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The Catastrophe:  The expulsion of Palestinian refugees and Israel’s founding in 1948

These days we are facing a painful catastrophe that is at the very center of the Palestinian/Israeli tragedy, one of the longest human rights disasters in the last century.   This catastrophe is that of the violent and forceful Israeli expulsion of some 700,000 Palestinians from their indigenous homeland in 1948.    This depopulation, or as it was referred to in 1948, “cleansing”, remains at the heart of the Palestinian experience and deserves to be remembered as a genuine human rights catastrophe today.  Furthermore, it is in need of urgent remedy.

The Palestinian/Israeli conflict is a struggle reflecting not an “ancient and eternal enmity” as we have been told.     The casting of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict as an religious conflict or an eternal conflict is often an attempt to throw up one’s hands and pretend that Arabs and Jews come out of the womb hating one another, and there is nothing that one can do to heal their enmity for one another.   On the contrary, there was a time that Arabs and Jews lived together in peace, and provided one is willing to take measured and courageous responses to re-establish peace and justice, those days of mutual and peaceful co-existence can be with us again.

Many assume that the main obstacle to peace is Hamas or Palestinian terrorism (on one hand) or the illegal Israeli settlements in West Bank (on the other).   The truth of the matter is that the genesis of the problem goes back somewhat further than Netanyahu, or the 1973 war, or even the 1967 war.  In other words, the root of the problem goes back before the forty-plus year illegal Israeli occupation of West Bank (and until recently, Gaza).

The root of the issue is 1948.     Here we get what Israelis celebrate as the joyous founding of the modern nation of Israel, and simultaneously remembered by Palestinians and many Muslims, indeed many human rights activists worldwide as simply the “Nakba”, the Catastrophe.

The Catastrophe is not simply the founding of Israel.   It is what in today’s world we would call Ethnic Cleansing.    Here is a truth, simple and powerful, yet rarely discussed in American media.     In order to create modern nation state of Israel, the Jewish military forces ethnically cleansed Palestine.   

Half of the indigenous population of Palestine, somewhere in excess of 700,000 Palestinian Muslims and Christians; men, women, and children, were driven into exile.   The overwhelming majority of these refugees still remain in exile, over sixty years later.    

Any Jew from anywhere in the world can easily petition to move to Israel.    The Palestinians who were driven out violently in 1948 from their ancestral homeland are not allowed to set foot on their own homeland.     This double standard is one of the most painful realities of the racist policies of the Israeli state.

The Nakba was not a random, accidental event.   Leading Zionists going back to Theodore Herzl had fantasized about driving out the “penniless” Palestinian natives across the borders.   On the subject of ethnic cleansing, the first Israeli prime minister, Ben-Gurion, wrote in 1937:

"With compulsory transfer we [would] have a vast area [for settlement] ....
I support compulsory transfer. I don't see anything immoral in it."
(Benny Morris, Righteous Victims, p. 144)

The ethnic cleansing (the Israeli sources themselves use the phrase “cleansing” to refer to driving out the indigenous Arab population) was achieved through violence, rape, and murder.     Much of the information has come to us through Israeli historians who have opened up the archives of the Israeli military.   One of them is Benny Morris, who in a famous interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in 2004 stated the following:

Question:   According to your new findings, how many cases of Israeli rape were there in 1948?
Benny Morris:   "About a dozen. In Acre four soldiers raped a girl and murdered her and her father. In Jaffa, soldiers of the Kiryati Brigade raped one girl and tried to rape several more. At Hunin, which is in the Galilee, two girls were raped and then murdered. There were one or two cases of rape at Tantura, south of Haifa. There was one case of rape at Qula, in the center of the country. At the village of Abu Shusha, near Kibbutz Gezer [in the Ramle area] there were four female prisoners, one of whom was raped a number of times. And there were other cases. Usually more than one soldier was involved. Usually there were one or two Palestinian girls. In a large proportion of the cases the event ended with murder. Because neither the victims nor the rapists liked to report these events, we have to assume that the dozen cases of rape that were reported, which I found, are not the whole story. They are just the tip of the iceberg."

Question:  According to your findings, how many acts of Israeli massacre were perpetrated in 1948?
Benny Morris:  "Twenty-four. In some cases four or five people were executed, in others the numbers were 70, 80, 100. There was also a great deal of arbitrary killing. Two old men are spotted walking in a field - they are shot. A woman is found in an abandoned village - she is shot. There are cases such as the village of Dawayima [in the Hebron region], in which a column entered the village with all guns blazing and killed anything that moved.

"The worst cases were Saliha (70-80 killed), Deir Yassin (100-110), Lod (250), Dawayima (hundreds) and perhaps Abu Shusha (70). There is no unequivocal proof of a large-scale massacre at Tantura, but war crimes were perpetrated there. At Jaffa there was a massacre about which nothing had been known until now. The same at Arab al Muwassi, in the north. About half of the acts of massacre were part of Operation Hiram [in the north, in October 1948]: at Safsaf, Saliha, Jish, Eilaboun, Arab al Muwasi, Deir al Asad, Majdal Krum, Sasa. In Operation Hiram there was a unusually high concentration of executions of people against a wall or next to a well in an orderly fashion.

Usually when these kinds of evidence is presented to audience members who are not familiar with them, there is a typical charge that the speaker must be somehow either anti-Semitic or a “self-hating Jew.”   How much more disturbing to realize that the above historian, Benny Morris, is actually a committed Zionist Israeli who thinks the only mistake in the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians was that “only” 50% of the Palestinians were expelled instead of all of them.   Here is the evidence in his own words:

Morris:   "If he was already engaged in expulsion, maybe he should have done a complete job. I know that this stuns the Arabs and the liberals and the politically correct types. But my feeling is that this place would be quieter and know less suffering if the matter had been resolved once and for all. If Ben-Gurion had carried out a large expulsion and cleansed the whole country – the whole Land of Israel, as far as the Jordan River. It may yet turn out that this was his fatal mistake. If he had carried out a full expulsion – rather than a partial one – he would have stabilized the State of Israel for generations."

[Interviewer:]   I find it hard to believe what I am hearing.
Benny Morris:  "If the end of the story turns out to be a gloomy one for the Jews, it will be because Ben-Gurion did not complete the transfer in 1948. Because he left a large and volatile demographic reserve in the West Bank and Gaza and within Israel itself."

In other words, honest historians do not disagree about the fact of what took place in 1948.    The debate in Israel is whether the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians is justified.   That is where we are with respect to “the only democracy in the region”, the commonly used though woefully inaccurate euphemism used for Israel, arguing about the justification of ethnic cleansing of 700,000 human beings.  This is simply not how a real democracy behaves.   And it can not become a real democracy until and unless it comes to atone for the very violent atrocity that is at the very heart of its founding event.

Of course we have much more than simply the Israeli archives to provide us with the evidence of this ethnic cleansing and forced expulsion.     One of the most powerful evidence comes from the Palestinian refugees themselves, many of whom are still alive.     Palestinian scholars themselves have put together the “living history” narratives of these Palestinians and their families.


The United Nations immediately set out to issue a statement against the 1948 ethnic cleansing, and called for Palestinian refugees to be allowed to return to their home land.

"Article 11 of the United Nations resolution reads:
(The General Assembly) 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, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible."

To this date, some 60 years later, the Israeli state has refused to allow for Palestinians to return, arguing that if Palestinians return Israel would no longer be a Jewish majority state. 

Neither Muslims nor Jews particularly believe in the notion of an “original sin”, yet if one may excuse the metaphor, it might be said that the Nakba is the original sin that exists in the very founding of the modern nation state of Israel.   It would be impossible, as the Christian Palestinian leader Hanan Ashrawi has said, to move to a peaceful resolution without addressing it:

Al-Nakba is therefore not merely a historical date to be commemorated.  It is the collective memory of Palestinians, which shapes their identity as a people. Al-Nakba is not a distant memory but a painful reality that continues to fester, as the rights of refugees continue to be denied and the inalienable rights of our nation remain unfulfilled.
It is time to recognize that Al-Nakba is as real for Palestinians as it should be for Israelis. It is an inescapable story of loss, dispossession and a great historic injustice that targeted the most precious characteristic of any people: its identity.

For readers who want to see a more detail account of the Nakba, I recommend this interview from Democracy Now: 

Perhaps it is best to give the last word to Hanan Ashrawi, the eloquent Palestinian peace activist:

For peace to prevail, for two states to live side by side, for a future of security and prosperity to begin in the region, Israel should not be afraid to recognize Al-Nakba and learn the lessons of its history. Israel must come to recognize its historic accountability in creating Al-Nakba for neither denial nor distortion can serve the cause of peace.
Genuine recognition is a sine qua non for the process of historical redemption. Peace is a phase of healing that must be established on truth, justice, transparency, and equality. There is no other formula. By recognizing our historical narrative and suffering, Israel will be embarking on a true journey for a just and comprehensive peace.


Tags: depopulation, ethnic cleansing, human rights violations, israel, justice, palestine, peace, refugees, transfer

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