Nakba – or Independence War? Fact-checking 1948

Sam Vaknin

Belgium (Brussels Morning Newspaper), As with every protracted conflict, both the Israelis and the Palestinians spew out counterfactual propaganda regarding the events that led to the crisis of Palestinian refugees (more precisely: internally displaced people) in 1947-9.

Here are some of the more pertinent facts:

  1. The Jews owned 6% of the land of Palestine before 1947. Another 49% was owned by the state (the Ottoman authorities, succeeded by the British Mandate), 22% by small Arab landholders (and fellahin), and 23% by rich Arabs (effendis), mostly from outside Palestine.  The United Nations Partition Resolution 181 gave the Jews 55% of Palestine (most if it comprised of the Negev desert). The new Jewish state was supposed to incorporate 450,000 Arabs and 650,000 Jews within its borders. The Jews counted on future Jewish immigration to counter the imminent demographic threat of an Arab majority.
  2. The Jews constituted a majority in Jerusalem, Tiberias, and Haifa before 1948. Safad and Jaffa were almost entirely Arab. In 1881, at the beginning of the Jewish settlement of Palestine, its population consisted of 450,000 Arabs (including immigrants from Syria, Lebanon, and North Africa) and 20,000 Jews. 
  3. The idea of displacement or transfer (ethnic cleansing) of the indigenous Arab population to Transjordan or to other Arab countries was never an official policy of the Jewish Yishuv, nor was it a part of an overall military strategy. However, it was widely thought by the Zionists to be a desirable, non-coercive, and just solution to the inter-ethnic conflict. Similar transfers have taken place all over the world and have resulted in amicable post-transfer relations (for example: between Greece, Bulgaria, and Turkey as well as Czechoslovakia and post-Nazi Germany).
  4. The Jews have accepted the UN Partition Resolution and the Arabs – including volunteers from abroad – have rejected it and embarked on hostilities against the Jewish settlements and supply convoys. Later on, regular Arab armies invaded the territory of Palestine.
  5. Between November 1947 and April 1949, about 400-700,000 Palestinian Arabs left their homes and became internally displaced within the territory of Palestine. Only a small fraction returned to their abandoned, ruined, and looted villages. By mid-1949, the State of Israel ended up having 150,000 Arab citizens (to 700,000 Jews). A sizable minority of the upper middle class and the affluent Palestinian Arabs emigrated to Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Transjordan.
  6. Most of these refugees – about 80% – were not expelled by force, though the Haganah’s Plan D called for the expulsion of Arabs from villages abetting important traffic arteries, the new state’s borders, and major Jewish majority cities. In some locales, such as Haifa, the nascent Jewish authorities actually tried to halt the Arabs from fleeing. Many other villages, though, were forcibly evacuated at the local initiative of Haganah commanders in the field.
  7. The exodus of the Palestinian Arabs was mostly voluntary and motivated by: (a) Rumors of and information about egregious atrocities – murders, massacres, and rapes – committed by extremist Jewish paramilitary organizations such as IZL and LHI (for example in the friendly and peaceful hamlet of Deir Yassin) as well as persistent looting by all the various Jewish military formations; (b) The influx of marauding Arab “fighters”, mainly from Iraq. These “volunteers” resorted to blackmailing the peasants, looting, and summarily dispensing with their opponents, taking over an abandoned property with alacrity and glee; (c) Recurrent calls by Arab leaders, local and foreign, to evacuate children, women, and the elderly from the battle zones (though rarely able-bodied men capable of fighting who were mostly urged and instructed to stay behind) until Arab victory had been secured. They regard the refugees as a propaganda tool; (d) The withdrawal of the British administration in May 1948 from the territory of the Mandate meant that many of the remaining Arabs would have needed to accede to Jewish rule or, possibly worse, the domination of the mufti Husseini’s murderous clan. The mass flight of the Arabs of Palestine caught everyone off-guard: Jews, British, and Arabs alike. There was no demonic masterplan – just a lot of confusion and improvisation on all sides as they tried to adapt to the incredible scene of a land emptied of its erstwhile denizens.
  8. Once Arab tenants and farmers have left, the State of Israel and the IDF never allowed them to return and reclaim their property. If they did infiltrate back, they were expelled at the point of a gun.
  9. The Arab states were very reluctant to accommodate the influx of Palestinian refugees and committed only insignificant forces to the invasion of Palestine in May 1948. The militias (the local villagers called them “foreigners”) were riffraff, badly trained, and no match for the Jewish forces, 28,000 members of which served in the British Army during World War II. Arab society was fragmented and institutionally dysfunctional, with an abyss between town and country, rich and poor, landowners and impoverished tenants, Christians and Muslims, the educated and the illiterate, and the pro-Husseinis, and their enemies. There was no hint of central policy or guidance. The numbers of fighters on both sides were at all times during the war equal and the Arabs had tanks and air forces, but quantity never translated to quality on the Arab side.

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Sam Vaknin, Ph.D. is a former economic advisor to governments (Nigeria, Sierra Leone, North Macedonia), served as the editor in chief of “Global Politician” and as a columnist in various print and international media including “Central Europe Review” and United Press International (UPI). He taught psychology and finance in various academic institutions in several countries ( )