The Palestinian Catastrophe, Then and Now
The Palestinian Catastrophe, Then and Now
Under 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
"Wake up!" shouted the young Palestinian journalist Mohammed Omer from Gaza on San Francisco's "Arab Talk" radio in late June. "The
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
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.
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
Fighting intensified in the early months of 1948. In April, a massacre by the Jewish militia Irgun in the Arab
On May 13, the Arab coastal town of
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
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
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.
From Lydda, Palestinians were marched out of town and toward the hills in the general direction of the Christian hill town of
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.
"We raved 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 womanâ€¦ It was only then that I thought to myself that, had I known, I would have carried it instead of the gold."
For 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 goldâ€¦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 and afraidâ€¦"
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 by force.
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 timeâ€¦ The tactic reached its goal completely."
The refugees from Ramla and Lydda arrived in exile, transforming the Christian hill town of
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
The latest attacks by
Israelis, too, are a traumatized people, and
The irony is that, contrary to helping build the safe harbor they have sought for so long, the Israeli government, just like the
Sandy Tolan is the author of The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East (
This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), a blog of the Nation Institute run by Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War.