Sixty years since the Palestinians were expelled, Anne Alexander and John Rose examine the roots of the Israeli state
The state of Israel was founded 60 years ago out of a monstrous crime – the expulsion of nearly a million Palestinians from their homes.
This violence is known to Palestinians as the Nakba – the Arabic word for “catastrophe”. It was followed by a second humanitarian disaster in 1967 when Israel seized the whole of Jerusalem and the entirety of historic Palestine – leading to over 40 years of military occupation and wave after wave of killings in defence of the Zionist state.
The events surrounding the Nakba and the creation of Israel in 1948 are crucial to understanding the roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today.
The origins of the Zionist movement lie in Europe. The movement emerged in the late 19th century as a response to the growth of racist nationalism and antisemitism.
The tragedy of Zionism is that although it was driven by the desire to found a Jewish state as a safe haven for the oppressed, the movement’s leaders recognised that in order to do so they would need the support of a European government.
So they fashioned an ideology which made Zionism into a vanguard for European colonialism. Far from escaping European racist nationalism, Zionism aimed to export it by creating a Jewish colonial project.
After considerable debate the Zionist movement agreed on Palestine as a suitable site for the Jewish state and small groups of Jewish settlers began to move there over the first decades of the 20th century.
The British government, attracted by the Zionists’ promises that their settlements could help consolidate Britain’s control of newly-captured Ottoman lands, issued a declaration in 1917 agreeing to support the creation of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine.
Only two years before, British officials had also promised the same area to form part of an Arab kingdom, while behind the scenes they carved up Ottoman territory into spheres of influence in a secret deal with their wartime allies, the French.
At the peace negotiations after the First World War, Britain was given control of Palestine under the League of Nation’s mandate system.
Over the following two decades increasing numbers of Jewish immigrants moved to Palestine. The Jewish population grew from 50-60,000 in 1919 to nearly 450,000 in the mid-1930s.
The situation in Europe itself worsened with Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, and the Nazi persecution of the Jews. Most European governments acted towards these victims of the Nazis with double standards, condemning their treatment, as they shut their doors in the face of desperate refugees.
The birth of the new state of Israel was assisted by the world superpowers – as the US and the Soviet Union first backed the United Nations (UN) plan for the partition of Palestine and then recognised the state of Israel, hoping that this would accelerate British decline elsewhere in the Middle East.
The starting gun for the Zionist seiz-ure of most of Palestine was fired by the United Nations General Assembly, which voted in November 1947 to divide Palestine in two, leaving a Jewish state and a Palestinian state side by side.
The partition plan was manifestly unjust to the Palestinians.
In public the Zionist leaders welcomed partition, while in private they were already planning a ruthless assault on the civilian Palestinian population.
David Ben-Gurion, who became Israel’s first prime minister, explained to the executive of the Jewish Agency in November 1947, that a bleak future faced the Palestinians: “They can either be mass arrested or expelled – it is better to expel them.”
Throughout December 1947 and January 1948 Zionist militias carried out atrocities in Palestinian villages and neighbourhoods.
One such assault took place in the village of Khisas in Galilee on 18 December 1947. Zionist troops blew up houses in the village in the dead of night, while their occupants were sleeping. Fifteen people were killed, including five children.
From early December, in the city of Haifa, Zionist forces began rolling barrels of explosives into Palestinian neighbourhoods. They also poured burning oil into the streets and machine gunned residents who tried to put out the flames.
While the expulsions and massacres gathered pace, the Zionist leaders discussed and finally adopted what was known as Plan Dalet (after the Hebrew letter D). It gave clear orders to commanders of the Hagana – the Zionists’ main military force – on how to deal with the Palestinian population:
“These operations can be carried out either by destroying villages (by setting fire to them, by blowing them up and by planting mines in their rubble), and especially those population centres which are difficult to control permanently; or by mounting combing and control operations according to the following guidelines; encirclement of the villages, conducting a search inside them. In case of resistance, the armed forces must be wiped out and the population expelled outside the borders of the state.”
On 10 April 1948 in Deir Yassin over 90 villagers were massacred, one third of them babies.
There was a deadly purpose to such massacres – the perpetrators hoped to terrify their neighbours into flight, thus speeding up the process of expulsion.
The UN partition resolution prompted Arab governments to allow groups of volunteer fighters to enter Palestine in order to defend the Palestinian population.
Between December 1947 and May 1948 these were small bands, isolated from each other and lacking either adequate arms or a unified command.
Moreover, as Israeli historian Avi Shlaim notes, the tactics of the two sides were very different.
The Zionists quickly secured the main Jewish settlements and then struck out into areas designated as part of the Palestinian state, deliberately driving out the Palestinian population.
By contrast, the Arab fighters were more defensive, attempting to keep control of Palestinian areas, but rarely counterattacking into Zionist-held territory. By the time the main Arab armies intervened in May 1948, around 250,000 Palestinian refugees had already fled.
In mid-May 1948 the combined forces mobilised by the Arab states in Palestine numbered only 25,000 compared to the 35,000 fighters commanded by the nascent Israeli Defence Force (IDF).
The IDF rapidly brought more troops into battle, fielding 65,000 by mid-July and 96,441 by December.
Ben-Gurion announced the birth of Israel to the world on 15 May 1948. However, the expulsions and massacres continued to gather momentum.
As many as 230 Palestinians were shot in cold blood at Tantura and buried in a mass grave on 22 May.
Yitzhak Rabin, later prime minister of Israel, was in charge of military operations in the towns of Ramla and Lydd in July 1948.
He estimated that his troops drove around 50,000 Palestinians in the area from their homes, forcing them to march to the West Bank without food or water.
Over the following months the number of Palestinian refugees swelled to around 850,000.
Penniless and traumatised, they were housed in overcrowded camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
The United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution calling on Israel to allow the refugees to return – 60 years later they and their descendants are still waiting.
The disaster which overtook the Palestinians in 1948 has to be set in the context of a region in turmoil. One of the reasons why both the old colonial empires and the US saw a potentially valuable ally in the Zionist movement was the growth of a powerful anti-imperialist movement across the Middle East.
But the incompetence and treachery of the Arab leaders demonstrated the folly of leaving Palestine’s fate in the hands of the likes of King Abdullah of Jordan and King Farouq of Egypt.
However, 1948 also showed how the cause of Palestine could set the Middle East alight by strengthening and uniting a mass movement against imperialism and its local client rulers.The following should be read alongside this article:
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