The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited

I read The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited before Michelle’s birth but haven’t had time to review it.

It is a detailed look (640 pages) at the issue of the Palestinian refugees with more than 2,700 endnotes/footnotes. The book starts with three maps. One shows the UN partition plan. The 2nd map codes the Arab villages and towns based on how they were abandoned (in Benny Morris’s own words):

  1. Abandonment on Arab orders
  2. Influence of nearby town’s fall
  3. Expulsion by Jewish forces
  4. Fear (of being caught up in fighting)
  5. Military assault on settlement
  6. Whispering campaign — psychological warfare by Haganah/IDF

There are too many towns and villages listed (about 400) for me to summarize here but #1 seems to be the only one which doesn’t occur frequently in Morris’s list.

The final map shows the Jewish settlements established on the site of or near Arab ones in 1948-9. There are about 186 such settlements that Morris lists and they started in April 1948. More than anything else, this was probably what made the return of the refugees impossible.

Here are some population numbers from Benny Morris. Jewish population was 650,000 while there were 1,250,000 Palestinian Arabs. About 700,000 Arabs became refugees. The number of Arabs left in Israel in 1949 was 102,000. Looking at these numbers, it is easy to see why 1948 was nakba for the Palestinians. More than half of their population was uprooted, with the largest Arab town (Jaffa) not existing any more as an Arab town.

Overall, Morris has tried to show some context in this book, at least more than he did for the previous edition. The chapters are mostly organized chronologically, though sometimes he switches back and forth between different towns and villages in a chapter which can be confusing.

The book also tells us what everyone does know: war is hell. There was looting, expulsions, etc.

The focus of the state was in exploiting abandoned Arab property for Jewish needs and preventing the Arabs to return to harvest their crops, for example. Here are some examples from Jaffa: “great deal of unpleasantness and some brutal behavior”, “pushed about”, “concentrated in one or two areas behind barbed wire fences”, “property vandalised, looted and robbed”, “forced unpaid labour”, “15 Arab men found dead”, “12 year old girl raped”. The military governor believed that no soldiers were punished for these acts.

In Safad, some old Arabs “with an average age of 80” remained after its takeover by Palmah. The Muslims among them were expelled to Lebanon. The few Christians, who were willing to live under Jewish rule, were transferred to Haifa by the Israeli army. Despite the efforts of the Israeli Foreign Ministry and the Minority Affairs Ministry, the army refused to allow these septuagenarians and octogenarians back into Safad.

When Beit Shean (Beisan) surrendered, the Arabs were told they could stay as part of the surrender terms. However, Haganah commanders were later “troubled” by the presence of Arabs behind the front lines and so the 1,000-1,200 Arabs residents who had remained were expelled a few days later.

During the early months of the war, there was not much expulsion of Arabs. However, in April 1948, a decision was made to “destroy villages in strategic areas or along crucial routes regardless of whether or not they were resisting.”

Everyone has heard of the Deir Yassin massacre. But I did not know that Deir Yassin “had signed a non-belligerency pact with its Jewish neighbours and repeatedly had barred entry to foreign irregulars.”

More problematic than the expulsion and flight of the Arabs, in my opinion, was the Israeli policy to block their return. Here is Israeli Foreign Minister Shertok on the issue:

The most spectacular event in the contemporary history of Palestine —- more spectacular in a sense than the creation of the Jewish state —- is the wholesale evacuation of its Arab population … The reversion to the status quo ante is unthinkable. The opportunities which the present position open up for a lasting and radical solution of the most vexing problem of the Jewish state [i.e., the large Arab minority] are so far-reaching as to take one’s breath away. Even if a certain backwash is unavoidable, we must make the most of the momentous chance with which history has presented us so swiftly and so unexpectedly.

Shertok did not want the refugees to return but was willing to pay them compensation for the land so that they could settle elsewhere.

Not everyone was against the refugee return. Mapam’s Political Committee passed a resolution supporting the return of ‘peace-minded’ refugees at the end of the war. Ben-Gurion responded to that by saying: “we should prevent their return … We must settle Jaffa, Jaffa must become a Jewish city … I will be for them not returning also after the war.”

I don’t want to go into the Israel-Palestine conflict other than the refugee issue in this post, but this passage from Morris is instructive:

The settlements, mostly kibbutzim, had expanded and deepened the Jewish hold on parts of Palestine, gradually making more of the country ‘Jewish’, or at least not Judenrein. In the successive partition plans, the presence of clusters of settlements determined what would constitute the areas of future Jewish statehood. Settlements ultimately meant sovereignty. Each new settlement or cluster staked out a claim to a new area. Linked to this was their military-strategic value and staying power.

There were also expulsion and forced movement of Arab villages in the border areas despite (armistice) agreements to the contrary with Egypt and Syria in 1949. I believe some of those people live in Israel and are still trying to get back to their village. According to Morris, in addition to military concerns, economic ones like coveting the Arab land also played a role.

Here is Morris’s conclusion, most of which I agree with.

The first Arab-Israeli war, of 1948, was launched by the Palestinian Arabs, who rejected the UN partition resolution and embarked on hostilities aimed at preventing the birth of Israel.

[… T]he displacement of Arabs from Palestine […] was inherent in Zionist ideology [… T]he underlying thrust of the ideology […] was to turn an Arab-populated land into a State with an overwhelming Jewish majority.

[…] But there was no pre-war Zionist plan to expel ‘the Arabs’ from Palestine […] and the Yishuv did not enter the war with a plan or policy of expulsion. Hence, […] between the end of November 1947 and the end of March 1948, there were no preparations for mass expulsion and there were almost no cases of expulsion or the leveling of villages.

[… F]rom early April 1948 on, ‘transfer’ was in the air and the departure of the Arabs was deeply desired on the local and national levels by the majority of the Yishuv, from Ben-Gurion down. And while this general will was never translated into systematic policy, a large number of Arabs were expelled.

[…] Israeli policy toward […] [refugees]: Generally applied with resolution and, often, with brutality, the policy was to prevent a refugee return at all costs.

Overall, it is a good book for someone interested in the genesis of the Palestinian refugee problem. If you are interested in a more general history of the conflict, I would recommend Righteous Victims.

By Zack

Dad, gadget guy, bookworm, political animal, global nomad, cyclist, hiker, tennis player, photographer


  1. Benny Morris has tried to do justice with the history.
    My father and maternal uncle had narrated similar and even worse incidents. My parents were in Palestine till December, 1947 and my maternal uncle stayed back to look after my father’s business till early 1949 when all the business and property was confiscated by Jews and he was made to leave Palestine. He was a Pakistani born in Egypt.

  2. Dad: I didn’t know that your uncle was in Palestine.

    Jonathan: Benny Morris thinks that the feeling of seige and isolation and the fear of a wider war with the Arab world resulted in military plans to clear lines of communication and border areas of Arab villages (for example, Plan D). This thinking then went beyond the strict military requirements among the military as well as politicians and others.

  3. It was my eldest Mamoo (maternal uncle). He assisted my father in his business. He lived with father in Tulkaram, however, father’s business (garments and shoes factories and shops of cloth and other things) all was in the area that became Israel. I remember only three names: Tel Aviv, Haifa and Nathania. They lived in Tukaram because of it’s climate, scenery, etc, perhaps, it was like Jammu, so my father liked it.

    Tulkaram became part of Jordan in 1948, but no Muslim was safe in areas adjoining Israel, especially, Tulkaram which was just at
    the border of Israel. All Muslims in Tulkaram were made to vacate it by Israeli (Zionist) terrorists. There were different terrorist groups headed by Yitzhawk Shamir, Moshe Dayan, Menachem Begin, etc. Moshe Dayan lost his one eye in those operations. Mamoo (my maternal uncle) had received threat of life. So, he left for Egypt.

    My father’s business and property in Palestine was confiscated rather grabbed by Israeli administration / their agents. As to compensation / reason; The property and business was confiscated by Isrelis like British and Sikh rulers did to our ancestors property in India during 18th and 19th century and India did to my father’s property in Jammu & Kashmir in 1947. Has UK ever confessed their loot in India till today or India given any reason except calling Jammu & Kashmir her “Atoot Ang (un-separable part)” which actually is not?

    In 1947 in Jammu & Kashmir and in 1948 in Palestine / Israel, the order of the day was “leave before we reach or be killed. The so-called free world writters have mutilated the story of
    Israel – Palestine conflict in Israel’s favour (their illegitimate child).

    My Nana (maternal grand father) and his family, while in Egypt, had British India nationality. They
    opted for Pakistan in 1947 and became Pakistanis. So did my parents and Mamoo (maternal uncle) in Palestine. However, Mamoo, by appearance
    and structure, was a pure Arab and spoke Egyptian / Palestinian Arabic dialect.

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