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Were the Palestinians Expelled?

August 5, 2016 | By: Efraim Karsh

Palestinians and Israelis have divergent “narratives” as to how the Palestinian Arabs left the land of Israel before the refounding of the Jewish state. Is the traditional Israeli narrative correct that the Palestinians’ plight was largely “self-inflicted,” or are the Palestinians—and Israeli “new historians”—correct that the Palestinians were “the hapless victims of a Zionist grand design to dispossess them from their patrimony”?

In this 2000 Commentary article, University of London professor Efraim Karsh delves into this issue based on his examination of recently de-classified documents. He presents evidence that the traditional Israeli account was closer to the truth of things. The Jews in Haifa, for example, pleaded with their Arab neighbors not to leave. But the local Palestinian leadership heeded instructions from regional Arab leaders to leave, with assurance that more strikes against the Jews were coming. This was because “any agreement by its Arab community to live under Jewish rule would have amounted to acquiescence in Jewish statehood in a part of Palestine. This, to both the Palestinian leadership and the Arab world at large, was anathema.” Here lie the roots of the Palestinian refugee crisis.

Today, as the saga of Israel’s birth is being turned upside down, with aggressors portrayed as hapless victims and victims as aggressors, it can be only a matter of time before the Jewish state is presented with the bill for its alleged crimes against the Palestinian refugees. Indeed, this past May, as part of the commemoration of the 52nd anniversary of the 1948 war (in Palestinian parlance, al-Nakba, the catastrophe), Yasir Arafat’s Palestinian Authority attempted to link any final-status settlement with Israel to the return of refugees to their homes in Haifa and Jaffa. Organized tours brought scores of Palestinians to locations in Israel abandoned in 1948, and the Arab-language Jerusalem newspaper al-Quds bemoaned “the uprooting of the Palestinian people in one of the worst crimes of modern history.”

But were they uprooted, and if so by whom? In Haifa, one of the largest and most dramatic locales of the Palestinian exodus, not only had half the Arab community fled the city before the final battle was joined, but another 5,000–15,000 apparently left voluntarily during the fighting while the rest, some 15,000–25,000 souls, were ordered or bullied into leaving against their wishes, almost certainly on the instructions of the Arab Higher Committee. The crime was exclusively of Arab making. There was no Jewish grand design to force this departure, nor was there a psychological “blitz.” To the contrary, both the Haifa Jewish leadership and the Hagana went to great lengths to convince the Arabs to stay.

These efforts, indeed, reflected the wider Jewish attitude in Palestine. All deliberations of the Jewish leadership regarding the transition to statehood were based on the assumption that, in the Jewish state that would arise with the termination of the British Mandate, Palestine’s Arabs would remain as equal citizens.

Read the whole essay in Commentary.


More about: America, Israel, and the Middle East  • Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism  • Jewish Political Thought  • Zionism