By Irene Gendzier, Israeli Occupation Archive – 29 Nov 2012


Irene Gendzier

“As long as the crime of dispossession and refugeehood that was committed against the Palestinian people in 1947-1948 is not redressed through a peaceful and just negotiation that satisfies the legitimate rights of both sides, we will continue to see enhancements in both the determination and the capabilities of Palestinian fighters – as has been the case since the 1930s,…”

The statement by Lebanese journalist and academic, Rami G. Khouri,  appeared in the New York Times on Nov. 17th. Three days later another article referred to the “symbolically significant date of Nov. 29, when the General Assembly voted in 1947 to divide this land into two states, one Jewish and the other Palestinian Arab.” The reference was to the date chosen by Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, to plead with the UN for recognition of the PA as a nonmember state.

For readers of the mainstream media, reference to the events of 1947-1948 and the “crime of dispossession and refugeehood” was virtually unknown.  Yet the connection with Gaza was flagrant. The conditions leading to the “crime of dispossession and refugeehood” spoke directly to those who were forced to flee to Gaza in 1948, where the number of refugees rose from 83,000 to 250,000 in the months of November–December 1948  to 202,606 one year later.

Why haven’t we made the connection before? Is it that we didn’t know? To be sure, Palestinians have written scores on the subject of “dispossessions and refugeehood,” as have Israelis. But what the former write seldom qualifies for discussion save as a subject of derision, and as for Israeli critics, their commentaries are safely marginalized.

But let’s face it. It isn’t that we don’t know what happened in 1947-1948. It’s that we’ve chosen not to see or hear anything that jars our thinking on the subject. Certain words and ideas have remained taboo, certain questions have been sidelined as suspect and certain histories – ours and theirs – have been excised, the better to educate us to numbness and indifference.  The result is that we prefer to think of  Israeli-Arab wars as instances of the much lamented ‘clashes of civilization’ that pit our civilized allies against the violence-prone ‘other,’ As long as our side wins, there is  no need to look into the face of the ‘enemy,’ or to ask ourselves why and  why again? Admittedly, doing so risks discovering that ‘they’ are like us, which is as disconcerting as learning that what the ‘experts’ have taught us about our history and theirs is often plain wrong, leaving us to discover that deception can be dangerous.

The simple truth is that we know what happened in 1947-1948 in Palestine because we were there.

US officials were sending back regular reports from Palestine about what was taking place in 1947-1948. Their coverage of the conflict over the move to partition Palestine that led to the November 29, 1947 General Assembly Partition Resolution 181, was endlessly grim and what followed did not inspire any greater optimism. They knew what dispossession was about because they discussed the transfer of populations. They knew what refugeehood was about because they sent reports of the Jewish Agency’s military forces expelling Palestinians or creating conditions that led them to flee.

Then and later, US officials knew that the key questions in 1947-48 were about the legitimacy of the entire enterprise of the UNGA recommending partition of Palestine against the will of the majority of its people; about the extension of Israeli territorial control  beyond its assigned borders; about the planned for transfer of Palestinians out of Jewish held areas; and about the rejection of repatriation of those Palestinian refugees who had been expelled by Israelis in the first wave of major expulsions that took place between November 29 and mid-May 1948.

Why was the US in Palestine? Of what importance was it for the US?  The answer was not hard to find. Palestine, in the eyes of the distant policymakers in 1947-48, was  important “for the control of the eastern end of the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal. It is an outlet for the oil of the Middle East which, in turn, is important to U.S. security.” Arguments about partition, from this perspective, looked dangerous because they were viewed as risking US “control of the eastern end of the Mediterranean,” which was viewed as an integral part of  US postwar geostrategic planning involving postwar Europe and Japan.

And then there was fear of the USSR, which increased with Soviet support of partition and the fear of communist influence in the Jewish controlled areas.

And then there was fear of the USSR, that was before Washington realized that Moscow would support partition, which was disconcerting given US fears of Soviet influence in the region and in the Jewish controlled areas before 1948.

In the long days that preceded the United Nations’ vote on the Partition Resolution just as in those that followed, the US policymaking establishment – small as it was at the time – was riven with differences that reached the White House, over what was to be done, faced with the consistent Palestinian and Arab rejection of partition as dismembering a country against the will of its population, and the risks that such opposition posed to US interests- especially those involving oil. The mobilization of a campaign to prevent any reconsideration of partition in these quarters was spearheaded by Jewish Agency representatives in Washington who succeeded in establishing contacts with prominent US oil interests. At the same time, US officials realized that their greatest concern with Middle East oil was misplaced as the Saudi regime was not about to give up its US contracts, even as it stoutly defended Palestinian rights. The combination was surely enough to allay fears among top oil executives who were among those prepared to engage Jewish Agency representatives, even as they remained cautious about the overall impact of partition on the Arab world.

From Jerusalem, the US Consul, Robert B. Macatee (1946-1948) left no illusions as to developments on the ground, offering a grim assessment of conditions at the end of 1947, followed by a description of the Jewish, Arab and British predicaments. As Macatee wrote to Secretary of State Marshall,

“terror is prevalent and normal, life (i.e. normal for Palestine) is disappearing. It is, however, compared with what may be expected in future, a period of relative quiet and restraint. This phase may continue until the withdrawal of the British is more imminent and until the Arabs have made more definite plans to give effect to their determination to prevent partition. Present outbursts are, it is felt, comparatively unimportant and disorganized and are merely the inevitable concomitants of a situation that is tense and waiting. They are prompted by hatred of the Jews mixed with feelings of intense patriotism, and may be expected to increase.”

Describing the situation of Jews in Palestine, Macatee wrote of random attacks in which “they are picked off while riding in buses, walking along the streets and stray shots even find them while asleep in their beds. A Jewish woman, mother of five children, was shot in Jerusalem while hanging out clothes on the roof. The ambulance rushing her to the hospital was machine-gunned, and finally the mourners following her to the funeral were attacked and one of them stabbed to death.” He cited attacks on trains, the theft of food, the existence of an arms market, the desertion from British mandatory service, and the evidence of coordination between Palestinian and Arab Legion members.

In the same month, David Ben Gurion, uncontested leader of the Jewish Agency and its military forces, was advocating “aggressive defense; with every Arab attack we must respond with a decisive blow; the destruction of the place or the expulsion of the residents along with the seizure of the place.”

The consequences, Ben Gurion observed, would “increase the Arabs’ fear and external help for the Arabs will be ineffective.” His ultimate objective, wrote the late Israeli political activist and critic, Simha Flapan, “was to evacuate as much of the Arab population as possible from the Jewish state…”  This was to be accomplished by “outright intimidation and exploitation of panic caused by dissident underground terrorism; and finally, and most decisively, the destruction of whole villages and the eviction of their inhabitants by the army.”

According to Ben Gurion’s diary for December 11, 1947:

“Arabs are fleeing from Jaffa and Haifa. Bedouin are fleeing from the Sharon. Most are seeking refuge with members of their family. Villagers are returning to their villages. Leaders are also in flight, most of them are taking their families to Nablus, Nazareth. The Bedouin are moving to Arab areas… To what extent will stopping transportation cramp the Arabs? The fellahin [peasants] won’t suffer, but city dwellers will. The country dwellers don’t want to join the disturbances, unless dragged in by force. A vigorous response will strengthen the refusal of the peasants to participate in the battle. Josh Palmon [an adviser to Ben Gurion on Arab affairs] thinks that Haifa and Jaffa will be evacuated [by the Arabs] because of hunger.”

Within a matter of days the US Consul in Jerusalem sent reports of a major massacre that had taken place in Deir Yassin. Several days later, Jewish military forces attacked villages near Tiberias, and on April 21-22,  Marshall received news of the fall of Haifa. And then there was the case of Jaffa and its surrounding villages, attacked by the Irgun and the Haganah, that led to a desperate escape of Jaffa’s population toward Gaza. The British Commander in Jaffa at the time described  “a scene which I never thought to see in my life. It was the sight of the whole population of Jaffa pouring out on to the road carrying in their hands whatever they could pick up.” These people, who “had terror written on their faces and they couldn’t get on the road to Gaza quick enough.”

Golda Golda Myerson (Meir), who was then a high official in the Jewish Agency wrote her impressions on visiting Haifa. “It is a dreadful thing to see the dead city. Next to the port I found children, women, the old, waiting for a way to leave. I entered the houses, there were houses where the coffee and pita bread were left on the table, and I could not avoid [thinking] that this, indeed, had been the picture in many Jewish towns [i.e., in Europe during World War II].

From the US Vice-Consul in Jerusalem, William Burdett,  came further reports. There were those about attempts by UN observers to investigate what had befallen the village of Duwayma, north of Hebron,  at the hands of former Irgun and Stern Gang members. Israeli troops had “mounted on half-tracks, first laid down a mortar and machinegun barrage and then stormed in, machine-guns blazing. Villagers were gunned down inside houses, in the alleyways and on the surrounding slopes as they fled.”

An Israeli witness described the killing of “about 80 to 100 [male] Arabs, women and children. The children they killed by breaking their heads with sticks. There was not a house without dead,” according to the soldier who reported this and more to a Mapam member who passed on the information to the editor of the party paper. Those who remained alive “were then shut away in houses ‘without food and water, ‘” and orders were given for the houses to be blown up.   According to the Israeli soldier cited, those “cultured officers” who turned “into base murderers” did so “out of a system of expulsion and destruction. The less Arabs remained – the better. This principle is the political motor for the expulsions and the atrocities.”

The survivors of Duawyima, along with thousands of other Arabs from the Negev were among those who fled to Egyptian controlled Gaza, only to find the miserable conditions of overcrowded refugee camps.

On the basis of what was happening in Palestine, US officials in Washington responded by calling for a revision of the UN Partition Plan and the establishment of a temporary trusteeship arrangement in its place. The step was considered unprecedented and undesirable by those opposed to it, even as the head of the Near East and African Affairs of the State Department described the situation in Palestine as “cancerous,” and a threat to US security.

Continued efforts by US officials to obtain a truce, let alone agreement on trusteeship, were rejected by the Jewish Agency as violating the US commitment to the UN Resolution and as delaying statehood. Palestinians and the Arab Higher Committee, objected to the same options because they were regarded by Washington as only temporarily delaying partition. The efforts remained moribund, though they lead the US to seek out Zionist moderates, such as Judah Magnes, who was persuaded to come to Washington, where he met with the US Secretary of State.

Magnes, a Reform Rabbi of American origin, was a Zionist committed to bi-nationalism or some other constitutional arrangement that allowed for the recognition of Jewish and Palestinian Arab communities in Palestine. He was associated with a small group of intellectuals who shared his outlook but had little political influence. Magnes eventually became President of the Hebrew University

The US Consul in Jerusalem was asked to convey to Magnes the urgency felt by the State Department’s top officer in charge of Near East affairs, Loy Henderson, if  satisfactory  arrangements were not arrived at before Britain’s impending departure from Palestine.

“At no time has there been a greater need for courageously conciliatory attitude such as yours on part of both Arabs and Jews. If such attitude is to prevail cooperation on part of moderate and conciliatory Arabs and Jews is essential. It is therefore hoped that you either alone or accompanied by such other Jewish leaders as you may consider appropriate will come to US at earliest possible moment.”

A similar appeal was sent to Cairo.

“If this disastrous situation is to be avoided counsels of moderate Arabs and Jews must prevail. We therefore feel it is important that there should be wider representation of wise and temperate Arab leadership in US at present time. I urge therefore that you plan to come to US at earliest possible moment either alone or accompanied by other Arab leaders whom you consider might be helpful in this emergency.”

The sobering reply was that Egyptians and Arabs were skeptical about American policy, although US officials reported that the Saudi Foreign Minister encouraged Egyptians to go to Washington, as Magnes did.

“Dr. Magnes said that the first of the points he desired to make was that great pressure could be brought to bear on both Arabs and Jews if the United States would impose even partial financial sanctions. He pointed out that the Jewish community in Palestine is an artificial development and that, although the work of the Jews had resulted in many beautiful accomplishments such as farms, universities, and hospitals, which resulted from contributions from the United States, the money now contributed to the Jewish community was being used solely for war ‘which eats up everything.’ Dr. Magnes said that the Hagannah costs $4 million a month to run. He was certain that, if contributions from the United States were cut off, the Jewish war machine in Palestine would come to a halt for lack of financial fuel.”

Magnes was  critical of  the “too apologetic” approach of US officials on the question of trusteeship. There was no other solution, he insisted, whatever form it assumed: federal union, cantons, provinces in which Arabs and Jews lived separately. The important point was that “there could be no settlement of the Palestine problem unless the Arabs and Jews sat down to work out their own solution.

Before leaving, Magnes requested permission to pose a blunt question. “Do you think there is any chance to impose a solution on Palestine?”  The Secretary of State replied in the negative.

Within a year of Israel’s unilateral declaration of independence, many of the same US officials who had been among its most adamant opponents, adapted to the occasion, impressed by the military capacity and political persistence of the leadership of the new state. In the process, they had long ago agreed to forget about the two state solution offered in the November 29, 1947 Partition Plan, preferring to support Israel’s covert agreement with the King of Transjordan to take over part of the Palestinian territory.

But there was one question that continued to perturb US officials as well as the White House, until such time as it too was relegated to second place, the predicament of Palestinian refugees and Israel’s consistent rejection of their repatriation.

The rest is history, the history of the troubled years 1947-1949 that remain to be confronted.

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.

This article is part of Gendzier’s forthcoming book, Dying to Forget: Oil, Power, Palestine, and the Foundations of U.S. Policy in the Middle East, to be published by Columbia University Press, Nov. 2015.