After 1948: How Israel stopped the “outcast race” from returning home

Yesterday, the Israeli army opened fire on unarmed demonstrators seeking to reach Majdel Shams, a village in the occupied Golan Heights. When the demonstrators breached a border fence, the army opened fire, killing several of them. Among those who made it through was Hassan Hijazi. Hijazi hitch-hiked and rode buses from the border to Jaffa, hoping to find his family’s confiscated home. “It was always my dream to reach Jaffa,” he told police after turning himself in.

At the Gaza border, the army opened fire on unarmed demonstrators with tanks, injuring dozens. Israeli forces fired unusually high amounts of teargas at protesters in Qalandiya, wounding scores in the West Bank city which was completely surrounded by the separation wall. Joseph Dana, who documented the Qalandiya protest, told me a group of shabab attempted to pull down a section of the wall but failed in somewhat comical fashion because their rope was too short.

Now that Israeli forces are conducting house-to-house searches for those who managed to surmount the Jewish state’s demographic walls, the word “infiltrator” has retured to the Israeli vocabulary. The term was coined in the months and years after the Nakba when the Israeli military focused on preventing those it had expelled in 1947 and ’48 from returning to their villages, their land and their families. Israel’s search and expulsion operations, designed to maintain the demographic integrity that the Zionist militias established through ethnic cleansing, represent an under-acknowledged but absolutely crucial component of the history of the Nakba. Indeed, the Nakba did not end in 1948.

Perhaps the most comprehensive account of Israel’s efforts to prevent the refugees from returning home is Benny Morris’ 1993 book, “Israel’s Border Wars: 1949-1956.” Morris’ flaws — his crude racism, rejection of Arab historians and sources, and allegiance to Zionism — are well known. As a pure archivist, however, he is among the best. The sections in his book on infiltration depict in cold, clinical detail the Israeli military’s tactics against those who tried to return. They included detaining refugees in barbed wire enclosed camps that reminded some observers of Nazi Germany; the extraction of fingernails and other torture methods; and forced marches through the desert without food or water. Tawfiq Toubi, the first Arab to serve in Israel’s Knesset, called the search and expulsion operations “pogroms.”

Below, I have excerpted several testimonies about Israel’s operations to stop “infiltration:”

In May 1950, a woman from a kibbutz in the South witnessed Palestinian refugees being packed into trucks and unloaded at a camp [pp. 147-48]:

We were waiting for a hitch beside one of the big army camps… Suddenly two large trucks arrived, packed with blindfolded Arabs (men, women, and children). Several of the soldiers guarding them got down to drink and eat a little, while the rest stayed on guard. To our question ‘Who are these Arabs?’ they responded: ‘These are infiltrators, on their way to being returned over the borders.’ The way the Arabs were crowded together [on the trucks] was inhuman. Then one of the soldiers called his friend ‘the expert’ to make some order [among the Arabs]. Those of us standing nearby had witnessed no bad behavior on the part of the Arabs, who sat frightened, almost one on top of the other. But the soldiers were quick to teach us what they meant by ‘order. The ‘expert’ jumped up and began to…hit [the Arabs] across their blindfolded eyes and when he had finished, he stamped on all of them and then, in the end, laughed uproariously and with satisfaction at his heroism. We were shocked by this despicable act. I ask, does this not remind us exactly of the Nazi acts towards the Jews? And who is responsible for such acts of brutality committed time and time again by our soldiers?

In June 1949, Israeli forces rounded up 5000 accused infiltrators in Nazareth and imprisoned them in a barbed-wire compound. The episode disturbed then-Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett, who worried for Israel’s international image. He complained to Ben Gurion [p. 149]:

The army did not allow anyone to remain at home. Among those incarcerated [behind the barbed wire] there were also pregnant women, babies, tired old people, and the sick. The army made no distinction between ordinary folk and notables, so that among those incarcerated was the Arab magistrate of Nazareth… All these people were held in the compound for several hours, in overcrowded conditions, and without food and water. There were outbursts of shouting and yelling by the prisoners and on one occasion the troops fired over the crowd’s heads… I heard from a Jewish member of Knesset who visited Nazareth last Saturday that there had been thefts of money from [some] empty houses [during the round-up].

On May 31 1950, the Israeli army forced 120 Palestinian “infiltrators” into two crowded trucks and drove them to Arava, a point on the Jordanian border, then forced them to march across the desert, firing shots over their heads to urge them on. According to Alec Kirkbride, the British minister in Amman, over 30 died of thirst and starvation during the forced march. The group had spent the past weeks in a makeshift detention center in Qatra that Kirkbride described as ” a concentration camp…run on Nazi lines.” One survivor, according to Morris, had his fingernails torn out.

John Glubb, the latter-day Lawrence of Arabia who had trained the Jordanian army, witnessed the scene with horror. “The Jews want them all to emigrate,” he wrote. “They therefore try to persuade them with rubber coshes and by tearing off their fingernails whenever they get the chance… I do not know whether this is the policy of the Israel cabinet, but it must certainly be known and winked at on a ministerial level… The brutality is too general to be due only to the sadism of ordinary soldiers.”

On June 11 1950, the journalist Philip Toynbee (son of historian Arnold Toynbee) published an account on the front page of the Observer based on his interviews with the survivors of the Arava incident. Toynbee, whom Morris noted was “sympathetic towards Israel,” implied similarities between Israel and Nazi Germany. He wrote [pp. 160-61]:

One member of the outcast race [the Palestinians], a heavy young man with the dull vacant look of Van der Lubbe [the Dutchman falsely arrested and executed by the Nazis for setting fire to the Reichstag in 1933], had been arrested while grazing a cow near the state frontier. The blue-uniformed [Israeli] police with almost incredible naivete…believed him to be a spy… and two of his fingernails were pulled out before they learned better. A young schoolmaster entered [Israel] illegally in order to be again with his family. He was…immediately arrested. One old mason, driven desperate by unemployment, tried to get out of [Israel] to escape. About a hundred of them collected from all parts of the State were taken from the prison camp, [and] herded into two motor trucks… The army blind[folded] them, barking at them and waving their rubber coshes.

On the long tedious journey through the burning countryside one of the victims would occasionally try to see but was hit over the face or back with a cosh…At last…they reached the remotest…part of the frontier. It was no eight o’clock in the evening and they had had nothing to eat and drink all day. A compassionate captain ordered two buckets of water to be brought, but as soon as his back was turned the soldiers spilled the water into the dust. The bandages were now taken from their eyes and they were told that three would be counted and anyone not running by then would be shot…As they ran Bren gunfire opened above and between them so that they were forced to split up into groups of three and four. This story, I know, is sickeningly familiar, and it is only the roles which have been changed. The outcast race is not the Jews and the state is not…Nazi Germany…

The frontier area is the terrible Wadi Araba…a desert valley far below sea level where only lizards and locusts can live, and where in the daytime the sand scorches the bare flesh. Since there was only moonlight when the prisoners were released, nearly all were hopelessly lost by the time the sun rose…The luckiest were picked up on the second day by friendly Bedouins… Others were wandering for four days, eating lizards and drinking stagnant water or their own urine… By the fourth day some 70 out of 1000 had been saved, but many had stories of others they had been forced to leave dying in the desert… I interviewed nine or ten of them separately…their stories coincided… I saw weals and sores caused by prison beating, scorched and swollen feet, and two almost nailless fingers of the young grazier… Nothing can excuse the inhuman brutality of their treatment.

Moshe Dayan, who was then the head of the army’s Southern Command, blamed the atrocities at Arava on “Turkish and Moroccan [Jewish] soldiers” who “lack moral fiber.” He added, “I hope that there will perhaps be another opportunity in the future to transfer these Arabs from the Land of Israel, and as long as such a possibility exists, we must do nothing to foreclose the option.”

One thought on “After 1948: How Israel stopped the “outcast race” from returning home

  1. AdamAW

    Thanks Max, it makes for very painful reading but it is good to know.

    It makes you wonder…. when the truth will ‘out.’

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