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The Palestinian Refugees

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The United Nations office in Amman that administers to the needs of more than one million Palestinian refugees is situated in an upper-middle-class neighborhood of stone villas, whose roofs are dotted with TV antennas modeled after the Eiffel Tower. The neighborhood is one of several well-to-do suburban developments built in Amman during the oil boom years of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Many of the residents of these neighborhoods are Palestinian refugees who fled or who were driven from their homes by Jewish forces during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. Among the Arab states, only Jordan offered Palestinian refugees citizenship and encouraged them to integrate into Jordanian society. Palestinians now make up more than 60 percent of the population, and they have helped to transform Jordan from a desert backwater to a modern nation-state.

Not all Palestinians in Jordan are prosperous. Some forty years after the Palestinians’ mass exodus, more than 214,000, or about 25 percent of the Palestinians in Jordan, are still living in Jordan’s ten refugee camps, where the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) provides basic services such as housing, health care, and education. Central to UNRWA’s work in Amman is a cramped, musty room filled with rows of battered steel file cabinets containing the case history and current status of each of the refugee families in Jordan. The UNRWA “investigation fact sheets,” as they are called, detail the name, age, and occupation of the family head, the names of his wife and children, if any, and the circumstances of their flight from Palestine. The files are routinely updated to include births, deaths, and marriages as well as the family’s financial status.

Children born to refugee parents are also considered refugees by UNRWA. Therefore, the Palestinian refugee population has grown enormously, now numbering some 2.3 million people in the regions adjoining Israel. More than 800,000, or about 35 percent of the Palestinians registered as refugees with UNRWA, live in sixty-one camps in Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, and the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Though built in the late 1940s and early 1950s as temporary housing, the camps have turned into permanent shantytowns, in which the atmosphere is one of intense Palestinian nationalism. Palestinian refugee families that are relatively well-off may continue to live in the camps if they choose to do so, but they are not entitled to receive many UNRWA benefits.

In the UNRWA records room in Amman last November I was allowed to read the case files of refugees at random. One case that resembled many others was that of Khamis Kassas, a Jaffa mechanic who was forty in 1948, when he fled his three-room apartment together with his wife and two children, Khalil, thirteen, and Mohammed, eleven. Khalil was accompanied by his twelve-year-old wife, Kamleh.

Jaffa, then the largest Arab city in Palestine with a population of some 70,000, had been designated by the United Nations to become part of the proposed Palestinian-Arab state. However, Palestinian leaders rejected the UN General Assembly Partition resolution of November 29, 1947, which would have carved Palestine into Jewish and Arab countries, and then began a bitter intercommunal war with the Zionists, who had accepted the plan.

Early in the war the Haganah, the military arm of the mainstream Labor Zionists led by David Ben-Gurion, did not believe it was either necessary or possible to occupy Jaffa; but the Irgun and the Stern Gang, the two small right-wing underground groups headed by Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, launched a terrorist campaign against the city. On January 4, 1948, after weeks of fighting between Jewish and Palestinian forces, the Stern Gang detonated a huge car bomb in the center of Jaffa, destroying the municipal building and creating chaos, causing dozens of casualties and the flight of a small number of middle-class Palestinian families.

On April 25, 1948, the Irgun launched a major ground offensive against the northern neighborhood of Jaffa. “Owing to the heavy bombing of Jaffa [with mortars],” the UNRWA fact sheet notes, the Kassas family fled to Ramle, where they stayed for fifteen days before moving to Salt, a small town in Jordan. They settled in a tent behind the water pump of Salem El Yacoub’s house. Rent was one Jordanian dinar a month. “Documents produced by the family prove that they are real Palestinian refugees from Jaffa,… which is now under Jewish control,” according to their UNRWA file, which was opened on January 3, 1951. “They were forced to leave Jaffa—their place of residence and their means of livelihood and all their belongings. They are very poor, and we recommend them for relief”—which in fact was given to them in the forms of food, housing, education, and living expenses. Today, Khalil owns a sandwich shop near Amman’s Jordan University and Mohammed is a house painter. Neither lives in a camp, but both are registered with UNRWA as refugees. Khamis, who made sandwiches and served tea in his son’s shop, died in 1988.

By mid-May 1948 all but 4,000 of Jaffa’s Arab inhabitants were refugees. When Ben-Gurion visited Jaffa that month, he said, “I couldn’t understand: Why did the inhabitants leave?” Yet as Benny Morris, the former diplomatic correspondent of The Jerusalem Post, documents in his remarkable book, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947–1949,1 by the middle of the war Ben-Gurion was anxiously trying to reduce the number of Palestinians living in areas conquered by Jewish forces and took steps to do so, which included ordering the expulsion of the entire populations of two conquered towns, Ramle and Lydda, and of many villages. According to Morris, who has studied recently declassified British and Israeli government archives to document in intricate detail the step by step flight of the Palestinian refugees, the notion of “transfer,” the euphemism in Israel for mass expulsion, had been “in the air” and “in the minds” of Zionist leaders since at least the mid-1930s. “All schemes for establishing a Jewish State in Palestine,” Morris writes,

including the Peel Commission recommendations of July 1937, came up against the major problem of the existence of a large Arab minority: any way in which the land could possibly be partitioned would still leave a sizeable Arab minority in the Jewish State area. And while the Yishuv [the Jewish community in Palestine before 1948] looked to massive Jewish immigration to fill up the state, it was clear that if a large Arab minority was left in situ, their far higher birthrate would mean that they would constitute a perpetual threat to the Jewish majority and, given their active or potential hostility, to the body politic itself. The idea of transferring the Arabs out of the Jewish State area to the Arab state area or to other Arab states was seen as the chief means of assuring the stability and “Jewishness” of the proposed Jewish State.

Though Ben-Gurion wrote during World War I, “We do not intend to push the Arabs aside, to take their land, or to disinherit them,” Morris notes that by the late 1930s he was privately advocating a program of transfer: “We must expel Arabs and take their places…and if we have to use force—not to dispossess the Arabs of the Negev and Transjordan, but to guarantee our right to settle in those places—then we have force at our disposal,” he wrote to his son Amos in October 1937.

During the early years of the Zionist experiment, Jewish leaders believed that the Arab community would be grateful to the Jews for bringing them modern science and technology. Instead the Zionist pioneers were confronted by an indigenous Arab community that for the most part tenaciously clung to the land, repeatedly clashing with the Jewish settlers and taking dozens of lives. Following the Arab Rebellion in Palestine, between 1936 and 1939, against British rule and Zionist colonization, Ben-Gurion and the other Jewish leaders decided that, in view of continuing Arab enmity, the Palestinians would not peacefully accept a Jewish state and would not willingly become its citizens.

Zionist leaders considered various formulas for solving the “Arab problem.” Many Zionists, taking account of the population transfers in Europe after World War I, hoped that financial incentives would entice the Palestinians to leave. In November 1939 Zev Jabotinsky, the founder of the Revisionist Zionist movement, which claimed that both banks of the Jordan River belonged by right to the Jewish people, wrote to a supporter,

We should instruct American Jewry to mobilize half a billion dollars in order that Iraq and Saudi Arabia will absorb the Palestinian Arabs. There is no choice: the Arabs must make room for the Jews of Eretz Israel. If it was possible to transfer the Baltic peoples, it is also possible to move the Palestinian Arabs.

In June 1938, during a day-long executive meeting of the Jewish Agency, the governing body of the Jewish community in Palestine, the leaders who were present overwhelmingly endorsed, in principle, the concept of transferring the Palestinian Arabs from proposed Jewish areas of a future Jewish state. “It is the most moral [thing to do],” said Avraham Menahem Ussishkin, who advocated transferring 60,000 Arab families to Arab countries. “We will not be able to begin our political life in a state in which Arabs will constitute 45 percent [of the population].”

On May 15, 1948, the day after Israel was founded, five Arab armies invaded Palestine with the declared intention of liquidating the Jewish state. When the war broke out, Ben-Gurion, according to Morris, “clearly wanted as few Arabs as possible to remain in the Jewish State.” Morris provides much evidence of Ben-Gurion’s hard-line position. On October 21, 1948, when a Jewish official discussed with Ben-Gurion setting up an Arab “puppet state” on the West Bank, Ben-Gurion said: “The Arabs of the land of Israel have only one function left to them, to run away.” Though Ben-Gurion never devised a formal plan or policy to expel the Arabs, Morris says that as the war dragged on he preferred that his generals “understand” what he wanted done.

In Haifa the Jewish mayor pleaded with the local Arabs to remain. But with few exceptions Zionist officials failed to make similar appeals in other places. As the better armed and disciplined Jewish forces crushed the Palestinian irregulars and then the Arab armies and Palestinian society disintegrated, panic set in and the impulse to flee became infectious. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, led by the upper and middle classes, abruptly left. Some of them were impelled by reports of massacres like the one carried out by the Irgun at Deir Yassin, where some one hundred Palestinians, mostly non-combatants, were killed, a figure that was much exaggerated at the time by Arab radio broadcasts.

Undoubtedly many Palestinians fled to neighboring Arab countries to wait out the war, hoping to return as victors. The Jews had nowhere to run. Toward the end of the 1948 war, as Jewish troops prevailed over the combined Arab armies, Ben-Gurion sought to strengthen Israel’s strategic position and expand and secure its highly vulnerable borders by taking more territory and expelling Palestinians from villages—especially near border areas—before a UN-mediated armistice ended the conflict. Dozens of villages, as Morris shows, were evacuated, often brutally, by Jewish troops. In July 1948 Ben-Gurion approved the largest expulsion of the war from the neighboring towns of Ramle and Lydda. Jewish troops massacred 250 Palestinian civilians after taking Lydda. Both towns had been used as lightly armed garrisons by the Jordanian Arab Legion, the strongest of the Arab fighting forces, and the Israeli command feared that the garrisons posed a threat to Tel Aviv and the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway.

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    Cambridge University Press, 1987.

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