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Lest We Forget: Ethnic Cleansing and Land Theft

By Nizar Sakhnini (nizars@rogers.com )


Creation of an exclusive Jewish State in Palestine meant importing of Jews from all corners of the globe to Palestine. Between 1882 and 1948, the number of Jews in Palestine increased from 7000 to about 700,000 forming no more than 35% of the total population of the country and owing no more than 7% of the total land.

This meant that creation of the state the Zionists had in mind required ethnic cleansing and land theft and this was the reason why they launched the war in 1948.

The British, who were still in Palestine and responsible for maintaining law and order, could have stepped in and avoided the catastrophe, they simply preferred to turn their backs to what was going on. The reason is that they were aware of the tacit agreement between King Abdullah, the appointed commander of all the Arab troops, and the Zionist leadership in Palestine and gave it their blessings. According to this agreement, Palestine would be divided between the Jews and Abdullah. Abdullah would take that part of Palestine allotted to the Arabs west of the Jordan Valley and the rest of Palestine would be left for the “Jewish State”. (For details, see: Avi Shlaim, Collusion Across the Jordan: King Abdullah, The Zionist Movement, and the Partition of Palestine. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988)

On 18 February 1947, the British submitted the Palestine problem to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). Resolution #181 was adopted on 29 November 1947 allocating 56.5% of Palestine to a Jewish state and 43% to an Arab state with an international enclave around Jerusalem.

On 10 March 1948, the British House of Commons voted to end Mandate on 15 May. On 20 March 1948, the U.S. delegate to the UN requested a special session to suspend action on partition and work on a trusteeship plan. On 1 April 1948, a UN Security Council resolution called for special session of the UNGA and agreed to U.S. proposal for truce to be arranged through the Jewish Agency (JA) and the Arab Higher Committee (AHC).

THE 1948 WAR:

To avoid trusteeship, the Haganah launched Operation “Nachshon” of Plan Dalet on 3 April 1948, which marked the starting point of the 1948 war.

As a result of the war, about 10,000 Palestinian Arabs were killed, about 30,000 were wounded, over 750,000 were ethnically cleansed and became refugees, and more than 400 Arab villages were bulldozed and used to build settlements for the influx of Jewish immigrants.

While Operation Nachson was going on, a brutal massacre was committed in Deir Yassin killing over 250 men, women and children. This massacre spread panic and many Palestinian Arabs began leaving the country seeking a safe shelter.

On the night of 16-17 April 1948, units of the Haganah attacked the Old City of Tiberias. The Arab notables sued for a truce but the Haganah commanders refused; they wanted surrender. The Arabs then appealed to the British to lift the Haganah siege on the Old City and to extend their protection to the Arab areas. The British said they intended to evacuate the city within a few days and hence could offer no protection to the Arabs beyond 22 April. The Arab notables then decided to evacuate the city. A truce was instituted. The British brought buses and trucks and took the Arabs to Nazareth and Transjordan. (Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947 – 1949, Cambridge, 1987, P. 71)

On 18 April 1948, Major General Hugh C. Stockwell, British Commander in Haifa, summoned to his headquarters Harry Beilin, the JA liaison officer with the British army in the city. Stockwell informed Beilin that he intended to begin withdrawing his forces from the borders and no-man’s-land between the Arab and Jewish quarters in Haifa and that the withdrawal would be completed by 20 April.

Noninterference of the British Army in the fighting in Tiberias, on the one hand, and the green light given by Stockwell, on the other hand, encouraged the Haganah into action in Haifa.

British withdrawal was completed by sunset on Tuesday, 20 April. At 10:30 A.M. on Wednesday, 21 April, the Haganah launched its offensive. The Arab crowds broke into the port and pushing aside the police who guarded the gate it stormed the boats and began to flee the city.” The scene at the port was described as follows: “Men stepped on their friends and women on their own children. The boats in the port were soon filled with living cargo. The overcrowding in them was horrible. Many turned over and sank with all their passengers.” (Details on the fall of Haifa, the military situation in Palestine on the eve of Plan Dalet, the fall of Qastel and the death of Abd al-Qadir Husseini, and the fall of Jaffa were selected and annotated by Walid Khalidi, Selected Documents on the 1948 War, Journal of Palestine Studies, 107, Volume XXVII, No. 3, Spring 1998, pp. 60-105)

Jaffa was the largest Arab City in Palestine. It was close to Tel Aviv but did not pose any strategic threat. According to Benny Morris “The Haganah siege would eventually bring the town to its knees; it would fall like a ripe plum when the British withdrew”. This did not save the city from attack, which started by an offensive launched on 25 April 1948 by the IZL (Irgun Tzeva’i le’umi).

While Jaffa was being attacked by the IZL, Operation Hametz (Mivtza Hametz) was launched by the Haganah against the Arab villages east of Jaffa in order to cut the city from all centers of Arab population and its rural hinterland.

On 13 May, with the final British evacuation, the Jaffa Arab Emergency Committee, representing the 4,000-5,000 remaining inhabitants, signed a formal surrender agreement with the Haganah. (Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949. Cambridge, 1987 pp. 95-101)

Beisan as well as Safad and surrounding villages were captured by the Zionist forces on 12 May, Acre was captured on 17 May, Lydd and Ramla were captured on 14 July 1948.

The town of Nazareth was captured on 16 July 1948. Only one Israeli was killed and one wounded in the attack. A delegation of Christian clerics came out to meet the conquerors. Their request that the civilian population should not be forced to evacuate was granted. When Abraham Yaffe, an Israeli officer, entered Nazareth, he met a man whom he had driven out of another town in the Galilee. “Have you come to turn us away again?” the Arab inquired. “No, not in Nazareth,” Yaffe answered, “Nazareth is a holy place, a holy town. The world is watching us. You are not going to be a victim here.” The Israeli behavior in Nazareth was different from their behavior in the other Palestinian towns and villages. They realized that expulsion of Christian Arabs in one of the holiest Christian locations would produce unfavorable headlines all over the world. “Nazareth was the exception that proved the rule”. (Michael Palumbo, The Palestinian Catastrophe: The 1948 Expulsion of a People from their Homeland, London/Boston: 1987, pp. 123-125)


On 28 May, Yosef Weitz, Director of the Jewish National Fund Lands Dept., met with Moshe Sharrett, the newly appointed Foreign Minister, and proposed that the Cabinet appoint himself, Elias Sasson, head of the Foreign Ministry’s Middle East Affairs Department, and Ezra Danin “to hammer out a plan of action designed [to achieve] the goal of transfer”.

On 5 June 1948, Weitz met with Ben-Gurion and submitted to him a memorandum entitled “Retroactive Transfer, A Scheme for the Solution of the Arab Question in the State of Israel”. Weitz, Danin, and Sasson signed the memorandum.

Ben-Gurion devoted two paragraphs in his diary to the meeting. He proposed that a committee of three – composed of representatives of the JNF (Weitz), the Jewish Agency settlement department, and the Agency’s treasury department – be set up. The job of this committee was to oversee “the cleaning up of the [Arab] settlements, cultivation of their [fields] and their settlement [by Jews], and the creation of a labour battalion to carry out this work”. Ben-Gurion, like Weitz, stressed that it would not be the government carrying out these activities, but they would be carried out “with its knowledge, by the National Institutions”.

The next day, 6 June, Weitz sent Ben-Gurion a detailed list of the abandoned villages and towns, with the appropriate population figures. In a covering note, he confirmed the meeting held in the previous day as well as Ben-Gurion’s approval that the destruction of Arab villages and prevention of cultivation of Arab fields will begin immediately. Weitz continued: “In line with this, I have given an order to begin [these operations] in different parts of the Galilee, in the Beit Shean Valley, in the Hills of Ephraim and in Samaria [meaning the Hefer Valley].” In this way, Weitz was trying to cover himself and not to leave himself open to charges that he had acted on his own.

Weitz spent the following day [7 June] talking with Danin about how to go about destroying the abandoned villages – where would the money come from, the tractors, the dynamite, the manpower? And where was it best to begin?


The UN appointed Count Folke Bernadotte as mediator to resolve conflict in Palestine. He managed to bring about a first truce in the war from 11 June – 8 July 1948 and a second truce from 18 July – 15 October 1948.

In his report submitted to the UN on 16 September 1948, referring to the Arab refugees, Bernadotte stated, “It would be an offence against elemental justice if these innocent victims of the conflict were denied the right of return to their homes while Jewish immigrants flow into Palestine and indeed, offer the threat of permanent replacement of the Arab refugees who have been rooted in the land for centuries.” The following day, Count Bernadotte was murdered in Jerusalem by the Stern Gang. (Michael Palumbo, The Palestinian Catastrophe: The 1948 Expulsion of a People from their Homeland. London/Boston: 1987, p. 159)


Arab intervention in the war was bogus and shameful. The Zionist onslaught started in early April; Arab armies did not interfere until 15 May when it was too little and too late.

Jordanian King Abdullah, commander of the Arab troops, was in tacit agreement with the Zionists.

Iraqi general Sir Ismail Safwat, chairman of the Arab league’s military committee, who had been appointed to lead all Arab troops in Palestine, resigned on 13 May 1948 because he was “firmly convinced that the absence of agreement on a precise plan can only lead us to disaster”. (Simha Flapan, The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities. New York: 1987, p. 197)


For over fifty years, all efforts to end the Zionist-Arab conflict and bring peace have failed. The reason is simple: the Zionist mission had not been completed. Not all the areas coveted by the Zionists were occupied 1948 and ethnic cleansing was incomplete.

More lands were occupied in 1967 and another 250,000 Palestinians were ethnically cleansed. But all that was not good enough for the Zionist appetite.

Proposals for Arab population removal were outlined in an article entitled “A Strategy for Israel in the 1980s”, which appeared in the World Zionist Organization’s periodical Kivunim in February 1982. Oded Yinon, a journalist and analyst of Middle Eastern affairs and former senior Foreign Ministry official wrote the article.

Yinon called for Israel to bring about the dissolution and fragmentation of the Arab states into a mosaic of ethnic groupings. He believed that “Israel has made a strategic mistake in not taking measures [of mass expulsion] towards the Arab population in the new territories during and shortly after the [1967] war…”

Moreover, Yinon suggested to encompass the whole Arab world, including the imposition of a Pax Israela on, and the determination of the destiny of, Arab societies: re invading Sinai and “breaking Egypt territorially into separate geographical districts”. As for the Arab East: “…the total disintegration of Lebanon into five regional, localized governments as the precedent for the entire Arab world…the dissolution of Syria, and later Iraq, into districts of ethnic and religious minorities…” (Nur Masalha, A Land Without a People: Israel, Transfer and the Palestinians 1949 – 96, London: Faber and Faber ltd., 1997, pp. 196 – 198, citing Oded Yinon, A Strategy for Israel in the 1980s, [Hebrew], Kivunim, Jerusalem, No. 14, February 1982, pp. 53 – 58)

Benjamin Netanyahu told Bar-Ilan University students on 16 November 1989 that the government had failed to exploit internationally favorable situations to carry out “large-scale” expulsions at a time when “the damage [to Israel’s public relations] would have been relatively small”. He was referring to the Tianamen Square massacre in June 1989 when world attention and the media were focused on China. Netanyahu added, “I still believe that there are opportunities to expel many people”. He later denied making the remarks but the Jerusalem Post presented a tape recording of his speech. (Ibid, p. 190; Michael Palumbo, Imperial Israel: The History of the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, London: Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd., 1990, pp. 302 – 303)

Nizar Sakhnini, 18 March 2007


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