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Nakba Day: Why Israel did not allow refugees to ‘return’ after the 1948 war

Palestine refugees making their way from the Galilee in October–November 1948. (Wikipedia)
Palestine refugees making their way from the Galilee in October–November 1948. (Wikipedia)

Social and other media was busy blaming Israel for wrongdoing this past May 15th, the so-called “Nakba Day,” which commemorates and laments the displacement of approximately 700,000 Arabs as a consequence of the 1948 war between Jews and Arabs.[i] This article will not delve into the never ending debate whether these Arabs fled or were expelled by Jews during the war. Serious scholarship shows that there was a combination of the two events, with a large majority of Arabs fleeing the conflict as happens during war, while some were expelled, often in the context of the war. Anti-Israel discourse maintains that Jews had pre-planned and then implemented wholesale expulsion, but the evidence does not back this claim.[ii] These same anti-Israel scholars and activists always ignore Arab rejection of partition, Arab launching of the civil war against Jews in November 1947 and the invasion by several Arab states determined to destroy the new Jewish state as factors which caused Arab flight.

In the context of Nakba Day, I recently had a discussion with a fair minded person as to why Israel did not allow Arab refugees to return to their villages inside the newly formed state of Israel after the war ended in Jewish victory. True, we agreed, Arabs rejected the partition plan that would have created an Arab state, launched an attack against the new Jewish state, and the refugee crisis was mainly a consequence of the war. Nevertheless the discussion questioned why couldn’t Israel allow Arab civilians to simply return to their villages after the war? Wouldn’t that have been the right thing to do after Israel won, regardless of who started the conflict and regardless of the fact that no international law actually mandated such a “return”? (UN Resolution 194 neither mandates return nor comprises international law; there has never been an international law that compels a sovereign state to accept persons into its territory against its wishes). The question is reasonable but has many clear answers:

Allowing refugees to return was not the norm in the 1940s – The fact is that in the 1940s allowing refugees to “return” was simply not expected behavior post conflict. Millions of Germans were permanently forced out of eastern European nations following World War II. Massive population exchanges were seen in India and Pakistan around the same time. Allowing Arab refugees to return to areas inside Israel following a war that was started by Arabs was well outside of international expectations in 1949, particularly considering Israel’s absorption of 800,000 Jewish refugees expelled from Arab nations soon thereafter. Israel considered the two refugee groups as effectively an exchange of populations similar to several other post-conflict situations in the first half of the twentieth century.

Arabs refused to make peace with Israel after the war ended – This is perhaps the most obvious reason. A gesture of peace and goodwill to allow refugees to return would seemingly only make sense if the hostile parties to the conflict agreed to a definitive peace. But the Arab nations indicated the exact opposite, agreeing only to armistice agreements and making it clear that a state of war remained. Jewish leadership believed that Arabs were preparing for another round of conflict, and statements by Arab leaders conveyed continued hostility. It made absolutely no sense for the new Jewish state to allow several hundred thousand Arabs to enter Israel when the Arab world remained actively hostile to the existence of Israel and Jewish sovereignty.

Palestinian leadership collaborated with Hitler – This aspect of Palestinian history is generally buried in anti-Israel discourse but certainly played a role in Jewish thinking at the time. Palestinian leader Haj Amin al-Husseini collaborated with Hitler and the Nazis in World War II and after the war returned to the Middle East to actively work against the partition plan and the new Jewish state. The new Jewish state was loathe to accept the return of a population who for a significant amount of time was led by an individual who collaborated with the main perpetrator of the Holocaust.

Arabs spoke in genocidal terms only three years after the Holocaust – The Arab nations who invaded the new state of Israel did not just seek to stop a Jewish state from forming, but their leaders spoke about the destruction of the Jewish people (e.g. comments by Azzam Pasha, Secretary-General of the Arab League). This came only three years removed from the murder of 40% of world Jewry. It did not make sense for Israel to be unusually generous to the Arab refugee population when the Arab leadership spoke of the further destruction of the Jewish people soon after the Holocaust, and did not change their bellicose discourse post war.

Struggling Israeli Post-War Economy – The new state of Israel suffered heavy losses, with 6,000 persons killed (1% of the Jewish population), and its economy was in weak shape as would be expected after a long war. Israel was in a difficult position to care for its own citizens let alone several hundred thousand refugees. For several years after the war Israel imposed austerity measures (known as Tzena) due to shortages of food and foreign currency. Israel was simply not economically in a position to absorb hundreds of thousands of Arab refugees. Perhaps in the context of a regional peace agreement and collaboration to build a post-war economy taking in refugees would have been possible, but as discussed, Arab nations were clear in maintaining active hostility.

Israel had its own refugee crisis to manage – The new state of Israel had to deal with its own refugee crisis, absorbing 200,000 Holocaust survivors and hundred of thousands of Jews who were forced to leave Arab nations with no compensation. Over a few years post-1948 this combined refugee population exceeded 1 million persons. Today’s anti-Israel discourse continues to treat the Arab refugee population as deserving of “return” and reparations, but ignores a similar number of Jewish refugees who were also displaced and never compensated.

Arabs had no intention of reciprocating – Arabs expelled Jews from all areas under its control during the 1948 war and did not allow Jews to return or reclaim their property. While the numbers were much smaller on the Jewish side, it was clear that Jews were not welcome in Arab controlled areas and there was no expectation that Jews would be allowed to return or reclaim property. Most notably, the ancient Jewish community in the Old City of Jerusalem was expelled in full and dozens of synagogues razed. At the same time, about 150,000 Arabs who did not flee the war remained inside the new Jewish state and today comprise 2 million Arab citizens of Israel with full democratic rights. It made no sense for Israel to accept Arab refugees, but Jordan was not obligated to restore the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem to its Jewish residents.

[i] e.g. See Mehdi Hassan Show video clip at https://twitter.com/mehdirhasan/status/1526984941615169541

[ii] See article from by Benny Morris, October 2016: https://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-ethnic-cleansing-and-pro-arab-propaganda-1.5452143

About the Author
Salo Aizenberg is an author and writer, having published "Hatemail: Anti-Semitism on Picture Postcards" which was nominated as a finalist for the National Jewish Book Awards, and other insightful articles about the Israel-Palestine conflict. Salo owns and manages Downtown Investment Advisory, an investment firm based in White Plains, NY.
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