One day, I hope, a "Truth and Reconciliation Commission," along the
South African model, will be set up here. It should be composed of
Israeli, Palestinian and international historians, whose job will
be to establish what really happened in this country in 1948.
In the 60 years that have elapsed since then, the events of the war
have been buried under layer upon layer of Israeli and Palestinian,
Jewish and Arab propaganda. A quasi-archeological excavation is
needed in order to expose the bottom layer. Even the eye witnesses
who are still alive sometimes have problems distinguishing between
what they actually saw and the myths that have twisted and
falsified the events almost beyond recognition.
I am one of the eye witnesses. On the occasion of the 60th
anniversary, dozens of radio and television interviewers from all
over the world have been asking me to describe what actually
happened. Here are some of these questions and my answers to
How was this war different from others?
First of all, it was not one war but two, which followed one after
the other without a break.
The first war was fought between the Jews and the Arabs in the
country. It started on the morrow of the United Nations General
Assembly resolution of November 29, 1947, which decreed the
partition of Palestine between a Jewish and an Arab state. It
lasted until the proclamation of the State of Israel on May 14,
1948. That day marked the start of the second war - the one between
the State of Israel and the neighboring countries, which threw
their armies into the battle.
This was not a war between two countries for a piece of land
between them, like the wars between Germany and France over Alsace.
Neither was it a fratricidal struggle, like the American Civil War,
where both sides belonged to the same nation. I categorize it as an
Such a war is fought out between two different peoples who live in
the same country, each of which claims the whole country for
itself. In such a war, the aim is not only to achieve a military
victory, but also to take possession of as much of the country as
possible without the population of the other side. That is what
happened when Yugoslavia broke up and when, not by accident, the
odious term "ethnic cleansing" was born.
Was the war inevitable?
At the time, I hoped until the last moment that it could be
avoided. In retrospect it is clear to me that it was already too
The Jewish side was determined to establish a state of its own.
This was one of the fundamental aims of the Zionist movement,
founded 50 years earlier, and was strengthened a hundred-fold after
the Holocaust, which had come to an end only two and a half years
The Arab side was determined to prevent the establishment of a
Jewish state in the country which they - rightly - considered an
Arab country. That's why the Arabs started the war.
What did you, the Jews, think when you went to war?
When I enlisted at the beginning of the war, we were totally
convinced that we were faced with the danger of annihilation and
that we were defending ourselves, our families and the entire
Hebrew community. The phrase "There Is No Alternative" was not just
a slogan, but a deeply felt conviction. (When I say "we," I mean
the community in general and the soldiers in particular.) I don't
think that the Arab side was imbued with quite the same conviction.
That was their undoing.
This explains why the Jewish community was totally mobilized from
the first moment on. We had a unified leadership - even the Irgun
and the Stern Gang accepted its authority - and a unified military
force, which rapidly assumed the character of a regular army.
Nothing like this happened on the Arab side. They had no unified
leadership, and no unified Arab-Palestinian army, which meant they
could not concentrate their forces at the crucial points. But we
learned this only after the war.
Did you think that you were the stronger side?
Not at all. At the time, the Jews constituted only a third of the
population. The hundreds of Arab villages throughout the country
dominated the main arteries that were crucial to our survival. We
suffered heavy casualties in our efforts to open them, especially
the road to Jerusalem. We honestly felt that we were "the few
against the many."
Slowly, the balance of power shifted. Our army became more
organized and learned from its experience, while the Arab side
still depended on "faz'ah"- the one-time mobilization of local
villagers equipped with their own old weapons. From April 1948 on,
we started to receive large quantities of light weapons from
Czechoslovakia, which were sent to us on Stalin's orders. In the
middle of May, when the expected intervention of the Arab armies
was approaching, we were already in possession of a contiguous
In other words, you drove the Arabs out?
This was not yet "ethnic cleansing" but a by-product of the war.
Our side was preparing for the massive attack of the Arab armies,
and we could not possibly leave a large hostile population at our
rear. This military necessity was, of course, intertwined with the
more or less conscious desire to create a homogeneous Jewish
Over the years, opponents of Israel have created a conspiracy myth
about "Plan D (Dalet),"as if it had been the mother of ethnic
cleansing. In reality that was a military plan for creating a
contiguous territory under our control in preparation for the
crucial confrontation with the Arab armies.
Are you saying that at this stage there was not yet a basic
decision to drive all the Arabs out?
One has to remember the political situation: According to the UN
resolution, the "Jewish state" was to include more than half of
Palestine - as it existed in 1947 under the British Mandate. In
this territory, more than 40% of the population was Arab. The Arab
spokesmen argued that it was impossible to set up a Jewish state in
which almost half the population was Arab and demanded the
withdrawal of the Partition Resolution. The Jewish side, which
stuck to the Partition Resolution, wanted to prove that it was
possible. So there were some efforts - in Haifa, for example - to
convince the Arabs not to leave their homes. But the reality of the
war itself caused the mass exodus.
It must be understood that at no stage did the Arabs "flee the
country." In general, things happened this way: In the course of
the fighting, an Arab village would come under heavy fire. Its
inhabitants - men, women and children - would, of course, flee to
the next village. Then we would fire on the next village, and they
would flee to the next one, and so forth, until the armistice came
into force and, suddenly, there was a border -the Green Line -
between them and their homes. The Deir Yassin massacre gave another
powerful push to the flight. Even the inhabitants of Jaffa did not
leave the country - after all, Gaza, where they fled, is also a
part of Palestine.
In that case, when was the start of the ethnic cleansing you spoke
In the second half of the war, after the advance of the Arab armies
was halted, a deliberate policy of expelling the Arabs became a war
aim of its own.
In the interest of truth, it must be remembered that this was not
one-sided. Not many Arabs remained in the territories that were
conquered by our side, but no Jew remained in the territories that
were conquered by the Arabs, either, such as the Etzion Bloc
kibbutzim and the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem. The
Jewish inhabitants were killed or expelled. The difference was
quantitative: While the Jewish side conquered large stretches of
land, the Arab side succeeded only in conquering small areas. The
real decision was taken after the war: not to allow the 750,000
Arab refugees to return to their homes.
What happened when the Arab armies entered the battle?
At the beginning, our situation looked desperate. The Arab armies
were regular troops, well trained - mostly by the British - and
equipped with heavy arms: warplanes, tanks and artillery, while we
had only light weapons: rifles, machine guns, light mortars and
some ineffective anti-tank weapons. Only in June1948 did heavy arms
start to reach us.
I myself took part in the unloading of the first fighter planes
that reached us from Czechoslovakia. They had been produced for the
German Wehrmacht. Over our heads German planes on our side
(Messerschmitts) were fighting British planes flown by Egyptians
Why did Stalin support the Jewish side?
On the eve of the UN Partition Resolution, the Soviet
representative, Andrei Gromyko, gave a passionately Zionist speech.
Stalin's immediate aim was to get the British out of Palestine,
where they might otherwise allow the stationing of American
missiles. A sometimes forgotten fact should be mentioned here: The
Soviet Union was the first state to recognize Israel de jure,
immediately after the declaration of independence. The United
States recognized Israel only de facto at the time.
Stalin did not turn his back on Israel till some years later, when
Israel openly joined the American bloc. At that time, Stalin's
anti-Semitic paranoia also became apparent. The policy makers in
Moscow were then of the opinion that the rising tide of Arab
nationalism was a better bet.
What did you personally feel during the war?
On the eve of the war, I still believed in a "Semitic" partnership
of all the inhabitants of the country. One month before the
outbreak of the war I published the booklet War or Peace in the
Semitic Region, in which I propounded this idea. In retrospect it
is clear to me that this was far too late.
When the war broke out, I immediately joined a combat brigade
(Givati). In the last days before I was called up I managed -
together with a group of friends - to publish another booklet,
entitled From Defense to War, in which I proposed conducting the
war while taking into consideration the hoped-for outlines of a
future peace (I was much influenced by the British military
commentator Basil Liddell Hart, who advocated such a course during
World War II.)
My friends at the time tried very hard to convince me not to
enlist, so I could remain free for the much more important task of
voicing my opinions throughout the war. I felt that that they were
quite wrong - that the place of every decent and fit young man at
such a time was in the combat units. How could I stay at home when
thousands of my age group were risking their lives day and night?
And besides, who would ever listen to my voice again if at the
crucial moment of our national existence I did not fulfill my
At the beginning of the war, I was a private soldier in the
infantry and fought around the road to Jerusalem. In the second
half, I served in the Samson's Foxes motorized commando unit on the
Egyptian front. That allowed me to see the war from dozens of
different vantage points.
Throughout the war I wrote up my experiences. My reports appeared
in the newspapers at the time and were later collected in a book
entitled In the Fields of the Philistines, 1948 (which will soon
appear in English). The military censors did not allow me to dwell
on the negative sides, so immediately after the war I wrote a
second book called The Other Side of the Coin, under the guise of a
literary work and, thus, I did not have to submit it to censorship.
There I reported, inter alia, that we had received orders to kill
every Arab who tried to return home.
What did the war teach you?
The atrocities I witnessed turned me into a convinced peace
activist. The war taught me that there is a Palestinian people and
that we shall never achieve peace if a Palestinian state does not
come into being side-by-side with our state. That this has not yet
happened is one of the reasons why the 1948 war is still going on
to this very day.