Robert Werdine

The Arabs’ betrayal of the Palestinians

 I have been much moved by Mr. Phillipe Assouline’s most recent contribution here at the Times on the subject of Jewish refugees, much as I have been similarly moved by Lyn Julius’ authorative and thought provoking contributions on the subject. Reading Mr. Assouline’s piece, I see that he has touched on a little-discussed subject that I here develop in a bit more detail: the role of the Arab states in creating and abetting the refugee crisis of 1948.  

Palestinian Arab leadership at the time the partition was passed in November 1947, such as it was, was mostly localized and tribal, and this accounted for one of the principal factors behind the refugees’ exodus: the flight of so many high ranking Arab functionaries.

Said High Commissioner Sir Alan Cunningham in the spring of 1948:

“You should know that the collapsing Arab morale in Palestineis in some measure due to the increasing tendency of those who should be leading them to leave the country. . . . For instance, in Jaffa the mayor went on four-day leave 12 days ago and has not returned, and half the national committee has left. In Haifa the Arab members of the municipality left some time ago; the two leaders of the Arab Liberation Army left actually during the recent battle. Now the chief Arab magistrate has left. In all parts of the country the effendi class has been evacuating in large numbers over a considerable period and the tempo is increasing”

Arif al-Arif, a prominent Arab politician during the Mandate, described the prevailing atmosphere at the time:

“Wherever one went throughout the country one heard the same refrain: ‘Where are the leaders who should show us the way? Where is the AHC? Why are its members in Egypt at a time when Palestine, their own country, needs them?’”

 This sorry and leaderless state of affairs in Arab Palestine in the months following the partition vote requires some explication. The Mufti, Haj Amin al-Husayni, was widely hated and feared among the Palestinians, and, indeed, it should be pointed out that the victims of the Mufti since the 1920’s were overwhelmingly Arab, not Jewish. In the late 1920’s and the early 1930’s the Mufti set about murdering and intimidating opponents in order to consolidate his influence and power throughout Palestine—the same methods, essentially, that Al Capone was using to tighten his grip on Chicago’s underworld at that very time. The Mufti’s campaign of murder and intimidation focused most heavily on Arab moderates who engaged in or sought friendly co-existence with the Jews. By 1947 the Husaynis’ anti-opposition terrorism against the Nashashibis and others in the previous years had largely eliminated rivals for their power by this time. Though the Mufti left Palestine during the Revolt in the late 30’s, and he never had anything that could be called a constituency there, he always had agents and supporters all over Palestine that were directly answerable to him and his brother. For the British Mandatory government, the Mufti and his brother were the ones with whom Atlee and Cunningham dealt.

But in late 1947, Arab Palestine was largely leaderless. It is true that the AHC was, ostensibly, the recognized leadership, such as it was, of Arab Palestine, but the truth is that the other Arab leaders simply overrode and marginalized the Mufti when it suited them, and this was often. There were thus many strings pulling and leveraging for power inPalestinefrom the outside, and by all accounts many Palestinians deeply resented the activities of the outside powers and their militias for dragging them into the conflict, and this intensified as the Arab forces began to lose the war.

The refugees’ disillusionment with their leaders who were fleeing en masse and fellow Arabs is further reflected in a New York Times story dated May 2nd, 1948 titled, “Despair is Voiced by Arab Refugees: Evacuees from Palestine say Jews Crash Through Weak Resistance by Volunteers.” The article touches upon an unpleasant and little discussed subject: the anger and resentment of the refugees not only toward the ineptitude and folly of their own leaders, but their anger and distrust of their Arab brethren in the surrounding states.

Said the article:

“Talk of Arab governments rescuing Palestine sounds like another case of too little too late…The Arab Liberation Army of Yarmuk was described by the refugees as a hodgepodge collection of adventurers, ne’er-do-wells, and soap box orators who had never numbered more than 3000, and who had relied on Palestinian villagers for cannon fodder.


The reported agreement by five Arab states to wipe out the Zionist state meets with skepticism from the refugees. With an air of disillusionment, they point out that the so-called Arab War Council of five states that met last week in Amman, the capital of Trans-Jordan, had included no Palestinian Arab.”

The skepticism and the anger were well founded. As Efraim Karsh has written:

“Even the ultimate war victims—the survivors of Deir Yassin—did not escape their share of indignities. Finding refuge in the neighboring village of Silwan, many were soon at loggerheads with the locals, to the point where on April 14, a mere five days after the tragedy, a Silwan delegation approached the AHC’s Jerusalem office demanding that the survivors be transferred elsewhere. No help for their relocation was forthcoming.


Some localities flatly refused to accept refugees at all, for fear of overstraining existing resources. InAcre, the authorities prevented Arabs fleeing Haifa from disembarking; in Ramallah, the predominantly Christian population organized its own militia—not so much to fight the Jews as to fend off the new Muslim arrivals. Many exploited the plight of the refugees unabashedly, especially by fleecing them for such basic necessities as transportation and accommodation.”

Karsh cites the observations of Sir John Troutbeck, head of the British Middle East office inCairo(and no friend toIsraelor the Jews) while on a fact-finding mission inGazain June 1949. The refugees, said Troutbeck,  

 “express no bitterness against the Jews (or for that matter against the Americans or ourselves) they speak with the utmost bitterness of the Egyptians and other Arab states. “We know who our enemies are,” they will say, and they are referring to their Arab brothers who, they declare, persuaded them unnecessarily to leave their homes. . . . I even heard it said that many of the refugees would give a welcome to the Israelis if they were to come in and take the district over.”

The point is not that the refugees did not blame the Jews for their plight; they did. But these snapshots by the NYT article and Karsh’s quote from Sir John Troutbeck reveal a more complex portrait of the refugees’ feelings at the time that we seldom see: their feelings of betrayal and abandonment by their leaders and fellow Arabs, and the often shabby treatment they received at their hands.

From the very beginning, they were never allowed any say in the activities of the Mufti’s militias or the ALA, which disrupted their lives and destroyed their livelihoods, and whatever objections were voiced by them would have carried little weight with either the Mufti or the members of the Arab League, both of whom simply rode roughshod over them. The states who never had the slightest intention of allowing an independent Palestine, and later annexed the West Bank, occupied Gaza, and sometimes violently suppressed any hint of independent Palestinian national aspirations, were unlikely to indulge such considerations.

I honestly do not know what percentage of the Palestinian people rejected the partition and/or peaceful co-existence with the Jews, but the representative of the Jewish Agency told the UN Security Council on March 19, 1948, that “if left alone, considerable sections of Palestinian Arabs would be willing to cooperate or acquiesce (in the partition), but that armed intervention by neighboring (Arab) States completely changed that situation.”

The war effort was thus not being waged by a unified Palestinian people, but by outside interests who took not the slightest heed of their interests or desires, and who in fact openly coveted control of Palestine for themselves. This was reflected in the intense rivalry between the Mufti and the nations of the Arab League, who often sidelined and overrode the Mufti as often as they both did to the Palestinians. Each hated and distrusted the other, and both had their own designs on Palestine.

After the passing of the partition vote, there were contentious disputes between the Mufti and the Arab League about who would lead the Arab war effort. The Husaynis fought hard but failed to prevent the Arab Liberation Army from being commanded by one of the Mufti’s most bitter rivals, Fawzi al-Qawuqji. The Mufti accused Qawuqji of “spying for Britian, drinking wine, and running after women.” The Mufti further complained, correctly, that the ALA would deprive his forces of much needed arms and supplies, though he did manage to secure appointments of two of his protégés, Abd al-Qader al-Husayni, commander of the Jerusalem Front (and cousin of the Mufti), and Hasan Salame, commander of the Lydda Front into the Jaysh al-Jihad al-Muqaddas (“Army of the Holy War”). The Husaynis regarded the ALA(and its commander, Fawzi al-Qawuqji) as a rival to their own efforts, and the feeling was mutual: the Arab league had set up the ALA precisely to counter the designs and influence of the Mufti. ‘Abdullah of Jordan set up his own force (the Arab Legion) to thwart those of both the Mufti and the ALA, and Farouk of Egypt set himself against the Mufti, ‘Abdullah, and the ALA, saying: “The Arabs ought to get rid of all three of them: the Mufti, Abdullah, and Qawuqji.”

What a stirring portrait of inter-Arab unity and resolve!

These conflicting egos and ambitions, which often had the Mufti and the nations of the League working at cross purposes, and did much to hamper the Arab war effort, made for a priceless gift to the Yishuv as the war went on.

It is thus crucial to remember, and never to forget, that the events which led to the flight of the refugees did not occur in a vacuum. Arabs had been fleeing Palestine ever since the outbreak of the violence following the partition. Certainly, later on, after Deir Yassin, and the hysterical broadcasts exaggerating the scale of what actually occurred, sowed panic and (unintentionally) influenced the flight of the refugees, but the violence of the fighting in the towns and villages—especially in the intensification of the fighting from April onwards, the flight of so many high ranking Arab functionaries, and the near total breakdown in services also played a role in the exodus of the refugees throughout the 1948 War.

 This is not to deny that there were not some expulsions at Lydda and elsewhere; there were, but the numbers of those expelled were rather few compared to the over total; most of these took place in the context of the village to village fighting that made every locale an actual and potential battleground—something that was inevitable given the enmeshing of Jewish and Arab population centers. All Palestine was a war zone in those days, and, in general, Palestinian Arab society had always been governed by a somewhat fragile and incohesive polity at that time, and it simply collapsed under the strain of the conflict, as did countless other societies in Europe during World War Two. When war comes to your village, it is only human to want to get out of the way until it is over.

The attempts to rewrite the events of 1948 into an atrocity portraying the planned, deliberate ethnic cleansing of over three-quarters of a million Palestinians is distortion of the historical record, and a slander on the state ofIsrael. If the Arabs had compromised and accepted the creation of a Palestinian state in 1947, there would have been no war and no refugee crisis and everybody knows it. The attempts to take a tragic, complex historical event and reduce it to a simplistic, one-sided caricature is a testimonial to how politics and ideology have been, and are, polluting and distorting the writing, reading, and interpretation of history.

Arab leaders all undertook their crusade to abort the nascent Jewish state with an eye toward grabbing as much of Palestine for themselves as they could conquer, with a total disregard for what this war would involve, or any concern for what it portended for the Arabs of Palestine, whose villages would be the very battleground upon which the war would be fought. The Palestinian refugee problem was the progenitor of the Arab-Israeli conflict as we know it, and over the years, time and again, the refugee problem created by the war would be a catalyst for conflict and instability: the border terrorism that led to the 1956 and 1967 wars, the War of Attrition, the near destruction of the Hashemite monarchy in 1970, the Yom Kippur War, the destabilization of Lebanon from the mid-70’s to the late 80’s, and, of course, two intifadas.  

The silence and indifference of the UN and most of the world’s “human rights” community toward the continuing exploitation of the Palestinians, and their aiding and abetting of the terrorists and rejectionists whose agendas are served by their sufferings, is nothing short of scandalous. People whose consciences are provoked to outrage and protest at settlements on vacant land in the West Bank, but who can gaze casually and silently at the prospect of scores of humanity rotting in squalid refugee camps for decades of enforced misery, have forfeited even the semblance of moral seriousness, and are themselves guilty of a noxious relativism.  

It is possible to look at it upside down and sideways and it all comes down to this: there would have been no refugee crisis if there had been no war, and there would have been no war if the surrounding Arab states had not rejected the partition. From the moment it passed the General Assembly the Arab states have literally organized their whole polity toward denying any Jewish sovereign state whatever its size, and to delegitimizing and destroying it when it was established. Just imagine everything that Arabs and Jews in Palestine could have been to one another in peace and friendship and what the lives of the Palestinians and the other Arabs would be like today if they had decided to live in peace and accept the partition instead of devoting lives, resources and prodigies of energy down the sinkhole of this wasteful, futile, and destructive obsession. For the thought of what might have been, and what has been lost, it’s almost too painful to contemplate.

About the Author
Robert Werdine lives in Michigan City, Indiana, USA. He studied at Indiana University, Purdue University, and Christ Church College at Oxford and is self-employed. He is currently pursuing advanced degrees in education and in Middle Eastern Studies.