The Palestinian Catastrophe, Then and Now

On the story we almost never hear about?the Palestinian one?and an anniversary few of us have ever considered

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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 Gaza, are in many cases down to one meal a day, eaten in candlelight. Yet their desperate conditions go largely ignored by a world accustomed to extreme Israeli measures in the name of security: nearly 10,000 Palestinians locked in Israeli jails, many without charge; 4,000 Gaza and West Bank homes demolished since 2000 and hundreds of acres of olive groves plowed under; three times as many civilians killed as in Israel, many due to “collateral damage” in operations involving the assassination of suspected militants.

“Wake up!” shouted the young Palestinian journalist Mohammed Omer from Gaza on San Francisco’s “Arab Talk” radio in late June. “The Gaza people are starving. There is a real humanitarian crisis. Our children are born to live. Don’t these people have any heart? No feelings at all? The world is silent!”

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 Catastrophe”

The Arab-Israeli war of 1948, known in Israel as the War of Independence, is called al-Nakba or the Catastrophe by Palestinians. For generations of Americans raised on the heroic story of Israel’s birth, especially as written by Leon Uris in Exodus, there is no place for al-Nakba. Yet this fundamental Palestinian wound, and the power of its memory today, cannot simply be wished away.

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.

On July 11, 1948, a convoy of halftracks and jeeps from Israeli Commando Battalion Eighty-Nine approached the Arab city of Lydda on the coastal plain of Palestine. The 150 soldiers were part of a large fighting force made up of Holocaust survivors, literally just off the boats and themselves the dispossessed of a European catastrophe, as well as Jews born in Palestine who had sharpened their fighting skills in World War II with the British army. Their jeeps were mounted with Czech- and German-made machine guns, each capable of firing at least 800 rounds per minute. The battalion leader, a young colonel named Moshe Dayan, had passed along orders for a lightning assault that relied on firepower and total surprise.

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 Palestine into two states, one for the Arabs and one for the Jews. For the Zionist movement, as for many people around the world, this represented a guarantee of a safe haven for Jews in the wake of the Holocaust. The Arab majority in Palestine, however, wondered why they should be the solution to the Jewish tragedy in Europe. They owned the vast majority of the land, including 80% of its citrus groves and grain fields, and the Arab population that fell on the Jewish side of the partition had no desire to become a minority on their own land. They wanted an Arab-majority state for all the people of Palestine, and they appealed for help from neighboring Arab states to prevent the Jews from establishing the state of Israel.

Fighting intensified in the early months of 1948. In April, a massacre by the Jewish militia Irgun in the Arab village of Deir Yassin shot waves of fear through Arab Palestine; this provoked a reprisal massacre by Arabs of Jewish doctors and nurses on the road to Hadassah hospital near Jerusalem. In the meantime, in the wake of Deir Yassin many thousands of Arab villagers fled for safe haven, intending to come back once the hostilities ceased.

On May 13, the Arab coastal town of Jaffa fell, and refugees began filling the streets of Lydda and the neighboring town, al-Ramla. The next day, in a speech to the Jewish provisional council, David Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s independence, and on May 15, Arab armies crossed the borders to launch attacks on the new Jewish state. The Arab and Jewish fighting forces on the ground, contrary to subsequent narratives much-repeated in the West, were relatively equal as the war began. For a time the Arabs appeared to have a slight edge, but during a four-week truce that began on June 11, Israel was able to break a U.N. arms embargo, and as the war resumed in early July, Israel had a decided advantage.

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 Israel’s regular army, which occupied Lydda and brutally put down a brief local uprising: 250 people died, including at most four Israeli soldiers as well as up to 80 unarmed civilians in a local mosque. In the meantime, Israeli planes had strafed the two towns and dropped fliers demanding the Palestinians take flight to the east, toward the kingdom of Transjordan. Local Palestinian doctors worked feverishly, without electricity, using strips of bed sheets for bandages as they struggled to save the wounded.

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 Israel only through the lens of its triumphant emergence after the Holocaust. Leon Uris’s mega-bestselling novel, Exodus, which many Americans were raised on, powerfully told one side of the story, that of the birth of Israel out of the Holocaust. Yet we are left knowing nothing of the Arab perspective: their history, their culture, their hopes, and their tragedy in 1948.

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 Ramallah, more than 20 miles away. Jewish soldiers would later recall a desire to punish the Arabs of Lydda for their aborted uprising; some soldiers confiscated gold from the refugees, and shot in the air behind them to speed their departure. (That same month in an Israeli cabinet meeting, as the historian Benny Morris has documented, minister Aharon Cohen declared that Israeli troops in Lydda had been “ordered” to “take from the expelled Arabs every watch, piece of jewelry or money” so that, arriving completely destitute, they would become a burden on the Arab legion,” the army of King Abdullah of neighboring Transjordan.)

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 woman…. 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 gold…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 afraid?”

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 time? The tactic reached its goal completely

The refugees from Ramla and Lydda arrived in exile, transforming the Christian hill town of Ramallah into a repository of misery and trauma. One hundred thousand refugees crowded into school yards, gymnasiums, convents, army barracks, or slept in olive groves, caves, corrals, barnyards, and on open ground along the roadsides. They would, in the end, join more than 600,000 other refugees to form an ever growing, ever more desperate Palestinian diaspora.

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 Gaza, as in countless explosions of battles past, the trauma is only re-engaged. Fifty-eight summers after the Nabka — as Palestinian women again sell off their gold to buy olives and bread; as Israeli planes again drop leaflets with dire warnings for Arab civilians; as doctors lacking medicines or electricity again struggle to rescue the wounded — a déjà vu settles over the old men and women of the refugee camps, and in the vast diaspora beyond, reminding them of yet another bitter anniversary year.

The latest attacks by Israel in Gaza, ostensibly on behalf of a single soldier, recall the comments by extremist Rabbi Yaacov Perrin, in his eulogy for American Jewish settler Baruch Goldstein, who in 1994 slaughtered 27 Palestinians praying in the Cave of the Patriarchs, part of the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron. “One million Arabs,” Perrin declared, “are not worth a Jewish fingernail.”

Israelis, too, are a traumatized people, and Israel’s current actions are driven in part by a hard determination, born of the Holocaust, to “never again go like sheep to the slaughter.” But if “never again” drives the politics of reprisal, few seem to notice that the reprisals themselves are completely out of scale to the provocation: for every crude Qassam rocket falling usually harmlessly and far from its target, dozens, sometimes hundreds of shells rain down with far more destructive power on the Palestinians. For one missing soldier, a million and a half Gazans are made to suffer. Today, Israel’s policy is a case of “never again” gone mad.

The irony is that, contrary to helping build the safe harbor they have sought for so long, the Israeli government, just like the U.S. in Iraq, is only sowing the seeds of more hatred and rage.

Sandy Tolan is the author of The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East (Bloomsbury, 2006). He directs the Project on International Reporting at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California-Berkeley, where he was an I.F. Stone Fellow. He has produced dozens of documentaries for National Public Radio, reported from the Middle East since 1994, and from more than two dozen countries over the last 25 years. He has also served as an oral history consultant to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Copyright 2006 Sandy Tolan

This article appeared first, with an introduction by Tom Engelhardt, at


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