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Israel Talks of a New Exodus

Written by Ellen Cantarow and Peretz Kidron


First published by Inquiry Magazine, Washington D.C., on December 8, 1980, this document was included as an appendix to The Zionist Plan for the Middle East, translated and edited by Israel Shahak, 1982.


IT WAS JULY 1948; the first Arab-Israeli war was at its height. Israeli General Yigal Anon repeated his question: "What is to be done with the population?" In reply, according to former premier Itzhak Rabin, "BG [Ben-Gurion] waved his hand in a gesture that said, 'Drive them out.'" They were discussing the 50,000 Palestinian civilians living in the twin towns of Lydda and Ramle, which his forces had just occupied.

Perplexed by what he called "the troublesome problem" of dealing with a "hostile and armed populace in our rear," the Israeli field commander had sought guidance from his chief, David Ben-Gurion, Israel's founding prime minister and later minister of defense. Ben-Gurion's gesture sealed the fate of thousands of Arab men, women, and children. "There was no way of avoiding the use of force and warning shots," recalled the officer responsible for carrying out the order, who had sent in his troops to drive the people of Lydda and RamIe from their homes.

Lydda--now called Lod--and Ramle are today Jewish cities. The homes that were evacuated in 1948 now house Israeli Jews. Under the "Absentees' Property Act," the state took over the holdings of Arabs "absent" during a critical period in the war--precisely when many were fleeing the advancing Israeli army. The property was turned over to Jews, and the "absentees" in question remain involuntarily scattered as refugees throughout the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the countries of the Middle East.

In this manner the Arab populations of many cities became, practically overnight, part of a new diaspora. Before the war 860,000 Arabs in all had lived in the area that is now Israel. Afterward, 160,000 remained. Some were driven out; others fled and weren't allowed to return.

The 1980s may produce another 1948, say some observers--Jews as well as Arabs. This fear was aroused particularly by the events of last spring, when Israel exiled two prominent West Bank mayors, and car-bombings permanently maimed two others. "It isn't just that my husband was deported," said Nihad Milhem, the wife of the former mayor of the farm town of Halhoul. As she told us last summer, "My feeling over the past two months is that they intend to push us all out. They want the land without the people."

Just who constitutes the "they" of 1980 is, of course, a critical question. Rabbi Meir Kahane, who lives just up the hill from Hebron in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba, is running in the next Knesset election on a platform that calls for the "voluntary" evacuation of Arabs from all of "historical Israel"--the occupied temtories as well as the pre-1967 lands. Leaders of the ultra-right-wing movement Gush Emunim (Block of the Faithful) are usually more circumspect in their public statements than Kahane and his followers. But last spring Rabbi Moshe Levinger, one of the Faithful's foremost figures, declared: "The more Jews settle in the territories, the greater their security. The Arabs shall not raise their heads, and if they do, we'll know how to deal with them."

Kahane and Levinger are invariably dismissed as part of a "lunatic fiinge." What they say doesn't count--unless it reflects the intentions of much more powerful figures in the state.

Recently there have been hints that this may be so. The most serious suggestion came from a highly credible source, Aharon Yariv, former chief of Israeli military intelligence. In a lecture last spring at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, Yariv said: "Some people talk of expelling 700,000 to 800,000 Arabs in the event of a new war, and instruments have been prepared [for the contingency]." It may have been a slip of the tongue. Pressed to be more specific, Yariv has refused to say just who he meant by "some people." The suspicion remains that he wasn't referring to his milkman.

In the present context, Yariv's statement reverberates ominously. In the occupied West Bank, it isn't just Palestinian mayors who have been under stepped-up attack, but the whole population. The Israeli military has imposed curlews on entire towns and cities for alleged actions of a few individuals. It has demolished private homes, dispossessing entire families--again for acts allegedly committed by individual family members or persons in the neighborhood. General Mattityahu Peled charged last May that following a guerrilla attack, "more than 100,000 Arabs" in Hebron and neighboring areas were "starving as a result of curfews imposed on the places where they live."

Some observers see in such policies a variation on the evacuation themes of 1948. "The policy of collective punishment is not new," wrote Amnon Kapeliouk, one of the country's foremost reporters, commenting on Yariv's statement last June in the daily paper Al Hamishmar. "We saw it [collective punishment] in all its glory in the days when Moshe Dayan selved as 'the emperor of the territories.' But the difference between those days and now, as the policy is carried out under the Likud government, is that now, collective punishment is being carried out with the clear intention of making the inhabitants want to leave."

Official Israeli propaganda has always held that the Arab exodus of 1948 was "self-inspired." Palestinian leaders allegedly urged their people to leave the combat areas in order to clear the way for the Arab armies, which were to throw the Jews into the sea. As for the Israelis, far from encouraging the exodus, they claim to have done their best to persuade the Arabs to remain. (Israeli spokesmen always cite the example of Haifa, where Jewish leaders genuinely tried to reassure their Arab neighbors: Their efforts to halt the flood of fugitives were futile.)

This version of the events of 1948 has been touted for over thirty years. Israel's efficient propaganda machine has convinced many people both inside and outside the country that the refugee problem was created by the Arabs themselves, and that Israel bears no responsibility for the plight of the uprooted Palestinians. Palestinian accounts of the systematic expulsion of civilians have always been brushed off as fabrications.

But the Arab view has now been confirmed by sources with impeccable Israeli credentials, much to the embarrassment of the present government. When Itzhak Rabin's recently published memoirs were in galley proofs, a special ministerial committee empowered to censor books by former ministers and military officials deleted the passages that included the quotations at the beginning of this article.

Ben-Gurion's own handpicked biographer, Michael Bar-Zohar, throws light on another incident from the 1948 war--the unsuccessful bid to evacuate the Arab city of Nazareth. Bar-Zohar quotes from Ben-Gurion's diary an entry dated July 18, 1948, two days after the city's capitulation: "[Head of Northern Command] Moshe Carmel gave orders to uproot all the inhabitants of Nazareth. The brigade commander hesitated. When I received a query on this matter I immediately cabled [an order] not to displace the inhabitants." Ben Gurion even ordered machine guns stationed in Nazareth to prevent the looting of Arab property.

But Ben-Gurion's policy on the treatment of Arab civilians, in 1948 and after, was inconsistent. Even when he countermanded Carmel's order on Nazareth, the prime minister apparently didn't reprimand his subordinate for issuing it. Furthermore, the Bar-Zohar biography quotes one Israeli officer's description of the prime minister's first visit to Nazareth: He "looked around in astonishment, saying, 'Why are there so many Arabs? Why didn't you drive them out?'" (These accounts appear only in the Hebrew version of the Bar-Zohar biography, not in the condensed English version.)

One point is beyond any doubt: Ben-Gurion viewed the mass expulsion of Arab civilians as a viable option, a policy instrument to be used or set aside as circumstances suggested. These circumstances varied. In the case of Lydda and Ramle, he perceived the presence of a large Arab population near Tel Aviv and on the main route to Jerusalem as a strategic irritant. With fighting in progress a few miles away, it was also an immediate tactical embarrassment. In contrast, with the conquest of its hinterland, the hills of Galilee, Nazareth's importance diminished--which probably explains why Ben-Gurion cancelled the "evacuation" order there.

The U.N. Partition Plan adopted in 1947 carved out a Jewish state whose borders encompassed most of the 650,000 Jews then living in Palestine. But this area also included a large Arab minority, albeit a greatly diminished one. Moreover, in the course of the 1948 fighting, Israeli forces occupied additional territory belonging to the part of Palestine that the U.N. had allocated to the Arabs. The area that remained under Israeli control at the end of the 1948 war had once contained an Arab population of three-quarters of a million. Had the Arabs remained, they would have outnumbered the Jews.

There are now about four million Israeli citizens, 85 percent of them Jews. But the tiny Arab remnant still worries many Israeli leaders. For instance, in August 1973 the powerful Jewish Agency, in charge of settlement programs within the state, published a "Proposal for a General Development program in the Galilee Hills." The document bluntly stated that the Jewish population in some parts of the Galilee, which had the largest concentration of Arabs in the country, was too low. It called for decades of development to "convert the tenitory to a region with a large Jewish population and drawing power" for Jews--all-Jewish urban centers, Jewish agricultural settlements, and so on.

Some Israeli leaders, however, remain unhappy with the pace of Jewish settlement in the Galilee. Ariel Sharon (currently Minister of Defense), minister of agriculture, gave vent to such dissatisfaction in a press interview in 1977: "I'm also dealing now with strangers, Arabs, taking over state lands. There has been total weakness on this subject. National lands are being stolen by strangers...In the Galilee, land has been free to all, and while talking of the Judaization of the Galilee, the area has returned to be a Gentile area. Together with other responsible elements, I have begun to take drastic measures, to prevent national lands being taken by strangers. Soon there'll be no place to settle Jews."

Israel's demographic problems increased with the fruits of victory in 1967. Control over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip meant military occupation of an area with an Arab population of over a million. For the past thirteen years the smoldering issue has been whether or not to annex the territories. The right wing--Menachem Begin's Herut Party, the National Religious Party, and their militant vanguard at the grass roots, Gush Emunim--believe the territories are part of the historical "Land of Israel," the Biblical promised land. These religious ultranationalists have urged successive Israeli governments to annex Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip and incorporate them into Israel.

"Facts on the ground," as the settlements are called in Israel, have sprung up like mushrooms around the Arab villages of the West Bank, but heated debates still attend the issue of overt annexation. A small minority of liberals and leftists, championing Palestinian rights to self-determination, object on principle to annexation. But within the Israeli mainstream, few would venture to take such a rash position. The political establishment's position is more pragmatic.

The general whose forces occupied Lydda and Ramle in 1948, the late Yigal Allon, was also a major figure in the Labor Party. He outlined a plan for partial Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories. That portion of the land no longer under Israeli domination would go to Jordan (the so-called "Jordanian option" espoused by the bulk of the Labor Party and rejected by both King Hussein and the PLO). But what of the Arabs in the territory that according to the "Allon Plan" would become part of Israel? In effect this raised the same question Allon had posed to Ben-Gurion in 1948: "What about the population?"

Annexation of the tenitories would give the resulting Greater Israel a population of about five million, of whom a third would be Palestinian Arabs. By the turn of the century, this Arab minority would exceed 40 percent. This "imbalance" has alarmed Israeli Jews of many political persuasions, including "doves." For instance Dedi Zucker, of the Peace Now movement, reportedly said, "Annexation of the West Bank would change the entire population balance, threatening Israel's very Jewishness." Similarly, Allon's colleague Abba Eban has warned that annexation would "endanger the character of Israel as a democratic Jewish state." The only ways to maintain that character are either to make its Jewishness token or to ensure that the majority of its citizens are Jews.

Some see a way out through Ben-Gurion's first policy--mass Jewish immigration. As former Defense Minister Ezer Weizman has put it, "Two million Arabs are a problem if there are only three million Jews. There is no problem if there are ten million Jews."

This racial arithmetic overlooks the awkward fact that mass Jewish immigration ended with the fifties. In recent years no more than 20,000 to 30,000 Jews have entered Israel, and an average of 20,000 or so Israelis are believed to be leaving their homeland each year. Net growth by migration is therefore less than 10,000 a year--hardly enough to boost the Jewish population to 10,000,000 by the year 2000, as Weizman envisioned.

Of course, the entire "demographic" issue is rooted in the question of land. The question is, ultimately, which of two peoples has the right to the land. The most radical answer, supplied in 1948, was to force the indigenous Arabs out of the countly. But there has also been a less drastic, more gradual solution: expropriating the land, while permitting the Arabs to stay within Israel's borders. Take, for instance, the people Israel calls "Bedouins"--they call themselves simply "peasants." In the Pitchat Rafiah area between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, in 1975 alone the Israeli government forcibly evicted thousands of these people, who are not nomadic. A Mapam party delegation wrote on April 6, 1975, that "800,000 dunums, twice as much as the whole Gaza Strip, is on the verge of being cut off from its owners." Tents were burned, wells sealed up, houses destroyed by bulldozers, and orchards damaged. Knowledge of the land seizure became public when neighboring kibbutzes protested--although the greater part of the left wing of the kibbutz movement, then as now, advocated settlement on confiscated lands.

In August 1979 Ezra Rivlis, a journalist, traveled through the area where bulldozers had razed the Bedouin villages; their land, on which Israel would begin to build, was encircled with barbed wire. Rivlis stood inside the barbed wire, looking out. "On the other side," he wrote in Al Hamishmar, "the Bedouins stare at us, wide-eyed, dispossessed, with no arrangements or solution to their problems."

Israel's land hunger is thus being satisfied without forced expulsion. Land expropriation without expulsion across borders has brought economic rewards, since the uprooted people become part of a large reservoir of cheap Arab labor. And there is also a certain political dividend: Underprivileged Jews might rebel; the Arab laborers are more easily kept in their places.

But the resentment of and resistance to such measures have kept pace with the discrimination practiced against the Arabs. Their political grievances finally exploded within Israel in 1976 on the "Day of the Land," when a one-day protest by the entire Arab minority was brutally suppressed by Israeli troops and police. The event strengthened official intolerance toward Israel's Arab citizens, who were perceived as a potential danger to the state even though they were no more than one-seventh of its population.

In the occupied territories the government has stepped up repression in response to the resistance. The "Prevention of Terrorism" law passed in July, for example, makes expressions of public sympathy with "terrorist" organizations crimes against state security. An amendment to the Citizenship Law that was passed at the same time gives the minister of the interior the power to strip the citizenship of anyone deemed "disloyal" to the state--with "disloyalty" to be defined, of course, by the minister of the interior. If measures like these effectively quell dissent, then no doubt the government will content itself with business as usual. If not, or in the event of war in the sharply escalating turbulence of the region, the extraordinary measures of 1948 could again be adopted.

The government, by contrast with the "lunatic fringe"--the Meir Kahanes and Moshe Levingers--dismisses the idea of future forced expulsions over state borders as an Arab fiction. In general it prefers to skirt the issue. Begin's supporters, in fact, blithely predict that Jewish hegemony can go hand in hand with good-neighborly relations between the two peoples.

But Israel's leaders may not be as cautious in private as their public statements suggest. There are signs that the more radical solution of the population problem may be under serious consideration by government and opposition alike. Leaders of various hues along the political spectrum have responded to recent showings of Palestinian political insurgency by warning the Arabs that they risk bringing on themselves a repetition of the 1948 tragedy. Significantly, semiveiled threats of this nature have come from Sharon, Rabin, and Dayan--all three generals turned politicians, at least two of whom (Dayan and Rabin) have intimate knowledge of how and by whom that tragedy was engineered.

Back in 1919 Ben-Gurion wrote: "It is neither desirable nor conceivable to expropriate the country's present inhabitants...That is not the purpose of Zionism." A decade later, he made the same point more lyrically: "According to my moral outlook we do not have the right to dispossess a single Arab child, even if we should achieve everything we wish for by virtue of such dispossession."

Do Ben-Gurion's successors intend to heed what he said in 1919--or to emulate what he did in 1948?

About the Authors

Ellen Cantarow is a Boston-based journalist who frequently writes on the Middle East. Peretz Kidron is an Israeli journalist whose English translation of the memoirs of Itzhak Rabin is mentioned in "The Zionist Plan for the Middle East."


Return to The Zionist Plan for the Middle East

Web Editor's Note

This document has been edited slightly to conform to American stylistic, punctuation and hypertext conventions. No other changes to the text have been made.

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