May 4, 2016: Understanding the Middle East: Arab Flight From Israel in 1948 & the Right of Return


By Carol Rushton

The Arabs have told the story that when Israel declared statehood in May 1948, most of them had to flee Israel for the surrounding Arab/Muslim countries for fear of their lives. They had to abandon their property and all their belongings, which have since been illegally seized by Israel and given to Jews. This, they say, is why Arabs who once lived in Israel and their descendants should have their property returned to them.

The Arabs demand of “the right of return” has always been a major sticking point in any negotiations between Israel and Arabs.

Did the Arabs flee Israel for fear that Jews in Israel would attack and kill them during Israel’s 1948-1949 War of Independence?


Arab Violence Against Jews Before Israel’s Statehood

Arabs in and surrounding the future state of Israel had always rejected any plan that presented a two-state solution using the British Mandate area in the Middle East: Arabs having one state and Jews in another. While the U.N. was putting together it’s partition plan, Arabs warned that they would become violent if the U.N. insisted on presenting the plan. Jamal Husseini, spokesman for the Arab Higher Committee, promised that Arabs would defend “the soil of our beloved country with the last drop of our blood” (The Struggle for Palestine, 1976, page 308).

After the U.N. voted on and passed the partition plan in November 1947, Arabs rioted and murdered hundreds of Jews, Arabs, and British citizens. Arab attacks on Jews continued up until the announcement of the establishment of the State of Israel by David Ben Gurion on May 14, 1948. The Arab Higher Committee continued to incite violence against Jews and anyone else who supported a Jewish state, insisting that Arabs “would fight for every inch of their country.” Many Jews were mercilessly slaughtered by Arab forces before the formal announcement was made.

The Arabs took pride at murdering hundreds of Jews. Jamal Husseini made the following state to the U.N. Security Council on April 16, 1948. “The representative of the Jewish Agency told us yesterday that they were not the attackers, that the Arabs had begun the fighting. We did not deny this. We told the whole world that we were going to fight” (U.N. Security Council Official Records, S/Agenda/58, April 16, 1948, page 19).

The Arab and Muslim countries in the Middle East were already preparing to attack the new Jewish state before May 14, 1948. They told the Arabs that they would wipe Israel off the map in three days. These countries urged the Arabs to leave their homes so they wouldn’t be caught in the fighting, confident that within less than a week, the Arabs would be able to return and take over a land with no Jews.

Aref el-Araf, who was mayor of Jordanian-ruled East Jerusalem in the 1950s wrote in his book, The Catastrophe, “The Arabs thought they would win in less than the twinkling of an eye and that it would take no more than a day or two from the time the Arab armies crossed the border until all the colonies were conquered and the enemy would throw down his arms and cast himself on their mercy.”


Israel Begs Arabs to Stay

Jewish leaders repeatedly urged the Arabs to stay and not leave. The Assembly of Palestine Jewry broadcast the following announcement on October 2, 1947.

“We will do everything in our power to maintain peace, and establish a cooperation gainful to both [Jews and Arabs]. It is now, here and now, from Jerusalem itself, that a call must go out to the Arab nations to join forces with Jewry and the destined Jewish State and work shoulder to shoulder for our common good, for the peace and progress of sovereign equals.”

The Proclamation of Independence that David Ben Gurion read on May 14, 1948, included a statement that also appealed to Arabs to stay in Israel.

“In the midst of wanton aggression, we yet call upon the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve the ways of peace and play their part in the development of the State, on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its bodies and institutions. . .We extend our hand in peace and neighborliness to all the neighboring states and their peoples, and invite them to cooperate with the independent Jewish nation for the common good of all.”

Despite these pleas from the Jews and their leaders, the Arabs started fleeing Israel before and after the May 14, 1948 announcement of the modern State of Israel. Arab leaders in other countries had much more influence on the Arabs within Israel than the Jews leaders.

One example is what happened in Haifa in April 1948. Jewish and Arabs forces were already fighting and on April 23, 1948, Jewish forces were successful in capturing the city. A British police reported for the city of Haifa on April 26, 1948, documented that “every effort is being made by the Jews to persuade the Arab populace to stay and carry on with their normal lives, to get their shops and businesses open and to be assured that their lives and interests will be safe.” By the end of fighting, 50,00 Arabs had left, many of them fearful of being branded traitors by Arab leaders for staying and living under Jewish rule.

One of Syria’s representatives to the U.N., Faris el-Khouri, accused the Jews of slaughtering Arab in Haifa and said it was “further evidence that the ‘Zionist program’ is to annihilate Arabs within the Jewish state if partition is effected.” The next day, Britain’s Sir Alexander Cadogan told the truth about what happened in Haifa: The fighting was the fault of Arabs for repeatedly attacks against Jews in the area, not Jews attacking Arabs, and that any reports of Jews mass murdering Arabs were false.

Another example of what happened in Faluja, an Arab town in southern Israel. Three thousand  of the Arab population in Faluja left after the fighting had stopped. The New York Times reported the situation on March 4, 1949.

“Observers feel that with proper counsel after the Israeli­-Egyptian armistice, the Arab population might have advantageously remained. They state that the Israeli Government had given guarantees of security of person and property. However, no effort was made by Egypt, Transjordan or even the United Nations Palestine Conciliation Commission to advise the Faluja Arabs one way or the other.”


Quotes Urging Arabs to Leave Israel

Arabs dispute that any Arab countries or Arab leaders urged them to leave Israel, either before, during, or after 1948. They claim that it was because of Jewish violence, fighting, and massacres against them that forced them to leave Israel.

Below is a list of quotes by Arab leaders and others that prove they encouraged Israeli Arabs to leave Israel.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Said boasted, “We will smash the country (Israel) with out guns and obliterate every place the Jews seek shelter in. The Arabs should conduct their wives and children to safe areas until the fighting has died down.”

Edward Atiyah, the Secretary of the Arab League office in London, had this to say in his book, The Arabs. “This wholesale exodus was due partly to the belief of the Arabs, encouraged by the boastings of an unrealistic Arabic press and the irresponsible utterances of some of the Arab leaders that it could be only a matter of 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.”

Syria’s prime minister in 1948, Haled al Azm, wrote in his memoirs, “Since 1948 we have been demanding the return of the refugees to their homes. But we ourselves are the ones who encouraged them to leave. Only a few months separated our call to them to leave and our appeal to the United Nations to resolve on their return.”

The August 16, 1948 edition of the Beirut newspaper Sada al Janub quoted Monsignor George Hakim, Greek Orthodox Catholic Bishop of Galilee. “The refugees were confident 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.”

Filastin, a Jordanian newspaper, reported 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.”

Ad Difaa, another Jordanian newspaper, quoted one Arab refugee on September 6, 1954. “The Arab government told us: Get out so that we can get in. So we got out, but they did not get in.”

On June 8, 1951, Al Hoda, a New York Lebanese newspaper, reported, “The Secretary-General of the Arab League, Azzam Pasha, assured the Arab peoples that the occupation of Palestine and 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 an 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.”

U.S. Consul General in Haifa, Aubrey Lippencott, wrote on April 22, 1948, that “local mufti-dominated Arab leaders [urged] all Arabs to leave the city, and large numbers did so.”

The Economist, not exactly a pro-Jewish publication, reported on October 2, 1948, “Of the 62,000 Arabs who formerly lived in Haifa not more then 5,000 or 6000 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” or in other words, traitors.

Time magazine carried the following report of the battle of Haifa in May 1948. “The mass evacuation, prompted partly by fear, partly by orders of Arab leaders, left the Arab quarter of Haifa a ghost city. . .By withdrawing Arab workers their leaders hoped to paralyze Haifa.”

Benny Morris, a Jewish historian who has done extensive research on this period of Israel’s history, documented in his book, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, that starting as early as December 1947, “Arab officers ordered the complete evacuation of specific villages in certain areas, lest their inhabitants ‘treacherously’ acquiesce in Israeli rule or hamper Arab military deployments. . .There can be no exaggerating the importance of these early Arab-initiated evacuations in the demoralization, and eventual exodus, of the remaining rural and urban populations.”

In two books, Middle Eastern Studies and the previous one cited, Morris reported on the actions of the Arab Higher Committee in pushing Arabs out of Israel. Morris quoted from the order to the Arab National Committee in Jerusalem to evacuate Arabs out of the city. “Any opposition to this order. . .is an obstacle to the holy war. . .and will hamper the operations of the fighters in these districts.”

Morris is not the only one to bring attention to the Arab Higher Committee. The Near East Broadcasting Station in Cyprus reported 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.”

The Arab military forces, the Arab legion and the Arab Liberation Army, ordered the evacuation of Arab women and children from the town of Beisan and a village south of Haifa.  Morris writes that this “tended to sap the morale of the menfolk who were left behind to guard the homes and fields, contributing ultimately to the final evacuation of villages. Such two-tier evacuation- women and children first, the men following weeks later – occurred in Qumiya in the Jezreel Valley, among the Awarna  Bedouin in Haifa Bay and in various other places.”

Jordan’s King Abdullah wrote in his memoirs, “The tragedy of the Palestinians was that most of their leaders had paralyzed them with false and unsubstantiated promises that they were not alone; that 80 million Arabs and 400 million Muslims would instantly and miraculously come to their rescue.”


So What Happened to the Arabs That Left Israel?

According to census records, a total of 809,100 Arabs were living in Israel by November 30, 1947, when the U.N. voted on the partition plan. After Israel’s War of Independence ended in 1949, census records counted a total 160,000 Arabs who were still in the country. Even though Arabs cite much higher figures, only 650,000 Arabs could have left Israel between 1947 and 1949.

The surrounding countries to which the Arabs fled  – mostly to Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon – refused to resettle and absorb these Arabs into their countries. Instead, they have kept them segregated in refugee camps under the most appalling conditions. These refugee camps have become hotbeds of anger, discontent, and terrorism. Most of the Arab countries in the Middle East – including very wealthy Saudi Arabia – rejected the Israeli Arabs and contributed little to nothing in aid, through either the U.N. or other programs to help or alleviate the suffering of these peoples.

In fact, Israel and the United States were the major donors to the UNRWA to help these Arabs, contributing millions of dollars while the Arab countries in the Middle East contributed little or nothing. At the start, the U.S. gave $25 million and Israel gave $3 million to the fund while the Arab countries only gave $600,000. As late as 1994, Israel still gave more aid to UNRWA for the Arab refugees than all the Arab countries combined excepting Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Morocco.

Israel is quick to point out, and justly so, that Jewish refugees fleeing from hostile Arab and Muslim countries received no compensation whatsoever from any government that expelled them. Jews down through the centuries, including in the 20th and 21st Centuries, have had to leave their homes, their money, and their possessions with little more than the clothes on their backs. Israel has always welcomed Jews under these conditions and has borne the cost for their resettlement, job training, Hebrew language classes, absorption, and other expenses that Jewish refugees incurred. No one has cried crocodile tears for Jewish refugees, and Israel has never allowed them to live in the horrific situations that Arab refugees have been forced into by their own people.

It is obvious that the reason Arab countries have refused now for almost 70 years to properly take care of these Arab refugees is because the Arabs and Muslims would prefer to use the refugees as political pawns in any “peace” negotiations with Israel while also having the added benefit of making Israel look bad in the eyes of the world.

Egypt’s foreign minister, Muhammad Salah ad-Din, made this clear to the Al-Misri newspaper in an interview published on October 11, 1949.”It is well-known and understood that the Arabs, in demanding the return of the refugees to Palestine, mean their return as masters of the Homeland and not as slaves. With a greater clarity, they mean the liquidation of the State of Israel.”

At a 1957 refugee conference as reported by the newspaper Beirut al Massa on July 15, 1957, Syria passed the following resolution. “Any discussion aimed at a solution of the Palestine problem which will not be based on ensuring the refugees’ right to annihilate Israel will be regarded as a desecration of the Arab people and on act of treason.

In 1949, Israel publicly extended an offer to the Arab refugees to return to Israel and provide compensation for them. They rejected Israel’s offer and refused to consider it.

Former UNRWA official Sir Alexander Galloway said in April 1952, “The Arab States do  not want to solve the refugee problem. They want to keep it as an open sore, as an affront to the United Nations and as a weapon against Israel. Arab leaders don’t [care] whether the refugees live or die.”

The Arab refugees claiming property rights in Israel have morphed from under 700,000 in 1949 to over 5 million in 21st Century.  When the PLO or any Arab/Islamic group or country talk about “peace” with Israel, the right of return for Arab refugees who fled Israel in the 1940s and early 1950s is always brought up.

The truth is that many of the original Arab refugees are either dead or elderly. There is no way at this point that Israel could possibly absorb 5 million Arabs and still remain a viable Jewish country. To do so would be committing national suicide.