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1967: Why Did the Palestinians Leave?

By Nur Masalha*, Shaml, 05/1997

1. Introduction:

Since the Madrid Conference of 1991, Israel has reluctantly agreed to discuss the refugee question, provided the Palestinian “right of return” is not raised. Shortly after the Declaration of Principles was issued in September 1993, the Israeli Labour government agreed to discuss certain categories of the 1967 refugees who might be allowed to return to the West Bank and Gaza within the restricted framework of family reunion. Shortly after, following French intervention and mediation, the Labour government also reluctantly announced its willingness to process 2,000 applicants for family reunion each year.

However, the number of those waiting family reunification-- wives and children unable to live with their husbands and fathers in the West Bank and Gaza-- is estimated at 120,000. There are another estimated 100,000 persons who have been denied re-entry into the West Bank and Gaza on grounds of having stayed abroad for periods longer than the Israeli authorities permitted. In practice even within the narrow perspective of family reunification very little progress has been made in recent peace talks on the 1967 refugees.

There is also the question of the 320,000 Palestinians displaced by the 1967 war and their descendants--whose number is assumed to be 700,000. Although consideration of their case for return is allowed for in Article XII of the Declaration of Principles (article XII calls for the setting-up of a joint Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian-Egyptian committee which will decide upon “the modalities for the admission of persons displaced from the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967”), no progress had been made on this issue as of May 1996. In 1995 and early 1996 the multilateral technical committee on refugees held several rounds of talks. But the parties involved in the talks were unable to reach a consensus on the definition of a “displaced” Palestinian, the number of the 1967 refugees, or the means of repatriating the 1967 refugees to the West Bank and Gaza.

2. The 1967 Exodus:

The 1967 exodus from the West Bank involved up to 250,000 people and was by far the largest out-movement of Palestinians caused by the 1967 hostilities. The population loss of the Gaza Strip between June and December 1967 was estimated at 70,000. In total some 320,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from the West Bank and Gaza in the course of the hostilities or shortly after. An important body of new evidence has been unearthed in recent years, much of it appearing in the form of investigative articles in the Hebrew press, which sheds new light on the events surrounding the 1967 exodus. This article is an attempt to examine the causes of the 1967 exodus in the light of this new historical evidence.

2.1 The Destruction of the al-Magharbeh Quarter:

The June 1967 war began suddenly and ended quickly. At the end of the war, there were attempts to implement a forced population transfer. Residents of towns and villages in areas near the Green Line were expelled from their homes and their communities destroyed; the Israeli authorities offered financial ‘incentives’ and free transportation to Palestinians willing to leave.

In the course of hostilities and in the immediate aftermath of the war, with its rapidly changing circumstances, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and other army commanders (including 'Uzi Narkiss, Haim Hertzog, and Shlomo Lahat) found an ideal opportunity to drive out tens of thousands of Palestinians from their villages, towns and refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Israeli conception of exploiting opportunities to transfer Arab populations, which was first employed in 1948, resurfaced shortly after the 1967 War: commanders in various ranks of the army believed that the wind blowing from the political echelon was calling for the exploiting of opportunity to thin out the Palestinian population in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Among the first evictees were the residents of the ancient al-Magharbeh quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem. They were turned out of their homes on 11 June, after 3 hours’ notice. Apparently the quarter was completely demolished because it was located immediately adjacent to the southern part of the Wailing Wall, the Western Wall of al-Haram al-Sharif. Its inhabitants, about 1,000 persons, were the beneficiaries of an ancient and important Islamic Waqf foundation originally established in 1193 by al-Malik al-Afdal, the son of Salah al-Din. Its obliteration in June 1967 also resulted in the destruction of several historic religious sites (including two mosques, two zawiyas and a great number of Waqf residences) which the quarter contained.

Several senior Israeli commanders in the Jerusalem district (including Narkiss, head of the Central Command, Lahat and Hertzog) as well as Dayan, the mayor of West Jerusalem Teddy Kollek were all involved, one way or another, either in the initial decision or in the actual implementation of the systematic operation to destroy the ancient Arab quarter. Kollek appeared to have played a central role in the formulation and implementation of the decision to demolish the al-Magharbeh quarter. Kollek also informed the then Minister of Justice, Ya’acov Shimshon Shapira. The latter replied: “I am not certain of the legal position, but what should be done-- do it quickly, and let the God of Israel be with you.” Central to the mode of procedure by Kollek, Dayan, Narkiss, and other commanders was the need to act speedily in order to stave off internal criticism and potential obstruction and avoid attracting too much attention in the foreign media.

The evicted residents of the al-Magharbeh quarter were dispersed in West Bank localities close to Jerusalem. Like the eviction of the large villages in the Latrun area (discussed below), this removal should be treated as an internal expulsion. However, it is extremely important to remember that these cases of internal expulsions had a psychological effect on the 1967 exodus from the West Bank to Jordan, helping to precipitate and encourage further exodus out of the country, especially in the first few weeks following the war.

The destruction of the al-Magharbeh quarter was only the beginning of the sweeping changes carried out by the Israeli authorities. On 17 June 1967 the Israeli army ordered the inhabitants of the former Jewish quarter and the surrounding houses to leave the premises within 24 hours. This measures affected several hundred Palestinian families. Some 4,000 Palestinians were evicted to make possible the reconstruction of a vastly enlarged and exclusively "Jewish" quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem, excluding its former Arab residents.

2.2 Bayt Nuba, ‘Imwas, Yalu, Habla, Jiftlik, Bayt Marsam, Bayt ‘Awa and al-Burj:

Also among the first to go were the inhabitants of the large villages of Bayt Nuba, 'Imwas, and Yalu, situated near the Green Line in the Latrun area northwest of Jerusalem. In 1987 these evicted villagers and their descendants numbered about 11,000 in Amman, and some 2,000 who lived on the West Bank near Ramallah.

Latrun had been the gateway to Jerusalem in 1948, which the Israelis failed repeatedly to capture, so they had to realign the roadway to bypass Latrun. For many years before 1967 the Israeli army had plans for taking over the Latrun enclave and straightening the border. According to Meir Pa’il, there had been a “minimum plan” which included the occupation of the Latrun enclave and the destruction of its villages. June 1967 created the opportunity to realize these plans. The Latrun area was captured by the Israeli army on the morning of 6 June 1967. On orders (not in writing, of course) from head of the Central Command General Narkiss (a Labour party man who later became Director General of the Jewish Agency's (JA) Department of Immigration and Absorption and is in 1995 chairman of the JA's Department of Information), the army bulldozers moved in and wiped out the three villages, due to their “strategic location” and in order to “straighten the [Green Line] border,” according to the Israeli officer in charge of the operation.”

Canada Park was created with the help of the Canadian Jewish National Fund on the site of the bulldozed villages and their 20,000 dunums of agricultural land. Ironically, the Canadian government, which has sponsored the Middle East peace talks on Palestinian refugees, is also an official sponsor of Canada Park.

We know a lot about the destruction of the Latrun villages: the story was originally revealed in graphic detail by ‘Amos Kenan, who took part in the fighting in the Latrun area; and many interviews with the evicted inhabitants of these villages were published in the Israeli and Palestinian press. But we know little about other West Bank villages which were cleared and raised to the ground in 1967. On 16 June the Israeli army totally destroyed Bayt ‘Awa (in the Hebron district) and Bayt Marsam; most of Habla met a similar fate on 22 June; al-Burj was destroyed on 28 June; and Jiftlik in late November 1967.

And only the intervention of a group of liberal Israeli intellectuals and academics saved the West Bank town of Qalqilyah from a similar fate when an order by the army Central Command for the expulsion of the inhabitants and the total destruction of the town was cancelled. Apparently Zeev Shaham, commander of a force that operated in the Qalqilyah area had received a verbal order to destroy Qalqilyah from Narkiss. Between 9 June and 18 July 1967 (before the cancellation of the order) at least 850 out of 2,000 dwellings in Qalqilyah had been blown up by the Israeli army and dozens of residents were forcibly transported from the town to the Jordan River.

3. The ‘Transfer’ Operation of Haim Hertzog, Shlomo Lahat, and `Uzi Narkiss, June 1967:

Haim Hertzog was the army's first Military Governor of the West Bank after the 1967 War. Hertzog had been a political and military broadcaster during the war. It was only in November 1991, a few days after the Madrid Conference, that President Hertzog revealed publicly one of Israel's little known secrets: that he, as the first Military Governor of the West Bank, efficiently organized and carried out, in cooperation with Lahat, the commander of Jerusalem, the operation of transferring 100,000 Palestinians from the West Bank in the immediate aftermath of the war. According to a statement confirming that this operation was indeed carried out, the President's office said: "his [Hertzog's] considerations were that in the departing wave many of the PLO men would leave, and this would make it easier for the military administration. For days and weeks lines of buses ran from the Damascus Gate [in East Jerusalem] to the Allenby Bridge [on the River Jordan].”

Hertzog claimed that he had been prompted to organize this operation during a meeting with Anwar al-Khatib, the former Arab governor of the Jerusalem district, at the Ambassador Hotel in Jerusalem on Friday 9 June 1967. According to Hertzog, al-Khatib raised at this meeting the problem of the families of Arab consuls stranded in Jerusalem and the problem of the families of the Jordanian officers, who fled and left their dependents behind, and asked the Israeli Military Governor to allow these families to leave Jerusalem for Jordan via the Allenby Bridge. Hertzog agreed and told al-Khatib that from the morning of Sunday, 11 June, buses would be waiting near the Damascus Gate to transport any Arab wishing to depart to Jordan, on condition that each departing Arab signed a statement to the effect that he was leaving voluntarily. Hertzog also revealed that Lahat, then the commander of Jerusalem and the mayor of Tel Aviv from 1974 until 1993, was put in charge of implementing the operation, and that "no contrary order was given by Moshe Dayan at any stage [to halt the operation]."

The superior Commanding General of Hertzog and Lahat, Narkiss, told an interviewer in October 1988 that he himself had supervised the implementation of the transfer operation in 1967, which, according to the interviewer, had resulted in the total "transfer of 100,000 [Palestinians to Jordan] without anybody saying a single word." Narkiss told the same interviewer in 1988:

I placed several buses in Jerusalem and in other cities [of the West Bank], written on them: "To Amman--Free of Charge." The bus used to carry them to the [partly] destroyed Allenby Bridge and then they would cross it [to Jordan]. I spread the news about these buses through individuals with wide contacts....In this [bus] operation between 20 and 25 thousand people got out.

One of the extraordinary revelations made by Narkiss in connection with his transfer operation was the daily telephone calls he used to receive after the war from the dovish Finance Minister Pinhas Sapir:

Pinhas Sapir used to phone me twice a day, to ask: how many [Arabs] got out today? Is the number of the inhabitants of the West Bank diminishing? The number [of those being transported by the buses?] began with 600 and 700 persons a day, and then it began to decline until it reached a few scores, and after two or three months the [bus?] operation stopped.

The statements of the President’s office elicited wide publicity in Israel in November 1991 and surprised Israeli historians. Hertzog’s claim that Anwar al-Khatib was a partner in such an organized operation of mass transfer was denied by the latter. A former Israeli soldier described the "voluntary" and "humane" aspects of this operation in a November 1991 interview with Kol Ha'ir:

My job was to take..... [each Palestinian's] thumb and immerse its edge in ink and fingerprint them on the departure statement....Every day tens of buses arrived. There were days on which it seemed to me that thousands were departing ......there were also not a few people who were simply expelled....We forced them to sign. I will tell you how exactly this was conducted: [for instance] a bus [carrying men] was arriving and only men were getting off,...--only men, aged 20 to 70, accompanied by borderguard soldiers. We were told that these were saboteurs, fedayeen, and it would be better that they would be outside the state.......[The Palestinian men] did not want to leave, and were dragged from the buses while being kicked and hit by revolver butts. By the time they arrived to my [signing] stall, they were usually already completely blurred [as a result of beatings] at this stage and did not care much about the signing. It seemed to them part of the process. In many cases the violence used against them was producing desirable results from our point of view. The distance between the border point and the [Allenby] Bridge was about 100 metres and out of fear they were crossing to the other side running; the borderguard men and the paratroopers were all the time in the vicinity. When someone refused to give me his hand [for finger printing] they came and beat him badly. Then I was forcibly taking his thumb, immersing it in ink and finger printing him. This way the refuseniks were removed....I have no doubt that tens of thousands of men were removed against their will.

4. The Three Large Refugee Camps Near Jericho: ‘Ayn Sultan, Nu’aymah and ‘Aqbat Jabir:

Until June 1967 the Palestinian population in the West Jordan Valley was dominated by three huge refugee camps surrounding the town of Jericho: ‘Ayn Sultan, Nu’aymah and ‘Aqbat Jabir. The residents of these camps had been driven out from present-day Israel in 1948. During the 1967 hostilities or shortly after virtually all residents of these camps, over 50,000 people, fled or were expelled to the East Bank, along with more than 50 percent of the native rural population of the Jordan Valley, reducing the region’s total population by 88 percent.

In this context it is worth noting the reactions of two Israeli historians to the 1991 revelations surrounding the "transfer" operation of Hertzog, Lahat and Narkiss and to the relevance of this operation to the almost total de-population of the three refugee camps near Jericho. Uri Milstein had this to say:

I remember that 5 days after the..... War I was in Jericho. It was empty there and we were told that the [refugees of ‘Ayn Sultan, Nu’aymah and ‘Aqbat Jabir] fled. It is more likely that ......[the Israeli army] drove them away. In [1948]....... [Israeli commanders] volunteered to carry out [transfer] on their own initiative. In the Six Day War there were similar situations. Many thought that we had not completed the job in [1948]....... It is known that there was a plan to conquer Qalqilyah and destroy it. There was also a plan to carry out transfer in Hebron as a revenge for the massacre [of Jews] in [19]29.

Meir Pa'il stated:

The travel route of the buses.......from the Damascus Gate to the Allenby Bridge, had to pass via the Jericho valley and the [three] large refugee camps that were there and this is another confirmation of the story.

5. Why Did the Palestinians Leave?

The 1967 exodus was a complex phenomenon requiring a multi-cause explanation:

  1. The exodus was, in part, a response to the severe situational pressures existing at the time. The pressures were generated by the Israeli aerial attacks upon these territories, including the extensive use of napalm;

  2. The occupation of the West Bank villages and towns by the Israeli army, and the actions of the occupying forces. Certainly the most drastic of these actions was the evictions of civilians and the deliberate destruction of several villages [‘Imwas, Yalu, Bayt Nuba, Bayt Marsam, Bayt ‘Awa, Habla, al-Burj, and Jiftlik], and the initial destruction of Qalqilyah;

  3. Other actions, such as threats and the mass detention of male civilians, also created situational pressures;

  4. There were other indirect reasons: the Palestinian villagers were ill-prepared to resist and cope with these situational pressures; the Palestinian population was still in shock and disarray in the face of Israeli military force, reeling from the military occupation and in no position to resist Israeli pressures;

  5. They were ill-informed and unfamiliar with the terrifying nature of the aerial attacks;

  6. To this the social structure of Arab society should be added: the family-centered social structure; some Palestinians left to protect their family, particularly the honour of their womenfolk;

  7. To this we should add the organized “transfer” operation (by busses) of Narkiss, Hertzog and Lahat. The extensive use of loudspeakers in the main cities to encourage departure for Amman is also well-documented;

  8. To this we should add the following complex phenomenon: the 1967 refugee exodus varied from one region to another: over 90,000 people (almost 90 percent of the population) were driven from the Golan Heights, while the Gaza Strip lost about 20 percent of its 400,000 residents. There were also local variations in the West Bank and a complex mix of factors responsible;

  9. The high population losses in some regions were the result of a "psychological legacy of pre-war events, a legacy of assorted fears," for instance, in the Hebron district and in the region surrounding the village of Qibya in the West Bank, where the Israeli army had carried out a large and infamous massacre in October 1953, in which 65 villagers (mostly women and children) were killed;

  10. Another example was in the Latrun area where the over 6,000 residents of Yalu, `Imwas, and Bayt Nuba were ordered to leave their villages by the Israeli army and the chain-reaction effect of their movement across the West Bank can be traced in the higher losses from other villages on the Latrun-Ramallah-Jerusalem highway.

6. Conclusion:

All Palestinian areas conquered by Israel in 1967 experienced immediate and substantial out-movements of Palestinian residents. Yet one of the most distinguishing features of the 1967 exodus was its complex “geographical character,” with wide geographical variations in population losses-- as opposed to the wholesale nature of the 1948 exodus. For instance the Gaza Strip and the West Bank highlands, where most population centres were distant from the 1967 war-zone, experienced a comparatively moderate exodus (around 20-25%). The Gaza Strip also showed the smallest population reduction partly due to the fact that the area --in contrast to the West Bank-- is furthest from any potential sanctuary. In contrast to the highlands of the West Bank, where population loss was about 20-25 percent, 88 percent of the Palestinian population in the West Jordan Valley was driven out from a region “highly attractive to Israel owing to its strategic attribute.” Also both the Hebron district and the Dayr Qaddis administrative division, on the western border with Israel, ranked among the highest loss areas.

Although the policy of evictions, demolitions and encouragement of “transfer” continued for several weeks after the Israeli army occupied the West Bank and Gaza, some leading Israeli politicians were clearly disappointed with the overall demographic outcome of the war. Dayan himself was criticized by Deputy Prime Minister Yigal Allon for not driving out the entire Palestinian inhabitants of East Jerusalem and Hebron. Allon’s disappointment at the demographic outcome of the 1967 war was expressed at a private meeting in November 1967:

Is this the way to occupy Hebron? A couple of artillery bombardments on Hebron and not a single ‘Hebronite’ would have remained there. Is this the way to occupy [East] Jerusalem [without driving most of the Arabs out].

Systematic evictions and demolitions were evident in numerous geographical locations in the West Bank-- the Latrun villages, the al-Magharbeh quarter and the former Jewish quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem, the border towns of Qalqilyah and Tulkarm, the west Jordan Valley, the large refugee camps near Jericho, the Hebron district, and the Dayr Qaddis area. Thousands of young and middle age men from several cities and refugee camps were also targetted for deportation. Evacuation and demolition were executed at the level of middle and senior military echelons with the tacit approval of top level command and Defence Minister Dayan. Throughout this process of evacuation and demolition there was some lack of communication between the civil authorities, particularly Prime Minister Eshkol, and the military commanders; in practice the military exercised civilian functions. Senior military commanders, backed by Dayan, encouraged Palestinian residents to get out of East Jerusalem and other cities of the West Bank and to go to Jordan.

*Dr Nur Masalha is a Lecturer in Politics at Richmond University, London, and Honorary Fellow in the Centre for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, University of Durham, England. His most recent book is A Land without a People: Israel, Transfer and the Palestinians, 1949-1996 (London: Faber and Faber, 1997).

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