≡ Menu

Israel: Nakba and Return

nakba refugee photo

1948: two generations of Palestinian refugees

The Zionist dream is known as the “Ingathering of Exiles.”  Of course, this means Jewish exiles.  But there will come a time for another ingathering of exiles.  Those who were exiled in 1948.  The Palestinians.

In the Zionist narrative, 1948 marked the definitive victory of Zionism and the creation of the Jewish state.  Everything that came after ratified this happy vision of the return of the Jews to “our land” or, as the stirring (to Jews) cadences of the national anthem put it:

To be a free people in our land,
In the land of Zion, Jerusalem.

But again, this triumphalist narrative leaves out one inconvenient fact: those 1-million refugees.  Arik Ariel published an essay in Haaretz’s Hebrew edition (this post summarizes the article and adds my own analysis which diverges from Ariel in some points) on the aftermath of Nakba in Israeli history.  In other words, how did the Israeli government deal with the “problem” of the forced exile of over half of the 1948 Palestinian residents of Israel?  Contrary to what one may believe, Israel and the international community did not forget about the refugees after the former rid itself of them in ’48.  In fact, the government appointed committees, conducted top secret cabinet deliberations, and entertained numerous plans developed by the United Nations, the State Department, and other bodies.

Again, contrary to common belief, Israel did not dismiss out-of hand-proposals which included Israeli acceptance of significant numbers of returning refugees.  In fact, a number of Israeli governments accepted the notion that they would have to do so as part of any final resolution of the issue.

Let’s set the background with some statistics: though estimates vary depending on which historian you ask, I’m using the following ones to give you an overall sense of the proportion of Jews and Palestinians who lived, and live in Israel.  Before 1948, there were approximately 950,000 Palestinians (other historians put the number as high as 1.3-million) living in what became Israel.  There were about 650,000 Jews.  During the War, 80% of the Palestinians were expelled, leaving about 150,000.  After the 1948 war, the overall population of Israel was 800,000.  Israeli Palestinians were just over 20% of the total.

Ariel notes, this week marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Pres. Kennedy.  He uses this historical landmark to segue to a crucial get-acquainted meeting between Kennedy and then-Prime Minister David Ben Gurion in 1961.  At that first meeting between the two leaders, Ben Gurion heard a number of things that disturbed him.  One was that the new administration proposed to address and resolve the refugee issue.

By that date, Israel’s population was 2.1 million (Haaretz mistakenly puts this number at 3.1-million, either a typo or error).  Of this, 250,000 were Israeli Palestinian, or 11.3% of the total.

In preparation for deliberations in the United Nations, and a plan being prepared by the State Department, the then-Labor government held a secret meeting at which it discussed what were its red lines (Ariel uses the phrase, “the price Israel could live with”) concerning the Palestinian exiles.  Yosef Burg (Avram Burg’s father), long-time National Religious Party minister, spoke quite crudely about the Palestinian question being not only an “atomic bomb” but an “anatomical bomb.”

Levi Eshkol, then minister of the treasury and later prime minister, asked what would be considered a decisive Jewish majority.  He found that 70% could certainly be considered decisive.  In other words, he was tacitly admitting Israel could comfortably absorb up to three times the number of Palestinian citizens as it then had.  Ben Gurion disagreed and said that if there were 600,000 Palestinians in Israel, within two generations they would be a majority.  He actually turned out to be right.  Today, fifty years later, there are more Palestinians than Jews in the area including Israel and the Territories.  Of course, no formal decisions arose from any of the cabinet discussion.

The foreign ministry, in its own set of secret deliberations, believed Israel could absorb 40,000 refugees within a three-four year period without constituting any great danger.  Others felt that Israel could “live with” a population that was 25% Palestinian (currently just over 20% of Israelis are Palestinian).

Israel seems to have expected the world might agree to do a sort of “swap,” by which acceptance of refugees would be “balanced” by Palestinian-Israeli citizens who would be persuaded to emigrate.  This was intended to ‘protect’ the Jewish majority, so that it would not be “overwhelmed” by the burgeoning Palestinian birthrate (compared to the lower Jewish birthrate).

Already in the midst of the 1948 War, the Jewish Agency established a “Transfer Committee,” whose mandate was to devise a policy concerning the refugees.  One of its main thrusts was to create the impression that their expulsion was permanent.  There was to be no going back.  That is why Israel, by law, refused to allow refugees to return and confiscated their property (those expelled left behind 40-million dunams of land and 8,000 stores and businesses).

The committee believed the best solution was to encourage the refugees to resettle and support them (financially) in this.  It also recommended encouraging the remaining population to emigrate, destroying remaining Palestinian villages (something like what is currently happening to the Negev Bedouin), and preventing new development of existing Palestinian-owned land.  Many of these recommendations were enacted and remain de facto government policy.

Another official voice reveals much about government attitudes.  In 1950, Moshe Dayan, then IDF commander of southern front said:

We should relate to the remaining 150,000 Arabs in Israel as if their fate is not yet sealed.  I hope that in the years to come there will be more possibilities to conduct [population] transfer from the land of Israel.

Official government deliberations among the military and political echelon reveal that they hoped that many of the remaining Palestinians would “draw the proper conclusion” from their loss in the “War of Independence” and emigrate willingly.  Some even deluded themselves into believing that Palestinians were eager to leave if they could dispose of their property.  They suggested that Palestinian Christians would to to Lebanon and Muslims to Egypt.  And that there might be a way to negotiate a deal whereby the property of Arabs Jews fleeing to Israel could be exchanged for the property of Palestinians leaving Israel.  Though the scheme seems outlandish today, those who discussed it thought it quite practicable.

But as senior a figure as Defense Minister Pinchas Lavon speaking in 1953 realized that emigration resolved only part of the problem since the Palestinian population increased naturally by 6,000 each year.  No amount of voluntary emigration could offset that.

That’s why Israel devised even wackier plans.  Like the one to “transfer” the Palestinian Christians in the Galilee to Argentina and Brazil in a plan code-named ‘Operation Yochanan.’  It was named for an Israelite leader of one of the revolts against Rome who was a native of Gush Halav, a modern Palestinian village in the region.  Ironically, but perhaps not surprisingly, Moshe Sharett, known at the time as a decided political dove, was the primary backer of this project.  The Jewish Agency in Argentina was directed to prepare funds to pay Palestinians who resettled on Argentine farmland.  The project was to be described publicly as an initiative of the Palestinian community itself.

But in 1953, the Argentine government blessedly got cold feet and Project Jonathan was canceled.  That did not cancel ongoing and concerted efforts by the ministry of foreign affairs to identify other places where Palestinian citizens could emigrate and funds to encourage them to do so.  In fact, in 1950 the ministry proposed sending Palestinians to Libya and Somalia in exchange for the 18,000 Jews who emigrated from these countries to Israel during that period.  In 1955, a senior Israeli official even traveled to Libya and Algeria to explore the possibility of resettling Palestinian refugees and those Palestinians willing to emigrate from Israel itself.  They would replace the Jews who were emigrating from those countries to Israel.

A different Israeli official attempted to buy 100,000 dunams in Libya for resettling refugees.  This plan too was scuttled when word leaked to the media and Libya’s ruler was pressured to end it.  In 1956, a different plan was developed called “Uri” which was to settle 75 refugee families on a Libyan farm.  The plan even included a Swiss front company that was intended to handle all the purchases to preserve Israel’s “cover.”  This too was leaked to the media and died.  In 1959, another plan named “Theo” proposed to resettle 2,000 refugee families in Libya.  Those who originated it estimated it would require $11.5-million to execute (a huge sum at that time).  There were similar schemes to buy property in Cyprus for this purpose.

As late as the 1960s the foreign ministry continued to hatch plans to encourage refugees to move to Europe, specifically France and Germany.  The latter especially, in that era, was known to have a labor shortage which these new hands would assist.  It also explored such opportunities in Austria and Switzerland.  These projects were known by the common name, ‘Operation Worker.’

There were consultations with the government of Iraq in which it would accept Palestinian refugees in exchange for the 140,000 Iraqi Jews who fled to Israel.  This plan never came to fruition because Israeli ministers worried that the fleeing Jews would demand reparations for the property they were forced to leave behind.  This might make the Palestinians realize that they too should lodge demands to compensate them for their losses.  That was a hornet’s nest into which Israeli officials didn’t want to stick their hands.

These various plans didn’t finally end until after the 1967 War.

Returning to the Kennedy administration’s efforts to solve the refugee problem.  Israel finally agreed in principle to accept the return of up to 10% of the refugees as part of a comprehensive agreement.  When other western nations refused to endorse the idea, this plan too was dropped.  Gradually, Israel felt less and less need to address the issue, especially as matters heated up in the refugees camps themselves with the founding of the Fatah movement and the move toward greater militancy on the part of the Palestinians themselves.  At that point, the refugees were transformed from a humanitarian matter, to a matter of Palestinian nationhood.

Ariel points out that Israel, in an era when its demographic and geo-strategic situation was far worse than it is today, declared its willingness to return far more refugees than it ever agreed to in recent decades.  This should teach us that Israel’s current rejectionnist stance was not always thus.  Further, it should not be seen as a position Israel has maintained historically over the full course of its history.  There were Israeli governments far more accommodating and realistic than recent ones.

{ 31 comments… add one }
  • Pip December 1, 2013, 5:04 AM

    Were there any debates in and among the Arab States regarding repatriating the 500,000 Jews forced to flee their homes subsequent to the 1948 War?

    • Richard Silverstein December 1, 2013, 2:13 PM

      @ Pip: All 500,000 were “forced to flee their homes?” None were encouraged to do so by Israeli shlichim? Or by Zionist bombs designed to stampede them into leaving? They were all expelled forcibly and had no choice in the matter? A bit of historical revisionism, perhaps?

      • Hasbarist settler December 1, 2013, 3:54 PM

        Now lets play a little game, and repalce “Israeli” with “palestinans” or “Arabs” in your reply:
        All 1 mil were “forced to flee their homes?” None were encouraged to do so by Arab shlichim? Or by Arab bombs designed to stampede them into leaving? They were all expelled forcibly and had no choice in the matter? A bit of historical revisionism, perhaps?

        • Richard Silverstein December 2, 2013, 2:12 AM

          @ Hasbarist settler: You have no grasp of the actual, real history of the period. While there was anti-Semitism and some violence in some Arab countries against Jews, there were also instances in which Israel “encouraged” Jews to leave by engaging in acts of violence blamed on local Arabs. There were Israeli shlichim who urged Jews to emigrate. There were scores of motives, each different from country to country depending on political, economic and social circumstances.

          Though there were different IDF commanders who enforced their orders differently regarding local Israeli Palestinians, the latter were generally expelled forcibly from their homes and villages. Of course, there were some instances in which Palestinians fled for reasons short of fearing for their lives. But the overwhelming majority had no choice.

          So the historical circumstances of Nakba and Arab Jewish flight were much different. There may’ve been some slight overlap in motivation in both cases. But the decision of Jews was generally more volitional than those of Palestinians.

      • Pip December 1, 2013, 10:01 PM

        No Richard.

        The Zionists never bombed Jews in order to coerce them to emigrate. Read Moshe Gat on that question.
        link to amazon.com

        Pogroms in Libya and Yemen inducted flight. In Egypt, murderous riots and Nuremberg-like legislation induced flight.

        Yes, Zionist organizations preached aliyah and facilitated the exits when they could, but the main reason for the exodus was fear.

        Now back to my original question. What about debates in and among the Arab States?

        • Richard Silverstein December 2, 2013, 2:35 AM

          @ Pip: That is NOT an accurate account of the debate among historians on the matter. Moshe Gat is only one historian. Others dispute his claims. Anyone interested in that debate, rather than your ill-informed definitive judgments on the issue, should take a read of this. In addition to the Iraq bombings, there were also bombings in Egypt a few years later that were orchestrated by Israeli intelligence agents. The motives for those attacks were slightly different, since they were supposed to persuade the British to remain in Suez, rather than compel Jews to emigrate to Israel. But certainly any Jews remaining in Egypt up to that point would’ve thought twice & thrice about remaining.

          • Pip December 2, 2013, 2:57 AM

            Gat addresses the claims of Zionist bombings at 178-179, and is dismissive.

            ” Ropes of Sand, America’s Failure in the Middle East. W W Norton & Co Inc. p. 48. “In an attempt to portray the Iraqis as anti-American and to terrorize the Jews, the Zionists planted bombs in the U.S. Information Service library and in the synagogues. Soon leaflets began to appear urging Jews to flee to Israel. The Iraqi police later provided our embassy with evidence to show that the synagogue and library bombings, as well as the anti-Jewish and anti-American leaflet campaigns, had been the work of an underground Zionist organization, most of the world believed reports that Arab terrorism had motivated the flight of the Iraqi Jews whom the Zionists had “rescued” really just in order to increase Israel’s Jewish population.”

            Iraqi police evidence based on tortured confessions?

          • Richard Silverstein December 3, 2013, 1:41 AM

            @ Pip: WHich proves little. Deir Yassin has produced other sources who argue precisely the opposite. I’m afraid Gat is but one historian among many and not necessarily the decisive one.

        • Deïr Yassin December 2, 2013, 12:32 PM

          @ Pip: “Zionists never bombed Jews in order to coerce them to emigrate”
          Oh yes, they surely did ! Zionists bombed Jewish institutions and synagogues in Baghdad in 1950 to make the Iraqi Jews leave. The group was caught due to a Palestinian refugee from Akka who after the Nakba settled in Baghdad and who recognized an Iraqi Jew, Yehudah Tajjar (who made aliyah prior to the Nakba) entering the warehouse where he worked in Baghdad. He ran into the street, called the police, and 15 mostly Iraqi Jews were caught. They were sentenced to lifetime, Tajjar was liberated after 10 years, and in 1966, he publicly (article in Ha’olam Hazeh) claimed that the Mossad bombed the Jewish institutions to make the Iraqi Jews leave.
          I knew about the suspicion but I only realized how well-documented this case was a few months ago when I read Eric Rouleau’s autobiography (former Elie Rafoul, Egyptian-born Jew). Rouleau was the most outstanding French journalist in the 20th century, who later became a diplomat.
          It reminded me of an article I’ve read a long time ago by a Danish journalist, Lars Moeller-Rasmussen: that a group of Israelis of Iraqi origin had filed a complaint against the State of Israel for ‘kidnapping’ or ‘deceit’ or something like that. I’m sure you can find informations in Hebrew about it (if you want to, which I doubt…..)
          Here’s some information to start your research:
          link to wikispooks.com

          The bombings in Cairo (the ‘Lavon-affair’) didn’t target Jews but as Egyptian Jews were involved, the result was that anti-Jewish feelings were intensified (I’m NOT justifying that).

        • Davey December 2, 2013, 3:21 PM

          “…main reason for the exodus was fear.” After hundreds of years, fear suddenly arises, oddly correlated with the debut of Israel. Very dubious. Maybe the fear had to do with further Zionist actions. There are detailed confessions of such events in the record.

          • Pip December 3, 2013, 7:07 AM

            Maybe the Iraqi Jews feared a repetition of the 1941
            Baghdad pogrom known as the ‘Farhud’. link to farhudbook.com
            Davey. What is your problem?

    • fiddler December 2, 2013, 9:57 AM

      That red herring again! The Palestinians had nothing to do with Jewish emigration, forced or otherwise, from Arab countries. Should we similarly start blaming “The Jews” for the ethnic cleansing of Silesia and Sudetenland after WW II? How anyone can add up these claims against another is beyond me.

  • Noga December 1, 2013, 9:33 AM

    ” Like the one to “transfer” the Palestinian Christians in the Galilee to Argentina and Brazil in a plan code-named ‘Operation Jonathan.’ It was named for the Biblical hero and confidant of King David, Jonathan, who was a native of Gush Dan, a Palestinian village in the region. ”

    Here is the quote from the Hebrew original:

    התוכנית הגדולה והמקיפה ביותר להעברת אלפי ערבים נוצרים מהגליל לארגנטינה ולברזיל כונתה בשם הקוד הסודי: “מבצע יוחנן”, על שם יוחנן, איש גוש חלב.

    The name was “Operation Yohanan” (In English: John) after this man’s name:

    link to he.wikipedia.org

    Yohanan was a native of Gush Halav, a village. Gush Dan is a region at the center of Israel’s coastal plain. (BTW, Jonathan was King Saul’s son and David’s good friend, some say they were lovers.)

    Anyone who trusts this author to translate and “analyze” any given text does this at his or her own peril.

    • Richard Silverstein December 1, 2013, 1:40 PM

      Thanks for the corrections. I mistook Yonatan & Yochanan, which in English are sometimes interchangeable for “Jonathan.” And I mistook Gush Dan for Gush Halav. That will happen when you write blog posts at 2AM! I’m sure you’ve never made any similarly careless errors yourself.

      The errors you caught were not “mistranslations” and you have not noted any. They were simply misreadings of several Hebrew letters. If you can find mistranslations in the post do let us know. If you can’t, then we’ll note that as well.

      Readers will note the mean-spirited, disproportionate tone of your correction and judge it accordingly.

      • Davey December 1, 2013, 8:09 PM

        Clearly, Richard did not deliberately change or distort the correct translations to any purpose, so what is the point of this needless bile?

  • David December 1, 2013, 6:35 PM

    How can you call yourself a Zionist and claim to be pro-Israel, and still advocate the right of return? That would be the end of the Jewish state.

    • David December 1, 2013, 6:42 PM

      On a side note, the refugees probably do have a reasonable claim to compensation for any ancestral property they left behind, but the idea that there will ever be a right of return as a non-starter. First off, it’s very rare that refugees displaced from conflict zones ever get to return, there’s no basis in international law (UNGA Resolution 194 was non-binding, as are all UN General Assembly resolutions).

      To truly end the suffering of the refugees, their leaders have to start being honest with them, and get them out of those camps and absorbed into their host countries.

      • Davey December 1, 2013, 8:17 PM

        You’re pretty dismissive of other people’s rights and , if not rights, “yearnings” (a favorite of Zionists!) Why should these displaced persons (refugees) feel any differently about their ancestral homes than the Zionists purport to feel about their “homeland” from twenty centuries earlier? Perhaps the world should “absorb” the erstwhile colonists back into their white man’s culture instead. No cultural issues here either.

        • David December 2, 2013, 1:11 AM

          I’m just telling it as it is. Either these people can keep swallowing cruel delusions that someday they will “return”, or their leaders can start telling them the truth, and they can build new lives.

          Refugee populations have moved countless times throughout history, and it’s very rare for them to ever return. Usually they’re absorbed in their host countries.

          • Davey December 2, 2013, 3:25 PM

            750,000 “facts on the ground” were dispensed with by the Zionists. I see no reason why 500,000 other facts can’t be just as easily dispensed with.

      • fiddler December 2, 2013, 10:28 AM

        UNGAR 194 only clarifies the GA’s position wrt the Palestinian refugees. Its basis in int’l law is Art. 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which IS binding.

        • Ya choe December 3, 2013, 9:46 PM

          Resolution 194 applied to all residents of Palestine
          including Jews. Go to the UNWRA website and see for yourself. UNWRA
          decided to limit their work to Arab refugees only. And was created
          fr that purpose despite UNGA Resolution 194.

          • Richard Silverstein December 3, 2013, 9:52 PM

            @Ya choe: Jewish refugees from Palestine? Whatever are you talking about?

            If you’re claiming Resolution 194 dealt with or should’ve encompassed Jewish refugees from Arab countries you’re wrong even under your own description of the Resolution.

            Do not get into yet another boring debate about UN resolutions & ancient history. I have no interest in this.

      • Deïr Yassin December 2, 2013, 12:57 PM

        @ David
        If UNGA resolutions are non-binding, you’ll have to explain to us (not ‘explanation as in ‘hasbara’) why the Israelis accepted to implement the resolutions 181 AND 194 in May 1949. What do you say ? They only accepted in order to get admission to the UN (conditions sine qua non) and counted on time to make the issue evaporate. I think Walter Eytan said it clearly soon after.
        If you google ‘Mondoweiss+Victor Kattan’, Phil Weiss has an article on Victor Kattan’s book “From Coexistence to Conquest” and extracts specifically about the Palestinian refugee issue at the Lausanne conference. Commenter Walid has retranslated the comment by Eytan back into English in the comment section.
        Zionists surely have a long history of deceit.

        • David December 2, 2013, 5:35 PM

          First off, UNGA Resolution 194 argued that only refugees willing to live in peace should return. The Arabs said that their demand was for the refugees to return “as masters of their homeland”, and many of the expulsions took place in villages that had been hostile.

          Also, Israel did offer to negotiate over these resolutions and achieve a fair compromise, and to accept 100,000, but these negotiations broke down in the end.

          As for it being a condition for admittance, it doesn’t mean Israel is obligated to accept the refugees, it just means that the UN could theoretically expel Israel for it. Personally, I sometimes think Israel would be better off not being a member of the UN in the first place.

          • Deïr Yassin December 2, 2013, 7:50 PM

            “Personally, I sometimes think that Israel would be better off not being a member of the UN in the first place”
            Yeah, since the US is there to veto all sanctions against the State of Israel, why bother.

          • Richard Silverstein December 3, 2013, 1:15 AM

            @ David: First, please add something that further identifies you than simply “David.” With such a common name there have been other commenters here with very similar nicknames.

            Second, you’ll have to quote the actual text of the resolution. There’s no way I’m going to trust your paraphrase as accurate. Third, “the Arabs” (whoever they are) made no such demand. They want to return and of course they want to be able to own the land from which they were expelled and play a role as citizen in the state. Besides, if there are refugees who want Israel to be fully Palestinian they’ll have to deal with 7 million other citizens who don’t see it that way. They’ll be outnumbered. Fourth, “many of the expulsions” did NOT take place in “villages that had been hostile.” In fact, almost no Palestinian villages were “hostile.”

            Personally, I sometimes think Israel would be better off not being a member of the UN in the first place.

            Personally, I think you’re a dolt. But if you want to “sell” that idea to Bibi and he buys it, I’d say: “Don’t slam the door on your way out.” For Israel to abandon the UN would be the final blow in Israel’s total ostracism from the world community. I think you’ve got a very strong dose of the Masada Complex.

  • RD Sultan December 2, 2013, 6:35 AM

    Israel does have a long history of targeting Jews in Arab countries in false-flag attacks provoking their exodus.

    Do a search on the Lavon Affair and on former Iraqi Zionist Naem Giladi.

  • David W. December 3, 2013, 2:10 AM

    OK, I’ll prove my points. Article 11 of UN General Assembly
    Resolution 194: Resolves that the refugees wishing to return to
    their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be
    permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date. Note the
    “willing to live at peace” part. Also, the Arabs, as in the Arab
    nations, did indeed have make such demands. Egyptian Foreign
    Minister Muhammad Salah al-Din, quoted on October 11, 1949 in the
    newspaper Al-Misri: “It is well-known and understood that the
    Arabs, in demanding the return of the refugees to Palestine, mean
    their return as masters of the Homeland and not as slaves. With a
    greater clarity, they mean the liquidation of the State of Israel.”
    Also, you claim that Israel is totally ostracized by the “world
    community”. In fact, the only region where its undergoing isolation
    and possible future sanctions is Europe. Israel is finding new
    friends and trading partners across Africa and Asia (both with
    rapidly growing economies), still has firm allies in the US and
    Canada, and has cordial relations with most of the rest of the
    world. Also, I’ll ask again, you claim to be a Zionist and
    pro-Israel. How can you support the right of return? I’m sure
    you’re well aware that if it ever happened, Israel would cease to
    be a Jewish state in a very short period of time.

  • Richard Silverstein December 3, 2013, 9:28 PM

    One of my comment rules is that you not repeat yourself. You’ve just restated your view. Also, producing evidence to support your view exonerating Israel from blame doesn’t mean “it wasn’t Mossad.” It only means you’ve read an article which you haven’t offered a link to which you claim offered support for your pt of view. Please do NOT repeat yourself a third time.

  • Richard Silverstein December 3, 2013, 9:30 PM

    Why should we use Moshe Gat as a “point of departure” or definitive source for anything??

Leave a Comment