The Expulsion of the Palestinians, 1947-1948

Words (excluding footnotes): 1857
Date: October, 2001 (revised, and title changed, 1/31/2002)

The "Palestinian refugee problem"--that is, the human tragedy created by the Israeli expulsion of the Palestinians from their homeland, Palestine--remains a seemingly insoluble aspect of the Middle East puzzle.

Yet the expulsion of the Palestinians was an inescapable outcome of the United Nations' 1947 decision to partition Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states the following year. (The Arab state never came into existence.)

Before the partition, Jews comprised only one-third of the population of Palestine, which held some 608,000 Jews and 1,237,000 Arabs. Even within the area designated for Israel under the U.N. partition plan, the population consisted of some 500,000 Jews and 330,000 Arabs. How could a country with such a large Arab minority become a Jewish homeland?[1]

The answer is that it could not. A massive population transfer would be required. And this was understood by Jewish military leaders during the war of 1947-1948. David Ben-Gurion, father of Israel and leader of its military, confidently predicted on February 7, 1948, that "there surely will be a great change in the population of the country" over the next several months. He was right.[2]

(The inevitable conflict between Jewish colonization of Palestine and the rights of the indigenous Palestinians was foreseen from the beginning. Theodor Herzl, the father of political Zionism, articulated the Zionist colonial plan in his 1896 book _Der Judenstaat_ (The Jewish State). Recognizing that a people would not surrender its homeland voluntarily, he wrote: "An infiltration is bound to end badly. It continues until the inevitable moment when the native population feels itself threatened, and forces the government to stop a further influx of Jews. Immigration is consequently futile unless based on an assured supremacy.")[2.5]

At the beginning of the strife in late 1947, it is likely that the Jewish political leadership in Palestine would have rejected any formal plan to expel the Palestinians. (Although that would change by the following June, as discussed below, when the new Israeli government prohibited the return of all Palestinian refugees.) There was, however, a shared belief by many of the Jewish (later Israeli) military leaders during the war that the entire Palestinian population was the enemy. Acting on that belief, the Jewish militias (the official Haganah and the unofficial Stern Gang and Irgun) engaged in a consistent course of conduct that was intended to--and did--cause the Arab population to flee. (The Israeli myth that the Palestinians left on instructions from Arab leaders has long since been shown to be a fabrication.)[3]

There is ample evidence of forcible expulsions. The most notorious was the Lydda/Ramle death march. On July 12 and 13, 1948, on the direct order of Ben-Gurion, Israeli forces expelled the 50,000 residents of the towns of Lydda and neighboring Ramle. Yitzak Rabin, later to become Israeli Prime Minister, wrote in his memoirs that "there was no way of avoiding the use of force and warning shots in order to make the inhabitants march the ten or fifteen miles" required to reach Arab positions. Before they left, the townspeople were "systematically stripped of all their belongings," according to the Economist newspaper in London. Many of the expelled died in the 100-degree heat during the trek.[4]

Eventually the refugees from Lydda and Ramle made their way to refugee camps near Ramallah. Count Folke Bernadotte, Swedish nobleman and United Nations mediator, attempted to offer aid. He later wrote that "I have made the acquaintance of a great many refugee camps, but never have I seen a more ghastly sight than that which met my eyes here at Ramallah." (Later that year, Bernadotte was murdered by the Stern Gang. One of its leaders, Yitzhak Shamir, became Israeli Prime Minister in 1983.)[5]

Forcible expulsions were commonly practiced by the Jewish/Israeli military during 1948: Qisariya on February 15; Arab Zahrat al-Dumayri, al-Rama and Khirbat al-Sarkas in April; al-Ghabisiya, Danna, Najd and Zarnuqa the next month; Jaba, Ein Ghazal and Ijzim on July 24; and al-Bi'na and Deir al-Assad on October 31, among many others. Israeli historian Benny Morris has identified 34 Arab communities whose inhabitants were ousted. We may never know the full extent of the ejections, though, because, as Morris notes, the Israeli Defense Forces Archive "has a standing policy guideline not to open material explicitly describing expulsions and atrocities."[6]

More often, though, the instruments of expulsion were the terrorizing and demoralization of the Arab population. Jewish military forces used several tactics in pursuit of these goals.

One was psychological warfare. Radio broadcasts in Arabic warned of traitors in the Arabs' midst, spread fears of disease, reported confusion and terror among the Arabs, described the Palestinians as having been deserted by their leaders, and accused Arab militias of committing crimes against Arab civilians.[7]

Another effective psywar tactic involved the use of loudspeaker trucks. At various times they urged the Palestinians to flee before they were all killed, warned that the Jews were using poison gas and atomic weapons, or played recorded "horror sounds"--shrieks, moans, the wail of sirens and the clang of fire-alarm bells.[8]

A second tactic, economic warfare, was a favorite of Ben-Gurion, who described "the strategic objective" of the Jewish forces to be "to destroy the [Arab] urban communities." "Deprived of transportation, food, and raw materials," he later noted with satisfaction, "the urban communities underwent a process of disintegration, chaos, and hunger."[9]

A third technique to induce Arab flight was military attack on a town's Arab population. These assaults often used Davidka mortars--horribly inaccurate, but useful for creating terror--and barrel bombs. The latter consisted of barrels, casks, and metal drums filled with a mixture of explosives and fuel oil. Rolled into the Arab section of a town, they created "an inferno of raging flames and endless explosions." Another destructive maneuver described by writer Arthur Koestler was the "ruthless dynamiting of block after block" of the Arab community.[10]

Not uncommonly, the Jewish forces resorted to simple terrorism. Sometimes this took the form of bombs planted in vehicles or buildings: 30 killed in Jaffa on Jan. 4., 1948, with a truck bomb; 20 killed the next day when the Semiramis Hotel in Jerusalem was bombed; 17 killed by a bomb at the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem two days later.[11]

More often, a Jewish military force entered an Arab village and massacred civilians, either during a night raid or after the seizure of the village. The massacres started early: Major General R. Dare Wilson, who served with the British troops trying to keep peace in Palestine before the end of the British Mandate, reported that on Dec. 18, 1947, the Haganah murdered 10, mostly women and children, in the Arab village of al-Khisas with grenades and machine gun fire. Wilson also described how on Dec. 31 the Haganah slaughtered another 14, again mostly women and children, again using machine guns and throwing grenades into occupied homes, this time in Balad Esh-Sheikh.[12]

Throughout 1948, the massacres continued: 60 at Sa'sa' on Feb. 15; 100 murdered in Acre after its May 18 seizure by the Haganah; several hundred at Lydda on July 12, including 80 machine-gunned inside the Dahmash Mosque; 100 at Dawayma on Oct. 29, with an Israeli eye-witness reporting that "the children were killed by smashing their skulls with clubs"; 13 young men mowed down by machine guns in open fields outside Eilabun on Oct. 30; another 70 young men blindfolded and shot to death, one after another, at Safsaf the same day; 12 killed at Majd al-Kurum, also on Oct. 30, with a Belgian U.N. observer writing that "there is no doubt about these murders"; an unknown number killed the next day at al-Bi'na and Deir al-Assad, described by a U.N. official as "wanton slaying without provocation"; 14 "liquidated," according to the Israeli military's report, at Khirbet al-Wa'ra as-Sauda on Nov. 2.[13]

A particularly repugnant method of killing employed by the Jewish militias was the blowing up of houses with their occupants still inside, often at night. The militia would place explosive charges around the stone houses, drench the wooden window and door frames with gasoline, and then open fire, simultaneously dynamiting and burning the sleeping inhabitants to death.[14]

The supreme act of terrorism by Jewish militias was the slaughter of nearly the entire village of Deir Yassin on April 9, 1948. According to Jacques de Reynier, a Swiss physician working for the Red Cross who arrived before the bloodletting had ended, 254 people were "deliberately massacred in cold blood." "All I could think of," he later said, "was the SS troops I had seen in Athens." According to Meir Pa'il, who served as a communications officer for the Haganah in Deir Yassin and was present during the assault, 25 male survivors were taken to Jerusalem and paraded through the streets in a perverse victory celebration, then shot in cold blood.[15]

Menachem Begin, the leader of the Irgun, one of the militias involved in the horror at Deir Yassin, called the atrocity a "splendid act of conquest." In 1977, Begin was elected Prime Minister of Israel.[16]

The massacre at Deir Yassin played a crucial role in undermining the morale of the Palestinian population. As de Reynier, the Swiss physician, wrote, "a general terror was built up among the Arabs, a terror astutely fostered by the Jews."[17]

Once the Israeli military had forced the Palestinians to flee, various Israeli institutions attempted to insure that there would be no return. The new Israeli government decided on June 16, 1948--just a month after Israel had declared independence, and before half of the refugees had even become such--that it would not permit the Palestinians to return to their homeland. The military, meanwhile, worked to render return a physical impossibility. Its forces leveled 418 Palestinian towns and villages, erasing the majority of Palestinian society from the face of the earth.[18]

Completing the process of dispossession, Israel took control of land owned by the Arabs whom it would not allow to return. Before 1948, Jews owned only 1.5 million of the 26 million dunams of land in Palestine. (A dunam, the local measure of land area, is a quarter-acre.) After the eviction of the Palestinians, Israel controlled 20 million dunams, an increase from 6% to 77% of the total. They simply stole an entire country.[19]

Moshe Dayan, Israeli war hero, described this reality succinctly in a 1969 speech: "Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages. You do not even know the names of these Arab villages, and I do not blame you because geography books no longer exist; not only do the books not exist, the Arab villages are not there either. ... There is not one single place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population."[20]

While a wrong of these incalculable dimensions can never be truly rectified, simple considerations of justice require that the Palestinian refugees from what is now Israel, and their descendants, be permitted to return home.

Robin Miller can be contacted at  

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Major works on the Palestinian exodus

Childers, Erskine, "The Other Exodus," The Spectator, May 12, 1961, pp. 672-675, reprinted in Walid Khalidi (ed.), From Haven to Conquest, Beirut: The Institute for Palestine Studies, 1971, pp. 795-803 [cited as Childers (1961)]

-----, "The Wordless Wish: From Citizens to Refugees," in Ibrahim Abu-Lughod (ed.), The Transformation of Palestine, Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1971, pp. 165-202 [cited as Childers (1971)]

Finkelstein, Norman, Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict, London: Verso, 2nd. ed., 2001. See "'Born of War, Not by Design,'" pp. 51-87

Flapan, Simha, The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities, NY: Pantheon Books, 1987. See "Myth Three: Palestinians Fled Voluntarily, Intending Reconquest," pp. 81-119

Gilmour, David, Dispossessed: The Ordeal of the Palestinians 1917-1980, London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1980. See "The Exodus 1947-1948," pp. 59-76

Khalidi, Walid, All That Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948, Washington, D.C.: The Institute for Palestinian Studies, 1992

Masalha, Nur, Expulsion of the Palestinians: The Concept of "Transfer" in Zionist Political Thought, 1882-1948, Washington, D.C.: The Institute for Palestinian Studies, 1992

Morris, Benny, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1987 [cited as Morris (1987)]

-----, "Revisiting the Palestinian Exodus of 1948," in Eugene Rogan and Avi Shlaim (eds.), The War for Palestine: Rewriting the History of 1948, Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001, pp. 37-59 [cited as Morris (2001)]

Nazzal, Nafez, The Palestinian Exodus from Galilee 1948, Beirut: The Institute for Palestinian Studies, 1978

Palumbo, Michael, The Palestinian Catastrophe: The 1948 Expulsion of a People from Their Homeland, London: Faber and Faber, 1987

Also cited:

Hadawi, Sami, Bitter Harvest: A Modern History of Palestine, NY: Olive Branch Press, 1990


1. See pp. 675-677 of "Binationalism not Partition," in Walid Khalidi (ed.), From Haven to Conquest, Beirut: The Institute for Palestine Studies, 1971, pp. 645-702. "Binationalism not Partition" is a report submitted by a United Nations subcommittee on Nov. 11, 1947, as part of the U.N.'s decision-making process on Palestine. The report estimated the population of the territory to be assigned to Israel as having 498,000 Jews, 407,000 Arabs other than Bedouin, and 105,000 of the nomadic Bedouin. According to Flapan, p. 83, n. 2, final changes to the boundaries called for in the partition plan reduced the Arab population of the Jewish state by some 180,000. This leaves a total of 332,000.

2. Palumbo, p. 38, gives the Ben-Gurion quote.

2.5. Theodor Herzl, The Jewish State, 1934 revised edition, p. 29, quoted in Esco Foundation for Palestine, Palestine: A Study of Jewish, Arab, and British Policies, New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1947, volume one, p. 34.

3. For an extended analysis also finding an Israeli intent to expel the Palestinians, see Finkelstein, pp. 51-87. Finkelstein's work is authoritative.

For a thorough refustation of the myth that the Arabs left under orders "from above," see Childers (1961); Childers (1971), pp. 196-202; Flapan, pp. 84-87.

4. Flapan, p. 81; Palumbo, pp. 126-138. Both attribute Ben-Gurion's responsibility on the basis of a section of Yitzak Rabin's memoirs published in the New York Times on October 22, 1979. Flapan attributes the Rabin quote to the same source. Palumbo quotes the August 21, 1948 issue of the Economist.

5. Folke Bernadotte, To Jerusalem, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1951, p. 200. On Bernadotte's murder, see Amitzur Ilan, Bernadotte in Palestine, 1948: A Study in Contemporary Humanitarian Knight-Errantry, St. Martin's Press, 1989; Kati Martin, A Death in Jerusalem, NY: Pantheon Books, 1994; and Ted Schwarz, Walking with the Damned: The Shocking Murder of the Man Who Freed 30,000 Prisoners from the Nazis, Paragon House Publishers, 1991.

6. al-Bi'na: Palumbo, pp. 168-169.

al-Ghabisiya: Morris (1987), pp. xiv-xviii.

al-Rama: Palumbo, p. 110.

Arab Zahrat al-Dumayri: Morris (1987), pp. xiv-xviii, giving the name as Ad Dumeira.

Danna: Morris (1987), pp. xiv-xviii.

Deir al-Assad (Deir al-Asad): Palumbo, pp. 168-169.

Ghazal: Palumbo, p. 141.

Ijzim: Palumbo, p. 141, giving the name as Izzam.

Jaba: Palumbo, p. 141.

Khirbat al-Sarkas (Khirbet al Sarkas): Morris (1987), pp. xiv-xviii, giving the name as Khirbet as Sarkas.

Najd: Morris (1987), pp. xiv-xviii.

Nazareth: Flapan pp. 101-102.

Qisariya: Morris (1987), pp. xiv-xviii.

Zarnuqa: Morris (1987), pp. xiv-xviii, giving the name as Zarnuqua.

"Standing policy": Morris (2001), p. 49-50. Morris concludes, it should be acknowledged, that the Palestinian exodus was "born of war, not of design."

7. Childers (1971), pp. 186-187; Palumbo, pp. 61-62, 97-98.

8. Childers (1971), p. 188; Palumbo, pp. 64, 97.

9. Flapan, pp. 90-93.

10. "Inferno": Leo Heiman, "All's Fair ...," Marine Corps Gazette, June, 1964, cited in Childers (1971), p. 187.

"Ruthless Dynamiting": Arthur Koestler, Promise and Fulfillment: Palestine 1917-1949, London: Macmillan, 1949, p. 233.

11. Jaffa truck bomb: Palumbo, pp. 83-84; Who Are the Terrorists? Aspects of Zionist and Israeli Terror, Beirut: The Institute for Palestine Studies, 1972, p. 17 (citing Middle East Journal, April 1948, p. 216).

Semiramis Hotel: Palumbo, p. 98; Who Are the Terrorists?, p. 19 (citing The Times (London), Jan. 6, 1948).

Jaffa Gate: Who Are the Terrorists?, p. 17 (citing The Times (London), Jan. 8, 1948).

12. R. Dare Wilson, Cordon and Search: With 6th Airborne Division in Palestine, 1945-1948, Aldershot: Gale & Polden, 1949, p. 158. Reprinted Nashville: Battery Press, 1984. An Israeli source states that the true death toll at Balad Esh-Sheikh was 60. See Hadawi, p. 88, quoting an article by Israeli historian Arieh Yitzhaqi published in the April 14, 1972 issue of the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot.

13. Acre: Palumbo, p. 119, relying on reports filed by Lieutenant Petite, a U.N. observer from France, stored at UNA (United Nations Archives) 13/3.3.1, box 13.

al-Bi'na: Palumbo, p. 168, citing UNA (United Nations Archives) 13/3.3.1, box 11.

Deir al-Assad (Deir al-Asad): Palumbo, p. 168, same as al-Bi'na.

Dawayma (al-Dawayma, Duwayma, Ed-Dawayimeh): Flapan, p. 94; Gilmour, pp. 68-69; Hadawi, p. 89. The quote is from Eyal Kafkafi, "A Ghetto Attitude in the Jewish State," Davar, September 6, 1979, reprinted in Gilmour.

Eilabun: Morris (1987), p. 229; Palumbo, p. 164.

Khirbet al-Wa'ra as-Sauda: Morris (2001), p. 57.

Lydda: Morris (1987), pp. 203-207; Palumbo, p. 137.

Majd al-Kurum: Nazzal, pp. 90-93; Palumbo, p. 171.

Safsaf: Nazzal, p. 95.

Sa'sa: Hadawi, p. 88, quotes an article by Israeli historian Arieh Yitzhaqi, published in the April 14, 1972 issue of the newspaper Yediot Aharonot, reporting that "In this operation, which was for many years to be regarded as a model raid because of the high standard of its execution, 20 houses were blown up over their inhabitants, and some 60 Arabs were killed, most of them women and children." See also Jon Kimche and David Kimche, Both Sides of the Hill: Britain and the Palestine War, London: Secker & Warburg, 1960, p. 84.

14. Childers (1971), p. 182.

15. On Deir Yassin (Dir Yassin, Dayr Yassin), generally, see Palumbo, pp. 47-57.

Jacques de Reynier published his memoirs: A Jerusalem un Drapeau Flottait Sur la Ligne de Feu, Neuchatel: Editions de la Baconniere, 1950; reprinted under the title 1948 a Jerusalem, 1969. The section on Deir Yassin, translated into English, is reprinted in pp. 761-770 of Walid Khalidi (ed.), From Haven to Conquest, Beirut: The Institute for Palestine Studies, 1971. All quotations from de Reynier are from this excerpt.

Statement by Meir Pa'il is from Palumbo, who interviewed him. Pa'il's story was also reported in two Israeli newspaper articles: Yediot Aharonot, April 4 and 29, 1972.

16. "Splendid act": Palumbo, p. 55, quoting from 1/10-4K in the Jabotinsky Archives in Tel Aviv.

17. See n. 15.

18. Israeli government's decision: Morris (1987), p. 141.

418 villages destroyed: Khalidi. See also Israel Shahak, "Arab Villages Destroyed in Israel: A Report," in Uri Davis and Norton Mezvinsky (eds.), Documents from Israel: Readings for a Critique of Zionism, London: Ithaca Press, 1975, pp. 43-54.

19. See p. 33, n. 12 of Rashid Khalidi, "The Palestinians and 1948: The Underlying Causes of Failure," in Eugene Rogan and Avi Shlaim (eds.), The War for Palestine: Rewriting the History of 1948, Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001. See also John Ruedy, "Dynamics of Land Alienation," in Ibrahim Abu-Lughod (ed.), The Transformation of Palestine, Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1971, pp. 119-138.

20. Ha'aretz (Israeli newspaper), April 4, 1969. Quoted in Khalidi.

Arab Villages Discussed, with Variant Names

al-Khisas (Khisas, Khissas)
Arab Zahrat al-Dumayri
Balad Esh-Sheikh (Baldat al-Shaikh)
Deir al-Assad (Deir al-Asad)
Deir Yassin (Dir Yassin, Dayr Yassin)
Dawayma (al-Dawayma, Duwayma, Ed-Dawayimeh)
Ein az Zeitun
Ein Ghazal
Jaba (Jaba')
Khirbat al-Sarkas (Khirbet al Sarkas)
Khirbet al-Wa'ra as-Sauda
Majd al-Kurum
Sa'sa' (Sa'sa)

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