Between 1917 and 1947, there is a growing discourse of “colonization” of Palestine. Jewish groups like the Stern Gang worked to rid Palestine of British authorities who were restricting immigration of Jews.
Among Israeli leaders like David Ben-Gurion, colonization becomes a term used in the founding stages of Israel. Outside of Palestine, the likelihood of military force in the creation of a Jewish state is recognized by the United States.
Some writers now talk of the creation of Israel as a settler-colonialist project. David Ben-Gurion, founding father and first Prime Minister of Israel, also talked of creating Israel as a colonialist project in a land where he recognized other people were already living.
“There is a gulf, and nothing can bridge it… I do not know what Arab will agree that Palestine should belong to the Jews…. We, as a nation, want this country to be ours…”
“No nation is freed of itself, without an effort. And even more so, no land is automatically build and held with no exertion of will, with no dedication of its first founders. The history of American settlement shows how herculean were the tasks of the colonists who came to find a new Homeland in the New World, how many the sorrows and travails they had to bear, how many and how fierce the fights they fought with wild nature and wilder redskins, the sacrifices made before they unlocked the continent for mass influx and colonization.”
“We are not blind, withal, to the fact that Palestine is no void. Some million Arabs inhabit both sides of Jordan, and not since yesterday. Their right to live in Palestine, develop it and win national autonomy is as incontrovertible as is ours to return and, by our own means and merit, uplift ourselves to independence. The two can be realized.”
The Palestine Jewish Colonization Association, commonly known by its Yiddish acronym PICA, was established in 1924 and played a major role in supporting the Yishuv in Mandatory Palestine and later the State of Israel until its disbandment in 1957.
Those living in Palestine, were promised that “freedom of conscience and of worship is assured and discrimination on the grounds of race, religion or language forbidden. English, Hebrew and Arabic are the official languages. All male Palestinians over twenty-five years of age are entitled to vote.”
The interfaith-friendly climate was beginning to be disrupted as the “clashing of several sects of Christians, the Moslems and the Jews over the control and use of the holy places has been constant and persistent,” peaking with the Hebron massacre in 1929; altogether, according to the 1931 Almanac, there were 870 Muslim deaths, 119 Jewish deaths and four Christian deaths in 1929. Reporting maintained that “Arab interests were not fully safeguarded in the face of Jewish colonization, and that the Arab outbreak was incited primarily by Arab disappointment over non-realization of their political aspirations.”
Joseph Grew to Truman Letter
This May 1945 letter, from acting secretary Joseph Grew to President Truman, describes the opinion of President Roosevelt that to create a separate state for Jews in Palestine could only be created and maintained through military force: “The Arabs, not only in Palestine but throughout the whole Near East, have made no secret of their hostility to Zionism and their Governments say that it would be impossible to restrain them from rallying with arms, in defense of what they consider to be an Arab country. We know that President Roosevelt understood this clearly, for as recently as March 3, after his trip to the Near East, he told an officer of the Department that, in his opinion, a Jewish state in Palestine (the ultimate Zionist aim) could be established and maintained only by military force.”
“Remember, in 1948 they were not referred to as ‘Palestinians’”.
“There were no such thing as Palestinians. When was there an independent Palestinian people with a Palestinian state? It was either southern Syria before the First World War, and then it was a Palestine including Jordan. It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.”
“People will tell me to my face that there has never been a Palestine and there are no such thing as Palestinians.”
Some believe that before Israel’s war for independence there was no Palestine, there were no Palestinian people, and the land was desert and had no inhabitants. This belief is easily found distributed and shared online and in discourse surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today. However, Judaism teaches us that—whatever we call the families who were living in Palestine before the creation of Israel—it would be wrong to expel them and make and keep them refugees from their homes.
This telegram shows that the Jewish people who were colonizing Palestine thought they were colonizing Palestine.
While before 1917, Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived together peacefully, the next thirty years would see an increase in attacks between groups, as seen in the 1929 Hebron massacre where 199 Jews were killed. Each loss of life is horrible, yet the Muslims and Christians killed during the riots of 1929 (870 Muslims and 4 Christians) are not often mentioned when the tragedy is used to demonstrate that Jews were being mistreated in the Holy Land, much less the many, many, many peaceful Muslim, Jewish and Christian people who were not involved in the violence. With increasing tensions and massive population shifts, the efforts in 1917-1947 to establish a state for Jews in a land where a large majority of non-Jewish families were already living set the stage for further conflict.
With the influx of Jewish immigrants into Palestine and growing tensions after the 1917 Balfour Declaration, civil war broke out on November 30, 1947 and continued through 1949. The 1947 war was so dividing that it is referred to as the “War of Independence” in Hebrew and as “The Catastrophe” in Arabic. It created a massive population shift as Palestinian families left their homes. But why after centuries of living alongside Jews did these families suddenly leave their homes, especially if their Jewish neighbors had—as many stories go— begged them to stay?
Father Elias Chacour
Christian Palestinian pastor, Father Elias Chacour, is a leading voice in equal rights for Christian and Muslim Palestinians living in Israel. Chacour’s family once lived in the former village of Biram, and Chacour remembers his father urging the community to be welcoming to incoming Jewish immigrants. However, during the Palestinian dispossession, this hospitable family was also chased from their home. Ba’ram was demolished four years later, replaced today by a kibbutz. Chacour is now a present absentee, a Palestinian who was expelled by Jewish or Israeli forces or fled from their home in Palestine during or before the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, but who remained in the land that became Israel. Like other present absentees, despite being a citizen of Israel, he is a not permitted to return to his home. Present absentees are also known as internally displaced Palestinians (IDPs).
In his book, Blood Brothers, Chacour recounts soldiers warning the villagers to get out of their homes and find a safe place because the village was in danger. But “At last the elders decided to not wait for the military commander’s signal to return. A delegation of men collected in the olive grove and climbed the hill to Biram.”
“Before long, they came running back, their faces a confusion of anguish and fear…Upon entering Biram and passing the first house, they had seen that the door was broken in. Most of the furniture and belongings were gone. What was left lay smashed and scattered on the floor. At the next house, it was the same, and at the house across the street. ..The soldiers leveled their guns at them, flicking off the safety switches. Angrily, one of the growled, ‘The land is ours. Get out now. Move!’ The betrayal cut like a knife. A few of the men were bitterly angry, seething with the thought that we had been tricked out of our village by these European men we had trusted. Others were simply bewildered. Pain etched every face.” (52-53)
Israeli Jewish historian Avi Shlaim, in his book “The Iron Wall” says that the most important reason Palestinian families left their homes was Jewish military forces, and that these families were made refugees before any other Arab armies declared war:
“There were many reasons for the Palestinian exodus, including the early departure of the Palestinian leaders when the going got tough, but the most important reason was Jewish military pressure. Plan D was not a political blueprint for the expulsion of Palestine’s Arabs: it was a military plan with military and territorial objectives. However, by ordering the capture of Arab cities and the destruction of villages, it both permitted and justified the forcible expulsion of Arab civilians. By the end of 1948 the number of Palestinian refugees had swollen to around 700,000. But the first and largest wave of refugees occurred before the official outbreak of hostilities on 15 May.”
There was one town, Deir Yassin, where the Palestinian population was mistreated, massacred in a targeted attack on the local population. On April 9, 1948 the Irgun and Stern Gang, two Jewish terrorist organizations, led an attack on Deir Yassin—a village of about 750 residents located on high ground between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. While Deir Yassin had a peaceful reputation and was said to have driven out Arab militants, the village stood on desired ground for a pathway that could supply Jews in Jerusalem. Though reported numbers vary, over 100 residents including women and children had been murdered. Several male residents of the village were also captured and paraded in Jerusalem.
While the Haganah did have forces involved in the massacre, the Jewish leadership in Palestine sent an apology telegrammed to King Abdullah of Jordan. A subsequent letter to the editor submitted to the New York Times, which included Albert Einstein as a signatory, decried the attack at Deir Yassin and warned the US against supporting “facist” Jewish terrorist groups in Palestine.
The scene at Deir Yassin was later recorded by an eyewitness, Jacques de Reynier, the head of the International Red Cross emergency delegation. On April 10, Reynier was stopped on the Jerusalem road by members of the Irgun, who refused him entry to the village. He bravely pushed through their lines and into homes where he found
“bodies cold. Here the ‘cleaning up’ had been done with machine-guns, then hand grenades. It had been finished off with knives, anyone could see that….As I was about to leave, I heard something like a sigh….It was a little girl of ten, mutilated by a hand grenade, but still alive….
The native Jewish people were shocked and disgusted. In tears, they protested that such things violated their ancient beliefs. Upon hearing the news about Deir Yassin, the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem flew into a fury.”
– Excerpt from Chacour’s book, Blood Brother (pg 47-48)
Many of us had been taught that Jewish forces never terrorized, raped, or looted Palestinians. But on October 29, 1948 Israeli soldiers tied and killed between fifty and seventy Palestinians in Safsaf. Reports include the rape of several women, including a 14-year-old girl. After the massacre, residents fled the village in small groups and Safsaf became the first village overtaken in Operation Hiram which had the goal of obtaining control of the Galilee.
Over 400 Palestinian towns and villages expelled
Deir Yassin and Safsaf are not the only villages attacked by Israeli forces. Palestinian sources document over 400 towns from which the Palestinian population was expelled. Did the depopulation of 400 Palestinian villages happen through 700,000 Palestinian men, women and children simply deciding to abandon their beloved homes because of hatred of Jewish people? Or, contrary to what is often taught about the founding of Israel, were Palestinian families forced from their homes and villages by Jewish forces?
The Haganah (the Jewish colonial army that predated formation of the Israeli Defense Force)
The Jewish army (the Haganah) war plans included specific mention of the expulsion of entire Palestinian village populations —men women and children— the destruction of the villages, and the mining of the debris. The text reads, “Destruction of villages (setting fire to, blowing up, and planting mines in the debris), especially those population centers which are difficult to control continuously. Mounting search and control operations according to the following guidelines: encirclement of the village and conducting a search inside it. In the event of resistance, the armed force must be destroyed and the population must be expelled outside the borders of the state.”
Israeli Jewish historians Benny Morris and Avi Shlaim describe how much of the expulsions of Palestinian families occurred in and before April 1948, before any Arab armies declare war in May 1948. While they do not say that there was (or wasn’t) a predetermined plan to rid Palestine of Palestinian families, they make clear that, by ordering the capture of Arab cities and the destruction of villages, Plan D both permitted and justified the forcible expulsion of Arab civilian families from their homes and villages.
The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) published a contemporary report in 1948 that documented the causes of Palestinian flight. According to the IDF, the leading factor causing Palestinian families to flee was “direct, hostile Jewish [Haganah/IDF] operations against Arab settlements.” Other factors included the operations of Jewish terrorist groups and the effects of hostile IDF operations on nearby Arab settlements.
Benny Morris writes:
“The Intelligence Branch then gives a detailed breakdown and explanation of these factors, stressing that ‘without doubt, hostile [Haganah/IDF] operations were the main cause of the movement of population’. The wave of emigration in each district, explains the report, followed hard upon ‘the increase and expansion of our [Haganah/IDF] operations in that district’. May brought a major increase in large-scale Jewish operations; so it also witnessed the widespread mass emigration of Arabs. ‘The departure of the British … of course helped the [Arab] evacuation, but it appears that the British withdrawal freed our hands for action more than it influenced the [Arab] emigration directly.”
The full article by Benny Morris analyzing the IDF report can be found here.
“Above all, let me reiterate, the refugee problem was caused by attacks by Jewish forces on Arab villages and towns and by the inhabitant’ fear of such attacks, compounded by expulsions, atrocities, and rumors of atrocities—and by the crucial Israeli Cabinet decision in June 1948 to bar a refugee return.” – Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949 (Cambridge, 1988)
Israeli historian Benny Morris often wrote about the effect of psychological warfare on Palestinian flight. Whether it be due to broadcasted threats of death or rape, word of the fall of neighboring villages, or surprise attacks, psychological warfare is an undeniable tactic used in the expulsion of Palestinian families from their homes.
Benny Morris’ “Righteous Victims”, page 213:
“The fall of Safad and the flight of its inhabitants shocked the Arab villages of the Hula Valley, to the north. [Palmah commander Yigal] Allon launched a psychological warfare campaign (‘If you don’t flee immediately, you will all be slaughtered, your daughters will be raped,’ and the like, and almost all the villagers fled to Lebanon and Syria.”
Benny Morris, The Causes and Character of the Arab Exodus from Palestine: the Israel Defense Forces Intelligence Branch Analysis of June 1948, pg 18:
“One must again emphasize that the report and its significance pertain only up to 1 June 1948, by which time some 300,000-400,000 Palestinians had left their homes. A similar number was to leave the Jewish-held areas in the remaining months of the war. The circumstances of the second half of the exodus – during the IDF conquest of Lydda and Ramle, and the central Galilee in July, the northern Negev in October and the northern Galilee in October-November – are a different story. But for an understanding of the Palestinian exodus until 1 June, one must, according to IDF Intelligence Branch, reach mainly for the vast middle ground between preplanned,outright IDF expulsion and Arab-engineered, Machiavellian flight. There, amid the frightening, threatening boom of guns, the loss of confidence in Arab might, the flight of relatives and friends, the abandonment of nearby towns, and a general, vast fear of the uncharted future, one will find the bulk of the pre-June Palestinian refugees.”
Benny Morris, The Causes and Character of the Arab Exodus from Palestine: the Israel Defense Forces Intelligence Branch Analysis of June 1948, pg 9:
“The Intelligence Branch notes that it was not always the dimensions of a Jewish attack which counted: it was ‘mainly the psychological’ factors which affected the rate of emigration. The report cites ‘surprise’, protracted artillery barrages and use of loudspeakers broadcasting threatening messages as factors which had a strong influence in precipitating flight. An attack on one village or town often affected its neighbours. ‘The evacuation of a certain village because of an attack by us prompted in its wake many neighbouring villages [to flee]’, states the report.”
This 1979 New York Times article discusses Israel’s censorship of Yitzhak Rabin’s account of the expulsion of 50,000 Palestinian civilian men, women and children from the towns of Ramle and Lydda. “‘Driving out’ is a term with a harsh ring,” Rabin had written in his original manuscript. “Psychologically, this was one of the most difficult actions we undertook. The population of Lod did not leave willingly. There was no way of avoiding the use of force and warning shots in order to make the inhabitants march the 10 to 15 miles to the point where they met up with the legion. The inhabitants of Ramle watched and learned the lesson.” The author of the New York Times article, David Shipler, writes that Mr. Rabin’s account is confirmed and “does not differ markedly from others.”
More from Morris
“The fall of Safad and the flight of its inhabitants shocked the Arab villages of the Hula Valley, to the north. [Palmah commander Yigal] Allon launched a psychological warfare campaign. ‘If you don’t flee immediately, you will all be slaughtered, your daughters will be raped,’ and the like, and almost all the villagers fled to Lebanon and Syria.”
“Meanwhile, Britain’s problems in Palestine were aggravated by the advent of Jewish terrorism. Until mid-1937 the Jews had almost completely adhered to the policy of restrain. But the upsurge of Arab terrorism in October 1937 triggered a wave of Irgun bombings against Arab crowds and buses, introducing a new dimension into the conflict. Before, Arabs (and, less frequently, and usually in retaliation, Jews) had sniped at cars and pedestrians and occasionally lobbed a grenade, often killing or injuring a few bystanders or passengers…
“Now, for the first time, massive bombs were placed in crowded Arab centers, and dozens of people were indiscriminately murdered and maimed-for the first time more or less matching the number of Jews murdered in the Arab pogroms and rioting of 1929 and 1936. This “innovation” soon found Arab imitators and became something of a “tradition”; during the coming decades Palestine’s (and later Israel’s) marketplaces, bus stations, movie theaters, and other public buildings became routine targets, lending a particularly brutal flavor to the conflict…
“The Irgun bombs of 1937-38 sowed terror in the Arab population and substantially increased its casualties. Until 1937 almost all of these had been caused by British security forces (including British-directed Jewish supernumeraries) and were mostly among the actual rebels, but from now on, a substantial proportion would be caused by Jews and suffered by random victims. The bombs do not appear in any way to have curtailed Arab terrorism, but they do appear to have helped persuade moderate Arabs of the need to resist Zionism and to support the rebellion…
“The first Irgun attack occurred on November 11, 1937, killing two Arabs at a bus depot near Jaffa Street in Jerusalem, and wounding five. Three days later, on November 14, a number of Arabs were killed in simultaneous attacks around the country-a day that the Irgun thereafter commemorated as the “Day of the Breaking of the Havlaga (restrain).” On July 6, 1938, an Irgun operative dressed as an Arab placed two large milk cans filled with TNT and shrapnel in the Arab market in downtown Haifa. The subsequent explosions killed twenty-one and wounded fifty-two…
On July 15 another bomb killed ten Arabs and wounded more than thirty in David Street in Jerusalem’s Old City. A second bomb in the Haifa market-this time disguised as a large can of sour cucumbers – on July 25, 1938 kill at least thirty-nine Arabs and injured at least seventy. On August 26, a bomb in Jaffa’s vegetable market killed twenty-four Arabs and wounded thirty-nine.”
Count Folke Bernadotte
During World War II, Bernadotte had served as vice chairman of the Swedish Red Cross. Just before the end of the war, he had led a rescue operation transporting inmates from German concentration camps to hospitals in Sweden. Accounts say that around 15,000 people were taken to safety in the “White Buses” of the Bernadotte expedition, among them a few thousand Jews.
Count Folke Bernadotte later became the Swedish UN mediator assigned to deal with the 1948 crisis in Palestine. Regarding Palestinian refugees, he wrote in his Progress Report submitted to the UN:
“It is not yet known what the policy of the Provisional Government of Israel with regard to the return of Arab refugees will be when the final terms of settlement are reached. It is, however, undeniable that 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 strategy of the armed conflict between Arabs and Jews in Palestine. The majority of these refugees have come from territory which, under the Assembly resolution of 29 November, was to be included in the Jewish State. The exodus of Palestinian Arabs resulted from panic created by fighting in their communities, by rumours concerning real or alleged acts of terrorism, or expulsion. 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.”
Bernadotte was assassinated in Jerusalem by one of the Jewish terror organizations, the LEHI (Stern Gang), an organization led in part by future Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.
The war years—filled with acts of terrorism on both sides, massacres of Palestinian villages, and the ultimate expulsion of Palestinians from their homes—are in sharp contrast to the previous atmosphere in the Holy Land where Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived alongside one another in peace. Unfortunately, the violence of the war years had no end in sight as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to be a pertinent, yet unresolved, social issue today.