Did Israel Actually Plan To Expel Most of Its Arabs in 1948? Or Not?

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Nov. 7 2011 6:41 AM

The Mystery of 1948

Did Israel actually plan to expel most of its Arabs in 1948? Or not?

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In the Situation Committee's final report, the chapter on education notes that the Jewish state would be responsible for the 11 existing Arab schools in the partly or completely Arab towns of Haifa, Tiberias, Safed, and Beit Shean, and the 92 schools serving the 248 Arab villages in the area of the Jewish state. The health chapter states that government clinics established by the British in Arab villages will keep operating; villages without clinics will be served by the Histadrut labor union's clinics in neighboring Jewish communities, under government contract. The Interior Ministry, in charge of local administration, will have 24 district officers—16 Jewish and eight Arabs. The report is in Hebrew. It is not intended to impress outsiders. It is intended for use.

The pre-independence musings among Zionist leaders about population transfer represented one political inclination. The Situation Committee report represented an opposing inclination, among the same people, for integrating a large Arab minority into the Jewish state. Events on the ground tipped the balance.

The committee completed its report sometime between April 10 and April 30, 1948. By then, the sections referring to the Arab population were already dated, rendered obsolete by gunfire. Fighting between Arabs and Jews in Palestine had broken out the day after the U.N. approved partition on Nov. 29, 1947 and steadily escalated. Both sides believed their survival was at stake. In the first months, the Arab middle and upper classes began fleeing their homes. Local Arab village militias cut the road to Jerusalem. Starvation loomed in Jewish areas of the city.

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In April—perhaps while a typist in Tel Aviv was working on the mimeograph stencils of the Situation Committee Report—the nascent Jewish army known as the Haganah went on the offensive. It aimed at taking control of the land assigned to the Jewish state, opening the road to Jerusalem, and preparing for defense against the coming Arab invasion. In some places, Jewish commanders expelled Arabs from conquered villages. In many more, panic led to mass flight, especially after fighters from Irgun and Lehi, far-right Jewish undergrounds, perpetrated a massacre in the village of Deir Yassin outside Jerusalem.

By early May, Shertok was speaking of the "astounding" and "unforeseen" Arab exodus, as if describing an unexpected inheritance. Going back to the status quo ante was unthinkable, he said. When Israel's provisional government discussed the issue in June, the consensus was to prevent the refugees from returning. The policy was partly defensive, to avoid a fifth column. But in the June cabinet meeting, Shertok also described all "the lands and the houses" as "spoils of war," and as compensation for what Jews had lost in a war forced on them.

Afterward, as the fighting continued, cases of the Israeli army expelling Arabs grew more common. The decision to prevent return was the turning point, transforming what began in the chaos of war into a choice.

Arab forces also expelled or massacred Jews or prevented their return to places they had fled. But they could do so rarely, because the Arabs were losing on the battlefield. Nonetheless, Transjordan's Arab Legion emptied the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City; Arab fighters massacred about 150 Jewish defenders of Kfar Etzion, a religious kibbutz south of Bethlehem, after they surrendered.

With the war's end and the signing of the armistice agreements, the Situation Committee's blueprint for coexistence was less than memory. Tiberias, Safed, and Beit Shean were empty of Arabs, as were 350 or more villages that had existed in 1947. In Haifa, only a fraction of the Arab population remained. The same was true in Jaffa, Akko, Lod, and Ramle, towns that partition had assigned to the Arab state but were now part of Israel. About 150,000 Palestinian Arabs lived in Israel as defined by the armistice lines, less than a fifth the number who had lived in the same territory beforehand. The laws and policies adopted in Israel's first years marked those who remained as citizens—and at the same time as outsiders and potential enemies. They were Israeli Arabs, or Arab citizens of Israel, or as they would be more likely to say decades later, Palestinian citizens of Israel—but not Israelis.

Tomorrow: Why a new kind of old-time Judaism has taken root in Israel.