by Danny Rubenstein
An Interview with Benny Morris
Danny Rubinstein: The topic is the Palestinian refugees. Whatever were the reasons for that exodus, Israel didn’t let the refugees come back. We have spent many years arguing about who is to blame and in your book, you tried to find out what really happened in every place. Maybe it’s not relevant at all. Isn’t the real problem that Israel didn’t let them come back?
Benny Morris: I do think it’s relevant, since the historian must analyze what happened on the ground. However, the first thing is to accurately define the two traditional views of what happened. Since 1948, the Jews have maintained that the Arabs fled, either what is called voluntarily, or because of orders or requests by their leaders inside or outside Palestine. This has been the basis of Israeli propaganda since 1948.
The Arab view was that the Jews expelled the Palestinians deliberately and systematically, and that this was the end-product or the crowning achievement of Zionist ideology which always maintained that the Palestinians had to be transferred outside of Palestine. In 1948 the Jews got the opportunity to implement the long-conceived plan. If this is so, then Zionism is a robber ideology and Israel is a robber state, according to the traditional Arab view.
The Jewish claim is that Israel had no intention of expelling everybody, but in fact, the Israelis took a deliberate political and military decision not to allow the refugees back.
Many Palestinians left not because they were actually expelled but because of the fear of war, the fear of battle reaching their homes, and so on. But once they had left their villages and the country, and then tried to come back and were barred - that is the point where one can talk of a policy of expulsion.
According to your research,. what is the percentage of the different categories?
1 didn’t deal in percentages because many of the categories overlap. The problem is that many people left because of a multiplicity of reasons, not one reason. They thought they would soon be coming back. When it comes to certain populations - they were actually ordered on a certain date by the military commander on the spot to leave, and they left. But concerning other populations, it is much more difficult to define the reasons. If you take places like Lydda where, in the end, there was an expulsion order in which the population was told to leave the town, get on the road and start walking in the direction of Ramallah - even there they didn’t leave only because of the expulsion order. They had been fired at, or bombed from the air. There had been a battle in the town two days before. There had been a massacre on the following day, the 12th of July, 1948. In other words, peo¬ple were conditioned by various circumstances to agree to leave. Lydda is an extreme case of an actual expulsion order, but even there it was a com¬bination of circumstances.
We are talking about a whole range of reasons for departure. In Haifa, for example, there was no expulsion order, and probably there wasn’t an order from above or from outside of Palestine, from the Mufti or Arab lead¬ers to the population, to leave when the Jews took over. After the popula¬tion began to leave, there were some rumors - perhaps even orders from the Mufti - to continue to leave. But after the exit began, the Mufti went along with it and told his people in Haifa, okay, keep leaving the town.
That’s not why they left. They had been subjected to attacks, the same as the Jewish population had been subjected to attacks by Arabs. For months, since December 1947-January 1948, there had been fighting along the seam between the two communities, and the actual battle for the city took place on April 21 and 22.
A lot of middle- and upper-class Arabs had left the town already from December 1947 onwards and closed their businesses, causing unemploy¬ment. There was a shortage of food because, occasionally, Jews stopped convoys of food from reaching the town. And the leaders had left their posts, understandably causing a panic.
The British, by saying we will escort you out of town and get you safe¬ly to Acre and to the Lebanese border, were actually in fact hinting to the population that, yes, you perhaps should leave. This is how the population understood it.
There were also arrests, beatings and looting, as there was in every town which Jews took over. So all of these reasons combined to persuade the Arabs of Haifa to leave. Of some 70,000, only a few thousand remained, and most had decided to leave the town by the beginning of May 1948.
Is there a pattern?
In most of the country there is a direct correlation, over the course of months, between Jewish attack and Arab departure. Those who say that the Arabs were asked to leave by their leaders have always found it diffi¬cult to prove this contention because there was not one date when every¬body left. People left in relation to what was happening in their own area
at one specific time, usual¬ly at the point that Jewish forces attacked their par¬ticular village or a neigh¬boring village or town. There is no example of an
Arab town being aban¬doned for any other rea¬son than Jewish attack. When the Jewish attack occurred in Safed, in Haifa, in Beit She’ an, in Jaffa, even in Nazareth (where some left and some stayed), the depar¬ture from these towns, occurred simultaneously Dr. Benny Morris GARONALBANDIAN with and was triggered by
the Jewish attack. This is clear just from the dates of the departure. In West Jerusalem, there was no Jewish expulsion order, but since December 1947, Arabs were fleeing from the fighting or as the result of Jewish pressure.
In general, the Arabs fled as a result of direct Jewish attack or an attack in the neighborhood. It was the same in the countryside and towns. So one can probably safely say that, though there were other reasons, the major precip¬itant to the flight of the Arabs of Palestine throughout the war was Jewish attack or what was felt to be the threat of imminent attack by Jewish forces.
When did the Israeli government or the military authorities say that maybe we’ll take advantage of this and encourage them to leave?
In Ben-Gurion’s diaries, he already records in December 1947 the flight of Arabs from districts in Haifa, and later on from other areas in Palestine.
Was he surprised?
He doesn’t express surprise. He’s the one person I think who wasn’t sur¬prised by the Arab flight. Everybody else - I think legitimately - was amazed. He may have been surprised over specific places, such as Jaffa, but much of it in his case I think was not sincere.
On the 6th or 7th of February 1948, Ben Gurion gives a speech in which he says that in western Jerusalem there were no Arabs left anywhere. And he adds this sentence - and this is the crucial point at which I think he understands what is happening - if we continue as we are - in other words, fighting - and we hold fast to our positions and fight properly, there will be vast demographic changes throughout the country. This is what happened in Jerusalem. It will happen elsewhere around the country. These are Ben-Gurion’s words.
At this point, he begins to think of exploiting the situation. If they are already moving by themselves without a Jewish policy of moving them, per¬haps with a little more deliberate nudging we can get even more to leave. So in terms of the leader of the Yishllv Oewish community), the vital change I think, if there is a change, occurs in February 1948. He understands that we have to exploit the situation to establish the Jewish state and to increase its ter¬ritory beyond what the United Nations had earmarked for Jewish statehood.
The change among other leaders was slower. Ben-Gurion acted as a lob¬byist and was also able to instruct and order the military establishment under his command about what he wanted. You can see the change occur¬ring among other Israeli leaders and officials from April onwards. Up to then, they were thinking in terms of the Arabs staying. Then they, too, adopt¬ed the idea of exploiting the military situation in order to evacuate the Arabs.
Is the switch after the Jews agreed to the U.N. partition plan?
They accepted it formally. I think the military and political situation affect¬ed people’s thinking about what would happen with the Arab minority in Palestine. The Yishllv is essentially on the defensive from December 1947 until the end of March 1948. In March, it becomes clear that this is a war for survival. The Yishllv itself may even fall if Arab successes along the road continue and if the Arab invasion - which everybody by March under¬stands is pending when the British leave - is successful. At the same time, the Americans are starting to move away from supporting partition, and beginning to talk again about a trusteeship or something instead of partition.
The other important element, come April, is that the British are begin¬ning to leave, informing both the Arabs and the Jews that they are not inter¬ested in maintaining order, and the only thing that interests them is getting out in one piece and losing as few troops as possible in the withdrawal.
In April 1948, the Jews go over to the offensive to clear the roads and the border areas, to clear, in fact, Arab villages and towns of Arabs and of potential military threats.
Relating to what was said in the beginning about the decision not to allow return, the moment you start destroying villages, you are actually saying we are not going to allow these particular communities to come back. That begins to occur in April 1948. It becomes clearer in May. By the 16th of June, it’s finalized.
In the Cabinet meeting on the 16th of June where the subject of Arabs returning to their homes was openly discussed, both Ben-Gurion and Moshe Sharett said: "Our policy is for them not to return during the war." And Ben-Gurion adds to that - "and also after the war this should be our policy: not to allow them to return."
Did most of the exodus take place before the British left? Before May 15?
That is difficult to pinpoint. I divided the exodus into four periods rough¬ly corresponding to the Jewish military advances and campaigns. The first was December 1947-March 1948. In the second stage, the mass continuous exodus occurred in April, May, June 1948, to the 11th of June and up to the first truce. Probably something like 250,000 left in this period. The third stage was during the ten days of fighting from the 8th to the 18th of July, when Israel conquered Lydda, RamIe, Nazareth: about 100,000 left the country. The fourth stage was during the fighting of October-November 1948 in which the IDF went over to the offensive, mostly in the south but also in Upper Galilee. And again we have another 100,000-200,000 leaving, most¬ly from the south. Finally, from November to July 1949 another few tens of thousands were expelled or pushed inland to other villages in Palestine.
One of the contradictions many Israelis ask me all the time to explain is if the Arabs are so attached to their land, why (unlike the Jews) did they seemingly leave so quickly?
One thing which the Jews didn’t grasp in 1948 and afterwards, is how deep the fear of the Jews was among the Arabs. The Jews thought of themselves - their self-image was, we are civilized and Europeans and so on. Why should anybody fear us?
But the fact is that the retaliatory policy of the Hagana in the late 1930’s and the IZL’s (Irgun) terrorism in the 1930s and 1940s had ingrained in the Arabs a deep fear of the Jews. More immediately, when the war began, they sensed their villages would be destroyed, their people massacred, their women raped.
And the Jews, in fact, gave them a whole series of examples on which to build this fear. Each atrocity, such as Oeir Yassin, generated -like a stone in pool-little waves which went to the neighboring villages and beyond. Arab propaganda also inflated this fear.
There were Jewish atrocities - not only Oeir Yassin - some which were not known abroad on a large scale but which were publicized on the local airwaves. So when Safsaf [in Upper Galilee] occurs, or some other mas¬sacre, the next Arab town along the Jewish route of advance gets the sur¬vivors from Safsaf and, knowing what is coming, they flee as well. This is what I call the atrocity factor which had a major effect on the Arab departure.
Menahem Begin, in his autobiography written 20 years later more or less, wrote that when the IZL forces attacked Manshiya, the northern quar¬ter of Jaffa, on the 25th, 26th, 27th of April 1948, the inhabitants of Jaffa began to flee because they knew the force attacking them was the IZL which had committed the Oeir Yassin atrocity. Begin understood that the Oeir Yassin atrocity had a vast impact on the Arabs.
Another important element explaining why they fled - and this is always overlooked by Arab historians, and certainly by Arab propagandists - is the structural weaknesses of Palestinian Arab society during those crucial months of 1948, especially in the towns, but also in the countryside. This was shown in the lack of any representative institutions, of a taxation system, of a prop¬er military establishment, even a militia akin to the Hagana. The Palestinian Arabs had a selfish leadership interested in its own land and houses, but not in the welfare of other people. That’s one reason why it fled so quickly. For decades, the Jews had prepared for statehood, the Arabs hadn’t.
Many people today don’t understand when they go to the Galilee and see one village destroyed and next to it another village that exists and people are living their lives there. One sees Abu Ghosh here on the main road to Jerusalem and next to it Saris which doesn’t exist anymore. Was there some kind of principle by which one village survived or its people stayed?
There is the Arab charge that there was an overall Jewish policy of expul¬sion. This is what people like Sharif Kanaana continue to say, that there was an overall master plan for expulsion by the Zionists which was imple¬mented in 1948.
My feeling, based on the documentation, is that there was no blanket poli¬cy, no overall master plan for the expulsion of the Palestinians. This is not what was implemented in 1948. It is true that in Zionist thought over the decades, some believed the only real solution of how to cope with the Arab minority in a Jewish state is by a transfer, agreed if possible, compulsory if not possible.
Ben-Gurion let people understand, from February 1948 certainly, and maybe even earlier, that the Jewish state really needs as few Arabs as possible. But this was not translated at any point in 1948 into official policy which would have meant a session of the General Staff, or at least of the Cabinet, and a decision to expel the Arabs of Palestine. This was never dis¬cussed or resolved by any leading authoritative Jewish institution for the simple reason that it wouldn’t have been passed.
Most Israeli cabinet ministers in 1948 would not have put their names to an expulsion order, if only because Jewish history had been one of expulsion over hundreds of years. In their hearts, most may have wanted the Arabs of Palestine to leave. But they would not have translated it into official policy.
So why one village and not another?
Much depended on the decision of local military commanders. Yigal Allon, for example, favored a complete cleansing of the Arab population. But developments in each area were in part to do with topography, in part to do with the nature of the Arab village - was it Christian, Moslem, Druze. Did it have a history of fighting against Jews or a history of terrorism? If there had been what the Jews felt was an atrocity, a massacre against Jews, the nearby Arab villages that were later captured were usually (but not always) destroyed. There were also economic reasons. Villages like Jisr Zarka and Faradis supplied working hands for the vineyards of Zichron Yaacov and Binyamina, and were not driven out.
Then there is no systematic explanation?
There is a general pattern in that most of the Arab villages were cleared out, or the Arabs were not allowed to come back to them, because of the overall feeling that it’s better not to have Arabs along the main roads and along the borders in the Jewish state. But in certain areas at certain times, local military commanders didn’t feel like expelling Arabs, for one reason or another. Maybe it went against their conscience.
Do you have an overall figure of how many left and how many stayed?
Yes. There is argument about how many actually became refugees, but we know that the number is somewhere between 600,000 and 750,000. Probably about 700,000 Palestinians left their homes and became refugees. We know at the end of the war, or slightly after the end of the war, there was an Arab population in Israel of about 150,000. Of these, about 80,000 or 90,000 stayed during the war and tens of thousands somehow infiltrated back and reset¬tled. The so-called family reunion project was a propaganda instrument of the Israeli government and only accounted for 4,000 to 5,000 people.