Over at Vox, blogger Max Fisher has a post up entitled “40 Maps That Explain the Middle East.” If such a title makes you cringe, you are not alone. Often these types of posts which attempt to provide context do more to obscure reality and explain the creator’s biases more than anything else. I am not going to dwell on each map. I won’t claim to know enough about the nuanced political and historical geography in every one of these maps to offer a detailed critique here. However, one thing I do know very well is the nuanced political and historical geography of Palestine and particularly the events around the Nakba. These events are supposedly represented by map number 16 on Max’s “explanatory” list entitled “Israel’s 1947 founding and the 1948 Israeli-Arab War.” Here is the narrative and graphic Fisher provides:
The first thing worth pointing out, and it may not be clear at the initial glance, is that the three panel image is not an original image from a singular source. Rather it is a combination of two sources. The map on the left is from PASSIA and it is a fairly standard representation of the 1947 partition plan. The two panels to the right of that come from Le Monde Diplomatique by Philippe Rekacewicz. These are the original maps which Fisher seems to have borrowed from. How he uses them and what he changes are enlightening. The original maps have a legend in French which Fisher omits and replaces with a heading he created. The first of the two Le Monde maps have the caption “Territory still held by the Israelis after the Arab attack in June 1948.” Fisher changes this to simply “June 1948: Arab armies invade.”
There is so much wrong here in Fisher’s presentation that it is hard to know where to start. Let’s try chronologically. First, we are presented with three maps, one from November 1947 and then we jump to June 1948. What happened in the months in between? What were the positions of the sides during that time and why is Fisher not explaining that? Second, in his attempt to simplify (or obfuscate depending on how much credit you want to give him) by jettisoning the French legend and providing his own heading, Fisher gets a very basic historical fact wrong. Arab army movement into Palestine did not happen in June of 1948, it happened in May.
You may be wondering why the French legend refers to “territory still held” by the Israelis. That is because Israeli conquest operations to extend their positions and grab as much land as possible began well before the Arab armies invaded. But it seems Max doesn’t want you to know that or failed remarkably to explain it.
The narrative the Max adds to the spliced map is also misleading and reveals his biases. He writes:
…these are the borders that the United Nations demarcated in 1947 for a Jewish state and an Arab state, in what had been British-controlled territory. The Palestinians fought the deal, and in 1948 the Arab states of Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and Syria invaded. The middle map shows, in green, how far they pushed back the Jewish armies. The right-hand map shows how the war ended: with an Israeli counterattack that pushed into the orange territory, and with Israel claiming that as its new national borders. The green is what was left for Palestinians.
We’ve shown before how this common Nakba narrative simply doesn’t jive with history. The same thing is going on here. Max has boiled down the events of this period to a few sentences & key facts he thinks the reader really needs to know. He tells you the Palestinians “fought” the partition plan but doesn’t tell you why. Apparently, all you need to know about this is that the Palestinians are rejectionists. Then he tells you the Arab states invaded (which happened in May 1948 though he gets it wrong and says June) but doesn’t tell you anything about what happened between the partition plan and the Arab armies entering Palestine. Apparently, all you need to know about this is that the Arabs are a war-like people. Then he tells you the Arabs “pushed back” the Jewish armies, after which Israel launched a “counterattack.” Apparently, all you need to know about this is that the Zionists were on the defensive here. To “push back” the Jewish armies, as Max claims, would require the Arab regular forces to actually take back from the Jewish armies land that they had come to hold. But what Max doesn’t tell you is that in the vast majority of the land, the Arab armies entered parts of Palestine that had yet to be conquered by the Zionist forces. They overwhelmingly filled vacuums. Most interaction was at the margins. The notion that they “pushed back” the Jewish armies just isn’t true. In fact, in many areas, the Zionist forces continued conquest operations into areas the Arab armies had filled. The overall trajectory of this war from the beginning, was a largely uninterrupted Zionist pushing of Arabs out of Palestine, not the other way around.
Perhaps the most important point here is what happened between the partition plan and the Arab invasion. This is what Fisher doesn’t tell the reader at all. What happened during this period is the creation of a massive number of Palestinian refugees. All the major cities of Palestine including Yaffa and Haifa were depopulated of their Palestinian Arab inhabitants PRIOR to May 15th, 1948. By excluding this information, misrepresenting other information, and just getting basic facts wrong Fisher provides more propaganda than actual context.
The best maps that I have come across of these events are presented below (click to enlarge and zoom in, there is lots of detail). This eight-panel map set by Salman Abu Sitta details the stage-by-stage progression of Israeli military operations from November 1947 through April 1949. It also helpfully lists the total number of refugees created, the number of depopulated villages and the number of dunams occupied at each stage of the war.
Needless to say, it shows us something Fisher either can’t or doesn’t want to. Perhaps many of the other maps in his list are accurate and helpful but if he approached those representations with the same sloppiness or outright bias involved with map number 16, then they are probably equally worthless.
Seriously Max, you’ve got some explaining to do. Actually, never mind, you’ve explained enough.