The Catastrophe - Palestine 1948 : Dispossession And Exile

Steven Katsineris with a piece written back in 2002 which has additional relevance this week , the anniversary of Al Nakba/the Catastrophe. Steven Katsineris is a Melbourne based writer and activist.

  • “The crux of the Palestinian Problem is the fate of a people and its homeland. It is the piecemeal conquest and continued seizure of the entire country by military force. It is the forcible dispossession and displacement of the bulk of the indigenous population, and the subjugation of the rest. It is also the massive importation of alien colonists – to replace the evicted and lord it over the conquered.” -   A Palestinian View by Fayez A Sayegh.

The First World War was to set the stage for an alliance between British imperialism and the Zionist colonialism, paving the way for the dispossession and expulsion of the Arab people of Palestine and the creation of the Zionist State in 1948.

The Zionist movement was launched in Europe in 1897. Its aim was “to create for the Jewish people a home in Palestine,” with the help of the European Powers.

The Zionist aim was given a boost in 1917 when the British government took a position in favour of establishing a “Jewish national home” in Palestine. This alliance, concluded in 1917, had been advocated many times in Britain:

the occupation of Palestine by the Jews, under the protection of England, must be a greater necessity than ever… If England, again, is …relying upon its commerce as…its greatness; if one of the nearest and best channels of that commerce is across the axis of the three great continents; and if the Jews are essentially a trading people, what so natural as that they be planted along the great highway of ancient traffic. - Dr. Thomas Clarks, India and Palestine.

The World Zionist Organization had gained Britain’s support for a settler community because of Britain’s economic and strategic interests in the region.

Britain sought to dominate part of the Middle East in a division of the Ottoman spoils, control the East – West trade routes and oil reserves in the area. For their part the Zionists needed protection for its settler community during the formative stages of its establishment. Thus reciprocal interests were to bind British imperialism and Zionist colonialism in this joint effort.

Britain announced its policy on November 2nd 1917, in what is known as the Balfour Declaration, in proclaiming its support for a “Jewish National Home” in Palestine. Balfour said. “His Majesty’s Government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish people and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievements of this object.” Little attention was paid to Balfour’s warning though that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” Of course it could not be otherwise in reality.

Balfour made his declaration at a time when Britain was anxious to get world Jewry [especially in the United States] to support the allied cause against Germany. Zionist foreign policy had been to ally itself with any country that would support its cause. But Britain also pledged to support Arab independence to gain their support against Turkey.

At the end of the First World War Britain conveniently forgot the pledge to support Arab independence and a large part of the Ottoman Empire was carved up into British and French spheres of influence. And through the League of Nations, Britain gained a mandate in Palestine – with the Balfour Declaration as part of Britain’s obligations.

The path was now clear for Britain and the Zionist movement to pursue their objectives. The British involvement did not end well, in Winston Churchill’s words “the hell disaster” of 1948.

Palestine was predominately Arab, inhabited by the descendants of the original settlers of the land, who had become known as Arabs, since the seventh century A.D. Palestine was a popular homeland of a contempory society. It was not an empty or uninhabited place. It was however expedient for the Zionists to portray Palestine as an empty deserted land. In the words of Professor John Ruedy, “It was convenient for the Zionists and their supporters to picture Palestine as a wasteland before they came.” The Zionists promoted the idea that Palestine was empty and gave no thought to the rights of the natives of the land they coveted, “Let the people without a land, be given a land without a people,” said Israel Zangwill.

The Zionists also viewed themselves as bearers of a civilizing mission of Europe to the Orient. Herzl wrote. “We should form a portion of the rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilisation as opposed to barbarism.”

Maxime Rodinson wrote of this European view, that:

every territory situated outside that world [Europe] was considered empty – not of inhabitants of course, but constituting a kind of cultural vacuum and therefore suitable for colonization.

Equally, Britain paid no attention to Palestinian rights or views. Balfour wrote privately in 1918, “in Palestine, we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country.” For Balfour and the British leadership Zionism was “of far profounder import than the desire and prejudices [sic] of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.”

Early Zionist archives make it clear that the Zionist movement was preoccupied with what it referred to as the Arab question, and what would become of the indigenous population, in Palestine. Herzl wrote that, “We shall try to spirit the penniless population across the border.”….

For the Zionists, the creation of Israel meant the destruction of Palestine. As R. Weitz, who was for many years head of the Jewish Agency’s Colonization Department, said:

Between ourselves it must be clear that there is no room for both peoples together in this country …there is no other way than to transfer the Arabs from here to neighbouring countries, to transfer all of them. Not one village, not one tribe, should be left.

Arab anger increased as Britain allowed more and more Zionist settlers into Palestine. The Jewish settlers obtained more land, denied employment to Arabs and formed exclusive and well-organised communities. Many years earlier Hetzl had written, “We must expropriate gently the private property…we are not going to sell them anything back; we shall then sell only to Jews.”

Arab rebellions broke out against British rule and the Zionists throughout the 1930s. A British Royal Commission charged with investigating the causes of the rebellion of 1936, attributed it to “the desire of the Arabs for national independence,” and added that these “were the same underlying causes” which had brought about all the earlier rebellions.

By 1939, Britain faced the prospect of another war and again saw the expediency of appeasing the Arab world and tried to restrict Jewish immigration into Palestine.

Britain released a “Statement of Policy” stating that its undertakings to Zionism under the Balfour Declaration had been discharged. The new policy triggered violent Zionist opposition, and riots, in which Arab shops were looted and destroyed.

In November 1944, members of the Zionist group, the Stern Gang, assassinated the British Minister of State, Lord Moyne in Cairo. They saw Moyne as an anti-Zionist because of his opposition to Jewish immigration.

Even before the end of the Second World War, the Palestine conflict raged as Zionist terrorism grew and Palestinian resistance increased.

The London Times commented at the time that the violence in Palestine was a “fan to flame the smouldering resentment of the Arabs who complain already that they are victimised by terrorism and now threaten in their turn to resort to force.”

Early in 1947, Britain had had enough of the problem it had created and asked the newly formed United Nations to take over responsibility. In November 1947, the U.N. produced its plan for the partition of Palestine between Jewish and Arab states. The Partition Resolution recommended the creation of a Jewish state on 56% of Palestine, an Arab state on 43% of the land, and an International zone of Jerusalem under U.N. jurisdiction on the remaining 1%. Arabs living in the areas set aside for the Jewish State were to continue to reside there and have fundamental rights and liberties under U.N. guarantee. Once again the indigenous people were not consulted in this process.

World Jewry, with the backing of the U.S. lobbied for the plan; the Arabs opposed it. Despite the Arabs opposition, the majority of the population, who still owned most of the land, the recommendations awarded the Zionists, who owned less than 6% of the land area, a state in over 56% of the country. Furthermore, the Jewish state was to have more Arabs than Jews under its jurisdiction. The recommendation was a clear violation of the right of the Arab people to self-determination.

The United States was the leading champion of partition, and exerted the full weight of its influence, so that the resolution was passed. The practical effect of the U.S. policy on Palestine, with the U.N’s wealthiest and most powerful member state putting extra-ordinary pressure on other countries, was to have the import of deriving the Palestinians of over 60% of their country in terms of area, of their only port, Haifa, of Bethlehem and their greatest treasure Jerusalem. Following the partition resolution Arab protests and rioting broke out in Palestine. Due in large part to American policies, the Palestine Arabs, were about to enter their ordeal of exile and dispossession. The Palestine population were left to face the cruel force of well-armed military and paramilitary arms of the Zionist state.

During April, 1948, the Irgin Zionist group attacked the Arab city of Jaffa, bombing it for three days. On the fourth day the local inhabitants fled, many going as far as Trans-Jordan. These were the first Palestinian Arab refugees. So even before the Mandate and the proclamation of the State of Israel in May 1948, the army of the future state was attacking Arab areas outside its own U.N. borders.

A leading Zionist functionary, Joseph Weitz, former head of the Jewish Agencies Colonization Department wrote [in the Israeli Labour Party daily DAVAR in 1967]:

When the U.N. passed a resolution to partition Palestine into two States, the war of Independence broke out to our good fortune; and in this war a two fold miracle happened, a territorial victory and the flight of the Arabs.

Of course, this was no miracle, but in reality the “transfer solution” that Weitz and other Zionists had long advocated and had been from the start, an integral part of Zionism. In 1948, the transfer theory was put into brutal practice, thus achieving their aim of creating a Jewish majority in Palestine.

In a most methodical and ruthless way, the Zionist forces resorted to violence to intimidate, terrorise and evict the Arabs of Palestine. The first President of Israel, Chaim Weizmann called this exodus “a miraculous clearing of the land.” Israel’s chief founder, David Ben Gurion, wrote in his diary of:

the compulsory transfer of the Arabs from the valleys of the projected Jewish state….. we have to stick to this conclusion that same way we grabbed the Balfour Declaration, more than that, the same way we grabbed at Zionism.

On April 9th 1948, a number of Zionist groups, the Irgun, Zvai Leumi and the Stern Gang attacked the Arab village of Deir Yassin, west of Jerusalem. They massacred 254 unarmed Arab women, children and old men, while Arab men worked in the fields. Women were raped, others were tortured, bodies were thrown down a well and houses destroyed. The Irgun commander sent a message to his men, “As in Deir Yassin, so everywhere.” Other massacres in April, occurred in Ainez-Zaitourn, Salahed-deeh, and other Arab villages, and these accelerated the panic and flight of the Arab population.

Menachen Begin, a twice elected Prime Minister of Israel was the leader of that attack and defended it thus, “The massacre was not only justified, but there would not have been a State of Israel without the victory at Deir Yassin.” Jon Kimche, a Zionist author and correspondent described the massacre as “the darkest stain on the Jewish record.”

On May 14th 1948, the British withdrew and Ben Gurion, proclaimed the establishment of the state of Israel. By then the Zionist forces had occupied not only the area earmarked for the Jewish State, but 25 percent more of Arab territory. Ben Gurion, Israel’s first Premier wrote that by May 1948, Zionism had “reached its goal in a State made larger and Jewish by the Hagahah.” These objectives were accomplished, he also reveals, before a single soldier had entered Palestine from any of the Arab States to prevent further Zionist conquest of the Palestine territory. The Arab states’ armies mainly remained on the defensive, and their movements in May 1948 did not constitute aggression, but a limited reply to Israeli aggression, and came too late to help many Palestinians.

In July, the same policy unfolded; the Zionist forces attacked Lydda and Ramalah, in the southwest of Tel Aviv. Loudspeaker vans drove through the streets ordering the inhabitants to flee. Those reluctant to leave were forcibly ejected. The men were rounded up and driven away in trucks. Some 30,000 other people, mainly women and children, fled across open fields. In all over 50,000 Palestinians were expelled from these towns. The people of the surrounding villages were similarly uprooted.

During the “land clearing operations” of 1948 [and after] the Zionists expelled over 780,000 Palestinians from their homes and land in what became Israel and they became refugees in residual parts of Palestine [the West Bank and Gaza] or in adjacent countries. Only some 90,000 were able to stay on, in Israel territory, mainly in Galilee.  Margaret Arakie, wrote in her book, The Broken Sword of Justice:

The exodus of the refugees, long considered an obscure episode, is now… recognised for what it was. A deliberate master plan had evolved by the authorities of the future state to get rid of its Arab population – not through sober negotiations for exchanges of population, but in the chaos of war and with savage dispatch…news of the butchery [at Deir Yassin] rapidly spread among the horrified Palestinians and greatly facilitated the ruthless eviction which the Israeli army now proceeded to carry out in all sectors of the fighting. The result was that hundreds of thousands of hapless people lost their homes, their modest possessions and their livelihood. Their only fault was that they were not Jews; they did not fit into a Zionist State.

In May, the United Nations appointed Count Folke Bernardotte as U.N. mediator between the Zionists and the Arabs, [he was the head of the Swedish Red Cross and risked his life to save 20,000 Jews from Hitler’s concentration camps]. He realised that true peace was a long way off unless the serious injustices, which had occurred, were removed. He declared:

No settlement can be just and complete if recognition is not accorded to the right of the Arab refugee to return to the home from which he has been dislodged by the hazards and strategies of the armed conflict between Arabs and Jews…. It would be an offence against the principles of elemental justice if these innocent victims of the conflict were denied the right to return to their homes while Jewish immigrants flow into Palestine, and indeed at least offer the threat of permanent replacement of the Arab refugees who have been rooted in the land for centuries.

Count Bernadotte also proposed that Palestine refugees be given two options: One, they should be allowed to return to their homes in Palestine at anytime in the future; or two, if they chose not to return; they should be compensated by Israel for all that was taken from them. The choice Bernadotte concluded:

is between saving the lives of many thousands of people now or permitting then to die … I believe that for the international community to accept its share of responsibility for the refugees of Palestine is one of the minimum conditions for the success of its efforts to bring peace to that land.

His views were not to the liking of the Zionists, and on the order Yitzak Shamir, a leader of the Jewish terrorist group the Stern Gang [and later Israel’s Prime Minister] Count Bernadotte and his aid were killed by the Stern Gang on September 17th 1948 in the Zionist occupied area of Jerusalem.

In December 1948, the U.N. General Assembly declared, “that refugees wishing to return to their homes…should be permitted to do so…” This resolution has been reaffirmed by the U.N. year after year to no effect. Israel always refusing to allow the refugees to return to their country. The rationale of this inflexible Israel policy was candidly expressed by General Moshe Dayan when admitting "economically we can absorb the refugees.” he nevertheless ruled out the return of the displaced Palestinians as being “not in accord with our aims.” He explained, “It would turn Israel into either a bi-national or poly-Arab-Jewish state instead of the Jewish state, and we want to have a Jewish state.”

For the Palestinians it was to be the beginning of the al Nakba [The Catastrophe].The Palestinians lost not only political power over their country, but physical occupation of the country as well. They were deprived not only of their right to self-determination, but also their right to exist on their own land. It was a demographic purge of a kind unique in modern history.

British historian, Arnold Toynbee, wrote in his A Story of History’:

In A.D. 1948, the Jews knew, from personal experience, what they were doing; and it was their supreme tragedy that the lesson learned by them from their encounter with the Nazi Gentiles should have been not to eschew but to imitate some of the evil deeds that the Nazis had committed against the Jews.

The years to come saw frequent destruction of villages, more evictions from homes and demolitions, relocations and killings. The Christian village of Ikret is a case in point. In October, 1948, the villagers were removed from the village for “security reasons,” and told they could come back in two weeks. The period stretched into years. The villagers took the matter up with the courts, which ordered the Israeli army to permit the return of the villagers. The army response was to destroy every house on Christmas Day, 1951. There were other villages, like Kafr Dir’Iim, Qibya, Shuqba and so on, which suffered a similar fate. And what of Deir Yassin? It is now Givat Shaul Beth. In 1980, what was left of the ruins of Deir Yassin were bulldozed and made into a settlement for the Orthodox Jews. The streets were named after the Irgun units that massacred the Palestinians and the Deir Yassin cemetery was bulldozed to make way for a new highway.

The Palestinians became a cruelly dispossessed community. Most held deeds to their land issued by the British Mandate authorities, as well as those of the Ottomans. Their brown Palestinian passports were identical to those of the British; they had their tax receipts from the British Mandate and the keys to their houses. They had all the legal rights, but in practice they had no rights.

Palestine national consciousness was not created by the events of 1948, but it was transformed by it. The Palestinians entered, said Palestinian writer Fawaz Turki, “the world of the exile. The world of the occupied. The world of the refugee. The world of the ghetto. The world of the stateless.”

The Zionists even tried to deny their existence as a people. “There was no such thing as a Palestinian people,” said Golda Meir, the Israeli Prime Minister. She said:

When was there an independent Palestine people with a Palestine state?  It was not as though there was a Palestine people in Palestine considering itself as a people and we came and threw them out and took their country from them. They did not exist.

Well, the Palestinians did exist and Golda Meir’s denial points to a guilt about the fate of the Palestinians, as if the tragedy of their flight and exile in 1948, were less unjust and tragic because they never had the chance to have an independent State of their own.

Menachem Begin, another Israeli P.M., in effect admitted the validity of this view. In 1969, he warned an Israeli audience of the danger of conceding “the concept of Palestine.” He said, “If this is Palestine and not the land of Israel, then you are conquerors and not tillers of the land. You are invaders. If this is Palestine, then it belongs to a people who lived here before you came.”

Half a century after the events, what happened in 1948 retains its political and personal potency, for all involved, especially the Palestinian victims of injustice. For any gains that Palestinians have made are still small compared to the great loss they suffered in 1948, and for them the pain persists. And for Israelis these events were built on so much myth and lies, that the truth of the past is difficult to acknowledge.

For instance, take the example of Lydda [now Lod] and Ramalah, where over 50,000 Palestinians were expelled. The Israeli version was that the Palestinians left voluntarily. When Yitzhah Rabin, an Israeli P.M., came to write his memoirs he recalled, “The population of Lod did not leave willingly. There was no way of avoiding the use of fire and warning shots in order to make the inhabitants march.” Thirty years later this was still too much for the cabinet committee, which vetted ministerial memoirs for “security” breaches. They admitted what Rabin had written was true, but said it “could not be published, because it would ruin our claim that we acted humanely.” Clearly, contradicting Zionist “myth” could not be tolerated. Rabin agreed to the censorship. What he wrote about the expulsion of the Palestinians only came to light because his English translator already had a copy of the uncut manuscript and passed it on to the New York Times.

“Like most Israelis, I had always been under the influence of certain myths that had become accepted as historical truth.” Israeli historian Simha Flapan, in his book ‘The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities.

After over fifty years later, some Israelis are realising and acknowledging what actually happened to the Palestinian people. Recently some new revelations came to light regarding the real history of Israel’s establishment and the treatment and dispossession of the Palestinians. Of special note has been the work of Palestinian author Dr. Nut Masalha and Israeli historian Benny Morris. These scholars are using Israeli government archives and declassified documents to deconstruct the myths surrounding the founding of Israel. Israelis have for decades been taught in school as well that Palestine was largely uninhabited until the turn of the century and that it was a neglected land.

In a CBS special celebrating the Israeli anniversary in 1998, the U.S. President Clinton remarked about Israel, “making a once barren dessert bloom.” He was later challenged by Hala Maksound. the president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. She said:

Palestine was not a desert. Palestinians had a rich culture and society. Haifa, Jaffa and Acre were thriving cities. But Israel erased the Palestinian presence from the land, destroying 418 Palestinian villages. Israel was built on the wreckage of Palestinian lives. It is unconscionable for President Clinton to celebrate this history, while ignoring its human cost…

Israeli students have also been taught that the few Arabs who lived in Palestine upped and ran away, while Israelis tried to persuade the Palestinians to stay. Documents and letters preserved by the main Israeli participants tell a different story though.

“Previously, Israel had no historiography, only ideology, myth and indoctrination,” said Tom Seyev, author of 1949 and the first Israelis, one of the works of “new” history to challenge the accepted Zionist story. “Access to archives made it possible to check their contents against myths and ideology. When you read these papers, you think ‘Wow’ that’s not the way we learned this at school. Some of the facts that emerged from Israeli archives are very shocking,” said Segev.

Such as this extract from the diaries of Yosef Nahmani, director of the Jewish National Fund office in eastern Galilee for 30 years. Nahamani’s diaries were originally published in an abridged version, but Israeli historian Benny Morris published this extract from the unedited manuscripts in the Journal of Palestine Studies, describing events in the Arab village of Safsaf, during 1948:

The inhabitants had raised a white flag, the [Israeli] soldiers collected and separated the men and the women, tied the hands of 50-60 fellahin [peasants] and shot and killed them, and buried them in a pit. Also they raped several women.  In Saliha, where a white flag had been raised, they killed about 60-70 men and women. Where did they come by such a measure of cruelty…is there no more human way of expelling the inhabitants than by such methods.

“That these are Israeli sources and cannot be dismissed as foreign propaganda,” said Tom Segev. “We were told that we did everything to try to prevent the Arabs escaping. Today you can go to the Israeli army archive and find generals reports on how they expelled the Arabs,” he added.

Of course there were some Jews who saw the destructive effects of Zionism on the Palestinians very early, the famous Jewish author, Ahad Ha√°m [Asher Ginsberg] wrote in 1891, that the Zionists “treat the Arabs with hostility and cruelty, deprive them of their rights, offend them without cause and even boast of their deeds.” He also noted on his visit. “We abroad are used to believing that Eretz Israel is not almost totally dissolute, a desert that is not sowed…. But in truth this is not the case. Throughout the country it is difficult to find fields that are not sowed.” He was so repelled he said of Zionism, “If this is the Messiah, then I do not wish to see his coming.”

There are other Jews who refused to accept the Zionist lies about the refugees and did their best to expose it. After reading an article by Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, which pushed the official Israeli line on the exodus, Nathan Chofshi wrote to the Jewish Newsletter [9-2-1959]:

If Rabbi Kaplan really wanted to know what happened, we old Jewish settlers in Palestine who witnessed the flight could tell him how and what manner we, Jews, forced the Arabs to leave cities and villages which they did not want to leave of their own free will. Some of them were driven out by force of arms; others were made to leave by deceit, lying and false promises. It is enough to cite the cities of Jaffa, Lydda, Ramle, Beersheba, Acre, from among numberless others … we came and turned the Arabs into tragic refugees. And we still dare slander and malign them, to besmirch their name; instead of being deeply ashamed of what we did and trying to undo some of the evil we committed, we justify our terrible acts and even attempt to glorify them.” Quoted from Dispossessed by David Gilmour.

While more of the bitter truths of Israel’s history are now being revealed and more openly debated, admitting to the injustices and outrages of the past is only the first step. Much remains to be done; most importantly it is long and overdue that finally Israelis and others come to terms with the just rights, hopes and aspirations of the Palestinians.

It is over fifty years since the catastrophe of 1948, but Palestinians still mourn the land they lost. To the Palestinian refugees of the camps throughout the Middle East, it is inconceivable that they should settle anywhere else, but home, and the ideal of the return has been the main thing they have thought, dreamt, talked and sacrificed for, for more than fifty years.

In the refugee camps in Lebanon and elsewhere, Palestinian refugees are grouped together according to where they come from in Palestine. They continue to speak in the same dialect, cook the same food, sew the same embroidery and maintain their culture. This is why Palestinian children who have never seen Palestine know all about their village or town. The Palestinian attachment to their land has not waned, but intensified in exile.

Only in New Palestine can the presently incompatible positions of both parties be creatively transcended and a just peace established. The vision is of a pluralistic Palestine on whose once hallowed, but now blooded fields and hills indigenous Palestinians Christians and Moslem, and non indigenous Jews will live together, neither claiming the country as his alone, whether by right or by conquest, but each looking upon the land as the common domain of all. - A Palestinian View by Fayez A Sayegh.

The people of Palestine, not withstanding all their travails and misfortunes, still have undiminished faith in their future. After over fifty years of dispersion, exile and oppression, the people of Palestine know that the pathway to the future is the liberation of their homeland.

Only in the liberation of Palestine can the sacrifices of the past generations of Palestine Arabs be vindicated and the visions and hopes of the living Palestinians be transformed into reality.

On March 30th every year hundreds of thousands of Palestinians march to remember six unarmed Palestinians killed by Israeli forces in March 1976 and commemorate Land Day, the time when the million or so Palestinians in Israel shook off the defeat of 1948 and took on the Israeli state against Israeli land expropriations aimed at seizing 5,000 acres of land in Galilee. And each year throughout the Middle East Palestinians march to protest the loss of their land in May 1948, with thousands of Palestinian children holding up the rusty keys to their homes.

“And as we slowly work our way out, year after year, generation after generation, there is no other place for us to go, but Palestine.” From The Disinherited’by Fawaz Turki.

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