1948-2008 Part I: The Sad Story of the Nakba

Efraim Karsh has an excellent article in the latest Commentary on the story of 1948 which, among other things, sheds significant light on the nature of the catastrophe (Nakba) that befell the Palestinian people at that time. I recommend reading the entire piece, but what I have excerpted below (with comments) represents the thread that has to do with the fate of the Arab population of the British Mandate of Palestine. The tale he tells offers an object lesson in how the approach one takes influences the history one writes. Karsh’s approach is founded in the principles of civil society — self-determination, government of, by, and for the people, productive economies, life-enhancing positive-sum choices — and traces the tragic tale of how and why the Palestinian people failed to accomplish any of these progressive goals. (By contrast, note the effects of a different approach and set of values.)

Karsh claims the article is based on new research into the recently declassified archives of “millions of documents from the period of the British Mandate (1920-1948) and Israel’s early days” although the piece itself is without any references. The author promises a footnoted version soon.

1948, Israel, and the Palestinians—The True Story
May 2008

…Far from being the hapless objects of a predatory Zionist assault, it was Palestinian Arab leaders who from the early 1920’s onward, and very much against the wishes of their own constituents, launched a relentless campaign to obliterate the Jewish national revival. This campaign culminated in the violent attempt to abort the UN resolution of November 29, 1947, which called for the establishment of two states in Palestine. Had these leaders, and their counterparts in the neighboring Arab states, accepted the UN resolution, there would have been no war and no dislocation in the first place.

Note that this reflects classic “prime-divider” dynamics — an empowered ruling elite makes decisions that benefit themselves rather than their own people. And the decisions are classic zero-sum: no shared land, no twin-nationalities… the whole loaf or no loaf.

The simple fact is that the Zionist movement had always been amenable to the existence in the future Jewish state of a substantial Arab minority that would participate on an equal footing “throughout all sectors of the country’s public life.” The words are those of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founding father of the branch of Zionism that was the forebear of today’s Likud party. In a famous 1923 article, Jabotinsky voiced his readiness “to take an oath binding ourselves and our descendants that we shall never do anything contrary to the principle of equal rights, and that we shall never try to eject anyone.”

Eleven years later, Jabotinsky presided over the drafting of a constitution for Jewish Palestine. According to its provisions, Arabs and Jews were to share both the prerogatives and the duties of statehood, including most notably military and civil service. Hebrew and Arabic were to enjoy the same legal standing, and “in every cabinet where the prime minister is a Jew, the vice-premiership shall be offered to an Arab and vice-versa.”

Classic civil society values: scrupulous desire to “play fair,” unquestioning commitment to “equality before the law”. And this is from Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the admirer of Mussolini, and invariably depicted in hostile accounts of the history of Zionism as a “fascist.”

If this was the position of the more “militant” faction of the Jewish national movement, mainstream Zionism not only took for granted the full equality of the Arab minority in the future Jewish state but went out of its way to foster Arab-Jewish coexistence. In January 1919, Chaim Weizmann, then the upcoming leader of the Zionist movement, reached a peace-and-cooperation agreement with the Hashemite emir Faisal ibn Hussein, the effective leader of the nascent pan-Arab movement. From then until the proclamation of the state of Israel on May 14, 1948, Zionist spokesmen held hundreds of meetings with Arab leaders at all levels. These included Abdullah ibn Hussein, Faisal’s elder brother and founder of the emirate of Transjordan (later the kingdom of Jordan), incumbent and former prime ministers in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Iraq, senior advisers of King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud (founder of Saudi Arabia), and Palestinian Arab elites of all hues.

As late as September 15, 1947, two months before the passing of the UN partition resolution, two senior Zionist envoys were still seeking to convince Abdel Rahman Azzam, the Arab League’s secretary-general, that the Palestine conflict “was uselessly absorbing the best energies of the Arab League,” and that both Arabs and Jews would greatly benefit “from active policies of cooperation and development.” Behind this proposition lay an age-old Zionist hope: that the material progress resulting from Jewish settlement of Palestine would ease the path for the local Arab populace to become permanently reconciled, if not positively well disposed, to the project of Jewish national self-determination. As David Ben-Gurion, soon to become Israel’s first prime minister, argued in December 1947:

If the Arab citizen will feel at home in our state, . . . if the state will help him in a truthful and dedicated way to reach the economic, social, and cultural level of the Jewish community, then Arab distrust will accordingly subside and a bridge will be built to a Semitic, Jewish-Arab alliance.

Again, the classic signs of positive-sum thinking. If we are fair to them, they will be fair to us; if our presence benefits them, then they will be happy to live with us in peace and prosperity. This is classic “politically-correct paradigm” (PCP 1). There is nothing remotely resembling these sentiments among the Arab leadership. (Indeed most any Arab who spoke in such a fashion was rapidly removed from the company of the living.)

On the face of it, Ben-Gurion’s hope rested on reasonable grounds. An inflow of Jewish immigrants and capital after World War I had revived Palestine’s hitherto static condition and raised the standard of living of its Arab inhabitants well above that in the neighboring Arab states. The expansion of Arab industry and agriculture, especially in the field of citrus growing, was largely financed by the capital thus obtained, and Jewish know-how did much to improve Arab cultivation. In the two decades between the world wars, Arab-owned citrus plantations grew sixfold, as did vegetable-growing lands, while the number of olive groves quadrupled.

No less remarkable were the advances in social welfare. Perhaps most significantly, mortality rates in the Muslim population dropped sharply and life expectancy rose from 37.5 years in 1926-27 to 50 in 1942-44 (compared with 33 in Egypt). The rate of natural increase leapt upward by a third.

That nothing remotely akin to this was taking place in the neighboring British-ruled Arab countries, not to mention India, can be explained only by the decisive Jewish contribution to Mandate Palestine’s socioeconomic well-being.

This is a critical part of the story for two reasons. First, the pattern replicated in the period after 1967 when, under Israeli “occupation” the Palestinian economy flourished like none of its neighbors, like nothing it had experienced under Jordanian and Egyptian “occupation.” Notes the authors of the World Bank study of the territories:

    The Occupied Territories were among the top ten fastest growing economies in the world during the 1970s period when measured in terms of GNP (Figure 2). The expansion in GDP (gross domestic economy, a sign of productivity) was somewhat lower, but still large by international standards.”

The “First Intifada” put an end to that prosperity, and the second one brought back the pre-modern poverty levels.

Second reason these statistics are so meaningful is that they explain how the Jews could have “invaded” this “Palestinian nation” without the use of force. They brought tangible benefits. Classic, progressive, positive-sum behavior. And in terms of population that the land could hold, the Zionist presence far from expelling Arabs, brought them in and helped them multiply far beyond the growth rates in other Arab countries.

The British authorities acknowledged as much in a 1937 report by a commission of inquiry headed by Lord Peel:

    The general beneficent effect of Jewish immigration on Arab welfare is illustrated by the fact that the increase in the Arab population is most marked in urban areas affected by Jewish development. A comparison of the census returns in 1922 and 1931 shows that, six years ago, the increase percent in Haifa was 86, in Jaffa 62, in Jerusalem 37, while in purely Arab towns such as Nablus and Hebron it was only 7, and at Gaza there was a decrease of 2 percent.

    Had the vast majority of Palestinian Arabs been left to their own devices, they would most probably have been content to take advantage of the opportunities afforded them. This is evidenced by the fact that, throughout the Mandate era, periods of peaceful coexistence far exceeded those of violent eruptions, and the latter were the work of only a small fraction of Palestinian Arabs.

Behind this rather blandly stated remark lies the path to a real assessment of Israeli “colonialism” and “imperialism.” All (other) colonial projects (e.g., Spanish in Latin America, British in South Africa, French in Algeria), occured in the wake of a conquest. The only way that the new colonists could make claims to the land was by conquest, by (at best) driving away the inhabitants, and establishing overwhelming military superiority. Political power came from victory in war. In so behaving, the European imperialist-colonialists conformed to the international norms of millennia.

The Zionist project of colonization worked a markedly different manner. Rather than arrive as zero-sum military victors, the Zionists arrived as positive-sum neighbors. Granted they had no ability to conquer, and granted they built up their defenses against predatory attacks from both Arabs and Bedouin inhabitants of the land, but they nonetheless made peace with most of those who dwelled there by offering the benefits of civil society: hard productive work made everyone better off.

This victory of positive-sum, civic behavior is the great untold tale of the Zionist “invasion” of the Middle East. And it calls into question the superficial comparisons of the Zionists to the predatory European imperialists of the same period. Indeed to insist that the Zionists were somehow the worst of the “imperialist-colonialist-messianic-settlers” is a travesty that obscures the most remarkable details of this particular history… a travesty, moreeover, that annuls and thereby silences the voices of all those Arab inhabitants of the land who preferred to live alongside these Zionists.

Unfortunately for both Arabs and Jews, however, the hopes and wishes of ordinary people were not taken into account, as they rarely are in authoritarian communities hostile to the notions of civil society or liberal democracy. In the modern world, moreover, it has not been the poor and the oppressed who have led the great revolutions or carried out the worst deeds of violence, but rather militant vanguards from among the better educated and more moneyed classes of society.

Precisely the pattern of prime-divider societies, who view the existence of civil alternatives to their authoritarian rule as threats to that rule. Behind much of the hostility of the Arab elites to the presence of the Jews had to do on the one hand with manual labor and on the other with accountability. Arab elites were either absentee landlords or powerful clan leaders; they did not engage in manual labor and they treated those who did with contempt; Israeli elites had the progressive revolutionary love of manual labor: every Jew in Palestine worked.

And any Zionist in authority — what one might call the elites — underwent a degree of accountability and transparency to the rest of the Jews in his community that no Arab leader would dream of permitting. In the communist Kibbutzim, the demand for equality was radical — property in common — as was the transparency of anyone in authority. Arab elites viewed with disbelief the growing evidence that such a social system could not only work, but outproduce the traditional one, just as they viewed with horror, the prospect that such a thriving system could stimulate among their own commoners, alternative “imagined communities” than those of oppressed poverty that so regularly marks civil society.

So what we see playing out in Arab society in Palestine during the first half of the 20th century is a clash not between imperialist modernity and tribal underdevelopment. On the contrary, it shows all the earmarks of a genuine “liberal” modernity, whose emphases derive from the twin dynamic of voluntary and positive-sum behavior. That this benefits commoners as well as elites, materially, but harms the elites in terms of their power and prestige is the self-evident pattern that most historians forget when they lump the desires of the Arab population and those of their leaders when faced with the “Zionist presence.” Arab commoners had many more reasons to prefer the Zionist presence than did their elites.


…[i]n the words of the Peel report:

    We have found that, though the Arabs have benefited by the development of the country owing to Jewish immigration, this has had no conciliatory effect. On the contrary . . . with almost mathematical precision the betterment of the economic situation in Palestine [has] meant the deterioration of the political situation.

Karsh presents this in the context of a thorough exploitation of “ordinary Arabs” by their own superiors, what in the Middle Ages were known as the potentiores. But I think it’s important to keep in mind that the cultural values embodied in this elite’s behavior permeate the culture, certainly at least as far as the local alpha male. In such zero-sum cultures, where the dominant paradigm is “rule or be ruled,” anyone who had a piece of the dominating side of the equation views the benefits of equality with considerable trepidation. As one of the Arabs the Peel Commission interviewed commented (apparently in irritation at the questioning of the British interrogator

    “You say we are better off: you say my house has been enriched by the strangers who have entered it. But it is my house, and I did not invite the strangers in, or ask them to enrich it.” (Weathered by Miracles, p. 207 Palestine Royal Comission Report, p. 131).

Sooner rule in misery than share in wealth; faced with a win-win where his neighbor got twice as much, the zero-summer says: “poke out one of my eyes.” Note, this man is not a representative of all Arabs in Palestine; he comes from the specific pool of rioters, of the bully “street” where might makes right and wretched dominion rules the heart of men… the very Muslim Arabs who killed the largest number of their fellow Arab Muslims in the course of the same riots. This kind of predatory “political culture” whose nature is utterly foreign to those of us raised in a civil society, produces the patterns so clearly evident in the response of Arab society in Palestine to the presence of the Jews.

In Palestine, ordinary Arabs were persecuted and murdered by their alleged betters for the crime of “selling Palestine” to the Jews. Meanwhile, these same betters were enriching themselves with impunity. The staunch pan-Arabist Awni Abdel Hadi, who vowed to fight “until Palestine is either placed under a free Arab government or becomes a graveyard for all the Jews in the country,” facilitated the transfer of 7,500 acres to the Zionist movement, and some of his relatives, all respected political and religious figures, went a step further by selling actual plots of land. So did numerous members of the Husseini family, the foremost Palestinian Arab clan during the Mandate period, including Muhammad Tahir, father of Hajj Amin Husseini, the notorious mufti of Jerusalem.

It was the mufti’s concern with solidifying his political position that largely underlay the 1929 carnage in which 133 Jews were massacred and hundreds more were wounded—just as it was the struggle for political preeminence that triggered the most protracted outbreak of Palestinian Arab violence in 1936-39. This was widely portrayed as a nationalist revolt against both the ruling British and the Jewish refugees then streaming into Palestine to escape Nazi persecution. In fact, it was a massive exercise in violence that saw far more Arabs than Jews or Englishmen murdered by Arab gangs, that repressed and abused the general Arab population, and that impelled thousands of Arabs to flee the country in a foretaste of the 1947-48 exodus.

To this day, Palestinians kill Palestinians during their attacks on the Jews.

Some Palestinian Arabs, in fact, preferred to fight back against their inciters, often in collaboration with the British authorities and the Hagana, the largest Jewish underground defense organization. Still others sought shelter in Jewish neighborhoods. For despite the paralytic atmosphere of terror and a ruthlessly enforced economic boycott, Arab-Jewish coexistence continued on many practical levels even during such periods of turmoil, and was largely restored after their subsidence.

This part of the story begs for some Palestinian “new historian” to recover. Of course, in order to do so, he or she would have to have overcome the “honor-shame” world in which this story undermines the narrative of Palestinian grievance at the Israeli “invasion.” In other words that “new historian” would have to be committed to the progressive values that made this civic alliance possible between Jew and Arab — Christian or Muslim — and, in the long run, could have created that progressive ideal: a single, “secular democratic” state.

Against this backdrop, it is hardly to be wondered at that most Palestinians wanted nothing to do with the violent attempt ten years later by the mufti-led Arab Higher Committee (AHC), the effective “government” of the Palestinian Arabs, to subvert the 1947 UN partition resolution. With the memories of 1936-39 still fresh in their minds, many opted to stay out of the fight. In no time, numerous Arab villages (and some urban areas) were negotiating peace agreements with their Jewish neighbors; other localities throughout the country acted similarly without the benefit of a formal agreement.

Nor did ordinary Palestinians shrink from quietly defying their supreme leadership. In his numerous tours around the region, Abdel Qader Husseini, district commander of Jerusalem and the mufti’s close relative, found the populace indifferent, if not hostile, to his repeated call to arms. In Hebron, he failed to recruit a single volunteer for the salaried force he sought to form in that city; his efforts in the cities of Nablus, Tulkarm, and Qalqiliya were hardly more successful. Arab villagers, for their part, proved even less receptive to his demands. In one locale, Beit Safafa, Abdel Qader suffered the ultimate indignity, being driven out by angry residents protesting their village’s transformation into a hub of anti-Jewish attacks. Even the few who answered his call did so, by and large, in order to obtain free weapons for their personal protection and then return home.

There was an economic aspect to this peaceableness. The outbreak of hostilities orchestrated by the AHC led to a sharp drop in trade and an accompanying spike in the cost of basic commodities. Many villages, dependent for their livelihood on the Jewish or mixed-population cities, saw no point in supporting the AHC’s explicit goal of starving the Jews into submission. Such was the general lack of appetite for war that in early February 1948, more than two months after the AHC initiated its campaign of violence, Ben-Gurion maintained that “the villages, in most part, have remained on the sidelines.”

From the point of view of the “brave” Palestinian narrative of grievance and resistance, this passivity represents nothing short of cowardice. From the point of view of progressive values, this peaceableness is a testimony to the extraordinary ability of the Zionists, despite their modern ways and Jewish faith, to win at least the passive loyalty of their neighbors, and of moderate Arab Muslims and Jews to live in peace with their Jewish neighbors, even when those Jews did not behave as the traditional dhimmi.

Ben-Gurion’s analysis was echoed by the Iraqi general Ismail Safwat, commander-in-chief of the Arab Liberation Army (ALA), the volunteer Arab force that did much of the fighting in Palestine in the months preceding Israel’s proclamation of independence. Safwat lamented that only 800 of the 5,000 volunteers trained by the ALA had come from Palestine itself, and that most of these had deserted either before completing their training or immediately afterward. Fawzi Qawuqji, the local commander of ALA forces, was no less scathing, having found the Palestinians “unreliable, excitable, and difficult to control, and in organized warfare virtually unemployable.”

This view summed up most contemporary perceptions during the fateful six months of fighting after the passing of the partition resolution. Even as these months saw the all but complete disintegration of Palestinian Arab society, nowhere was this described as a systematic dispossession of Arabs by Jews. To the contrary: with the partition resolution widely viewed by Arab leaders as “Zionist in inspiration, Zionist in principle, Zionist in substance, and Zionist in most details” (in the words of the Palestinian academic Walid Khalidi), and with those leaders being brutally candid about their determination to subvert it by force of arms, there was no doubt whatsoever as to which side had instigated the bloodletting.

Nor did the Arabs attempt to hide their culpability. As the Jews set out to lay the groundwork for their nascent state while simultaneously striving to convince their Arab compatriots that they would be (as Ben-Gurion put it) “equal citizens, equal in everything without any exception,” Palestinian Arab leaders pledged that “should partition be implemented, it will be achieved only over the bodies of the Arabs of Palestine, their sons, and their women.” Qawuqji vowed “to drive all Jews into the sea.” Abdel Qader Husseini stated that “the Palestine problem will only be solved by the sword; all Jews must leave Palestine.”

This again, is classic zero-sum mentality. And of course the Arab leaders who embraced this warrior’s path did not hide their feelings. When Karsh uses the term culpability, he reveals his commitment to civic values, whereby starting a war to wipe out the other side, rather than negotiating fair terms, is considered a violation of principles. But the Arabs who declared the war were proud of their determination to win this by the most glorious path of manhood — violent victory. Modern apologetic Palestinian historians have to cover Arab culpability for the belligerent turn of events, however, by speaking of “cycles of violence” and presenting Israeli responses to the violence as the cause thereof.

The [Palestinian “leadership”] and their fellow Arab abetters did their utmost to make these threats come true, with every means at their disposal. In addition to regular forces like the ALA, guerrilla and terror groups wreaked havoc, as much among noncombatants as among Jewish fighting units. Shooting, sniping, ambushes, bombings, which in today’s world would be condemned as war crimes, were daily events in the lives of civilians. “[I]nnocent and harmless people, going about their daily business,” wrote the U.S. consul-general in Jerusalem, Robert Macatee, in December 1947,

    are picked off while riding in buses, walking along the streets, and stray shots even find them while asleep in their beds. A Jewish woman, mother of five children, was shot in Jerusalem while hanging out clothes on the roof. The ambulance rushing her to the hospital was machine-gunned, and finally the mourners following her to the funeral were attacked and one of them stabbed to death.

As the fighting escalated, Arab civilians suffered as well, and the occasional atrocity sparked cycles of large-scale violence. Thus, the December 1947 murder of six Arab workers near the Haifa oil refinery by the small Jewish underground group IZL was followed by the immediate slaughter of 39 Jews by their Arab co-workers, just as the killing of some 100 Arabs during the battle for the village of Deir Yasin in April 1948 was “avenged” within days by the killing of 77 Jewish nurses and doctors en route to the Hadassah hospital on Mount Scopus.

Yet while the Jewish leadership and media described these gruesome events for what they were, at times withholding details so as to avoid panic and keep the door open for Arab-Jewish reconciliation, their Arab counterparts not only inflated the toll to gigantic proportions but invented numerous nonexistent atrocities.

Shades, again, of today. In 2000, Prime Minister Ehud Barak ordered a study of all the violations of the Oslo Accords that the Palestinians had committed. Rather than publish it, though, he shelved it in order to continue negotiations with a political entity — Arafat’s PA — which the Israeli public would not have supported had it known its true nature. (Mind you, this is not just Barak’s fault; Clinton’s administration, spearheaded by Dennis Ross repeatedly repressed this kind of information in order to keep the Oslo process going. And Israelis, eager for peace wanted to believe the best, and therefore favored this kind of denial.

These developments were obvious to anyone who cared to consult the offerings of Palestinian Media Watch and MEMRI: translations into English of the kinds of things Palestinians, Arabs and Musims said to each other, in Arabic. There again, the exaggerations, the virulence, the eagerness for war.

And in both cases, the retrospective memory is dominated by the bitter narrative of the thuggish loser. How many people know about Deir Yassin, but know nothing of the hundreds of massacres of Jews by Arabs which, had the Arabs won, would have become widespread practice? How many people know about how Israeli settlements queered the Oslo Process by offending the Palestinians, proving Israeli lack of good faith, without knowing any of the military violations of the PA and its ubiquitous hate-mongering war propaganda? Instead the Western public seems eager to once again snatch at the kind of lethal narratives that Arabs like to tell.

The fall of Haifa (April 21-22), for example, gave rise to totally false claims of a large-scale slaughter, which circulated throughout the Middle East and reached Western capitals. Similarly false rumors were spread after the fall of Tiberias (April 18), during the battle for Safed (in early May), and in Jaffa, where in late April the mayor fabricated a massacre of “hundreds of Arab men and women.” Accounts of Deir Yasin in the Arab media were especially lurid, featuring supposed hammer-and-sickle tattoos on the arms of IZL fighters and accusations of havoc and rape.

This scare-mongering was undoubtedly aimed at garnering the widest possible sympathy for the Palestinian plight and casting the Jews as brutal predators. But it backfired disastrously by spreading panic within the disoriented Palestinian society. That, in turn, helps explain why, by April 1948, after four months of seeming progress, this phase of the Arab war effort collapsed. (Still in the offing was the second, wider, and more prolonged phase involving the forces of the five Arab nations that invaded Palestine in mid-May.) For not only had most Palestinians declined to join the active hostilities, but vast numbers had taken to the road, leaving their homes either for places elsewhere in the country or fleeing to neighboring Arab lands.

Indeed, many had vacated even before the outbreak of hostilities, and still larger numbers decamped before the war reached their own doorstep. “Arabs are leaving the country with their families in considerable numbers, and there is an exodus from the mixed towns to the rural Arab centers,” reported Alan Cunningham, the British high commissioner, in December 1947, adding a month later that the “panic of [the] middle class persists and there is a steady exodus of those who can afford to leave the country.”

Echoing these reports, Hagana intelligence sources recounted in mid-December an “evacuation frenzy that has taken hold of entire Arab villages.” Before the month was over, many Palestinian Arab cities were bemoaning the severe problems created by the huge influx of villagers and pleading with the AHC to help find a solution to the predicament. Even the Syrian and Lebanese governments were alarmed by this early exodus, demanding that the AHC encourage Palestinian Arabs to stay put and fight.

But no such encouragement was forthcoming, either from the AHC or from anywhere else. In fact, there was a total lack of national cohesion, let alone any sense of shared destiny. Cities and towns acted as if they were self-contained units, attending to their own needs and eschewing the smallest sacrifice on behalf of other localities. Many “national committees” (i.e., local leaderships) forbade the export of food and drink from well-stocked cities to needy outlying towns and villages. Haifa’s Arab merchants refused to alleviate a severe shortage of flour in Jenin, while Gaza refused to export eggs and poultry to Jerusalem; in Hebron, armed guards checked all departing cars. At the same time there was extensive smuggling, especially in the mixed-population cities, with Arab foodstuffs going to Jewish neighborhoods and vice-versa.

This reflects the characteristic patterns of Arab culture: the U of solidarity — high solidarity at each end of the spectrum (clan/village and umma/community of Muslims), but very low solidarity at the level of nation or political organization. The causes and consequences of this pattern both doomed any real activity on the ground, and then forced a retrospective unity on everyone in the aftermath of failure: it had to be the fault of the Zionists.

The lack of communal solidarity was similarly evidenced by the abysmal treatment meted out to the hundreds of thousands of refugees scattered throughout the country. Not only was there no collective effort to relieve their plight, or even a wider empathy beyond one’s immediate neighborhood, but many refugees were ill-treated by their temporary hosts and subjected to ridicule and abuse for their supposed cowardice. In the words of one Jewish intelligence report: “The refugees are hated wherever they have arrived.”

…[segment on the causes of the refugee problem which came from both the atmosphere of hysteria created by Arab propaganda and, on occasion by ad hoc Israeli military decisions about defensible terrain]…

The [Israeli moves to expel Arabs] were, moreover, matched by efforts to prevent flight and/or to encourage the return of those who fled. To cite only one example, in early April a Jewish delegation comprising top Arab-affairs advisers, local notables, and municipal heads with close contacts with neighboring Arab localities traversed Arab villages in the coastal plain, then emptying at a staggering pace, in an attempt to convince their inhabitants to stay put.

What makes these Jewish efforts all the more impressive is that they took place at a time when huge numbers of Palestinian Arabs were being actively driven from their homes by their own leaders and/or by Arab military forces, whether out of military considerations or in order to prevent them from becoming citizens of the prospective Jewish state. In the largest and best-known example, tens of thousands of Arabs were ordered or bullied into leaving the city of Haifa on the AHC’s instructions, despite strenuous Jewish efforts to persuade them to stay. Only days earlier, Tiberias’ 6,000-strong Arab community had been similarly forced out by its own leaders, against local Jewish wishes. In Jaffa, Palestine’s largest Arab city, the municipality organized the transfer of thousands of residents by land and sea; in Jerusalem, the AHC ordered the transfer of women and children, and local gang leaders pushed out residents of several neighborhoods.

…[more details on the Arab contribution to the panic]…

As for the Palestinian Arab leaders themselves, who had placed their reluctant constituents on a collision course with Zionism in the 1920’s and 1930’s and had now dragged them helpless into a mortal conflict, they hastened to get themselves out of Palestine and to stay out at the most critical moment. Taking a cue from these higher-ups, local leaders similarly rushed en masse through the door. High Commissioner Cunningham summarized what was happening with quintessential British understatement:

    You should know that the collapsing Arab morale in Palestine is 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 era and the doyen of Palestinian historians, 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?’”

The abandonment of the Palestinian Arabs by their leadership constitutes one of the most shameful episodes in the Naqba of 1948. Here’s where the classic divisions of prime-divider society come out, producing the kind of dysfunctional behavior that made Arab society, despite its enormous demographic and military resources, weaker than the Zionist entity. It also should serve as a constant object of meditation for Palestinians — especially those in the West with the freedom to do so — who want to understand why Palestinian/Arab leadership has consistently made choices for “their people” that presistently worked to their disadvantage.

Muhammad Nimr al-Khatib, a Palestinian Arab leader during the 1948 war, would sum up the situation in these words: “The Palestinians had neighboring Arab states which opened their borders and doors to the refugees, while the Jews had no alternative but to triumph or to die.

This is true enough of the Jews, but it elides the reason for the refugees’ flight and radically distorts the quality of their reception elsewhere. If they met with no sympathy from their brethren at home, the reaction throughout the Arab world was, if anything, harsher still. There were repeated calls for the forcible return of the refugees, or at the very least of young men of military age, many of whom had arrived under the (false) pretense of volunteering for the ALA. As the end of the Mandate loomed nearer, the Lebanese government refused entry visas to Palestinian males between eighteen and fifty and ordered all “healthy and fit men” who had already entered the country to register officially or be considered illegal aliens and face the full weight of the law.

The Syrian government took an even more stringent approach, banning from its territory all Palestinian males between sixteen and fifty. In Egypt, a large number of demonstrators marched to the Arab League’s Cairo headquarters and lodged a petition demanding that “every able-bodied Palestinian capable of carrying arms should be forbidden to stay abroad.” Such was the extent of Arab resentment toward the Palestinian refugees that the rector of Cairo’s al-Azhar institution of religious learning, probably the foremost Islamic authority, felt obliged to issue a ruling that made the sheltering of Palestinian Arab refugees a religious duty.

Contempt for the Palestinians only intensified with time. “Fright has struck the Palestinian Arabs and they fled their country,” commented Radio Baghdad on the eve of the pan-Arab invasion of the new-born state of Israel in mid-May. “These are hard words indeed, yet they are true.” Lebanon’s minister of the interior (and future president) Camille Chamoun was more delicate, intoning that “The people of Palestine, in their previous resistance to imperialists and Zionists, proved they were worthy of independence,” but “at this decisive stage of the fighting they have not remained so dignified.”

No wonder, then, that so few among the Palestinian refugees themselves blamed their collapse and dispersal on the Jews. During a fact-finding mission to Gaza in June 1949, Sir John Troutbeck, head of the British Middle East office in Cairo and no friend to Israel or the Jews, was surprised to discover that while the refugees

    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.

Shades of today in Gaza. This is a particularly significant detail, shunted aside in the rush to blame Israel for the refugee problem in order to justify the “Palestinian resistance.” The original Naqba was the way the Arab leadership declared its intentions to exterminate the Zionist presence, promising massacres on a massive scale, and not only failed, but predictably, ruined their own people in the process. Had they faced any other Middle Eastern enemy (including the one they thought the Jews were) there would have been hundreds of thousands of dead (as there were in the contemporary struggle between India and Pakistan). Instead those Arabs who remained in Israel enjoyed a higher standard of living and of political empowerment than any Arab commoner in the Arab world, and those who fled were treated as pariahs and sacrificed on the altar of revenge — condemned to prison camps in order to allow Arab leaders to breed hate and blame Israel.

Sixty years after their dispersion, the refugees of 1948 and their descendants remain in the squalid camps where they have been kept by their fellow Arabs for decades, nourished on hate and false hope. Meanwhile, their erstwhile leaders have squandered successive opportunities for statehood.

It is indeed the tragedy of the Palestinians that the two leaders who determined their national development during the 20th century—Hajj Amin Husseini and Yasir Arafat, the latter of whom dominated Palestinian politics since the mid-1960’s to his death in November 2004—were megalomaniacal extremists blinded by anti-Jewish hatred and profoundly obsessed with violence. Had the mufti chosen to lead his people to peace and reconciliation with their Jewish neighbors, as he had promised the British officials who appointed him to his high rank in the early 1920’s, the Palestinians would have had their independent state over a substantial part of Mandate Palestine by 1948, and would have been spared the traumatic experience of dispersion and exile. Had Arafat set the PLO from the start on the path to peace and reconciliation, instead of turning it into one of the most murderous terrorist organizations in modern times, a Palestinian state could have been established in the late 1960’s or the early 1970’s; in 1979 as a corollary to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty; by May 1999 as part of the Oslo process; or at the very latest with the Camp David summit of July 2000.

Instead, Arafat transformed the territories placed under his control in the 1990’s into an effective terror state from where he launched an all-out war (the “al-Aqsa intifada”) shortly after being offered an independent Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip and 92 percent of the West Bank, with East Jerusalem as its capital. In the process, he subjected the Palestinian population in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to a repressive and corrupt regime in the worst tradition of Arab dictatorships and plunged their standard of living to unprecedented depths.

What makes this state of affairs all the more galling is that, far from being unfortunate aberrations, Hajj Amin and Arafat were quintessential representatives of the cynical and self-seeking leaders produced by the Arab political system. Just as the Palestinian leadership during the Mandate had no qualms about inciting its constituents against Zionism and the Jews, while lining its own pockets from the fruits of Jewish entrepreneurship, so PLO officials used the billions of dollars donated by the Arab oil states and, during the Oslo era, by the international community to finance their luxurious style of life while ordinary Palestinians scrambled for a livelihood.

And so it goes. Six decades after the mufti and his henchmen condemned their people to statelessness by rejecting the UN partition resolution, their reckless decisions are being reenacted by the latest generation of Palestinian leaders. This applies not only to Hamas, which in January 2006 replaced the PLO at the helm of the Palestinian Authority (PA), but also to the supposedly moderate Palestinian leadership—from President Mahmoud Abbas to Ahmad Qureia (negotiator of the 1993 Oslo Accords) to Saeb Erekat to prime minister Salam Fayad—which refuses to recognize Israel’s very existence as a Jewish state and insists on the full implementation of the “right of return.”

And so it goes as well with Western anti-Zionists who in the name of justice (no less) call today not for a new and fundamentally different Arab leadership but for the dismantlement of the Jewish state. Only when these dispositions change can Palestinian Arabs realistically look forward to putting their self-inflicted “catastrophe” behind them.

And, to make the point in a more general sense, only when the Palestinian/Arab/Muslim world learns to live at peace with the Israelis, will that solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict lead to peace. Anything less than such a progressive demand, appeases the worst kind of self-indulgent belligerence that has poisoned the lives of everyone but the war-mongers in that part of the world. And it is to the enduring shame of the current Western “progressive left” that, rather than pursue the fascinating story of one of the progressive world’s most passionate and successful movement, rewrites history so that the astonishing tale of Zionist progressivism gets rewritten as ruthless imperial colonialism. Alas, for everyone involved.

13 Responses to 1948-2008 Part I: The Sad Story of the Nakba

  1. oao says:

    And, to make the point in a more general sense, only when the Palestinian/Arab/Muslim world learns to live at peace with the Israelis, will that solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict lead to peace.

    Well, their culture and religion obviously won’t allow them to learn that and the few who did, paid a heavy price.

    What exactly, pray, will induce such a cultural and religious revolution? In fact, the evidence makes it abundantly clear that the more the palestinians suffer, the bloodthirstier they become for revenge and the more prone to ilsmaization and martyrdom.

    Furthermore, do the abandonment and undermining of Israel by the west, the support it provides to the barbarians, the leadership crisis in israel, and the rise of iran increase or decrease the likelihood of the barbarians to undergo such a transformation?

    Even peres admits that as israel has become more flexible, the arabs have become more extreme (but without drawing the obvious conclusion). And I can’t say i blame them.

    The problem is not the arabs/muslims. It’s us.


  2. Cynic says:


    It’s not just Israel the “West” is abandoning in stages but Lebanon to Iran.
    If Hezbollah gains control (just look at what they have been doing this week), which means Iranian control, then part of the push to command the whole region will be completed with just the lower jaw of the pincer to be put into place and that is when Palestinians and Jordanians are going to be sacrificed in bulk to get rid of Israel.

    Iranian “interference” in Lebanon in the 80s, encouraged by their Carter experience of the 70s, was further strengthened by the “realists” continuing foreign policy mess as the UN’s 2006 UNIFIL resolution demonstrates.
    Naqba is not going to be strong enough to portray the end result.

  3. Eliyahu says:

    I have references for some of the specific cases cited by Karsh, such as the Jaffa massacre claim. I recommend Kenneth Bilby, New Star in the Near East, &
    John Roy Carlson, Cairo to Damascus

    What I disagree with is the use of the term “palestinian” to refer to the Arabs of the country. Indeed, Arab expert witnesses testifying before the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry in 1946 denied that there was such a place as “palestine,” it was just Syria. The PLO charter asserts in Article I that the Palestinian Arabs are part of the Arab nation and that “palestine” is part of the great Arab fatherland. Indeed, as late as 1946, Arab spokesmen still denied that there was such a place. The notion of a “palestinian people” is a creation of Western psywar experts, British first of all. This notion was meant from the start to be a weapon against Israel/the Jews/. By using it, one aids enemy propaganda. This term is sinister and insidious nomenclature.

  4. oao says:


    you are, of course, preaching to the choir.

    but i stand behind my claim that the problem is the “international community” and the west in particular (because I expected nothing from the chinese and the russians).

    the ignorance and stupidity of the west about the ME and the dangers you mentioned is absolutely mindboggling. the media is publishing articles whose relation to reality is coincidental, not to mention propaganda by hezbollah and hamas.

    about the only thing that balances my contempt for this is the knowledge that the west is getting what it rightfully deserves. the tragedy is that the jews are going down with the west.


  5. Richard Landes says:

    to oao, you have put your finger on the problem — it’s us. but that’s also the answer. when the west stops indulging and encouraging the ugliest forms of palestinian self-pity, when they say no to the scape-goating and demonizing narratives, when they say, how about you doing something to make the situation better, then the palestinians will response. i am convinced there are many who silently cry themselves to sleep at night thinking of their leadership and its widesspread support in the west.

  6. Eliyahu says:

    James baker and Zbig Brzezinski are no fools. Maybe they know what they are doing when they empower and embolden Arab fascists and Islamic fanatics. As the news comes in from Lebanon, bear in mind that Zbig visited Damascus just a few months ago, following various Republican and Democratic American politicians. J baker in his notorious report [I think issued by the “Iraq Study Group”] called for supporting Syria. Baker had actually helped Assad Senior, the now dearly departed, to finish his conquest of Lebanon in late 1990.
    baker and zbig know that Damascus was behind more than a half dozen assassinations of prominent anti-Syrian Lebanese, including former pm Hariri. They know that all this is a violation of international law. That doesn’t stop baker-zbig from helping Syria’s Arab fascist party, the Ba`ath.
    The point is that they most likely know what they’re doing when they help Assad, Khomeini, abu mazen, etc. The question is Why.

  7. N00man says:

    Eliyah, what you’re saying may have been true 30+ years ago, but the Arabs of Palestine have since developed– even if under the causes and circumstances you describe– a national identity. Saying there’s no such thing as a Palestinian at this point in time is simply not true any more. We can’t wish them out of being by not using the term; do you think that if it’s explained to them that they’re all really Syrian/Jordanian/whatever they’ll say, “Ah, okay,” and that their host countries will grant them citizenship?

  8. […] have argued in a previous post that the easy inclusion of Zionism in the broader phenomenon of Western European imperialism and […]

  9. Eliyahu says:

    nooman, the issue is complex. But up to his death, arafat was talking in terms of pan-Arab nationalism of which palestinianism was only a part. Do they believe even as late as 2008 that they are a nation separate from the Arabs??

  10. oao says:


    when the west stops indulging and encouraging the ugliest forms of palestinian self-pity, when they say no to the scape-goating and demonizing narratives, when they say, how about you doing something to make the situation better, then the palestinians will response.

    but you never answered the question i asked you more than once: what will induce such a change in us, when education, knowledge and reason have collapsed? for it is precisely this collapse that have induced the negative change in the west that we experience now.

    James baker and Zbig Brzezinski are no fools. Maybe they know what they are doing when they empower and embolden Arab fascists and Islamic fanatics.

    permit me to disagree. when it comes to the ME, arabs and islam, they are worse than fools: they are powerful fools that consider themselves very smart. they think they can deal or bribe or talk the arabs/muslims into their western-like “self-interest” and sacrifice the jews to save the west’s ass.

    consider zbig’s policy towards iran during carter: was that the policy of no-fool? or baker’s policy towards saddam before he attacked kuweit? or his work in the iraq commission?

    but the Arabs of Palestine have since developed– even if under the causes and circumstances you describe– a national identity.

    really? then I suggest you read rl’s review of avineri’s article, his newest post here, and then come back and tell us that you still think so. you’ve been fooled by their propaganda, amplified by the western media. first learn what national identity means, then decide whether the palestinians have one. as it is, they can sell you anything and you’re buying it.

  11. oao says:


    here’s marc steyn who argues, like me, that your hope of a change in the west is unwarranted:


  12. Eliyahu says:

    Nooman, in fact, Jordan did give the 1948 refugees and the Judea-Samaria Arab population citizenship.

    OAO suggests that you read RL’s review of Shlomo Avineri’s article. I suggest that you read the PLO charter or covenant very carefully. Pay special attention to Article One. What does the plo charter imply?? It implies that the Pal Arabs consider themselves a part of the Arab Nation [qawm], not really bound by a smaller territorial identity like syrian or jordanian, etc. Article I speaks of “a Great Arab Fatherland” [watan] or homeland, if you like, of which “palestine” is a mere part. So the whole Arab world is their homeland or fatherland. And they are not ethnically or racially distinct from Arabs in other countries [In fact, there are racial differences, particularly between the Sudanese Arabs who are mainly of African descent, forcibly islamized and arabized, and the rest of the Arabs who are basically caucasian. But facts like this can’t get in the way of PLO ideology].

    I made the point that arafat spoke in pan-Arab terms until he died. Now, you can probably get a collection of the immortal verbal effusions of Chairman Arafat translated into English. Why don’t you look for some such publication and read it closely?? Do the same for the speeches of Arch Moderate Mahmud Abbas, alias Abu Mazen. I am sure that you will find there too an identification with pan-Arabism.

  13. […] discussing Ephraim Karsh’s essay in Commentary on 1948, I mentioned that he promised an annotated version. It’s now available. As an historian, I can’t […]

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