and that this could remain as the [state's] contention for the next 50 years."

Mr. Beilin declined to be interviewed for this article.

Among the items Morris sought were expunged minutes of a June 16, 1948, cabinet meeting about the war with Arab neighbors, borders, and whether to allow Palestinian refugees to return to areas held by Israelis.

According to the transcript of the meeting, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion made clear there would be no return of the refugees. And he was troubled that Israel had not extended its conquests to Lydda and Ramle, Arab towns southeast of Tel Aviv.

"That two thorns are remaining - Lydda and Ramle - is a serious flaw in our standing right now," Mr. Ben-Gurion said. In the archives, five blanked out lines follow that statement and other comments during the meeting by Ben-Gurion and Foreign Minister Moshe Shertok.

A month later, Israeli forces expelled tens of thousands of Palestinians from Lydda and Ramle in an operation commanded by a young officer named Yitzhak Rabin. The bluntly honest Mr. Rabin wrote later in his memoirs - in a passage that was itself censored for many years - that when Ben-Gurion was asked what should be done with the Palestinians, he had ordered, by waving his hand, that they be expelled. Rabin termed the expulsion "a harsh and cruel action," though he said it was necessary. Leaving a hostile and armed populace in the rear of his forces would have endangered the supply route to another Israeli brigade, he wrote.

Were Israeli intentions to expel the civilian population of Lydda and Ramle enunciated by Ben-Gurion a month before the towns were captured?

The answer, as Beilin is aware, is not entirely academic. Until Sharon's electoral victory, Beilin was a key negotiator with the Palestinians, and held discussions with counterpart Nabil Shaath on the Palestinian refugee issue. The practicalities of how that issue is resolved - through a return of refugees, compensation, or other means - derive in part from which historical narrative is given greater weight.

According to the Israeli narrative, the refugees fled from their homes of their own volition during a war launched by the Arab side to snuff out the Jewish state. Therefore, as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak declared repeatedly, Israel bears "no moral responsibility" for the refugee problem. Mr. Barak was willing to allow the return of a symbolic number of refugees under the framework of family reunification, with no Israeli culpability.

According to the Palestinian narrative, Israel expelled the Palestinians and bears responsibility for their becoming refugees. The Palestinians demand that 3 million refugees located in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and elsewhere be accorded the "right of return" to former locales in what became Israel. Israeli leaders see this as a blueprint for destroying Israel as a Jewish state.

The gap promises to widen with Sharon's tenure. He has dropped the framework of the 1993 Oslo Accord, which called for negotiations about the refugees and says that he will opt instead for a limited non-belligerency pact. That means he would not deal with the past.

Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, says Israel's behavior during the war was characterized by "ethnic cleansing, deliberate expulsions and massacres.... Allowing the truth to come out would go a long way to starting a process of reconciliation."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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