Review: 1948: The First Arab-Israeli war

By Ahron Bregman, May 30, 2008

By Benny Morris
Yale University Press, £25

Writers and scholars (myself included) have tended to ignore, or dismiss, the jihadi character of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and to regard the Arab rhetoric that accompanied their assault on the Jewish community and state as empty words.

Instead, the emphasis has been on the territorial dimension of the conflict. But not by Benny Morris, who tells us that, from the Arabs’ perspective, the 1948 war was about religion, a holy war, at least as much as it was a nationalist struggle over territory — an interesting observation which he supports with an abundance of material.

Morris regards the 1948 war (and it seems that history may be proving him right) as part of a more general, global struggle between the West and the Islamic East, in which the Land of Israel/Palestine figured, and continues to figure, as a major battleground. Accordingly, for Morris, the Arab assault of 1947-1948 was an expression of the Islamic Arabs’ rejection of Western values.

Another of Morris’s persuasive views, again well-illustrated in the book, sees the war as an inevitable event, the result of developments that had begun in the 1880s with the arrival of Zionist settlers whose presence led to growing tensions with local Arabs. 

Morris pulls no punches and does not shy away from tackling sensitive issues such as that of rape committed by Jewish fighters in conquered towns and villages.

He mentions about a dozen such cases — in Jaffa, Acre, and elsewhere —– reported in the available documentation. Arabs, we are told, appear to have committed few acts of rape.

Overall, this is a first-class study, looking at both high politics and the nitty-gritty of military operations, probing the motives and aims of the protagonists and analysing the role played by the Great Powers in shaping the conflict.

Praise is also due to the production team for this book as the maps, for instance, are not only accurate but also beautifully made, and the picture section contains photographs that I, for one, have never seen before.

Benny Morris digs deep into the archives and he comes up with an impressive, rich, revealing and highly readable book.

Ahron Bregman is the author of Israel’s Wars: A History since 1948

Last updated: 3:17pm, February 18 2011