April/May 1994, Page 75
Middle East History: It Happened in May
Arab Jaffa Seized Before Israel's Creation in 1948
By Donald Neff
It was 46 years ago, on May 13, 1948—the day before Israel's creation—that the all-Arab seaside city of Jaffa surrendered to Jewish forces. It was the largest Arab city in Palestine and, under the U.N. Partition Plan, was to have been part of a Palestinian state. But Menachem Begin's terrorist Irgun group began bombarding civilian sectors of the city on April 25, terrifying the inhabitants into panicky flight.
At the time, the city's normal population of around 75,000 was already down to 55,000. On the day of surrender less than three weeks later, only about 4,500 remained. The rest of Jaffa's citizens had fled their homes in terror, becoming part of the 726,000 Palestinian refugees created by the war.
Although Arab armies from neighboring countries did not enter Palestine until May 15, Jewish forces had been active in a campaign of ethnic cleansing since passage of the partition plan the previous Nov. 29. The first effort was aimed at clearing out Palestinians living in cities designated as part of the Jewish state.
This began in a major way on April 18, when Tiberias was captured and its 5,500 Palestinian residents put in flight. On April 22, Haifa fell to the Jewish forces and 70,000 Palestinians fled. On May 10, the 12,000 Palestinians of Safed were routed and the next day Beisan, with 6,000 Palestinians, fell.
Preceding these conquests had been the massacre at Deir Yassin on April 9, where 254 innocent Palestinian men, women and children were killed by a combined force drawn from Irgun and from Lehi, another Jewish terrorist group known to the British as the "Stern Gang" and headed in 1948 by a triumvirate that included Yitzhak Shamir. Reports of the savagery of the attack had spread throughout the Palestinian community and caused widespread dread at the advance of Jewish forces. 2
The capture of Jaffa differed from the earlier conquests in that under the U.N. plan it was supposed to remain as a Palestinian enclave between neighboring Tel Aviv and areas to the south and east designated as part of the Jewish state. Its capture demonstrated that the future Israelis were not going to observe the limits set on their state by the United Nations.
Why did the residents of Jaffa flee?
According to Jewish intelligence officer Slunuel. Toledano, "First because the Etzel [Irgun] had been shelling Jaffa for three weeks before the Haganah [regular army] entered, making the Arabs very much afraid; some already began to leave as a result of that shelling by Etzel. [Second,] there were rumors, based on the Etzel reputation, [that] the minute the Jews entered the town, the inhabitants would all be slaughtered."3
After the conquest, Irgun forces indulged in widespread looting. Reported Jon Kimche, former editor of the Jewish Observer and Middle East Review, the official organ of the Zionist Federation of Britain:
"For the first time in the still undeclared war, a Jewish force commenced to loot in wholesale fashion." 4 At first the young Irgunists pillaged only dresses, blouses and ornaments for their girl friends. But this discrimination was soon abandoned. Everything that was movable was carried from Jaffa-furniture, carpets, pictures, crockery and pottery, jewelry and cutlery.
The occupied parts of Jaffa were stripped, and yet another traditional military characteristic raised its ugly head. Historian Michael Palumbo wrote of Jaffa: "Not content with looting, the Irgun fighters smashed or destroyed everything which they could not carry off, including pianos, lamps and window-panes." Ben Gurion afterwards admitted that Jews of all classes poured into Jaffa from Tel Aviv to participate in what he called "a shameful and distressing spectacle."
When future Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion learned that Jaffa had fallen, he wrote in his diary: "Jaffa will be a Jewish city. War is war." To accomplish this, Israel set up a housing committee that was to allocate Palestinian homes and apartments to newly arrived Jewish families on certain dates. But Israelis ignored the dates and occupied the abandoned residences on a first-come, first possess basis. Israeli immigrant chief Giora Yoseftal reported: "Thus the populating of Jaffa was achieved by continuous invasions and counter invasions [of unauthorized immigrants." Within a short time some Jews had moved into abandoned Palestinian homes in Jaffa. Although no figures appear to be available for Jaffa, Palestinian bank accounts in Haifa containing 1.5 billion Palestinian pounds were seized by Israel.
There was also desecration of Christian churches. Father Deleque, a Catholic priest, reported:
"Jewish soldiers broke down the doors of my church and robbed many precious and sacred objects. Then they threw the statues of Christ down into a nearby garden." He added that Jewish leaders had reasssured him that religious buildings would be respected, "but their deeds do not correspond to their words."
Nearly a year after the fall of Jaffa, a group of Palestinian notables from that city who had become refugees in Beirut submitted to U.S. Minister to Lebanon Lowell C. Pinkerton an appeal to the United States to redress their grievances . The appeal included enclosures of agreements with the Haganah and a report on the conditions in Jaffa, the flight of Jaffa's refugees and how they were forced to abandon their land and property. It ended with the warning that "unless they [the refugees] are effectively resettled in their own homes and lands, the peace sought for in this part of the world will never reign, even though it might appear on the surface that the trouble has subsided."
Today, nearly a half-century later, the Palestinians remain refugees. But visitors arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport in Israel can hear about the old abandoned homes in a booklet called The Opinionated Tourist Guide. The guide is given to tourists, who can read that "the most beautiful homes in the country are the old Arab ones made of stone, built in the early part of the century, that dot the capital and some streets of Haifa and Jaffa ... They cost a fortune, however-$I million is not uncommon and there aren't many of them for sale.
Donald Neff is author of the Warriors trilogy on U. S. -Middle East relations. His books are available through the AET Book Club .
Khalidi, Walid (ed.), From Haven to Conquest: Readings in Zionism and the Palestine Problem until 1948, Washington, DC, Institute for Palestine Studies, second printing, 1987.
Morris, Benny, The Birth of the Palestine Refugee Problem, New York, Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Nakhleh, Issa, Encyclopedia of the Palestine Problem (2 vols), New York, Intercontinental Books, 1991.
Palumbo, Michael, The Palestinian Catastrophe: The 1948 Expulsion of a People from their Homeland, Boston, Faber and Faber, 1987.
Quigley, John, Palestine and Israel: A Challenge to Justice, Durham, Duke University Press, 1990.
Segev, Tom, 1949: 7he First Israelis, New York, The Free Press, 1986.
Silver, Eric, Begin: 7he Haunted Prophet, New York, Random House, 1984.
1 Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, pp. 96-101.
2 Khalidi, From Haven to Conquest, contains de Reynier's moving first-hand account as well as accounts of attacks on other Palestinian centers, pp. 761-78. Many writers have discussed the massacre, perhaps none better than Silver, Begin, pp. 88-96. Also see details in Nakhleh, Encyclopedia of the Palestine Problem, pp. 271-72.
3 Quigley, Palestine and Israel, p. 61.
4 However, widespread looting had already taken place in Haifa, according to Kimche's own reports; see Palumbo, The Palestine Catastrophe, p. 65.
5 Palumbo, The Palestinian Catastrophe, p. 91.
6 Segev, 1949, pp. 75-76.
7 Ibid., p. 73.
8 Palumbo, The Palestinian Catastrophe, p. 91
9 Lowell C. Pinkerton, Minister to Lebanon, to the Secretary of State, April 11, 1949, located in U.S. State Department Central Files on Lebanon, 1945-49. Text in Journal of Palestine Studies, "Historical Document," Spring 1989, pp. 96-109.
10 Russell Harris, "Letter from Tel Aviv," Middle East International, Jan. 7, 1994.