Today is the 65th anniversary of the Nakba, Arabic for “catastrophe”, which saw between 700,000 and 1,000,000 Palestinians expelled from their homes. The Nakba continues to this day as land annexations, house demolitions, settlement expansion, incursions, invasions, and killings continue to be employed to against the occupied Palestinian populations. The following is part of a fact sheet from the Institute for Middle East Understanding (IMEU), the full version can be found here…
1. PRELUDE TO DISASTER
“We shall try to spirit the penniless [Palestinian] population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it any employment in our own country… expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discreetly and circumspectly.” – Theodor Herzl, the father of modern political Zionism
The Emergence of Political Zionism, Conflict Between Early Zionist Colonists & Palestinian Arabs, & “Transfer” (Late 19th, Early 20th Century)
- In the centuries prior to the rise of political Zionism in Europe in the late 19thcentury, relations between the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities in Palestine, then part of the Ottoman Empire, were relatively good. While there was occasional conflict, compared to the anti-Semitism and persecution Jews faced in Europe, the Ottoman Empire and the Arab-Muslim worlds were a haven.
- In the mid-19th century, influenced by the nationalism then sweeping much of the continent, some European Jews concluded that the remedy to centuries of persecution and pogroms in Europe and Russia was the creation of a nation state for Jews in Palestine. Some of them subsequently began emigrating to the Holy Land. In 1874, there were about 14,000 Jews in Palestine, and about 426,000 Arabs.
- In 1896, Austro-Hungarian journalist Theodor Herzl, considered the father of modern political Zionism, catalyzed the movement with the publication of “The Jewish State.” The following year Herzl was elected president of the First Zionist Congress, held in Basel, Switzerland.
- As they arrived in Palestine, early Zionist settlers inevitably came into conflict with the native Palestinian Arab population, particularly small tenant farmers known asfellahin. These peasant farmers were often dispossessed from lands their families had worked for generations to make way for colonies established by European Jews who intended to “redeem” the land through the use of Jewish labor.
- A key actor in the dispossession of Palestinians was the Jewish National Fund (JNF), founded in 1901 at the Fifth Zionist Congress. It was tasked with acquiring land for the Zionist enterprise in Palestine, frequently purchasing it from large Ottoman Turkish landowners who lived abroad. The quasi-governmental Jewish National Fund continues to play an important role in the distribution of state lands and the ongoing dispossession of Palestinians in Israel today, denying non-Jewish citizens access to the 13% of state lands it controls directly, and the 93% total overall its leadership has sway over via the Israel Lands Authority. Its mission statement declares: “The Jewish National Fund is the caretaker of the land of Israel, on behalf of its owners – Jewish people everywhere.”
- In 1903, there were approximately 25,000 Jews in Palestine, and about 500,000 Arabs.
- From the earliest days of the movement, Zionist leaders struggled with the dilemma of how to deal with the non-Jewish Palestinians who inhabited the land on which they wanted to create their state. Most, including Herzl, concluded the only solution was what became known as “transfer,” a euphemism for what is known as “ethnic cleansing” today.
- In June 1895 Herzl wrote in his diary: “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… expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discreetly and circumspectly.”
- In August 1937, transfer was discussed at the Twentieth Zionist Congress in Zurich, Switzerland. Alluding to the systematic dispossession of Palestinian peasant farmers that Zionist colonists had been engaged in for decades, the leader of the Zionist community in Palestine (the Yishuv) and Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, stated:
“You are no doubt aware of the JNF’s activity in this respect. Now a transfer of a completely different scope will have to be carried out. In many parts of the country new settlement will not be possible without transferring the Arab fellahin.” He added: “Jewish power [in Palestine], which grows steadily, will also increase our possibilities to carry out this transfer on a large scale.”
- In an October 1937 letter to his son, Amos, Ben-Gurion wrote: “We must expel Arabs and take their place.”
- In June 1938, transfer was the major focus of a meeting of the Jewish Agency Executive, the de facto government of the Yishuv. Arthur Ruppin, head of the Jewish Agency from 1933 to 1935 and one of the founders of Tel Aviv, declared: “I do not believe in the transfer of individuals. I believe in the transfer of entire villages.”Ben-Gurion argued in favor of transfer as well, stating: “With compulsory transfer we [would] have a vast area [for settlement]… I support compulsory transfer. I don’t see anything immoral in it.”
- Summing up the feelings of many Zionist leaders, in December 1940, Joseph Weitz, director of the Jewish National Fund’s Lands Department and a strong advocate of transfer wrote in his diary:
“There is no way besides transferring the Arabs from here to the neighboring countries, and to transfer all of them, save perhaps for [the Arabs of] Bethlehem, Nazareth and Old Jerusalem. Not one village must be left, not one [Bedouin] tribe. And only after this transfer will the country be able to absorb millions of our brothers and the Jewish problem will cease to exist. There is no other solution.”
- While Zionist leaders debated transfer behind closed doors, in public they were careful to avoid mention of it. As Israeli historian Benny Morris noted in the follow up to his landmark 1989 work, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949,The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited (2004):
“All understood that discretion and circumspection were called for: Talk of transferring the Arabs, even with Palestinian and outside Arab leaders’ agreement, would only put them on their guard and antagonize them, and quite probably needlessly antagonize the Arabs’ Ottoman coreligionists, who ruled the country.”
- Regarding Ben-Gurion, Morris, himself a right-wing Zionist who has lamented that the expulsions of the Nakba didn’t go far enough, noted:
“Ben Gurion always refrained from issuing clear or written expulsion orders; he preferred that his generals ‘understand’ what he wanted done. He wished to avoid going down in history as the ‘great expeller.'”
- The dispossession of Palestinians in order to create and maintain a Jewish majority state in the heart of the Arab and Muslim Middle East was and remains the underlying cause of the Israeli-Palestinian and larger Arab-Israeli conflict. Today, senior Israeli political and religious leaders continue to advocate expulsion and “transfer” of Palestinian citizens as well as Palestinians living under Israeli military rule in the occupied territories.
The Irgun & Lehi: Zionist Terrorism on the Rise (1937-1948)
- In 1931, a right-wing militia called the Irgun (also known as Etzel) was founded as an offshoot of the main Zionist militia in Palestine, the Haganah (the predecessor of the Israeli army). Irgun members were followers of the right-wing Zionist revisionist Zeev Jabotinsky and sought to create a Jewish state in all of historic Palestine as well as parts of neighboring Arab countries like Jordan, believing armed struggle was the only way to achieve this end. The Irgun’s leaders included future Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who also founded the forerunner of today’s Likud Party, the Herut, in 1948.
- Between 1937 and 1948, when it was integrated into the newly created Israeli army, the Irgun waged a campaign of violence and terror against Palestinians and the British. The Irgun, which was considered a terrorist organization by the British and American governments, carried out dozens of bombings and other attacks against Palestinian targets such as markets and other public places, killing hundreds of civilians. Although most of their operations were carried out in Palestine, Irgun members also attacked British targets abroad, bombing the British embassy in Rome in 1946 and a British military train in Austria in 1947.
- The Irgun’s most high-profile attack was the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in July 1946, which killed some 92 people, including 28 British citizens. The hotel was targeted because it was home to the British administrative and military headquarters in Palestine. (In 2006, current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attended a ceremony at the hotel for the unveiling of a plaque honoring the bombers, drawing the ire of the British government which sent a letter to the mayor of Jerusalem stating: “We don’t think it’s right for an act of terrorism to be commemorated.”)
- In 1940, a splinter group of the Irgun, Lehi (also known as the Stern Gang), was founded by Avraham Stern. Lehi, which would subsequently be led by another future Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, carried out numerous terrorist attacks against both British and Arab civilian targets. The most notorious Lehi attacks include the assassinations of Lord Moyne, the British Minister Resident in the Middle East in 1944, and Count Folke Bernadotte, a Swedish diplomat appointed United Nations Mediator in Palestine, in 1948. As an official with the Red Cross during World War II, Bernadotte had helped to save thousands of Jews and others from the Nazis late in the war.
- Together, members of the Irgun and Lehi carried out one of the most notorious atrocities in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the massacre of approximately 100 men, women, and children in the village of Deir Yassin, near Jerusalem, on April 16, 1948. The massacre at Deir Yassin, which is commemorated annually by Palestinians around the world, accelerated the flight of the Palestinian population and was a pivotal moment in the creation of Israel as a Jewish majority state. (See below for more on the massacre at Deir Yassin.)
World War II & The Holocaust (1939-1945)
- The outbreak of World War II in September 1939 was a major turning point for the conflict between Zionists and Palestinians. Once again, the Middle East became a battleground, this time between the Axis and Allied powers.
- Most Jewish organizations in Palestine, including militant groups, temporarily put aside their fight against the British, as the war against the anti-Semitic Nazi regime took precedence. For their part, the leadership of the Arab Higher Committee under Husseini sought the support of the Germans in their struggle against the British, as did other nationalist movements fighting British rule such as the Irish Republican Army and even some right-wing Zionists like the Lehi militia.
- Following the war and the revelation of the extent of the crimes carried out against Jews by the Nazis, the Zionist campaign for a Jewish state intensified and gained increasing international support, including in the United States, which would soon take over from the British as the dominant western power in the Middle East. For many in the west, the guilt of not doing enough to prevent the murder of millions of Jews in the Holocaust, and of shutting their borders to Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis before and during the war outweighed any considerations they may have had for the rights or wishes of the native inhabitants of Palestine, whose land would have to be taken for the creation of a Jewish state.
2. THE NAKBA: CREATING ISRAEL ON THE RUINS OF PALESTINE
“We walked outside, Ben-Gurion accompanying us. [Yigal] Allon repeated his question, ‘What is to be done with the Palestinian population?’ Ben-Gurion waved his hand in a gesture which said ‘Drive them out!’… I agreed that it was essential to drive the inhabitants out.” – Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin
The United Nations Partition Plan (November 1947)
See here for maps of the distribution of Jewish settlements in 1947, the Arab and Jewish states called for under the 1947 Partition Plan, and subsequent Israeli expansionism
- In February 1947, seeking to extricate itself from a steadily deteriorating situation on the ground, including the terrorist campaign being waged against British targets by the Irgun and Lehi, the British government announced that it would end its mandate and turn over responsibility for the future of Palestine to the newly-created United Nations.
- After intense lobbying by Zionist organizations and their supporters, on November 29, 1947, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 181 calling for the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. The final vote was 33 to 13, with 10 abstentions and 1 absent. Those voting in favor included both emerging superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. The British abstained.
- The Partition Plan allocated approximately 55% of Mandatory Palestine to the Jewish state and just 42% to the Arab state, despite the fact that Jews made up only about one third of the population, many of whom were recent immigrants from Europe, and only owned about 7% of the privately owned land in Palestine. The city of Jerusalem was to be placed under international administration. (See here for map: Zionist and Palestinian land ownership in percentages by subdistrict, 1945)
- The Arab Higher Committee rejected the Partition Plan outright, as well as the idea that Palestinians should give up more than half their country to newly arrived European immigrants who owned only a tiny amount of the land they were being given. For its part, the mainstream Zionist leadership under Ben-Gurion publicly welcomed the plan, as it constituted international legal recognition for a Jewish state in Palestine, while having no intention of being bound by its proposed borders. As Ben-Gurion put it, the borders of the new Jewish state, “will be determined by force and not by the partition resolution.” (Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, p. 37)
Beginnings of Civil War & Ethnic Cleansing (December 1947-May 1948)
- Almost immediately after the passing of the partition plan, renewed violence broke out between Arabs and Jews and the large-scale dispossession of Palestinians began. As December progressed, the Irgun and other Zionist militias intensifiedtheir attacks against Palestinian civilians and the British, killing and wounding hundreds.
- Within two weeks of the passing of the Partition Plan, more than 200 Arabs and Jews had been killed, and by the end of December almost 75,000 Palestinians had already been displaced by Zionist attacks. (Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, p. 40)
- In early January, members of the Arab Liberation Army (ALA), a ragtag group of volunteers from neighboring Arab countries formed by the Arab League, entered Palestine to help the outnumbered and outgunned Palestinian defenders. The Arab volunteers were themselves disorganized, poorly armed and trained, and failed to coordinate with local Palestinian fighters due to hostility between the Arab League and Arab Higher Committee. The British High Commissioner of Palestine at the time, Alan Cunningham, later described the ALA as “poorly equipped and badly led.” Predicting an easy Zionist victory against the Arabs, Cunningham added: “In almost every engagement the Jews have proved their superiority in organisation, training and tactics.”
- Surveying the situation, Ben-Gurion was also confident of an easy victory for Zionist forces as the country slid deeper into civil war. In February, in response to a letter from Moshe Sharett (who would become Israel’s second prime minister) complaining that Zionist forces were sufficiently armed for self-defense but not to “take over the country,” Ben-Gurion replied:
“If we will receive in time the arms we have already purchased, and maybe even receive some of that promised to us by the UN, we will be able not only to defend [ourselves] but also to inflict death blows on the Syrians in their own country – and take over Palestine as a whole. I am in no doubt of this. We can face all the Arab forces. This is not a mystical belief but a cold and rational calculation based on practical examination.” (Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, p. 46)
- The same month, February, the Haganah began mobilizing for full-scale war. According to the historian Pappe, by May 1948 the Zionists had some 50,000 fighters under arms versus no more than about 10,000 Palestinian irregulars and Arab volunteers.
- On March 10, 1948, the Zionist leadership under Ben-Gurion formally approved Plan Dalet (also known as Plan D), the blueprint for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. The operational military orders of Plan Dalet specified which Palestinian population centers should be targeted and laid out in detail a plan for their forcible depopulation and destruction. It called for:
“Mounting operations against enemy population centers located inside or near our defensive system in order to prevent them from being used as bases by an active armed force. These operations can be divided into the following categories:
“Destruction of villages (setting fire to, blowing up, and planting mines in the debris), especially those population centers which are difficult to control continuously.
“Mounting search and control operations according to the following guidelines: encirclement of the village and conducting a search inside it. In the event of resistance, the armed force must be destroyed and the population must be expelled outside the borders of the state.”
- As Benny Morris observed in The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem: 1947-1949,Plan Dalet was “a strategic-ideological anchor and basis for expulsions by front, district, brigade and battalion commanders” providing “post facto, a formal, persuasive covering note to explain their actions.”
- The Haganah began attacks under Plan Dalet at the beginning of April 1948. Expulsions now accelerated and became more systematic, marking a new phase in the conflict in which Zionist and then Israeli forces went on the offensive. According to Morris, “In the months of April-May 1948, units of the Haganah were given operational orders that stated explicitly that they were to uproot the villagers, expel them and destroy the villages themselves.”
- On April 9, members of the Irgun and Stern Gang attacked the village of Deir Yassin outside of Jerusalem, massacring approximately 100 men, women, and children. News of the massacre spread quickly, fueling panic and the mass flight of Palestinians. (See below for more on the massacre at Deir Yassin and other atrocities carried out against Palestinian civilians.)
- In late April, all but 4,000 of the 70,000 Arab inhabitants of the city of Haifa were expelled. The operation officer of the Haganah forces that conquered Haifa, Mordechai Maklef – who would later become chief of staff of the Israeli army – ordered his troops to “Kill any Arab you encounter; torch all inflammable objects, and force doors open with explosives.” (Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine,p. 95) Crowds of Palestinians seeking safety in a marketplace near the port were deliberately shelled by Zionist forces, causing a panicked flight towards the waterfront as people rushed to evacuate by sea. Many drowned as overloaded boats sank attempting to shuttle people to safety. A witness recalled the terrible scene:
“Men stepped on their friends and women on their own children. The boats in the port were soon filled with living cargo. The overcrowding in them was horrible. Many turned over and sank with all their passengers.” (Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, p. 96)
- Many of the attacks carried out by Zionist forces during this period – prior to Israel’s declaration of independence and subsequent war with Arab states – were in areas outside of the borders of the Jewish state proposed in the UN Partition Plan. (See here for map of such operations carried out between April 1 and May 15)
British Withdrawal, Israeli Independence, & The Arab-Israeli War of 1948
(May 15, 1948 – March 1949)
- By early May 1948, more than 200 Palestinian towns and villages had already been depopulated as people fled in fear or were forcibly expelled by Zionist forces, and between 250,000 and 350,000 Palestinians had been uprooted and made refugees.
- On May 14, Ben-Gurion and the Zionist leadership declared an independent state of Israel. The next day, the British, who had stood by and done nothing to stop the expulsions of Palestinians in the preceding months, withdrew the last of their soldiers as armies from Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq launched a half-hearted and ill-fated attack against the newly declared state. None of the Arab governments wanted to intervene, but were compelled to do so by the force of public opinion in their countries, which sympathized with the Palestinians. In addition to being preoccupied with domestic concerns, the leaders of these countries, most of which had only recently acquired nominal independence from European colonial rule, were in fierce competition with one another and failed to coordinate their efforts in any serious way, frequently working at cross purposes.
- Crucially, since the end of World War II, the government of King Abdullah I of Jordan had been holding secret discussions with the Zionist leadership and had agreed to divide Palestine up between Jordan and the new Jewish state. Abdullah viewed the Palestinian national movement as a threat and wanted to expand the borders of his country to include parts of Palestine. In July 1946, a British diplomat sent a cable to the government about a recent meeting with Abdullah, reporting that he “is for partition and he feels that the other Arab leaders may acquiesce in that solution, although they may not approve of it openly.” As part of the agreement Abdullah pledged not to allow Jordan’s British-trained armed forces, the Arab Legion – by far the best Arab army at the time – to take part in joint operations with other Arab armies against Israel in the event of war, or to enter areas of Palestine designated for the Jewish state under the Partition Plan.
- The Iraqi government also ordered its armed forces not to enter areas that were supposed to be part of the Jewish state under the UN plan. For its part, the Syrian army barely advanced, maintaining a defensive posture for most of the war. The Lebanese, who had also declared war on Israel, didn’t even send troops across the frontier. The Egyptian effort was also half-hearted and disorganized. As future Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who fought in the war, later wrote in his memoirs:
“This could not be a serious war. There was no concentration of forces, no accumulation of ammunition or equipment. There was no reconnaissance, no intelligence, no plans. Yet we were actually on the battleï¬eld… The only conclusion that could be drawn was that this was a political war, or rather a state of war and no-war. There was to be advance without victory and retreat without defeat.”,
- As predicted by Ben-Gurion, the combined Arab armies were no match for the new Israeli army. According to Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, by the end of the summer the new Israeli army had about 80,000 soldiers at its disposal, while the opposing Arab states didn’t exceed 50,000 soldiers combined (Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, p. 45). Moreover, many Zionist and Israeli fighters were veterans of World War II, experienced with the weaponry and tactics of modern warfare, while most Arab soldiers were not.
- On May 24, just ten days after declaring independence, things were going so well for the Israelis militarily that Ben-Gurion wrote in his diary:
“We will establish a Christian state in Lebanon, the southern border of which will be the Litani River. We will break Transjordan [Jordan], bomb Amman and destroy its army, and then Syria falls, and if Egypt will still continue to fight – we will bombard Port Said, Alexandria and Cairo. This will be in revenge for what they (the Egyptians, the Aramis and Assyrians) did to our forefathers during Biblical times.” (Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, p. 144)
The same day, the Israelis received a shipment of weaponry from Eastern Europe, ensuring the supremacy of Israeli artillery for the rest of the war. (Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, p. 144)
- In late May, the Israeli government set up an unofficial body, the “Transfer Committee,” to oversee the destruction of Palestinian towns and villages or their repopulation with Jews, and to prevent displaced Palestinians from returning to their homes. In a report presented to Prime Minister Ben-Gurion in June 1948, the three-man committee, which included the Jewish National Fund’s Joseph Weitz,called for the “destruction of villages as much as possible during military operations.”
- From June to September, the expulsions continued. In July, Israeli forces expelled 70,000 Palestinians from the cities of Lydd and Ramla. In his memoirs, which were censored by the Israeli military but leaked to The New York Times in 1979, the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin recalled a conversation he had in July 1948 with Ben-Gurion, when Rabin was an officer in the Israeli army, regarding the fate of the Palestinians of Lydd and Ramla. Rabin wrote:
“We walked outside, Ben-Gurion accompanying us. [Commander Yigal] Allon repeated his question, ‘What is to be done with the Palestinian population?’ Ben-Gurion waved his hand in a gesture which said ‘Drive them out!'”
Rabin added, “I agreed that it was essential to drive the inhabitants out.”
- Expanding far beyond the proposed borders of the Jewish state delineated in the Partition Plan, which was allocated about 55% of Palestine, by the time Israeli forces stopped their advance they were in control of 78% of mandate Palestine.(See here for map of 1949 armistice lines) The remaining 22%, comprising the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza, fell under Jordanian and Egyptian control, respectively. Sixty-five years later, Israel has yet to officially declare its borders as it continues to colonize the West Bank and East Jerusalem, conquered during the June 1967 War.
- From 1947 to 1950, between 750,000 and one million Palestinians were expelled by Zionist and then Israeli forces from the newly created Jewish state. It’s estimated that about half of them fled under direct assault by Zionist forces.
Massacres & Atrocities Against Palestinian Civilians
- During Israel’s creation, Zionist paramilitaries and the Israeli army carried out numerous massacres and atrocities against Palestinian civilians, including rapes, which were instrumental in spurring the mass flight of Palestinians that facilitated the establishment of a Jewish majority state. According to historian Benny Morris, there were two dozen such massacres.
- The most notorious atrocity committed during Israel’s creation took place on April 9, 1948, in the village of Deir Yassin near Jerusalem (close to where Israel’s Holocaust Memorial now stands), where approximately 100 men, women, and children were murdered by members of the Irgun and Lehi. Seventy-five of the victims were women, children, or elderly people. According to eyewitness accounts from survivors and
- Other notable atrocities against Palestinian civilians took place in the towns of Lydd (Lod), Dawayima, Saliha, Safsaf, and Tantura. Regarding the scope and nature of these massacres, in a 2004 interview with Haaretz newspaper, the historian Morris stated:
“In some cases four or five people were executed, in others the numbers were 70, 80, 100. There was also a great deal of arbitrary killing. Two old men are spotted walking in a field – they are shot. A woman is found in an abandoned village – she is shot. There are cases such as the village of Dawayima [in the Hebron region], in which a column entered the village with all guns blazing and killed anything that moved.
“The worst cases were Saliha (70-80 killed), Deir Yassin (100-110), Lod (250), Dawayima (hundreds) and perhaps Abu Shusha (70). There is no unequivocal proof of a large-scale massacre at Tantura, but war crimes were perpetrated there. At Jaffa there was a massacre about which nothing had been known until now. The same at Arab al Muwassi, in the north. About half of the acts of massacre were part of Operation Hiram [in the north, in October 1948]: at Safsaf, Saliha, Jish, Eilaboun, Arab al Muwasi, Deir al Asad, Majdal Krum, Sasa. In Operation Hiram there was a unusually high concentration of executions of people against a wall or next to a well in an orderly fashion.
“That can’t be chance. It’s a pattern. Apparently, various officers who took part in the operation understood that the expulsion order they received permitted them to do these deeds in order to encourage the population to take to the roads. The fact is that no one was punished for these acts of murder. Ben-Gurion silenced the matter. He covered up for the officers who did the massacres.”