Did Israel create the Arab refugee problem?

The refugee problem was caused by attacks by Jewish forces on Arab villages and towns and by the inhabitants’ fear of such attacks, compounded by expulsions, atrocities, and rumors of atrocities — and by the crucial Israeli Cabinet decision in June 1948 to bar a refugee return.

– “Revisiting the Palestinian Exodus of 1948”, Benny Morris in E. L. Rogan and A. Schlaim “The War for Palestine: Rewriting the History of 1948”, pp. 37- 59.

Overview of what happened

Had the Arabs accepted the 1947 UN proposal for a Palestinian state, not a single Palestinian would have become a refugee and an independent Arab state would now exist beside Israel. Instead the Arab rulers chose war causing a mass exodus of Arabs from Israel.

What happened to the Arabs that were living within Israel’s borders?

  • Palestinians forced to leave by Arabs
    In the 1948 war many Arab civilians were forced to leave by the Arab nations and the Arab Higher Committee.
  • Palestinians that left following Arab propaganda
    In 48 and 67 Arab propaganda told of fictional Zionist massacres, this propaganda coupled with proclamations of a swift Arab victory caused thousands of Arabs to flee (with the belief they could return once the Jews had been cleansed).
  • Palestinians forced to leave by Zionists
    In 1948 there were a tiny number of Arab towns that were evicted for military activity against Israel.
  • Palestinians that became Israelis
    Arabs that remained neutral and did not leave were granted full Israeli citizenship. This group now represents 20% of the Israeli population.

As many of the Arabs were recent migrants or the children/grandchildren of recent migrants, they simply returned to the neighbouring countries they’d originally came from when they fled.

Palestinians that were forced to leave Israel at the hands of Arabs

Many Arab villages were systematically depopulated by the Arab Liberation Army (an army of volunteer soldiers from Arab countries sponsored by the Arab League) and local gangs loyal to the Arab Higher Committee (the de facto Palestinian government headed by the Grand Mufti). The empty villages were then transformed into military positions for anti-Jewish attacks.

The fellaheen (peasants) who lived in the villages were of little consequence to the ALA and AHC. In one round of peace negotiations the General Secretary of the Arab League (the creators of the ALA), Abdul Rahman Hassan Azzam, declared “I am fighting for a country and villages do not matter” 1.

This dismissiveness coupled with striking Zionist military successes led many villages to either opt out of the conflict or align themselves with Israel. In 1948 the following Arab localities had agreed to both formal and informal peace treaties: Abu Kishk, Abu Gosh, Aqir, Arab Jalad, Arab Quz, Ard Saris, Bashshit, Battir, Baqa Gharbiya, Beit Hanina, Beit Iksa, Beit Inan, Beit Naqquba, Beit Safafa, Beit Surik, Daliyat al-karmil, Deir Yasin, Ein Karim, Ghuweir Abu Shusha, Faja, Habla, Hadatha, Jalil, Jammassin, Kababir, Kafr Qara, Kafr Sabt, Khirbat Lauz, Litfa, Ma’dhar, Maliha, Mansuriya, Miska, Qalandiya, Qaluniya, Qastel, Qatanna, Sabbarin, Sataf, Sejera, Sharafat, Shafa Amr, Sheik Muwannis, Shumali, Silwan, Summeil, Sur Bahir, Taiyiba, Tarshiha, Tel Safi, Tira, Ulam, Usfieh, Wadi Hawarith, Walaja, Yajur, Yasur, Zib and Zir’in. 2

But it was not just peace treaties that were being signed, many of the villages physically repelled ALA/AHC troops and informed the Zionists of ALA/AHC activity. When an armed gang tried to launch an attack against a Zionist kibbutz from the Arab village of Zeita, the villagers not only drove the gang away, but offered to send 100 fighters to protect the kibbutz. Similar scenes were witnessed in Arab villages throughout Israel. One such instance occurred when Abd al-Qadir al-Husayni, the founder of the Holy War Army, was chased from the village of Beit Safafa by an angry mob appalled by the transformation of their village into a centre for anti-Jewish attacks. As time passed and violence escalated some villages folded under pressure and reneged on their peace agreements. While others, like Abu Gosh, remained close allies of Israel throughout the conflict.

But what of the cities? If Abdul Rahman Azzam cared not for the villages then one would assume there’d be no evacuation of the cities. In Haifa this was not the case. In 1947 Haifa was a city of two people (71,000 Jews and 70,000 Arabs 3), but by April 1948 the AHC had forced almost all of the Arab population to flee.

Flight from Haifa 4

  • December 1947 Fearing an oncoming conflict around a third of the city’s Arab residents had fled by December.
  • 12 December 1947 Shabtai Levy, the Jewish mayor of Haifa suggested both the Jewish and Arab leadership offer a joint proclamation urging the city not to slip into violence. The Arabs responded by saying “There is no way we can negotiate with the Jews. Let them take care of their interests and we’ll ensure our security”.
  • March 1948 The AHC ordered the evacuation of the women and children from Haifa as violence escalated between Arabs and Jews.
  • April 1948 The city’s Arab population had dwindled to 35-40,000 – almost half of what it was the previous year.
  • 21-22/4/1948 The Battle for Haifa erupted and though the Jews were outnumbered, they struck a quick and decisive victory.5
  • 24/4/1948 After winning the battle Haifa’s Jews offered their Arab neighbours peace if they handed in their weapons. After consulting with the Arab states, the Haifa residents were forced to reject the proposal and request “as an alternative, that the Arab population wished to evacuate Haifa”. On hearing this the elderly Jewish mayor, Shabtai Levy, pleaded (with tears in his eyes) for the Arabs to reconsider, saying that they were committing “a cruel crime against their own people”. Yaacov Salomon, a Haganah liaison officer, assured the Arab that “if they stayed on they would enjoy equality and peace, and that we, the Jews, were interested in their staying on and the maintenance of harmonious relations”. Major General Hugh Stockwell of the British armed forces went on to tell the Arabs “You have made a foolish decision… think it over, as you’ll regret it afterward. You must accept the conditions of the Jews. They are fair enough. Don’t permit life to be destroyed senselessly. After all, it was you who began the fighting, and the Jews have won.”

Despite an order for the Arab states to leave Haifa, not every Arab wanted to flee. To ensure their evacuation order was carried out the AHC declared that anyone remaining would be considered a traitor (a crime likely to attract the death sentence if, as was expected, the Arabs recaptured the city).

After the Jews had gained control of the town, and in spite of a subsequent food shortage, many would not have responded to the call for a complete evacuation but for the rumours and propaganda spread by the National Committee members remaining in the town. Most widespread was a rumour that Arabs remaining in Haifa would be taken as hostages by [the] Jews in the event of future attacks on other Jewish areas: and an effective piece of propaganda with its implied threat of retribution when the Arabs recapture the town, is that [those] people remaining in Haifa acknowledged tacitly that they believe in the principle of a Jewish State.

– British Intelligence Report (Weekly Report No. 3 for Week Ending 28 April 1948, WO 275/79).

Haifa was not an isolated incident and thousands and thousands of Arabs were forced to flee their homes. The Arab residents of Tiberias, Jaffa, Jerusalem (several neighbourhoods) and Beisan were just some of the major population centres commanded to leave.

Palestinians that left Israel following Arab propaganda

In 1948 the world expected a swift victory for the Arab armies. Prior to the War of Independence the Jewish arsenal consisted of rifles, machine-guns and mortars… in contrast the Arab armies possessed planes, tanks, APC’s and IFV’s. The Jewish forces were made up of militiamen (many still physically recovering from the holocaust), while the Arab nations had thousands of soldiers many of whom were highly trained and hardened fighting in military campaigns (like those that sided with Hitler to fight the British and French).

Everyone anticipated an Arab victory, none more so than the Arab rulers. On the 13 May 1948 the General Secretary of the Arab League, Abdul Azzam declared “It does not matter how many [Jews] there are …. we will sweep them into the sea!”. Two days later at a press conference in Cairo he expanded on this by saying “This will be a war of extermination and momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacre and the Crusades”. 6

But this prophetic bravado was quickly converted into propaganda to encourage Arab civilians to flee and only return once the Jews had been crushed. One refugee recalled why he left in 48:

The radio stations of the Arab regimes kept repeating to us: ‘Get away from the battle lines. It’s a matter of ten days or two weeks at the most, and we’ll bring you back to Ein-Kerem [near Jerusalem].’ And we said to ourselves, ‘That’s a very long time. What is this? Two weeks? That’s a lot!’ That’s what we thought [then]. And now 50 years have gone by.

– Palestinian Authority TV, (July 7, 2009)

There were many such testimonies, one of the more striking accounts came from the King of Jordan, whose troops were fighting against the Jews.

The tragedy of the Palestinians was that most of their leaders had paralyzed them with false and unsubstantiated promises that they were not alone; that 80 million Arabs and 400 million Muslims would instantly and miraculously come to their rescue.

– King Abdullah of Jordan

Even the Palestinian leadership recorded the same account.

The Arab armies entered Palestine to protect the Palestinians from the Zionist tyranny but, instead, they abandoned them, forced them to emigrate and to leave their homeland, and threw them into prisons similar to the ghettos in which the Jews used to live.

– — Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, Falastin a-Thaura, (March 1976).

As did many of the Arab world’s leaders:

Since 1948 we have been demanding the return of the refugees to their homes. But we ourselves are the ones who encouraged them to leave. Only a few months separated our call to them to leave and our appeal to the United Nations to resolve on their return.

– Haled al Azm, the Syrian Prime Minister in 1948–49 7

We will smash the country with our guns and obliterate every place the Jews seek shelter in. The Arabs should conduct their wives and children to safe areas until the fighting has died down.

– Nuri Said, Iraqi Prime Minister, 1958

This wholesale exodus was due partly to the belief of the Arabs, encouraged by the boastings of an unrealistic Arabic press and the irresponsible utterances of some of the Arab leaders that it could be only a matter of weeks before the Jews were defeated by the armies of the Arab States and the Palestinian Arabs enabled to re-enter and retake possession of their country.

– Edward Atiyah, Secretary of the Arab League Office in London

However, it would be an injustice to history to claim that it was the Arabs alone that were responsible. There were also cases of Zionists spreading propaganda to scare Arabs. Yigal Allon, the commander of the Palmach, said he’d instructed Jews tell Arab villagers that a large Jewish force was in Galilee with the intention of burning all the Arab villages in the Lake Hula region. The Arabs were told to leave while they still had time.8 Arab propagandists weren’t just telling the Arabs to leave they were also spreading rumours of fictitious massacres and rape (not one case was recorded) – in one instance Abu Mahmud, a resident of Deir Yassin during the 1948 massacre told Palestinian leader, Hussein Khalidi that “there was no rape,” but Khalidi replied, “We have to say this, so the Arab armies will come to liberate Palestine from the Jews.” Sari Nusseibeh told the BBC 50 years later, “This was our biggest mistake. We did not realize how our people would react. As soon as they heard that women had been raped at Deir Yassin, Palestinians fled in terror.”9

Palestinians that were forced to leave Israel by Zionists

While almost every Palestinian expulsion came at the hands of Arabs, there was one isolated instance when a substantial urban population was driven out by Jewish forces. Israeli troops seeking to protect their flanks and relieve the pressure on besieged Jerusalem, forced a portion of the Arab population of the Lydda-Ramle area to a Jordanian occupied position a few miles away.

On the 9th of July Lydda was the site of this fierce battle, Yigal Allon described the reason for the battle, “The two towns had served as bases for Arab irregular units, which had frequently attacked Jewish convoys and nearby settlements, effectively barring the main road to Jerusalem to Jewish traffic”.10 After a crushing defeat the town’s mayor Muhammad Ali Kajala negotiated a peace treaty – but was then promptly executed by an Arab militia. Shortly after the residents of the town staged an uprising resulting in a second much bloodier conflict where around 250 Arabs lost their lives.11 In the heat of this conflict Moshe Dayan made the decision to relocate the 50,000-70,000 residents of the Lydda-Ramle region to a Jordanian position a few miles away.

Unlike the Arabs who had an official policy of depopulating Arab neighbourhoods, this was not an official Israeli policy and the decision to depopulate Lydda-Ramle was a one off military decision made in the heat battle.

Palestinians that became Israelis

After the war of independence the 160,000 12 Arabs remaining in Israel were granted full citizenship. The same was not true for Jews in the Jordanian occupied West Bank who were expelled and their holy places destroyed, nor for Jews in Arab lands who were expelled en masse during the years that followed.


The Arabs of Israel flourished in a political system that granted them more freedoms than any Arab state:

  • Israel’s Declaration of Independence established equality of social and political rights, irrespective of religion, race, or sex
  • Hebrew and Arabic are the official languages of Israel and all road signs, food labels, messages published or posted by the government must also be translated into Literary Arabic.
  • Education is free to all citizens
  • Healthcare is free to all citizens
  • The rights to vote or run for office

While many of the Palestinians that fled Israel were subject to cruel afflictions and continuous oppression at the hands of the Arab states.

Today 20% of Israel’s population are Arab, just as it was in 1948. 13

Learn more truths about Palestinian refugees:


1. Palestine Betrayed, Efraim Karsh, p174
2. Palestine Betrayed, Efraim Karsh, p177-9
3. Palestine Betrayed, Efraim Karsh, p125
4. Palestine Betrayed, Efraim Karsh, Ch. Fleeing Haifa
5. Benny Morris, Benny Morris, Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, p192.
6. Palestine Betrayed, Efraim Karsh, p209
7. The Memoirs of Haled al Azm, Part 1, p386–7.
8. Sefer ha-Palmach, Yigal Allon, quoted in Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, O Jerusalem!, (NY: Simon and Schuster, 1972), p. 337; Yigal Allon, My Fathers House, (NY: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc, 1976), p. 192.
9. Israel and the Arabs: The 50 Year Conflict, BBC Television Series, (1998).
10. Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, (MA: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 423–5.
11 Operation Dani and the Palestinian Exodus from Lydda and Ramle in 1948, Benny Morris, Middle East Journal, Vol. 40, No. 1 (Winter, 1986), pp. 87
12. Terence Prittie, “Middle East Refugees,” cited in Michael Curtis, et al, The Palestinians, (NJ: Transaction Books, 1975), p. 52.
13. Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics