Battleground: Fact and Fantasy in Palestine.
by Samuel Katz.
Bantam. 271 pp. $1.50.
This book has little to do with military strategy or tactics, yet Mr. Katz has given it an appropriate title. He is dealing with the battle over the founding of the Jewish state in Palestine that took place in books, pamphlets, articles, every resource of the written and spoken word. He deals with this battle not as a scholar, but as a vigorous, if unofficial, participant. He writes from the perspective of an old Irgun hand (he was high in the command of Menahem Begin's terrorist underground organization in 1947 and 1948), who has latterly been a leader of the expansionist Land of Israel Movement. Mr. Katz has a crisp, lucid style, erupting occasionally into tirades or panegyrics, and he covers a lot of ground. But his book, basically, is an essay in propaganda.
The propaganda of the Arab-Israeli conflict is particularly rich in historical reference, but in this respect, at least, Mr. Katz stands out. He picks up his story with the end of the Bar Kochba revolt in 135 C.E. and makes his most valuable contribution in discussing the Jewish presence in Palestine between the time of the Roman Emperor Hadrian and the British Lord Balfour. It was, he says, a continuous presence, and he provides satisfactory documentation. Along the way Mr. Katz also includes some fascinating and not widely accessible material on Christian “proto-Zionists” of the early 19th century, among them English religious enthusiasts like Lord Shaftesbury and Laurence Oliphant, who actively proposed Jewish resettlement in Palestine (for decidedly non-Jewish reasons) and even worked up a number of moderately reasonable programs. This school of thought deserves greater study as an antecedent to the Balfour Declaration and to a certain strand of British pro-Zionism.
Some of Mr. Katz's more contemporary points deserve notice as well. His particular line of argument concerning the Palestine refugees, for instance, may well come to the fore at future stages of the Geneva peace conference on the Middle East. Mr. Katz contends that the number of those who fled Israel in 1948 has been grossly overestimated by anti-Israel propaganda and United Nations incompetence. Instead of the “nearly three-quarters of a million” estimated by a recent pamphlet of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) or the million-and-a-half or two million claimed by some Arab spokesmen, the true figure, he claims, is about 420,000. Mr. Katz derives this estimate by subtracting the number of Arabs living in post-1948 Israel from selected pre-war census figures (probably outdated by 1948). His results are somewhat lower than Israel's own—recent Foreign Ministry literature puts the number of 1948 Arab refugees around 500,000; but this is of course still in the same ballpark.
Even though Mr. Katz's figures can be quarreled with, his argument appears plausible. Many more impartial observers than he believe that the original UN refugee rolls were inflated by impoverished non-refugees who flocked to UNRWA's free rations and services. Something similar goes on today in the Beirut “camps,” where indigents of many other ethnic groups also take shelter. UNRWA itself acknowledges that its registration records “do not necessarily reflect the actual refugee population owing to factors such as unreported deaths, false registrations, or undetected absence from the area of UNRWA operations” (Report of the Commissioner-General, 1 July 1971-30 June 1972). With an eye to Arab spokesmen at the UN, UNRWA also suggests that many more Palestinians may have relocated from Palestine who do not appear on the UNRWA rolls.
This entire discussion may seem merely academic, or even distasteful, but it could become relevant if and when the Geneva conference takes up the question of compensation for the Palestinians. Mr. Katz points to the 900,000 Jews who fled Arab countries after 1948, of whom nearly 750,000 took refuge in Israel. Almost all their property was expropriated by Arab governments. If their claim were balanced against the Palestinian, as Abba Eban seemed to suggest it should be in his opening speech at Geneva, the slate might pretty much be wiped clean.
So far, Mr. Katz's points resemble those made by Israel's official propaganda (and invoke much the same evidence). But he has his own message to deliver, and his idiosyncratic approach becomes evident when he broaches his major theme: British responsibility for the Arab-Israeli conflct. Mr. Katz is obsessed with the idea that British ambitions in the Middle East were the product of the Cairo-based “Arab Bureau” during World War I—the intelligence unit best known for its junior member, T. E. Lawrence, and for its patronage of the “Arab revolt.” The “Cairo School,” Mr. Katz explains, envisaged a loose federation of semi-independent Arab states in historic Arab territory, to be protected and presided over by the British. But, he says, plans for a homogeneous Arab Fertile Crescent were frustrated by the Balfour Declaration and the French claims in Syria. The disciples of the “Cairo School” nevertheless set about to “diddle the French out of Syria” and to undermine the Jewish National Home. The weapon, he maintains, was the debatable claim that Britain had made a series of promises to the leaders of the Arab revolt which were then reneged on by the terms of the Balfour Declaration. Cairo veterans in the Mandate government spurred Palestinian Arabs to riot and rebellion against Zionist settlers, in effect creating a nationalist “movement” (Katz's quotation marks) out of whole cloth. By inflaming this issue, the British also hit on a means for creating a “framework of cooperation” in the larger Arab world—i.e., the Arab League—of which they had always dreamed. This line of “Laurentian pan-Arabism” was supposed to culminate in 1948, when the united Arab states were to occupy Palestine with the covert assistance of the British.
Or so says Mr. Katz.
Now, one can agree that the British occasionally pursued a muddle-headed “pan-Arab” policy (especially in the early 40's) or that the Mandate administration's idea of its duties differed vastly from the program of the Zionist Revisionists. And certainly a Laurentian myth exists; a pro-Arab pamphlet circulated as recently as the October 1973 war argued that “Britain had pledged complete independence for all Arab countries in return for Arab support when [World War I] ended and that this promise was not honored. . . .” But the story Mr. Katz tells is not only sloppy and distorted history, it is sloppy propaganda. Mr. Katz goes to great lengths to discredit Lawrence, when Lawrence himself is one of the strongest witnesses against the “Laurentian myth.”
Lawrence did indeed adopt a well-publicized posture of disgust with British policy. What is less well known is that in doing so he was objecting not to the Balfour Declaration but to Britain's abandoning of King Faisal ibn Hussein's government in Syria to the French. (This story is told, fully documented, in The Secret Lives of Lawrence of Arabia, by Phillip Knightley and Colin Simpson, 1969.) He wrote, shortly after, that Britain had fully satisfied its obligations to the Arabs when Sir Winston Churchill, at the Cairo Conference of 1921, installed Faisal in Iraq. As far as the Palestine Mandate goes, Lawrence can only be described as a Zionist sympathizer. He acted as interpreter at the famous meeting between Faisal and Dr. Chaim Weizmann, became a great admirer of the Zionist leader, and subsequently wrote to a vociferously anti-Zionist Anglican divine in Jerusalem that he (the divine) was not fit to black Weizmann's boots.
If the “Cairo School” encompassed a wider variety of outlook than Mr. Katz allows, so did British policy toward the Balfour Declaration. The officer in the field worried about the effect of the Declaration on local Arab opinion, a worry attested to by dispatches in the Arab Bulletin, the weekly intelligence summary of the Arab Bureau. A “Palestine Letter” in the March 18, 1918 Bulletin, for instance, noted: “There is no doubt nothing hampers so greatly our local relations with the existing non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine, as the vagueness of our declaration in favor of Zionism. It is idle to suppose that any one in possession can feel at his ease in a Promised Land!” On April 2, the same correspondent stated an interpretation which he apparently felt would mollify local Arab concerns:
With the arrival of the Zionist Commission, of which an advance party is already in Palestine, it is to be expected that Arab apprehension will become acute: and it is hoped no time will be lost in making known as widely as possible the real policy of the Commission, which is understood to be opposed both to expropriation or exploitation of existing land owners, and also to any Jewish control of Palestine. For the very moderate number of Jews, expected to desire to settle there, it is considered that the almost derelict crown lands, and unappropriated marshy and sandy areas will provide ample scope.
If this was the reality in Palestine, as Arab Bureau personnel saw it shortly after the British conquest, it did not contradict the expectations of some British policymakers in the debates prior to the issuance of the Balfour Declaration. Lord Curzon, a member of the Inner War Cabinet and postwar Foreign Secretary, wrote a memo two weeks before the Declaration doubting the practicality of massive Jewish resettlement in the “National Home,” on financial and economic grounds, and pointing to difficulties with native Arabs and religious interests in Jerusalem. The British version of Zionism, he wrote, “is a policy very widely removed from the romantic and idealistic aspirations of many of the Zionist leaders whose literature I have studied, and, whatever it does, it will not in my judgment provide either a national, material, or even a spiritual home for any more than a very small section of the Jewish people.” This basic misunderstanding of Zionist aims contained the seeds of thirty years of British troubles, especially as events in Central Europe gave an impetus to Jewish immigration that nobody could have foreseen.
Mr. Katz, convinced of British perfidy to the end, gives little weight to this fatal flaw in British policy. Furthermore, he misinterprets the persistent in-fighting among the British bureaucracy that complicated Palestine policy, let alone the “Arab revolt” itself. The most intense opposition to the Balfour Declaration came not from the Arab Bureau or its superiors in the Foreign Office but from the “ultra-Islamic” India Office, worried about Moslem opinion in its own domain. The conflict between the Foreign Office and the India Office grew so intense that each wound up supplying, and arming, an opposing side in the bloody feud between the Hashemites and Ibn Saud. Mr. Katz passes over all this and a great deal more, and in the end he proves very little about the “Cairo School” or “Laurentian pan-Arabism,” slogans that serve only to twist thirty years of muddled British policy into the framework of his idée fixe.
This idée fixe consists mainly of an inordinate hatred of the British, one that prevents Mr. Katz from facing a number of harsh, unpleasant, but almost certainly true propositions: for instance, that Palestinian Arab hostility toward Zionism ran deep, even at the beginning; that British concessions to the Arabs, seen by the Yishuv as anti-Jewish, were in some part attempts at a fair-minded balance, in line with original British policy under the Mandate; that today's Palestinian nationalism is a real, if incoherent, phenomenon, not an invention of British colonialism and Arab aggression. Mr. Katz's book, in its refusal to consider alternatives, will not help to promote the clarity of thought absolutely necessary in this period of dangerous negotiation and momentous compromise.