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Palestinian exodus

Since the creation of Israel a large part of the Palestinian population of Israel's territory , numbering some 700,000 people, became refugees. This occurred both during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, and during the 1967 Six-Day War. Their homes and villages have either been destroyed or expropriated to Israeli Jews and many have never been allowed to return. Today an estimated 5.5-6.5 million Palestinians are living in refugee camps in neighbouring Arab countries. Why and how they left is still today a contested issue.

see also Palestinian refugee, New Historians.

Table of contents

Was the Arab side responsible for the exodus?

The official Israeli view has always been that it was the surrounding Arab nations who caused the refugee crisis by declaring war on Israel: "The migration of the Arabs of the Land of Israel was not caused by persecution, violence, expulsion [but was] deliberately organised by the Arab leaders in order to arouse Arab feelings of revenge, to artificially create an Arab refugee problem" (Jewish National Fund official Yosef Weitz, Oct 1948). It has been claimed that during the period preceeding the 1948 war and particularly during the invasion of Arab powers into the newly-declared Israel, the Arab High Command called for the Palestinian population to leave their homes.

This view has long been the accepted explanation by Israelis but has always been questioned by the international community and called a falsified after-explanation by Palestinians. Now, since the Israeli archives have been opened, the view has been reexamined by historians. Shlaim and Morris for instance labels it propaganda.

"There is no evidence to show that the Arab states and the AHC [Arab Higher Command] wanted a mass exodus or issued blanket orders or appeals to the Palestinians to flee their homes (though in certain areas the inhabitants of specific villages were ordered by Arab commanders or the AHC to leave, mainly for strategic reasons)." (Morris, "The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem", p. 129).

There is almost no evidence that the Palestinians were ordered to flee. Had such an order been given it would have shown in the numerous documents produced by the Haganah's Intelligence Service and other official organisations at the time. Instead, Haganah intelligence reports from May 5-6 refer to a Jordanian campaign calling the Palestinians to stay put and for those who left to return. Other documents describe muftis urging their populations to hold their ground and even threatening those who leave with punishments.

Ethnic cleansing? Palestinian sources view the exodus as the work of an organised Zionist expulsion. This view was first formulated by Walid Khalidi in "Plan Dalet: Master Plan for the Conquest of Palestine" in 1961. For the Yishuv in Palestine, the Arab population in Palestine was a great hinderance for a Jewish state because it would certainly contain a very large Arab minorty (the land alloted by the UN partition plan in 1947 contained 40% arabs).

"In the area allocated to the Jewish State there are not more than 520,000 Jews and about 350,000 non-Jews, mostly Arabs. Together with the Jews of Jerusalem, the total population of the Jewish State at the time of its establishment, will be about one million, including almost 40% non-Jews. such a [population] composition does not provide a stable basis for a Jewish State. This [demographic] fact must be viewed in all its clarity and acuteness. With such a [population] composition, there cannot even be absolute certainty that control will remain in the hands of the Jewish majority .... There can be no stable and strong Jewish state so long as it has a Jewish majority of only 60%." (Ben-Gurion, speaking to the Central Committee of the Histadrut, 1947)

There was a strong majority among the Zionist leadership in favour of transfer of Arabs out of Jewish state.

"I support compulsory [Palestinian Arab population] transfer. I do not see in it anything immoral." (Ben-Gurion, 1938)

According to Palestinians, the expulsion idea was there from the beginning but the Zionists decided to be quiet about it.

"When I heard these things. . . I had to ponder the matter long and hard ....[but] I reached the conclusion that this matter [had best] remain [in the Labor Party Program] . . . Were I asked what should be our program, it would not occur to me to tell them transfer . . . because speaking about the matter might harm [us] . . . in world opinion, because it might give the impression that there is no room in the Land of Israel without ousting the Arabs [and] . . . it would alert and antagonize the Arabs . . ." (Ben-Gurion, 1944)

Moshe Sharett, director of the Jewish Agency's Political Department, declared:

"Transfer could be the crowning achievements, the final stage in the development of [our] policy, but certainly not the point of departure. By [speaking publicly and prematurely] we could mobilizing vast forces against the matter and cause it to fail, in advance." (Sharett, 1944)

On December 19, 1947, Ben-Gurion advised the Haganah on rules of engagement with the Palestinian population:

"we adopt the system of aggressive defense ; with every Arab attack we must respond with a decisive blow: the destruction of the place or the expulsion of the residents along with the seizure of the place." (Ben-Gurion, 1947)

Recent studies have showed that 80-90% of the refugees from arabic villages were expelled by the israeli army while the remaining 10-20% fled because of the fightings.

Born of War "the Palestinian refugee problem was born of war, not by design, Jewish or Arab." ("The Birth...", p. 286, Morris)

Is an often cited quote which offers a third explanation for the refugee problem. The New Historians with Benny Morris in its lead are the main proponents for this view. They argue that, while there was regular expulsions taking place, most Palestinians left for other reasons. Of about 369 Arab localities in Israel within its 1949 borders, 228 left under attack by Jewish troops, 41 were expelled, 90 left in panic as a neighbouring town fell or because of rumours of Jewish atrocities (this was especially true after the Deir Yassin massacre), only six left after Arabs called them to leave and the reason for the remaining 45 is unknown (The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, Morris). An integillence service report dated 30 June 1948 titled "The emigration of Palestinian Arabs in the period 1/12/1947-1/6/1948" states that 55% of the emigration was caused by "Haganah/IDF", 15% from the underground gangs, 2% to explicit expulsion orders and 1% to their psychological warfare. Furthermore 22% supposedly left to "fear" and a "crisis of confidence". From this report Morris concludes that there was no "campaign aimed at the wholesale expulsion of the native Palestinian population".

Another reason for the flight was the poor condition that the Palestinian society was in. It was deeply divided between rural and urban population, between Christians and Muslims and various elite clans. The Palestinian population consisted most of illiterate peasantry and there was, as opposed to the Yishuv, no national unity among them. For some, exile may have become an attractive option, at least until Palestine calmed down.

After the exodus The vacant villages and land were soon after the war expropriated by Israel. Soon after the cease fire Israel adopted a unique law that allows it to take over land if the owner is vacant for a certain amount of years (it is the only country in the world with such a law). This allowed Israel to settle the millions of immigrants arriving.

The reason why most of the Palestinian people departed from Israel is still relevant today. If they left of their own free will, then Israel claims that they have less just cause to demand to return to their land than if they were driven from it.

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