1947 and 1948 read like passages from his book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947–1949 . The most important effect of Morris’s involvement was the relative centrality accorded to the refugee problem in the historical discussion of the 1948 war. Hitherto, the refugee problem had occupied only a marginal place in the overall picture drawn by official Israeli historians. Not only did the refugee issue assume greater importance in the story presented here, but also included was a discussion of why the Palestinians had left their homeland. The answer, however, was a diluted Zionist and ‘Morrisian’ one: half the population fled, and half were expelled. Thesegments made no mention of Israel’s traditional explanation for the exodus: a general Arab order for the population to leave.
The programme introduced the evidence through eyewitnesses; there were no historians, just participants. A few Palestinian witnesses mentioned their belief at the time that they could leave because they would later be saved by the Arab world, but none mentioned a call or an order to leave. Most told a story of outright expulsion and uprooting. The segments also dealt at relative length with the question of massacres. There was an admission that Deir Yassin was not an isolated case. Other massacres were mentioned in general terms, though only Balad al-Shaykh was referred to by name (on the very last night of 1947, Jewish troops massacred the men of this whole village, on the eastern outskirts of Haifa, as retaliation for an assault on Jewish workers in the nearby refineries). This was a far cry from even Morris’s own guarded accounts of many other massacres, let alone what is engraved in the collective Palestinian memory as described in seminal works such as Walid Khalidi’s All That Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948 , or even what was since proven as valid by other works with a less Zionist tint. 21 Still, an Israeli confession of atrocities committed in the past represented a breakthrough. In the course of the programme, a senior Israeli officer utters a sentence that has haunted me ever since I heard it. When asked about the ‘purity of arms’ – that Israeli oxymoron born in the 1948 war – he shrugs off the question with a bitter expression on his face. Of course, he says, the Israelis could not have adhered to the ‘purity of arms’ while fighting the civilian population. Each village became a target, he says, and they all ‘burned like bonfires’. He even repeats the horrifying description: ‘They burned like bonfires they did, like bonfires’ ( Hem ba’aru kemo medurot, kemo medurot hem ba’aru ). And in those conflagrations, he admits, the innocent as well as the combatants perished.
As the programme also clearly conveyed, until May 1948 there was a paucity of fighters on the other side. In a segment that explored the case of Haifa, which was mostly based on eyewitness accounts, one could detect a more critical approach than could be gleaned from the account in Morris’s book, which talks about flight, not expulsion.But eyewitness accounts, together with rare documentary footage, showed an act of expulsion in Haifa. A tale about Golda Meir’s visit to the city and her uncharacteristic shock at what had been done to the Palestinian population there reinforced the impression that it was not an isolated occurrence. Apparently it reminded her of pogroms and made her consider, for a brief moment, the Palestinian tragedy and particularly the Zionist role in bringing it about. But this soul-searching did not last long, nor did it transform the future prime minister’s later anti-Palestinian stances.
Finally, on the 1948 war itself, the episodes showed how the houses of the Palestinian urban population were taken over, immediately after their eviction or flight, by Jewish immigrants. Unmentioned, however, was the story of rural Palestine, a major issue in the