Maybe time for a truce, Jeremy

By Simon Round, May 9, 2008

The Birth of Israel
BBC2, Sunday May 4

The juxtaposition of the words Jeremy Bowen and Israel often causes the paranoia centre in the Zionist brain to go into overdrive. Bowen has, in the past, been seen as unfairly critical of Israeli policies. So, his hour-long special on events leading to the formation of Israel was always going to be analysed forensically for signs of bias.

Since the programme was broadcast, bloggers have been railing against him and the BBC over what they perceive as a tendentious interpretation of history. I did not see it that way.

On the whole, the account of the struggle leading to the foundation of the state of Israel put both sides of this most contentious of stories well and in a way digestible to those not acquainted with the many twists and turns of this most twisty and turny story.

Bowen stated up front that the history of Israel was an example of “an extraordinary feat of nation-building”. He also mentioned, quite properly, that that process of building that nation had resulted in 700,000 Arab refugees.

There were eyewitnesses from both sides — Holocaust survivors who went on to fight for Israel, luminaries including Israeli President Shimon Peres, and, yes, Palestinian refugees who lost their homes and land.

The view of Peres was that the Palestinians were offered their own, very sizeable state in 1947, and they blew the chance. “They refused, not us. We cannot apologise for their mistakes. They have some soul-searching to do.”

There were mistakes made on all sides. The British, who controlled Palestine between the end of the First World War and 1948, failed miserably. In Bowen’s words, the British bequeathed the country “a legal system, red pillar boxes, chaos and war”.

In another way, however, Bowen let the British off the hook. They were, suggested Bowen, “stuck in the middle”. However, this is to ignore the fact that when the UN ruled on a two-state solution, the British decided to wash their hands of the conflict rather than make any attempt to implement partition.

Bowen also disingenuously suggested that the Jews had gained more land from the partition plans than had the Palestinians. Technically true, but the Jewish allocation included the Negev desert — not exactly prime arable land. Neither was there any mention of British Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin’s virulent antisemitism.

A large portion of the programme was given over to an assessment of whether the Israelis had pursued a policy of “ethnic cleansing” against the Palestinians. A Haganah intelligence report about Deir Yassin, an Arab village where more than 100 Palestinians were killed, acknowledged there had been “brutal murders”. And a Haganah commander said: “We let [the Arabs] know that it was better they leave because the Jews are terrible.”

Hundreds of thousands of Arabs did leave, yet hundreds of thousands more stayed. They were not massacred and they were given full citizenship of Israel after independence. Ethnic cleansing?

Arab brutality against the Jews was perhaps played down in the programme. The Arabs on many occasions said they intended to chase the Jews into the sea — a claim believed by those Israeli soldiers who said they intended to kill themselves rather than face capture during the War of Independence. This, recalled Israeli fighter, “was a conflict without prisoners of war”.

Do Hamas leaders still believe that this is where the Jews should ultimately end up? We don’t know. They were not asked this question. What we do know is that, as Bowen related, Palestinian refugees remain “a politically toxic problem”. He is also right in his assertion that the War of Independence is still being fought to this day.

On the whole, this was a reasonable and fair-minded attempt to examine a massively contentious issue. Perhaps the time has come for an armistice with Bowen.

Last updated: 1:22pm, June 2 2008