Last week, United States Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib held an event entitled “Nakba 75 & the Palestinian People” to mark the Nakba, the Arabic word for a catastrophe that has been used to refer to Israel’s establishment. The invitation to this event dishonestly claimed that “Seventy-five years ago, Zionist militias and the new Israeli military violently expelled approximately three-quarters of all Palestinians from their homes.” The truth is that there were a variety of different factors that explain how Palestinians became refugees, one of which is the role Arab leadership had in facilitating Palestinians to flee.
Following the passage of the Partition Plan in November 1947, Arab riots broke out and a civil war erupted. During the ensuing fighting, local Arab leaders encouraged Palestinian Arabs to flee. A prime example could be seen in what transpired in Haifa. In January 1948, Hajj Amin al Husseini instructed a delegation of Arabs in Haifa to “remove the women and children from the danger areas in order to reduce the number of casualties.”
In March, Haifa’s Arab Committee echoed a similar message, calling for an orderly evacuation of the women and children. When the Hagana arrived in Haifa on April 21, 1948, only about half of the city’s inhabitants remained. The Times of London, reporting on the events transpiring on April 22 recounted that “the Jewish Hagana asked (using loudspeakers) Arabs to remain at their homes but most of the Arab population followed their leaders who asked them to leave the country.”
Similarly, Time magazine reported in a May 3, 1948 article that, “the mass evacuation, prompted partly by fear, partly by order of Arab leaders, left the Arab quarter of Haifa a ghost city... By withdrawing Arab workers their leaders hoped to paralyze Haifa.”
The London weekly Economist reported on the effects the Arab leaders had on the masses fleeing Haifa on October 2, 1948, and mentioned that “Of the 62,000 Arabs who formerly lived in Haifa, not more than 5,000 or 6,000 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.”
Aside from Haifa, in the city of Tiberias, local Arab leaders chose to clear the town of its Arab inhabitants and did so with the assistance of the British. In Jaffa, following the withdrawal of Jewish militiamen from the city, local Arab leaders organized the evacuation of roughly 20,000 residents that did not flee during or before the fighting. Similar scenarios occurred in dozens of Arab villages during the course of the war.
THE WAR would escalate from an intrastate war to an interstate war on May 15, 1948, the day after Israel declared its independence when five Arab armies invaded Israel with the intention of destroying it. Arab leaders believed that they would achieve victory quickly, given that the Arab armies were superior in troop numbers and equipment.
These leaders thus encouraged Arabs living in Israel to get out of the way of the advancing Arab armies and promised them that they would be able to return after quickly winning the war. For instance, then-Iraqi prime minister Nuri Said was quoted saying, “We will smash the country with our 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.”
False promises by Arab leaders
Some of the refugees relied on the promises made by the Arab leaders and fled believing that their absence would only be temporary. George Hakim encapsulated this sentiment when he observed that, “The refugees were confident that 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.”
Many refugees themselves have corroborated the above, such as Fuad Khader, a Palestinian refugee, who explained in an interview broadcast on official PA television on May 15, 2013, that, “the one who made us leave was the Jordanian army because there were going to be battles and we would be under their feet. They told us, ‘Leave. In two hours, we will liberate it and then you’ll return.’”
Similarly, former Jordanian MP Talal Abu Ghazaleh, who fled Jaffa, recalled that “cars with megaphones roamed the streets, demanding that people leave so the fighting would succeed. They called to us in Arabic: ‘We – the Palestinians, the fighters – want to fight and don’t want you to impede us so we ask you to leave the city [Jaffa] immediately.’ All of us – me, my family, and the others – left any way we could.”
Along with encouraging Palestinians to flee, Arab leaders also contributed to the plight of the Palestinians by exaggerating or creating false stories of Jewish atrocities. For instance, Palestinian refugee Yunes Ahmed Assad told a Jordanian newspaper in 1953, “The Arab exodus from other villages was not caused by the actual battle but by the exaggerated description spread by Arab leaders to incite them to fight the Jews.”
In summation, the above shows that the statement put out in Tlaib’s invitation is unequivocally false, as Arab leaders also contributed to Palestinians becoming refugees through their actions and false promises.
The writer is a lawyer in the US, and graduate of Widener University, School of Law, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania campus.