Israel, 1948 and the truth

Submitted by AWL on 26 February, 2020 - 10:27 Author: Martin Thomas
Palestinian refugees 1948

Socialist Worker has denounced all the Labour leader candidates over their agreement that it is antisemitic to describe the very existence of Israel (as distinct from particular policies) as racist.

This means, says SW, “to deny Palestinians the right to describe their oppression by Israel, or to explain their own history. Some 850,000 Palestinians were systematically expelled from their homes when Israel was established in 1948 to ensure that Israel has a Jewish majority”.

SW’s answer is somehow to re-run the 1948 war with a reversed outcome, which, they claim, would lead to a harmonious multinational Arab-Jewish state.

Both history and policy are addled.

The Palestinian Jewish community fought a guerrilla war for independence and against British rule in 1945-8 for the usual reasons that small nations fight such wars. And for an extra reason. Not that they were exceptionally hostile to other peoples; but because they wanted freedom for Jews to flee to Palestine.

Jews in Britain and the USA, where antisemitism, though influential, was less than murderous, had (and have now) little desire to move to Israel. But the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust were interned in camps across Europe; or, if they had been caught while trying to break the almost-total British-imposed ban on Jewish migration to Palestine, in British-ruled Cyprus. Jews had been refused refuge almost everywhere in the run-up to and during the Holocaust.

By late 1947 Britain gave up on Palestine and starting withdrawing its troops. It would complete withdrawal in May 1948. The United Nations had voted for a partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. The Jews of Palestine had accepted it. But the Arabs had rejected it. And neither Britain nor any outside force was willing to try to implement the partition.

From late 1947 a new guerrilla war developed between Arab “irregulars”, notably the Arab Liberation Army, set up by the Arab League and Syria — supported by some of the Palestinian Arabs — and the Jewish community.

The aim of the ALA, and of the Arab states in the full-scale war which would come after British withdrawal in May 1948, was to stop a Jewish state coming into existence, at least to stop more Jewish refugees coming, maximally to “drive the Jews into the sea”.

Jordan (which, like Iraq and Egypt, was heavily under British hegemony at the time: it had British commanders in its armed forces) privately calculated it could not stop a Jewish state, but wanted to take control of as much of Palestine as it could for itself.

The Palestinian Arabs had little autonomous voice. Their leadership was demoralised after collaboration with the Nazis in World War 2. They would be unable to raise significant protest when after the 1948-9 war Egypt and Jordan extinguished the Palestinian state proposed by the UN and took the West Bank under Jordan’s rule, Gaza under Egypt’s.

Obviously the Palestinian Arabs tended to side with the ALA and the Arab states. Many of them also resented the ALA. Above all they were fearful. Autonomous and vigorous Palestinian nationalism was still something for the future.

There was no Arab-Jewish workers’ militia to combat the nationalists on both sides. No external big power was willing or able to hold the ring. In the run-up to 1947-8, various left-wing groups among the Jews had advocated various formulas for a “binational state”. One of them even briefly won official US-UK support for its formula (April 1946). But few Jews backed those formulas, because they offered no solid guarantee for admitting the Jewish refugees. No Arabs backed them.

In the conflict which ran from December 1947 to March 1949, each of the heavily intermingled “sides” tended to drive people from the “other side” out of their area. (There were ceasefires in the war between Israel and the sometimes British-officered regular Arab armies in June-July 1948 and July-October 1948, and only relatively localised fighting after early January 1949).

Jews were driven out of areas which ended under Arab control (East Jerusalem, the Etzion Bloc, etc.) more thoroughly than Arabs out of areas which ended under Jewish control. Many more Arabs were driven out than Jews. That was because the Jews won the war (though the odds looked much against them, and the USA and UK imposed an arms embargo on them). It was not because the Jews had special exclusivist urges unknown to other peoples.

Some tens of thousands of city-dwelling Arabs fled in a first wave in late 1947 and early 1948. Almost all the better-off fled. They had the means to re-establish themselves in other Arab countries, if it came to it. In any case they hoped to avoid the risks of war and return to better conditions after an Arab victory.

That initial flight conditioned many of the later ones. The Palestinian Arabs knew, when their “community leaders” called on them to stay put (as sometimes they did), that those leaders had themselves already gone.

Some 20,000 fled from Haifa (then, and now once again, a “mixed” city) in December-January. The decision for flight was taken by the Arab notables of the city, in consultation with the British forces, whom they relied on to protect them as they moved out. It was opposed by the city’s Jewish mayor, but tacitly welcomed (and facilitated, with rough handling of Arab areas) by the Jewish military, the Haganah.

Tens of thousands also fled from Jaffa, following an attack on the municipal buildings by dissident Jewish forces, the “Stern gang”, later banned as a “terrorist organisation” by Israel. Besides general fear of war, a motive there was local economic collapse. Arabs also fled from West to East in Jerusalem, which at the start of the war was a heavily Jewish city.

The second wave of Arab flight, and now expulsion, was in April-June 1948, in the later period of the guerrilla war and the run-up to the invasion by Arab regular forces.

The main driver there was an effort by the Haganah to secure their battle-lines and lines of communication. They systematically cleared and destroyed Arab villages on the route connecting to the two main Jewish cities, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

In late April 1948 the Haganah took the strategic town of Tiberias. The local Arab notables decided, with British cooperation and perhaps prompting, on mass exodus. The local Jewish community put out a leaflet calling for the Arabs’ houses to be kept safe for them to return. But the Haganah was glad to see them gone.

Soon the Israeli state would be resisting demands that it allow the return of those who had fled. Those demands came mostly, at that time, from the USA, not the Arab states or the Palestinians.

At the end of April most of the remaining Arabs in Haifa and in Jaffa fled. In Jaffa the flight was heavily prompted by terrorist attacks by another dissident Jewish force, the Irgun. The Irgun and the Stern gang had massacred 100 to 120 villagers at Deir Yassin, near Jerusalem, on 9 April 1948. Although it was condemned by the official Jewish forces, reports of the massacre increased the flight.

The Haganah systematically drove out the Arab population from the town of Safad and others judged to be strategic.

Once the full-scale war had started, the Haganah began systematically evicting Arab populations in strategic areas, in an extension of the effort to secure lines of communication and borders. The Haganah evicted the towns of Lydda and Ramla, the biggest concentrations of Arab population between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, in July 1948.

As the war proceeded, the Haganah carried out more systematic expulsions in the south to secure (as they saw it) Israel’s claim to the Negev. Fewer in the north, which remains the biggest concentration of Arab population in Israel to this day.

Socialist Worker’s figure is 850,000 Palestinians driven out. Or: almost a million. The UN agency for aid to the refugees counted those fleeing or driven out at 726,000.

After the war, Israel imposed “military government” on the Arab areas, confiscated much Arab land, and tried to prevent the return of Palestinians who had fled or been driven out. (Some tens of thousands got back nevertheless).

The Arab states drove out almost all their Jewish populations. The driving-out had started before 1948, and sent populations long-established in their countries, and among whom Zionist ideology had had little grip, to live initially in refugee camps in a hard-pressed Israel. In Israel now the descendants of those refugees outnumber the descendants of refugees or settlers from Europe.

At the time those horrors of war seemed (to all sides) more run-of-the-mill than they do now. In 1923 a treaty sponsored by the big powers had provided for the forcible transfer of maybe two million Greeks and Turks between the two countries. Many Greeks had been massacred or had fled Turkey before that.

In the 1940s, the USSR (with the co-operation of the USA and the UK) expelled some 13 million Germans from Eastern Europe. The USSR forcibly transferred some 1.6 million Poles and Ukrainians across the new Poland-Ukraine border. The USSR, China, Taiwan, both Koreas, and other countries expelled a total of seven million Japanese. All that was done “cold”, by victors after the end of war, not in the heat of war itself.

In 1947-9 the Palestinian Arabs suffered badly; and the Israeli state behaved brutally as states at war usually do. Left-wingers in the Jewish community in Palestine, and internationally, condemned the brutalities and fought for a different policy. But none of the Trotskyists supported the Arab states. None thought victory for the Arab states was the answer.

The only way forward now is for the Palestinians to gain the right to a genuine independent state of their own, alongside Israel, and an international agreement for redress and help for today’s generation, the grandchildren of the 1947-9 refugees.

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