The 1948 War: A Cover up for Ethnic Cleansing

By Nizar Sakhnini

Ethnic cleansing was part and parcel of the Zionist project in Palestine.   Plans and preparations for war aiming at implementing the Zionist goal began long before UN resolution # 181 of 29 November 1947.

In 1920 the Haganah was formed as an illegal military organization.  In 1931, a group of Haganah members seceded from the organization, headed by Avraham Tehomi, and became to be known as Irgun Tzeva’i le’umi or its acronym, Etzel (Irgun Zvai Leumi, IZL).

A group led by Abraham Stern, seceded from Etzel in 1940 and began to operate separately under the name ‘Etzel in Israel’.  After the execution of Stern by the British in February 1942, the new leaders of the group (including Yitzhak Shamir) reorganized under the name Lohamei Herut Yisrael(Jewish Freedom Fighters) and its acronym, Lehi (1).

A number of military operational plans were prepared by the Haganah.  Plan A was prepared in 1945 and Plan B was prepared in May 1947.  Plan C was prepared in November 1947.  Plan D (Plan Dalet) replacing all previous plans, was prepared in March 1948 (2).

In preparation for war and to acquire the weapons and equipment needed for the battle Ben-Gurion arrived in New York on 1 July 1945 and held a secret meeting with 18 Jewish American millionaires at the home of Rudolph Sonnenborn who was among those who attended the meeting.  Ben-Gurion explained his plans to acquire millions of dollars in arms to defend the contemplated “Jewish State”.  Those attending the meeting undertook to do everything within their power for the project, which marked the beginning of the Sonnenborn Institute.  As a cover, Sonnenborn engaged in shipping equipment and medicines for hospitals, but secretly he collected the first million dollars to purchase arms.  Later he would go on to collect further millions to buy arms and many ships to serve illegal immigration.  On 30 Sept. 1947, Ben-Gurion sent his assistant, Munia Mardo, to Europe to seek out sources of arms supplies.  Three days later, he decided to purchase airplanes and recruit military experts from abroad.  On Oct. 6, Ben-Gurion summoned the head of Ta’as, the local arms and munitions works, and told him to order all the raw materials he required immediately.  Ehud Avriel was instructed to fly to Europe to facilitate the acquisition of arms.  In Paris, Avriel met a contact of the Czech government who invited him to fly to Prague where the first purchase agreement with Czechoslovakia was signed.  Following the Communist takeover in February 1948, the flow of arms to Palestine was stepped up to include planes (3).

When UN Resolution # 181 was issued, the Arab High Commission called for a three-day strike in protest.

The Irgun used Arab rioting in early December to launch a murderous terrorist campaign that claimed the lives of many Arab civilians in numerous towns and villages.  Irgun leader Menachem Begin later explained, “My greatest worry in those months was that the Arabs might accept the UN plan.  Then we would have had the ultimate tragedy, a Jewish State so small that it could not absorb all the Jews of the world.”  Irgun terrorism would make sure that no agreement would be possible (4).

The British could have stepped in and avoided the catastrophe; they simply preferred to turn their backs to what was going on.  On 13 December 1947, Sir Alan Cunningham, the British High Commissioner in Palestine, admitted that “The initial Arab outbreaks were spontaneous and unorganized and were more demonstrations of displeasure at the UN decision than determined attacks on Jews.  The weapons initially employed were sticks and stones and had it not been for Jewish resource to firearms, it is not impossible that the excitement would have subsided and little loss of life been caused.  This is more probable since there is reliable evidence that the AHC as a whole and the Mufti in particular although pleased at the strong response to the strike call were not in favor of serious outbreaks” (5).

On 19 March 1948, Warren Austen, the American Ambassador to the UN, requested a special session of the General Assembly to work out a plan for trusteeship to replace partition temporarily in Palestine.  Austin sought recognition in the Security Council to declare that so far as the U.S. was concerned, partition was no longer a viable option, and therefore his government favored international trusteeship over Palestine. Two days later, Truman met Weizmann and assured him of America’s reliability in support of partition.  But the State Department knew nothing of that meeting, and Truman knew nothing of the messages passing from the State Department to the UN delegation in New York. (6).

To frustrate the possibility of implementing the American trusteeship proposal and to press on with their pre-meditated and long-awaited ethnic cleansing plans, the Haganah launched “Operation Nachshon” on 3 April 1948 marking the starting point of Plan Dalet.  While Operation Nachson was going on, a brutal massacre was committed in Deir Yassin on 9 April killing hundreds of innocent civilians.

On the night of 16-17 April, units of the Golani Brigade and the Palmach’s 3rd Battalion attacked the Old City of Tiberias.  The Arab inhabitants appealed to the British to lift the Haganah siege on the Old City and to extend their protection to the Arab areas.  The British told the Arabs that they intend to evacuate the city within a few days and could offer no protection to the Arabs beyond 22 April.  The Arabs decided to evacuate the city.  Busses and trucks were brought and the Arabs left their city under British escort (7).

On Sunday, 18 April 1948, Major General Hugh C. Stockwell, British Commander in Haifa, summoned to his headquarters Harry Beilin, the Jewish Agency liaison officer with the British army in the city.  Stockwell informed Beilin that he intended to withdraw his forces from the borders and no-man’s-land between the Arab and Jewish quarters in Haifa and that the withdrawal would be completed by 20 April.

The noninterference of the British Army in the fighting in Tiberias and its evacuation of the city’s Arab population as well as the green light given by Stockwell to Beilin encouraged the Haganah into action.  Operation Misparayim (Scissors), which had been prepared for a massive attack against the Arab quarters of Haifa, was revised to produce a repetition of the Tiberias outcome.  The revised operation was renamed Bi’ur Hametz (Cleaning the Leaven).  British withdrawal, from the borders and no-man’s-land in Haifa, was completed by sunset on Tuesday, 20 April.  At 10:30 A.M. on Wednesday, 21 April, the Haganah launched its offensive (8).

The assault on Jaffa started on 25 April 1948 by an offensive launched by Irgun (IZL).  The Haganah entered Jaffa on 10 May 1948 and the city was finally occupied on 13 May.

On 13 May 1948, the Iraqi general Sir Ismail Safwat, chairman of the Arab league’s military committee, who had been appointed to lead the Arab armies in Palestine, resigned because there was no agreement on a precise plan for the war.  Entry of the Arab armies on 15 May 1948 was a hoax.  It changed nothing; the Arab states were more concerned with frustrating Abdullah’s ambitions rather than fighting “Israel” (9).

There was a tacit agreement between the Zionist leadership and Emir Abdullah of Transjordan.  According to this agreement, Palestine would be divided between the Zionists and Abdullah who would take that part of Palestine allotted to the Arabs west of the Jordan Valley.  Britain was aware of the tacit agreement and encouraged Abdullah’s ambitions (10).

On 28 May 1948, Yosef Weitz met with Moshe Shertok (Sharrett), the newly appointed Foreign Minister of Israel.  Weitz recommended that action be taken to prevent the return of Arabs leaving the country.  To this goal, Weitz suggested that it is it necessary to empower some one to deal with the situation according to an approved plan and proposed that the Cabinet appoint himself, Elias Sasson, and Ezra Danin, “to hammer out a plan of action designed [to achieve] the goal of transfer”.  Shertok preferred that he should first consult with Ben-Gurion on the matter.  Weitz, Danin, and Sasson did not wait for an official approval and met on 30 May to outline the “Transfer” committee’s prospective work (11).

The new committee held a meeting on 4 June 1948 and decided that the return of the Arabs must be prevented.  Weitz stated that money was needed, and allocated I£ 5,000 in order to begin destruction of the abandoned Arab villages so that the refugees would have nowhere to return to (12).

Weitz met with Ben-Gurion on 5 June 1948 and submitted to him a memorandum entitled “Retroactive Transfer, A Scheme for the Solution of the Arab Question in the State of Israel”.  The memorandum was signed by Weitz, Danin, and Sasson and outlined its proposals for “action”.  The next day, 6 June, Weitz sent Ben-Gurion a detailed list of the abandoned villages and towns, with the appropriate population figures.  The list was attached to a covering note in which Weitz stated that he had given an order to begin the required operations in different parts of the Galilee, in the Beit Shean Valley, in the Hills of Ephraim and in the Hefer Valley (13).

On 10 June 1948, Yosef Weitz sent two settlement officials, Asher Bobritzky and Moshe Berger, to tour the coastal plain “to determine in which villages we will be able to settle our people, and which should be destroyed”.  That same day the JNF directorate allocated I£ 10,000 to Weitz to carry out the work of destruction. In his diary, Weitz noted that “it became clear that there is agreement among us on the question of the abandoned villages: Destruction, renovation and settlement [by Jews]…”  He added that there was a consensus everywhere that the Arabs must be prevented from returning and at the same time the “vacuum” must be filled with new Jewish settlements (14).

On 11 June 1948, a four weeks’ truce came into effect.  UN observers came to Palestine as part of a team headed by the mediator, Count Folke Bernadotte of Sweden, who was appointed as a mediator to resolve the conflict in Palestine.  The truce declared on 11 June came to an end on July 8 and the fighting was resumed for 10 days (9-18 July).

Operation Dekel (Operation Palm Tree) was launched in the North on 9 July to conquer parts of Western Galilee and the Lower Galilee.

In the center of the country, Operation Dani (Mivtza Dani) was launched on 10 July to open and secure the vital Tel Aviv-Jerusalem road and to conquer Lydda and Ramle including the Lydda Airport (15).

The town of Nazareth fell into Israeli hands on 16 July 1948.  The Israeli behavior in Nazareth was different from their behavior in the other Arab towns and villages.  They realized that expulsion of Christian Arabs in one of the holiest Christian locations would produce unfavorable headlines all over the world.  Accordingly, the people of the town were allowed to remain.  Chaim Laskov, the Israeli commander, stated, “We had specific instructions not to harm anything, which meant that we had to take Nazareth by stratagem”.  Ben-Gurion ordered that when the town was taken the army should avoid “any possibility of looting and desecration of churches and monasteries.”  Nazareth “was the exception that proved the rule” (16).

The second truce came into effect as of 19 July 1948.  The truce, however, did not stop the IDF from continuing with its operations to occupy more lands, destroy more villages and push more Arabs into exodus.

Operation Ten Plagues (later renamed Operation Yoav) was launched on 15 October against the Egyptians in the South.  Mass murder took place in many towns during this operation.  One of the worst massacres took place at Dawayma in which about 300 Arab civilians were slaughtered.

Isdud (Ashdod) was attacked on 28 October.  Some 300 of its inhabitants who did not flee the town greeted the IDF with white flags.  They were almost immediately expelled southwards (17).

Operation Hiram was launched on 29 October to occupy the remaining parts of upper Galilee and expel their inhabitants.  Within this operation, a massacre was committed in the village of Safsaf killing 70 civilians in cold blood and another massacre was committed in Eilabun.

The Israeli Cabinet approved the appointment of the Transfer Committee on 29 October,.  Their recommendations were submitted to the Cabinet proposing, among other things, that the number of Arabs allowed to stay in the country should not exceed 15% of the population in the mixed cities (18).

On 16 November 1948, the Security Council adopted resolution # 62 calling for an armistice in all sectors of Palestine.  Accordingly, armistice agreements were concluded between Israel and Egypt on 24 February; Israel and Lebanon on 25 March; Israel and Jordan on 3 April; and Israel and Syria on 20 July 1949.


(1)  Internet Website of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, From Hashomer to the Israel Defense Forces: Armed Jewish Defense in Palestine, by Me’ir Pa’il.

(2)  Netanel Lorch, The Edge of the Sword: Israel’s War of Independence 1947-1949, New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1961, pp. 87 – 89, reproduced in Walid Khalidi, From Haven to Conquest:Readings in Zionism and the Palestine Problem until 1948, Beirut: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1971, Second Printing, Washington, 1987, pp. 755 – 760.

(3)  Michael Bar-Zohar, Ben-Gurion: A Biography, New York: Delacorte Press, 1977, pp. 126 – 147.

(4)  Michael Palumbo, The Palestinian Catastrophe: The 1948 Expulsion of a People from their Homeland, London/Boston: 1987, pp. 34-35, citing Nicholas Bethell, The Palestine Triangle, p. 354.

(5) Ibid, pp. 35 – 36, citing Middle East Center, St Anthony’s College – Oxford – Cunningham Papers, box 2, file 3.

(6)  Peter Grose, Israel in the Mind of America, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1983, pp. 274-275.  See also UN Doc. S/PV. 271 dated 19 March 1948.

(7)  Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947 – 1949, Cambridge, 1987, P. 71.

(8)  Walid Khalidi, Selected Documents on the 1948 War, Journal of Palestine Studies, 107, Volume XXVII, No. 3, Spring 1998, pp. 60-105.  See also: Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, Cambridge, 1987, pp. 75-76.  See also: Michael Palumbo. The Palestinian Catastrophe: The 1948 Expulsion of a People from their Homeland. London/Boston: 1987.

(9) Simha Flapan, Flapan, Simha.  The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities, New York: 1987, p. 197.

(10) David McDowall, Palestine and Israel: The uprising and Beyond, Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989, pp. 67 – 68.  For documented details of the tacit agreement, see: Avi Shlaim, Collusion Across the Jordan: King Abdullah, The Zionist Movement, and the Partition of Palestine.  New York: Columbia University Press, 1988. See also: Bar-Zohar, op. cit., p. 157.

(11) Benny Morris, 1948 and After: Israel and the Palestinians, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1990, pp. 102-103.

(12) Ibid, p. 103.  See also Michael Palumbo., op. cit, p. 144.

(13) Ibid, pp. 103-107, citing CZA, A-246/13, p. 2,411, entry for 5 June 1948; Diary of Ben-Gurion, ii, p. 487, entry for 5 June 1948; ISA, FM 2564/19, Y. Weitz to D. Ben-Gurion, 6 June 1948 and CZA, A-246/13, entry for 7 June 1948.  See also Michael Palumbo, op. cit., p. 144, citing Foreign Ministry Files, Israel State Archives, Jerusalem, 2564/19.

(14) Benny Morris, 1948 and After: Israel and the Palestinians, p. 108, citing Weitz diary, iii, p. 301, entry for 10 June 1948.

(15) Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, p. 197.

(16) Michael Palumbo, op. cit., pp. 123-125.

(17) Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian refugee problem, 1947-1949, p. 223.

(18) Benny Morris, 1948 and After, p. 130, citing Weitz diary, iii, p. 336, entry for 29-30 Aug. 1948.  See also: Nur Masalha, A Land Without a People: Israel, Transfer and the Palestinians 1949 – 96.  London: Faber and Faber ltd., 1997, p. 79.

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