1948: how Arab leaders forced Arab civilians to leave their homes in Palestine

Published: 8 July 2011
Briefing Number 291

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Summary: The events of 1948, when Israel was re-established, are not history.  The battle of narratives over those events is a core part of the present-day conflict in the Middle East. 

This Briefing reproduces an article by Professor Efraim Karsh who argues that in 1947-8 the Arab leadership took deliberate decisions to force out the Arab population of Palestine.  Karsh shows that the ‘naqba’ narrative, which states that the Palestinian Arab refugees are entirely the responsibility of Israel, is “gravely defective”.  He calls for “historical truths” to be “reclaimed”.

Professor Karsh is a research professor in Middle East Studies at Kings College, in the University of London.  He is the director of the US-based Middle East Forum (www.meforum.org), and the author of ‘Palestine Betrayed’ (2009).  The article below first appeared in Ha’aretz newspaper on 10 June 2011 (see www.haaretz.com).

Reclaiming a historical truth

by Professor Efraim Karsh

The tragedy befalling the Palestinian Arabs in 1948 was exclusively of their own making, and there is therefore a grave moral defect in the naqba discourse.

While most Palestinian Arabs needed little encouragement to take to the road, large numbers of them were driven from their homes either by their own leaders and / or by the ‘Arab Liberation Army’ (ALA) which had entered Palestine prior to the end of the mandate, whether out of military considerations or in order to prevent them from becoming citizens of the prospective Jewish state. 

Of this there is an overwhelming and incontrovertible body of contemporary evidence – intelligence briefs, captured Arab documents, press reports, personal testimonies and memoirs and so on and so forth.

- The Arab-instigated exodus from Haifa:  In the largest and best-known example of Arab-instigated exodus, tens of thousands of Arabs were ordered or bullied into leaving the city of Haifa (on 21-22 April) on the instructions of the Arab Higher Committee, the effective “government” of the Palestinian Arabs. 

- Tiberias’ Arabs forced out: One day earlier, Tiberias’s 6000 strong Arab community had been similarly forced out by its own leaders, against local Jewish wishes. A fortnight after the exodus, Sir Alan Cunningham, the last British High Commissioner for Palestine, reported that the Tiberias Jews “would welcome [the] Arabs back”. 

- The departure of the Arabs of Jaffa: In Jaffa, Palestine’s largest Arab city, the municipality organised the transfer of thousands of residents by land and sea. In Jerusalem, the AHC ordered the transfer of women and children, and local gang leaders pushed out residents of several neighbourhoods, while in Beisan the woman and children were ordered out as Transjordan’s Arab legion dug in.

Jews made strenuous efforts to persuade the Haifa Arabs to stay but the AHC ordered them to leave.  This AHC order was passed on to the local leadership by phone and secretly recorded by the Haganah [the Haganah was the defence force of the pre-independence Jewish community of Palestine – Beond Images]. Haifa’s Arab leadership made well-documented efforts to scaremonger their hapless constituents, reluctant in the extreme to leave, into fleeing.   Some Arab residents received written threats that, unless they left town, they would be branded as traitors deserving of death.  Others were told that they could expect no mercy from the Jews.

In the words of a British intelligence report: “After the Jews had gained control of the town, and in spite of a subsequent food shortage, many Arabs would not have responded to the call for a complete evacuation but for the rumours and propaganda spread by the National Committee members remaining in the town.  Most widespread was a rumor that Arabs remaining in Haifa would be taken as hostages by the Jews in the event of future attacks on other Jewish areas: and [there was also] an effective piece of propaganda with its implied threat of retribution when the Arabs recapture the town, namely that [those] people remaining in Haifa [would] acknowledge tacitly that they believe in the principle of a Jewish state”.

- Ordering the Arabs of Tulkarm and the Hula valley to leave: Nor was the phenomenon confined to Palestinian cities.  The deliberate depopulation of Arab villages too, and their transformation into military strongholds was a hallmark of the Arab campaign from the onset of hostilities.  As early as December 1947, villagers in the Tul Karm sub-district were ordered out by their local leaders, and in mid-January Haganah intelligence briefs reported the evacuation of villages in the Hula valley to accommodate local gangs and newly-arrived ALA forces.

- Ordering Arab women and children to leave their homes: By February, this phenomenon had expanded to most parts of the country, gaining considerable momentum in April and May as Arab forces throughout Palestine were being comprehensively routed. On April 18, the Haganah’s intelligence branch in Jerusalem reported a fresh general order to remove the women and children from all villages bordering Jewish localities.  [The Deir Yassin killings of civilian Arabs had taken place days earlier, and the inflammatory accounts of these events in the Arab communities could account at least in part for this directive – Beyond Images].  Twelve days later, its Haifa counterpart reported an ALA directive to evacuate all Arab villages between Tel Aviv and Haifa in anticipation of a new general offensive. 

- Departure of Arabs from Rosh Pina and villages around Jerusalem: In early May, as fighting intensified in the eastern Galilee, local Arabs were ordered to transfer all women and children from the Rosh Pina area, while in the Jerusalem sub-district, Transjordan’s Arab legion ordered the emptying of scores of villages.
Zionism needs no propaganda to buttress its case, yet the historical truth needs to be reclaimed after decades of relentless distortion.
Some related Beyond Images Briefings
Briefing 211 – 2 March 2008
‘Ethnic cleansing’ by Israel in 1948? Benny Morris, former revisionist historian, refutes Arab claims

Briefing 206 – 27 November 2007
Arab assaults on the Jews of Palestine following the 1947 UN partition plan

Briefing 276 – 21 January 2011
Beyond the ‘naqba’ mindset: what a real change in Palestinian attitudes would involve.... by Shlomo Avineri

Briefing 283 – 13 May 2011
Where’s the Palestinian self-criticism over 1948?..... by Shlomo Avineri

Briefing 289 – 29 June 2011
Inside a Palestinian refugee camp: ‘Returning to Israel’.... as part of daily life

Briefing 290 – 6 July 2011
The ‘right of return’ into Israel: no compromises by Palestinians