The Truth Concerning the Arab Refugees of 1948

Summary ... Although Arab myth tells of Israel driving the Arabs out in 1948, it was their leaders who told them to leave. To this day the Arab nations still refuse to absorb them into the surrounding Arab nations, preferring instead to let them suffer in refugee camps even though most of them were not even alive in 1948.

The people are in great need of a "myth" to fill their consciousness and imagination.... — Musa Alami, 1948

Since 1948 Arab leaders have approached the Palestine problem in an irresponsible manner.... they have used the Palestine people for selfish political purposes. This is ridiculous and, I could say, even criminal. — King Hussein of Jordan, 1960

Since 1948 it is we who demanded the return of the refugees... while it is we who made them leave.... We brought disaster upon ... Arab refugees, by inviting them and bringing pressure to bear upon them to leave.... We have rendered them dispossessed.... We have accustomed them to begging.... We have participated in lowering their moral and social level.... Then we exploited them in executing crimes of murder, arson, and throwing bombs upon ... men, women and children-all this in the service of political purposes .... — Khaled Al-Azm, Syria's Prime Minister after the 1948 war

The nations of western Europe condemned Israel's position despite their guarantee of her security.... They understood that ... their dependence upon sources of energy precluded their allowing themselves to incur Arab wrath. — Al-Haytham Al-Ayubi, Arab Palestinian [sic] military strategist, 1974

At the time of the 1948 war, Arabs in Israel were invited by their fellow Arabs — invited to "leave" while the "invading" Arab armies would purge the land of Jews.1 The invading Arab governments were certain of a quick victory; leaders warned the Arabs in Israel to run for their lives.2

In response, the Jewish Haifa Workers' Council issued an appeal to the Arab residents of Haifa:[ See Official British Police Report]

For years we have lived together in our city, Haifa.... Do not fear: Do not destroy your homes with your own hands ... do not bring upon yourself tragedy by unnecessary evacuation and self-imposed burdens.... But in this city, yours and ours, Haifa, the gates are open for work, for life, and for peace for you and your families."3

While the Haifa pattern appears to have been prevalent, there were exceptions. Arabs in another crucial strategic area, who were "opening fire on the Israelis shortly after surrendering,"4 were "forced" to leave by the defending Jewish army to prevent what former Israeli Premier Itzhak Rabin described as a "hostile and armed populace" from remaining "in our rear, where it could endanger the supply route ..."5 [In his memoirs]2, Rabin stated that Arab control of the road between the seacoast and Jerusalem had "all but isolated" the "more than ninety thousand Jews in Jerusalem," nearly one-sixth of the new nation's total population.

If Jerusalem fell, the psychological blow to the nascent Jewish state would be more damaging than any inflicted by a score of armed brigades.6

According to a research report by the Arab-sponsored Institute for Palestine Studies in Beirut, however, "the majority" of the Arab refugees in 1948 were not expelled, and "68%" left without seeing an Israeli soldier.7

After the Arabs' defeat in the 1948 war, their positions became confused: some Arab leaders demanded the "return" of the "expelled" refugees to their former homes despite the evidence that Arab leaders had called upon Arabs to flee. (Such as President Truman's International Development Advisory Board Report, March 7, 1951: "Arab leaders summoned Arabs of Palestine to mass evacuation ... as the documented facts reveal....") At the same time, Emile Ghoury, Secretary of the Arab Higher Command, called for the prevention of the refugees from "return." He stated in the Beirut Telegraph on August 6, 1948: "it is inconceivable that the refugees should be sent back to their homes while they are occupied by the Jews.... It would serve as a first step toward Arab recognition of the state of Israel and Partition."

Arab activist Musa Alami despaired: as he saw the problem, "how can people struggle for their nation, when most of them do not know the meaning of the word? ... The people are in great need of a "myth" to fill their consciousness and imagination...." According to Alami, an indoctrination of the "myth" of nationality would create "identity" and "self-respect."8

However, Alami's proposal was confounded by the realities: between 1948 and 1967, the Arab state of Jordan claimed annexation of the territory west of the Jordan River, the "West Bank" area of Palestine — the same area that would later be forwarded by Arab "moderates" as a "mini-state" for the "Palestinians." Thus, that area was, between 1948 and 1967, called "Arab land," the peoples were Arabs, and yet the "myth" that Musa Alami prescribed — the cause of "Palestine" for the "Palestinians" — remained unheralded, unadopted by the Arabs during two decades. According to Lord Caradon, "Every Arab assumed the Palestinians [refugees] would go back to Jordan."9

When "Palestine" was referred to by the Arabs, it was viewed in the context of the intrusion of a "Jewish state amidst what the Arabs considered their own exclusive environment or milieu, the 'Arab region.'"10 As the late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser "screamed" in 1956, "the imperialists' 'destruction of Palestine'" was "an attack on Arab nationalism," which "'unites us from the Atlantic to the Gulf.'"11

Ever since the 1967 Israeli victory, however, when the Arabs determined that they couldn't obliterate Israel militarily, they have skillfully waged economic, diplomatic, and propaganda war against Israel. This, Arabs reasoned, would take longer than military victory but ultimately the result would be the same. Critical to the new tactic, however, was a device designed to whittle away at the sympathies of Israel's allies: what the Arabs envisioned was something that could achieve Israel's shrinking to indefensible size at the same time that she became insolvent.

This program was reviewed in 1971 by Mohamed Heikal,12 then still an important spokesman of Egypt's leadership in his post as editor of the influential, semi-official newspaper Al Ahram. Heikal called for a change of Arab rhetoric — no more threats of "throwing Israel into the sea" — and a new political strategy aimed at reducing Israel to indefensible borders and pushing her into diplomatic and economic isolation. He predicted that "total withdrawal" would "pass sentence on the entire state of Israel."

As a more effective means of swaying world opinion, the Arabs adopted humanitarian terminology in support of the "demands" of the "Palestinian refugees," to replace former Arab proclamations of carnage and obliteration. In Egypt, for example, in 1968 "the popularity of the Palestinians was rising," as a result of Israel's 1967 defeat of the Arabs and subsequent 1968 "Israeli air attacks inside Egypt."13 It was as recently as 1970 that Egyptian President Nasser defined "Israel" as the cause of "the expulsion of the Palestinian people from their land." Although Nasser thus gave perfunctory recognition to the "Palestinian Arab" allegation, he was in reality preoccupied with the overall basic, pivotal Arab concern. As he continued candidly in the same sentence, Israel was "a permanent threat to the Arab nation."14 Later that year (May 1970), Nasser "formulated his rejection of a Jewish state in Palestine," but once again he stressed the "occupation of our [Pan-Arab] lands," while only secondarily noting: "And we reject its [Israel's] insistence on denying the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people in their country."15 Subsequently the Arabs have increased their recounting of the difficulties and travail of Arab refugees in the "host" countries adjacent to Israel [e.g., the surrounding Arab nations]. Photographs and accounts of life in refugee camps, as well as demands for the "legitimate" but unlimited and undefined "rights" of the "Palestinians," have flooded the communications media of the world in a subtle and adroit utilization of the art of professional public relations.[16]

A prominent Arab Palestinian strategist, AI-Haytham Al-Ayubi, analyzed the efficacy of Arab propaganda tactics in 1974, when he wrote:

The image of Israel as a weak nation surrounded by enemies seeking its annihilation evaporated [after 1967], to be replaced by the image of an aggressive nation challenging world opinion.* [17] [As Rosemary Sayigh wrote in the Journal of Palestine Studies, "a strongly defined Palestinian identity did not emerge until 1968, two decades after expulsion." It had taken twenty years to establish the "myth" prescribed by Musa Alami.[18]

The high visibility of the sad plight of the homeless refugees — always tragic — has uniquely attracted the world's compassion.[19] In addition, the campaign has provided non-Arabs with moral rationalization for abiding by the Arabs' anti-Israel rules, which are regarded as prerequisites to getting Arab oil and the financial benefits from Arab oil wealth. Millions of dollars have been spent to exploit the Arab refugees and their repatriation as "the heart of the matter," as the primary human problem that must be resolved before any talk of overall peace with Israel.

Reflecting on the oil weapon's influence in the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Al-Ayubi shrewdly observed:

The nations of western Europe condemned Israel's position despite their guarantee of her security and territorial integrity. They understood that European interests and their dependence upon sources of energy precluded their allowing themselves to incur Arab wrath.[20]

Thus Al-Ayubi recommended sham "peace-talks," with the continuation, however, of the "state of 'no peace,'" and he advocated the maintaining of "moral pressure together with carefully-balanced military tension ..." for the "success of the new Arab strategy." Because "loss of human life remains a sore point for the enemy," continual "guerrilla" activities can erode Israel's self-confidence and "the faith" of the world in the "Israeli policeman."

Al-Ayubi cited, as an example, "the success of Arab foreign policy maneuvers" in 1973, which was

so total that ... With the exception of the United States and the racist African governments, the entire world took either a neutral or pro-Arab position on the question of legality of restoring the occupied territories through any means — including the use of military force.

As Al-Ayubi noted, "The basic Arab premise concerning 'the elimination of the results of aggression' remains accepted by the world." Thus the "noose" will be placed around the neck of the "Zionist entity."

But the Arabs' creation of the "myth" of nationality did not create the advantageous situation for the Palestinian Arabs that Musa Alami had hoped for. Instead, the conditions he complained of bitterly were perpetuated: the Arabs "shut the door" of citizenship "in their faces and imprison them in camps."[21]

Khaled Al-Azm, who was Syria's Prime Minister after the 1948 war, deplored the Arab tactics and the subsequent exploitation of the refugees, in his 1972 memoirs:

Since 1948 it is we who demanded the return of the refugees ... while it is we who made them leave.... We brought disaster upon ... Arab refugees, by inviting them and bringing pressure to bear upon them to leave.... We have rendered them dispossessed.... We have accustomed them to begging.... We have participated in lowering their moral and social level.... Then we exploited them in executing crimes of murder, arson, and throwing bombs upon ... men, women and children-all this in the service of political purposes.... [22]

Propaganda has successfully veered attention away from the Arab world's manipulation of its peoples among the refugee group on the one hand, and the number of those who now in fact possess Arab citizenship in many lands, on the other hand. The one notable exception is Jordan, where the majority of Arab refugees moved, and where they are entitled to citizenship according to law, "unless they are Jews."[23]

Palestinian leadership will not let the refugee problem be solved. In 1958, former director of UNRWA Ralph Galloway declared angrily while in Jordan that:

The Arab states do not want to solve the refugee problem. They want to keep it as an open sore, as an affront to the United Nations, and as a weapon against Israel. Arab leaders do not give a damn whether Arab refugees live or die.[24]

Palestinians Burn Effigy of Canadian Minister

[Added by Joseph E. Katz, January 17, 2001]

[Reuters] Palestinians burned an effigy of Canadian Foreign Minister John Manley on Thursday in a protest against Canada's offer to accept Palestinian refugees as part of a Middle East peace plan. Hooded gunmen fired into the air during the protest in Balata refugee camp near the West Bank [sic] town of Nablus [Shechem] and hundreds of demonstrators shouted slogans demanding the right of return to former homes. "We refuse resettlement of refugees," they shouted.

Manley told the Toronto Star newspaper in an interview published on January 10, "We are prepared to receive refugees. We are prepared to contribute to an international fund to assist with resettlement in support of a peace agreement." Manley said there had been no discussion on the number of refugees to be resettled outside the Middle East.

Canada heads the multilateral Refugee Working Group, a committee charged with trying to resolve the plight of Palestinian refugees.


  1. Habib Issa, ed., Al-Hoda, Arabic daily, June 8, 1951, New York; see Economist (London), May 15, 1948, regarding "panic flight"; also see Economist, October 2, 1948, for British eyewitness report of Arab Higher Committee radio "announcements" that were "urging all Arabs in Haifa to quit."
  2. Near East Arabic Radio, April 3, 1948: "It must not be forgotten that the Arab Higher Committee encouraged the refugees to flee from their homes in Jaffa, Haifa and Jerusalem, and that certain leaders . . . make political capital out of their miserable situation . . ." Cited by Anderson et al., "The Arab Refugee Problem and How It Can Be Solved," p. 22; for more regarding Arab responsibility, see Sir Alexander Cadogan, Ambassador of Great Britain to the United Nations, speech to the Security Council, S.C., O.R., 287th meeting, April 23, 1948; also see Harry Stebbens, British Port Officer stationed in Haifa, letter in Evening Standard (London), January 10, 1969.
  3. April 28, 1948; according to the Economist (London), October 1, 1948, only "4,000 to 6,000" of the "62,000 Arabs who formerly lived in Haifa" remained there until the time of the war; also see Kenneth Bilby, New Star in the Near East (New York: Doubleday, 1950), pp. 30-31; Lt. Col. Moshe Pearlman, The Army of Israel (New York: Philosophical Library, 1950), pp. 116-17; and Major E. O'Ballance, The Arab-Israeli War of 1948 (London, 1956), p. 52.
  4. David Shipler, New York Times, October 23, 1979, p. A3. Shipler cites Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, O Jerusalem, and Dan Kurzman, Genesis 1948: The First Arab-Israeli War.
  5. New York Times, October 23, 1979.
  6. Yitzhak Rabin, The Rabin Memoirs (Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown, 1979), p. 23, pp. 22-44.
  7. Peter Dodd and Halim Barakat, River Without Bridges:- A Study of the Exodus of the 1967 Arab Palestinian Refugees (Beirut: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1969), p. 43; on April 27, 1950, the Arab National Committee of Haifa stated in a memorandum to the Arab States: "The removal of the Arab inhabitants ... was voluntary and was carried out at our request ... The Arab delegation proudly asked for the evacuation of the Arabs and their removal to the neighboring Arab countries.... We are very glad to state that the Arabs guarded their honour and traditions with pride and greatness." Cited by J.B. Schechtman, The Arab Refugee Problem (New York: Philosophical Library, 1952), pp. 8-9; also see Al-Zaman, Baghdad journal, April 27, 1950.
  8. Musa Alami, "The Lesson of Palestine," The Middle East Journal, October 1949.
  9. Lord Caradon, "Cyprus and Palestine," lecture at the University of Chicago, Center for Middle Eastern Studies, February 17, 1976. Similar statement by Folke Bernadotte, To Jerusalem, p. 113.
  10. P.J. Vatikiotis, Nasser and His Generation (London: Croom Heim, 1978), pp. 256-57.
  11. Ibid. p. 234, quoting a speech by Nasser at Suez, July 26, 1956; in 1952, Sheikh Pierre Gemayel, then leader of the Lebanese National Youth Organization "Al Kataeb," wrote: "Why should the refugees stay in Lebanon, and not in Egypt, Iraq and Jordan which claim that they are all Arab and beyond that, Moslem? ... Isn't it for that alone that these so-called nationalist elements are demanding to resettle the refugees in Lebanon because they are themselves Arab and Moslems?" Al-Hoda, Lebanese journal, January 3, 1952, cited in Schechtman, The Arab Refugee Problem, p. 84; also see Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, "Quest for an Arab Future," in Arab Journal, 1966-67, vol. 4, nos. 2-4, pp. 23-29.
  12. "Mohammed Hassanein Heykal Discusses War and Peace in the Middle East," Journal of Palestine Studies, Autumn 1971. Heykal thus joined the Arab chorus heard after the 1967 war.
  13. Vatikiotis, Nasser, p. 257; also see Mohamed Heikal, The Road To Ramadan (New York: Ballantine Books, 1975), p. 56.
  14. Interview with Nasser, Le Monde (Paris: February 1970), cited in Vatikiotis, Nasser, p. 259.
  15. Charles Foltz, interview with Nasser, U.S. News and World Report, May 1970, cited in Vatikiotis, Nasser, p. 259; see also Le Monde interview, February 1970.
  16. contrary to the popular view ... in the West," a "great many refugees" were living out of camps "in comfortable housing outside," in the beginning of the 1960s according to Fawaz Turki, The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile (New York and London: Monthly Review Press, 1972), p. 41.
  17. Al-Haytham A]-Ayubi, "Future Arab Strategy in the Light of the Fourth War," Shuun Filastiniyya (Beirut), October 1974. AI-Ayubi, also called Abu-Hammam, has been military head of Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Lieutenant Colonel in the Syrian army, and highly respected strategist on Israel. He perceived the "guerrilla" war against Israel as the ultimately successful one.
  18. Rosemary Sayigh, "Sources of Palestinian Nationalism: A Study of a Palestinian Camp in Lebanon," Journal of Palestinian Studies, vol. 6, no. 4, 1977, p. 2 1; see also Sayigh, "The Palestinian Identity Among Camp Residents," Journal of Palestinian Studies vol. 6, no. 3, 1977, pp. 3-22.
  19. In 1981, the Organization of African Unity's executive secretary, Ambassador Oumarou Garba Youssoupou from Niger, reflected upon why the millions of displaced souls in Africa were not as visible: "We're not getting the publicity because of our culture. No refugee is turned away from the host countries, so we're not dramatic enough for television. We have no drownings, no piratings.... We don't make the news ... .. Aiding Africa's Refugees," by Gertrude Samuels, The New Leader, May 4, 1981.
  20. AI-Ayubi, "Future Arab Strategy in the Light of the Fourth War."
  21. Musa Alami, "The Lesson of Palestine," The Middle East Journal, October 1949.
  22. Khaled Al-Azm, Memoirs [Arabic], 3 vols. (AI-Dar al Muttahida Id-Nashr, 1972), vol. 1, pp. 386-87, cited by Maurice Roumani, The Case of the Jews from Arab countries: A Neglected Issue, preliminary edition (Jerusalem: World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries [WOJAC], 1975), p. 61.
  23. Jordanian National Law, Official Gazette, No. 1171, February 16, 1954, p. 105, Article 3(3). Between 1948 and 1967, 200,000 to 300,000 Arabs moved from the West Bank to the "East Bank," according to Eliyahu Kanovsky, in Jordan, People and Politics in the Middle East, Michael Curtis, ed. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 1971), p. 111.
  24. Prittie, "Middle East Refugees," in Michael Curtis et al., eds., The Palestinians: People, History, Politics (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 1975), p. 71.

[ Joan Peters | Published: December 5, 2014 ]