Lost in most all of the media's coverage of the conflict in Gaza, and more broadly the battle between Israel and the Arab world is a candid discussion of the history of Israel's founding and specifically what happened to the Arabs of Palestine at the time of its founding.
Shmuel Katz, a South African native who emigrated to Israel in the 1930s, served in the Irgun and later held a seat in Israel's First Knesset wrote at length about this very topic in his 1973 title "Battleground: Fact & Fantasy in Palestine." And he asserts something that would enrage today's mainstream media and undermine a crucial element to their narrative on the conflict: that the notion that Arabs were forcibly displaced from Palestine and made refugees is a farce.
Proclamation of Nationhood is read by Israel's Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. Around him are members of the provisional government, including Foreign Minister Moshe Shertok (third from right). Labor Minister Moshe Ben Tov (extreme right) wears sport shirt. Portrait above is of Theodor Herzl, Zionism's founder. (Image Source: Frank Scherschel—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)
Katz makes his argument largely based upon the words of the Western media and Arab leaders themselves during the time of Israel's founding. Below is the relevant passage:
The Arabs are the only declared refugees who became refugees not by the action of their enemies or because of well-grounded fear of their enemies, but by the initiative of their own leaders. For nearly a generation, those leaders have willfully kept as many people as they possibly could in degenerating squalor, preventing their rehabilitation, and holding out to all of them the hope of return and of "vengeance" on the Jews of Israel, to whom they have transferred the blame for their plight.
[sharequote align="center"]"The Arabs are the only declared refugees who became refugees..by the initiative of their own leaders"[/sharequote]
The fabrication can probably most easily be seen in the simple circumstance that at the time the alleged cruel expulsion of Arabs by Zionists was in progress, it passed unnoticed. Foreign newspapermen who covered the war of 1948 on both sides did, indeed, write about the flight of the Arabs, but even those most hostile to the Jews saw nothing to suggest that it was not voluntary.
In the three months during which the major part of the flight took place – April, May, and June 1948 – the London Times, at that time [openly] hostile to Zionism, published eleven leading articles on the situation in Palestine in addition to extensive news reports and articles. In none was there even a hint of the charge that the Zionists were, driving the Arabs from their homes.
More interesting still, no Arab spokesman mentioned the subject. At the height of the flight, on April 27, Jamat Husseini, the Palestine Arabs' chief representative at the United Nations, made a long political statement, which was not lacking in hostility toward the Zionists; he did not mention refugees. Three weeks later (while the flight was still in progress), the Secretary General of the Arab League, Azzam Pasha, made a fiercely worded political statement on Palestine; it contained not a word about refugees.
The Arab refugees were not driven from Palestine by anyone. The vast majority left, whether of their own free will or at the orders or exhortations of their leaders, always with the same reassurance that their departure would help in the war against Israel. Attacks by Palestinian Arabs on the Jews had begun two days after the United Nations adopted its decision of November 29, 1947, to divide western Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state. The seven neighboring Arab states Syria, Lebanon, Transjordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Egypt then prepared to invade the country as soon as the birth of the infant State of Israel was announced.
[sharequote align="center"]"The Arab refugees were not driven from Palestine by anyone"[/sharequote]
Their victory was certain, they claimed, but it would be speeded and made easier if the local Arab population got out of the way. The refugees would come back in the wake of the victorious Arab armies and not only recover their own property but also inherit the houses and farms of the vanquished and annihilated Jews. Between December 1, 1947, and May 15, 1948, the clash was largely between bands of local Arabs, aided by the disintegrating British authority, and the Jewish fighting organizations.
The earliest voluntary refugees were understandably the wealthier Arabs of the towns, who made a comparatively leisurely departure in December 1947 and in early 1948. At that stage, departure had not yet been proclaimed as a policy or recognized as a potential propaganda weapon. The Jaffa newspaper Ash Shalab thus wrote on January 30, 1948:
"The first group of our fifth column consists of those who abandon their houses and businesses and go to live elsewhere. . . . At the first sign of trouble they take to their heels to escape sharing the burden of struggle."
Another weekly, As-Sarih of Jaffa, used even more scathing terms on March 30, 1948, to accuse the inhabitants of Sheikh Munis and other villages in the neighborhood of Tel Aviv of "bringing down disgrace on us all" by "abandoning their villages." On May 5, the Jerusalem correspondent of the London Times was reporting: "The Arab streets are curiously deserted and, ardently following the poor example of the more moneyed class there has been an exodus from Jerusalem too, though not to the same extent as in Jaffa and Haifa."
As the local Arab offensive spread during the late winter and early spring of 1948, the Palestinian Arabs were urged to take to the hills, so as to leave the invading Arab armies unencumbered by a civilian population. Before the State of Israel had been formally declared – and while the British still ruled the country – over 200,000 Arabs left their homes in the coastal plain of Palestine.
These exhortations came primarily from their own local leaders. Monsignor George Hakim, then Greek Catholic Bishop of Galilee, the leading Christian personality in Palestine for many years, told a Beirut newspaper in the summer of 1948, before the flight of Arabs had ended:
"The refugees were confident that their absence would not last long, and that they would return within a week or two. Their leaders had promised them that the Arab armies would crush the ‘Zionist gangs’ very quickly and that there was no need for panic or fear of a long exile." [Sada at Tanub, August 16, 1948]
The exodus was indeed common knowledge. The London weekly Economist reported on October 2, 1948:
"Of the 62,000 Arabs who formerly lived in Haifa not more than 5,000 or 6,000 remained. Various factors influenced their decision to seek safety in flight. There is but little doubt that the most potent of the factors were the announcements made over the air by the Higher Arab Executive, urging the Arabs to quit.. . . It was clearly intimated that those Arabs who remained in Haifa and accepted Jewish protection would be regarded as renegades."
And the Near East Arabic Broadcasting Station from Cyprus stated on April 3, 1949: "It must not be forgotten that the Arab Higher Committee encouraged the refugees’ flight from their homes in Jaffa, Haifa, and Jerusalem."
Even in retrospect, in an effort to describe the deliberateness of the flight, the leading Arab propagandist of the day, Edward Atiyah (then Secretary of the Arab League Office in London), reaffirmed the facts:
"This wholesale exodus was due partly to the belief of the Arabs, encouraged by the boasting of an unrealistic Arab press and the irresponsible utterances of some of the Arab leaders that it could be only a matter of some weeks before the Jews were defeated by the armies of the Arab States and the Palestinian Arabs enabled to re-enter and retake possession of their country."
Kenneth Bilby, one of the Americans who covered Palestine for several weeks during the war of 1948, wrote soon afterwards on his experience and observations:
“The Arab exodus, initially at least, was encouraged by many Arab leaders, such as Haj Amin el Husseini, the exiled pro-Nazi Mufti of Jerusalem, and by the Arab Higher Committee for Palestine. They viewed the first wave of Arab setbacks as merely transitory. Let the Palestine Arabs flee into neighboring countries. It would serve to arouse the other Arab peoples to greater effort, and when the Arab invasion struck, the Palestinians could return to their homes and be compensated with the property of Jews driven into the sea.” [New Star in the Near East (New York, 1950), pp. 30-31]
[sharequote align="center"]"The Arab States encouraged the Palestine Arabs to leave their homes temporarily"[/sharequote]
After the war, the Palestine Arab leaders did try to help people –including their own–to forget that it was they who had called for the exodus in the early spring of 1948. They now blamed the leaders of the invading Arab states themselves. These had added their voices to the exodus call, enough not until some weeks after the Palestine Arab fighter Committee had taken a stand. The war was not yet over when Emil Ghoury, Secretary of the Arab Higher Committee, the official leadership of the Palestinian Arabs, stated in an interview with a Beirut newspaper:
I do not want to impugn anybody but only to help the refugees. The fact that there are these refugees is the direct consequence of the action of the Arab States in opposing Partition and the Jewish State. The Arab States agreed upon this policy unanimously and they must share in the solution of the problem. [Daily Telegraph, September 6, 1948]
In retrospect, the Jordanian newspaper Falastin wrote on February 19, 1949:
The Arab States encouraged the Palestine Arabs to leave their homes temporarily in order to be out of the way of the Arab invasion armies.
The Secretary General of the Arab League, Azzam Pasha, assured the Arab peoples that the occupation of Palestine and of Tel Aviv would be as simple as a military promenade. . . . He pointed out that they were already on the frontiers and that all the millions the Jews had spent on land and economic development would be easy booty, for it would be a simple matter to throw Jews into the Mediterranean. . . Brotherly advice was given to the Arabs of Palestine to leave their land, homes, and property and to stay temporarily in neighboring fraternal states, lest the guns of the invading Arab armies mow them down.
As late as 1952, the charge had the official stamp of the Arab Higher Committee. In a memorandum to the Arab League states, the Committee wrote:
Some of the Arab leaders and their ministers in Arab capitals . . . declared that they welcomed the immigration of Palestinian Arabs into the Arab countries until they saved Palestine. Many of the Palestinian Arabs were misled by their declarations…. It was natural for those Palestinian Arabs who felt impelled to leave their country to take refuge in Arab lands . . . and to stay in such adjacent places in order to maintain contact with their country so that to return to it would be easy when, according to the promises of many of those responsible in the Arab countries (promises which were given wastefully), the time was ripe. Many were of the opinion that such an opportunity would come in the hours between sunset and sunrise.
Most pointed of all was the comment of one of the refugees: "The Arab governments told us: Get out so that we can get in. So we got out, but they did not get in."
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