I remember the moment when the Palestinian diaspora began to interest me, professionally. It was in Rashidiye Camp, outside Tyre, in June 1982, just after the Israel Defense Forces had scythed through on their way north to oust the Palestinian Liberation Organization from Lebanon. A journalist at the time, I picked my way through the devastated buildings. Most of the men had fled or been detained or killed by the Israelis, but I was struck by a group of old women hunched over a tabun, an outdoor oven, making pita bread far from their homeland. A few weeks later a stash of documents produced in 1948 by the Palmah—the strike force of the Haganah, the main Zionist underground in Palestine—was opened for me, revealing why and how many of these people had been displaced as Israel was born.
My historical account of that event, published a few years later, was greeted with some acclaim by Palestinians and their sympathizers—and much shock by Israelis, who had been brought up to believe, or to pretend to believe, that the Palestinians had fled their homes four decades earlier because of orders or advice from their leaders. In certain places, at certain times, there had been such advice and orders, of course. But there had also been Israeli expulsions, as well as the chaos of British withdrawal and economic hardship and anxiety about an uncharted future under Jewish rule. In most places it was the flail and fear of onrushing hostilities that had set some 700,000 Arabs on the roads.
Myself and several other young Israeli historians were dubbed revisionists and commonly assumed to be doves. But what brought me to my conclusions about 1948 were the facts, not my political views. Contrary to current historiographic discourse I believe there is such a thing as the Truth—what, why and how things happened—and I've always sought it in my research. If I've since come to a much bleaker opinion about the possibility of reconciliation between Jews and Palestinians—many would now call me a hawk—it is also because of that research.
During the 1990s, as the Oslo peace process gained momentum, I was cautiously optimistic about the prospects for peace. But at the same time I was scouring the just opened archives of the Haganah and the IDF. Studying the roots of the Arab-Israeli conflict—in particular the pronouncements and positions of the Palestinian leadership from the 1920s on—left me chilled. Their rejection of any compromise, whether a partition of Palestine between its Jewish and Arab inhabitants or the creation of a binational state with political parity between the two communities, was deep-seated, consensual and consistent.
Haj Amin al-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem and leader of the Palestinian national movement during the 1930s and 1940s, insisted throughout on a single Muslim Arab state in all of Palestine. The Palestinian Arab "street" chanted "Idbah al-Yahud" (slaughter the Jews) both during the 1936-1939 revolt against the British and in 1947, when Arab militias launched a campaign to destroy the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine. Husseini led both campaigns.
So when Yasir Arafat rejected Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's two-state proposals at Camp David in July 2000, and then President Clinton's sweetened offer the following December, my surprise was not excessive. Nor was I astounded by the spectacle of masses of suicide bombers launched, with Arafat's blessing, against Israel's shopping malls, buses and restaurants in the second intifada, which erupted in September 2000. Each suicide bomber seemed to be a microcosm of what Palestine's Arabs had in mind for Israel as a whole. Arafat's rejectionism and, after his death, the election of Hamas to dominance in the Palestinian national movement, persuaded me that no two-state solution was in the offing and that the Palestinians, as a people, were bent, as they had been throughout their history, on "recovering" all of Palestine.
I found that current events had echoes in the historical record, and vice versa. The founding charter of Hamas repeatedly refers to the victory of Saladin over the medieval crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, and compares the crusaders to the Zionists. In researching my new history of the 1948 war, I was struck by the fact that this analogy, usually overlooked or ignored by previous historians, suffused the statements and thinking of Palestinian leaders and the leaders of the surrounding Arab states during the countdown to, and the course of, the war. A few days before Arab armies struck at Jewish forces in Palestine, Abd al-Rahman Azzam, secretary general of the Arab League, told the British minister in Transjordan their aim was to "sweep the Jews into the sea."
If the documents I studied 20 years ago painted Palestinians tragically, as the underdog, this record did the opposite. It has become clear to me that from its start the struggle against the Zionist enterprise wasn't merely a national conflict between two peoples over a piece of territory but also a religious crusade against an infidel usurper. As early as Dec. 2, 1947, four days after the passage of the partition resolution, the scholars of Al Azhar University proclaimed a "worldwide jihad in defense of Arab Palestine" and declared that it was the duty of every Muslim to take part.
This history has deepened and reinforced my pessimism, itself bred by the failure of Oslo. Those currently riding high in the region—figures like Hamas's Ismail Haniyeh and Khaled Meshaal, Hizbullah's Hassan Nasrallah and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—are true believers who are convinced it is Allah's command and every Muslim's duty to extirpate the "Zionist entity" from the sacred soil of the Middle East. For all its economic, political, scientific and cultural achievements and military prowess, Israel, at 60, remains profoundly insecure—for there can be no real security for the Jewish state, surrounded by a surging sea of Muslims, in the absence of peace.