On July 13, 1948, thousands of Arabs left their homes in Lydda (now Lod) and marched in the heat of the summer toward Ramallah, then held by the Arab Legion. Why they did this has been the subject of great historical and political debate.
One account explains the exodus as a product of the civil war that preceded the May 1948 attack on Israel by its Arab neighbors.
Another account, now making the rounds of Jewish book clubs across the United States, is Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land. Ignoring the recent work of prominent Israeli academicians and the growing body of first-hand narratives and other primary sources, Shavit paints the exodus as an act of ethnic cleansing.
Citing primary sources, from by Israel Defense Forces (IDF) telegrams and reports, to documents found at the Lydda Military Command, to personal accounts by both Jewish and Arab participants, Israeli academicians Avraham Sela, Alon Kadish and Arnon Golan’s book, The Occupation of Lod, July 1948, meticulously documents the unfolding of events. Here is the account, in brief.
On November 30, 1947, the day after the UN voted to partition the British Mandate of Palestine, Arab fighters launched the War of the Roads. Stationed in Lydda and other towns along the major trade routes, they attacked trucks and later convoys carrying supplies to Jewish Jerusalem and other Jewish villages. In July 1948, the IDF implemented Operation Dani whose ultimate goal was to gain control of the road to Jerusalem. The first objective of the operation was to capture Lydda.
The attack on Lydda was not organized or carried out as planned, as indicated by IDF reports and telegrams. It was led by the Palmach, a part of the IDF. On July 11, Moshe Dayan’s jeep force drove into the city, opened fire, got lost, came under heavy attack by the Arab Legion, and withdrew permanently.
Then 300 foot soldiers, led by Palmach commander Mula Cohen, with no heavy arms (and not aware of Dayan’s intention not to support their push) entered the city. They took tenuous hold of part of the city center.
According to accounts by both Jewish and Arab sources, Arab fighters gathered at their headquarters, olive groves, and the police station.
This is well-established by first-hand accounts of Shmaryahu Gutman, the Palmach leader in charge of negotiating with the Arab population of Lydda, and Arab civilian guard member Spiro Munayyer.
On the following day, July 12, two or three Arab Legion tanks entered Lydda and opened fire on Jewish forces. Arab Legion forces stationed at the police station and other local fighters launched a counterattack. After heavy fighting, the Palmach maintained its precarious hold on part of the city center. The Palmach exchanged fire with soldiers at the police station throughout the night and by the morning of July 13, they discovered that all but one injured fighter in the police station had abandoned the city.
Meanwhile, Shmaryahu Gutman, according to his 1948 testimony, had spent two days negotiating with the Arab leaders of Lydda asking them to lay down their arms. They had sent a town crier to announce that all arms were to be placed in the front of the houses.
Not a single weapon was handed over. Like the Jews, the Arabs anticipated a counterattack by the Arab Legion and hoped to wait it out. The Palmach, however, had gathered approximately 4,000 men of military age, held in a mosque and a church. Still, the Arabs refused to surrender. Only after the city leaders realized that the Arab Legion forces had abandoned the police station on the morning of July 13, did they agree to make a deal. If the 4,000 men were released, the Arabs would leave the city. And so it was that most, but not all of the Arab residents left Lydda.
Shavit’s account rests on two false premises.
The first is that the IDF captured Lydda from an unsuspecting civilian population who were easily overtaken. Primary sources, however, indicate that the Arab fighters were wellarmed and vastly outnumbered the Jewish forces. Sela and Kadish estimate that at least 1,000 local fighters and 50 soldiers from the Arab Legion held 25 anti-tank launchers, 20 machine guns, armored cars, submachine guns and rifles.
The second false premise is that prime minister David Ben-Gurion issued a top-down order to Yigal Allon, head of the Palmach, to expel the Arab inhabitants. This fallacy is one enthusiastically embraced by those who accuse Israel of ethnic cleansing. Primary sources clearly show that the decision was initiated by the commanders on the ground under fire.
These primary sources include Palmach commander Mula Cohen’s reports and telegrams from Lydda, other first-hand accounts, and an official IDF directive issued on July 6, 1948.
The directive, found in the IDF archive 2135/50, File 42, on the subject of “Discipline,” orders that: “Outside of active fighting, it is forbidden... to expel Arab residents from their villages, neighborhoods, and cities and to displace residents without special permission or the clear instruction from the Defense Minister in each specific case. Anyone violating this order will be tried.” The directive was issued to prevent expulsion, not to provoke it.
Mula Cohen, however, was unaware of this directive. In his memoirs To Give and To Receive, Mula Cohen writes “Let me be clear: I do not deny that it was I, as head of the brigade, who made the decision, and only after did I receive the permission of the commanders of Operation Dani.” Yigal Allon accepted Cohen’s view that the only way to hold Lydda was to expel the residents. Allon and Yitzhak Rabin, his deputy, argued about it and went to Ben-Gurion. They were perhaps aware of the directive and of the fact that they needed to obtain his permission, since at the time he was also serving as defense minister.
What’s missing in Shavit’s books and in most popular histories that are now being written, the elephant in the room, is why the IDF targeted Lydda in the first place.
Lydda had been housing both local and foreign fighters who attacked the Jewish convoys during the War of the Roads. Today this war is gradually being written out of popular history and national memory.
Operation Dani, which precipitated the mass exodus of the Arabs from Lydda and Ramla, was the first in a series of three initiatives, the ultimate goal of which was to free the road to Jerusalem to feed the 100,000 Jews living there.
When I tried to explain this to my Jewish book club, nobody had heard of the War of the Roads, or of the Jewish children who were starving in Jerusalem. I couldn’t forget, of course, because my father was one of those children.
The author is an American-Israeli writer and development editor of textbooks and online education products for McGraw-Hill, Cengage, Pearson, Oxford University Press and other educational companies. She has an MA in Political Science from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is a former student of Avraham Sela, mentioned below.