Nur Masalha: Israel's Moral Responsibility Towards the Palestinian Refugees

January 09, 2016

I. The Concept of "Transfer"/Expulsion in Mainstream Zionism, 1882-1948

Zionist historiography provides ample evidence suggesting that from the very beginning of the Zionist Yishuv (settlement) in Palestine the attitude of the majority of the Zionist groups toward the native Arab population ranged from a mixture of indifference and patronizing superiority, to outright denial of their national rights, and uprooting and transferring them to neighbouring countries. Leading figures such as Israel Zangwill, a prominent Anglo-Jewish writer, a close lieutenant of Theodor Herzl (the founder of political Zionism) and propagator of the transfer solution, worked relentlessly to propagandize the slogan that Palestine was "a land without a people for a people without a land."

More revealing, however, is the anecdote Weizmann (Israel's first President) once told Arthur Ruppin, the head of the colonization department of the Jewish Agency, about how he (Weizmann) obtained the Balfour Declaration in 1917. When Ruppin asked what he thought about the indigenous Palestinians, Weizmann said: "The British told us that there are some hundred thousand negroes ["kushim"] and for those there is no value." A few years after the Zionist movement obtained the Balfour Declaration, Zangwill wrote: "If Lord Shaftesbury was literally inexact in describing Palestine as a country without a people, he was essentially correct, for there is no Arab people living in intimate fusion with the country, utilising its resources and stamping it with a characteristic impress; there is at best an Arab encampment." The same myth of "empty territory" ("a land without a people for a people without a land") runs through Zionist state education in Israel and finds strong expression in children's literature.

The 1948 Palestinian refugee exodus was the culmination of over half a century of Zionist efforts, secret plans and brute force. From the beginning of the Zionist enterprise to found a Jewish National Home in Palestine, the Zionists had been confronted with what they termed as the "Arab Problem"- the fact that Palestine was already populated. One of the proposed solutions to that problem was the "transfer" solution - a euphemism denoting the organised removal of the Palestinian population to neighbouring Arab lands. "Transfer" is the term used often by both the Jewish Yishuv and in Israel to indicate what nowadays is called "ethnic cleansing". In the pre-1948 period, the transfer concept was embraced by the highest level of leadership, including virtually all the founding fathers of the Israeli state and representing almost the entire political spectrum.

Available evidence (based on Israeli archival documents) shows that the "big three": Weizmann, David Ben-Gurion (the first Prime Minister and Defence Minister) and Moshe Sharett, (the first Foreign Minister and second Prime Minister) endorsed "transfer" in the period between 1937-1948 and had anticipated "the clearing of the land" in 1948.

But perhaps the most consistent, extremist and obsessive advocate of "compulsory transfer" was Yosef Weitz, the director of the Settlement Department of Jewish National Fund (JNF) and the head of the Israeli government's official Transfer Committee of 1948. Weitz was at the centre of the Zionist land purchasing activities for decades. His intimate knowledge and involvement in land purchase made him sharply aware of its limitations. As late as 1947, after half a century of tireless efforts, the collective ownership of the JNF - which constituted about half of the Yishuv total- amounted to a mere 3.5 percent of the land area of Palestine.

A summary of Weitz's political beliefs is provided in his diary entry dated 20 December 1940: "Amongst ourselves it must be clear that there is no room for both peoples in this country. There is no room for compromise on this point ... land purchasing ... will not bring about the state; ... The only way is to transfer the Arabs from here to neighbouring countries."

From the mid-1930s onwards the transfer solution became central to the assessments of the Jewish Agency (practically the government of the Yishuv). Between 1937 and 1948 very extensive secret discussions concerning Arab transfer were held in the Zionist movement's highest bodies.

Various official and non-official secret "Transfer Committees" were established. There was a general endorsement of transfer (in different forms: voluntary, agreed and compulsory) in order to achieve two crucial objectives: a) to clear the land for Jewish settlers and would-be immigrants; b) to establish a fairly homogenous Jewish state.

II. The 1948 Exodus: Extensively Documented Expulsion Policies in 1948 - History Speaks for Itself

Israeli revisionist/new historians (including Benny Morris, Ilan Pappe, Avi Shlaim, Simha Flapan, Tom Segev, Uri Milstein) as well as Palestinian historians and scholars (including Nur Masalha, Walid Khalidi, Sharif Kana'aneh, Nafez Nazzal) have extensively documented over the last 15 years the expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948. The available evidence shows that the evacuation of some three quarters of a million Palestinians in 1948 can only be ascribed to the culmination of Zionist transfer/expulsion policies and outright massacres.

Israeli military historian Arieh Yitzhaki states that about ten major massacres were committed by Jewish forces in 1948-49 - during military assault by Jewish troops with more than 50 victims in each massacre - and about one hundred smaller massacres (of individuals or small groups).

According to Yitzhaki, these massacres (large and small) had a devastating impact on the Palestinian population, by precipitating the Arab exodus. Yitzhaki went further to suggest that almost in every village there were murders. Key examples of massacres and expulsions which occurred in 1948 are:

Dayr Yasin Massacre: Dayr Yasin was the site of the most notorious massacre perpetrated against Palestinian civilians in 1948. On 9 April 1948 over 250 unarmed villagers were murdered, including women, elderly and children. Most recent Israeli writers have no difficulty in acknowledging the Dayr Yasin massacre and its effect, if not intention, of precipitating the exodus.

The Gun Point Expulsion of Lydda and Ramle: On 12-13 July 1948. Over 60,000 Palestinians were expelled from the twin towns at gun point (Ben-Gurion and three senior army officers were directly involved: Yigal Allon, Yitzhak Rabin and Moshe Dayan.). One Israeli witness described the spoor: the refugee column "to begin with [jettisoned] utensils and furniture and, in the end, bodies of men, women and children....."

Al-Dawayma Massacre: In 1948 al-Dawayma was a very large village, with a population of some 3,500, situated in the western Hebron hills. Like Dayr Yasin, al-Dawayma was unarmed. It was captured on 29 October 1948 without a fight. The massacre of 80-100 villagers was carried at the end of October 1948, not in the heat of the battle but after the Israeli army had clearly emerged victorious in the war. Various evidence indicates that the atrocities were committed in and around the village, including at the mosque and in the cave nearby, that houses with old people locked inside were blown up, and that there were several cases of the shooting and raping of women.

III. The Post Creation of the State of Israel Period

Since 1949, Israel has consistently rejected a return of the 1948 refugees to their homes and villages; it has always refused to accept responsibility for the refugees and views them as the responsibility of the Arab countries in which they reside. The Israelis did not want the refugees back under any condition because they needed their lands and their villages for Jewish immigrants. Nor did they want the repatriation of an Arab population that would question the Zionist-Jewish character of the state of Israel and undermine it demographically.

In the 1950s one key slogan coined by senior Israeli Foreign Ministry officials was: "If you cannot solve it-- dissolve it," meaning if you cannot solve the Palestinian refugee problem, as a political problem, you can try to "dissolve" the problem and disperse the refugees through economic means and employment projects. In October 1949, the Israeli Government's Transfer Committee was reconstituted as the Compensation Committee and submitted its recommendations six months later. It recommended that in the context of an overall settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict Israel should make a single, global payment of compensation for rural refugee property, for undamaged urban property, and for bank accounts. The Committee advised against the payment of compensation for the Arab share of state land and against making individual restitution payments for individual refugees.

In 1953 the Israeli government made another attempt to work out a policy on restitution of refugee property by appointing in June a new committee. The committee's recommendations were submitted in December 1953 suggesting that Israel should contribute $100 million, on account of the overall restitution bill, to an international fund, which would be created in order to initiate collective resettlement projects in Arab countries. This willingness to contribute a share towards the financial cost of compensation was encouraged by the anticipated increase in foreign currency liquidity as a result of the Reparations Agreement with the Federal Republic of Germany, signed earlier in September 1952. About the same time various Israeli estimates of the global value of total movable and immovable Palestinian refugee property were close to $350 million.

With regard to the Palestinian minority remaining under Israeli control, the creation of Israel did not alter Zionism's premises and fundamentals. Indeed, the principal objectives of the Israeli state, as defined in terms of its Zionist ideology, is the fulfillment of the Jewish majority's aspirations, and those of would-be Jewish immigrants, frequently at the expense of the aspirations of the Palestinian minority. The most influential leaders, including Ben-Gurion, supported in the 1950s various schemes aimed at further reducing the Arab minority. The Israeli State Archives in Jerusalem contain tens of official files with extensive information pertaining to Israel's policies toward the Arab minority, including what is usually described in Israel as "population transfers". The State of Israel swiftly imposed a military government in the areas inhabited by the Arab minority, expropriated over half of the lands of this "non?Jewish" population, and pursued various policies of demographic containment, political control, exclusionary domination, and systematic discrimination in all spheres of life.

Officially the purpose of imposing martial law and military government on Israel's Arab minority was security. However, its establishment, which lasted until 1966, was intended to serve a number of both stated and concealed objectives. The first objective was to prevent the return of the Palestinian refugees, or "infiltrators" in Israeli terminology, to their homes. "In the process other Arabs who had not infiltrated the country were sometimes driven out as well" ; a second goal was to evacuate semi?abandoned [Arab] neighborhoods and villages as well as some which had not been abandoned--and to transfer their inhabitants to other parts of the country, in order to make room for Jews. Only, this time, the victims were Israeli Arabs, many with Israeli residency papers. However, the Israeli authorities did not stop at transfer and expulsions of the Arab minority; several massacres were committed by the Israeli military long after the 1948 war ended.

The Expulsion of the Inhabitants of the Town of al-Majdal to Gaza: In the summer of 1950, the remaining 2,700 inhabitants of the southern Arab town of al-Majdal, which on the eve of the war had 10,000 inhabitants (now called Ashkelon), were transported to the border of the Gaza Strip over a period of a few weeks.

The Expulsion of the Negev Bedouin, 1949-1959: The Negev, which according to the 1947 UN Partition Plan, had been included in the areas allotted to the Palestinian Arab state was an early focus of expulsion activities. After its occupation, Prime Minister Ben-Gurion in particular had been anxious to populate the Negev with Jews. Benny Morris quotes an Israel Foreign Ministry report as stating that during 1949?53 "Israel expelled all told `close' to 17,000 Negev bedouin, not all of them alleged infiltrators."

The 'Azazme Tribe Massacre: In March 1955, members of the `Azazme tribe, including women and children, suffered a massacre at the hands of the notorious "Unit 101" of the Israeli army, which had been created by Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan in 1953. Commanded by Ariel Sharon and patronised in particular by Ben-Gurion, Unit 101 was considered the "bayonet" of the army and carried out numerous raids against Arab targets across the border.

The Massacre of Kafr Qassim: This most infamous massacre was perpetrated by the Israeli military in execution of the most dramatic expulsion plan of 'Israeli Arabs', the secret 'Operation Hafarferet'. The essence of this secret plan, revealed for the first time on 25 October 1991 by the Hebrew newspaper Hadashot, was to expel the Arab inhabitants of the 'Little Triangle' (over 40,000 Israeli Arab citizens), apparently to Jordan. Hadashot established that the slaughter was carried out against the background of military plan devised by the Israeli army on the eve of the 1956 war.

On 29 October 1956, the day the Israeli army launched its attack on Egypt in the south, the Israeli Border Police carried out a large massacre in the Israeli Arab village of Kafr Qassim, in the Little Triangle bordering the West Bank. Ostensibly, the cause of this extensively documented massacre was the breaking of a curfew by the victims, who were not aware that a curfew had been imposed on their village and neighbouring Arab communities.

The battalion [brigade] commander in charge of imposing the curfew [Shadmi] told the unit commander [Malinki] that the curfew must be extremely strict. When Malinki asked what was to happen to a man returning from his work outside the village, without knowing about the curfew, who might well meet the Border Police units at the entrance to the village, Shadmi replied: "I don't want any sentimentality" and "That's just too bad for him." Only 30 minutes separated the announcement of the curfew from its harsh enforcement, and the villagers deliberately had been given no cause for the treatment they received. Within an hour of the curfew, between 5 and 6 P.M., 47 villagers returning from work were killed. The 43 killed at the western entrance of Kafr Qassim included seven boys and girls and nine women between the ages of 18 and 61.

Operation Hafarferet" was a contingency plan formulated under the direction of Dayan. This military plan was designed on the eve of the 1956 Sinai War to evacuate the Arab population of the Little Triangle by force, within the framework of a possible war with Jordan. In the course of the preparation for the 1956 war, "Operation Hafarferet" was taken off the shelf but its implementation canceled at the highest level in conjunction with the cancellation of the war plans against Jordan. It is not clear, however, when Operation Hafarferet was returned to the shelf and when Major Malinki received the cancellation notice. In the circumstances, Malinki later testified in Shadmi's trial, "Operation Hafarferet was most suitable, because the cancellation of the war situation in the Jordanian sector was not absolute; Shadmi said that our role is defensive, but there is room for change....If Shadmi was saying that the policy of [people] in high level was not to harm the Arab minority, and that the Arabs should be treated as citizens of the state, I would have canceled my orders immediately. But there was no trace of these words [in Shadmi's orders]."

The Expulsion of Galilee Bedouin (by Yitzhak Rabin): Operation Hafarferet, although resulting in the infamous massacre of Kafr Qassim, was never implemented fully. Jordan gave Israel no pretext for full implementation. However, it must be seen as part of a general tendency among the politico?military establishment in Israel to exploit the 1956 war to carry out large?scale expulsions of Israeli Arab communities, particularly those situated along the borders, in the name of security. On 30 October 1956, only one day after the Kafr Qassim massacre, General Yitzhak Rabin, then Commanding Officer of the Northern Command, exploited the attack against Egypt in the south to carry out a mass expulsion of Israeli Arabs across the northern border into Syria. This little?known episode, which was revealed by Rabin himself in his "Service Notebook", involved the expulsion to Syria of 2,000?5,000 inhabitants of the two villages Krad al-Ghannama and Krad al? Baqqara, to the south of Lake Hula.

IV. The 1956-1957 Occupation of the Gaza Strip and Sinai

Again, the Israeli military did not miss the opportunity of reducing the Arab minority, whether by expulsion or massacre, during its occupation of the Gaza Strip and Sinai.

The Massacres of Khan Yunis and Rafah, 3 and 12 November 1956: According to an account in The New York Times of 2 December 1956, "United Nations truce personnel said their information indicated that 400 to 500 persons were killed at Khan Yunis during the first days of the occupation, 700 at Rafah and thirty to fifty in the town of Gaza."

Other Atrocities in Sinai, November 1956: On 4 August 1995, the Hebrew daily Ma'ariv revealed some details of large-scale atrocities for the first time. In late October and early November 1956 orders were given that resulted in murdering some 273 unarmed Egyptian prisoners during the Sinai War. This figure included 49 Egyptian civilian road workers, who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

V. The 1967 Exodus: Why Did the Palestinians Leave?

In total some 320,000 Palestinians were expelled from the West Bank and Gaza in the course of the 1967 hostilities or shortly after.

The Israeli government, the Dayan-headed Defense Ministry, and the Mossad (the Israeli external secret service) resorted, by and large, to discreet "transfer" activities in the aftermath of the June war. This method of secret transfer activities, as well as transfer discussions at cabinet level, gradually had been revealed by Israeli journalists and researchers as well as politicians. Less than two weeks after the Israeli victory in the war of June 1967, the Eshkol cabinet convened for a number of secret meetings, held between the 15 and 19 June 1967, to discuss a major issue:

What to do about the "demographic problem"--the fact that the bulk of the Arab population of the territories--contrary to 1948--remain in situ. The official transcript of the meeting remains secret. The product of the June discussions was a "voluntary" transfer plan, designed to "thin out" the population of the West Bank including the Old City of Jerusalem and Gaza, which later became known as the Moshe Dayan plan.

The Eviction and Destruction of the al-Magharbe Quarter (in the Old City of Jerusalem): The June 1967 war began suddenly and ended quickly. In his recent book Intimate Enemies (1995), Meron Benvenisti, former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, writes: "At the end of the 1967 war, there were attempts to implement a forced population transfer. Residents of cities and villages in areas near the cease-fire line were expelled from their homes and their communities destroyed; the Israeli authorities offered financial 'incentives' and free transportation to Palestinians willing to leave....." Among the first evictees were the residents of the ancient al-Magharbe quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem. They were turned out of their homes on 11 June, two days after the capture of East Jerusalem by the Israeli military, after 3 hours' notice. Commenting on those responsible for the deed, Uzi Benziman, a Haaaretz, journalist explained: "Those who were presiding over the destruction of the [Arab] neighbourhood assumed that their action was motivated neither by security [considerations] nor by mere town planning. They were driven that night [10-11 June] by an almost mystical feeling: that, in their eyes, they were the representatives of the Jewish people, who came to assert [Jewish] sovereignty over its most sacred site........the fate of 135 Arab families, who were the victims of these desires, was of no concern to them." Also, in the Old City's Jewish quarter and its surrounding districts, over 4,000 Palestinians were evicted to make possible the reconstruction of a vastly enlarged and completely "Jewish" quarter, excluding its former Arab residents.

The Eviction of Bayt Nuba, 'Imwas, Yalu, Habla, Jiftlik, Bayt Marsam, Bayt 'Awa and al-Burj: Also among the first to go were the inhabitants of the three ancient villages of 'Imwas (Emmaus of the New Testament) Yalu and Bayt Nuba, situated near the Green Line in the Latrun area northwest of Jerusalem. In 1987 these evicted villagers and their descendants who lived in Amman, Jordan numbered about 11,000, and 2,000 who lived on the West Bank, near Ramallah.

In 1969, two years after the destruction of the Latrun villages, Dayan felt it was necessary to remind his compatriots, including those who were opposed to Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the Rafah area, in north Sinai--of what some of them, the younger generation, never knew. Dayan had this to say in a 1969 speech at the Technion in Haifa: "We came here to this country, which was settled by Arabs, and we are building a Jewish State .... Jewish villages arose in the place of Arab villages. You do not even know the names [of these villages], and I do not blame you, because those geography books no longer exist. Not only do the books not exist, the Arab villages are not there either. Nahlal [Dayan's own settlement] arose in the place of Mahlul, Gvat [a kibbutz] in the place of Jibta, Sarid [another kibbutz] in the place of Haneifis, and Kfar-Yehoshu'a in the place of Tal-Shaman. There is not one single place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population."

The Operation of Haim Hertzog, Shlomo Lahat, and `Uzi Narkiss, June 1967: "Transfer of 100,000 Without Anybody Saying a Single Word": Haim Hertzog was the army's first Military Governor of the West Bank after the June 1967 War. At a public debate on the Palestinian issue held in Jerusalem on 3 April 1970, this first Military Governor of the West Bank and an influential figure of the Labour establishment, did not refrain from revealing openly his heart's wishes: "if we had the possibility of taking one million Arabs [from the territories] and clearing them out, this would be the best." However, it was only 21 years later in early November 1991, a few days after the Madrid Peace Conference, that President Hertzog revealed publicly and proudly one of Israel's little known secrets: that he, as the first Military Governor of the West Bank, efficiently organized and carried out, in cooperation with Shlomo Lahat, the commander of Jerusalem, the operation of transferring 200,000 Palestinians from the West Bank in the immediate aftermath of the war.

This transfer operation had resulted in the total "transfer of 100,000 [Palestinians to Jordan] without anybody saying a single word. A former Israeli soldier described the "voluntary" and "humane" aspects of this operation in a November 1991 interview with Kol Ha'ir: "My job was to take their [each Palestinian's] thumb and immerse its edge in ink and fingerprint them on the departure statement....Every day tens of buses arrived. There were days on which it seemed to me that thousands were departing ....Although there were those departees who were leaving voluntarily, but there were also not a few people who were simply expelled....We forced them to sign….. When someone refused to give me his hand [for finger printing] they came and beat him badly. Then I was forcibly taking his thumb, immersing it in ink and finger printing him. This way the refuseniks were removed....I have no doubt that tens of thousands of men were removed against their will."

The Eviction of the three Large Refugee Camps Near Jericho: 'Ayn Sultan, Nu'ayma and 'Aqbat Jabir: Between 1949 and 1967 the Palestinian population in the West Jordan Valley was dominated by three huge refugee camps surrounding the town of Jericho: 'Ayn Sultan, Nu'ayma and 'Aqbat Jabir. The residents of these camps had been driven out from present-day Israel in 1948-1949. During the 1967 hostilities or shortly after virtually all residents of these camps, approximately 50,000 people, fled or were expelled to the East Bank, along with more than 50 percent of the native rural population of the Jordan Valley, reducing the region's total population by 88 percent- to 10,778.

Israel has continued to claim that the Palestinian refugee exodus was a tactic of war on the part of the Arabs who initiated the war against the Jewish Yishuv in Palestine. It denied any Israeli culpability or responsibility for the Arab exodus - denied, in fact, its own members' roles. Research conducted by Israeli and Arab historians reveals the premeditated expulsion and outright massacre of Arabs by Israel in order to establish a Jewish homogenous state. Zionist leaders had concocted the transfer policy and had implemented it since the early stages of Zionism and have continued to implement it after the establishment of the State of Israel. To date, transfer policy can be witnessed in Israel's attitude towards the Arabs of East Jerusalem.

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