The Case for Israel: The War of 1948 & the Issue of Refugees
Part 2 in a Multi-Part Series Exploring the Missing Context in the Discourse Around Israel
One of the most controversial aspects of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is the issue of refugees. The false accusation that the creation of Israel was accompanied by “ethnic cleansing” of the local Arab population is one of the pervasive myths that continues to fuel the fires of the conflict and undermines the hopes for peace.
It’s important to remember that in November 1947, the United Nations General Assembly (U.N.) voted to accept a plan for the partition of Palestine into two states: one for the Jews and one for the Arabs.
The Jews accepted the plan. Unfortunately, the Arabs of Palestine (known as the Palestinians) and the Arab countries of the Middle East refused to accept the plan. When Israel declared independence in May 1948, armies of five Arab nations attacked the new Jewish state with the goal of destroying it.
It was that attack that created the tragedy of the Palestinian refugees.
The situation of the Palestinian refugees was essentially a self-inflicted wound. As I wrote in my previous article, “Had the Arabs accepted the 1947 U.N. decision on the partition, there would have never been an Arab-Israeli conflict, and today, the Palestinians would have been celebrating 75 years of independence.”
During the war of 1948, about 700,000 Palestinian Arabs left their homes in what became Israel for three primary reasons; some because they feared being caught in the middle of the fighting, and others because Arab leaders told them to leave so that they would not be in the way of invading Arab armies.
Finally, other Palestinian Arabs were evacuated by Israeli soldiers. This was especially true of Arab villagers who attacked Israelis traveling on the roads. The example of the battle for Jerusalem is a case study of this factor.
After the U.N. decision on partition in November 1947, the Jewish community of Jerusalem came under siege. In fact, the Jews of Jerusalem were literally on the verge of starvation. That is why the Palmach (a Jewish pre-state militia) had to fight to regain control of the road to Jerusalem so that the Jews in the city would not starve to death.
Unfortunately, to achieve this goal and save the Jews of Jerusalem, the Palmach had no alternative but to evacuate some Arab villages along the road. And all this happened even before Israel declared independence in May 1948.
Many Palestinian refugees moved a few miles to the east in what would become known as the West Bank. Others went to what is now Gaza. Other refugees went to Lebanon and Syria. According to the Armistice Agreement of 1949, after the war, Jordan took control of the West Bank, and Egypt over Gaza.
Here was yet another missed opportunity for peace.
During the 18 years that Egypt and Jordan controlled all of the West Bank and Gaza, a Palestinian state could have been created in those territories. Unfortunately, the Arabs were more interested in pursuing the destruction of Israel than in the creation of a Palestinian state. That deadly obsession led to the events of 1967 that I plan to discuss in Part III.
In the big picture, the accusation of “ethnic cleansing” resulting from the creation of Israel has no basis in reality.
The fact is that during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, many Palestinian Arabs never left their homes in what soon became Israel. That is why today, the Arab population of Israel numbers over two million, accounting for about 20% of Israel’s population. They are full citizens of Israel and participate in every sector of Israeli society.
It’s also important to remember that the Arab attack on Israel in 1948 created two refugee problems.
Due to the rise of antisemitism in the Arab world that accompanied the creation of Israel, more than 850,000 Jews left their homes in the Middle East and North Africa. Most of them came to Israel.
One example is Iraq’s Jewish community, which numbered over 120,000 in 1948. This ancient Jewish community had lived in Iraq since the Babylonian exile.
The rise of Antisemitism in Iraq began in the 1940s due to the influence of Nazi propaganda. The situation reached a crisis point when the Jewish community of Baghdad became the target of the infamous pogrom called the “Farhud.”
In June 1941, more than 180 Iraqi Jews were murdered in this horrific massacre. After 1941, it became clear to the Jews of Iraq that they had no future in a place they had lived for 2,500 years. After Israel declared independence in 1948, the Jews of Iraq found a safe haven in the new Jewish state even though they had to leave behind all of their wealth and property.
It’s essential to recognize that today, more than half the Jewish population of Israel is comprised of Jews whose families left their homes in the Arab world due to the rise of antisemitism.
Today, 75 years after the creation of Israel, false accusations about causes of the Palestinian refugee problem remain one of the main stumbling blocks to peace. These claims have created an unreasonable demand by the Palestinians for a “right of return” to their original homes in what is now Israel.
According to the United Nations, today, there are more than 5.6 million Palestinians who hold the status of refugees.
They include the original refugees of 1948 and their descendants. It’s important to understand that implementing Palestinian demand for the “right of return” would essentially mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state.
In previous plans for peace through the two-state solution (e.g., the Clinton Plan of 2000), the Palestinian refugees of 1948 and their descendants would be able to return to a new Palestinian state in the West Bank or Gaza, but not to Israel.
Most Western analysts typically ignore the fact that Palestinian leaders have rejected generous proposals for peace through the two-state solution because of their insistence on the implementation of the “right of return.”
That is why the Palestinian peace activist Dr. Sari Nusseibeh once famously said, “If we are ever to have peace through the two-state solution, then you can’t have one state for the Palestinians and the other also for the Palestinians.”
This conflict should have ended 75 years ago. Just as Jewish refugees from the Arab world built new lives for themselves in Israel, it’s time for the Palestinians to look to the future, not the past. If they begin to educate their people for peace through the two-state solution, they will create a better life for themselves and their children.
Community Relations Director