Arab Documentation on Palestinians

I have read a number of reviews of Benny Morris’ The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, including your own. All give the book the praise which it deserves, but there is one point about Morris’ approach to which I have so far seen no reference in reviews.

In his introduction Morris describes his sources. They include Israeli state and private papers, most now declassified. From his footnotes, it is clear that these provided the great majority of Morris’ information. Morris refers to the unavailability of Arab state papers for the 1947-1949 period, and writes, “The Palestinian Arabs, who were highly disorganized and failed to put together a state apparatus, produced no state papers to speak of.” He also describes how he has tried to fill out the Arab side of things by using Jewish and Israeli intelligence reports, US and British diplomatic dispatches, as well as “some contemporary Arab memoirs and diaries, and some books based on interviews with contemporaries.”

Morris later says, “After careful and long thought, I decided to refrain almost completely from using interviews, with Jews or Arabs, as sources of information. I was brought up believing in the value of documents. While contemporary documents may misinform, distort, omit or lie, they do so, in my experience, far more rarely than interviewees recalling highly controversial events some 40 years ago.”

There’s the problem. Morris has no Arab primary sources and only a handful of Palestinian and Arab secondary sources. This leaves his work still very much an Israeli one, although one which strives to present a Palestinian/Arab account of events when it is available in printed form. The only way to have redressed this imbalance in source material to some extent would have been to have made use of interviews, in spite of all the difficulties involved…. [Morris] doesn’t actually manage to avoid using interview material, for two out of the three Palestinian sources he lists are themselves based on interviews made years after the events of 1947-1948 — Nafez Nazzal’s The Palestinian Exodus from Galilee, 1948 and Rosemary Sayigh’s Palestinians: From Peasants to Revolutionaries. The remaining Palestinian source is an article by Elias Shoufani (“The Fall of a Village,” Journal of Palestine Studies, 1972), which focuses on the village of Mi‘ilya.

This means that, in spite of his objections to interviews as source material, Morris has had to use other people’s interviews for much of the Palestinian side of things, to which all his objections to such material should apply just as much as if he had collected interviews for himself.

There’s another thing to note about the Palestinian source material. It deals almost exclusively with the fate of the Palestinians of Galilee, and mainly Western Galilee at that. That leaves the majority of the land from which Palestinians were forced out in 1948 uncovered from the Palestinian side in Morris’ source materials.

The Birth of the Refugee Problem is rapidly coming to be seen as the definitive work on the question. In my opinion, it is a very valuable work, but a definitive account (if it is still possible to write such a work) still has to be produced. That will depend on much deeper, more painstaking research on the Palestinian side. Given the chaos that existed in Palestine in 1948, given the fact that many Palestinians seem to have felt no need to record in writing what entire communities accepted as unquestionably true because of their collective experiences, it really is essential that a thorough account of 1948 from the Palestinian side should make heavy use of interviews. If that is not done, then it will simply be impossible to write a comprehensive Palestinian history of the catastrophe. Information furnished through interviews has to be checked as far as possible against other sources, but those of us who are concerned that the Palestinian story should be recorded as fully and accurately as possible should not lightly accept the disqualification of oral history as basic source material. Work is going on to record what Palestinians who became refugees in 1947-1949 say about the circumstances of their flight, most notably at Birzeit University. But much still has to be done, and it seems that the resources available to enable researchers to get on with what needs doing are still meager. The work that is being done will confirm the accuracy of much of Benny Morris’ work, but it is also bound to challenge parts of his account of the events of 40 years ago.

John Gee

By Any Other Name…

I thought you might be interested in seeing this. I ordered this video after seeing the ad in your issue on the uprising and assumed — admittedly, without reading the ad carefully — that it dealt primarily with the uprising. It turns out that it has been marketed previously under a different title.

Bob Vitalis
Austin, TX

Fusion Video
6730 North Street-Dept. MR 8805
Tinley Park, IL 60477

To Whom It May Concern: Enclosed please find the video I recently ordered from your firm, titled “Inside the West Bank,” and advertised in the May-June 1988 issue of Middle East Report. I ordered this film for use in my courses and for inclusion in the collection of the Middle East Center here at UT-Austin. However, I have discovered that this is the same product as “Courage Along the Divide” (your version has simply edited in a new title). We already have copies of this film, which is fairly well known among Middle East scholars. In fact, it is listed as a resource in the very same edition of Middle East Report. It is not clear to me why you have marketed this product in this way, but I would appreciate a refund as soon as possible. In addition, I am sending a copy of this letter to the editors of Middle East Report to alert them about this problem. Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter.

Israel & Palestine Exists

On page 67 of the May-June 1988 issue of Middle East Report you note that Israel & Palestine ceased publication in April 1987. This is obviously not true. A sister publication to I&P, called Report on the Palestinians Under Israeli Rule, ceased publication in 1987 (as was made clear in a letter to the editor by I&P editor Maxim Ghilan on page 69 of the same issue). Please note also that in each issue of I&P there is a highly detailed chronology of Palestinians under Israeli rule. We hope that you set the matter straight for your readers.

S. K. Levin
Deputy Editor, I&P

How to cite this article:

"Letters," Middle East Report 154 (September/October 1988).

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