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http://www.shaml.org/publications/news11.htm#Main Article
 

"A Miraculous Clearing of the Land?":
The Zionist Concept of "Transfer" and the 1948 Exodus

By Nur Masalha

Shaml Newsletter No:11, May 1998

 

The first United States Ambassador to Israel, James McDonald, in his book My Mission in Israel, 1948-1951 (London, 1951, pp.160-61), tells of a conversation he had with the first President of Israel, Chaim Weizmann, in the course of which Weizmann spoke "emotionally" and in "messianic" terms about the 1948 Palestinian exodus as a "miraculous simplification of Israel's tasks." McDonald added that not one of the "big three": Weizmann, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, and Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett, and no responsible Zionist leader had anticipated such a "miraculous clearing of the land."

In fact the 1948 exodus was less of a "miracle" than the culmination of over half a century of efforts, secret plans and (in the end) brute force. From the beginning of the Zionist enterprise to found a Jewish National Home, or state, in Palestine, the Zionists had been confronted with what they termed as the "Arab Problem"- the fact that Palestine was already populated. One of the proposed solutions to that problem was the "transfer" solution- a euphemism denoting the organized removal of the Palestinian population to neighbouring Arab lands. "Transfer" is the term used often by both the Jewish Yishuv and in Israel to indicate what nowadays is called "ethnic cleansing." In the pre-1948 period, the transfer concept was embraced by the highest level of leadership, including virtually all the founding fathers of the Israeli state and representing almost the entire political spectrum. Nearly all the founding fathers advocated transfer in one form or another, including Theodor Herzl, Leon Motzkin, Nahman Syrkin, Menahem Ussishkin, Chaim Weizmann, David Ben-Gurion, Yitzhak Tabenkin, Avraham Granovsky, Israel Zangwill, Yitzhak Ben-Tzvi, Pinhas Rutenberg, Aaron Aaronson, Zeev Zabotinsky, and Berl Katznelson. Katznelson, who was one of the most popular and influential leaders of the Mapai party (later the ruling Labour party), is often described by liberal Israelis as the conscience of Labour Zionism. He had this to say in a debate at the World Convention of Ihud Po'alei Tzion (the highest forum of the dominant Zionist world labour movement), in August 1937:

The matter of population transfer has provoked a debate among us: Is it permitted or forbidden? My conscience is absolutely clear in this respect. A remote neighbour is better than a close enemy. They [the Palestinians] will not lose from it. In the final analysis, this is a political and settlement reform for the benefit of both parties. I have long been of the opinion that this is the best of all solutions........I have always believed and still believe that they were destined to be transferred to Syria or Iraq.

A year later, at the Jewish Agency Executive's discussions of June 1938, Katznelson declared himself in favour of maximum territory and the "principle of compulsory transfer."

Supporters of "voluntary transfer" included Arthur Ruppin, a co-founder of Brit Shalom, a movement advocating binationalism and equal rights for Arabs and Jews; moderate Mapai leaders such as Moshe Shertok (later Sharett) and Eli'ezer Kaplan, the first Finance Minister of Israel; Histadrut leaders such as Golda Meir and Devid Remez. But perhaps the most consistent, extremist and obsessive advocate of "compulsory transfer" was Yosef Weitz, the director of the Jewish National Fund's Settlement Department and the head of the Israeli government's official Transfer Committee of 1948. Weitz was at the centre of the Zionist land purchasing activities for decades. His intimate knowledge and involvement in land purchase made him sharply aware of its limitations. As late as 1947, after half a century of tireless efforts, the collective ownership of the JNF--which constituted about half of the Yishuv total-- amounted to a mere 3.5 percent of the land area of Palestine. A summary of Weitz's political beliefs is provided by his diary entry dated 20 December 1940:

Amongst ourselves it must be clear that there is no room for both peoples in this country. No "development" will bring us closer to our aim to be an independent people in this small country. After the Arabs are transferred, the country will be wide open for us; with the Arabs staying the country will remain narrow and restricted.......There is no room for compromise on this point.......land purchasing.......will not bring about the state;....The only way is to transfer the Arabs from here to neighbouring countries, all of them, except perhaps Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Old Jerusalem. Not a single village or a single tribe must be left. And the transfer must be done through their absorption in Iraq and Syria and even in Transjordan. For that goal, money will be found- even a lot of money. And only then will the country be able to absorb millions of Jews..... there is no other solutions.

In 1930, against the background of the 1929 disturbances in Palestine, Weizmann, then President of both the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency Executive, actively began promoting ideas of Arab transfer in private discussions with British officials and ministers. In the same year Weizmann and Pinhas Rutenberg, who was both chairman of the Yishuv's National Council and a member of the Jewish Agency Executive, presented British Colonial Secretary Lord Passfield with an official, albeit secret, proposal for the transfer of Palestinian peasants to Transjordan. This scheme proposed that a loan of one million Palestinian pounds be raised from Jewish financial sources for the resettlement operation. This proposal was rejected by Lord Passfield. However, the justification Weizmann used in its defence formed the cornerstone of subsequent Zionist argumentation for transfer. Weizmann asserted that there was nothing "immoral" about the concept of transfer; that the "transfer" of Greek and Turkish populations in the early 1920s provided a precedent for a similar measure for the Palestinians; and that the uprooting and transportation of Palestinians to Transjordan, Iraq, Syria, or any other part of the vast Arab world would merely constitute a relocation from one Arab district to another. Above all, for Weizmann and other leaders of the Jewish Agency, the transfer was a systematic procedure, requiring preparation, money and a great deal of organization, which needed to be planned by strategic thinkers and technical experts.

While the desire among the Zionist leadership to be rid of the "Arab demographic problem" remained constant until the "miraculous clearing of the land" in 1948, the extent of preoccupation with, and the envisaged modalities of, transfer changed over the years according to circumstances. Thus the wishful and rather naive belief in Zionism's early years that the Palestinians could be "spirited across the border," in the words of Theodor Herzl, or that they would simply "fold their tents and slip away," to use the formulation of Israel Zangwill, soon gave way to more realistic assessments. From the mid-1930s onwards the transfer solution became central to the assessments of the Jewish Agency (practically the government of the Yishuv). Furthermore these assessments required strategies and planning that produced a series of specific plans, generally involving Transjordan, Syria, or Iraq. Some of these plans were produced by three Transfer Committees: the first two committees, set up by the Yishuv leadership, operated between 1937 and 1944 and the third was officially appointed by the Israeli cabinet in August 1948. As of the late 1930s some of these transfer plans included proposals for agrarian legislation and citizenship restriction and various taxes designed to encourage Palestinians to "transfer voluntarily."

In the 1930s and early 1940s Zionist transfer proposals and plans remained largely confined to private and secret talks with British (and occasionally American) senior officials; the Zionist leadership generally refrained from airing the highly sensitive proposals in public. On one occasion, Chaim Weizmann, in a secret meeting with the Soviet ambassador to London, Ivan Meiski, in February 1941, proposed a transfer of one million Palestinians to Iraq in order to settle Polish Jews in their place. More importantly, however, during the Mandatory period, for reasons of political expediency, the Zionists calculated that such proposals could not be carried out without Britain's active support and even actual British implementation.

The Zionist leadership was tireless in trying to shape the proposals of the Royal (Peel) Commission of 1937. It has generally escaped the attention of historians that the most significant proposal for transfer submitted to the Commission- the one destined to shape the outcome of its findings- was put forward by the Jewish Agency in a 1937 secret memorandum containing a specific paragraph on Arab transfer to Transjordan. The Peel Commission's principal recommendation was the partition of Palestine into two sovereign states- the one an Arab and the other a Jewish state. The Peel report added a specific recommendation for what it misleadingly called an "exchange" of populations- the some 225,000 Arabs residing in the territory allotted to the Jewish state against the 1,250 Jews living in the territory envisaged for the Arab state.

Not surprisingly, the Peel Commission's recommendations were strongly rejected by all shades of Palestinian opinion. They further triggered an unprecedented explosion of armed resistance among the Palestinian peasantry in the countryside. The ongoing Arab rebellion, which had been witnessing a lull, intensified. For the Zionists, on the other hand, the Peel Commission legitimized two basic concepts. First it endorsed the Zionist interpretation of the Balfour Declaration that the "Jewish National Home" meant a Jewish state, and second, it publicly sanctioned the long-sought-after Zionist dream of Arab transfer from such a state.

The "big three": Weizmann, Shertok, and Ben-Gurion, enthusiastically endorsed the Peel Commission's transfer proposal. The importance Ben-Gurion, in particular, attached not merely to transfer but forced transfer is seen in his diary entry of 12 July 1937:

The compulsory transfer of Arabs from the valleys of the proposed Jewish state could give us something which we never had, even when we stood on our own feet during the days of the First and Second Temple-[a Galilee free of Arab population].

He was convinced that few, if any, Palestinians would "voluntarily" transfer themselves to Transjordan. He also believed that if the Zionists were determined in their effort to put pressure on the British Mandatory authorities to carry out "compulsory transfer," the plan could be implemented:

We have to stick to this conclusion in the same way we grabbed the Balfour Declaration, more than that, in the same way we grabbed Zionism itself. We have to insist upon this conclusion [and push it] with our full determination, power and conviction......We must uproot from our hearts the assumption that the thing is not possible. It can be done.

Ben-Gurion went as far as to write: "We must prepare ourselves to carry out" the transfer [emphasis in the original].

From 1937 onwards very extensive secret discussions concerning Arab transfer were held in the Zionist movement's highest bodies: the Zionist Agency Executive; the Twentieth Zionist Congress; the World Convention of Ihud Po'alei Tzion, in addition the extensive discussions being held in the various official and non-official "Transfer Committees." Many leading figures justified Arab removal politically, morally, and ethically as the natural and logical continuation of Zionist colonization in Palestine. There was a general endorsement of the "moral" justification of the transfer concept; the differences centred on the question of "compulsory transfer" and whether such as course would be practicable (in the late 1930s-early 1940s) without Britain's support. The few critics of transfer schemes in the Yishuv, notably leaders of the Hashomer Hatza'ir movement and the Ihud group (most vocally Moshe Smilansky), both of which advocated an Arab-Jewish binational state, dismissed the concept of transfer as "anti-socialist" and "dangerous." However, the general support these schemes received and the attempt to promote them secretly by mainstream Labour leaders: Ben-Gurion, Weizmann, Shertok, Katznelson (died in 1944), Weitz and Golda Meir (some of whom played a decisive role in the 1948 war) highlights the ideological intent that made the Palestinian refugee exodus in 1948 possible.

With the 1948 war, the Zionists succeeded in many of their objectives; above all they created a vastly enlarged Jewish state (on 77 percent of historic Palestine) in which the Palestinians were forcibly reduced to a small and manageable minority. Since 1948 the concept of "transfer"/expulsion and its relevance to the 1948 exodus has been heatedly denied by Israeli academics- perhaps with the exception of a few revisionist/"new" historians (Benny Morris, Ilan Pappe, Simha Flapan, Avi Shlaim), whose works have appeared over the last decade. And the evacuation of some three quarters of a million Palestinians is still officially being ascribed not to the culmination of Zionist policy but to (mythical) orders issued by the Arab armies. The long debates about transfer within the Jewish Agency and other top Zionist leadership bodies- where for the most part the issue was not morality but feasibility, and where "liberals" were distinguished from "hard-liners" by whether they favoured "voluntary" or "compulsory" transfer- were seemingly forgotten. Pushed to the background, too, were the obsessive preparations such as those of Weitz and the Transfer Committees of the Jewish Agency aimed at bringing about the "miraculous clearing of the land" that took place in 1948-49.

The available evidence shows that a de facto, semi-official "transfer policy" was adopted in 1948 and was practically carried out, even if not always systematically or uniformly, throughout the period. Historians should recognize the complexity of, and the multi-phase and multi-cause explanation to, the 1948 exodus, which took place against the background of war and military campaign. But this fact should not obscure the primary responsibility of the Zionists for the displacement and dispossession of the Palestinians. In particular, David Ben-Gurion emerges from several books published in recent years as the great expeller of the Palestinians in 1948. From the territory occupied by the Israelis in 1948-49 about 90 percent of the Palestinians were driven out- many by psychological warfare and/or military pressure. Plus a very large number of Palestinians were expelled at gun point: examples of "outright expulsions" include the widely documented cases of the towns of Lydda and Ramle in July 1948- two very large expulsions which account for nearly 10 percent of the total exodus; the outright expulsion of the town of al-Faluja and remaining inhabitants of the towns of Beisan and of al-Majdal (in 1951); the outright expulsion of the villages of Safsaf, Sa's'a, al-Mansura, Tarbikha, Nabi Rubin, Kafr Bir'im, Suruh, Iqrit, Farradiya, Kafr 'Inan, al-Qudayriya, 'Arab al-Shamalina, Zangariya, 'Arab al-Suyyad, al-Bassa, al-Ghabisiya, Danna, Nuris, Tantura, Qisarya, Khirbet al-Sarkas, al-Dumayra, 'Arab al-Fuqara, 'Arab al-Nufay'at, Miska, Tabsar (Khirbet 'Azzun), Zarnuqa, al-Qubayba, Yibna, Zakariya, Najd, Sumsum, 'Iraq al-Manshiya, al-Dawayma and Dayr Yasin. Dayr Yasin was also the site of the most notorious massacre perpetrated against Palestinian civilians in 1948- a massacre which became the single most important contributory factor to the 1948 exodus. The historiography of recent years has documented some 28 (large and small) massacres carried out by Jewish forces in 1948-49. The same period was also a time during which opportunities, as Weitz (head of the Israeli government's Transfer Committee of 1948 and a close associate of Ben-Gurion) had exhorted his countrymen, were not to be missed.

The fact that no written blanket orders unambiguously calling for the wholesale expulsion of the Arab population have been found has been cited by the Israeli historian Benny Morris as indicating the absence of premeditated design. Morris concluded that the exodus was borne of the exigencies of war. In answer to Morris, Plan Dalet, the Haganah plan of early March 1948, a straightforward document, was also, in many ways, a master plan for the expulsion of as many Palestinians as could be expelled. The 1948-49 expulsions were not just the result of military orders issued by Jewish local commanders for strategic and military considerations; they were also the result of painstaking preparations and an unswerving vision stated and restated in the inner sanctums of the Zionist movement with tedious repetitiveness between 1937 and 1948.

 

 


 

Nur Masalha is a lecturer in Middle East Politics at Richmond, The American International University in London. His books include Expulsion of the Palestinians: The Concept of "Transfer" in Zionist Political Thought, 1882-1948 (Washington D.C., 1992); A Land Without a People: Israel, Transfer and the Palestinians, 1949-1996 (London: Faber and Faber, 1997). This article is largely based on Expulsion of the Palestinians.


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