I often receive letters from readers that raise relevant and important questions. One such letter, from Mr. David Gesundheit, gently reproves me for he describes as
"one inaccuracy . . . that I would like to point out. It is stated [by R.N.] that the Israelis did not expel Palestinian Arabs from what is now Israel. The truth is that there were some Palestinian Arabs that were evacuated from their towns. Albeit it was a minority, but there were some. Israel was at war and you can justify this action because of it, but nevertheless it did occur."
What follows is my response to Mr. Gesundheit's legitimate concerns.
When I wrote that "[Israel] did not expel the Palestinian Arabs," I did not mean that no Israelis have forced any Arab residents of Palestine to evacuate their homes at any place or at any time during the past sixty years. Rather I meant that there was never any mass expulsion of the Arab population as a whole from Palestine/Israel, or from any region or part of Palestine/Israel, either during the Israeli War of Independence in 1947 - 49(the usual time-frame given by the anti-Israel "revisionist" or "new" historians for the alleged expulsion) or at any other time, and that it was never the policy or objective of Israel's government to make Israel or Palestine "Arab-free," or of "ethnically cleansing" the country of Arabs. If there ever was such a policy, then it would be impossible to explain how 1.4 million Arabs live in what is now sovereign Israeli territory today -- many more than lived in the same territory before the state of Israel was founded. Just before the outbreak of first major Arab-Israeli war on November 30, 1947, a few months before Israelis declared their independence, there were at most 900,000 Arabs living in this same area.
Today there are large Arab populations in every region of modern-day Israel -- the Galilee region in the north, the central coastal plain, the Judean hills, the "Shefela" or foothills region, and the Negev desert in the south. Arabs are at least 20 per cent of Israel's present-day population. Arabs are half the population of two Israeli cities, Ramla and Lod, from which the Arab residents were, according to many historical accounts, expelled by Israeli soldiers during the War of Independence.
Naturally, I am skeptical of these accounts, since they don't explain why there are more Arabs residing in these two cities (which were only small towns in 1948) than there were before the Arabs were allegedly expelled from them. Akko, another Israeli city, still has an Arab majority, just as it did in 1948, before Israeli soldiers gained control of it. There are large Arab communities in Israel's three largest cities, Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Jerusalem, and Haifa, as well as in the city of Beersheva, which was a tiny village in 1948, but now has a combined Jewish and Arab population of over 100,000 people.
Over 100 of the Arab villages that were in what is now Israel before the nation was reestablished in 1948 are still in Israel today; some of them, such as Umm-el-Fahm, Nazareth, and Sakhnin, have grown into all-Arab cities over the past sixty years. The Israeli government has also built new towns for its Arab citizens at locations that were previously uninhabited, and provided new homes and land to the Arab "settlers" in these communities at little or no cost to them.
And all of this Arab population is additional to the Arab inhabitants of Judea, Samaria, and Gaza region, who now number (depending on which population estimate you choose to believe) somewhere between 2.4 and 3.6 million people. This makes for a total present-day Arab population of what had been the territory of western Palestine under the British mandate of somewhere between 3.6 and 5 million people -- about three times the total Arab population of this territory right before the War of Independence, and seven to ten times the Arab population in 1891. And if we include what is now the Kingdom of Jordan in "Palestine," which we should, since it was the eastern section of the original British Palestine Mandate territory, then the total Arab population of Palestine has risen for about 1.7 million immediately before Israel became independent to perhaps eight million today. Some expulsion!
As for the more specific and limited question of whether the Israel Defense Forces expelled some Palestinian Arabs from their homes in some villages, and possibly one town (Lydda or Lod, then with a population of 15-30 thousand people) during the Israel War of Independence sixty years ago, the answer is, "yes, but only because the Israelis were compelled to carry out these measures in self-defense." The Israeli soldiers, in some places and at certain times in the course of the war, had no other way to repel a massive armed offensive by a coalition of thousands, if not tens of thousands, of Palestinian Arab guerilla-terrorist "civilians," acting in concert with tens of thousands of guerilla "volunteers" and regular army soldiers who poured into Palestine from six Arab states, but to remove the Arab inhabitants, or some of them, from certain villages that served as bases of operation and sources of recruits for the Palestinian and other Arab guerilla-terrorists.
The Israeli forces were extremely reluctant to take any measures against their Palestinian Arab neighbors, whom most of the Israeli or Palestinian Jews regarded with respect and even affection. But the Israeli soldiers were sometimes forced to take such measures because many of these same Arab neighbors, acting on instructions or orders from their political leadership, had launched a violent, sustained attack on the Jewish population of Israel-Palestine. If the Israel-Jewish defense forces had not undertaken some harsh counter-guerilla measures in some localities, the Palestinian-Israeli Jewish community, which then numbered only 650,000-750,000 people, and which was interspersed among nearly twice that many Arabs, might easily have suffered complete annihilation.
The overwhelming preponderance of the evidence strongly indicates that it was Arab, not Israeli, actions that were the primary cause of the displacement of Palestinian Arabs during the war.
The war was begun not by Israel, but by the Palestinian Arab leaders and by the governments of the Arab states, in an effort not only to strangle the infant Jewish state in its crib, but also to exterminate its Jewish inhabitants. The Palestinian and other Arab leaders were quite frank about having begun the war. Jamal Husseini, the Acting Chairman of the Arab Higher Committee for Palestine, told the United Nations Security Council on April 16, 1948:
The representative of the Jewish Agency told us yesterday that they were not the attackers, that the Arabs had begun the fighting. We did not deny this. We told the whole world that we were going to fight.
Ismayil Safwat, one of the commanders of the Palestinian Arab guerilla-terrorists, admitted in March, 1948 that:
"The Jews haven't attacked any Arab village, unless attacked first."
Nor did the Palestinian and other Arab leaders make any attempt to conceal their genocidal objectives. The supreme Palestinian Arab leader, Hajj Amin el-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem , exhorted his followers over Radio Cairo,
"I declare a holy war, my Moslem brothers! Murder the Jews! Murder them all!"
Other Palestinian leaders made similar pronouncements. As for the objectives of the Arab states' invasion of Palestine-Israel, they were expressed clearly enough by the Secretary General of the League of Arab States. According to a report in The New York Time son May 16, 1948,
"On the day that Israel declared its independence, Azzam Pasha, Secretary General of the Arab League, at Cairo press conference declared "jihad", a holy war. He said that the Arab states rejected partition and would set up a "United State of Palestine." Pasha added: ‘This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the Crusades.' "
The Palestinian Arab guerilla/terrorists began the war with a massacre of Jewish civilian passengers in a bus passing through the Arab town of Lydda (now Lod), on November 30, 1947. They subsequently attacked nearly every Jewish village and urban neighborhood in Palestine, and closed all of the major roads in Palestine to Jews through a regular system of ambushes and sniper attacks. They also killed upwards of two thousand Jews, at least half of them civilians, and wounded thousands of others in the course of the war. In addition to attacking their Jewish neighbors on their own, the Palestinian Arab guerilla/terrorists cooperated closely with the invading armies of the six intervening Arab states, who attacked the Jews with artillery, tanks, aircraft and British-trained, and sometimes British-commanded, soldiers.
The Palestinian Arab guerilla-terrorists' siege of the roads created severe shortages of food and fuel in some Jewish communities, most notably in the Jerusalem area, where the Jewish inhabitants had to be put on starvation rations by their own government and came close to starving to death. The Arab guerilla-terrorists even blew up the water aqueduct to the Jewish sections of Jerusalem, forcing the inhabitants to drink only carefully rationed rain water.
For defending themselves against both the armed Palestinian Arab "civilians" and the invasion forces of the Arab states, the Israelis had only a hastily organized army that was really an ad hoc civilian militia, poorly armed, and consisting mainly of men and women who had no previous military training or experience, and who were drafted from their normal civilian occupations only after the Arab attacks had already begun. Only a small core of men and women, less than 10,000, were fully trained and more or less professional soldiers. The Israeli soldiers were not trained or experienced in occupying Arab communities and separating out armed guerillas from peaceful civilians. In any case, the Israelis had no manpower to spare for such delicate and sophisticated counterinsurgency operations, since they had to repel the armies of the invading Arab states even as they were forced to deal with the "local" guerilla-terrorists as well. These unfortunate military realities occasionally made expulsion of the inhabitants from "hostile" villages that served as bases of operation for guerilla attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians the only practical means of halting these attacks.
On the other hand, Arab villages from which guerilla-terrorist attacks did not originate, and that did not offer armed resistance to the Israeli forces, were left alone by the Israeli soldiers; or if they were occupied by the Israelis, the inhabitants were well treated, and were not asked to leave Israeli-held territory. In a few cases, Arabs from villages in which only a few families remained were asked to resettle elsewhere in Israel, in more populous Arab villages a few miles away. Where most of the inhabitants of a village had chosen to remain, the village was left in place and undisturbed. That is why over a hundred of the Arab communities dating to before Israel's independence still exist in Israel, and have in fact expanded their populations by as much as sevenfold in sixty years -- one of the most rapid population growth rates in the world.
But Israeli counterinsurgency operations and security measures accounted for only a small minority of the Palestinian Arabs who became refugees during the War of Independence, or who claimed refugee status after the war. A much larger number of Arabs fled their homes in response to the urging, or even the orders and threats, of Arab politicians and/or military commanders. Substantial contemporary documentary evidence, much of it published at the time, clearly indicates that both the Palestinian Arab leadership and the governments of the Arab states that attacked Israel called on their own people to evacuate large areas of the country. For example, Kenneth O.Bilby, the correspondent in Palestine for the New York Herald Tribune during the War of Independence wrote in a book published shortly afterwards that said:
The Arab exodus, initially at least, was encouraged by many Arab leaders, such as Haj Amin el Husseini, the exiled pro-Nazi Mufti of Jerusalem, and by the Arab Higher Committee for Palestine. They viewed the first wave of Arab setbacks as merely transitory. Let the Palestine Arabs flee into neighboring countries. It would serve to arouse the other Arab peoples to greater effort, and when the Arab invasion struck, the Palestinians could return to their homes and be compensated with the property of Jews driven into the sea.
After the war, the Palestine Arab leaders did try to help people -- including their own -- to forget that it was they who had called for the exodus in the early spring of 1948. They now blamed the leaders of the invading Arab states themselves. These had added their voices to the exodus call, though not until some weeks after the Palestine Arab Higher Committee had taken a stand.
- Kenneth O. Bilby, New Star in the Middle East, (Doubleday, 1950).
And the British news magazine The Economist, no friend of Israel or the Zionist movement, reported on October 2, 1948, while the war was still in progress, that
Of the 62,000 Arabs who formerly lived in [the Palestinian, now Israeli, city of] 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.
On May 3, 1948, the American news magazine Time reported that
The mass evacuation, prompted partly by fear, partly by order of Arab leaders, left the Arab quarter of Haifa a ghost city.... By withdrawing Arab workers their leaders hoped to paralyze Haifa .
Sir Alan Cunningham, the last high commissioner for the British administration of Palestine, which was in the process of withdrawing from the country while the fighting raged, wrote to the Colonial Office in London on February 22, 1948, and again on April 28, 1948, that
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.
The American consulate in Haifa had telegraphed Washington on April 25 that "local Mufti-dominated Arab leaders urge all Arabs (to) leave (the) city [Haifa] and large numbers are going." Three days later the consulate followed up this communication with another that said, "reportedly Arab Higher Committee ordering all Arabs (to) leave."
On April 23, Jamal Husseini, the Acting Chairman for the Arab Higher Committee for Palestine , admitted as much in a speech to the United Nations Security Council:
The Arabs did not want to submit to a truce. They rather preferred to abandon their homes, their belongings and everything they possessed in the world and leave the town. This is in fact what they did.
And on April 27, 1950, only two years after the Arab evacuation of Haifa, the Arab National Committee of Haifa asserted in a memorandum submitted to the governments of the Arab states that
The removal of the Arab inhabitants... was voluntary and was carried out at our request... The Arab delegation proudly asked for the evacuation of the Arabs and their removal to the neighboring Arab countries.... We are very glad to state that the Arabs guarded their honour and traditions with pride and greatness.... When the [Arab]delegation entered the conference room [for negotiations with the Jewish authorities in Haifa] it proudly refused to sign the truce and asked that the evacuation of the Arab population and their transfer to neighboring Arab countries be facilitated.
In June 1949, only six months after the conclusion of hostilities, Sir John Troutbeck, the head of the British Middle East office in Cairo and, according to historian Efraim Karsh, "no friend to Israel or the Jews," made a fact-finding visit to Gaza and interviewed some of the Arab refugees there. Troutbeck reported that he had learned from these interviews that the refugees
...express no bitterness against the Jews (or for that matter against the Americans or ourselves) [but] 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... I even heard it said that many of the refugees would give a welcome to the Israelis if they were to come in and take the district over.
And the Palestinian Arab newspaper Falastin, only a month after the war ended (Feb. 19, 1949), reported that
The Arab states which had encouraged the Palestinian Arabs to leave their homes temporarily in order to be out of the way of the Arab invasion armies, have failed to keep their promise to help these refugees.
Whatever their motives for giving such reckless, irresponsible instructions to the Palestinian Arabs, the leaders of the jihad against Israel, including both the chiefs of the Arab States and the Palestinian Arab leaders, bear a heavy load of guilt for inflicting suffering on their own people, and then dishonestly blaming Israel for the consequences of their own actions. The time is long overdue for the Arab League governments to accept responsibility for the people whom they have displaced and in many cases left stateless by their attempt, in cooperation with the Palestinian Arab leadership, to strangle Israel and exterminate her people in the year of her birth. And it is high time that today's Arab leaders, and the Palestinian Arab terrorist organizations whom they finance and sponsor, cease to exploit, as a propaganda weapon in their ongoing war against Israel, the suffering that an earlier generation of Arab leaders inflicted on their own people.
John Landau contributed to this article.
Documentation and Further Reading : The quotations from Arab and British sources in this article may be found on the world wide web at Israel Defender here, and: Two articles by Efraim Karsh,"Were the Palestinians expelled? The story of Haifa,", and "Rights and Wrongs: History and the Palestinian "Right of Return," form the best general introductions to the origins of the Palestinian Arab refugee community, and the causes of the Palestinian "exodus" of 1948. Eli E. Hertz, Arab and Jewish Refugees-The Contrast, and David Meir-Levi, Big Lies: Demolishing The Myths of the Propaganda War Against Israel, also provide useful summaries of these historical events. In addition, all of the web pages linked above provide important and useful information on this subject. Seth Franzman's article in the August 16, 2007 issue of the Jerusalem Post,, provides a good summary of the "military" background of terrorism and aggression against the Israeli Jewish community. Those wishing to study the military background of the Palestinian Arab refugee exodus in greater depth should consult Netenel Lorch, The Edge of the Sword: Israel's War of Independence 1947-1949, and One Long War, both available from amazon.com; as well as John and David Kimche, A Clash of Destinies: The Arab-Jewish War and the Founding of the State of Israel, also published under the alternative title Both Sides of the Hill: Britain and the Palestine War, which is available under both titles from Amazon.com.