As Palestinians and their myriad supporters swarm the streets and universities with their flags and slogans marking the anniversary of their failure to deliver the Jews of Palestine into a more permanent exile, it is instructive to ponder what might have befell the Yishuv and their future generations if they had followed the world’s advice and not finally defended themselves in the early spring of 1948 after some four months of attacks and the near starvation of Jerusalem. In doing so, it is no less useful to remember another momentous event that shares the Palestinians’ nakba anniversary: the fall of Etzion Bloc, where the consequences awaiting a defeated Yishuv were brought home to one and all.
Besieged since January, the Arabs correctly saw the Bloc as a danger to their supply lines between Hebron and Jerusalem. The Arab mayor of Hebron had earlier warned the Bloc that the local Arabs had resolved to “remove the Jews from the area in the event of the outbreak of hostilities” and had advised them “to leave voluntarily…as in any event you will be removed by force.” The Arab Legion commanders thus understood the Bloc’s strategic importance to the pending pan-Arab invasion, and they marked it down for capture and destruction.
On May 4 an Arab Legion armored column attacked the bloc, about 40 of the defenders being killed and wounded. On May 12, the Legion 6th Battalion and thousands of local militia surrounded the Bloc and attacked again, battering it with heavy artillery, and its armored cars slicing into the settlement of Kfar Etzion, the Legionaires and militiamen shouting “Deir Yassin!” as they poured into the settlement and overwhelmed the defenders. Seeing the hopelessness of their situation, the 133 defenders (men and women) sought to surrender.
The Arabs then told the prisoners to sit with their hands raised while a photographer snapped pictures. One of the Arabs pointed a machine gun at the prisoners, but was restrained from shooting by another. Then an armored car arrived at the scene, screeching to a halt. Out stepped a mix of either militiamen and/or Legion soldiers with Sten submachine guns and they blanketed the prisoners with gunfire shouting “Deir Yassin!” while they fired. After slaughtering all but four of the 133 prisoners, the militiamen and Legionaires looted and razed all of the houses and buildings of Kfar Etzion, as they were to do to the other three settlements of the Bloc, “leaving not one stone upon another,” so said a local commander, “to prevent the Jews’ return to the bloc.” When Aliza Fauktwanger (aka “Aliza R”), a Haganah radiowoman who escaped the gunfire was taken by two soldiers to be raped, a Legionaire officer heard her scream and rescued her, and protected her. Two more prisoners were saved by Legionaires from the others, and one prisoner escaped back to Jewish lines.
A similar fate might have befallen the other three settlements but for a truce negotiated by the Red Cross on May 14 that allowed the Bloc’s remaining 357 fighters to surrender and be transported toTransjordan, where they remained until after the war. Some militia and local villagers attempted to mob the prisoners and kill them, but the Legionaires protected them.
And this was just Etzion Bloc. Indeed, according to Benny Morris in his latest history of the conflict, after the pan-Arab invasion on May 15, Arab armies similarly looted and razed all of the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, as well as Jewish settlements such as Beit Ha’arava, Neve ya’akov, ‘Atarot, Masada, Sha’ar Hagolan, Yad Mordechai, Nitzanum, and Kfar Darom when they fell into Arab hands, after the inhabitants had either fled, or had been expelled.
In the battle of the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, for example, the Jordanian Arab Legion had blanketed the Quarter with an indiscriminate barrage of more than 10,000 artillery and mortar shells, reducing it to rubble. With only 36 of the original 300 defenders remaining, starving and out of ammunition, they surrendered on May 28. The inhabitants of the Quarter were then expelled, all buildings and dwellings were razed, the Hurva synagogue and 33 other houses of worship were destroyed, and the venerated cemetery on the Mount of Olives was desecrated. Colonel Abdullah el-Tal, commander of the Jordanian Arab Legion, in describing the destruction of the Jewish Quarter, wrote in his Memoirs (Cairo, 1959):
“… The operations of calculated destruction were set in motion…. I knew that the Jewish Quarter was densely populated with Jews who caused their fighters a good deal of interference and difficulty…. I embarked, therefore, on the shelling of the Quarter with mortars, creating harassment and destruction…. Only four days after our entry intoJerusalemthe Jewish Quarter had become their graveyard. Death and destruction reigned over it….”
“As the dawn of Friday, May 28, 1948, was about to break, the Jewish Quarter emerged convulsed in a black cloud – a cloud of death and agony…For the first time in 1,000 years not a single Jew remains in the Jewish Quarter. Not a single building remains intact. This makes the Jews’ return here impossible.”
In 1968, the Israeli rep to the UN spoke of the conditions following the Quarter’s surrender in 1948:
“After the cease-fire had entered into force and normal civilian administration had been restored inJerusalemlast June (1967), a shocking picture was unfolded of the results of this policy of wanton vandalism, desecration and violation perpetrated during the period ofJordanoccupation from 1948 onwards. In the Jewish Quarter all but one of the thirty-five Jewish houses of worship that graced the Old City of Jerusalem were found to have been wantonly destroyed. The synagogues had been razed or pillaged and stripped and their interiors used as hen-houses and stables.
In the ancient historic Jewish graveyard on theMount of Olives, tens of thousands of tombstones had been torn up, broken into pieces or used as flagstones, steps and building materials in Jordanian military installations and civilian constructions. Large areas of the cemetery had been leveled and converted into parking places and petrol-filling stations.”
The frankly expulsionist ambitions of the Arab forces during the war has received scant attention in the past; certainly today’s nakba-day protesters are unlikely to note them in their festivities. But Arab leaders made few bones about it at the time. Fawzi al-Qawuqji, commander of the Arab Liberation Army (ALA), told Al-Ahram on March 9, 1948 that the ALA was fighting for “the defeat of the partition and the annihilation of the Zionists.”
Among the catalogue of racist, expulsionist, and annihilationist sentiments expressed by the Mufti of Jerusalem, this was expressed on March 10, 1948 to the Jaffa daily Al Sarih, that preventing partition was not enough, and that they “would continue fighting until the Zionists were annihilated and the whole of Palestine became a purely Arab state.”
The truth is that the fate of every Jewish and Arab village or settlement during the war depended largely on the fortunes of war; the success of the Yishuv during this period thus saw the flight of more Arab refugees than Jewish ones because the Yishuv were now winning the war, and beating back the Arab and Palestinian militias. Had the Arab Legion, the Arab Liberation Army, and the other militias been successful in their attacks, the evidence of Etzion Bloc, the Jewish Quarter, and others make perfectly clear that it would have been the Jews of Kfar Szold, Yechiam, Magdiel, Ramot-Naftali, Mishmar Ha’emek, and Ramat Yohanon, along with those of Tel-Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem who would have been expelled and/or fleeing to safety, and seeing their cities, towns and kibbutzum razed to the ground—quite a nakba in itself.
Attacks by both sides in this period (early April to mid-May 1948) were launched with an eye toward the Arab invasion coming after the expiration of the British mandate on May 15—the Arab forces inside Palestine to secure strategic points to facilitate its success, the Yishuv to secure key areas to defend against it and thwart it. Each side saw the villages of the other as potential strongpoints and staging areas for hostile attacks in their rear, and against areas of strategic importance.
The Arab forces understood, for example, that capturing Mishmar Ha’emek would allow them to block the Wadi Milleh valley, isolate Haifa, and cut off all Jewish communications between Haifa, the surrounding area, and Tel-Aviv, thus opening up all of western Galilee and the Coastal Plain to isolation and conquest. After being attacked, the Yishuv similarly understood that if the surrounding villages from which the Arab Liberation Army had been gathering forces and launching their attacks were not conquered and secured, that the area would continue to be a staging ground for further assaults by even larger forces that had been gathering in the Jenin-Tulkharm-Nablus triangle, thus putting not only Mishmar Ha’emek, but Haifa, western Galilee, and the entire Coastal Plain in danger. This was war, after all.
Some Arab refugees were indeed expelled in this period but most simply fled, mostly long before any Jewish forces arrived; according to Benny Morris, the collapse of one village often led to the flight of near-by or surrounding villages:
“Often, the fall of villages harmed morale in neighboring towns (vide Khirbet Nasir ad Din and Arab Tiberias). Similarly, the fall of the towns—Tiberias, Haifa, Jaffa, Beisan, Safed—and the flight of their population generated panic in the surrounding hinterlands: after Haifa, came flight from Balad al Sheikh, and Hawassa; after Jaffa, Salama, Kheiriya and Yazur; after Safed, Dhahiriya Tahta, Sammu’I and Meirun. For decades the villagers had looked to the towns for leadership; now they followed them into exile.” (“The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, Revisited,” 2004, p. 591).
Only a small portion of Arab inhabitants of Jaffa, for example, had fled the attacks of the Irgun when the British arrived to eject the Irgun; most of the refugees there continued fleeing despite the pleas of local Arab leaders and the British for them to remain. In most cases there was no need for expulsions; rumor and panic put far more refugees to flight in this period than anything else.
The first Arab-Israeli war, whether it is called the “War of Independence” or “al-nakba” is of course the core event of the entire Israel/Palestinian conflict, and the events of Etzion Bloc and Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter in May, as well as Deir Yassin in April, and Lydda and Ramle in July 1948, all underscore an important truth: That this first Arab-Israeli war was no gentlemanly joust; that it was a brutal, uncompromising, sometimes savage war, fought in close quarters, sometimes hand to hand where regulars, irregulars, and civilians all confusingly intermingled. It was a high stakes, zero-sum game for both sides, and it is not surprising that in such circumstances atrocities, expulsions, and refugees fleeing did occur on both sides, as they do in all wars.
It is thus important to emphasize to the nakba day-commemorating legions here that the first Arab-Israeli War was indeed a war, and not just an assault by one side against a helpless victim. To portray it as such ignores entirely the military dimension of the conflict, and the role that the fighting played, among other things, in the flight of the refugees, and the subsequent collapse of Palestinian society. That the Palestinian people who became refugees were victims of the war is of course beyond doubt, but the truth is they were never consulted by their Arab brethren about the conflict that destroyed their livelihoods and dispossessed them from their homes; the decisions to resist the partition by force, and abort the nascent Jewish state was not made by them but by the Mufti and the rulers in the surrounding Arab states who took no heed of their wishes or aspirations, and even if the Arab states had defeated the Yishuv, they had no intention of allowing an independent Arab Palestine to emerge; all had their own designs on the area. In any event, what resulted from this was a bitterly fought war between two antagonists, and not just one long, extended, well planned ethnic cleansing operation that met negligible or meager resistance. The Palestinian people were caught in the crossfire, as, in many ways, they still are.
The cessation of hostilities produced a contentious and dispiriting epilogue to the conflict. Following the armistice and Israel’s admission to the UN, the Israelis, consistent with their obligations in gaining UN membership and Resolution 194, offered to resettle some 100,000 or so refugees in Israel at the Lausanne Conference; the Arabs rejected the offer without discussion. The Arabs, as with all previous discussions, refused direct dealings with the Israelis, and demanded acceptance of the refugees’ repatriation in full as a precondition to further talks. The Israelis insisted on discussions of the refugee problem in the context of a full regional peace; the Arabs refused, and the discussions broke down.
The state of Israel in its post-armistice configuration resulted from the war and the Israelis, understandably, I think, were not going to negate the results of the war in which they had just sacrificed 1% of their population and return to the vulnerable partition lines of 1947 which a) the Arabs had rejected anyway, and b) while the Arabs continued a state of hostilities and a policy of non-recognition.
The full return of the refugees to Israel in 1949 with the surrounding states still in the midst of a state of hostilities would have put some 750,000 (or more) Palestinians along with some 160,000 remaining Palestinians alongside some 650,000 Jews, thus making the Jews a (41%) minority in their own state. This would seem to have blunted the Jewish people’s right to self-determination, and negated the entire reason for the creation of the Jewish state in the first place.
The Arabs, in effect, were demanding that prior to any negotiations, the Israelis must take into their state over three quarter of a million refugees, created by the war of aggression waged by them, thus making the Jews a 41% minority in their own state. Then they would negotiate, and without any assurance that even this would impel them to make peace with Israel. The Israelis, in effect, would thus flood their war-ravaged state with hostile Arab refugees in order to obtain a seat at the table with the Arabs, and then hope for the best in the negotiations to follow. Really incredible.
Jewish self-determination did not need to come at the price of the Palestinians’ exodus. The Palestinians, who also had a right to self determination that the Jews never denied, certainly would have had it if they and the surrounding Arab states had accepted the partition. Rejecting the partition and opting for war had consequences.
After the Arabs opted for war, the refugee problem caused by the war was probably never realistically going to be settled inside Israel except on a limited basis. The notion that the Israelis would have negated the results of the war of annihilation waged on them and rendered themselves a minority by those who had just attempted their annihilation was always absurd. Most of all, since when do the losers of a war dictate terms to the victors?
What the evidence really shows is that the nakba was sired from the war, and the war from the Arabs’ rejectionism, lack of realism, and still-persisting allergy to compromise that made it inevitable. The war resulted from the Arabs’ rejection of the partition, and the refugee crisis resulted from the war. Again, the chain of causation here is simply undeniable: there would have been no refugee crisis if there had been no war.
Having rejected diplomacy and compromise, the Arabs sought the arbitration of force; it was to be a war of annihilation. Ever since the announcement of the partition in November 1947, they sought to destroy the nascent Jewish state, failed, suffered catastrophe and defeat in the process, and, as usual, blamed everyone but themselves, and still do. The nakba was indeed needlessly self-inflicted by them, and the refugees and their descendants have paid a horrific price for their unpardonable folly and intransigence. They still do.