The Arab Refugee Illusion

November 12, 2010

Arab ‘refugees’ in camp in Gaza. The control in the Gaza Strip was until 1967 in the hands of Egypt. The Egyptian authorities maintained a strict separation between “refugees” and the ordinary population of the area. Martha Gellhorn wrote in 1961 (when Gaza was in the hands of Egypt): the Gaza Strip, “is not a hell-hole, not a visible disaster. It is worse. It is a jail.” (Atlantic Monthly, October 1961)

In 1947, there were approximately one million Arabs in the whole of western Palestine. (British figures, certainly inflated, put the number at 1,200,000; independent calculations claim 800-900,000). Of these, the total number actually living in that part of Palestine which became Israel was, according to the British figure, 561,000. Not all of them left. After the end of hostilities in 1949, there were 140,000 Arabs in Israel. The total number of Arabs who left could not mathematically have been more than some 420,000.
At the time, before the policy of inflation had been conceived, these were the commonly stated proportions of the problem. At the end of May 1948, Faris el Khoury, the Syrian representative on the UN Security Council, estimated their number at 250,000.
The even more authoritative Emil Ghoury (who twelve years later talked of two million) announced on September 6, 1948, that by the middle of June, at the time of the first trace, the number of Arabs who had Red was 200,000. “By the time the second truce began (July 17),” he said, “their number had risen to 300,000.” Count Bernadotte, the UN Special Representative in Palestine, reporting on September 16, 1948, informed the United Nations that he estimated the number of Arab refugees at 360,000, including 50,000 in Israeli territory (UN Document A/1648). After July 1948, there was a fourth exodus of some 50,000 Arabs from Galilee and from the Negev.
The inflation may at first have been accidental. The United Nations at once provided the refugees with food, clothes, shelter, and medical attention. There was no system of identification; any Arab could register as a refugee and receive free aid. Immediately a large number of needy Arabs from various Arab countries flocked to the refugee camps, were registered, and thenceforth received their rations.
Already by December 1948, when their total could not yet have reached the maximum of 425,000, the Director of the United Nations Disaster Relief Organization, Sir Rafael Cilento, reported that he was feeding 750,000 refugees. Seven months later, the official figure had increased to a round million in the report of W. de St. Aubin, the United Nations Director of Field Operations.
The inflation of the numbers was helped not only by the understandable readiness of needy and greedy people to take advantage of free upkeep. The International Committee of the Red Cross pressed the United Nations Relief headquarters to recognize as refugees any destitute Arab in Palestine and to let him have refugee facilities in his own home.

“The refugees were confident that their absence would not last long, and that they would return within a week or two. Their leaders had promised them that the Arab armies would crush the ‘Zionist gangs’ very quickly and that there was no need for panic or fear of a long exile.” [Sada at Tanub, August 16, 1948]

The exodus was indeed common knowledge. The London weekly Economist reported on October 2, 1948:

“Of the 62,000 Arabs who formerly lived in Haifa not more than 5,000 or 6,000 remained. Various factors influenced their decision to seek safety in flight. There is but little doubt that the most potent of the factors were the announcements made over the air by the Higher Arab Executive, urging the Arabs to quit….It was clearly intimated that those Arabs who remained in Haifa and accepted Jewish protection would be regarded as renegades.”

And the Near East Arabic Broadcasting Station from Cyprus stated on April 3, 1949:

“It must not be forgotten that the Arab Higher Committee encouraged the refugees’ flight from their homes in Jaffa, Haifa, and Jerusalem.”

Even in retrospect, in an effort to describe the deliberateness of the flight, the leading Arab propagandist of the day, Edward Atiyah (then Secretary of the Arab League Office in London), reaffirmed the facts:

“This wholesale exodus was due partly to the belief of the Arabs, encouraged by the boasting of an unrealistic Arab press and the irresponsible utterances of some of the Arab leaders that it could be only a matter of some weeks before the Jews were defeated by the armies of the Arab States and the Palestinian Arabs enabled to re-enter and retake possession of their country.”

Kenneth Bilby, one of the Americans who covered Palestine for several weeks during the war of 1948, wrote soon afterwards on his experience and observations:

The Arab exodus, initially at least, was encouraged by many Arab leaders, such as Haj Amin el Husseini, the exiled pro-Nazi Mufti of Jerusalem, and by the Arab Higher Committee for Palestine. They viewed the first wave of Arab setbacks as merely transitory. Let the Palestine Arabs flee into neighboring countries. It would serve to arouse the other Arab peoples to greater effort, and when the Arab invasion struck, the Palestinians could return to their homes and be compensated with the property of Jews driven into the sea. [New Star in the Near East (New York, 1950), pp. 30-31]

After the war, the Palestine Arab leaders did try to help people –including their own– to forget that it was they who had called for the exodus in the early spring of 1948. They now blamed the leaders of the invading Arab states themselves. These had added their voices to the exodus call, enough not until some weeks after the Palestine Arab fighter Committee had taken a stand. The war was not yet over when Emil Ghoury, Secretary of the Arab Higher Committee, the official leadership of the Palestinian Arabs, stated in an interview with a Beirut newspaper:

I do not want to impugn anybody but only to help the refugees. The fact that there are these refugees is the direct consequence of the action of the Arab States in opposing Partition and the Jewish State. The Arab States agreed upon this policy unanimously and they must share in the solution of the problem, [Daily Telegraph, September 6, 19481]

In retrospect, the Jordanian newspaper Falastin wrote on February 19, 1949:

The Arab States encouraged the Palestine Arabs to leave their homes temporarily in order to be out of the way of the Arab invasion armies.
The Secretary General of the Arab League, Azzam Pasha, assured the Arab peoples that the occupation of Palestine and of Tel Aviv would be as simple as a military promenade…He pointed out that they were already on the frontiers and that all the millions the Jews had spent on land and economic development would be easy booty, for it would be a simple matter to throw Jews into the Mediterranean…Brotherly advice was given to the Arabs of Palestine to leave their land, homes, and property and to stay temporarily in neighboring fraternal states, lest the guns of the invading Arab armies mow them down.

As late as 1952, the charge had the official stamp of the Arab Higher Committee. In a memorandum to the Arab League states, the Committee wrote:

Some of the Arab leaders and their ministers in Arab capitals…declared that they welcomed the immigration of Palestinian Arabs into the Arab countries until they saved Palestine. Many of the Palestinian Arabs were misled by their declarations… It was natural for those Palestinian Arabs who felt impelled to leave their country to take refuge in Arab lands…and to stay in such adjacent places in order to maintain contact with their country so that to return to it would be easy when, according to the promises of many of those responsible in the Arab countries (promises which were given wastefully), the time was ripe. Many were of the opinion that such an opportunity would come in the hours between sunset and sunrise.

Most pointed of all was the comment of one of the refugees:

“The Arab governments told us: Get out so that we can get in. So we got out, but they did not get in.”

When the onslaught of the local Arabs had been in progress for over four months, and a month before the planned invasion by the seven Arab states, about half the population still remained in the area mapped out by the United Nations as the Jewish state. Now began the fantastic phase of the exodus. A large part of the population panicked. Suddenly the countryside was filled with rumors and alleged reports of Jewish “atrocities.”
A highly colored report of a battle near Jerusalem became the driving theme. At the village of Dir Yassin, one of the bases of the Arab forces maintaining pressure on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv road, an assault by the “dissident” Irgun Zvai Leumi and the FFI (Stern Group) had continued for eight hours before the village was finally captured, and then only with the help of a Palmach armored car, which arrived on the scene unexpectedly. The element of surprise having been lost, the Arab soldiers could turn every house in the village into a fortress. Jewish casualties amounted to one third of the attacking force (40 out of 120). The Arabs, barricading themselves in the houses, had omitted to evacuate women and children, many of whom were thus lolled during the attack.
The Arab leaders seized on the opportunity to tell an utterly fantastic story of a “massacre,” which was disseminated throughout the world by all the arms of British propaganda. The accepted “orthodox” version to this day, it has served enemies of Israel and anti-Semites faithfully.
The effect of the story was immediate and electric. The British officer who had done most in the years before 1948 to build up the Transjordanian Army, General Glubb Pasha, wrote in the London Daily Mail on August 12, 1948:

“The Arab civilians panicked and fled ignominiously. Villages were frequently abandoned before they were threatened by the progress of war.” And the refugee from Dir Yassin, Yunes Ahmed Assad, has soberly recorded that “The Arab exodus from other villages was not caused by the actual battle, but by the exaggerated description spread by Arab leaders to incite them to fight the Jews” (Al Urdun, April 9, 1953).