Dispossession and Ethnic Cleansing By Nizar Sakhnini

Dispossession and Ethnic Cleansing
By Nizar Sakhnini, 12 July 2004

Dispossession and Ethnic Cleansing were an Integral Part of Herzl’s Colonial Project.  His real intentions and full extent and scope of the colonial settlement that Herzl was after were reflected in the draft-agreement of The Jewish-Ottoman Land Company (JOLC) “for the purpose of settling Palestine and Syria with Jews” that Herzl lobbied for approval from Sultan Abdulhameed in Istanbul in 1901.

According to article I of the draft, the JOLC would be granted “A special right to purchase large estates and small farms and to use them for agriculture, horticulture, forestry, and mining.  On these areas (the JOLC) may build all installations, roads, bridges, buildings and houses, industrial and other facilities, which it considers appropriate.  The JOLC is further entitled “to drain and utilize swamps (if there are any) by planting or in any other way, to establish small and large settlements, and to settle Jews in them.”

Article III gives the JOLC the right to deport the native populations, an act aiming at legitimizing ethnic cleansing, by granting “The right to exchange economic enclaves of its territory, with the exception of the holy places or places already designated for worship. The owners shall receive plots of equal size and quality procured by it (the JOLC) in other provinces and territories of the Ottoman Empire.”  (The full text of the draft-agreement is available as an appendix to an article by Walid Khalidi, The Jewish-Ottoman Land Company: Herzl’s Blueprint for the Colonization of Palestine, Journal of Palestine Studies, Volume XXII, Number 2, Winter 1993, pp. 30-47)

Herzl did not succeed in getting his Charter approved by Turkey.  However, in that same year, 1901, the 5th ZC founded the Jewish National Fund (JNF). According to the by-laws of the JNF, acquired land would be considered as “redeemed” land that became inalienable Jewish property and could no longer be sold or leased to non-Jews. Consequently, systematic dispossession of the Palestinians had officially started as early as 1901, long before the British enhanced and facilitated the process through the Balfour Declaration of 1917.

On the other hand, plans for ethnic cleansing were discussed and formulated as early as the late 1930’s and were put into action in 1948.

Encouraged by the possibility of establishing a Jewish State as a result of the partition plan proposed by the British Peel Commission in 1937, a “Population Transfer Committee” was appointed by the Jewish Agency to come up with plans to rid the Jewish State of its Palestinian Arabs.  Joseph Weitz, director of the JNF, who served on the Population Transfer Committee, developed a plan for this purpose.  In his report, Weitz wrote that the transfer of the Arab population from the Jewish areas “does not serve only one aim – to diminish the Arab population.  It also serves a second purpose by no means less important, which is to evacuate land now cultivated by Arabs and thus release it for Jewish settlement.”

The Peel Commission’s partition plan was discussed in a meeting of the Jewish Agency Executive held on 12 June 1938.  Partition as proposed by the Peel Commission would leave over 200,000 Arabs in the proposed “Jewish State”.  The J.A.Exec was discussing the problem of how best to get rid of these Arabs.  The seventy-five year old Zionist leader, Menahem Ussishkin, stated that “There is no hope that this new Jewish State will survive, to say nothing of develop, if the Arabs are as numerous as they are today.” For Ussishkin the solution to the problem of the large Arab population in the proposed Jewish State was for their removal by the British army before the state was established. Like most other Zionists at the time, Ussishkin believed that the Palestinians could be coerced into leaving their homes and settling on land that would be purchased for them in Trans-Jordan, Iraq or Saudi Arabia.  He made it clear that he did not favor sending the excess Palestinians to the Arab State that the British planned to create on the West Bank. “If you wish ever to expand you must not increase the number of Arabs west of the Jordan,” Ussishkin reminded his colleagues.

All the other speakers at the Executive Committee meeting voiced similar sentiments. Berl Katznelson of Ben-Gurion’s Mapai party saw only disaster in a Jewish State with a large Arab minority.  As a “liberal” Zionist, Katznelson had a relatively tolerant attitude toward the Palestinians.  “I am willing to give the Arabs equal rights,” he said, “if I know that only a small minority stays in the land.”  He proposed for the new state a development plan that would include a provision to eliminate thousands of Palestinians. He made the position clear: “A development plan means evictions.” The Mapai party official urged negotiations, with neighboring Arab States that might be persuaded to receive the expellees. (Michael Palumbo, The Palestinian Catastrophe, pp. 1-2, citing CZA, Executive Proceedings, 12 June 1938 and p. 4, citing CZA, Minutes of the Population Transfer Committee, 22 Nov., 1937)

Most Zionists were determined to implement the “transfer” of the Arabs. David Ben-Gurion believed that the Zionists had to exert pressure to force the British to act.  But if necessary, he wrote in his diary, “We must ourselves prepare to carry out the removal of the Palestinians”. (Ibid, p. 4, citing Ben-Gurion’s Diary – published in Hebrew – vol. IV, p. 299)

In a report to the Jewish Agency Executive on 12 June 1938, Ben-Gurion stated “I am for a compulsory transfer; I don’t see anything immoral in it…”  (Simha Flapan, Zionism and the Palestinians, London: Croom Helm, 1979, p. 263)

Other “Transfer Committees” were appointed during the 1948 war.  An unofficial “self-appointed” committee, headed by Joseph Weitz, director of the JNF who participated in the discussions related with ethnic cleansing in the 1930’s, started its activities as of the end of March 1948 in tandem with the military offensive that was launched according to Plan Dalet in early April.  After the creation of the “State of Israel” the Provisional Government appointed an official committee. Recommendations of this committee were submitted to Ben-Gurion in due course and were being implemented under the cover of war.

For full details see: Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949.  For more elaboration on ethnic cleansing, see Nur Masalha, A Land Without a People: Israel, Transfer and the Palestinians 1949 – 96.  London: Faber and Faber ltd., 1997)

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