by Hillel Cohen
The internal refugees in the state of Israel are 1948 Palestinian refugees who were uprooted from their villages in the course of the war, but remained within the borders of Israel and became its citizens. They have continuously demanded to be allowed to return to their villages, only to be met by the refusal of successive Israeli governments. For the most part, their lands have been given over to Jewish settlements. While constituting a part of the general refugee problem, this moral, political and practical issue is one of the most concrete expressions of the structural conflict between the state of Israel and its Arab citizens.
The Roots of the Problem and the Denial of Return
The roots of this phenomenon are to be found in the way in which Arab residents were uprooted from areas conquered by Jewish forces in the 1948 war. During the fighting, these people generally fled in fear to neighboring villages, which had not yet been conquered, or to large towns where they hoped to find refuge. Some fled more than once. The town of Nazareth, which received special status from the IDF because of its Christian holy places, served as a place of refuge for thousands of people from neighboring and distant villages, who remained there after their villages were occupied by the IDF1.
The reaction of the IDF was to drive the refugees who remained within the area of the State of Israel across the border to prevent them returning to their villages. Thousands of refugees were thus expelled from the region of Ramah and Beqi’in in Galilee and from the town of Majdal (Ashkelon) in the south. Similarly in the Arab triangle, in villages transferred to Israel under the Rhodes agreement, various forms of pressure were exerted to prevent refugees remaining in the State of Israel2.
Yet in spite of these forced expulsions, according to official estimates some 25,000 internal refugees remained, mainly in Galilee, constituting about one sixth of the total Arab population3. Three reasons were given to justify Israel’s refusal to allow any return to the villages.
The first was the desire to expand the possibilities of Jewish settlement by creating territorial continuity. In this context, uprooting Arab residents was seen as a golden opportunity, following years of restricted Jewish land acquisition. The expectation of mass immigration of Jews from all over the world strengthened the need for land. Existing settlements were also demanding more agricultural land4. Thus in the course of the war5, new immigrants and local Jewish groups were settled in abandoned Arab villages. During that period, Kibbutz Megiddo was established on the lands of Lajun, some of whose residents moved to Umm el Fahm. Kibbutz Yasur in western Galilee was established on the lands of al-Birwa whose residents moved to Majd el Kurum, Makr and Jedeida, while Kibbutz Beit Ha’emek was built on the lands of Kuwaykat in western Galilee, some of whose former residents found refuge in Abu Sinan6. The settlement of new Jewish immigrants in abandoned Arab villages continued throughout the whole of the 1950s.
The second reason was security. In those days the dominant belief among the Israeli leadership was that the Arab citizens of Israel were believed to be waiting for a second round of warfare and preparing to help it. This assumption resulted in the evacuation of Arab villages from border areas (Iqrit and Bir’im were the best-known examples). Thus the Bedouin of the Zabizat tribe in lower Galilee were evacuated following a claim that they were transferring intelligence information from Jordan to Lebanon while residents of destroyed villages in the triangle were transferred to larger villages7. According to the same rationale it was decided not to permit the resettlement of abandoned villages.
The third reason can be seen as vengefulness or, alternatively, as the desire to avoid giving a prize to the party which is seen as the aggressor. At the end of the 1948 war, which was perceived by the Jews as a war forced on the peaceful Jewish community, there were those who believed in a strong-arm policy toward the Arab residents, and particularly toward villagers who participated actively in the fighting. Allowing the internal refugees to return to their villages would be seen as weakness and cause them to disparage the state of Israel.
The Zionist leadership saw nothing morally impermissible in their refusal to allow the internal refugees to return; permitting them to remain in nearby villages was presented as a humanitarian gesture. All this came in the context of the end of a war in which some 6,000 Jews, one percent of the Jewish population, had been killed. The refugees were to remain in the villages where they had found refuge, with the state and UNWRA providing basic food and housing, while their own lands were settled by Jews.
The Appropriation of Land: Legal Mechanisms
In 1948, the state authorities began to undertake legislative measures designed to establish in law, the appropriation of lands owned by Arab refugees, including internal refugees. Toward the end of 1949 the formulation of a comprehensive law was drafted for presentation to the Knesset - the Law of Absentee Property. The newly established Authority for the Rehabilitation of the Refugees worked to include the internal refugees in the law, so they could also be considered absentees and have their lands transferred to the state.
Thus in 1950, the Knesset accepted the Law of Absentee Property, replacing emergency regulations on the subject. The definition of an absentee included “every Israeli citizen who left his regular abode in Israel (a) to a place outside Israel before 1948 or (b) for a place in Israel which was at that time occupied by forces which sought to prevent the establishment of the State of Israel or fought against it after its establishment”8. Thus the internal refugees who fled to villages in upper Galilee or to Nazareth before these were conquered are defined as absentees though they were in the state and were legal citizens. This anomalous situation granted them (along with additional population groups) the title of ‘present absentees’ since in spite of their physical presence in the country they are legally considered as absentees and their property is taken from them and transferred to the Custodian of Absentee Property9. The legislation denied the internal refugees any possibility of winning legal assistance and made the transfer of their assets to the state completely legal. Appeals to the Supreme Court, based on claims that leaving their residence was temporary, now became irrelevant.
The authorities also encouraged the absorption of the refugees into the villages where they had sought refuge. They were given priority in leasing abandoned lands in places where they were concentrated like Makr, Jedeida and Sha’ab in western Galilee, and Wadi Hamam and Aqraba in eastern Galilee. In these villages, houses were built for the refugees but only on condition that they sign a document renouncing their assets in their villages of origin10.
The Land Acquisition Law (LAL) which also confirmed compensation, gave absolute and retroactive confirmation to the transfer of the internal refugees’ lands to state ownership. The law determined a compensation mechanism for the internal refugees, in money or alternative lands. From a legal point of view this was a sort of watershed; from that time, on it was legal for all Arab lands to be in the hands of the state, without any right of appeal. It was left to persuade the refugees to accept the compensation money, to make them sign a document renouncing any claim to their lands, and to help them resettle in one of the populated villages.
Landless: Stages in State-Refugee Relations
The introduction of the LAL marked the start of a new phase for the internal refugees. With the decision at the end of 1952 to transfer the authority of UNWRA to the government of Israel for the refugees within the state, most of them were now living in temporary buildings in the outskirts of villages in Galilee and the Arab triangle.
The forced transfer of Arab citizens now ceased, as did the takeover of their land without any legal basis. In spite of the reparation mechanism in the framework of the LAL, most of the refugees upheld their demand to return to their villages, with only a few agreeing to renounce the homes and lands in the villages they had abandoned. From time to time groups of refugees entered into negotiations with the Authority for Rehabilitating the Refugees, only to retreat at the last moment11. For the refugees, this was a sort of waiting period in which the prospect of returning to their villages was still perceived as realistic. Only a few of them started to build permanent homes. Toward the end of this period, a number of internal refugee families also decided to emigrate voluntarily, so they could live together rather than remain spread out in the “villages of refuge”.
The third period, from 1958 to 1967, marked the settlement of the internal refugees in the villages where they were located. Their tendency to accept permanent settlement at that particular time has a threefold explanation: the refugees’ recognition that the problem would not be solved by a second round of war with Israel, following Egypt’s defeat in 1956; the improvement and updating of the state’s reparation mechanism, involving higher sums of compensation and speeding up public building in the villages where they were living; and the intensive use the state had made of their land. The new phase which started after 1967, saw the subject almost entirely disappear from the public agenda. This was mainly because the personal problems of most of the refugees appeared to be solved, both for those who accepted reparations and for those who managed without state aid. Public attention was now directed to the territories conquered in 1967, a development reflected in Knesset debates. Until 1967 there was hardly a session of the Knesset without a debate on the demand to return and to repeal the discriminatory legislation. After 1967 the subject was hardly mentioned12.
In recent years, the subject has reappeared on the agenda of the Arab population of Israel. The Arab parties and Hadash demanded a solution to the problem in their election platforms of 1996 and 1999. Refugees from tens of villages established local committees, working under a national committee, to strengthen the identity of refugees from the villages and to raise the demand for return. Characteristic of this renewed concern was the decision to hold a national ceremony marking fifty years of the Nakba in the abandoned village of Ghabsiyya in western Galilee.
The State and the Uprooting of Refugee Identity
The activities of refugee committees are relatively new. Over and above legislation aimed at appropriating the lands of the internal refugees, the state also worked to destroy their identity, through varied bureaucratic and legal means, and through the use of force.
In order fully to comprehend this point it is necessary to understand the two components of “refugee identity”. The positive one is being the son of a certain settlement which no longer exists. This aspect of identity can be called “I am from there”. The other aspect of refugee identity is the negative side, the self-concept, and other people’s concept of the person as a refugee, a foreigner who does not belong to the place: “I am not from here”.
Israel’s main struggle was naturally directed against the positive identity, which preserved the connection to the original village. This included physical activity aimed directly at the refugees and their lands, and indirect activity intended to influence both their consciousness and the general public discourse. The direct activity prevented the refugees from approaching their abandoned villages, as well as providing reparations or alternative housing. The names of the abandoned villages were deleted from maps; the internal refugees were removed from the UNWRA figures; and the subject of the abandoned villages and the refugee problem was excluded from the school curriculum, including that used for Arab pupils.
The authorities first activity had been the total evacuation of the abandoned villages (in most of them there remained between five and ten percent of the original residents)13. Subsequently, IDF units patrolled the abandoned villages to prevent any return14. In 1951 the sites of the abandoned villages had been declared closed security areas, permitting legal measures to be taken against anyone entering them15, an intermediary step toward turning them into Jewish villages.
Even after the transfer of the lands to Jewish settlement, the Israeli authorities laid down that “under no circumstances must land be leased to Arabs formerly from that village, or originally from there”. Jews or Arabs receiving land in the abandoned villages had to commit themselves not to employ refugees whose origins were in that village16.
As a result of these measures, the generation born after the war would be unable to develop a direct emotional connection to their ancestral village. The destruction of the villages at a later stage was to symbolize forever the impossibility of implementing the refugees’ yearning to return to their villages.
But the authorities felt that even this was not enough if the “community of memory” remained intact. Here, the reparation mechanism got to work. Many refugees still refused to sign away their land assets, which was a condition for receiving reparations. They perceived such an agreement as cutting themselves off from the ideal of return, on a personal, community and national level, a principle which united the refugees and preserved their identity. Breaking it would lead to the destruction of the community.
The Israeli establishment worked to create splits in the refugee consensus. This explains the decision taken in September 1954 by the authorities to try and find individual refugees who would agree to accept reparations. They thought this would break the opposition of the refugee community to the proposed arrangement17, and they were right18. The stream of those requesting reparations grew steadily, and along with it, the disintegration of the refugee identity.
In the mid-1980s, it looked as if the goal of uprooting the refugee identity had succeeded. Concluding research published in 1986, Majid al Haj wrote: “There is nothing distinguishing the refugees from other Arabs in the general community. Unlike refugees in other places, who established voluntary societies and other social frameworks, the internal Arab refugees have no organizational frameworks of any sort”19.
Similarly, Alexander Bligh could present the settlement of the refugees in the state of Israel as a successful example of such a project20. Al-Haj added, however, that half of his interviewees reported a “feeling of being a refugee” although this had no concrete expression, at least concerning the position taken by these refugees toward Israeli society or the establishment21.
The Refugee Identity: Renewed Awakening and Opposition
This situation changed completely in the early 1990s. The refugee identity was reawakened and became a focus of identification for many. The speedy revival of the “refugee identity” shows that even without social, institutional and organizational frameworks, this identity was preserved not only by refugees themselves, but also among their descendants. It can be assumed that this identity was preserved in the first years through the struggle to return the refugees to their villages, and later because of the sense of alienation which the refugees felt in their new homes.
In this situation it is no wonder that the negative refugee identity was preserved into the second generation. But the refugee committees established in the 1990s are not satisfied only with the negative refugee identity. Most of their activity is directed toward the renewed construction of the positive identity. Committee activists, along with some members of the second and third refugee generation, are working to renew physical contact with the abandoned villages through work camps and repair work.
The committees of the internal refugees are planning a census of Israel’s internal refugees. In addition to strengthening identity, this will constitute the factual basis for planned legal and public struggles. Another move aimed at reconstituting lost communities is the rehabilitation of those who accepted reparations in the past.
All in all, the attempts of the Israeli establishment to neutralize refugee identity appear not to have succeeded, just as the supreme goal for which it strove did not succeed - the creation of an Arab-Israeli identity cut off from maternal Palestinian identity. Perhaps from this one can see the limitations of external factors in the process of the crystallization of identities.
1 Report of the activities of the military government in Nazareth and region 17.7.1948 to 17.10.1948 Israel State Archives, (ISA) Foreign Office file. 2564/11.
2 For further material on this subject, see the author’s ‘Present absentees: Palestinian refugees in Israel since 1948’ (Jerusalem, the Center for Research on Arab society in Israel, 2000) 37-41, in Hebrew.
3 This figure is only for urban and rural refugees and does not include Bedouin in the Negev, forced to leave their places of residence for areas determined by the IDF. The sources are a document of the Ministry of Labor of 29.6.1952, ISA Ministry of Labor file 6178/2924, and also a Jewish National Fund census for 1949-1950 dated 15.2.1950 from the Central Zionist Archives, JNF file 5/18875.
4 Thus the Committee of western Galilee settlements demanded that ‘all abandoned land north of the Acre-Safed road will be available for dividing up between western Galilee Jewish settlements. It claimed that plans for resettling refugees on these lands would damage the development possibilities of their settlements. See their letter to the Ministry of Agriculture, the JNF and the Jewish Agency in IA file 581/2180 and the reply of the Ministry of Agriculture, which did not wholly accept their position.
5 Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, Tel-Aviv, Am Oved, 1991; 28-30 (Hebrew).
6 See Hillel Cohen ‘On one expulsion which was prevented’ in Mitsad Sheni, May 1999; 28-30, dealing with an initiative in January 1949 to expel the refugees of Kuwaykat after they removed the Israeli flag from the gate of kibbutz Beit Ha’emek.
7 ‘The third sitting of the Transfer Committee, March 1949’. IA Ministry of Minorities 1322/22. The evacuation of small villages from the the Triangle continued for two years after the war, see the meeting of the the Committee for Refugee Affairs 11.1.1950, IDF Archives 721/2-843 and also the Communist newspaper Al Ittihad 10.2.1951.
8 The proposed law is found in the Knesset report 27.2. 150 to l. 3.1950; 921.
9 This term was first published in an article by Aharon Liskovsky ‘Present absentees in Israel’ in The Hamizrah He-Hadash no. 10, 1960; 187-190.
10 Report of the Authority for settling Arab refugees 1.8.50, Central Zionist Archives (CZA) file KKL5/18875.
11 Letter by A. Chanochi to the members of the Authority 24.4.1950, see above.
12 This does not mean that the subject was not dealt with at various other levels.
13 The figure concerning the percentage of Arabs remaining in western Galilee after the war was sent from the coordinator of western Galilee in the Ministry of Agriculture Aharon Dror to the Executive of the Ministry in September 1949, ISA Ministry of Agriculture file 2174/546.
14 See ‘The transfer of an Arab population’ undated and with no author ISA 279/59. The use of the Minorities’ Brigade stems not only from the need for Arabic speakers but also from the policy of deepening the ethnic rifts within the Arab community.
15 Orders from the Military Governor in Galilee in 1951 declared abandoned villages as closed military areas, IDF Archive 7/54-54.
16 Letter from the Advisor to the Prime Minister on Arab Affairs Yehoshua Palmon to the Military Governors 28.2.50 IA 97, 2181/5821 and also a letter from the Military Governor to the director of the Rural Department in the office of the Custodian of Enemy Property 13.7.50, 68/55-68
17 Summary of the first meeting of the Regional Galilee Committee, 2.9.54, IA unit 79, 2314/6.
18 Cohen; 86-89.
19 Majid al-Haj ‘Adjustment patterns of the Arab Refugees in Israel’ International Migration Sept. 1986, pg. 657
20 Alexander Bligh, “Israel and the Refugee Problem: from exodus to resettlement 1948-1952' Middle Eastern Studies, 34:1. January 1998; 123-147.
21 Al-Haj; 659.