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College Papers History Religion Undergraduate Work

Deir Yassin and the Flight of the Palestinians

This is a paper I wrote for an undergraduate history course called Modern Middle East.  I was taking a very involved course on the Arab-Israeli Conflict at the same time, so my papers for the Modern Middle East class focused on Palestine and Israel as well.  The paper was given 15/15 points.  I’d like to have written more, but it was only supposed to be 5 pages.  If I’d had more time (or a requirement for more pages!) I’d probably have written more about how the Arabs and Jews both deliberately exaggerated to the events at Deir Yassin to their own advantage, and detriment.

Deir Yassin Massacre Victims
Deir Yassin Massacre Victims via Palestine Solidarity Project

Impact of the Deir Yassin Massacre on the Palestinian Exodus in 1948

In 1917, Britain conquered Jerusalem and ruled the region through a military administration. In 1920, the San Remo Conference awarded Britain the mandate of Palestine, which was sanctioned by the League of Nations in 1922.[1] By 1947, the British had grown weary of the sectarian violence between the Zionist Jewish and Arab populations in Palestine and as part of an overall downsizing of their colonial holdings after the economic stresses of World War II turned over the Palestine Mandate to the United Nations, which decided, in UN General Assembly Resolution 181, to solve the problem by separating the parties through land partition.[2]

The 29 November 1947 UN partition plan would have granted 55% of the land (much of it desert) to the Jews and 40% to the Arabs, with Jerusalem and Bethlehem falling under international control. The Jews accepted the plan, reasoning that it would provide them a foundation from which to build a Jewish state. The Palestinians, on the other hand, rejected the partition and launched a three day general strike followed by a wave of anti-Jewish terrorism in the cities and on the roads.[3]

As British Mandatory rule drew to a close in early 1948, the conflict between immigrant Jews and native Arab Palestinians erupted into an open civil war. On May 14th, 1948, the day before the Mandate ended, David Ben-Gurion, the Executive Head of the World Zionist Organization and chairman of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, changed the nature of the conflict by declaring the establishment of a Jewish state. The fighting between Jews and Arabs stopped being a sectarian struggle and evolved into a national struggle, not just between the new Israelis and the Palestinians, but between the newly formed Israel and the surrounding Arab states, who joined in the fighting. The war in 1947 – 1948 later became known as the War of Liberation to Israelis and as al-Nakba (“Disaster,” or “Catastrophe” in English) to the Palestinians and Arabs in the Middle East.[4] The Arabs were soundly defeated, leaving the Israeli state in control of more land than originally granted to it by UN Resolution 181, which the Arabs rejected under the assumption that the combined powers of the Arab armies could defeat the Jews.[5]

The conflict was a total defeat for the Palestinians. They not only lost control of a majority portion of the Palestinian Mandate territory, but they also failed to establish political independence. Only the Gaza Strip and the West Bank (with larger boundaries than today) remained outside of Israeli control, but they were claimed by other countries who had participated in the war against Israel: Egypt and Jordan. After the 1948 war, Jordan retained control over the resource-rich West Bank and East Jerusalem while Egypt controlled the Gaza Strip.

Perhaps the worst blow to the Palestinians, however, was being driven from the land and being prevented from returning. During the fighting, Palestinians fled their homes in droves in advance of or during combat between the Jews and Arabs, or to evade Arab militias who abused villagers. A total of approximately 750,000 Palestinians were displaced by the 1948 war in Palestine, and the issue showed up time and again in peace talks in the form of demands for the right-of-return of refugees.[6] Today, the number of refugees has ballooned to approximately five million as new generations of Palestinians are born in refugee camps and inherit the refugee status of their parents.[7]

Many factors contributed to the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem, including expulsion orders, such as those signed by Yitzhak Rabin (later a Prime Minister of Israel) that ejected the Arab population from Lydda;[8] voluntary self-removal of the wealthier classes to other countries to avoid loss of capital during the fighting;[9] the flight of Palestinian leadership;[10] and as a result of Israeli actions during the implementation of “Plan Dalet” (also known as Plan D). Plan Dalet would later become known as a very controversial strategic operation which aimed at:

gaining control over the territory assigned to the Jewish state and defending its borders, as well as the blocs of Jewish settlement and such Jewish population as were outside those borders, against regular, para-regular, and guerrilla forces operating from bases outside or inside the nascent Jewish State.[11]

To its critics, especially those in Arab states, the plan called for nothing short of the ethnic cleansing of the land allotted to Israel in the 1947 United Nations General Assembly’s Resolution 181, which partitioned the land of Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states.[12]

Plan Dalet wasn’t necessarily a political blueprint for the expulsion of Palestinians en masse. It was governed by military considerations and, given the nature of the war and the admixture of populations in Palestine, securing the interior of the Jewish state from ‘external’ threats required the depopulation and destruction of villages that housed hostile militias and irregulars.[13] It was also common for roving irregular forces from other Arab states to impose on villages by demanding housing, since they were there fighting for their interests, supposedly.[14] The people of Deir Yassin had decided to remain neutral in the conflict, refusing entry to outsiders, and worked out a system of signals with the nearby Jewish settlement of Givat Shaul to alert them that roving militias and irregulars were in the area. Deir Yassin hoped that by cooperating, their town would be spared the hardships of war.[15] They would, however, be disappointed.

A widely implemented tactic by the Arabs was to cut off supply lines between the Jewish coast and Jewish population centers inside the country, like Jerusalem and the Etzion Bloc. Opening up these supply lines became a priority.[16] At David Ben-Gurion’s insistence, a force of 1500 Jewish troops was mobilized to take part in Operation Nachshon. No longer would the Jews passively protect their convoys with guards; they would instead conquer and hold the routes themselves, as well as the heights surrounding them.[17] It was during Operation Nachshon that the Deir Yassin massacre occurred. The operational order of 3 or 4 April states that “all the Arab villages along the [Khulda-Jerusalem] axis were to be treated as enemy assembly or jump-off bases” and according to Plan Dalet, villages so defined, if offering resistance, should be depopulated (through forced migration) and destroyed.[18]

It’s not clear why, but the Haganah command allowed two Jewish militant extremist groups to participate in Operation Nachshon, perhaps because of the importance of securing the routes and the need for able bodied fighters. Irgun Zevai Leumi (Irgun) and Lohamei Herut Israel (Lehi, aka the “Stern Gang”) were widely regarded as terrorists by British mandatory authorities and the Israeli defense establishment itself.[19] For example, in 1946 the Irgun, acting under the direction of Menachem Begin, who would in 1977 become the Prime Minister of Israel under the Likud Party, ordered the bombing of the King David Hotel, which housed the British Mandate headquarters. The final casualty list included ninety-one British, Arab, and Jewish dead.[20]

The result of the Irgun and Lehi’s participation in Nachshon was a massacre of civilians. Despite Deir Yassin’s non-belligerency agreement with neighboring Givat Shaul, Irgun and Lehi forces entered the town to occupy it and met with unexpectedly strong resistance from residents who probably felt betrayed by their Jewish neighbors. During the fighting, Irgun and Lehi forces blew up several houses and gunned down families in the streets. They also rounded up groups of unarmed residents of both sexes and murdered them en masse. Some residents were paraded through the streets of Jerusalem before being taken back to Deir Yassin to be murdered.[21] A Haganah Intelligence Service report states that “whole families – women, old people, children – were killed.”[22] The following day the author of the report added: “[Lehi] members tell of the barbaric behavior of the [Irgun] toward the prisoners and the dead. They also relate that the [Irgun] men raped a number of Arab girls and murdered them afterward (we don’t know if this is true).”[23]

Regardless of whether or not it was true, reports like the one above and the stories told by the survivors rapidly spread throughout the region, becoming headline news. Altogether, about 100 – 120 villagers died that day, but the event became amplified through gossip and the media to such a degree that it became extremely influential in affecting the flight of the Palestinian population.[24] When trying to justify their actions after the fact, the Irgun cited the fear and panic the act caused and its beneficial impact on the Israeli war effort.[25]

The massacre and the way it was emphasized and possibly exaggerated in the media strengthened the resolve of Arab leaders to aid the embattled Palestinians and defeat the Jews. It also caused problems for the Jewish forces when criticized by the Western media, but the most important aspect of the massacre was the role it played in increasing flight from the Palestinian villages.[26] In Beit Iksa, fear caused the start of an immediate evacuation. The same occurred in al-Maliha and the residents of Fajja, near Petah Tikvah, Mansura, and near Ramle quickly called their Jewish neighbors and promised to not fight. In Haifa and surrounding villages, Palestinians heard rumors of Jewish atrocities at Deir Yassin and took flight. In the village of Saris, Arabs offered the attacking Haganah no resistance whatsoever, for fear of sharing Deir Yassin’s fate. [27] The fear of another Jewish massacre of civilians had an impact on the behavior of Palestinian villagers across the territory.

The British noted that whether or not all of those atrocities actually took place, the Haganah and the Jews had certainly profited from it and Jewish political leaders determined that the Deir Yassin massacre was one of two pivotal events in the exodus of Palestine’s Arabs, the other being the fall of Arab Haifa.[28] The psychological impact of the massacre may not have been the main cause of the Palestinian refugee crisis, but it certainly increased the number of people affected, making resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict that much more difficult for generations to come.


[1] David Lesch, The Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History, p. 95.
[2] Ibid., p. 134.
[3] Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, p. 13.
[4] Ibid., p. 145.
[5] Tom Segev, One Palestine: Complete, p. 496.
[6] Rashid Khalidi, The Iron Cage, p. 7.
[7] “Palestine refugees”, United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.
[8] Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, p. 429.
[9] Ibid., p. 67.
[10] The Pittsburgh Press, “British Halt Jerusalem Battle,” 1948.
[11] Quoted in David Lesch, The Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History, p. 137.
[12] David Lesch, The Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History, p. 137.
[13] Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, p. 164.
[14] Ibid., p. 123; p. 114.
[15] Ibid., pp. 90 – 91.
[16] Ibid., p. 66.
[17] Ibid., p. 233.
[18] Ibid.
[19] The Glasgow Herald, “Irgun Accept Ultimatum,” 22 September 1948; The Pittsburgh Press, “Two Palestine Hostages Dead, British Told,” 30 July 1947; St. Petersburg Times, “Jews Arrest Stern Gang Terrorists,” 19 September 1948; St. Petersburg Times, “French Uncover Plot To Bomb London,” 8 September 1947.
[20] David Lesch, The Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History, p. 129 & 259; The Glasgow Herald, “Irgun Message Admits Guilt in Death Blast,” 24 July 1946.
[21] Benny Morris, Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, p 237.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Benny Morris, Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, p. 238.
[24] Ibid., p. 238.
[25] Ibid., p. 239.
[26] The Indian Express, “Arab States Out To Undo Jewish State: Azzam Pasha Outlines New Policy,” 21 May 1948.
[27] Benny Morris, Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, p. 240.
[28] Ibid.



Bibliography

“Arab States Out To Undo Jewish State.” The Indian Express 21 May 1948: 5. Web Archive. 18 May 2012. .
“British Halt Jerusalem Battle: Fresh Troops Pour into City To Keep Peace.” The Pittsburgh Press 3 May 1948: 1. Web Archive. 8 May 2012. .
“Irgun Accept Ultimatum.” The Glasgow Herald 22 Sep 1948: 5. Web Archive. 17 May 2012. .
“Irgun Message Admits Guilt In Death Blast: Communique Purported From Underground Claims Warning Went Unheeded.” The Montreal Gazette 24 Jul 1946: 1. Web Archive. 17 May 2012. .
“Jews Arrest Stern Gang Terrorists.” St. Petersburg Times 19 Sep 1948: 1. Web Archive. 17 May 2012. .
Khalidi, Rashid. The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood. New York: Beacon Press, 2007. Kindle edition.
Lesch, David W. The Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.
McGhee, George Crews. On The Frontline in the Cold War: An Ambassador Reports. Santa Barbara: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1997. Google eBook.
Morris, Benny. The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Print.
“Palestine refugees.” n.d. United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. Web. 17 May 2012. .
Segev, Tom. One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate. New York: Henry Holt and Company, LLC, 2001. Print.
“Two Palestine Hostages Dead, British Told: Sergeants Hanged, Underground Claims.” The Pittsburgh Press 30 Jul 1947: 1. Web Archive. 17 May 2012. .
Categories
College Papers History Religion Undergraduate Work

Unity, Support and Power: Failure of Palestinian Nationhood

Note: This is a paper that was written for a Modern Middle East undergraduate history course.  The paper was supposed to be five pages long, but I went a little overboard.  Even so, I don’t think I even came close to fully covering the topic, not that I really could in a semester, or in one short research paper.  Nonetheless, this paper received an A.

1948 Map of Conflicts in Palestine.
Zionist Military Operations Outside UN-proposed Jewish State, 1 April to 15 May 1948. (Source: Greenpolitics)

At the end of World War I, with the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the entire Middle East was in a state of flux. What used to be a single sovereign entity was carved up into modern nation states by the victorious European powers. At a conference in San Remo in 1920 Britain and France, according to an arrangement known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916), drew the borders for four new states: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. In 1922, Palestine was further divided into Palestine and Transjordan. These new countries were legitimized as mandates of the League of Nations, states that would be protectorates of European powers and eventually gain independence. Thus, Britain retained control of Iraq, Palestine and Transjordan and France retained control of Syria and Lebanon, directly and indirectly.[1]

Over the following decades, each of the mandate states threw off the shackles of colonialism and won independence, with the exception of Palestine. The pursuit of national independence for Palestinians has been impeded by a series of complications, starting with the Balfour Declaration of 1917:

His Majesty’s Government [of England] view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.[2]

The Balfour Declaration is a letter that was issued by the United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary, Arthur James Balfour, to Baron Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community. British government officials believed that the Jewish ‘vote’ needed to be won to ensure victory in World War I. If the British didn’t secure Jewish backing, the Germans would “buy them” and use them to influence Russia into signing a separate peace treaty with Germany, allowing the Germans to focus on the western front.[3] The Balfour Declaration was a response both to the fear of the supposed power of world Jewry and the sympathetic nature of some British government officials to the Zionist cause.[4] Zionist leaders did their best to encourage these feelings, resulting in the inclusion of the wording of the Balfour Declaration in the League of Nations sanctioned British mandate for Palestine in 1922.[5]

Contrary to the popular idea that Palestine was a land without a people for a people without a land, the area was well populated. At the beginning of the Zionist influx into the Palestine Mandate area, there were approximately 450,000 Arab and 20,000 (Arab) Jewish residents.[6] Direct British rule and British efforts to fulfill the obligations of the Balfour declaration combined with the influx of European Jews created a volatile situation that retarded the national development of Palestine. Instead of developing modern governing institutions like other newly formed Middle Eastern nations, Palestine’s residents spent the mandate period in conflict and constant competition between British, Jewish and Arab interests.

The major conflict between the two groups was based on the meaning of the Balfour Declaration. The Zionist interpretation of the Balfour Declaration was that it intended the creation of a Jewish state that, as Chaim Weizmann (Chair of the Zionist Commission and later first president of Israel) said, would be as Jewish as England is English.[7] Critics of the Zionists interpreted the Balfour Declaration’s goal as the creation of a Jewish cultural center inside an independent Arab state. The ambiguity was introduced into the document to give the British room for diplomatic maneuvering, but in the end, all it did was complicate their position in Palestine. They were never able to resolve the contradiction inherent in their promise.[8]

The confusion in policy created by the Balfour Declaration led one senior British official to say, just prior to leaving the country, that Britain had “nothing but fluctuations of policy, hesitations…no policy at all.”[9] The British alternately supported Jewish development of a national home and Arab national aspirations in a precarious balancing act intended to maintain the status quo. This remained true until their withdrawal from Palestine in 1948, twenty five years later. When the last British High Commissioner departed Haifa, there was no formal transfer of powers to a new local government because there was no government in Palestine. When the mandate ended, the Jews and Arabs were left to struggle for supremacy.[10]

The internal struggle for power in the years and months leading up to the end of the British mandate for Palestine and the subsequent war that started on May 15th, 1948 with the end of British mandatory rule between Jewish and Arab irregular forces from the surrounding nations saw the birth of the state of Israel and the failure of the Palestinians to establish a nation. The reason for the success of the Jews over the Arabs boils down to three key differences: unity, external support and military power. The Jews entered Palestine with a unified goal, if not a unified ideology. They enjoyed wide support from Jewish and Christian communities around the world, as well as the backing from Britain guaranteed by the Balfour Declaration. They also took advantage of their ties to Europe to advance their military prowess, which proved decisive in the 1947-1948 conflict with the Arabs, also known as the first Arab-Israeli War. The Palestinian Arabs, on the other hand, were completely unprepared for the task ahead of them.

During the early years of the mandate, the Arab notables felt it was only natural that they should govern the land they had lived on for centuries.[11] They were convinced that at some point the British would come to their senses and stop supporting the Jews. In the meantime, the Arab notables in Palestine did what they could to maintain their social status, including working with the British mandate authorities, who supplied them with positions of authority.[12] For example, the British created the office of Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and assigned al-Hajj Amin al-Husayni to the role. Later the British created the Supreme Muslim council, which Husayni headed.

The reliance of Arab leadership on the British caused them to mostly work with, rather than against, the mandate government, which also meant that they were indirectly supporting the Zionist occupation of what they considered to be Arab land. The Arab notables attempted to negotiate with the British privately while condemning British support of Zionism publicly, all the while working to ensure there would be no disruptive mass political demonstrations that could destabilize their social and political positions.[13] The need to stay on good terms with the British undermined the authority of the Arab notables in the eyes of the public.[14] Further complicating the Arab political atmosphere in Palestine was the constant rivalry between the two prominent families in the region: the Husaynis and the Nashashibis. Their attempts to create rival power bases in Palestine prevented Arab unity. The inter-Arab rivalries and reliance on the British, together with the need to suppress popular movements to maintain their positions, caused the Palestinians to never be capable of forming a unified front, which effectively neutered the Palestinian political body and Palestinian aspirations of nationhood. It would be fair to say that the goals of the Arab leadership (to maintain their positions) did not match the goals of the Palestinians, but due to the Ottoman top-down power structure, the average Palestinian had no way to directly influence the decision making process until later in the mandatory period, when guerilla leaders like al-Qassim began to rally popular support.

Compounding the problem was the lack of any meaningful external support for the Palestinian Arabs. To start with, none of the Arab political institutions formed in mandate Palestine were recognized by any international authority, not even by the Arab states, who took it upon themselves to speak for the Palestinian Arabs.[15] But, their motives weren’t entirely pure either. Throughout the mandate period, the surrounding Arab states had, despite repeated requests, failed to supply the Palestinian Arabs with arms, food, or any financial support. The Arab states each had different agendas in terms of what they wanted to accomplish in Palestine, but the rights of the Palestinians themselves probably ranked very low on their list of priorities. Most of the surrounding states were solely interested in land grabs to increase the power of their respective states in terms of inter-Arab regional politics.[16]

By the time hostilities broke out in Palestine after the November 1947 announcement of the UN Partition Plan, the Arabs felt a distinct sense of abandonment. They had no effective leadership and they had been isolated by the surrounding Arab states. According to Rashid Khalidi,

The Palestinians entered the fighting which followed the passage of the UN Partition Resolution with a deeply divided leadership, exceedingly limited finances, no centrally organized military forces or centralized administrative organs, and no reliable allies.[17]

According to a Haganah Intelligence Service – Arab Division executive, the average Palestinian had come to the conclusion that they could not hold their own against the Jews.[18] HIS – AD further reported that most of the Arab public would be willing to accept the 1947 UN Partition Plan and lacked a desire to engage in a war with the Jews because of a lack of weapons and internal organization.[19] Many were unwilling to fight because if they died, there would be no compensation for their widows and/or orphans.