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Palestinian exodus

The Palestinian Exodus is the name given to the refugee flight of some 520,000 (Israeli estimate) to 900,000 (Palestinian estimate) Arabs during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, called the Nakba by Palestinians. They fled or were expelled from their homes in what was then known as "Palestine" and would become the State of Israel to other parts of Palestine or to neighbouring countries.

The degree to which the flight of the refugees was voluntary or involuntary is hotly debated among Zionists and anti-Zionists, with the former citing attempts by the surrounding Arab governments to evacuate women and children, and the attempt by some Jewish leaders, especially in Haifa, to stem flight, and the latter citing a score of the well-documented direct expulsion of the residents of some towns and villages, including Lydda and Ramle.

In 1949, Israel proposed to allow 100,000 refugees to return, this number including an alleged 25,000 who had returned already surreptitiously and 10,000 projected family-reunion cases. The offer was conditional on a full peace treaty that allowed Israel to keep all the territory it had captured and on the Arab states agreeing to absorb the remaining refugees. The offer was rejected by the Arab states.

Today the original refugees and their descendants amount to some 3.5-5.0 million Palestinians.



The history of the Palestinian Exodus is closely tied to the events of the war in Palestine that lasted from 1947-1949. Many factors must have played a role forming it. But what they are and how they affected it is still today a very debated issue.

Transfer principle

From the start of the Zionist endeavour in Palestine, Zionist Jews wanted to create a Jewish state in Palestine built on Jewish traditions and culture. The demographic reality of Palestine, which was populated mostly by Arabs, was the major obstacle to the establishment of a Jewish state.

The most important means to achieve that change was through aliyah, Jewish immigration to the land of Israel. However, the Palestinian Arab population had a much higher birthrate than the Jewish counterpart, as well as some immigration.[1] Even with Jewish immigration, the Arab population firmly outnumbered the Jewish one and no part of Palestine, with the exception the Tel Aviv area, Jerusalem, and some northern districts, would be able to produce a Jewish majority. To make matters worse, Jewish immigration was restricted by both the Ottoman Empire and the British while Arab immigration was unchecked, and relatively few diaspora Jews actually wished to immigrate to Palestine, most preferring to move to North America.

As most Zionists wanted an egalitarian state, securing a Jewish majority was necessary. The only viable solution seemed to be a partition of Palestine. But however the land was partitioned, the part belonging to Jews would contain an Arab majority or at least a very large Arab minority. For some of the Zionist leadership, the "transfer" of a large Arab population appeared to be the only solution.

The idea of transfer was not, in 1947-1949, when it actually happened, a new one. In June 12, 1895 Theodore Herzl wrote in his diary:

We must expropriate gently the private property on the estates assigned to us. We shall try to spirit the penniless population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it any employment in our country ... Both the process of expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discreetly and circumspectly.

In 1937 the Peel Commission placed transfer on the political agenda. It recommended that Britain should withdraw from Palestine and that the land should be partitioned between Jews and Arabs. It also recommended that 225,000 Arabs should be transferred out of the proposed Jewish state. This was a huge step forward for the Zionists. Until then, transfer hadn't been discussed as an option with outsiders but now "the Royal Commission" had proposed a solution to the Zionist problem. David Ben-Gurion didn't spare the superlatives when he wrote in his diary:

... and [nothing] greater than this has been done for our case in our time [than Peel proposing transfer]. ... And we did not propose this - the Royal Commission ... did ... and we must grab hold of this conclusion [i.e, recommendation] as we grabbed hold of the Balfour Declaration, even more than that - as we grabbed hold of Zionism itself we must cleave to this conclusion, with all our strength and will and faith

Despite the fact that the notion of transfer had been proposed by a royal commission and that David Ben-Gurion had seen fit to speak of it in the plenum of the Zionist Congress, the subject was still very sensitive.

To Zionists it was of uttermost importance that the transfer plans not be publicized as a Zionist plan as that would lower international support for Zionists.

When I heard these things ... I had to ponder the matter long and hard ... [but] I reached the conclusion that this matter [had best] remain [in the Labor Party Program] ... Were I asked what should be our program, it would not occur to me to tell them transfer ... because speaking about the matter might harm [us] ... in world opinion, because it might give the impression that there is no room in the Land of Israel without ousting the Arabs [and] ... it would alert and antagonize the Arabs ... (Ben-Gurion 1944)

Moshe Sharett, director of the Jewish Agency's Political Department, declared:

Transfer could be the crowning achievements, the final stage in the development of [our] policy, but certainly not the point of departure. By [speaking publicly and prematurely] we could mobilizing vast forces against the matter and cause it to fail, in advance. ... What will happen once the Jewish state is established - it is very possible that the result will be the transfer of Arabs. (Sharett, 1944)

Alleged "Master Plan"

From the previously mentioned prevalent transfer thinking and from the actual expulsions that took place in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, some historians have drawn the conclusion that the Palestinian Exodus was a preplanned act, despite the lack of central expulsion orders found in any archives.

They argue that there was an omnipresent understanding during the war that as many Palestinian Arabs as possible had to be transferred outside of the Jewish state, and that that understanding stood behind many of the expulsions that the commanders on the field carried out.

Other historians are sceptical of that conclusion. They press the point that no central directive has surfaced from the archives. And certainly, if such an omnipotent understanding had existed, it would have left a mark in the vast amounts of documentation the Zionist leadership produced at the time. Then, too, Yosef Weitz, strongly in favor of expulsion, had explicitly asked Ben-Gurion for such a directive and was turned down. Last, settlement policy guidelines drawn up between December 1947 and February 1948, meant to handle the absorption of the first anticipated million immigrants, planned some 150 new settlements, about half of them in the Negev, with the rest along the lines of the UN partition map (29 November, 1947) for the north and centre of the country.

Supporters of the "Master Plan" theory argue that the missing central directives haven't been found because either it was deliberately omitted or the understanding of the significance of explusion was so widespread that no directive was necessary. They claim that the Zionist leadership in general and Ben-Gurion in particular were very aware how histiography worked. What would be written about the war and in which light Israel would be presented was so important that it was worth making an intentional effort to hide those of their actions that might seem reprehensible.

Additionally, some historians have interpreted clauses from Plan Dalet as the central directive, i.e. the master plan. Specifically the section instructing commanders to destroy and depopulate villages that contained a hostile and/or difficult to control population.

First stage of the flight, December 1947 - March 1948

During these months the climate in Palestine began to get hot. Hostilities between Jews and Arabs increased and general lawlessness spread as the British declared to end their mandate in May 1948. War was seemingly inevitable. Middle and upper-class families from urban areas withdrew to settle in neighbouring countries such as Transjordan and Egypt. Perhaps as many as 75,000 left in those months. There was also cases of outright explusions such as in Qisarya where roughly 1000 Palestinian Arabs were evicted in February. Irgun and Lehi played an important role in intimidating the Palestinian Arab population.

Most of the refugees from this period probably thought that they soon would return, just as they had done after the Great Arab Uprising 1936-1939.

This first flight contributed to the demoralization of the Palestinians and left them virtually without any leadership.

Second stage of the flight, April 1948 - June 1948

The fighting in these months was concentrated to the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv area. It is logical that it was therefore also in this area that most depopulations took place. The Deir Yassin massacre in early April, and the exaggerated rumours that followed it, helped spread fear and panic among the Palestinians.

On May 14, 1948, when Israel's independence was declared, there were already 250,000 refugees on the road.

Third stage of the flight, July 1948

The largest single expulsion of the war began in Lydda and Ramla July 14, in which 60,000 inhabitants were forcibly expelled on the orders of Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin. Rabin wrote in his memoirs:

What would they do with the 50,000 civilians in the two cities ... Not even Ben-Gurion could offer a solution, and during the discussion at operation headquarters, he remained silent, as was his habit in such situations. Clearly, we could not leave [Lydda's] hostile and armed populace in our rear, where it could endanger the supply route [to the troops who were] advancing eastward. ... Allon repeated the question: What is to be done with the population? Ben-Gurion waved his hand in a gesture which said: Drive them out! ... 'Driving out' is a term with a harsh ring ... Psychologically, this was one of the most difficult actions we undertook. The population of [Lydda] did not leave willingly. There was no way of avoiding the use of force and warning shots in order to make the inhabitants march the 10 to 15 miles to the point where they met up with the legion. (Soldier of Peace, p. 140-141)

Additionally, widespread looting and several cases of rape (12 total per Benny Morris[2]) took place during the evacuation. In total, 300,000 Palestinians became refugees in this stage.

Fourth stage of the flight, October 1948 - November 1948

This period of the exodus was characterized by Israeli military accomplishments which was met with resistance from the Palestinian Arabs to be made refugees. The Israeli military activities limited itself to the Galilee and the sparseley populated Negev desert. It was clear to the villages in the Galilee, that if they left, return was far from imminent. Therefore far fewer villages was spontaneously depopulated than previously. Most of it was due to clear, direct cause: expulsion and deliberate harassment.

Operation Hiram, which was the Israeli military operation that conquered the upper Galilee, is one of the examples in which a direct expulsion order was given to the commanders:

Do all you can to immediately and quickly purge the conquered territories of all hostile elements in accordance with the orders issued. The residents should be helped to leave the areas that have been conquered. (October 31, 1948, Moshe Carmel)

Between 1-200,000 Palestinians left in this stage most going to Lebanon.

Arab leaders endorsing refugee flight

From Israeli official sources it has long been claimed that the refugee flight was in large part instigated by Arab leaders. For example, Yosef Weitz wrote in October 1948:

The migration of the Arabs from the Land of Israel was not caused by persecution, violence, expulsion [but was] deliberately organised by the Arab leaders in order to arouse Arab feelings of revenge, to artificially create an Arab refugee problem. (Jewish National Fund official Yosef Weitz , 1948)

During the period preceding the 1948 war and particularly during the invasion of Arab powers into Palestine, the Arab High Command called for portions of the Palestinian population to leave their homes.

At the same time, it turns out that there was a series of orders issued by the Arab Higher Committee and by the Palestinian intermediate levels to remove children, women and the elderly from the villages. So that on the one hand, the book reinforces the accusation against the Zionist side, but on the other hand it also proves that many of those who left the villages did so with the encouragement of the Palestinian leadership itself. Benny Morris The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited published 2004 after additional research.

However, this view has always been rejected by Palestinian writers. In the 1980s when the Israeli archives about the war opened to researchers, the Israeli New Historians began to question this view. For example, concerning the alleged evacuation order, or orders, issued by Arab leaders, Benny Morris wrote in 1990:

Had such a blanket order (or series of orders) been given, it would have found an echo in the thousands of documents produced by the Haganah's Intelligence Service, the IDF Intelligence Service, the Jewish Agency's Political Department Arab Division, the Foreign Ministry Middle East Affairs Department; or in the memoranda and dispatches of the various British and American diplomatic posts in the area (in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, Amman, Beirut, Damascus, and Cairo); or in the various radio monitoring services (such as the BBC's). Any or all of these would have produced reports, memoranda, or correspondence referring to the Arab order and quoting from it. But no such reference to or quotation from such an order or series of orders exists in the contemporary documentation. This documentation, it should be noted, includes daily, almost hourly, monitoring of Arab radio broadcasts, the Arab press inside and outside Palestine, and statements by the Arab and Palestinian Arab leaders. (Tikkun, Jan/Feb 1990, p80)

After the war, a few Arab leaders tried to present the Palestinian exodus as a victory by claiming to have planned it. None of them provided any evidence for this claim. An oft-quoted example of this has a different explanation, however. Khalid al-`Azm who was prime minister of Syria from December 17, 1949 to March 30, 1949 (a period after most of the exodus was complete) listed a number of reasons for the Arab defeat in an attack on the Arab leaders including his own predecessor Jamil Mardam Bey :

Fifth: the Arab governments' invitation to the people of Palestine to flee from it and seek refuge in adjacent Arab countries, after terror had spread among their ranks in the wake of the Deir Yassin event. This mass flight has benefited the Jews and the situation stablized in their favor without effort.
Since 1948 we have been demanding the return of the refugees to their homeland, while it is we who constrained them to leave it. Between the invitation extended to the refugees and the request to the United Nations to decide upon their return, there elapsed only a few months.

-Al-`Azm, Mudhakarat (al-Dar al Muttahida lil-Nashr, Beirut, 1972), Volume I, pp 386-7.

Contemporary mediation

The UN was from the very beginning involved in the conflict. In the autumn of 1948 the refugee problem was a fact and how it should be settled was discussed. Count Folke Bernadotte said on September 16:

No settlement can be just and complete if recognition is not accorded to the right of the Arab refugee to return to the home from which he has been dislodged. It would be an offence against the principles of elemental justice if these innocent victims of the conflict were denied the right to return to their homes while Jewish immigrants flow into Palestine, and indeed, offer the threat of permanent replacement of the Arab refugees who have been rooted in the land for centuries.

UN General Assembly Resolution 194 which was passed on December 11 1948 and reaffirmed every year since, was the first resolution that called for Israel to let the refugees return:

the [Palestinian] 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.

"Absentee" property

In 1950, The Absentee Property Law was passed in Israel. It was the law that made it domestically legal in Israel to confiscate the property and land that the departed Palestinians had left behind them, so called "absentees". Even Arabs who never left Israel, and received citizenship after the war, but stayed for a few days in a nearby village had their property confiscated. About 32,000 Palestinians became "present absentees" - persons that were present at the time but considered absent.

How much of Israel's territory consists of land confiscated with the Absentee Property Law is uncertain. According to the Israeli Custodian of Absentee Property , 70% of the territory:

The Custodian of Absentee Property does not choose to discuss politics. But when asked how much of the land of the state of Israel might potentially have two claimants - an Arab and a Jew holding respectively a British Mandate and an Israeli deed to the same property - Mr. Manor [the Custodian in ] believes that 'about 70 percent' might fall into that category (Robert Fisk, The Land of Palestine, Part Eight: The Custodian of Absentee Property, The Times, December 24, 1980

The Jewish National Fund's estimate quite a bit higher at 88%:

Of the entire area of the state of Israel only about 300,000-400,000 dumums ... are state domain which the Israeli government took over from the mandatory regime [2 percent]. The JNF and private Jewish owners possess under two million dumum [10 percent]. Almost all the rest [i.e 88 percent of the 20,225,000 dunums within the 1949 armistice lines] belongs at law to Arab owners, many of whom have left the country. (Jewish National Fund, Jewish Villages in Israel, p.xxi, quoted in Lehn and Davis, The Jewish National Fund)

The absentee property played an enormous role in making Israel a viable state. In 1954 about one third of Israel's population lived on absentee property. Of 370 new Jewish settlements established 1948-1953, 350 were on absentee property. As Moshe Dayan put it in an often quoted speech before students at the Israeli Institute of Technology in 1969:

We came here to a country that was populated by Arabs, and we are building a Hebrew, Jewish state. In a considerable portion of localities we purchased the land from the Arabs. Instead of Arab villages Jewish villages were established. You even do not know the name of the villages and I do not blame you, because those geography books no longer exist. Not only the books, but the villages no longer exist. Nahalal was established in the place of Mahalul, Gevat in the place of Jibta, Sarid in the place of Hanifas and Kefar Yehoshu'a in the place of Tel Shaham. There is not a single settlement that was not established in the place of a former Arab village. (Dayan, March 19, 1969; as quoted in Haaretz, April 4, 1969)


  • The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited Benny Morris
  • Expulsion of the Palestinians, Nur Masalha
  • The War for Palestine, many authors

See also

External links

Last updated: 05-06-2005 14:50:31