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A heavy-duty `primer' on the Palestinian refugee problem

The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-49, by Benny Morris. New York: Cambridge University Press. 380 pp. $39.50. Between December 1947 and September 1949, nearly three-quarters of a million Palestinian Arabs became refugees. Most of them, their children, and their children's children still are. What has changed dramatically is that, after 40 years of being bit players in a drama that was, in large part, really about them, they have taken center stage.

Each day we hear more about their current status in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, in Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria; each week new analyses of the situation are printed in learned journals and discussed around television roundtables; and each month (it seems) another book is published on the Palestinians.

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To a list that began with ``The Yellow Wind,'' David Grossman's personal encounters with the Arab and Jewish inhabitants of the West Bank, and ``Blaming the Victims,'' essays on ``the Palestinian question'' edited by Edward Said and Christopher Hitchens (reviewed in these pages on March 10, 1988, and April 7, 1988, respectively), we add another. This one is the work of a ``revisionist historian.''

The sobriquet is most appropriate for Benny Morris, an Israeli journalist with a PhD in history, who offers a very different perspective on the early days of Israel's (re)birth, at least with regard to the relationship between the Arab population and the Jews. Unlike many other recent publications that attempt to reconstruct the events of that critical era by relying mainly on interviews and recollections, Morris's book is almost totally devoid of such subjective accountings. His case is built on recently declassified material from American, British, and Israeli archives and that obtained from collections of previously unavailable private papers.

Reexamining what happened in the crucial period of the Palestinian exodus, Morris considers, then dismisses, the conventional views that have dominated thinking by both Israel's supporters and its foes for four decades. The first is the ``Zionist'' position that the Palestinians were urged to flee by their own High Command; the second, the ``Arab'' contention that the Palestinians were driven out by the Jews.

To help his readers understand the long-polarized positions, the oversimplified rhetoric, and the complexities of the reality, Morris first provides a brief background paper focusing on modern Palestinian history from the waning days of World War I, when Britain ceded parts of the same land to two peoples both of whom laid claim to it. He discusses the Palestinian ``awakening'' and the struggle within the ranks of the two most prominent Arab camps (those favoring Arab control of the entire region and those favoring partition), the role of Palestine's Jewish population, and that of diaspora Jews who hoped to return to their promised land. He examines the fragility of outside support for the Palestinians and the religious rifts and class rivalries within the mandated lands. He shows that the Jews, often at loggerheads over tactics, were far more together in spirit, especially in the days immediately after World War II, when they were bound to provide a safe haven for the survivors of Nazi atrocities.

In page after page crammed with hard data and play-by-play descriptions of what was going on in each period - December 1947 to March 1948, April to June 1948, etc. - and in different parts of the small but diverse land, Morris details the bloody conflict between Arabs and Jews and what was going on behind the lines. He takes us back, into offices of the Arab League and the Haganah, into the councils of the National Committees set up in Arab towns, into meetings of the Jewish Agency and, later, the fledgling Israeli government.

These micro-analyses provide both a sense of intimacy with the action and a basis for understanding Morris's conclusion that, overall, ``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 protracted, bitter fighting that characterized the first Israeli-Arab war.'' (It is important to note that Morris adds that, ``in smaller part, it was a deliberate creation of Jewish and Arab military commanders and politicians.'')

His case builds itself as he reviews the major Palestinian movements that occurred during the two-year period beginning with the departure of middle- and upper-class families from Haifa, Tiberius, Acre, and Jaffa, followed by the departure of thousands of demoralized urban masses and rural peasants, culminating in a decision by the Israel Defense Forces to clear border areas, establishing ``Arab-less frontiers,'' a policy that was given tacit approval by both civil and political authorities.

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``The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949'' is not a book to skim. To appreciate this major work, it is essential to follow the author carefully as he makes sense of the recorded detail that challenged him at every turn as he delved ever more deeply. Place-names, dates, organizations, position papers, discussions of lands disputed, abandoned, and reclaimed, and of important figures and important figureheads, all significant variables in Morris's study, provide the rich context for what is a most comprehensive, heavy-duty ``primer'' for understanding what really happened and why the struggle between the Palestinian Arabs and the Jews still persists.

Peter I. Rose is Sophia Smith professor of sociology and anthropology at Smith College.

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