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A Witness Account:
Catastrophe, Nakba, Was Created By Denying Refugees Return to their Lands
After the 1948 War
By Uri Avnery
Al-Jazeerah, CCUN, June
The respected peace activist, Uri Avnery, writes the following article as
witness to the Palestinian Catastrophe, Nakba. Al-Jazeerah Editor would like
to attract readers' attention to two areas of conflict terminology and
discourse, which are usually used whenever this topic is addressed.
First, the conflict is usually portrayed as it is between
Jews and Arabs, which is an inaccurate way to describe the
two sides. It is inaccurate because this is a comparison between two
different categories of concepts. While the word "Jews" is a religious term,
the word "Arabs" is not a religious term. There have been Jewish Arabs,
Christian Arabs, and Muslim Arabs for thousands of years. The conflict has
been about territory, resources, and world domination, not about religion,
though religion has been used to mobilize forces on both sides.
Second, the Arab armies,
for the most part, entered the territories given to the Palestinian Arab
state by the 1948 UN Partition Resolution, not to attack Israel.
The author replied with the following clarification for the two editorial
notes mentioned above:
The Arab armies forgot
to tell us at the time that they do not want to invade the territories given
by the UN to the Jewish side.
The word "Arabs" was
used in the UN plan and everywhere else. At the time, we were all
"Palestinians". The appellation Palestinian for the Arabs in Palestine was
used only after May 1948.
The Real Naqba
THREE WEEKS ago was Naqba Day the day on which Palestinians inside and
outside Israel commemorate their "catastrophe" - the exodus of more than
half of the Palestinian people from the territories occupied by Israel in
the 1948 war.
Each side has its own version of this momentous event.
According to the Arab version, the Jews came from nowhere, attacked a
peace-loving people and drove them out of their country.
According to the Zionist version, the Jews had accepted the United Nations
compromise plan, but the Arabs had rejected it and started a bloody war,
during which they were convinced by the Arabs to leave their homes in order
to return with the victorious Arab armies.
Both these versions are
utter nonsense - a mixture of propaganda, legend and hidden guilt feelings.
During the war I was a member of a mobile commando unit that was active
all over the southern front. I was an eye-witness to what happened.
I wrote a book during the war ("In the fields of the Philistines") and
another one immediately afterwards ("The Other Side of the Coin"). They
appeared in English together under the title 1948: A Soldier's Tale. I
also wrote a chapter about these events in the first half of my
autobiography ("Optimistic") that appeared in Hebrew last year. I shall try
to describe what really happened.
FIRST OF ALL, we must beware of
looking at 1948 through the eyes of 2015. Difficult as it may be, we must
try to transport ourselves to the reality of then. Otherwise we shall be
unable to understand what actually occurred.
The 1948 war was
unique. It was the outcome of historical events which had no parallel
anywhere. Without taking into account its historical, psychological,
military and political background it is impossible to understand what
happened. Neither the extermination of the Native Americans by the white
settlers, nor the various colonial genocides resembled it.
immediate cause was the November 1947 UN resolution to partition Palestine.
It was rejected out of hand by the Arabs, who considered the Jews as foreign
intruders. The Jewish side did accept it, but David Ben-Gurion later boasted
that he had had no intention of being satisfied with the 1947 borders.
When the war started at the end of 1947, there were in British-governed
Palestine about 1,250,000 Arabs and 635,000 Jews. They lived in close
proximity but in separate neighborhoods in the towns (Jerusalem,
Tel-Aviv-Jaffa, Haifa), and next to each other in neighboring villages.
The 1948 war actually two wars that blended into one. From December
1947 until May 1948, it was a war between the Arab and the Jewish population
inside Palestine.From May until the armistices in early 1949, it was a war
between the new Israeli army and the armies of the Arab countries mainly
Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Iraq.
IN THE first and decisive phase, the
Palestinian side was clearly superior in numbers. Arab villages dominated
almost all highways, Jews could move only in hastily armored buses and with
However, the Jewish side had a unified leadership
under Ben-Gurion and organized a unified, disciplined military force, while
the Palestinians were unable to set up a unified leadership and army. This
On both sides, there was no real difference between
fighters and civilians. Arab villagers possessed rifles and pistols and
rushed to the scene when a passing Jewish convoy was attacked. Most Jews
were organized in the Haganah, the underground armed defense force. The two
"terrorist" organizations, the Irgun and the Stern Group, also joined the
On both sides, everybody knew that this was an
On the Jewish side, the immediate task was to
remove the Arab villages along the roads. That was the beginning of the
From the start, atrocities cast a sinister shadow. We saw
photos of Arabs parading in Jerusalem with the severed heads of our
comrades. There were atrocities committed on our side, reaching a climax in
the infamous Deir Yassin massacre. Deir Yassin, a neighborhood near
Jerusalem, was attacked by an Irgun-Stern force, many of its male
inhabitants were massacred, the women were paraded in Jewish Jerusalem.
Incidents like these formed part of the atmosphere of existential struggle.
Throughout, this was a total ethnic struggle between two sides, each of
which claimed the entire country as its exclusive homeland, denying the
claims of the other side. Long before the term "ethnic cleansing" was widely
used, it was practiced throughout this war. Only a few Arabs remained in the
territory conquered by the Jews, no Jews at all remained in the few areas
conquered by the Arabs (the Etzion Bloc, the Old City of Jerusalem.)
With the approach of May and the expectation that the Arab armies
would enter the conflict, the Jewish side tried to create a zone from which
all non-Jewish inhabitants were removed.
It must be understood that
the Arab refugees did not "leave the country". When their village was shot
at (generally at night), they took their families and escaped to the next
village, which then came under fire, and so on. In the end they found an
armistice border between them and their home.
exodus was not a straightforward process. It changed from month to month,
from place to place and from situation to situation.
the population of Lod was induced to flee by shooting at them
indiscriminately. When Safed was conquered, according to the commander "we
did not drive them out, we only opened a corridor for them to flee".
Before Nazareth was occupied, the local leaders signed a surrender document
and the townspeople were guaranteed life and prosperty. The Jewish
commander, a Canadian officer named Dunkelman, was then verbally ordered to
drive them out. He refused and demanded a written order, which never came.
Because of that, Nazareth is an Arab town today.
When Yafa (Jaffa)
was conquered, most inhabitants fled by sea to Gaza. Those who remained
after the surrender were loaded onto trucks and sent on their way to Gaza,
While much of the expulsion was dictated by military necessity,
there certainly was an unconscious, semi-conscious or conscious wish
to get the Arab population out. It was "in
the blood" of the Zionist movement. Indeed, long before the
founder, Theodor Herzl, even thought about Palestine, when writing the
initial draft of his ground-breaking book "Der Judenstaat", he proposed
founding his Jewish State in Patagonia (Argentina), and proposed inducing
all the native inhabitants to leave.
After the Arab armies entered
the war in May, the Egyptians were stopped 22 km from Tel Aviv. A month-long
cease-fire was decreed by the UN, and used by the Israeli side to equip
itself for the first time with heavy arms (artillery, tanks, air force) sold
them by Stalin. In the very heavy fighting in July, the balance shifted and
the Israeli side slowly gained the upper hand.
From then on,
a political as distinguished from
military decision was taken to remove the Arab population. Units were
ordered to shoot on sight every Arab who tried to return to their village.
The decisive moment came at the end
of the war, when it was decided not to allow the refugees to return to their
homes. There was no official decision. The idea did not even
come up. Masses of Jewish refugees from Europe, survivors of the Holocaust,
flooded the country and filled the places left by the Arabs.
The Zionist leadership was certain that
within a generation or two the refugees would be forgotten. That did not
IT should be remembered that all this
happened only a few years after the mass expulsion of the Germans from
Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Baltic states, which was accepted as natural.
Like a Greek tragedy, the Naqba was conditioned by the character of all
the participants, victimizer and victim.
Any solution of the "problem" must start with an unequivocal apology
by Israel for its part in the Naqba.
solution must include at least a symbolic return of an agreed number of
refugees to Israeli territory, a resettlement of the majority in the State
of Palestine when it comes into being, and generous compensation to those
who choose to stay where they are or emigrate elsewhere.
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