Irene Gendzier: September 2011 and May 1948 – the great fear, now and then

By Irene Gendzier, ZNet – 23 July 2011

Irene Gendzier

Irene Gendzier

What will the Palestinians do at the UN in September? The question appears to haunt Washington and Tel Aviv as they prepare to block Palestinian attempts to obtain UN recognition, as though the very idea of such action represents a form of political impudence that merits the harshest international rejection. Sober accounts by Palestinians of what they may expect from a trip to the UN have done little to allay the dark cloud of suspicion that is fostered in mainstream accounts. The same can be said of references to the refugee problem whose origins are regularly shrouded in distortions if not simply deleted. The combination is invariably offered by Washington and Tel Aviv as further proof of the efforts to ‘delegitimize’ the state of Israel. Admittedly from their perspective, opening of discussion of these questions is unacceptable since it constitutes a risk, the risk that the American public may discover that the problems at the root of the great fear that looms over September are not new. They have been part of the conflict over Palestine at least since 1948, as has the U.S.A.

It was in 1948 and not in 1967 that the ‘special relationship’ between the U.S. and Israel originated. That relationship, from the outset, was forged in the broader context of Washington’s oil interests and accompanying military ambitions in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East more generally. U.S. officials openly recognized that Palestine was an inseparable part of this. By 1948 they were on record as committed to the UN Partition Plan though wary of the effects of escalating violence in Palestine on U.S. interests. That wariness increased in direct proportion to the acceleration of conflict generated by UNGA Res. 181 and its plan to partition Palestine, which led U.S. officials to call for a reconsideration of the question.

What follows is an abridged account of what led to this point and away from it, a period in which then-President Truman and the policy-making elite confronted the Jewish Agency for Palestine’s expansionist policies and its violent attacks on Palestinians as well as Palestinian and Arab rejection of partition. The record was clear as to the nature of the aggravated causes of continued conflict, including the conditions that led to the refugee problem, which Washington criticized — at least ostensibly. This is one part of the history that is discussed in the pages that follow. The other, which I have elaborated elsewhere,[1] is that U.S. officials concluded that Israel’s triumph of force, which Washington lamented as inadequate for long term peace, was more than adequate for the protection of U.S. interests. The resulting policies trumped support for Palestinian refugees as well as the attempt to curb Israeli expansion.

As the date of Britain’s departure from Palestine as the Mandatory Power approached, the level of tension visibly increased in the White House, and between the White House and various government departments (the State Department, including its Policy Planning Staff, the Defense Department, the CIA, and the U.S. delegation to the UN. The great fear was that chaos would descend on Palestine as the colonial power made its exit, with obvious risks to U.S. interests in the Arab East where U.S.-controlled Saudi oil concessions fueled the Marshall Plan.

What was to be done? By the winter of 1948 State and Defense Department officials agreed that the escalation of conflict could no longer be ignored as U.S. and international officers bore witness to its destructive consequences. U.S. officials in Palestine had been sending reports of increasing violence and an escalation of the conflict between Jewish forces in the Hagana, Irgun and Stern Gang, whose movements the Hagana could not control or in which it acquiesced. They were also apprised of the hostility of Palestinian and Arab leaders towards partition, but they recognized that their military capacity was no match to that of the Yishuv, the Jewish community of Palestine, contrary to the later myth of David and Goliath.

In Palestine, meanwhile, Arab forces carried out attacks against Jewish settlements as a result of which the Irgun retaliated. According to the expose published by the Israeli National Secretary of Mapam and the Director of its Arab Affairs Department in 1987, “the Irgun used a car bomb to blow up the government center in Jaffa, killing twenty-six Arab civilians. Three days later, they planted explosives at Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem, and another twenty-five Arab civilians were killed. A pattern became clear, for in each case the Arabs retaliated, then the Hagana — while always condemning the actions of the Irgun and LEHI — joined in with an inflaming ‘counterretaliation.'”[2]

According to the January 1948 diaries of David Ben-Gurion, “the strategic objective [of the Jewish forces] was to destroy the urban communities, which were the most organized and politically conscious sections of the Palestinian people.”[3] The result was the “collapse and surrender of Haifa, Jaffa, Tiberias, Safed, Acre, Beit-Shan, Lydda, Ramleh, Majdal, and Beersheba. Deprived of transportation, food, and raw materials, the urban communities underwent a process of disintegration, chaos, and hunger, which forced them to surrender.”

The impact on U.S. officials in Palestine was sobering. The Consul in Jerusalem conceded that “any hopes we may have held that the disturbances immediately following the UN decision represented a passing phase, and that more tranquil times would soon return, have now been dispelled.”[4] The number of deaths was reported to have reached over a thousand, with twice that number wounded. As to the Palestinian government still under British control, it was “in a state of disintegration,” with disruption of services near government offices a reflection of the absence of cooperation between Arabs and Jews. Plans for the UN Commission to visit and assess the situation were in question. Yet, as the U.S. Consul affirmed, “Jewish officials say they have no doubts about their ability to set up their state,” or to defend the line between Haifa-Tel Aviv, unlike the Eastern Galilee and the Negev, and the future of the 100,000 Jews in Jerusalem about which they were concerned.[5] The U.S. Consul pointedly concluded that neither Arab attacks, nor UN or U.S. doubts about ongoing developments would fundamentally alter the objective of the Jewish Agency.

In the same period, Dean Rusk, who was then Director of the Office of UN Affairs, sent a memorandum to the Under-Secretary of State, Robert Lovett, proposing a “Shift to New Position on Palestine,” that meant reconsideration of partition. His was not an isolated voice. George F. Kennan had long been skeptical of the burdens that Washington was assuming in accepting partition. George C. Marshall, Robert Lovett, and Warren Austin were well aware of the risks, as was the newly-formed CIA that provided an assessment of the overall situation in Palestine alerting Washington to the incompatible positions of the Arabs and the Jews. The former, the Agency declared, were mobilizing and would oppose creation of a Palestinian state under the aegis of the Partition Plan; the Yishuv was unable to control extremist groups such as the Irgun and Stern Gang. The news was grim, save that the CIA recognized that the Saudis were not prepared to jettison U.S. oil contracts.

As for the Jewish Agency, it responded to news that Washington was considering bringing the Palestine question back to the United Nations with an intensified mobilization of its supporters. In addition, the head of the Jewish Agency in the U.S. developed a new and more ambitious strategy that involved developing closer relations with U.S. oil interests.

At another level, U.S. officials attempted to break the impasse in Palestine by reaching out to those it identified as Arab moderates and their Jewish counterparts, pointing to advocates of Arab-Jewish bi-nationalism and the supporters of a unitary state of Palestine that would recognize minority rights for Jews.

In a meeting with Secretary of State Marshall at the beginning of May 1948, Judah Magnes, a U.S.-born Reform Rabbi and President of the Hebrew University, urged the Secretary of State to apply financial sanctions against the Yishuv in an effort to curb its military activities, confident that as a result, “the Jewish war machine in Palestine would come to a halt for lack of financial fuel.”[6] Magnes recommended that financial contributions to Arab states be cut off as well.

No such policies were introduced or even contemplated. By March the decision was made to recommend an urgent cease fire, truce and trusteeship for Palestine to be implemented immediately following Britain’s departure. The response was categorical rejection by the Jewish Agency, which denounced what it viewed as Washington’s betrayal of its commitment to partition, and proceeded to organize for the immediate establishment of a provisional government in Palestine. On the Arab side, the question of truce was considered acceptable, on condition that it signified Washington’s formal rejection of partition, which was not the case.

U.S. officials amenable to reopening the discussion of partition circulated a draft on trusteeship that was not to be made public to U.S. missions in Paris, London and the Middle East. But its circulation coincided with the worsening of conditions in Palestine, as the U.S. Consul reported on the role of the Irgun in the massacre at Palestinian men, women and children in the village of Deir Yassin, and the expulsions and flight of Palestinians from Haifa and then Jaffa, among other places.

In Washington, news of the atrocities only served to increase anxiety over Britain’s imminent departure as opposition to Truman’s support for trusteeship increased. Views were mixed on this. Some officials argued that it was irrelevant given that a Jewish state existed in all but name and delaying its recognition would give the Soviet Union an advantage in Palestine and the Middle East, as it was on record as supporting partition and statehood was known to follow. Others, and they included the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary, insisted that for the U.S. to recognize the Jewish state while the U.S. and the UN were on record supporting a truce, with the U.S. on the Truce Commission, and the UNGA Partition Resolution still operative, in principle, Washington would be in an untenable position. Marshall and the State Department cadre working on Palestine were in accord that Washington should remain steadfast in its support for a truce and even trusteeship, with the knowledge that such was designed as a temporary solution only, thus not blocking future support for Jewish statehood. But this did not dispel the antagonism between State Department officials and others, such as Clark Clifford, Truman’s legal counsel and one of his trusted advisors on Palestinian matters, that came to a head on May 12, days before Israel moved to declare its independence on the departure of the British. Clifford, in fact, encouraged the head of the Jewish Agency to make the move, instructing him on how to formulate the announcement to be given the U.S. President, recommending that it be framed in terms of its adherence to the 1947 UN Partition Plan, advice which Ben-Gurion proceeded to ignore save when it suited him to claim otherwise.

Ben-Gurion later recalled this period and claimed that:

“We acted as we did because we doubted whether Marshall was willing to utilize the forces he represented to prevent the establishment of the State of Israel. The State was set up in opposition to Marshall, and the American Army was not used against us. Had it been, the State would have been destroyed at once. However, the very opposite happened; the United States immediately accorded de facto recognition to the State of Israel….”[7]

Ben-Gurion’s assessment was echoed by others who similarly believed that Washington would not publicly buck the Jewish Agency’s position. The impact of the Second World War and the Holocaust could not be forgotten; nor could the extent of support for the Jewish state in the U.S. But there were other considerations that carried weight in policy-making circles as the reassessment of the Palestine question in 1948 revealed. Those who had previously opposed or, at the least, been skeptical of the effects of partition on U.S. policy, now reconsidered and determined that the new state could be useful in the protection of U.S. interests, unlike the backward and militarily inferior Arab states.

The die was cast but not without continuing troubles, including the situation of the Palestinian refugees.

The new Israeli government declared its position on the refugee crisis in July 1948, when it announced that it was not responsible for the creation of the refugee problem, insisting that the flight of the Palestinians was entirely due to Arab orders. The response became the standard position of Israel and its supporters and remains so, despite the contrary evidence presented by Palestinians and Israelis. In 1948 and 1949 accounts of the refugee crisis were routinely sent to the Secretary of State as well as the U.S. President, who responded with efforts to persuade Israel to accept responsibility and to accept Palestinian refugee repatriation.

The CIA was on record as considering the problem as “the most serious population upheaval since the termination of World War ll.” Nearly a year after Israel’s declared independence, then-Secretary of State Dean Acheson referred to the “800,000” Palestinian refugees as the “source of greatest immediate concern to the President,” insisting that they constituted a major problem capable of eroding “the good order and well-being of the Near East.”[8] The estimated number of refugees varied, but Washington’s position remained steady in its insistence on the principle of repatriation.

According to U.S. sources the number and location of Palestinian refugees at the end of 1948 was as follows:

“160,000-220,000 Northern Palestine

200,000-245,000 Southern Palestine

75,000-80,000 Transjordan

100,000-110,000 Syria

90,000 Lebanon

5,000 Iraq

8,000 Egypt

7,000 Israel”[9]

On December 11, 1948, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 194 (lll) affirming that those refugees seeking repatriation and willing to live in peace be permitted to return when deemed practicable or receive compensation for property damage. Passage of the Resolution led to the establishment of the Palestine Conciliation Commission, to which Truman appointed Mark Etheridge as the U.S. delegate. Writing from the Lausanne Conference held in the early summer of 1949, Etheridge denounced Israel’s attitude on the refugee question as “morally reprehensible and politically short-sighted.”[10]

In the spring of 1949 the State Department claimed that following the British withdrawal from Palestine and the establishment of Israel, “almost the entire Arab population of Palestine fled or was expelled from the area under Jewish occupation.” The Department’s Policy Paper declared:

“Furthermore, Israeli authorities have followed a systematic program of destroying Arab houses in such cities as Haifa and in village communities in order to rebuild modern habitations for the influx of Jewish immigrants from DP camps in Europe. There are, thus, in many instances, literally no houses for the refugees to return to. In other cases incoming Jewish immigrants have occupied Arab dwellings and will most certainly not relinquish them in favor of the refugees. Accordingly, it seems certain that the majority of these unfortunate people will soon be confronted with the fact that they will not be able to return home. Unless some alternative is prepared and some hope offered them of an improved life in the future, it is certain that the political, to say nothing of the social, repercussions of this discovery will be very great.”[11]

Decrying what it viewed as Israeli intransigence, the U.S. urged Israel to “accept the principle of repatriation of an agreed number or category of refugees, with provision by Israel for appropriate safeguards of civil and religious rights and on condition that those repatriated desire to live at peace within Israel and to extend full allegiance thereto….”

The State Department also recommended the “permanent settlement in Arab Palestine” for as many of the refugees as could be accommodated, it being understood that such settlement would take place under the aegis of Transjordan and that it should include cooperation with Israel on such matters as water resources. In short, the U.S. endorsed the transfer of Palestinians, while simultaneously calling for their repatriation, but within recognized limits. The State Department Policy Paper recognized that “Israel has no intention of taking back more than a portion of the refugees.” Eliahu Elath (formerly Eliahu Epstein), Israel’s first Ambassador to the U.S., indicated that “he thought that maybe the Christian Arabs might be permitted to return but that the Moslem Arabs would be an intractable element who could not assimilate in Israel.”[12]

The UN General Assembly established a $32 million relief fund for Palestinian refugees to which member states were asked to contribute, while in the U.S. Truman authorized $16 million for Palestinian refugee relief, maintaining that it was essential given that “seven hundred thousand refugees are living almost on starvation level.”[13]

U.S. officials, up to and including the U.S. President, continued to meet with Israeli officials insisting that they make some move on the question of repatriation and return of property, but to no avail. At the end of March 1949 Truman was reported as “disturbed over the uncooperative attitude being taken [by Israel] and said that we must continue to maintain firm pressure.”[14] The U.S. President, in a secret May 28, 1949, message to Israeli Prime Minister Ben-Gurion declared that:

“The Govt of Israel should entertain no doubt whatever that the U.S. Govt relies upon it to take responsible and positive action concerning Palestine refugees and that, far from supporting excessive Israeli claims to further territory within Palestine, the U.S. Govt believes that it is necessary for Israel to offer territorial compensation for territory which it expects to acquire beyond the boundaries of the Nov 29, 1947 res of the GA.”[15]

There was increasing recognition that it was unlikely that Israel would consider full repatriation, hence the suggestion that, in accord with economic conditions, some Palestinian refugees be settled in “Arab Palestine and that balance must be distributed between Syria and Transjordan.”[16] These states were to be ready to accept some 400,000 refugees.

Meanwhile, from Jerusalem, U.S. Consul William C. Burdett cabled the Sec of State on July 6, 1949 describing Palestinian refugees in terms of “despondency, misery, lack of hope and faith,” with the “destruction of former standards of values,” rendering them apt victims of communist propaganda.[17] Burdett continued, predicting that Israel “has no intention of allowing the return of any appreciable number of refugees except, perhaps, in return for additional territory…. Arab houses and villages, including those in areas not given Israel by the partition decision, have been occupied to a large extent by new immigrants. Others have been deliberately destroyed. There is practically no room left. Arab quarters in Jerusalem, until recently a military zone, are now almost full and new immigrants are pouring in steadily.”[18] And as Burdett concluded, “Israel eventually intends to obtain all of Palestine, but barring unexpected opportunities or internal crises will accomplish this objective gradually and without the use of force in the immediate future.”

Burdett also reported, along the same lines as Ben-Gurion in the earlier statement cited above, that on the basis of past experience Israelis were persuaded that Washington would not carry out its demands with respect to territory or refugees. Burdett cited the Israeli press as indicating “the effectiveness of organized Jewish propaganda in the U.S.” In his recommendations for U.S. and UN action, Burdett suggested that “punitive measures against Israel” be applied in order to oblige the government to “consent to a reduction in territory and repatriation of refugees.” But he was quick to add that no such measures could be anticipated even as Truman continued to support Palestinian repatriation in his discussions with Israeli leaders.

There were other factors affecting U.S. policy that increasingly took precedence and that eventually marginalized the refugee question to the extent possible. Those factors defined the nature of U.S. support for Israel in the context of Washington’s expanding interests in the Middle East. They constituted the core elements of what would later be referred to as the ‘special relationship,’ one in which a different record of U.S. policy was embedded and forgotten.

What then is the connection between the Great Fear regarding September 2011 and U.S. policy in 1948? The record is a reminder that Washington recognized the origins of the Palestinian demand for recognition and independence in 1948 much as it recognized the causes of the Palestinian refugee problem. Evidence of its confrontations with the Jewish Agency over its expansionist policies and with the new state of Israel over the condition of the Palestinian refugees is a reminder of what Washington knew and chose to forget, or more accurately, to subvert in deference to its own interests and the new state of Israel’s role in protecting them.

The resulting package is not about ‘delegitimizing’ the state of Israel but confronting an early part of the record of U.S. policy and its connection with the history that has led to the UN in September 2011.


Irene Gendzier was a long time member of the Boston University faculty, having taught in the Departments of History, African Studies and Political Science. She is the author of the forthcoming book, Dying to Forget: Oil, Power, Palestine, and the Foundations of U.S. Policy in the Middle East, Columbia University Press, Nov. 2015; and she is also a member of the IOA Advisory Board.



1.    See Irene Gendzier, “What the U.S. Knew and Chose to Forget in 1948 and Why it Matters in 2009,” ZNet, Jan.22, 2009; Gendzier, “Past Tense, Present Sense: Considering U.S. Oil Interests and the Connection with Israel/Palestine, 1945-1949,” May 20, 2009; Gendzier, “U.S. Policy in Israel/Palestine, 1948: The Forgotten History,” Middle East Policy, Vol. XVIII, No. 1, Spring 2001.

2.    Simha Flapan, The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities, Pantheon Books, New York, 1987, p. 95.

3.    Ibid., p. 92.

4.    Feb.9, 1948, The Consul General at Jerusalem (Macatee) to the Secretary of State, in U.S. Dept. of State, Foreign Relations of the United States [hereafter FRUS] 1948, vol. V, part 2, p. 606.

5.    Ibid., p. 607.

6.    May 4, 1948, Memorandum of Conversation by the Secretary of State, FRUS 1948, V, part 2, p. 902.

7.    David Ben-Gurion,Israel, A Personal History, The American Israel Publishing Company, Tel Aviv, 1971, p. 273.

8.    April 5, 1949, Memorandum of Conversation by the Secretary of State, FRUS 1949, VI, p. 891.

9.    December 29, 1948, The Acting Secretary of State to Certain Diplomatic and Consular Offices, FRUS 1948, V, part 2, p. 1696. In later references, such as the State Department Policy Paper of March 15, 1949, the number of refugees was higher in certain areas, as in Palestine North and South, where they were described as having reached 230,000 and 225,000 respectively, in “areas under Egyptian, Iraqi, and Transjordanian military occupation.” See FRUS 1949, Vl, p. 829.

10. June 12, 1949, From Etheridge. US Del at Lausanne commenting separately on Israel note, included in The Ambassador in France (Bruce) to the Secretary of State, FRUS 1949, Vl, p. 1125.

11. March 15, 1949, Policy Paper Prepared in the Department of State, FRUS 1949, Vl, p. 837.

12. Idem.

13. Statement by the President, released by the White House on March 24, 1949 and reproduced in FRUS 1949, Vl, p. 862.

14. March 24, 1949, Memorandum by the Secretary of State, Conversation with the President, FRUS 1949, VI, p. 863.

15. May 28, 1949, The Acting Secretary of State to the Embassy in Israel, in FRUS 1949, VI, pp. 1073-74.

16. May 16, 1949, Minister in Switzerland (Vincent) to the Secretary of State, in FRUS 1949, VI, p. 1014.

17. July 6, 1949, The Consul at Jerusalem (Burdett) to the Secretary of State, FRUS 1949, VI, p. 1204.

18. Ibid., p. 1205.

Back to Top

Readers are welcome to discuss IOA content on our Facebook page. To participate, please click HERE.