The Expulsion of Palestinian Arabs and Accusations of Ethnic Cleansing

*This article is part of a series*

       Alongside the question of how many Palestinian Arab refugees were created in the 1948 war in Palestine, a debate rages about whether these refugees were merely victims of a general wartime atmosphere or if they were instead ethnically cleansed by Zionist forces. While the fact that wars create refugees is rather axiomatic, some allege a more sinister, pre-meditated ethnic cleansing plan was in the works and the war simply provided convenient cover for implementing it.

       Israel's New Historians can be credited with popularizing the claim in the last few decades that the Zionist leadership had engineered a plan to ethnically cleanse Palestine and executed it during the 1948 war. It is not a new claim. The same accusation has been advanced by Palestinian advocates since just after the war ended. Endorsement of this claim by prominent Israeli historians rejuvenated the debate by lending some degree of credibility to what may have been seen in the past as polemic or distorted Palestinian historiography.

       There are two main pillars supporting the claim of ethnic cleansing:

  1. Zionist statements and literature called for the transfer of Arabs out of the territory that would become Israel

  2. During the 1948 war, Jewish military forces actively expelled significant numbers of Arabs from Israel

Words Speak Louder than Actions - Zionist Statements

       There is certainly no disputing that a preference for the transfer of Arabs out of the territory allotted to Israel had been vocalized by Zionist leadership of all ranks. It is also true that Zionists of all ranks (often the very same ones) had spoken out in opposition to the idea of transfer. Various ideas were entertained at various times by various people as those people reacted to events, often times violent ones, taking place. An opinion in 1934 that no Arab should be expelled from Palestine does not preclude that opinion from changing in 1947 to one that Arabs should be transferred, and vice versa.

       For a quick perusal of some examples of Zionists endorsing transfer, see Palestine Remembered's collection of Zionist quotes on transfer. Other resources for Zionist statements regarding transfer, albeit while proselytizing for ethnic cleansing, can be found in Nur Masalha's book Expulsion of the Palestinians1 and most books by Ilan Pappe. These sources do a good job at providing the reader with half the picture. As already mentioned, Zionist leaders are also on record denouncing the transfer of Arabs, declaring a transfer is not their goal and indeed, not a pre-requisite to the Jewish state.

       If statements favoring the transfer of Arabs can be pointed to as evidence that ethnic cleansing was the aim of the Zionist leadership, what then do we do with contrary statements? For example:

       It is impossible to document the extent that Zionists pursued a peaceful, political settlement toward the Arabs with a few bulleted points, but the effort was widespread. And while Zionism for decades exhausted efforts at achieving an understanding with Palestine's Arab population, some still choose to belittle this record with a perfunctory glance, and cling to mere words as all the proof of ethnic cleansing they need. Even within the realm of statements and opinions, however, contradictory viewpoints regarding transfer are as clear as it gets. What the sum of these mixed opinions, ideas, and musings leaves us is the speculative, academic game of predicting whether or not Zionists would have expelled Palestinian Arabs in the absence of hostility.

Might the Killing have Influenced Opinion?

       Arab hostility against the Jewish community in Palestine is the key that makes sense of the conflicting statements from Zionist leaders on the issue of transfer and provides a pragmatic explanation as to why the expulsions of Arabs took place. A conspiracy theory espousing ethnic cleansing need not be created to make sense of things. To be sure, there are those who can point to Zionist statements in favor of transferring Arabs out of Palestine as evidence ethnic cleansing was the plan all along, but a plan is something that may or may not happen in the future. There is uncertainty about whether Zionist rhetoric over transferring Arabs out of Israel would have ever transformed from word to deed.

       Arab hostility and violence, on the other hand, was not a possible future event but had been in progress for 30 years. It was at the time drastically increasing in intensity and was accumulating not just inside Palestine, but to a large degree in the greater Arab world as well. There was no element of uncertainty attached to this reality. While claims of ethnic cleansing tenuously rely upon what Zionists might or might not have done in the absence of their being invaded (see next paragraph), pervasive anti-Jewish sentiment, destruction of Jewish property, sporadic outbreaks of violence, and massacres were ongoing events. Next came a civil war. And finally, armies from seven surrounding Arab nations sent soldiers to destroy the new state and most likely a good number of its citizens. Claims of "ethnic cleansing" can only be made while ignoring, in totality, these circumstances facing the Jewish community in Palestine.

       Palestine Think Tank's Mary Rizzo complains, "For both [Uri] Avnery and [Benny] Morris, it seems, as long as there's a war going on, moving the civilian population on with a spot of shock and aware is justified and cannot be described as ethnic cleansing."11 Let it be clarified that ethnic cleansing and war are not mutually exclusive phenomena. The fact that Arab armies invaded Israel does not automatically result in the conclusion that ethnic cleansing did not happen.

       What the civil war and foreign invasion did, however, was introduce justification for carrying out expulsions (state security) that had absolutely nothing to do with racist desires for ethnic cleansing. They render the conclusion that ethnic cleansing did take place uncertain; a conclusion that could only be obvious in want of other legitimate motivation. If expulsions began prior to hostilities, or in the absence of war, ethnic cleansing would be the only reasonable conclusion. Rizzo's derisive suggestion that neither Avnery nor Morris can admit to ethnic cleansing because a war is on reveals her own uncompromising dogma that never is there a time when expulsions are anything but ethnic cleansing operations.

       An increasing trend can be seen in support for transfer among mainstream Zionism starting in the mid 1930's. Two very significant reasons account for this. First of all, 1936 was the year the violent Arab strike began in Palestine, concluding in 1939. It is no coincidence that most of the Zionist statements favorable toward transferring Arabs out of Israel coincided with violence on the ground. In large part, opinions favorable to transfer were formed only after the outbreak of the Arab strike; an event that destroyed mainstream Zionism's expectations that a peaceful agreement could still be reached with the Arabs.

"As a result of the Arab rebellion, Palestine’s Jewish population shifted ... from a defensive to an offensive ethos. ... The belief that the Jewish national home could be established by peaceful means had eroded and was replaced with a realization that Jewish-Arab confrontation was an inescapable reality. ... Early news about the fate of European Jewry under the Nazi regime, along with the alliance between Hajj Amin and the Axis reinforced the view that Palestine’s Arabs were in every sense an enemy."12

       Second, the British Peel Commission Report of 1937 formally recommended a population transfer to solve the ethnic violence in Palestine. As Benny Morris observes: "... transfer had never been adopted by the movement or any of the main Zionist parties (including the right-wing Revisionists) as part of a platform or official policy. Once the Peel Commission had given the idea its imprimatur, however, the floodgates were opened. Ben-Gurion, Weizmann, Shertok, and others – a virtual consensus – went on record in support of transfer at meetings of the JAE at the Twentieth Zionist Congress ... and in other forums."13

       If the Mandate authority in Palestine deemed it acceptable to suggest a population transfer, then who were the Zionists to disagree? Yet it was not just (unofficially) Zionist or (officially) British opinion that the already intractable feuding in Palestine required a population transfer to permanently resolve. A significant portion of the international community concurred with that solution. Not only did they agree with it, but population transfers, compulsory ones at that, had just been affected throughout Europe to solve similar ethnic friction just a few years previous.

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Navigate this series:

Part 1 - Expulsions and Ethnic Cleansing of Palestinian Arabs
Part 2 - Population Transfer in International Affairs
Part 3 - Were the Expulsions of Palestinian Arabs Necessary?
Part 4 - Terrorism as a Response to Expulsion

1  Masalha, Nur. Expulsion of the Palestinians: The Concept of "Transfer" in Zionist Political Thought, 1882-1948. Washington, D.C.: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1992.
2  British White Paper of June 1922
3  Teveth, Shabtai. Ben-Gurion and the Palestinian Arabs - From Peace to War. 5-6
4  Teveth, Shabtai. Ben-Gurion and the Palestinian Arabs - From Peace to War. 108-109
5  Faisal-Weizmann Agreement, Article IV. 3 January 1919
6  Churchill White Paper, 3 June 1922
7  Teveth, Shabtai. Ben-Gurion and the Palestinian Arabs - From Peace to War. 32
8  Teveth, Shabtai. Ben-Gurion and the Palestinian Arabs - From Peace to War. 68
9  Teveth, Shabtai. Ben-Gurion and the Palestinian Arabs - From Peace to War. 154
10  Teveth, Shabtai. Ben-Gurion and the Palestinian Arabs - From Peace to War. 116
11 (Site accessed on Aug 28, 2008)
12  Cohen, Hillel. Army of Shadows: Palestinian Collaboration with Zionism, 1917-1948. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008. 179
13  Morris, Benny. 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War. New Haven [Conn.]: Yale University Press, 2008. 18-19
14  Morris, Benny. 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War. New Haven [Conn.]: Yale University Press, 2008. 318