A recent article in The Washington Post by Marya Hannun “commemorating” Nakba Day tells of the incidents of May 14, the day Jaffa “fell” to the “marauding Hagana.” As she puts it, her “Christian grandmother... and her sisters fled by boat to Beirut as the violence of the militias (sic) reached her family’s town...
her family lost their flour mill, houses and all their land.”
Several decades later, Hannun, granddaughter of the woman who fled by boat to Beirut in 1948, visited Jaffa and tracked down the family flour mill. “A pale pink building on an otherwise nondescript block... owned by Israelis and still operating... I wondered, as I often do, if she had had a choice, would she have left anyway?... I realized...
that she did not have a choice in 1948, and like millions of Palestinians in exile, continues to be denied one today.”
In and of itself, Hannun’s article is typical of a revisionist history handed down as family lore, of the formation of the State of Israel and the events that led up to its official founding on May 14, 1948.
Nothing could have been further from the truth of what actually happened.
While Hannun’s account is kitchen-table history, what actually happened was that the overwhelming majority of Mandate Arabs left what was then the newly-established State of Israel on their own accord in a war their leaders created.
While those in the Yishuv (pre-state Jewish population) established their own civil society over the span of three decades under the Mandate, the Mandate Arabs invested all of their energies in fighting any form of Jewish polity-in-the-making.
The British actually encouraged the creation of an Arab Agency parallel to the Jewish Agency, but that initiative to get local Arabs to follow a path of state-building similar to that of the Zionists once they envisioned the division of western Palestine in the 1920s was in vain. Thus, when the British departed, the Mandate Arabs remained unorganized and ill-prepared not only for statehood (which they rejected in any case), but also for sustained conflict with the new State of Israel.
Moreover – Hannun’s victim account of the “fall” of Jaffa notwithstanding – history shows that even before the outbreak of hostilities in 1948, Mandate Arab social, political and economic elites fled to neighboring countries, which in turn spurred disillusionment and demoralization, setting an example for hundreds of thousands of other rank-and-file Arabs to take to the roads.
In January 1948, Hussein Khalidi, secretary of the Arab Higher Committee, complained to the mufti: “Forty days after the declaration of a jihad, and I am shattered....
Everyone has left me. Six [AHC members] are in Cairo, two are in Damascus – I won’t be able to hold on much longer.... Everyone is leaving.
Everyone who has a check or some money – off he goes to Egypt, to Lebanon, to Damascus.”
EFRAIM KARSH, then head of the Mediterranean Studies program at London University’s King’s College, added: “By April 1948, a month before Israel’s declaration of independence, and at a time when the Arabs appeared to be winning the war, some 100,000 Palestinians, mostly from the main urban centers of Jaffa, [emphasis mine] Haifa, and Jerusalem, and from villages in the coastal plain, had gone. Within another month those numbers had nearly doubled; and by early June, according to an internal Hagana report, some 390,000 Palestinians had left.
By the time the war was over in 1949, the number of refugees had risen to between 550,000 and 600,000.”
But it was not only Israeli historians who documented what really happened.
The Cairo newspaper Akhbr El-Yom, for instance, quoted the mufti of Jerusalem on the first day of the invasion appealing to the Arabs of Palestine to leave the country because “The Arab armies were about to enter and fight in their stead.”
In fact, in two major cities with large Arab populations – Haifa and Jaffa – Arab authorities organized the exodus, ordering Arab residents to leave, and the local populace, bereft of their feudal overseers who had already fled, obeyed not least because of Arab threats warning that those who stayed would be viewed as renegades.
The British commander in Haifa, Maj.-Gen. Hugh Stockwell, pleaded with the Arabs of Haifa as they prepared to depart: “You have made a foolish decision. Think it over, as you’ll regret it afterwards. You must accept the conditions of the Jews. They are fair enough. Don’t permit life to be destroyed senselessly. After all, it was you who began the fighting and the Jews have won.”
The flight of the Arab peasantry from Jaffa, Haifa and Lod remains a human tragedy, but they remain a tragedy of the Arabs’ own making. Historians estimate that of the roughly 500,000 Arabs who were “uprooted,” more than 50% left of their own accord. And prior to actual war in April and May of 1948, they ran away primarily from the chaos, the anarchy, the economic deterioration and the miserable living conditions under their tribal leaders.
There can be no doubt that if there had not been war, there would not have been Arab refugees. And while the Hagana did indeed forcibly clear villages bordering Yishuv settlements during the outbreak of hostilities, they did so only because those villages were a present and direct violent threat to the legally created State of Israel at that time.
As the departing British high commissioner Sir Alan Cunningham, no particular friend of the Jews, said in May 1948, the fact that such steps were justified as a matter of sheer survival: “The Jews for their part can hardly be blamed if in the face of past Arab irregular action and of continued threats of interference by Arab regular forces, they take time by the forelock and consolidate their position while they can.”
I have not personally been to the pink flour mill in Yafo (née Jaffa). Yet. But I do know that if I did visit, and if the walls could talk, they would tell me that had it not been for the mufti and tribal Arab leaders who exhorted the local population to flee or be counted as traitors, Marya Hannun’s family would still be running the mill.The writer is a retired educator in Australia who writes about aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
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