Arab assaults on the Jews of Palestine following the 1947 UN partition plan

Published: 27 November 2007
Briefing Number 206

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Summary:  This Briefing describes the murder of 1,256 Jews in Palestine by Palestinian Arabs in the five months between the adoption of the UN partition plan in November 1947 and Israel 's declaration of independence in May 1948. The Briefing draws on recently published work by Israeli historian Seth Frantzman which challenges allegations against Israel made by leading ‘new historian' Ilan Pappe. Far from the Jews attempting to ‘ethnically cleanse' the Arabs of Palestine, as Pappe claims, Frantzman's research shows that the reality was, if anything, the other way round. This issue not history. The false claim that Israel ethnically cleansed Palestine is a central argument by those who challenge the modern-day legitimacy of Israel . And separating fact from myth will have an impact on future negotiation between Israel and its neighbours.

It has become increasingly commonplace to claim that in the lead-up to Israel 's independence in 1948, the Jews ‘ethnically cleansed' the Arabs of Palestine. Among Palestinian solidarity groups and prevailing liberal discourse, this claim is mainstream.

The central allegation is that the pre-state Jewish leadership had a plan – plan D – which involved systematic attacks on Arabs, in order to ‘drive them out' and create the possibility of a Jewish state. A leading proponent of this view is Professor Ilan Pappe, formerly of Haifa University , and now at Exeter University in the UK . It's the central theme of his recent book ‘The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine'.

Many other historians challenge this thesis, explaining that Israel had no such intention. They point out that Israel accepted the UN partition plan in 1947, and supported the peaceful creation of two states living side by side – one a Jewish state, and one for the Palestinian Arabs. In the course of the war of 1948, Israel did displace many Palestinian Arabs, but this occurred in the context of a war of survival which was forced upon the Jewish state by surrounding Arab nations. Many more Palestinians left their homes voluntarily, often urged to do so by their own leaders in anticipation of victory over the reborn Jewish state.

This debate is not history. The claim that the Jews ‘ethnically cleansed' Palestine is a central argument of those who challenge the modern-day legitimacy of Israel . And separating facts from myths will shape the course of future negotiation between Israel and the Palestinians, and the Arab states.

A different narrative surrounding these events has recently been provided by Hebrew University-based historian Seth Frantzman. Frantzman has been through the archives of the newspaper of record of the time, the Palestine Post, and reveals an aspect of the history completely ignored by Pappe.

Frantzman reveals that in the five months between the adoption of the UN partition plan, on 29 November 1947 , and the declaration of Israel 's Independence , on 15 May 1948 , there was a brutal assault by Palestinian Arabs on the Jews of Palestine.

Far from the Jews ‘ethnically cleansing' Palestine , if anything the reality was the opposite way round. Here are verbatim extracts from a summary of Frantzman's findings, published in the Jerusalem Post on 17 August 2007 :-

•  Sixty two Jews in Palestine were murdered by Arabs in the first week after the UN partition plan was passed

•  By May 1948 1,256 Jews had been killed, most of them civilians. These deaths were caused by Arab militias, gangs, terrorists, and army units which attacked every place of Jewish habitation in Palestine

•  The attacks succeeded in placing Jerusalem under siege, and eventually cutting off its water supply

•  All Jewish villages in the Negev were attacked, and Jews had to go around the country in convoys. In every major city where Jews and Arabs lived in mixed neighbourhoods the Jewish areas came under attack. This was true in Haifa 's Hadar Hacarmel as well as Jerusalem 's Old City

•  Thirty-nine Jews were killed by Arab rioters at Haifa 's oil refinery on December 30 1947

•  On 16 January 1948 35 Jews were killed trying to reach Gush Etzion

•  On 22 February 1948 44 Jews were killed in a bombing on Jerusalem 's main street, Ben Yehuda

•  And on 29 February 1948 23 Jews were killed all across Palestine , eight of them at the Hayotzek iron foundry

•  35 Jews were murdered during the Mount Scopus massacre of doctors and nurses on 13 April 1948

•  And 127 Jews were massacred at Kfar Etzion on 15 May 1948 , after 30 others died defending the Etzion bloc

•  Many small kibbutzim were subjected to attacks in December 1947 including Gvulot, Ben Shemen, Holon , Safed, Bat Yam and Kfar Yavetz

•  In January and February 1948 it was the turn of the following kibbutzim: Rishon Lezion, Yehiam, Mishmar Hayarden, Tirat Tzvi, Sde Eliahu, Ein Hanatziv, Magdiel, Mitzpe Hagalil and Ma'anit

•  In March and April these attacks culminated with an assault on Hartuv by 400 Arabs based in the village of Ishwa and an attack on Kfar Darom by members of the Muslim brotherhood

•  Arab attackers bombed the Palestine Post in February 1948

•  In March the Jewish agency, the Solel Boneh construction company building in Haifa , and an Egged bus, were each bombed

Frantzman then goes on to point out as follows (again, his points verbatim):-

•  Some of today's scholars prefer to present every massacre of Jews as a “response” to some Jewish deed, and to portray as a ‘myth' the very idea that Israel struggled desperately for its existence in 1948

•  But it was no myth. The fact is that 1256 Jews were killed in 5 months. Even before the first Arab villages were captured by the Jews in April 1948, 924 Jews had already been killed in the previous four months

•  Ilan Pappe and others who follow Pappe's approach should ask themselves what could have happened if the Arabs had not reacted to the partition plan by a murderous assault on the Jews of Palestine [ie they could instead have agreed to the formation of a Palestinian Arab state] . They never raise that question

•  The so-called Plan D was an intelligence assessment prepared by the Jewish leadership, but it was not a blueprint for ‘ethnic cleansing'.

•  When a Jewish area was overrun – and some were – the homes were destroyed and any survivors were killed, as at Kfar Etzion (only three of the defenders survived the Kfar Etzion massacre)

•  The potential for the ethnic cleansing by the Arabs of the Jews of Palestine was never realised only because of the discipline, determination and sheer luck of the Jews

•  Scholarship – including that of new historians such as Pappe – on the 1948 war will remain incomplete until methodical studies are carried out on the widespread and often well-planned Arab assaults on the Jews in 1947-1948

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