The Nakba and the ethnic cleansing of Palestine


In the days after the Partition Resolution was adopted, Ben-Gurion told his colleagues in the leadership that a Jewish state in which Jews made up only 60 percent was not viable. However, he did not reveal what percentage of Palestinians would make the future state unviable. The message he conveyed to his generals, and through them to the troops on the ground, was nonetheless clear: the fewer Palestinians in a Jewish state the better. This is why, as Palestinian scholars such as Nur Masalha and Ahmad Sa’di have proved, he also tried to get rid of the Palestinians who were left within the Jewish state after the war (“the Arab minority”).

Something else happened in the period between November 29, 1947 (when the UN Resolution was adopted) and May 15, 1948 (when the British Mandate ended) that helped the Zionist movement to better prepare for the days ahead. As the end of the Mandate approached, the British forces withdrew into the port of Haifa. Any territory they left, the military forces of the Jewish community took over, clearing out the local population even before the end of the Mandate. The process began in February 1948 with a few villages, and culminated in April with the cleansing of Haifa, Jaffa, Safad, Beisan, Acre, and Western Jerusalem. These last stages had already been systematically planned under the master plan, Plan D, prepared alongside the high command of the Haganah, the main military wing of the Jewish community. The plan included the following clear reference to the methods to be employed in the process of cleansing the population:

Destruction of villages (setting fire to, blowing up, and planting mines in the debris), especially those population centers which are difficult to control continuously . . .

Mounting search and control operations according to the following guidelines: encirclement of the village and conducting a search inside it. In the event of resistance, the armed force must be destroyed and the population must be expelled outside the borders of the state.

How could the small Israeli army engage in large-scale ethnic cleansing operations while, from May 15, also being confronted with regular forces from the Arab world? First of all, it is noteworthy that the urban population (apart from three towns: Lydd, Ramleh, and Bir Saba) had already been cleansed before the Arab armies arrived. Second, the rural Palestinian area was already under Israeli control, and the confrontations with the Arab armies occurred on borders of these rural areas not inside them. In one case where the Jordanians could have helped the Palestinians, in Lydd and Ramleh, the British commander of the Jordanian army, Sir John Glubb, decided to withdraw his forces and avoided confrontation with the Israeli army. Finally, the Arab military effort was woefully ineffective and short lived. After some success in the first three weeks, its presence in Palestine was a shambolic story of defeat and hasty withdrawal. After a short lull towards the end of 1948, the Israeli ethnic cleansing thus continued unabated.

From our present vantage point, there is no escape from defining the Israeli actions in the Palestinian countryside as a war crime. Indeed, as a crime against humanity. If one ignores this hard fact one will never understand what lies behind Israel’s attitude towards Palestine and the Palestinians as a political system and a society. The crime committed by the leadership of the Zionist movement, which became the government of Israel, was that of ethnic cleansing. This is not mere rhetoric but an indictment with far-reaching political, legal, and moral implications. The definition of the crime was clarified in the aftermath of the 1990s civil war in the Balkans: ethnic cleansing is any action by one ethnic group meant to drive out another ethnic group with the purpose of transforming a mixed ethnic region into a pure one. Such an action amounts to ethnic cleansing regardless of the means employed to obtain it—from persuasion and threats to expulsions and mass killings.

Moreover, the act itself determines the definition; as such, certain policies have been regarded as ethnic cleansing by the international community, even when a master plan for their execution was not discovered or exposed. Consequently, the victims of ethnic cleansing include both people who have left their homes out of fear and those expelled forcefully as part on an ongoing operation. The relevant definitions and references can be found on the websites of the US State Department and the United Nations. These are the principal definitions that guide the international court in The Hague when it is tasked with judging those responsible for planning and executing such operations.

A study of the writings and thoughts of the early Zionist leaders shows that by 1948 this crime was inevitable. The goal of Zionism had not changed: it was dedicated to taking over as much of Mandatory Palestine as possible and removing most of the Palestinian villages and urban neighborhoods from the space carved out for the future Jewish state. The execution was even more systematic and comprehensive than anticipated in the plan. In a matter of seven months, 531 villages were destroyed and eleven urban neighborhoods emptied. The mass expulsion was accompanied by massacres, rape, and the imprisonment of males over the age of ten in labor camps for periods of over a year.

The political implication is that Israel is exclusively culpable for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem, for which it bears the legal as well as moral responsibility. The legal implication is that even if there is a statute of limitations, after such a long period, for those who committed a deed understood as a crime against humanity, the deed itself is still a crime for which nobody was ever brought to justice. The moral implication is that the Jewish state was born out of sin—like many other states, of course—but the sin, or the crime, has never been admitted. Worse, among certain circles in Israel it is acknowledged, but in the same breath fully justified both in hindsight and as a future policy against the Palestinians, wherever they are. The crime is still committed today.

All these implications were totally ignored by the Israeli political elite. Instead a very different lesson has been learned from the events of 1948: that one can, as a state, expel half of a country’s population and destroy half its villages with impunity. The consequences of such a lesson, immediately after 1948 and beyond, were inevitable—the continuation of the ethnic cleansing policy by other means. There have been well-known landmarks in this process: the expulsion of more villagers between 1948 and 1956 from Israel proper; the forced transfer of 300,000 Palestinians from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip during the 1967 war; and a very measured, but constant, cleansing of Palestinians from the Greater Jerusalem area, calculated as more than 250,000 by the year 2000.

After 1948, the policy of ethnic cleansing took many forms. In various parts of the occupied territories and inside Israel, the policy of expulsion was replaced by a prohibition on people leaving their villages or neighbor- hoods. Restricting Palestinians to where they lived served the same purpose as expelling them. When they are besieged in enclaves—such as areas A, B and C under the Oslo Accord in the West Bank, or in villages and neighborhoods in Jerusalem that are declared part of the West Bank, or in the Gaza Ghetto—they are not counted demographically in either official or informal censuses, which is what matters to the Israeli policy makers more than anything else.

As long as the full implications of Israel’s past and present ethnic cleansing policies are not recognized and tackled by the international community, there will be no solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ignoring the issue of the Palestinian refugees will repeatedly undermine any attempt to reconcile the two conflicting parties. This is why it is so important to recognize the 1948 events as an ethnic cleansing operation, so as to ensure that a political solution will not evade the root of the conflict; namely, the expulsion of the Palestinians. Such evasions in the past are the main reason for the collapse of all previous peace accords.

If the legal lessons are not learned, there will always remain retributive impulses and revengeful emotions on the Palestinian side. The legal recognition of the 1948 Nakbah as an act of ethnic cleansing would pave the way for some form of restitutive justice. This would be the same as the process that has taken place recently in South Africa. The acknowledgement of past evils is not done in order to bring criminals to justice, but rather to bring the crime itself to public attention and trial. The final ruling there will not be retributive—there will be no punishment—but rather restitutive: the victims will be compensated. The most reasonable compensation for the particular case of the Palestinian refugees was stated clearly already in December 1948 by the UN General Assembly in its Resolution 194: the unconditional return of the refugees and their families to their homeland (and homes where possible). Without some such restitution, the state of Israel will continue to exist as a hostile enclave at the heart of the Arab world, the last reminder of a colonialist past that complicates Israel’s relationship not only with the Palestinians, but with the Arab world as a whole.

It is important to note, however, that there are Jews in Israel who have absorbed all these lessons. Not all Jews are indifferent to or ignorant about the Nakbah. Those who are not are currently a small minority, but one which makes its presence felt, demonstrating that at least some Jewish citizens are not deaf to the cries, pain, and devastation of those killed, raped, or wounded throughout 1948. They have heard of the thousands of Palestinian citizens arrested and imprisoned in the 1950s, and they acknowledge the Kafr Qasim massacre in 1956, when citizens of the state were murdered by the army just because they were Palestinians. They know about the war crimes committed throughout the 1967 war and the callous bombing of the refugee camps in 1982. They have not forgotten the physical abuse meted out to Palestinian youth in the occupied territories in the 1980s and after- wards. These Israeli Jews are not deaf and can still today hear the voices of the military officers ordering the execution of innocent people and the laughter of the soldiers standing by and watching.

They are also not blind. They have seen the remains of the 531 destroyed villages and the ruined neighborhoods. They see what every Israeli can see, but for the most part chooses not to: the remnants of villages under the houses of the Kibbutzim and beneath the pine trees of the JNF (Jewish National Fund) forests. They have not forgotten what happened even when the rest of their society has. Perhaps because of that they understand fully the connection between the 1948 ethnic cleansing and the events that followed up to the present. They recognize the link between the heroes of Israel’s war of independence and those who commanded the cruel suppression of the two Intifadas. They never mistook Yitzhak Rabin or Ariel Sharon for peace heroes. They also refuse to ignore the obvious connection between the building of the wall and the wider policy of ethnic cleansing. The expulsions of 1948 and the imprisonment of people within walls today are the inevitable consequences of the same racist ethnic ideology. Nor can they fail to recognize the link between the inhumanity inflicted on Gaza since 2006 and these past policies and practices. Such inhumanity is not born in a vacuum; it has a history and an ideological infrastructure that justifies it.

Since the Palestinian political leadership has neglected this aspect of the conflict, it is Palestinian civil society that is leading the effort to relocate the 1948 events at the center of the national agenda. Inside and outside Israel, Palestinian NGOs such as BADIL, ADRID, and Al-Awda, are coordinating their struggle to preserve the memory of 1948 and explain why it is crucial to engage with the events of that year for the sake of the future.