Why did Arabs leave the new State of Israel?
The vexing question of the "Palestinian Refugees" is one of the perennial open sores of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs. The Palestinians left their homes in 1947-48 for a variety of reasons. Thousands of wealthy Arabs left in anticipation of a war, thousands more responded to Arab leaders' calls to get out of the way of the advancing armies, a handful were expelled, but most simply fled to avoid being caught in the cross fire of a battle. Tragically, had the Arabs accepted the 1947 UN resolution, not a single Palestinian would have become a refugee and an independent Arab state would now exist beside Israel.
There are now claims from Arab sources that millions of Palestinians were pushed off their land by the Zionists, then expelled by the new State of Israel in the War of Independence in 1948, followed by similar Israeli policies that continue today. What is the truth of these claims?
The Palestinian tragedy is primarily self-inflicted, a direct result of the vehement Palestinian Arab rejection of the United Nations resolution of November 29, 1947 calling for the establishment of two states in Palestine, and the violent attempt by the Arab nations of the region to abort the Jewish state at birth. Palestinian Arabs have tried to rewrite the history of the 1948 war in a manner that stains Israel politically and morally. Their objective is to 1) extract from Israel a confession of the allegedly forcible dispossession of "native Palestinians" by "an act of expulsion," and then 2) to ensure the return of refugees to parts of the territory that is now Israel and/or to compensate the Palestinian Arabs monetarily for their sufferings.
But this cannot actually happen, however fervently Arabs may believe in it, because historical fact is not what they claim. Arabs left Israel in 1948 in large numbers, it is true, but not for the reasons that Palestinian Arabs put forth. Fortunately for history, during the past decade Israeli and other state archives have declassified millions of records, including invaluable contemporary Arab and Palestinian documents, relating to the 1948 war and the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem. These make it possible to establish the truth about what happened in Palestine.
A good example is events of the War of Independence period in the city of Haifa. When hostilities between Arabs and Jews broke out in 1947, there were 62,500 Arabs in Haifa; by May 1948, all but a few were gone, accounting for fully a tenth of the total Palestinian dispersion.
The first thing the documents show is that Arab flight from Haifa began well before the outbreak of hostilities, and even before the UN's November 29, 1947 partition resolution. On October 23, over a month earlier, a British intelligence brief was already noting that:
- ... leading Arab personalities are acting on the assumption that disturbances are near at hand, and have already evacuated their families to neighboring Arab countries.
By November 21, as the General Assembly was getting ready to vote, not just "leading Arab personalities" but "many Arabs of Haifa" were reported to be removing their families. And as the violent Arab reaction to the UN resolution built up, eradicating any hope of its peaceful enforcement, this stream of refugees turned into a flood. Thus it was that, by mid-December 1947, some 15,000-20,000 people, almost a third of the city's Arab population, had fled, creating severe economic adversity for those remaining who found essential services disrupted, causing both unemployment and shortages in basic necessities. As 1948 wore on, looting, infighting between rival Arab groups, and other disturbances made Haifa increasingly uninhabitable. The Arab leaders of Haifa dispatched an emergency delegation to Cairo in late January, warning that, if terrorist activity did not cease, the result would be the eventual disappearance of the entire Haifa community. Their warning had no effect.
There is an overwhelming body of evidence from contemporary Arab, Jewish, British, and American sources to prove that, far from seeking to drive the Arabs out of Haifa, the Jewish authorities went to considerable lengths to convince them to stay. During the fighting in the city in April 1948, The Hagana's truce terms stipulated that Arabs were expected to "carry on their work as equal and free citizens of Haifa." In its Arabic-language broadcasts and communications, the Hagana consistently articulated the same message. On April 22, at the height of the fighting, it distributed a circular noting its ongoing campaign to clear the town of all "criminal foreign bands" so as to allow the restoration of "peace and security and good neighborly relations among all of the town's inhabitants." On April 29, even Farid Saad of the [Arab] National Committee was saying that Jewish leaders had "organized a large propaganda campaign to persuade [the] Arabs to return."
As the Jews were attempting to keep the Arabs in Haifa, an ad-hoc body, the Arab Emergency Committee, under orders from the Arab Higher Committee, was doing its best to get them out. Scaremongering was a major weapon in its arsenal. Some Arab residents received written threats that, unless they left town, they would be branded as traitors deserving of death. Others were told they could expect no mercy from the Jews. Sheikh Abd al-Rahman Murad of the National Committee, who had headed the truce negotiating team, proved particularly effective at this latter tactic: on April 23, he warned a large group of escapees from the neighborhood of Wadi Nisnas, who were about to return to their homes, that if they did so they would all be killed, as the Jews spared not even women and children. On the other hand, he continued, the Arab Legion had 200 trucks ready to transfer the Haifa refugees to a safe haven, where they would be given free accommodation,clothes, and food. Sir Alan Cunningham, the British high commissioner for Palestine, wrote in an official communication to London:
- British authorities in Haifa have formed the impression that total evacuation is being urged on the Haifa Arabs from higher Arab quarters and that the townsfolk themselves are against it.
Syria's UN delegate, Faris el-Khouri, interrupted the UN debate on April 22, 1948 on Palestine to describe the seizure of Haifa as a "massacre" and said this action was "further evidence that the 'Zionist program' is to annihilate Arabs within the Jewish state if partition is effected." The following day (April 23, 1948), however, the British representative at the UN, Sir Alexander Cadogan, told the delegates that the fighting in Haifa had been provoked by the continuous attacks by Arabs against Jews a few days before and that reports of massacres and deportations were erroneous. The same day, Jamal Husseini, the chairman of the Palestine Higher Committee, told the UN Security Council that instead of accepting the Haganah's truce offer, the Arabs "preferred to abandon their homes, their belongings, and everything they possessed in the world and leave the town."
Palestinian Arabs bemoan "the uprooting of the Palestinian people in one of the worst crimes of modern history." But were they uprooted, and if so by whom? In Haifa, one of the largest and most dramatic locales of the Palestinian exodus, not only had half the Arab community fled the city before the final battle was joined, but another 5,000-15,000 apparently left voluntarily during the fighting while the rest, some 15,000-25,000 souls, were ordered or bullied into leaving against their wishes, almost certainly on the instructions of the Arab Higher Committee. The crime was exclusively of Arab making. There was no Jewish grand design to force this departure, nor was there a psychological "blitz." To the contrary, both the Haifa Jewish leadership and the Hagana went to great lengths to convince the Arabs to stay.
The well-documented efforts, indeed, reflected the wider Jewish attitude in Palestine. All deliberations of the Jewish leadership regarding the transition to statehood were based on the assumption that, in the Jewish state that would arise with the termination of the British Mandate, Palestine's Arabs would remain as equal citizens. Israel's Proclamation of Independence, issued May 14, 1948, invited the Palestinians to remain in their homes and become equal citizens in the new state:
- In the midst of wanton aggression, we yet call upon the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve the ways of peace and play their part in the development of the State, on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its bodies and institutions....We extend our hand in peace and neighborliness to all the neighboring states and their peoples, and invite them to cooperate with the independent Jewish nation for the common good of all.
In the country as a whole, just as in Haifa, the first Arabs to leave were roughly 30,000 wealthy Arabs who anticipated the upcoming war and fled to neighboring Arab countries to await its end. Less affluent Arabs from the mixed cities of Palestine moved to all-Arab towns to stay with relatives or friends. All of those who left fully anticipated being able to return to their homes after an early Arab victory, as Palestinian nationalist Aref el-Aref explained in his history of the 1948 war:
- The Arabs thought they would win in less than the twinkling of an eye and that it would take no more than a day or two from the time the Arab armies crossed the border until all the colonies were conquered and the enemy would throw down his arms and cast himself on their mercy.
The fabrication can probably most easily be seen in that at the time the alleged cruel expulsion of Arabs by Zionists was in progress, it passed unnoticed. Foreign newspapermen who covered the war of 1948 on both sides did, indeed, write about the flight of the Arabs, but even those most hostile to the Jews saw nothing to suggest that it was not voluntary. In the three months during which the major part of the flight took place -- April, May, and June 1948 -- the London Times, at that time openly hostile to Zionism, published eleven leading articles on the situation in Palestine in addition to extensive news reports and articles. In none was there even a hint of the charge that the Zionists were driving the Arabs from their homes.
More interesting still, no Arab spokesman mentioned the subject. At the height of the flight, on April 27, Jamal Husseini, the Palestine Arabs' chief representative at the United Nations, made his long political statement, which was not lacking in hostility toward the Zionists; he did not mention refugees. Three weeks later -- while the flight was still in progress -- the Secretary General of the Arab League, Azzam Pasha, made a fiercely worded political statement on Palestine; it contained not a word about refugees.
Throughout the period that preceded the May 15 invasion of the Arab regular armies, large-scale military engagements, incessant sniping, robberies and bombings took place. In view of the thousands of casualties that resulted from the pre-invasion violence, it is not surprising that many Arabs would have fled out of fear for their lives. The second phase of the Arab flight began after the Jewish forces started to register military victories against Arab irregulars, as in the battles for Tiberias and Haifa. Arab leaders were alarmed by these developments:
- On January 30, 1948, the Jaffa newspaper, Ash Sha'ab, reported: "The first of our fifth column consists of those who abandon their houses and businesses and go to live elsewhere....At the first signs of trouble they take to their heels to escape sharing the burden of struggle."
- Another Jaffa paper, As Sarih (March 30, 1948) excoriated Arab villagers near Tel Aviv for "bringing down disgrace on us all by 'abandoning the villages."
- John Bagot Glubb, the commander of Jordan's Arab Legion, said: "Villages were frequently abandoned even before they were threatened by the progress of war" (London Daily Mail, August 12, 1948).
More than 200,000 Arabs had left the country by the time the provisional government declared the independence of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948. When the invasion by Arab armies began the next day, most Arabs remaining in Palestine left for neighboring countries. The Palestinian Arabs chose to flee to the safety of the other Arab states, still confident of being able to return, rather than remaining in Israel to act as a strategically valuable "fifthcolumn" in the war. A leading Palestinian nationalist of the time, Musa Alami, revealed the attitude of the fleeing Arabs:
- The Arabs of Palestine left their homes, were scattered, and lost everything. But there remained one solid hope: The Arab armies were on the eve of their entry into Palestine to save the country and return things to their normal course, punish the aggressor, and throw oppressive Zionism with its dreams and dangers into the sea. On May 14, 1948, crowds of Arabs stood by the roads leading to the frontiers of Palestine, enthusiastically welcoming the advancing armies. Days and weeks passed, sufficient to accomplish the sacred mission, but the Arab armies did not save the country. They did nothing but let slip from their hands Acre, Sarafand, Lydda, Ramleh, Nazareth, most of the south and the rest of the north. Then hope fled. (Middle East Journal, October 1949)
As the possibility of Arab defeat turned into reality, the flight of the Arabs increased, exacerbated further by the atrocity stories following the attack on Dir Yassin. More than 300,000 departed after May 15, leaving approximately 160,000 Arabs in the State of Israel. Although most of the Arabs had left by November 1948, there were still those who chose to leave even after hostilities ceased. One survey concluded that sixty-eight percent left without ever seeing an Israeli soldier.
The research done by Benny Morris in Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem is, despite occasional inaccuracies, more detailed and accurate than anything that preceded it. If we consider the facts Morris presents, it is reasonably clear that the flight of much of the Arab population from the territory that became Israel stemmed from battles between Arab and Jewish forces, and from the fears of Arab civilians of getting caught in the fighting. The Zionist leadership, Morris' research shows, correctly understood the danger that the Palestinian Arabs posed to the nascent Jewish state, and therefore did little to prevent their departure, at times encouraging or even precipitating it through political or military actions. In fact, Morris' own research does much to disprove the claims of his recent writings that what happened during the War of Independence was "ethnic cleansing."
The role of Arab leaders in urging the Arab population to leave is similarly well-documented. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Said, declared:
- We will smash the country with our guns and obliterate every place the Jews seek shelter in. The Arabs should conduct their wives and children to safe areas until the fighting has died down.
The Secretary of the Arab League Office in London, Edward Atiyah, wrote in his book, The Arabs:
- This wholesale exodus was due partly to the belief of the Arabs, encouraged by the boastings of an unrealistic Arabic press and the irresponsible utterances of some of the Arab leaders that it could be only a matter of weeks before the Jews were defeated by the armies of the Arab States and the Palestinian Arabs enabled to reenter and retake possession of their country.
In his memoirs, Haled al Azm, the Syrian Prime Minister in 194849, also admitted the Arab role in persuading the refugees to leave:
- Since 1948 we have been demanding the return of the refugees to their homes. But we ourselves are the ones who encouraged them to leave. Only a few months separated our call to them to leave and our appeal to the United Nations to resolve on their return.
Monsignor George Hakim, a Greek Orthodox Catholic Bishop of Galilee told the Beirut newspaper, Sada alJanub (August 16, 1948):
- The refugees were confident their absence would not last long, and that they would return within a week or two. Their leaders had promised them that the Arab armies would crush the 'Zionist gangs' very quickly and that there was no need for panic or fear of a long exile.
One refugee quoted in the Jordan newspaper, Ad Difaa (September 6, 1954), said:
- The Arab government told us: Get out so that we can get in. So we got out, but they did not get in.
Habib Issa said in the New York Lebanese paper, Al Hoda (June 8, 1951):
- The Secretary-General of the Arab League, Azzam Pasha, assured the Arab peoples that the occupation of Palestine and Tel Aviv would be as simple as a military promenade. He pointed out that they were already on the frontiers and that all the millions the Jews had spent on land and economic development would be easy booty, for it would be a simple matter to throw Jews into the Mediterranean....Brotherly advice was given to the Arabs of Palestine to leave their land, homes and property and to stay temporarily in neighboring fraternal states, lest the guns of the invading Arab armies mow them down.
And Jordan's King Abdullah, writing in his memoirs, blamed Palestinian leaders for the refugee problem:
- The tragedy of the Palestinians was that most of their leaders had paralyzed them with false and unsubstantiated promises that they were not alone; that 80 million Arabs and 400 million Muslims would instantly and miraculously come to their rescue.
In a few, exceptional cases accounting for only a small fraction of the Palestinian refugees, The Haganah did employ psychological warfare to encourage the Arabs to abandon a few villages. This insignificant element of the issue has been magnified by pro-Palestinian Arab advocates as if it were the whole problem.
The fate of these Arab refugees from Israel, a problem created by the Arabs themselves.