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Why Did The Palestinians Run Away in 1948?

Since the abortive talks at Camp David in July 2000, the Palestinian refugee problem has re-emerged as the hard core of the Arab-Israeli conflict. For five decades, the Israelis have swept the problem under the carpet, while the Palestinians have consistently developed their national ethos around their"Right of Return." Assisted by a few Israeli relativist historians, they have composed a false narrative of deliberate expulsion, stressing the role of Deir Yassin and Plan Dalet in their exodus. Unfortunately, saying it endlessly does not make it so. The Palestinian refugee problem has been a result of Israel's War of Independence - the equivalent to the Palestinians' Al-Nakbah. That war consisted of two separate and different campaigns: The first was an inter-communal civil war between Jews and Palestinians that took place under British sovereignty and in the presence of British troops. The second contest began with the invasion of Palestine by Arab armies on 15 May 1948 and lasted until the conclusion of armistice agreements in 1949. This was a war between Israel and a coalition of Arab states, fought by armies using methods of modern warfare.

The war started because the Palestinians promptly rejected the UN partition resolution of 29 November 1947. The Arab states backed them from the beginning and joined in the fighting upon termination of the mandate, invading the newly established Jewish State. The Arabs dismissed any compromise that provided for a Jewish State of any kind, and objected to UN resolutions 181 (Partition) and 194 (among other clauses: the refugees). Only in the wake of their military defeat, the Arabs have engaged in moral acrobatics by making these resolutions a cornerstone of their case.

The Palestinians' subsequent suffering should not be isolated from their role in that war. As victims, their conduct gives adequate cause to deny them the adjective"innocent." Truly, they have paid a heavy price in 1948 - and ever since. They have been victims - but of their own follies and pugnacity, as well as of their Arab allies' incompetence.

Mass flight accompanied the fighting from the beginning of the civil war. In the absence of proper military objectives, the antagonists carried out their attacks on non-combatant targets, subjecting civilians of both sides to deprivation, intimidation and harassment. Consequently, the weaker and backward Palestinian society collapsed under a not-overly-heavy strain. Unlike the Jews, who had nowhere to go and fought with their back to the wall, the Palestinians had nearby shelters. From the beginning of hostilities, an increasing flow of refugees drifted into the heart of Arab-populated areas and into adjacent countries.

The Palestinians' precarious social structure tumbled because of economic hardships and administrative disorganization. Contrary to the Jews who built their"State in the Making" during the mandate period, the Palestinians had not created in time substitutes for the government services that vanished with the British withdrawal. The collapse of services, the lack of authority and a general feeling of fear and insecurity generated anarchy in the Arab sector.

... the documentary evidence clearly shows that the Arab leaders did not encourage the flight. On the contrary, they tried in vain to stop it.

When riots broke out, middle-class Palestinians sent their families to neighboring countries and joined them after the situation deteriorated. Others moved from the vicinity of the front lines to less exposed areas in the interior of the Arab sector. Non-Palestinian Arabs returned to Syria, Lebanon and Egypt to avoid the hardships of war. First-generation rootless emigrants from the countryside to urban centers returned to their villages. Thousands of Palestinian government employees - doctors, nurses, civil servants, lawyers, clerks, etc. - became redundant and departed as the mandatory administration disintegrated. This set a model and created an atmosphere of desertion that rapidly expanded to wider circles. Between half to two-thirds of the inhabitants in cities such as Haifa or Jaffa had abandoned their homes before the Jews stormed these towns in late April 1948. Dependence on towns that had fallen, the quandaries of maintaining agricultural routine and rumors of atrocities exacerbated mass flight from the countryside. Many hamlets that the Haganah occupied were empty. No premeditated deportations had taken place, and the use of intimidation and other methods of psychological warfare were sporadic.

The progress of the British evacuation enabled the adversaries to modify their tactics. Early in April, the Haganah launched several large-scale operations across the country. By contrast, the Arab forces remained dispersed and disarrayed. Under the new circumstances, their traditional patterns of warfare and organization became anachronistic. Unaware of the difference between anti-colonial insurrection and a national war, the Palestinian leaders preferred to conduct the struggle from safe asylum abroad as they had done during their rebellion against the British in 1936/9. The Arab states contributed to the chaos by being able neither to determine Arab Palestine's political future nor to let the Palestinians shape their own destiny.

In the last six weeks of the British mandate, the Jews occupied most of the area that the UN partition plan allotted to their State. They took over five towns and 200 villages; between 250,000 to 300,000 Palestinians and other Arabs ran away (so far, they were not driven out) to Palestine's Arab sectors and to neighboring countries. This rapid and almost total collapse astonished all concerned. It was unbelievable that plain defeatism lacking any ulterior motives had prompted this mass flight. The Jews suspected the flight was nothing but a conspiracy - concocted by the Palestinian leadership - to embroil the Arab states in the war. Later, this guess would become the official line of Israeli diplomacy and propaganda. However, the documentary evidence clearly shows that the Arab leaders did not encourage the flight. On the contrary, they tried in vain to stop it. The old Israeli narrative is as wrong as the new Palestinian one, and the historical picture is far more complex.

Unlike the pre-invasion period, certain Israeli Defense Force (IDF) actions on the eve of and after the invasion aimed at driving out the Arab population from villages close to Jewish settlements or adjacent to main roads. These measures appeared necessary in face of the looming military threat by the invading Arab armies. The Israelis held the Palestinians responsible for the distress that the invasion caused and believed they deserved severe punishment. The local deportations of May-June 1948 appeared both militarily vital and morally justified. Confident that their conduct was indispensable, the troops did not attempt to conceal harsh treatment of civilians in their after-action reports.

Instead of saving the Palestinians, the Arab armies' invasion doubled their territorial losses and the number of refugees. Later waves of mass flight were the result of the IDF's counter offensives against the invading forces. The position of these new escaping or expelled Palestinians was essentially different from that of their predecessors of the pre-invasion period. Their mass flight was not the result of their inability to hold on against the Jews. The Arab expeditions failed to protect them, and they remained a constant reminder of the fiasco. These later refugees were sometimes literally deported across the lines. In certain cases, IDF units terrorized them to hasten their flight, and isolated massacres - particularly during the liberation of Galilee and the Negev in October 1948 - expedited the flight.

After the conquest of Galilee, the feasibility of the West Bank's occupation depended to a large extent on the likely reaction of the civilian population in this region. Ben-Gurion pondered on whether the inhabitants would run away as their predecessors had done before the invasion, or stay put and encumber Israel with countless political, economic and administrative problems. The lessons of the campaigns in Galilee and the Negev implied that the Palestinians might not run away of their own will. Mass flight meant, therefore, either plenty of atrocities - provoking domestic and international repercussions - or a large Palestinian population under Israeli domination, which was equally dreadful. Mainly to avoid these unattractive options, Ben-Gurion decided to give up the conquest of the West Bank and to embark on negotiations with Transjordan.

When they ran away, the refugees were confident of their eventual repatriation at the end of hostilities. This term could mean a cease-fire, a truce, an armistice and, certainly, a peace agreement. The return of escapees had been customary in the Middle East's wars throughout the ages. When the first truce began in June 1948, many tried to resettle in their hamlets or at least to gather the crops. However, they were fated for a surprise.

Their Jewish adversaries belonged to an alien European civilization whose historical experience and concepts of warfare were different. Three years after the end of the Second World War, it was inconceivable that Germans who had been expelled by the Czechs, Poles and Russians would ever return to the Sudeten, to Pomerania, to Silesia or to East Prussia. The mass repatriation by the allies of millions after the war concerned their own nationals. Refugees or deportees of defeated belligerents resettled to begin anew life elsewhere. People still remembered the exchange of populations between Turkey and Greece in the early 1920s. Europe was full of White Russians who had left their homeland after the revolution and the subsequent civil war. The vast majority of Israelis did not think that the Palestinians should fare better and wanted to apply this principle to the Middle East, naively ignoring its different cultural concepts and historical experience.

In the summer of 1948, Israel decided to object to any repatriation of refugees before peace. Truces and armistices were considered a part of the war, not of a peace settlement. Subsequently, Israel took several steps to prevent the return, primarily the resettlement of evacuees from places that were occupied or destroyed by the Arabs, demobilized soldiers and new immigrants in the abandoned Arab towns, neighborhoods and villages. Thus, the presumably temporary flight turned into a permanent, almost eternal problem of refugees.

Blaming the Arab League for the refugees' fate, Israel expected the Arab governments to resettle the Palestinians in their countries as Germany had absorbed Volksdeutsche after the Second World War and Israel itself absorbed refugee-immigrants from the Arab countries. However, the Arab world has insisted on the refugees'"right of return" as a precondition for any reconciliation with Israel. The implied message has been unequivocal: First, the Palestinian refugees are Israel's creation and responsibility, and it should not expect the Arab world to help solving the problem or share the responsibility for their ultimate fate. Secondly, the Arabs have not been able to crush Jewish statehood, but Israel should not expect them to comply with its alien code of behavior. Unlike Europe, the pattern in the Middle East has been that war refugees return to their homes when hostilities end, and hostilities do not end until they return. Israel has to reckon with this twofold message. Yet, unless the Jewish State is ready to commit national suicide - it is difficult to foresee how the problem can be solved.