In ‘48, Israel Did What It Had to Do

Benny Morris is a professor of Middle Eastern history at Ben-Gurion University in Israel. "The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited" is being published by Cambridge University Press this month.

On July 12, 1948, Israeli soldiers battling the Arab Legion and local irregulars in the towns of Lydda and Ramle, just south of Tel Aviv, were ordered to empty the two towns of their Arab residents. Over two days, between 50,000 and 60,000 inhabitants were driven from their homes. Many were forced to walk eastward to the Arab Legion lines; others were carried in trucks or buses. Clogging the roads, tens of thousands of refugees marched, shedding their possessions along the way.

The expulsions, conducted under orders from then-Lt. Col. Yitzhak Rabin, were an element of the partial ethnic cleansing that rid Israel of the majority of its Arab inhabitants at the very moment of its birth. Earlier, in the 1930s and 1940s, a near consensus had emerged among Zionist leaders on the necessity of “transfer.” They believed that it was critical to buy out or drive out the Arab inhabitants from the areas destined for Jewish statehood, both to make way for Jewish immigrants and to remove the Arabs who opposed, often violently, the establishment of such a state.

The idea of transfer never crystallized into a formal Zionist policy -- there was no master plan and, of course, not all Palestinians who became refugees in 1948 were expelled like the Arabs of Lydda and Ramle. Indeed, most fled because they feared the ravages of war or because they were advised to do so by their leaders. But one way or another, transfer was accomplished; 700,000 Palestinians left the country, and the refugee problem that has haunted Israel ever since was born.


For unearthing that dark side of 1948 in my book “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949,” which appeared in 1988, I was vilified by the Zionist establishment as “anti-Zionist” and “pro-PLO” -- which I never was. As one of the country’s “new historians,” I was accused of seeking to shatter the founding myths of the Israeli state and of going out of my way to lend moral weight to the Palestinian cause.

That, of course, is untrue. I was simply a historian seeking to describe what happened.

In fact, today -- after looking afresh at the events of 1948 and at the context of the whole Arab-Zionist conflict from its inception in 1881 until the present day -- I find myself as convinced as ever that the Israelis played a major role in ridding the country of tens of thousands of Arabs during the 1948 war, but I also believe their actions were inevitable and made sense. Had the belligerent Arab population inhabiting the areas destined for Jewish statehood not been uprooted, no Jewish state would have arisen, or it would have emerged so demographically and politically hobbled that it could not have survived. It was an ugly business. Such is history.

How can what happened be justified? In November 1947, the leadership of Palestine’s Arabs had rejected the United Nations’ plan to partition the country into a Jewish and an Arab state -- and instead launched attacks on the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine, to prevent the emergence of the state of Israel. These attacks snowballed into full-scale civil war. In May 1948, the armies of Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq invaded the country to support their Palestinian “brothers” (or simply to seize chunks of Palestine for themselves). It was three years after the Holocaust. For Israelis, it was a war for survival; had they lost, there would have been, they had no doubt, a vast slaughter.

The 700,000 Palestinians who were displaced came from the villages and urban neighborhoods that had served as bases of the militia and irregulars who had for months assaulted Jewish convoys and settlements. They were seen as an existential threat and, when conquered, their villages were leveled. Subsequently, Israel, with a total of about 750,000 Jews, refused to allow back the displaced Palestinians, many of whom had fought against it and would have constituted a massive potential fifth column. Denied absorption in the host Arab states, they became, and remain, along with their descendants, “refugees.”

Israel’s decision was not unprecedented, nor was it necessarily immoral. Something similar had happened in the early 1920s when a Greek invasion of the Turkish mainland triggered a Turkish counterattack, in which almost all the Greeks living in Asia Minor were expelled. In response, in northern Greece, the Turkish minority was uprooted and expelled to Turkey. For centuries, Turks had oppressed Greeks, and Greeks and Turks had slaughtered one another. The mutual uprooting of these minority communities removed major bones of contention and, ever since, the two peoples have lived in relative peace (except where they remained ethnically intermixed, in Cyprus). While the “population exchange” was no doubt traumatic, in the long run both peoples have vastly benefited.

Or consider Czechoslovakia at the end of World War II. In the 1930s, the Czechs’ Sudeten German minority had helped Hitler subvert the Czech Republic. At the end of the war, the Czechs and Russians expelled the Sudeten minority to Germany, both as an act of revenge and to prevent future irredentist subversion. The Czechs and Germans have lived in peace ever since.


In the Middle East, the Israelis faced a similar situation, and they did what they had to do; indeed, Arab aggression forced them to do it. Had most Palestinians not left the country, there would be no Israel today.

In fact, as it turned out, the events of 1948 did not completely solve Palestine’s ethnic problem. The Israeli leadership, shackled by moral inhibitions and restraints imposed by the Great Powers, refrained from a full, systematic expulsion. More than 150,000 Arabs remained inside Israel proper, and they now number more than 1 million (a full 20% of Israel’s population). And Israel, provoked by the Arabs, in 1967 occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip and, in its foolishness, retained them, adding 3 million more Arabs, many of them 1948 refugees and their descendants, to its control.

Since 2000, after rejecting fair Israeli-American peace proposals, the Arabs of the occupied territories have waged a terrorist war against Israel. On one level, no doubt, they simply seek the removal of Israeli rule. But on another -- to judge from the utterances of the fundamentalist Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and various secular Fatah spokesmen -- they ultimately seek Israel’s destruction.

The masses of suicide bombers dispatched by Palestinian society into Israel’s cities to blow up coffee shops and buses spell out in microcosm, for most Israelis, the intended fate of Israel itself, each charred bus representing a little Holocaust. Certainly there is enough hatred there, as spontaneous mass celebrations erupt in the Palestinian cities each time news reaches them of a successful suicide attack.

And in October 2000, in an act of solidarity with their brothers in the territories, tens of thousands of Israeli Arabs took to the streets, throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails in Jaffa and Lydda and Wadi Ara, chanting “Itbah al Yahud” (“slaughter the Jews”) and calling for the “liberation” of all of “Palestine.”

Which leads the historian to wonder whether, had 1948 ended differently -- with the total separation of the two peoples and the creation of a Palestinian state in what is today Jordan -- both peoples would have enjoyed richer and freer lives. Perhaps, content with statehood, the Palestinians would have gradually dropped the struggle.


As it is, the populations remain intermixed, and Arab birthrates and violence threaten to overwhelm the Jewish state, forcing Israelis to defend themselves in ways that many find unacceptable. As things stand, endless violence seems to be in prospect. And down the road, Palestinian violence may suck the Arab states and Israel, all armed with nonconventional weaponry, into a new, giant conflagration. Perhaps complete separation, a cleaner cut in 1948, would have benefited all.