The Palestinian Catastrophe, Then and Now
the pretext of forcing the release of a single soldier "kidnapped by terrorists"
(or, if you prefer, "captured by the resistance"), Israel has done the
following: seized members of a democratically elected government; bombed its interior
ministry, the prime minister's offices, and a school; threatened another sovereign
state (Syria) with a menacing overflight; dropped leaflets from the air, warning
of harm to the civilian population if it does not "follow all orders of the
IDF" (Israel Defense Forces); loosed nocturnal "sound bombs" under
orders from the Israeli prime minister to "make sure no one sleeps at night
in Gaza"; fired missiles into residential areas, killing children; and demolished
a power station that was the sole generator of electricity and running water for
hundreds of thousands of Gazans.
Besieged Palestinian families, trapped
in a locked-up Gaza, are in many cases down to one meal a day, eaten in candlelight.
Yet their desperate conditions go largely ignored by a world accustomed to extreme
Israeli measures in the name of security: nearly 10,000 Palestinians locked in
Israeli jails, many without charge; 4,000 Gaza and West Bank homes demolished
since 2000 and hundreds of acres of olive groves plowed under; three times as
many civilians killed as in Israel, many due to "collateral damage"
in operations involving the assassination of suspected militants.
up!" shouted the young Palestinian journalist Mohammed Omer from Gaza on
San Francisco's "Arab Talk" radio in late June. "The Gaza people
are starving. There is a real humanitarian crisis. Our children are born to live.
Don't these people have any heart? No feelings at all? The world is silent!"
For the Palestinians, Omer's cry speaks to a collective understanding: That the
world sees the life of an Arab as infinitely less valuable than that of an Israeli;
that no amount of suffering by innocent Palestinians is too much to justify the
return of a single Jewish soldier. This understanding, and the rage and humiliation
it fuels, has been driven home again and again through decades of shellings, wars,
and uprisings past. Indeed Omer's plaintive words form a mantra, echoing all the
way back to the first war between the Arabs and the Jews, and especially to 5
searing mid-July days 58 years ago.
The Arab-Israeli war of 1948, known in Israel as the War of Independence, is called
al-Nakba or the Catastrophe by Palestinians. For generations of Americans raised
on the heroic story of Israel's birth, especially as written by Leon Uris in Exodus,
there is no place for al-Nakba. Yet this fundamental Palestinian wound, and the
power of its memory today, cannot simply be wished away.
The obscure anniversary
in question, July 11-15, is little known outside of Palestinian memory. Yet it
helped forge the fury, militancy, and Palestinian longing for land in exile that
helps drive the conflict today. In fact, it's not possible to understand today's
firefights without first understanding the Nakba, and especially what transpired
under the brutal sun just east of Tel Aviv in the midsummer of 1948.
July 11, 1948, a convoy of halftracks and jeeps from Israeli Commando Battalion
Eighty-Nine approached the Arab city of Lydda on the coastal plain of Palestine.
The 150 soldiers were part of a large fighting force made up of Holocaust survivors,
literally just off the boats and themselves the dispossessed of a European catastrophe,
as well as Jews born in Palestine who had sharpened their fighting skills in World
War II with the British army. Their jeeps were mounted with Czech- and German-made
machine guns, each capable of firing at least 800 rounds per minute. The battalion
leader, a young colonel named Moshe Dayan, had passed along orders for a lightning
assault that relied on firepower and total surprise.
The war had officially
begun in May, following months of hostilities between Arabs and Jews. In November
1947, the United Nations had voted to partition Palestine into two states, one
for the Arabs and one for the Jews. For the Zionist movement, as for many people
around the world, this represented a guarantee of a safe haven for Jews in the
wake of the Holocaust. The Arab majority in Palestine, however, wondered why they
should be the solution to the Jewish tragedy in Europe. They owned the vast majority
of the land, including 80% of its citrus groves and grain fields, and the Arab
population that fell on the Jewish side of the partition had no desire to become
a minority on their own land. They wanted an Arab-majority state for all the people
of Palestine, and they appealed for help from neighboring Arab states to prevent
the Jews from establishing the state of Israel.
Fighting intensified in
the early months of 1948. In April, a massacre by the Jewish militia Irgun in
the Arab village of Deir Yassin shot waves of fear through Arab Palestine; this
provoked a reprisal massacre by Arabs of Jewish doctors and nurses on the road
to Hadassah hospital near Jerusalem. In the meantime, in the wake of Deir Yassin
many thousands of Arab villagers fled for safe haven, intending to come back once
the hostilities ceased.
On May 13, the Arab coastal town of Jaffa fell,
and refugees began filling the streets of Lydda and the neighboring town, al-Ramla.
The next day, in a speech to the Jewish provisional council, David Ben-Gurion
declared Israel's independence, and on May 15, Arab armies crossed the borders
to launch attacks on the new Jewish state. The Arab and Jewish fighting forces
on the ground, contrary to subsequent narratives much-repeated in the West, were
relatively equal as the war began. For a time the Arabs appeared to have a slight
edge, but during a four-week truce that began on June 11, Israel was able to break
a U.N. arms embargo, and as the war resumed in early July, Israel had a decided
In the late afternoon of July 11, the convoy of Battalion Eighty-Nine
turned left off a dirt track and roared toward Lydda. At the edge of town they
began shooting from the convoy's mounted machine guns - tens of thousands of bullets
in a few minutes. "Everything in their way died," wrote the correspondent
for the Chicago Sun Times, in an article headlined "Blitz Tactics Won Lydda."
The Commandos were followed by Israel's regular army, which occupied Lydda and
brutally put down a brief local uprising: 250 people died, including at most four
Israeli soldiers as well as up to 80 unarmed civilians in a local mosque. In the
meantime, Israeli planes had strafed the two towns and dropped fliers demanding
the Palestinians take flight to the east, toward the kingdom of Transjordan. Local
Palestinian doctors worked feverishly, without electricity, using strips of bed
sheets for bandages as they struggled to save the wounded.
The next day,
Major Yitzhak Rabin ordered the expulsion of the Arab civilian population of Lydda
and of the neighboring town of al-Ramla.
Stumbling Into History
These expulsions have long been a point of contention for those who see Israel
only through the lens of its triumphant emergence after the Holocaust. Leon Uris's
mega-bestselling novel, Exodus, which many Americans were raised on, powerfully
told one side of the story, that of the birth of Israel out of the Holocaust.
Yet we are left knowing nothing of the Arab perspective: their history, their
culture, their hopes, and their tragedy in 1948.
I've spent much of the
last eight years trying to understand the roots of the Arab-Israeli conflict from
both sides for my book, The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew, and the Heart of the Middle
East. I've come to understand that the Nakba is as fundamental to the Palestinian
narrative as the Holocaust is to the Israeli one. It is not possible to grasp
the depths of the current tragedy, to say nothing of the fury and despair of the
Arabs, without understanding the roots of the Palestinian catastrophe.
The expulsions from Ramla and Lydda as well as from other Palestinian towns and
villages in 1948 is documented in Israeli state, military, and kibbutz archives,
and by numerous Israeli historians, including Benny Morris (The Birth of the Palestinian
Refugee Crisis; 1948 and After); Tom Segev (1949: The First Israelis), and Alon
Kadish (The Conquest of Lydda, published by the IDF). Further corroboration of
the expulsions in Lydda and Ramla comes from the writing of Yigal Allon, then
chief of Israel's Palmach (army); by a local kibbutz leader of the day, Israel
Galili B; by Rabin himself in his memoirs; and by dozens of interviews I did for
The Lemon Tree in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and Lebanon since 1998.
The expulsions of the Palestinians from Lydda and Ramla began en masse on July
13 and continued for three days. The Arabs of al-Ramla, who had surrendered without
incident, were put on buses and driven to the front lines of the fighting, where
(like the Arabs of Lydda) they were ordered out and told to walk.
Lydda, Palestinians were marched out of town and toward the hills in the general
direction of the Christian hill town of Ramallah, more than 20 miles away. Jewish
soldiers would later recall a desire to punish the Arabs of Lydda for their aborted
uprising; some soldiers confiscated gold from the refugees, and shot in the air
behind them to speed their departure. (That same month in an Israeli cabinet meeting,
as the historian Benny Morris has documented, minister Aharon Cohen declared that
Israeli troops in Lydda had been "ordered" to "take from the expelled
Arabs every watch, piece of jewelry or money
so that, arriving completely
destitute, they would become a burden on the Arab legion," the army of King
Abdullah of neighboring Transjordan.)
The Palestinians had planned for
a short journey, in miles and in days; many had no time to gather sufficient supplies
for the arduous journey ahead. They left behind nearly all their belongings: dishes
and vases, leather and soaps, Swedish ovens and copper pots, framed family pictures,
spices for makloubeh, and the flour for the dough of their date pastries. They
left their fields of wild peas and jasmine, their passiflora and dried scarlot
anemone, their mountain lilies that grew between the barley and the wheat. They
left their olives and oranges, lemons and apricots, spinach and peppers and okra;
their sumac; their indigo.
The one thing the Arabs did bring was whatever
gold they had stored for safekeeping; it would become their traveling savings
bank, their means to stave off starvation in the coming days. They strapped chains,
coins, or gold bars to bodies that would seem to grow heavier with each step.
At least 30,000 Palestinians, and possibly as many as 50,000, moved through the
hills toward Ramallah in the immediate aftermath of their expulsion from Ramla
and Lydda. John Bagot Glubb, the British commander of the Arab Legion, recalled
"a blazing day in the coastal plain, the temperature about a hundred degrees
in the shade."
From Lydda and from al-Ramla, the people went along
dirt tracks, camel trails, and open country. The earth was baked hard and hot
along the "donkey road." If a donkey can make it, recalled an Arab from
Ramla in an interview with me, perhaps they could too. The refugees quickly shed
their suitcases, and then their outer clothing. Water ran out early. When they
came to a cornfield, some sucked the moisture out of kernels of corn. Several
refugee women told me of arriving at a well with a broken rope and removing their
dresses to dip them in the stagnant water below so that children could drink from
the cloth. One elderly woman - a teenager at the time - recalled watching a boy
pee into a can, so that his grandmother could drink from it.
onward like a mammoth beast, awkward, clumsy," Reja-e Busailah, a refugee
from Lydda, remembered in an essay written 40 years later with a vividness that
shows how deeply the event was burned into memory. "I began to hear of new
things. I would pass people lying, resting in the heat without shade. I would
hear them talk of the old father or grandfather who had been left behind."
There were stories of mothers who became delirious and left their babies; of mothers
who died while nursing; of a strong young man who carried his grandfather on his
back like a sack of potatoes; of a man who took the gold from his old wife and
left her to die. "Some would throw a cover on a woman's body," Busaileh
wrote. "We would pass dead babies and live babies, all the same, abandoned
on the side or in ditches... Someone talked later of having seen a baby still
alive on the bosom of a dead woman
It was only then that I thought to myself
that, had I known, I would have carried it instead of the gold."
the old people, and the very young, it was often too much. Busaileh himself was
close to giving up. "If only the sun would go away, if only the thirst, if
only the gold
I went down again. This time I lay on my back. A woman passed
and uttered words of pity as though over someone already dead. I got up ashamed
Of all the stories of the Palestinian Nakba, none
surpasses this march through the hills from al-Ramla and Lydda 58 years ago this
month. "Nobody will ever know how many children died," Glubb would recall
in his memoir, A Soldier with the Arabs. The Death March, as the Palestinians
call it, along with the massacre at Deir Yassin, represent two of the central
traumas that form the Palestinian catastrophe. Countless thousands fled from their
villages, many because of "whispering campaigns" by Israeli military
intelligence agents, which, following Deir Yassin, were designed to spark Arab
fears of another massacre. Tens of thousands more were driven from their homes
A Case of Never Again Gone Mad
The Nakba is so
little known in the west, and its central narrative so contrary to the familiar
"Uris history," that I went to extraordinary lengths in my book to document
it. My source notes alone come to 30,000 words. My most compelling sources on
the expulsions for Western readers will be the Israelis themselves. Rabin, in
his memoir, described how in the critical days of mid-July 1948, he asked Ben-Gurion
what to do with the civilian population of Ramla and Lydda, and that the prime
minister had "waved his hand in a gesture which said, 'Drive them out!'"
Yigal Allon, writing in the journal of the Palmach in July 1948, described the
military advantages of the mass expulsions: Driving out the citizens of Ramla
and Lydda would alleviate the pressure from an armed and hostile population, while
clogging the roads toward the Arab Legion front, seriously hampering any effort
to retake the towns. Allon also described in detail the psychological operations
whereby local kibbutz leaders would "whisper in the ears of some Arabs, that
a great Jewish reinforcement has arrived," and that "they should suggest
to these Arabs, as their friends, to escape while there is still time
tactic reached its goal completely
The refugees from Ramla and Lydda arrived
in exile, transforming the Christian hill town of Ramallah into a repository of
misery and trauma. One hundred thousand refugees crowded into school yards, gymnasiums,
convents, army barracks, or slept in olive groves, caves, corrals, barnyards,
and on open ground along the roadsides. They would, in the end, join more than
600,000 other refugees to form an ever growing, ever more desperate Palestinian
In the coming years, the rage, humiliation, loss, and longing
for home of the exiled refugees would coalesce around a single concept: Return.
This, in turn, helped build what the Palestinians would call their liberation
movement, whose tactics ever since would be considered the heroic acts of freedom-fighters
by one side, and terrorism by another.
The trauma of the Nakba has shaped
the identity of Palestinians, honed their fury, and built a memory album around
stone arches, rusted keys, golden fields, and trees that now no longer exist,
and whose mythically abundant fruits grow more bountiful in the imagination with
each passing year.
In the most recent Israeli attacks on Gaza, as in countless
explosions of battles past, the trauma is only re-engaged. Fifty-eight summers
after the Nabka - as Palestinian women again sell off their gold to buy olives
and bread; as Israeli planes again drop leaflets with dire warnings for Arab civilians;
as doctors lacking medicines or electricity again struggle to rescue the wounded
- a déjà vu settles over the old men and women of the refugee camps,
and in the vast diaspora beyond, reminding them of yet another bitter anniversary
The latest attacks by Israel in Gaza, ostensibly on behalf of a single
soldier, recall the comments by extremist Rabbi Yaacov Perrin, in his eulogy for
American Jewish settler Baruch Goldstein, who in 1994 slaughtered 27 Palestinians
praying in the Cave of the Patriarchs, part of the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron.
"One million Arabs," Perrin declared, "are not worth a Jewish fingernail."
Israelis, too, are a traumatized people, and Israel's current actions are driven
in part by a hard determination, born of the Holocaust, to "never again go
like sheep to the slaughter." But if "never again" drives the politics
of reprisal, few seem to notice that the reprisals themselves are completely out
of scale to the provocation: for every crude Qassam rocket falling usually harmlessly
and far from its target, dozens, sometimes hundreds of shells rain down with far
more destructive power on the Palestinians. For one missing soldier, a million
and a half Gazans are made to suffer. Today, Israel's policy is a case of "never
again" gone mad.
The irony is that, contrary to helping build the
safe harbor they have sought for so long, the Israeli government, just like the
U.S. in Iraq, is only sowing the seeds of more hatred and rage.
Sandy Tolan is the author of The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart
of the Middle East (Bloomsbury, 2006). He directs the Project on International
Reporting at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California-Berkeley,
where he was an I.F. Stone Fellow. He has produced dozens of documentaries for
National Public Radio, reported from the Middle East since 1994, and from more
than two dozen countries over the last 25 years. He has also served as an oral
history consultant to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.
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