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The Palestinian Refugees

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The Palestinian Refugees


The Palestine refugee problem was created in the course of the 1948 Israeli War of Independence. The war, and the flight of the refugees, known in Arabic as the Nakba (disaster), were central formative events that determined the national character of Israel and of the Palestinians, and helped to define the conflict in its present terms.

When the UN voted to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states  in 1947,  Palestinian Arabs opposed the plan, and immediately initiated riots , a blockade of Jewish Jerusalem, and ambushes of buses and other transport throughout the British Mandate territories. The British looked on for the most part and did nothing as long as the mandate continued. Arab irregulars stationed themselves in various towns and initiated attacks on nearby Jewish towns and blockade of transport. The Haganah underground of the Jewish Agency organized defense and later went over to the offensive. Dissident terrorist groups, the Irgun  and LEHI, organized both attacks and terror bombings in Jaffa, Haifa and Jerusalem. When the mandate expired, the Jews declared a state in accordance with the partition resolution, and the armies of Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq invaded Palestine.

The war that ensued was won by Israel, creating a large number of Arab refugees. Estimates vary from about 520,000 (Israeli sources) to 726,000 (UN sources) to over 800,000 (Arab sources) refugees, Palestinian Arabs who fled or were forced out of their homes during the fighting. This number has grown to include over 4.6 million displaced persons, about 3.7 million of whom are currently registered as refugees with the UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees). Of these, somewhat over a million live in camps run by the UNRWA (see www.un.org/unrwa/pr/pdf/figures.pdf ) Generally, refugees living in the camps live in conditions of abject poverty and overcrowding. The refugees of the 1948 Israeli war of independence and the lesser number of refugees of the 1967 war constitute a real monumental humanitarian and political problem, and no resolution of the conflict can ignore them. The issue has also been deliberately exploited by Arab and Palestinian politicians in their war with Israel. The refugee problem has been at the heart of peace negotiations ever since 1949.

Palestinian Refugee Camp in Lebanon, 1950

Early Camp in Lebanon. Tents were soon replaced by permanent, but poor housing.

Refugee camps are located in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria (link to maps), and house somewhat over a million refugees.

In addition to those who fled Israeli territory, about 100,000 Arabs in Israel were displaced from their own villages. Many left willingly and were assured that the eviction was a temporary security measure. In particular, the residents of Ikrit and Birim have been trying to return to their villages along the Lebanese border since 1948, but have not been allowed to do so despite repeated rulings of the Israeli supreme court.

In addition to refugees of 1948, several hundred thousand refugees fled in the 1967 war, and were not allowed to return. As part of the peace negotiations, a special committee was set up to deal with the issue, but the committee has made no progress.

Israel views the 1948 refugees as hostile persons sympathetic with a belligerent aggressor, and passed a law forbidding their return, and assigning all their land holdings to a custodian of absentee property. Jordan did the same regarding Jewish land conquered in 1948. Palestinians insist on the right of the refugees to return to their homes in Israel.

Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews tell two  very different stories about the events of 1948. The Israeli version is that the Palestinians attacked the Jews and then fled voluntarily because they believed Arab armies would soon liberate Palestine. The Palestinian version is that they were innocently minding their own business, when suddenly the Zionists attacked them and evicted them by force, as part of a preconceived plan of ethnic cleansing.

Palestinians point out that Zionists carried out a number of massacres and terrorist operations, notably in Deir Yassin, where Irgun and Lehi forces killed about 110 villagers, and that the Haganah  had formulated Plan D, which, the Palestinian partisans claim, was a plan for expulsion of the Arabs from Palestine. However, while Plan D called for expulsion of Arabs from hostile villages and towns in strategic locations, it did not deal with non-belligerents or with villages or towns that were not in strategic locations. They also point out that that Deir Yassin massacre was carried out by dissident Irgun and Lehi groups, and condemned by the Jewish agency. However, none of the participants were ever punished, and the Haganah and IDF later carried out evictions and massacres on their own. 

Right of Return

The central practical issue regarding the refugees is the right of return claimed by the Palestinians. UN General Assembly Resolution 194 stated  "the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date." The resolution was passed in December 1948. It is not limited to Arab refugees only. Most of its provisions, regarding refugees, access to holy places, internationalization of Jerusalem and permanent peace through the UN mediator were never implemented. Palestinians have insisted on return of the refugees to Israel, Resolution 194 and claimed that their rights are based on international law.  However, resolutions of the General Assembly are not binding in international law. Resolution 194 further stated that those refugees who do not wish to return are entitled to compensation for properties lost under international law and equity.

Right of Return for refugees is guaranteed in International law under certain conditions, but these statutes were approved in 1966, many years after the flight of the 1948 refugees. Moreover, the right to self-determination is also guaranteed in international law, and is recognized as jus cogens, which would override other considerations. Return of refugees to Israel would negate the Jewish right to self-determination. If a Palestinian state were created that would allow expression of Palestinian rights, it would seem that symmetrical justice could not abrogate the same rights from Jews. If the Jewish state absorbed Jewish refugees from Arab countries, the Palestinian state could absorb Palestinian refugees. (see Right of Return of Palestinian Refugees in International Law )

Israelis point out that in consequence of the conflict  and the creation of Israel, about 900,000 Jews fled Arab and Muslim countries and many  their property. (see Jewish refugees of the Arab-Israel conflict). Thousands of Jewish refugees were created in Palestine as well, as every single Jew living in areas conquered by the Arab armies either fled or was expelled by force, except for those who were massacred in Gush Etzion.  Moreover, there is probably no precedent in international law for forcing a country to repatriate hostile belligerents, and there doesn't seem to be any applicable provision in any UN or Hague statute. After World War II, Germans living in the Czech Sudetensland, who had been active in agitating for Nazi takeover, were expelled and lost their property. Likewise, Poland annexed parts of East Prussia at the instigation of the USSR, and settled Poles there, in violation of allied agreements. No compensation was ever offered and no right of return was ever implemented. In 1947, India and Pakistan formed two states, and exchanged populations on a mass scale. No right of return was ever claimed. Turkey absorbed ethnic Turks from Bulgaria, and Finland absorbed Finns displaced by the Russians when Finland ceded territory to them.

Palestinian partisans point out that most of the Jews who left Arab countries did so willingly, and that in any case, it is not their responsibility, but that of the Arab states.

The Arab states do not want the refugees. With the exception of Jordan, they are unwilling to give them citizenship. The territory that might be allocated to the Palestinian state, about two thousand, two hundred square miles, is probably too small to house all of them adequately. Israel and the Palestinian areas both have extremely high population densities - over 300 persons per square kilometer in Israel and over 500 per square kilometer in the occupied territories, including over a million refugees.

The refugees have a sincere tie to their land and homes. Many have kept the keys to their houses, houses that no longer exist. Many certainly were evicted unjustly, or left in innocence to protect their families from war and from subjection to unknown alien rule. Most refugees who are still alive were quite young in 1948. Many others are descendants who never saw Palestine.  Over 80% of the refugees polled in Lebanon, as well as those polled recently by IPCRI and other organizations in the West Bank and Gaza, insisted that they would want to return to Israel, even though the place where they lived no longer exists, and their fields may be home to a housing project or an office building.

Returning the refugees to Israel would  put an end to Jewish self-determination, as noted by Palestinian as well as Israeli sources. The large numbers of refugees, together with the much higher birth-rate of the Arab population as opposed to Jews, would soon create an Arab majority.  In a seminar held at Al-Najah University under the auspices of the Palestine National Authority, Sakher Habash noted: 

... our principles in "Fateh" has always been to liberate all our Palestinian national land and to set up a democratic state on it. This clearly demonstrates that there has been no room for the 242, 194 and 181 resolutions in our literature. However, we to our surprise, have to begin rethinking them.

In our literature, all resolutions which deny the Palestinians their right in their homeland are false and completely rejected. This is a principle each of us abides by until we realize our return, I personally hold that we have to stick to the principle, and at the same time we must attempt to arrive at periodic solutions as a step toward attaining the principle viz. Tactic flexibility versus principle adamancy. This, I believe, is the closest approach to the refugees issue.


Fateh stance which should be adhered to in the final solution negotiations calls for abiding by the international resolutions.
To us, the refugees issue is the winning card which means the end of the Israeli state.


Not only the Fatah, but Arab leaders and media have unabashedly admitted that the refugee issue and right of return are being used as a means to destroy Israel. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser  told an interviewer on September 1, 1961: “If the refugees return to Israel, Israel will cease to exist.”

With the exception of Jordan, no country has allowed permanent resettlement of Palestinian refugees. Israel tried to do so in Gaza, but was forbidden to interfere with the camps by the UN. In April 2002, Israel destroyed much of the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank as part of a retaliatory operation against suicide bombings. UN and other international efforts focus on rebuilding the camp. No organization has suggested resettling the refugees, though many have noted the impossible conditions within the camp.

The Palestine refugee population has been growing at the rate of over 100,000 per year. In Gaza, there were some 500,000 refugees in 1993, and there are well over a million today.  In 1997, UNRWA listed about 3.3 million refugees. By 2002, there were over 3.9 million. Thus, even if Israel were to accept repatriation of refugees at the rate of 100,000 per year indefinitely,  the number of refugees would continue to increase. The economic impact of this rate of absorption would be staggering. Israel would cease to be a Jewish state. Thus, the "right of return" would eliminate the Jewish right to self-determination.

The Palestinians  proposed during negotiations at the end of 2000, that Israel admit to right of return and asked for gradual rather than immediate implementation. Some Palestinians proposed to give up the literal implementation of Right of Return at the Camp David talks if only Israel would admit the right, but later apparently reneged on this proposal (see Palestinian Refugee Problem and Right of Return.).. In any case, admission of the right would inevitably open Israel to claims for further implementation of that right in the future. Some Palestinian leaders, notably Sari Nusseibeh, have called for a renunciation of Right of Return in order to make possible a settlement of the conflict, but this call has not met with much support among the Palestinian community. Palestinian political organizations such as the Fatah, Hamas, PFLP and PLO all insist on the full right of return, as do groups such as Al-Awda, Bushra and Passia. Al-Awda was among the groups calling for dismissal of Sari Nusseibeh by the PNA for his stance on refugees (http://www.al-awda.org/nusseibeh_response.htm ).

Who Are the Refugees?

The number of Arabs in Palestine, and particularly in Jewish areas, was increased by the attraction of economic growth promoted by Zionist investment, and later by employment opportunities afforded by the British due to WW II. Until 1938, the British did not regulate immigration from Jordan at all, and did not record it. Anyone who had been in Palestine for at least two years prior to the war, was considered a refugee.

According to UNRWA:

"Under UNRWA's operational definition, Palestine refugees are persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict. UNRWA's services are available to all those who meet this definition, who are registered with the Agency and who need assistance. UNRWA's definition of a refugee also covers the descendants of persons who became refugees in 1948. The number of registered Palestine refugees has subsequently grown from 914,000 in 1950 to more than 3.8 million in 2001, and continues to rise due to natural population growth."  http://www.un.org/unrwa/refugees/p1.htm

A different UN source gives a different estimate of the initial numbers. According to  www.un.org/unrwa/pr/pdf/figures.pdf there were 870,000 refugees in 1953, and the number reached 912,000 in 1955.

The number reported by UNRWA is possibly an overestimate. In all, there were 1.35 million Arabs in Palestine in 1948, of whom about 135,000 remained in the territory allotted to or conquered by Israel, and considerable numbers remained in their homes in the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza Strip. According to Israeli and Zionist sources, the actual number of refugees was about 520,000, but most observers accept higher figures. The UN figure of 726,000 is based on estimates and calculations that are difficult to verify. Since about 150,000 Arabs remained in Israeli Palestine, it implies that perhaps 900,000 Arabs in all were in the territories allotted to Israel, an extraordinarily high estimate. Additionally, the UN figures would give an impossible population growth rate of 26% in two years, assuming that there were 914,000 in 1950.

In 1990, there were 2.4 million refugees registered with UNRWA. By 1995, there were 3.2 million, and by 2000, there were over 3.7 million. The increase between 1990 and 1995 would require an annual birthrate of 6%, without counting deaths or people who left the camps and renounced refugee status. The birthrate of Palestinian refugees is about 3.2%. Overall, the increase between 1990 and 2000 would have required a birthrate of over 4.5% to be explained by natural causes.

Norman Finkelstein (Image and Reality of the Israel : The Israel-Palestine Conflict, Verso Books, 1995), who is not a friend of the Zionists, analyzed population growth statistics, and concluded that prior to 1948  there was a significant increase of Arab population in Jewish areas due to migration of Arabs from Arab areas such as the West Bank and Negev into the Galilee and central areas where Jewish industrial development and the port of Haifa offered employment opportunities and better living conditions.

Under UNRWA regulations, the refugees, their spouses of whatever nationality, and their descendants can claim refugee status. Thus, for example a Palestinian refugee can be the son of a Palestinian who originally came from the West bank, but who had moved to Haifa in 1945 and rented an apartment there. A refugee can have a Mexican mother or an Egyptian father. No systematic statistics are available concerning the numbers of refugees actually descended from Palestinians, the contribution of immigration and intermarriage  to the Palestinian refugee problem and similar issues. In the absence of such statistics, some claim, with Joan Peters (From Time Immemorial, Harper & Row, 1984) that the refugees are mostly  immigrants from other countries to Palestine. This is undoubtedly not true. Aryeh Avnery (Claim of Dispossession: Jewish Land Settlement and the Arabs, 1878-1948, Transaction, 1984), could find evidence of about 57,000 immigrants between 1922 and 1931, and 40-60,000 immigrants in the 1931-1947 period. Prior to that, Arab population in Palestine was swelled by Egyptians and others in the 19th century, as well as by returning Palestinians. The numbers do not constitute a majority of the Arab population of Palestine, and objectively, Arabs who settled in Palestine, certainly those who settled in the nineteenth century, had rights equal to those of Jews who settled in Palestine. However it is likely that Palestinian Arab population was increased significantly by immigration, and it is certain that many refugees are the children of Palestinians and foreigners. Additionally, a large number of Palestinians have obtained citizenship in their country of residence, including all Jordanian Palestinians. Right of Return generally does not apply to refugees who have obtained another nationality.

Why Did the Refugees Leave?

As early as December, 1947, Arabs had begun abandoning their homes and leaving Palestine. The exodus began earliest in Arab neighborhoods of West Jerusalem such as Rumeima (now Romema). By the time the British left Palestine, about a quarter of a million Arabs had become refugees. Another half million, approximately, fled or were forced to leave during the war. The reasons for leaving varied. In Beersheba and Safed, the Arabs left before Jewish troops had entered. In Lod and Ramlah, the Arab population was expelled by force, as were Arabs who remained in Isdood (Ashdod) and other towns. Subsequently  Israel enacted a law that forbade the return of refugees. During the war, Jews fled from areas conquered by Arabs without exception, or were escorted out as in the old City of Jerusalem. No Jews at all were allowed to return to the the West Bank areas conquered by Jordan in 1948, and all their property was turned over to a Custodian of Absentee property, as the Israeli did for property of Arabs who had fled.

Israeli partisans often assert that the Arab Palestinian refugees left because Arab radio broadcasts and Arab leaders told them to leave and make way for invading Arab armies, promising them a quick and easy return. Palestinian partisans claim this is not so, and that the Palestinians were forcibly expelled. In fact, there is evidence of expulsion, of fear of expulsion but also of encouragement by Arab leaders to leave. Perhaps the most potent factor was that in many towns the leaders of the Arab communities had already left, as pointed out by Benny Morris and others.

Transfer Ideology -  There is certainly abundant evidence that Zionists contemplated transfer of the Arab population of Palestine prior to the War of Independence, but there is no evidence that transfer became public policy, and most advocates had in mind voluntary transfer with compensation. Transfer of the Arabs of Palestine was contemplated in private almost from the outset of the Zionist enterprise, but it was to be a voluntary transfer, and the ideas were generally not made public. Theodore Herzl wrote in his diary:

"When we occupy the land, we shall bring immediate benefits to the state that receives us. We must expropriate gently the private property on the estates assigned to us. We shall try to spirit the penniless population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it any employment in our own country." - (12 June, 1895. Raphael Patai, ed., The Complete Diaries of Theodor Herzl, vol. 1 Harry Zohn. Trans., New York: Herzl Press and T. Yoseloff, 1960, pp. 88-89.).

It is significant that Herzl did not name the state, because his ideas were not necessarily directed at Palestinian Arabs. At the time, he was still formulating his ideas of Zionism, and was not particularly focused on Palestine as a homeland for the Jews.

The idea of transfer became closer to reality in connection with the partition plan of the Peel Commission. The idea was proposed by the British, and stirred a moral debate in the Zionist executive. Some Zionist leaders favored it.

Eli'ezer Kaplan, who was Head of the Jewish Agency Finance and Administrative Department, said:
"I shall not enter now into the details of the question of the 'transfer' of the Arabs. But it is not fair to compare this proposal to the expulsion of Jews from Germany or any other country…. The question here is one of organised transfer of a number of Arabs from a territory which will be the Hebrew state, to another place in the Arab state, that is, to the environment of their own people." - (Statement made at the Convention of Ihud Po'alei Zion in August 1937. 'Al Darchei Mediniyutenu, op.cit, pp.82-83.)

Berl Katznelson, an influential leader of the Mapai party favored transfer, including "compulsory" transfer. However, the "compulsion" was to come about as the result of agreement, and not through war or violent action. He wrote:
"The matter of population transfer has provoked a debate among us: Is it permitted or forbidden? My conscience is absolutely clear in this respect. A remote neighbour is better than a close enemy. They [the Palestinians] will not lose from it. In the final analysis, this is a political and settlement reform for the benefit of both parties. I have long been of the opinion that this is the best of all solutions.... I have always believed and still believe that they were destined to be transferred to Syria or Iraq." - (At the World Convention of Ihud Po'alei Tzion, August 1937. Al Darchei Mediniyutenu: Mo'atzah 'Olamit Shel Ihud Po'ali Tzion (c.s.)-Din Vehesbon Maleh, 21 July-7 August [1938],
(Full Report of the World Convention of Ihud Po'alei Tzion, C.S.] (Tel Aviv,: Central Office of Hitahdut Po'alei Zion Press, 1938).

"What is a compulsory transfer? Compulsory transfer does not mean individual transfer. It means that once we resolved to transfer there should be a political body able to force this or that Arab who would not want to move out. Regarding the transfer of Arab individuals we are always doing this. But the question will be the transfer of much greater quantity of Arabs through an agreement with the Arab states: this is called a compulsory transfer.... We have here a war about principles, and in the same way that we must wage a war for maximum territory, there must also be here a war [for the transfer 'principle'].... We must insist on the principle that it must be a large agreed transfer." - (Protocol of the Jewish Agency Executive meeting of 12 June 1938, vol.28, no.53, Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem).

It must be emphasized that the Peel Commission had contemplated giving a tiny part of Palestine to the Jews, and that "transfer" in that instance meant  transfer of only small number of Arabs out of this mini-state, as well as movement of a small number of Jews into this area. The mass expulsion or transfer of Arabs out of a large part of Palestine was not discussed in any known  Zionist meetings before 1948 and was not part of Zionist official policy. Nonetheless, some officials certainly favored it.

On June 22, 1941 Joseph Weitz, a former director of settlement in the Jewish Agency, wrote in his diary: "Amongst ourselves it must be clear that there is no room for both peoples in this country. No 'development' will bring us closer to our aim to be an independent people in this small country. After the Arabs are transferred, the country will be wide open for us; with the Arabs staying the country will remain narrow and restricted.... There is no room for compromise on this point....land purchasing....will not bring about the state;.... The only way is to transfer the Arabs from here to neighbouring countries, all of them, except perhaps Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Old Jerusalem. Not a single village or a single tribe must be left. And the transfer must be done through their absorption in Iraq and Syria and even in Transjordan. For that goal, money will be found - even a lot of money. And only then will the country be able to absorb millions of Jews.... There is no other solution." - (Weitz Diary,  entry dated 20 December 1940, pp.1090-91, Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem.)

Weitz was later active in encouraging the Zionist leadership to take advantage of the flight of the Palestinians, as documented by Benny Morris, in The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee problem, 1947-1949. 

In 1948, he wrote:

"I made a summary of a list of the Arab villages, which in my opinion must be cleared out in order to complete Jewish regions. I also made a summary of the places that have land disputes and must be settled by military means." - (Weitz Diary, entry dated 18 April 1948, p. 2358, CZA)

Later, he wrote, "From now on, I shall call it the Transfer Committee. It seems that [Moshe] Shertok [Sharett, the Foreign Minister] took measures approving the appointment of this committee the day before yesterday [on 28 May] in talks with his secretaries. In the evening I discussed the question with Kaplan [the Finance Minister] and he also thinks that the transfer fact should be consolidated and those departing should not be allowed to return." - (In late May 1948 Weitz, Ezra Danin and Eliyahu Sasson drew up general outlines for the proposed transfer committee. Weitz Diary,  entry dated 28 May 1948, p.2403, CZA.)

David Ben Gurion, leader of the Jewish community in Palestine and later Prime Minister gave this advice: "… we [the Haganah] adopt the system of aggressive defence; during the assault we must respond with a decisive blow: the destruction of the [Arab] place or the expulsion of the residents along with the seizure of the place." - (Ben-Gurion's advice on 19 December 1947. Cited in Simha Flapan, The Birth of Isarel: Myths and Reality, p.90.

When the exodus started, even moderate leaders were not averse to taking advantage of it. Moshe Sharret (Shertok), explained to Chaim Weizmann, "With regard to the refugees, we are determined to be adamant while the war lasts. Once the return tide starts, it will be impossible to stem it, and it will prove our undoing. As for the future, we are equally determined … to explore all possibilities of getting rid, once and for all, of the huge Arab minority, which originally threaten us. What can be achieved in this period of storm and stress will be quite unattainable once conditions get stabilized. A group of people from among our senior officers [i.e., the Transfer Committee] has already started working on the study of resettlement possibilities in other lands." - (to Chaim Weizmann, president of provisional council of the state of Israel, 18 August 1948. Cited in Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-49, pp.149-50.)

Encouragement by Arab Leaders and Rumors - A study by Childers, which examined British monitoring of Arab broadcasts during that period, did not find any evidence that Arab leaders called on Palestinians to leave their homes. However, considerable evidence and testimony exists that at different times, Arab leaders encouraged refugees to flee.  This issue has been inflated beyond its actual importance. It has no real significance in international law, except to counter or support the Palestinian claims of expulsion by force.

During a fact-finding mission to Gaza in June 1949, Sir John Troutbeck, head of the British Middle East office in Cairo and no friend to Israel or the Jews, found  that while the refugees "express no bitterness against the Jews (or for that matter against the Americans or ourselves) they speak with the utmost bitterness of the Egyptians and other Arab states. "We know who our enemies are," they will say, and they are referring to their Arab brothers who, they declare, persuaded them unnecessarily to leave their home. . . ."

The Economist, reported on October 2, 1948: "Of the 62,000 Arabs who formerly lived in Haifa not more than 5,000 or 6,000 remained. Various factors influenced their decision to seek safety in flight. There is but little doubt that the most potent of the factors were the announcements made over the air by the Higher Arab Executive, urging the Arabs to quit....It was clearly intimated that those Arabs who remained in Haifa and accepted Jewish protection would be regarded as renegades."

Times Magazine (May 3, 1948) reported: "The mass evacuation, prompted partly by fear, partly by orders of Arab leaders, left the Arab quarter of Haifa a ghost city....By withdrawing Arab workers their leaders hoped to paralyze Haifa."

Edward Atiyah, the secretary of the Arab League Office in London, 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."

According to Near East Arabic Radio, April 3, 1948: "It must not be forgotten that the Arab Higher Committee encouraged the refugees to flee from their homes in Jaffa, Haifa and Jerusalem, and that certain leaders . . . make political capital out of their miserable situation . . ."

Nimr el Hawari, the Commander of the Palestine Arab Youth Organization, in his book Sir Am Nakbah (The Secret Behind the Disaster, published in Nazareth in 1955), quoted the Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Said as saying "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."

Habib Issa wrote in the New York Lebanese daily newspaper Al Hoda on June 8, 1951, " The Secretary General of the Arab League, Azzam Pasha, assured the Arab peoples that the occupation of Palestine and of 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 neighbouring fraternal states, lest the guns of the invading Arab armies mow them down."

Reports of massacres and actual fighting caused fear among the population. In Tiberias, Haifa and Jaffa, the Arab irregulars initiated combat with the Jews, who retaliated. The Palestinian civilian population, often abandoned by their leaders, were unwilling to stay under Jewish administration and left. In Haifa, Jewish leaders including the mayor and head of the labor council pleaded with Arabs to stay. In Jaffa, the British pleaded with them to remain, but the exodus continued.

The atmosphere in Palestinian towns can be appreciated from the following quote:

"Jaffa was boiling: every second that passed you heard a new rumour, and after every minute the imaginary tales and lies became bigger, finally, they were accepted as definite truth by the public. At sunset, many of the Mufti henchmen patrolled the streets in private and lorry cars, calling upon the people: oh! men, oh! heros; Help..Help.., stop the Jewish attack! They have attacked your brothers in the Manshiya; they pillaged their properties; burned their holdings and raped their women and girls. They have committed awful acts of horror and brutality against your brothers!! In but a few minutes Jaffa's inhabitants were incited and agitated shouted and fired into the air -- On Them! On Them! ("aleihoom, aleihoom") on Tel-Aviv, the town of the wicked...Groups and individuals, they marched on and among them, behind them or in front of them, went the Mufti henchmen belittling the Jewish strength..."

  [Muhamed Nimer Al Hawari in THE SECRET OF THE CATASTROPHE, Nazareth, 1955]

Massacres and Expulsions - There is no doubt that Jewish actions from the start of the conflict encouraged the flight of Palestinians. The Haganah blew up the Semiramis Hotel in Katamon, Jerusalem,  which was thought to be a headquarters for Arab irregulars in the early hours of January 5, 1948. Mandate officials sent this report to London:

January 5, 1948. Haganah terrorists made a most barbarous attack at one o’clock in the early morning of Monday…at the Semiramis Hotel in the Katamon section of Jerusalem, killing innocent people and wounding many. The Jewish Agency terrorist forces blasted the entrance to the hotel by a small bomb and then placed bombs in the basement of the building. As a result of the explosion the whole building collapsed with its residents. As the terrorists withdrew, they started shooting at the houses in the neighborhood. Those killed were: Subhi El-Taher, Moslem; Mary Masoud, Christian; Georgette Khoury, Christian; Abbas Awadin, Moslem; Nazira Lorenzo, Christian; Mary Lorenzo, Christian; Mohammed Saleh Ahmed, Moslem; Ashur Abed El Razik Juma, Moslem; Ismail Abed El Aziz, Moslem; Ambeer Lorenzo, Christian; Raof Lorenzo, Christian; Abu Suwan Christian family, seven members, husband, wife, and five children.

On April 9, the dissident Irgun and Lehi groups attacked the Palestinian village of Deir Yassin at the entrance to Jerusalem. Deir Yassin had enjoyed a friendship pact with the Jewish Agency, though it appears that villagers had participated in the fight at Motza and Qastel. From several accounts it appears that the Irgun and Lehi massacred about 110 people at Deir Yassin, including surrendered Arab fighters, women, children and old men. Despite signed affidavits by Irgun fighters that they had shot prisoners, as well as an eye-witness report by Haganah officer Meir Pail, some right-wing Zionists, chiefly in the US, continue to deny that a massacre occurred.

Whatever happened at Deir Yassin, the news or rumor greatly magnified it. The Irgun announced that 254 persons had been killed. This inflated figure has been perpetuated, and some sources even claim that the entire village was wiped out, which is certainly untrue. Arab sources put the numbers at over three hundred and added graphic descriptions of rape and torture of various kinds. Hazem Nusseibeh, who worked for the Palestine Broadcasting Service in 1948, admitted being told by Hussein Khalidi, a Palestinian Arab leader, to fabricate the atrocity claims. Abu Mahmud, a Deir Yassin resident in 1948 told Khalidi "there was no rape," but Khalidi replied, "We have to say this, so the Arab armies will come to liberate Palestine from the Jews." In a BBC documentary marking 50 years of the conflict, Nusseibeh admitted, "This was our biggest mistake. We did not realize how our people would react. As soon as they heard that women had been raped at Deir Yassin, Palestinians fled in terror."

The Haganah attacked Arab villages in the neighborhood of Haifa prior to independence, and many were evacuated forcibly. Later in the war, the Israelis encouraged Arab flight actively. Residents of Lydda and Ramleh, large towns near Tel Aviv, were "invited" to leave. Though a few remained, the "invitation" followed a massacre, and an expulsion order. Ramleh and Lydda had been both been active in the blockade of the roads and had been responsible for attacks on convoys and bus transport to Jerusalem and on the Lydda-Wilhelmina road. After Arab residents of Lydda had surrendered, a "revolt" broke out, apparently after two pr three Arab Legion armored cars had entered the town by accident. A gun battle ensured, and local residents joined in sniping. Yiftah brigade soon overcame the resistance and the armored cars left, but the sniping continued. The "revolt" was suppressed by more or less indiscriminate fire, killing about 250 Arab civilians. In all, about four Israeli soldiers of the Yiftah brigade were killed, and about a dozen wounded.  Bitterness at the revolt that broke out after the surrender, as well as the long record of Lydda and Ramleh in shooting at convoys bound for Jerusalem, probably were the source of expulsion orders. Asked what to do with the inhabitants, Ben-Gurion replied "garesh otam" (chase them out).

At 13:30 hours, 12 July, before the shooting had completely died down in Lydda, Operation Dani headquarters issued the following order to Yiftah brigade commanders: "1. The inhabitants of Lydda must be expelled quickly without attention to age. They should be directed toward Beit Nabala. Yiftah [Brigade headquarters] must determine the method and inform [Operation] Dani HQ and 8th Brigae HQ. 2. Implement immediately." The order was signed "Yitzhak R[abin]. A similar order, concerning Ramle, was apparently communicated to Kiryati Brigade headquarters at the same time. (Benny Morris, Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem 1947-1949, page 207)

These and other incidents led to protests by Israel government functionaries. If there was a plan to expel the Arabs of Palestine, apparently not everyone knew of the plan. Aharon Cohen, who was Director of the Arab Department of the Mapam party in 1948, protested in a memorandum dated May 10, 1948, "There is reason to believe that what is being done ... is being done out of certain political objectives and not only out of military necessities, as they [Jewish leaders] claim sometimes. In fact, the 'transfer' of the Arabs from the boundaries of the Jewish state is being implemented ... the evacuation/ clearing out of Arab villages is not always done out of military necessity. The complete destruction of villages is not always done because there are 'no sufficient forces to maintain garrison.'" - (Giva'at Haviva, Hashomer Hatza'ir Archives)

Yigal Allon, a Hagannah and IDF commander,  had Jews talk to the Arabs in neighboring villages to plant rumors that a large Jewish force was about to burn all the Arab villages in the Lake Huleh region and expel or massacre the inhabitants. The rumor spread, and many villages were abandoned. In Beersheva, Magdal (Ashkelon) and Ishdood (Ashdod) , most Arabs fled when the Egyptian army withdrew, but the remaining residents were forced out by Israeli authorities as late as 1950. Mass flight followed by forced expulsion was typical of many other towns as well.

On the other hand, expulsions and massacres were not a result of consistent policy. In Haifa, the Jewish mayor and the labor leader, Abba Khoushi, pleaded with fleeing Arab residents to stay. Israel government ministers expressed shock at reports of expulsions and massacres and commissions were appointed to investigating them. Significant Arab populations remained in Acco, Lod, Yaffo, Haifa, Nazareth and Ramleh, and in the town of Abu Ghosh in the Jerusalem corridor, which had signed a pact with the Jews. In some cases, such as Acco, the remaining population was protected by the intervention of government ministers. Nonetheless, the vast majority of Arabs living in Israel had left by the end of the war, whether by expulsion or by flight, and they were not allowed to return.


The Growth of Palestinian identity
The Palestinian Refugee Problem

The refugee problem - a personal view
Palestinian Refugee Problem and Right of Return.
Population of Palestine prior to 1948

Must Palestinian Nationalism And Zionism Change For A Lasting Middle East Peace?
 Jewish refugees of the Arab-Israel conflict


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