Book Review: Palestine Betrayed by Efraim Karsh
Yale University Press, London, 2010.
Was Palestine betrayed? Of course it was, by the British, the United States, France, the League of Nations, the United
Nations, the remnants of the Ottoman empire, all of the regional Arab countries, and by certain elites and powerful of
Palestine itself. Efraim Karsh makes the latter two the main if not the sole responsible for the nakba - the disaster -
that occurred in 1947-48 with the announced partition of Palestine followed by the declaration of the state of Israel. “Palestine Betrayed,” as portrayed by Karsh, is the story of the connivances of the Arab leaders in the region along with the elites of Palestine while the Jewish
population continually offered peace and coexistence with their brethren and encouraged them to stay in their villages
and towns to become partners in the new state enterprise.
Karsh is both right…
Karsh is right in that, yes, the Palestinians were in essence betrayed by the Arab leaders at the time more concerned
about their own scenarios and power bases than that of a nascent Palestinian nationality. Further he is correct in that
some of the local Palestinian leadership - or what remained of it after the British military violently dealt with them
in the previous ‘Arab revolt’ - told the people of the towns and villages to evacuate and retreat away from the
advancing Jewish forces. He presents many quotes from Jewish leaders, Ben Gurion in particular, that attempt to show
that the Jewish people wished to live in peaceful coexistence with their Arab neighbours.
…and horribly wrong.
His approach and methodology of trying to reconstruct the arguments around the nakba are horribly wrong in several ways.
In the introduction he writes, “It is understandable for leaders and politicians, culpable for their nation’s greatest
ever disaster, to revert to hyperbole and lies in their quest for personal and collective exoneration, it is inexcusable
for future generations of scholars and intellectuals to substitute propaganda for incontrovertible facts.” In other
words, “These politicized historians have turned the saga of Israel’s birth upside down, with the aggressors transformed
in hapless victims and vice versa.”
His main historical criticism is directed at the “new historians” - who have “total unfamiliarity…with the Arab
world…and their condescending treatment of the Palestinians as passive objects.” He says that, “rather than unearth new
facts or offer novel interpretations”, they have “recycled the standard Palestinian Arab narrative of the conflict.”
Karsh then continues to announce that “the recent declassification of millions of documents from the period of the
British mandate and Israel’s early days, documents untapped by earlier generations of writer and ignored or distorted by
the “new historians.”
The result is that the new documents reveal “that there was nothing inevitable about the Palestinian-Jewish
confrontation….that the claim of premeditated dispossession is not only baseless but the inverse of the truth,” and that
it was the Arab leaders “against the wishes of their own constituents, launched a relentless campaign to obliterate the
Jewish national revival.”
“It is to reclaim this historical truth that this book has been written.” Karsh succeeds, and he fails.
If the reader is unfamiliar with any other writings on Israel, the “new historians” that Karsh so disparages (and to the
uninitiated, the new historians are predominantly if not solely Israeli academics), and if the reader is unfamiliar with
the larger historical contexts of the world’s empires during the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century and their impacts
within the Middle East, the reclamation of historical truth works. That is, it does present a picture of a peaceful
Jewish population betrayed by a greedy, backwards, ineffective, and self-serving Arab leadership.
Unfortunately there are several problems with this presentation. The first is that while Karsh casually dismisses the
new historians, he does nothing to deconstruct their arguments. And while he attempts to present the situation as a new
revelation that the “new historians” have ignored, he is fully wrong. Karsh cherry picks his arguments (looks for quotes
that support only his idea) without making any attempt to contradict or counter the arguments of the new historians,
with no demonstration of where their arguments are wrong.
Much more revealing for anyone who has read the “new historians” is that they agree with Karsh - the Palestinians were
betrayed by their own kind - and several of them spend a fair amount of time criticizing the actions of the leaders of
the Arab nations struggling for their own position and power in a world still largely controlled by old empires. But
that is only one side of the coin, and where Karsh goes wrong is not representing the overall aim of the original
Zionist enterprise and its ongoing belief and attitude towards its domination and control over a “land without people
for a people without land.”
Demographics - as always.
Population demographics is another theme where Karsh goes wrong. He has many chosen quotes about how peaceful and
trusting the Jewish people were and that they wished the Palestinians to work with them in their new state. The error is
that of demographics: this wish for peaceful coexistence was always expressed with the accent on the Jewish people
having the majority of the population. By distorting this item, and then ignoring the many statements about the plans
for ethnic cleansing via population transfer, expulsion, and/or outright killing of the local inhabitants, Karsh denies
support to his argument that “premeditated dispossession is baseless.” From its inception, to the current reality of the
ongoing settlements, demolitions, expulsions, and biased civil and military laws, and possible future population
transfer during some large military event (created for that purpose, as one could imagine with Iran), the idea of
dispossessing the Palestinians cannot be denied.
An imagined reality
There, I stepped into the boundary I do not like to cross, that of conjecture. But that introduces another failing of
Karsh’s arguments, that of using conjectural material as if it is valid factual support for his presentation, especially
fictional material about a supposed happy future as compared to historical fiction that incorporates the actual events
of history. He quotes the Zionist novel “Alteneuland” (1923) by Herzl as if the imaginary speaker’s voice represents the
reality of the Palestinian people. In an academic argument that is simply baseless and false, a reversion “to hyperbole
and lies in their quest for personal and collective exoneration.”
It continues in other arguments, where Karsh describes a besieged kibbutz and how it fought to the last man, followed
illogically - at least for an academic argument and not one based on politicizing the saga of Israel’s birth - by the
comment “True or not….” Well, is it, or is it not? By the manner in which it is presented I would have to guess not, but
it apparently does serve as “a symbol of heroism” for the “Israeli collective memory.” A true ‘false flag’ operation.
Another theme that is constantly reiterated throughout the work is the “massive” amounts of armaments that the Arab
Palestinian population received contrasted with the isolated, over-whelmed, and poorly armed Jewish citizens. Alongside
that, the Haganah is mentioned a few times but never described as to its overall purpose or power, nor are the other
Jewish paramilitaries (Irgun and Stern gangs) and their effects and power presented.
Karsh never does put a number on the “massive” amounts of armaments although elsewhere in the work he seems quite
capable of finding historical records that put very precise numbers on items for discussion be it economics, land sales,
food distribution, or the inevitable figure of discussion, the refugee populations and the villages from where they
originated. In contrast, the “new historians” are quite capable of finding references to armaments obtained by smuggling
in European arms, and their relatively high sophistication compared to the arms of the Palestinians.
Similarly with the Jewish paramilitaries, the “new historians” present much documented material concerning the role of
these militaries, their training during the Second World War with the British command, and their superiority in numbers
compared to the number of Arab fighters in Palestine, before or during the 1948 war. Karsh seems to be able to find all
sorts of numbers by town and village for the Arab fighters, but provides little of anything for the Jewish forces, nor
does he mention their training and overall superiority in numbers.
Deir Yassin - a unique tragedy.
Karsh deals with the displacement and expulsion of the Palestinians dismissively. Except for the one exception of Deir
Yasin, a “tragedy” or at worst a “carnage”, all the villages and towns of Palestine as well as the cities of Tel
Aviv-Jaffa and Jerusalem were vacated on the orders and recommendations of the existing Arab authorities. He complains
that Dier Yasin “would become the most effective Arab propaganda tool against Israel….the widely exaggerated
descriptions of Jewish atrocities, especially of alleged rapes of women that never took place, spread panic across
Palestinian society and intensified the ongoing mass flight.”
Well, again, true and not true. It certainly became the “most” effective propaganda tool against Israeli military
occupation, and yes it did spread panic, as that is the intent of any military action on a populace. However it is not
the only incident of massacres of civilians, nor does it allow that over 450 Palestinian villages were immediately
destroyed in order to prevent the return of the refugees, who under international law have the right of return.
Beit Daras - a reality
Any incidence of massacres or forced evictions and destruction of villages of towns would obviously be downplayed in any
Haganah/Israeli records. The language of the victors would certainly minimize anything that might incriminate themselves
and thus the reports would indicate only that the residents fled on their own initiative, at the urging of their own
leaders, in spite of Haganah’s supposed efforts to retain the population in the villages.
Beit Daras was situated 46 kilometers north east of Gaza city, with no real claim to fame other than that of a long
standing local village that survived many series of invading armies passing over and around its location. However,
shortly after 1917, the British built a police station east of the village which served to “ensure the safety of a
Jewish colony known as Tabiyya.” While the record supports Karsh’s contention that the Jews and the Palestinians
coexisted peacefully, there was till an underlying tension, in particular from the British patrols into Beit Daras. In
contradiction to Karsh’s contention however, is the knowledge within the Palestinian population that the “Jewish
immigrants of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were not the typical seekers of religious salvation and
escapees of oppression. They were part of a Zionist program to conquer Palestine, all of it, and eject its people.”
From there the reality became that of another massacre of civilians by Jewish forces, unrecorded in the history books
but well represented in the personal lives of those who lived there and survived as refugees retaining the eternal hope
of their right of return. Beit Daras was part of the plan in the region to deny Palestinian base operations, create
panic and break morale in order to cause the exodus of the inhabitants.
On May 21, 1948 the village was surrounded by Jewish forces. News of the Deir Yasin massacre had reached the village and
the women and children were encouraged to leave. When the fleeing families reached the outskirts of the village “they
were faced with indiscriminate Zionist shelling no less ugly than that of Deir Yassin…265 victims fell on that day,
mostly, children, elders, and women.” Another witness recorded that “The Jews let the people get out, and then they
whipped them with bombs and machine guns.”
I would wonder what the Haganah record shows for the fight for Beit Daras, and how many other Beit Daras’ and Deir
Yasin’s there are that would simply be recorded as ‘villagers fled…men of fighting age detained’.
Another massacre occurred within recorded history at Tantura, a village on the Tel Aviv/Jaffa coastline. Attacked from
four sides, the captives “were moved to the beach. There the men were separated from the women and children….Two hundred
men between the ages of thirteen and thirty were massacred by the Alexandroni and other Jewish forces.” Another incident
of the not unusual scenario where military actions go against international and humanitarian laws, both for civilians
and military prisoners.
Certainly two massacres would have been enough to cause widespread panic and fear as an inducement to flee the villages.
Yet another “new historian”, Benny Morris (who has more recently rescinded his earlier ideas and become a recidivist
historian - yet whose research cannot be denied) reported “a far more plausible reason for the Palestinian flight: a
systematic Israeli policy of massacres in Palestinian towns and villages, at least 24 according to his most recent,
conservative estimates; the rape of women and girls by Israeli soldiers; and arbitrary killings.” Further:
…in the country’s northern Palestinian heartland there was an unusually high concentration of executions of people
against a wall or next to a well in an orderly fashion. That can’t be chance….various officers …understood that the
expulsion order they received permitted them to do these deeds in order to encourage the population to take to the
roads…Ben-Gurion [see below] silenced the matter. He covered up for the officers who did the massacres.” 
Karsh argues that there was no plan to systematically ethnically cleanse Palestine, yet it is known that the idea is an
underlying theme of Zionist thought from its inception. And truthfully, again, there was no “systematic plan,” just the
underlying motive combined with whatever local situation evaluation the field commander found themselves dealing with
while operating under a general plan to gain land and more land with as few Palestinians as possible.
Unfortunately for Karsh, the record of anecdotal histories of the massacres, killings, expulsion and destruction of
villages immediately after the expulsions - while it does not deny the wish to live peacefully alongside the Jewish
people - does not support his thesis that the Jewish leaders and military were at all accommodating to the Palestinian
people. Nor does it support his argument that the Palestinians initiated all the fighting and that the supposedly
under-armed, under-manned Jewish forces prevailed over enormous obstacles.
Ben-Gurion and “Jewish coexistence”
Ben-Gurion is frequently quoted along the theme of desiring the Arabs to remain in place and live peacefully in
coexistence with the Jewish population. As mentioned previously, that was generally within the context of the main
Zionist fear of demographic dominance by the Arab population. In his conversations with political leaders from the Arab
countries around the region, his tone was always one of restraint and egalitarian purpose, accepting that the Arab
population remain in place. Similarly with the local Palestinian leaders, his rhetoric as quoted was all about
coexistence with the Arabs participating in the wonderful modernity of the Jewish people.
Any reader who follows politics should know that the rhetoric provided by political leaders has many purposes: to hide,
conceal, manipulate, placate, dissimulate, and on. The rhetoric differs in tones of condescension depending on whether
the target is considered to be in a superior position in consideration of the aid that could be provided, or whether the
target is considered inferior and, as in this case, backwards, uncivilized, and potentially hostile to one’s real
intentions. Ben-Gurion spoke well, disarming his European critics, placating the antagonistic but manipulable Arab
neighbours, yet ultimately saying nothing to the everyday Palestinian working and living in the villages and towns of
the area he wished to control - other than what was spoken by the deeds of the Jewish militaries.
Ben-Gurion was no saviour offering freedom and democracy, which is really above and beyond coexistence, as evidenced by
informative quotes that Karsh simply decided to ignore. Ben-Gurion “clarified in his diary that settlement and, when
circumstances would allow it, the transfer of the indigenous population would ensure the realization of the Zionist
dream….For Ben-Gurion, land was everything.”  Early in 1948, he indicated, “If we receive in time the arms we have
already purchased…we will be able not only to defend but also to inflict death blows on the Syrians in their own country
- and take over Palestine as a whole….This is not a mystical belief but a cold and rational calculation based on
Earlier, in 1937, before the holocaust added its impetus to the desire for Palestine, Ben-Gurion “demonstrated a clear
stand: it was better that the smallest possible number of Arabs remain with the area of the state.” In 1947, before the
UN General Assembly Resolution was adopted, Ben-Gurion spoke to the Executive of the Jewish Agency indicating “in the
clearest possible terms that ethnic cleansing formed the alternative or complementary means of ensuring that the new
state would be an exclusively Jewish one. The Palestinians inside the Jewish state…could become a fifth column, and if
so ‘they can either be mass arrested or expelled; it is better to expel them.”
And finally on Ben-Gurion exclusively, he stated in a closed forum meeting, “With compulsory transfer we have a vast
area [for settlement]...I support compulsory transfer. I don’t see anything immoral in it.”  Other than perhaps it is
against international law, against the will of the people, against common sense, and the means to the end is by way of
massacres and demolitions, certainly gives another meaning to Ben-Gurion’s sense of morality, the Jewish overlord
ridding himself of the pestilent, backward, and uncivilized and uncultured Palestinians. How neighbourly, how
democratic. These are not statements extolling the virtues of peaceful coexistence, either with regional neighbours or
New Historians and others
The new historians, as quoted above, were overwhelmingly Israeli academics and researchers availing themselves of both
the newly released confidential government files as well as having direct access to the Palestinian population. Karsh’s
condescending - and with a high probability, erroneous - remarks that the new historians were “[totally unfamiliar] with
the Arab world - its language, culture, history, and politics - and their condescending treatment of the Palestinians as
passive objects….” needs to be reflected in turn upon Karsh himself, as he appears to have viewed the whole spectrum of
ideas through rose-coloured polarized laser narrow lenses.
The few new historians quoted above are not the only few that have searched the records and examined the history of
Israel from a new perspective such that the “saga of Israel’s birth” has been given a new critical perspective that
reaches beyond the officially proclaimed propaganda. Beyond those of Israeli heritage are other academics who are able
to look at the historical record and give it its proper perspective, not just for the events of 1947-8 but within the
overall context of Zionist intentions from the nineteenth century onward.
Avi Shlaim notes the “popular heroic-moralistic version of the 1948 war is the one that is taught in Israeli schools and
used extensively in the quest for legitimacy abroad….Until recently this standard Zionist version of the events
surrounding the birth of the State of Israel remained largely unchallenged outside the Arab world.” The “new historians”
he indicates are not all that new as “Many of the arguments that are central to the new historiography were advanced
long ago by Israeli writers, not to mention Palestinian, Arab, and Western writers.” His first example of the different
interpretations concerns Ben-Gurion as being the driving force behind “the policy of expelling the Palestinians,” but
follows with the note that these ideas are foreshadowed by Lieutenant-Colonel Israel Baer a former official historian
for the IDF in 1966. Shlaim also indicates “Although many of the arguments of the new historiography are not new, there
is a qualitative difference…” the difference being “access to official Israeli and Western documents.” 
As for the role of the historian, Shlaim says,
“the historian’s most fundamental task is not to chronicle but to evaluate…to subject the claims of all the protagonists
to rigorous scrutiny and to reject all those claims, however deeply cherished, that do not stand up to such scrutiny. In
my view many of the claims advanced by the old historians do not stand up to serious scrutiny. But that does not mean
that everything they say is untrue.”
From my perspective, as an analyst and advocate, that reflects back onto Karsh, who says much of what is true, but again
has only viewed the spectrum of ideas through rose-coloured polarized laser narrow lenses - he saw only what he wanted
…a final few offerings…
Up to this point I have concentrated on Ben-Gurion, as he was central to the whole expulsion/war process and is
frequently referenced by Karsh as extolling the virtues of retaining the Arab population within some scheme of peaceful
co-existence. Again a reminder that what political figures say to different other people can be many faceted, used to
argue, persuade, dissimulate, obfuscate, manipulate but very rarely to provide a balanced honest view with an advocacy
of a truly legal humanitarian goal. There is far too much evidence that Ben-Gurion, particularly during the period
preceding the Arab revolt before World War II discussed frequently and strongly the need to expel the Palestinian
population in order to avoid the demographic problem (which ironically plagues the current situation in Israel,
especially if one incorporates Gaza as a de facto Israeli protectorate).
To fully deconstruct Karsh’s arguments would involve a much longer article than the present one. The topics would still
include more on Ben-Gurion, but also on other ideas that Karsh continually brings forth. But the overall themes, of
Jewish acceptance and tolerance of the Palestinians, of Ben-Gurion’s advocacy of coexistence, and the “massive” military
confronting the heroic outgunned Jewish settlers are all part of the canard that Karsh creates.
Karsh frequently uses the word “canard” to describe the historical record created by the new historians. The word itself
is defined as “false report; hoax.” This does not mean that what is said is a “lie” as a false report or a hoax can be
created by manipulation of data - omissions, insertion of hyperbole - “massive “ - conjectural statements - “
what ifs - maybe “true or not” - dissimulation - concealing and not acknowledging information - obfuscation (the use of
big words to confuse the issue) - so Karsh is not accusing the new historians of lying, but of creating a hoax.
The bigger hoax upon analyzing and evaluating Karsh’s work is his own attempt to “reclaim the historical truth,” whereas
in reality he does what he accuses, “to substitute propaganda for incontrovertible facts.” Karsh does have “facts”, but
used as propaganda - the two actually go quite well together when one is creating a hoax. The missing information, the
hidden information, the complete and fully analyzed historical record supports the ideas as represented by the “new
One of the particular outcomes of this work is both subtle yet obvious - a nuance of the idea of betrayal. The Israelis
have always claimed that there are no leaders to negotiate peace with. This problem started particularly with the brutal
British repression of the Arab revolt of 1937-39 and continues through to the present with the few leaders that rise to
the occasion being assassinated, imprisoned and tortured, expelled, or bought out to become quisling representatives of
the Palestinian people. The message, not stated, is clear from Karsh: the Arabs cannot be trusted as they would betray
their own kind - and if they would betray their own kind, how could one expect to negotiate a peace treaty with them
now? When one’s leaders are continually done away with in one form or another, yes, it is certainly hard to negotiate
with them. One could of course be more democratic and give the people of occupied Palestine a referendum on what they
wanted for their own future - as if the answer is not already known.
Karsh’s writing is a betrayal - a betrayal of truth, morality, and reality. Yes, the Palestinians were betrayed, yes
they were betrayed by their own self-proclaimed leaders, but they were also betrayed by the presumption of Zionist moral
superiority, by the British, the French and just about anyone else they came in contact with. That betrayal continues
today, with the ignorance and arrogance of U.S. support for a militant, unforgiving, immoral occupation of a people who
had little say in their own destiny as the imperial overlords fought to control and colonize their lands, farms, fields,
towns, and villages, and to expel them in order to create a “pure” Jewish state.
“Palestine Betrayed” is a hoax - one that speaks the truth, yet conceals much more than it reveals, and creates a ’neo-revisionist’ canard
about the Palestinian expulsion. In his own words, “rather than unearth new facts or offer novel interpretations”, Karsh
has “recycled the standard [Zionist/Israeli] narrative of the conflict.” By all means read it, but also read the sources
referenced here and follow along with other sources cross-referenced within them.
 Baroud, Ramzy. My Father Was a Freedom Fighter - Gaza’s Untold Story. Pluto Press, London, 2010. p 32-3.
 Pappe, Ilan. A History of Modern Palestine, 2nd Edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2006. p. 136.
 Cook, Jonathon. Blood and Religion - The Unmasking of the Jewish and Democratic State. Pluto Press, London, 2006. p. 112.
 Pappe, ibid. p. 93-4.
 Pappe, Ilan. The Ethnic cleansing of Palestine. Oneworld Publications, Oxford, England, 2006. p.46-49.
 Morris, Benny. One State, Two States - Resolving the Israeli/Palestine Conflict. Yale University Press, London, 2009, p.67.
 Shlaim, Avi. “The Debate about 1948.” Ed. Pappe, Ilan. The Israel/Palestine Question - A Reader. 2nd Edition. pp 139-160.
For further readings, a list of book reviews is available at Palestine Chronicle (search: Jim Miles); or at