Israeli History/War, Ceasefire and Refugees

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War of Independence

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In the event of a conflict, not only can the Jews defend themselves, but they will defeat the Palestinian Arabs.
—Winston Churchill, quoted in History of the Haganah p. 820

The combined troops of seven Arab nations would sound like a formidable force, but initially there were only 20,000 to 23,500-- outnumbered by 25,000 to 30,000 standing Israeli forces, plus the Jewish paramilitary groups of Lehi, Irgun, and Gadna, and the Jewish Settlement Police.[1][2] As the war progressed, the Arabs sent more of their armies to Palestine, but Israeli forces were supported by Jewish olim recruits from across Europe, who started arriving in enormous numbers within 48 hours of independence.

After May 15 most of the underground Jewish resistance was absorbed into the Haganah, which had been redubbed the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). On May 28 Lehi formally disbanded when 850 of its fighters joined the IDF.

The U.S. on Dec. 5, 1947 imposed an arms embargo on Palestine; neither Jews nor Arabs could buy weapons, and British only sold weapons to Arabs.

The fighting ended on July 15. 6,500 Israelis had died, and most of Israel's irrigated agricultural land had become useless waste. Meanwhile, hundreds of Arab towns had been ethnically cleansed by IDF forces. Particularly memorable to Palestinians today is the village of Deir Yassin, where the entire population was massacred by paramilitary groups.

  • evacuation of Haifa
  • ALA failure


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After Israel had won its independence, its diplomats approached the leaders of each of the Arab nations to work out a formal armistice agreement. Rather than drawing up permanent lines, the parties decided to create "temporary" borders based on where the armies were standing at the end of the war. The borders established by these agreements are called the Green Line.

Rather than translating into a peace treaty, the ceasefire was extremely shallow and left the question of Israel's future security and ambitions unresolved, a problem that was unsettling to both sides. This was a purposeful decision on the part of David Ben-Gurion, who was an offensive realist who believed that Israel's military might made any possible compromise a needless concession to the weaker states surrounding it, and that in due time Israel's neighbors would be forced to recognize it and rely on it for trade and security. Ben-Gurion's main adversary was Eliyahu Sasson, who believed that face-saving concessions such as allowing Arabs to remain in their villages and giving the Negev to Egypt were necessary for Israel to gain acceptance in the Arab community. Sasson wrote that "the Egyptians keep reiterating that they regarded the armistice agreement as only the first step to the future. It is essential that both you (Moshe Sharett) and Ben-Gurion devote all your strength towards peace, as you did toward defense." This position was thought to be naive and not serious enough.[3]

The armistice lines were unsatisfying for both parties. Most Zionists felt like the Green Line was waiving part of the Jewish homeland.[4] Jews were deported from their villages and kibbutzim on the Jordanian and Egyptian sides, and Arabs were deported from villages on the Israeli side (see Refugees below). On both sides, villages were subsequently demolished to assuage the fears on both sides that people would attempt to reclaim their homes by force. Heavily populated regions and villages were split in two by the line, which was drawn on a relatively small map that lacked ownership data. For example, the town of Barta'a became 1/3 Israeli and 2/3 Jordanian; today, the town has a wall running through it that is open for only a few minutes every day.


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Palestinian refugees in 1948
Yigal Allon asked Ben-Gurion what was to be done with the civilian population. Ben-Gurion waved his hand in a gesture of "drive them out." "Driving out" is a term with a harsh ring. Psychologically, this was one of the most difficult actions we undertook. The population of Lydda did not leave willingly. There was no way of avoiding the use of force and warning shots in order to make the inhabitants march the ten or fifteen miles to the point where they met up with the Arab Legion.
Service Diary, quoted in David Shipler, in the New York Times of 10/22/1979
May 13, 1948, is a day that will remain forever engraved in my memory. That day, less than twenty four hours before the proclamation of the Israeli state, my family fled Jaffa for refuge in Gaza. We had been under siege: the Zionist forces controlled all the roads leading south, and the only escape left open to us was the sea. It was under a hail of shells fired from Jewish artillery set up in neighboring settlements, especially Tel Aviv, that I clambered onto a makeshift boat with my parents, my four brothers and sisters, and other relatives. [...]

The boat had scarcely lifted anchor when a woman started shrieking. One of her four children wasn't on board and she implored us to put back to port to look for him. Caught under the heavy fire of the Jewish guns, we couldn't turn back without risking the lives of the several hundred people, many of them children, crushed together in the small craft.

The piercing cries of the poor woman went unanswered. She broke down into sobs. Some of us tried to calm her by saying that her son would surely be picked up and later brought to Gaza. But in vain. Her nerves finally cracked and she straddles the rail, throwing herself into the sea. In an apparent effort to save her, her husband jumped in after her. It soon became apparent that neither knew how to swim. The angry waves finally swallowed them up under our very eyes. We all remained rooted to the boat, paralyzed with horror.

—Abu Iyad. My Home, My Land. 1948.
One of my schoolfriends was a Jewish girl named Dvora; she was very sweet, and I loved her. One day, she invited me home, and I went along. When we neared her house I suddenly realized where she was taking me: her family now occupied my aunt's house! My shock was redoubled when I went inside and found my aunt's pictures still hanging on the walls; it was on my aunt's piano that Dvora practiced. I even found a doll I used to play with!
—Raymonda Tawil My Home, My Prison. As quoted in Seder of the Children of Abraham

Roughly 750,000 Palestinian Arabs fled Israel during the war of independence, for reasons that are still under dispute. They arrived in the West Bank and Gaza strip without homes, possessions, or jobs. During the same timespan, nearly 600,000 Jews arrived in Israel from various Arab states, which they had also left for a variety of reasons.[5]

The Arab Christian city of Kafr Bir'im was one of many completely razed during the war. The records for this city are unusually clear: they show that the IDF told the entire village to move to Jish, which had itself been depopulated of its Arab inhabitants. Those who did not leave were dragged to the Jordan border and told to walk across to Jordan, but once the IDF left they walked to Jish instead. In 1972 the people of Bir'im occupied their city, which had been completely emptied, and once again the IDF forcibly removed them to Jish. In 1977 Menachem Begin promised the people of Bir'im the right to return if he was elected. They elected him but he decided not to let them return.

   D. International Aid
      i. UN General Assembly voted on November 19, 1948 to establish the 
         United Nations Relief for Palestinian Refugees (UNRPR) to dispense 
      ii. UNRPR replaced by United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) on 
          Dec. 8, 1949 with a budget of $50 million
         a. substitute public works for direct relief
         b. promote economic development
         c. direct relief would be almost completely replaced by public works 
            with the remaining assistance provided by Arab governments
      iii. UNRWA little chance for success
         a. Arab refugees and Arab states were not prepared to cooperate on 
            the large-scale development projects
         b. Arab governments and refugees unwilling to contribute to any plan 
            that could be interpreted as fostering resettlement, instead they 
            wanted refugees to be repatriated
      iv. Jewish refugees from Arab countries received no international 
      v.  Palestinians received millions of dollars through UNRWA
         a. initially U.S. $25 million, Israel ~ $3 million, Arab pledges ~ 
         b. U.S. still largest contributor and Arab nations donate less than 
            5% of UNRWA budget
   E. Where to go?
      i. Jordan was the only Arab country to welcome the Palestinians and 
         grant them citizenship
      ii. King Abdullah considered Jordanians and Palestinian Arabs one 
      iii. by 1950 Abdullah annexed the West Bank and forbade the use of the 
           term Palestine in official documents
      iv. 1952 UNRWA set up a fund of $200 million to provide homes and jobs  
          for Palestinian refudees but it went untouched
      v. Discussion


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  1. D. Kurzman, "Genesis 1948", 1970, p.282.
  2. Simha Flapan. The Birth of Israel: Myths And Realities. p. 196.
  3. Segev 1986, pp.28-37.
  4. Segev 2007, p. 175


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  • Tom Segev. 1949: The First Israelis. 1986.