In 1948, the State of Israel created a Jewish majority by destroying approximately 500 Palestinian towns and driving over 700,000 Palestinians out of their homeland. Ethnic cleansing continues today in the form of expulsions and Jewish-only settlements.
What Is Ethnic Cleansing?
Encyclopedia Britannica defines ethnic cleansing as “the attempt to create ethnically homogeneous geographic areas through the deportation or forcible displacement of persons belonging to particular ethnic groups.” In the modern era an international consensus has emerged that ethnic cleansing is a war crime and a crime against humanity. In some cases the United Nations (UN) has declared ethnic cleansing a form of genocide. The human rights movement and international humanitarian law furthermore assert that anyone who has been victimized by ethnic cleansing has the right to return to their home. In resolving the ethnic conflict in the Balkans in the 1990s, for example, displaced persons who had been ethnically cleansed were allowed safe passage and the right to return to their homes as part of the Dayton Accord that ended the conflict. The International Criminal Court also indicted those responsible for the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, and several persons were brought to trial facing war crime charges. Ever since the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights following the end of World War II in 1945, the Declaration’s Article 13 has enshrined the right of return, stipulating that “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” Not only is ethnic cleansing illegal, but also the legal and just remedy is to restore the rights of those who were deported or forcibly displaced to return to their original homes.
That right, however, has never been accorded the Palestinian people. In November 1947, just days after the United Nations General Assembly voted to partition Palestine and create a Jewish state that was to have a population of 520,000 Jews and 320,000 Arabs, the Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion, who would become Israel’s first prime minister, told a gathering of his party’s supporters, “This fact must be viewed in all its clarity and sharpness. With such a composition, there cannot even be complete certainty that the government will be held by a Jewish majority. . . There can be no stable and strong Jewish state so long as it has a Jewish majority of only 60 percent.” The solution, according to Ben-Gurion, was that “it would be better to expel” the Arabs than allow them to remain, thus ensuring a homogenous Jewish state. (Quoted in The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, by Benny Morris, Cambridge University Press, 1987, p. 28.) Moreover, Ben-Gurion and other Zionist leaders accepted the UN partition only as a preliminary stage. They dreamed that eventually Israel would consist of all of historic Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.
Ben-Gurion’s initial concern about the Arab demographic “problem” was soon taken care of. Fighting between Israeli militias and Palestinian irregular forces, backed by volunteers from other countries, began soon after and so did the expulsions. By May 15, 1948, when British troops withdrew from what had been Mandate Palestine, and Israel declared its independence, already nearly 250,000 Palestinians had fled or had been forced to flee Palestine. These expulsions occurred even before the armies of seven Arab states invaded in an attempt to block the creation of Israel. By 1949 only about 100,000 Palestinian Arabs remained in an expanded Israeli state that went beyond the boundaries specified by the UN partition resolution. The UN resolution had granted the new Israeli state 55 percent of historic Palestine, but by the time the fighting ended in 1949, Israel controlled 78 percent of the land. Approximately 750,000 Palestinians became refugees, forced to flee their homes and land as a result of military force or the threat of force. Zionist militias carried out a number of massacres of civilians, including women and children, raising fear among the Palestinian population. Even those Palestinians who remained within Israel became “internally displaced refugees,” denied the right to return to their homes and villages and forced to relocate within Israel. (See Morris above, p. 298, and The Forgotten Palestinians: A History of the Palestinians in Israel by Ilan Pappe, Kindle edition, Location 671-83..)
For decades after the state of Israel was formed, the Israeli government promoted the propaganda myth that the Palestinians had left their homes voluntarily, urged to leave by their own leaders and at the behest of neighboring Arab governments opposed to the partition plan. According to this myth, the Arab leadership pledged that the Palestinians would be able to return after the Arab armies had defeated the Zionist forces. Most historians, including many Israeli historians, now dispute this propaganda claim, which was widely accepted in the West and which made it seem that Israel had waged a moral and courageous war. In the 1980s, previously classified British, Israeli, and U.S. documents became available to scholars, including the archives of the Haganah, the Zionist militia that became today’s Israel Defense Force (IDF). Chief among the newly declassified material was a document drafted in March 1948 and titled in Hebrew “Tochnit Dalet” (Plan D), which called for “the expulsion of the Arabs” from the cities with mixed Jewish and Arab populations (see Morris above, p. 62 and 74).
Massacres played an instrumental role in inducing the indigenous Palestinian population to flee. The most infamous of these massacres occurred in the village of Deir Yassin in April 1948, about a month after the adoption of Plan D. There the Zionist paramilitary forces known as the Irgun and Stern Gang attacked the village despite a previous nonaggression pact reached by village leaders with the Haganah. According to Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, the village was designated for destruction under Plan D but because of the nonaggression pact, the Haganah sent in the Irgun and Stern Gang to “absolve themselves from any official accountability.” (The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, p. 90.) The village was first sprayed with machine-gun fire. Many who survived this attack were then lined up and executed in cold-blood, including women, children, and infants—more than 90 people in all. News of the Deir Yassin massacre, which reportedly included the rape of Arab women, spread rapidly throughout Palestine. The Haganah’s Intelligence Services later described it as “a decisive accelerating factor” in the flight of the Palestinians. (“The Causes and Character of the Arab Exodus from Palestine” by Benny Morris, included in The Israel/Palestine Question, ed. Ilan Pappe, Routledge, 1999, p. 199, paperback edition.)
Palestinian historians have long maintained that the expulsions were a deliberate and concerted political and military effort at ethnic cleansing. Some Israeli historians now agree. Israeli historian Ilan Pappe was the first to explictly draw the comparison in his book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (OneWorld Publications, 2006). As Pappe noted, Plan D contained “a repertoire of cleansing methods, ” exactly like those cited by the UN Council for Human Rights in its investigation of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. The Israeli historian Avi Shlaim in his book The Iron Wall (W.W. Norton & Company, 2000) argues somewhat differently: “Plan D was not a political blueprint for the expulsion of Palestinie’s Arabs; it was a military plan with military and territorial objectives. However, by ordering the capture of Arab cities and the destruction of villages, it both permitted and justified the forcible expulsion of Arab civilians.” (p. 31, paperback edition.)
Not every historian who has explored the issue of forcible expulsion in light of thre recently declassified information agrees that there was a deliberate, planned campaign of ethnic cleansing. The right-wing Israeli historian Benny Morris, who was among the first Israeli academics to dispute the claim of a voluntary departure, argues that the expulsion resulted from the nature of war itself and was not intentional, even if it was desired by the Zionist’s political leadership. Although Morris concedes that Ben-Gurion and other Zionist leaders spoke frequently among themselves about the need for “compulsory transfer” of the Palestinians to other Arab nations and that transfer was “in the air” (p. 25), he argues that there is no evidence of a concerted effort at the political level to carry out the massive expulsions that resulted. A number of scholars have challenged Morris’s conclusions, saying that if the expulsions only occurred in the confusion of war, then it follows that some Arab Druze villages would have come under attack but few, if any, were. The Druze were an Arab religious sect that had reached peaceful terms with the Zionist forces. Others, such as the Israeli journalist Meron Benvenisti, argue that some of the expulsions but not all were necessitated by the military situation facing the fledging Israeli state. In his book Sacred Landscape: The Buried History of the Holy Land Since 1948 (University of California Press, 2002) Benvenisti maintains that Zionist military operations prior to May 1948 were justified and necessary to secure the emerging Israeli state but that following the defeat of the Arab armies in the summer of 1948, the Israeli leadership undertook an unnecessary campaign of ethnic cleansing that removed hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs from their homes and villages.
What is undeniable and not in dispute by any credible historian, journalist, or scholar is that the Israeli government destroyed hundreds of Palestinian villages and seized land that had belonged to Palestinians without compensating them. It then refused the refugees the right to return to their homes even after hostilities ended, and applied this dictum even to internally displaced refugees.
Ethnic cleansing has been an ongoing practice of the Israeli state. It expelled another 200,000 Palestinians from the West Bank during the 1967 Six-Day War, and it continues to ethnically cleanse parts of the West Bank and Jerusalem to make way for illegal Jewish settlements that are prohibited by the Fourth Geneva Convention. Those settlements, the building of a Separation Wall, home demolitions based on discriminatory enforcement of building codes, and the harshness of the Occupation have all resulted in making life economically, socially, and politically so difficult that thousands of Palestinians have had to relocate. According to a lengthy report by Human Rights Watch, “Separate and Unequal,” once-thriving Palestinian towns in the West Bank now barely support any industry and their populations have dwindled drastically. To this day Israel consistently refuses the right of return to any of the refugees or their descendants, who number in their millions and are the oldest and longest-suffering refugee population in the world. By any definition, this is ethnic cleansing.