Towards an Explanation of the Record

For years, the Israelis, were witnessing what everyone else was: the Greater Serbian ideology - an ideology of ethnic superiority, exclusivity, and hatred - being put into action. They were informed about the progress of Serbia's war of territorial expansion aimed at ensuring that all Serbs shall live in one state, and about the crimes committed in the course of this war. They witnessed Greater and `ethnically homogeneous' Serbian being set up in an ethnically extremely mixed part of Europe, in the only way such a project can be realized in such an environment: by means of `ethnic cleansing' of non-Serbs. They learned about `ethnic cleansing' in some detail: carried out, in part, by genocide, and in part by forcible mass expulsion. They saw many reports about the methods of effecting this mass expulsion of non-Serbs: by a regime of discrimination, dispossession, terrorism and, directly and speedily, by organized `transports'. They saw television footage of the `transports,' and of concentration camps too.12 To be sure, the Serbian lobby in Israel did its best to deny or explain away all that; but the reports were so numerous, so detailed, so compelling, and kept coming for such a long time, that very few can claim in good faith that they did not know.

Why in Israel did none of this evoke associations it was evoking almost everywhere else: associations of another ideology of ethnic superiority, exclusivity and hatred, of another war designed to get all members of a certain nation to live in the same state, `Greater' and `homogeneous' too, of other `transports' and camps? Or, if it did evoke such associations, why were they not given appropriate public expression? Why did the public fail to exert significant pressure on Israel's political establishment to change its pro-Serbian stand?13 Why, except for the short interlude in July 1995, could no Israeli government from 1991 to this day bring itself to properly acknowledge and condemn any of this? Even more remarkably, why did Israelis, of all people - both Israeli politicians and common citizens - choose to express understanding and sympathy for the perpetrators, and give them political support? How is it that some of the Serbs' atrocities have apparently been committed with arms acquired in Israel? these are hard questions, and can have no short and simple answers. But I do want to offer at least some suggestions towards an explanation.

The very idea of mass expulsion of civilians from the territories one's armed forces have conquered in the course of war strikes one as morally intolerable and downright criminal. It is indeed criminal: the Charter of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg lists deportation of civilian population both as a war crime and as a crime against humanity. International law prohibits attacks on civilian populations or their expulsion; a conquering army must rather give them as much protection as possible under the circumstances. The initial worldwide reaction of shock and disbelief of what the Yugoslav People's Army and Serb militias were doing in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina was due to the realization that they were not merely fighting the other sides' armed forces. They were also, indeed primarily, deliberately and systematically targeting the civilian population and, after conquering their towns and villages, massacring and expelling non-Serbs, giving their homes and properties over to Serb settlers or razing them to ground, blotting out all traces of the centuries Croat and Muslim history and culture, and even changing the names of towns and villages to make sure that in the future no-one should remember their previous inhabitants. This came as such a shock because it had been generally assumed that such things were unthinkable in post-Nuremberg Europe.

This reaction of shock and disbelief was not at all typical in Israel, I submit that this needs to be understood, in part, against the background of Israel's own history. One of the results of the 1948-49 Israeli-Arab war was the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem, which had plagued the whole region ever since, and whose solution is still not in sight. The subject has always been extremely contentions, but today one can surely no longer accept uncritically the conventional Israeli version, according to which Israel was completely blameless and all responsibility for what happened falls on the Palestinians themselves and/or other Arabs. As Israeli historian Benny Morris has pointed out, the idea of `transferring' the bulk of the Palestinians, either voluntarily or by force, was very much at home in mainstream Jewish thinking in Palestine in the 1930s and 1940s; `transfer' was `seen as the chief means of assuring the stability of "Jewishness" of the proposed Jewish State' [Morris, 1987:25]. `We must expel Arabs and take their places', David Ben-Gurion wrote to his son Amos on 5 October 1937. `I support compulsory transfer. I don't see in it anything immoral', he said at a Jewish Agency Executive meeting on 12 June 1938 [Morris, 1987:25, 27]. `There is no way but to transfer the Arabs from here to the neighbouring countries, to transfer all of them, save perhaps for [the Arabs of] Betlehem, Nazareth and old Jerusalem. Not one village must be left, not one [bedouin tribe', Yosef Wetz, director of the Jewish National Fund Lands Department, wrote in his diary on 30 December 1940 [Morris, 1987:27].

The central tenet of the conventional Israeli account has been that the Palestinians were instructed on the radio to leave their towns and villages by the Arab Higher Committee. The central tenet of the conventional Arab account has been that the exodus was a result of a systematic implementation of a Jewish master plan for the expulsion of Palestinians. Neither claim has ever been substantiated. As Morris shows in great detail, fear of Jewish attack or of being caught up in the fighting, assault on the towns and villages by Jewish forces, psychological warfare waged by Jewish forces with the aim of getting the Palestinians to flee, orders to leave issued by local Arab leaders, an news of the fall of neighbouring Palestinian towns and villages or of an exodus from them. The relative overall importance of these causes cannot be determined with any accuracy. What can be determined is that during the first half of the war:

if Jewish attack directly and indirectly triggered most of the Arab exodus... a small but significant proportion of that flight was due to direct Jewish expulsion orders issued after the conquest of a site and to Jewish psychological warfare ploys... designed to intimidate inhabitants into leaving. ...As well, it was standard Haganah and IDF [Israel Defense Forces] practice to round up and expel the remaining villagers from sites already evacuated by most of their inhabitants... Morris, 1987:287-8].

The subject was never discussed in the highest political and military decision-making bodies, but it was `understood by all concerned' that, for both military and political reasons, `the fewer Arabs remaining in the Jewish State, the better' Morris, 1987:289]. In the second stage of the war there was `a growing readiness in the IDF units to expel', and the period was indeed characterized `by far more expulsions and... brutality towards Arab civilians than the first half of the war, Morris, 1987:293].


...Now I certainly do not mean to suggest either a close historical parallel or moral equivalence between, on the one hand, the turning into refugees and expellees of most Palestinians who used to live within Israel's 1949 borders, and on the other hand, the Serbs' `ethnic cleansing' of large parts of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The differences are obvious. The crucial difference, of course, is the fact that `ethnic cleansing' was carried out in part by means of genocide.16. While both sides in the 1948-49 Israeli-Arab war committed massacres of civilians, neither can be charged with deliberate, systematic, large-scale extermination of civilian populations that amounts to genocide.

What I m saying is the following. First, the state of Israel was established at the price of, among other things, dispossessing the majority of its native Palestinian inhabitants and turning them into refugees and expellees. Second, its continued existence as we know it - that is, as the Jewish state - is predicated on preventing the return of those refugees and expellees and their descendant to their homeland. These two facts, well known as they are to every Israeli, amy help explain the absence of shock and outrage in Israel in the face of the setting up of Greater and `ethnically homogeneous' Serbia, and indeed the Israelis' understanding, sympathy and support for the Serbs: to be sure, not for all the methods the Serbs have been using in the pursuit of their aim, but at least for the aim itself.


I should point out, in conclusion, that I am bringing up the 1948-49 `transfer' of Palestinians and its repercussions for the subsequent history of both Israel and Palestine only as an important part of the explanation of Israel's response to the war in the Balkans. A more comprehensive explanation would clearly have to include further factors. One is the deep suspicion of, and indeed a measure of hostility to, Islam and Muslims in general, that characterize both Israel's political establishment and large sections of Israeli society. This has made Israel particularly responsive to the portrayal of Bosnian Muslims by Belgrade propaganda as bent on setting up a fundamentalist Islamic state, allegations of their links with various Islamic countries, and the like.19]. At another level, one would need to take into account the distinctively Israeli understanding of the nature and moral, political and educational implications of the Holocaust. Abroad - and this includes the Jewish diaspora too - the lessons of the Holocaust tend to be put, first and foremost, in universal, human terms. In Israel, on the other hand, the dominant interpretation is expressly ethnocentric, and involves a sharp distinction between the Holocaust and any other genocide. But these topics are beyond the scope of this article.20].

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