Israel's Border Wars, 1949-1956: Arab Infiltration, Israeli Retaliation, and the Countdown to the Suez War

Benny Morris is decidedly not a post-modernist historian for whom all readings of history are equally valid. Instead, he is a researcher who pays exquisite attention to evidence and who eagerly questions accepted wisdom when it collides with inconvenient facts. This penchant for revisionism has made him controversial in Israel, where he has combed the archives for answers to what really happened in the early years of Israel's conflict with the Arabs.

The conventional story argues that from the moment of Israel's birth in 1948, Arab hostility was manifested in constant waves of terrorism. In legitimate self-defense, Israel struck back, sometimes dramatically, in a spiral of violence that ended in the Suez campaign. Morris shows that this image is simply not true. Relying almost exclusively on documents from the Israeli archives and Western diplomatic reports, he shows that most of the early infiltration by Arabs across the armistice lines was motivated by economic considerations. Farmers were returning to their fields, refugees to their homes, and others for easily understood reasons. Most of these infiltrators were unarmed. Nonetheless, Israeli officials adopted a tough position to prevent their return, and during the early 1950s hundreds of Arabs were killed each year, as well as dozens of Israelis.

In one of the most dramatic revelations of his research, Morris explores the evolution of Israeli retaliatory policy, from strikes at civilians to strikes at military targets. The formation of Unit 101 under Ariel Sharon was an expression of the activist school, which believed in the need to avenge Arab attacks. In the notorious attack on the Jordanian village of Qibya in October 1953, Unit 101 was ordered to carry out destruction and maximum killing, which it did to the extent of some 70 dead, mostly women and children. The attempted cover-up and crisis soon passed, but not before Israeli government policy shifted toward striking at military concentrations instead of civilians in response to border incidents. The most famous of these raids was the attack on Egyptian forces in Gaza in February 1955. From that moment on, Egypt began to seek arms from the Soviets and was soon organizing raids into Israel. All the while, Moshe Dayan and David Ben-Gurion were looking for a pretext to strike at Egypt, and the alliance with France in mid-1956 set the stage for the Suez adventure.

All of this is told with high regard for sources, in a smoothly written narrative that leaves the reader with a sense for how deep the antagonism between Arabs and Israelis really is. Many of his compatriots will criticize Morris for his rendering of history, but no one henceforth will be able to write on this period without reference to this basic study. It is a sad commentary that such a talented scholar is unable to find a teaching and research position in his own country because his views are considered to be too controversial.

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