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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Why Did the Arabs Run?

Part of a 1948 article from The Nation, by Freda Kirchwey, reprinted this year:
Jaffa and Tel Aviv were like hostile Siamese twins, joined in uneasy physical union by a slum area in which the mingled blood of both formed a poisonous, explosive compound. Murders, riots and clashes between Arabs and Jews had happened at frequent intervals long before the real fighting began last spring. Then the bad feeling between the two cities exploded into open warfare, and on April 25 the Irgun moved into Jaffa with armored cars and mortars and took the Manshieh district that borders Tel Aviv. The British rather than the Arabs stopped them; but Haganah sent in reinforcements, and four days later the Jews had surrounded the city. Within another few days the Arabs had gone; only a couple of thousand out of an all-Arab population of more than 70,000 hung on. The largest Arab city of Palestine, headquarters of nationalist activity, chief center of Arab business and intellectual life, was silent and deserted.

I drove through Jaffa with a man from the Israel press office. The Manshieh district was pretty badly damaged, partly by fighting in the streets and partly by shell and mortar fire. I saw small shops open to the street, empty, their interiors wrecked. "There was a lot of looting, especially in this section," my companions said. "Who?" I asked. "Both. Our men too. There had been a lot of trouble here; the feeling was very bad. But this is disgusting, this sort of thing." He waved his arm at the damaged shop fronts. "What can you expect," I asked, "especially after what went before? This was a clash between people that hated each other. Suppose the Arabs had swept into Tel Aviv? You think only a few streets of deserted small shops would have been smashed and looted?" He didn't answer the last question. He said, "I expect Jewish soldiers to act like civilized human beings. They had captured the town; they should have protected it. They've done so in most places -- protected both property and life." I was more impressed by his severity than I was shocked by the damage done by the soldiers. I was later told, not by him but by someone else, that a good part of the looting in Jaffa was the work of assorted Europeans fighting in the Arab ranks--Nazis, Chetniks from Yugoslavia, and Balkan Moslem soldiers--who lingered after the defeat long enough to do some profitable marauding.

Most of Jaffa was in good shape. The Arab masses, when they fled, took what little they could carry; the wealthy Arabs, who had left during the months before the real fighting began, often salvaged the greater part of their portable possessions. A good many of the undamaged houses in Jaffa and elsewhere are now being used for newly arrived Jews; so the Arab refugees unwittingly helped make a place for the Jewish refugees their leaders were so determined to keep out. This means hardship for individuals; collectively it is obviously fitting and just.

Why did the Arabs run? Their mass flight from Tiberias, Haifa, Safed, Jerusalem, Jaffa and from the village in those areas, seemed to have little to do with the fighting itself. Anyhow, down the ages civilians have traditionally stuck to their homes and their land, through wars and alien occupations, surviving as best they could, waiting for the end of their troubles. Why should the Arabs have behaved differently, even those who had been on good terms with the Jews? Some blame it on the Mufti. Arabs told their Jewish neighbors that agents of the Mufti said they should go or they'd get their throats slit by the Israelis. Some professed not to believe this, but thought they'd better do as they were told. Other Arabs thought Jewish control would be temporary, a matter of weeks, and that their safest bet was to get out until the Arab forces came back; otherwise they might be regarded as collaborators and suffer at the hands of their own bosses. Others may have been merely defeatist, assuming Jewish victory and preferring to live under Arab rule: the sense of national boundaries is not strong in most of the Arab world. Another likely cause was the example of the wealthy Arabs. When the poor worker in the town or on the land saw his betters disappear with their belongings, he was likely to conclude that the same danger existed for him, too. A dozen reasons probably combined to create the vast epidemic of fear that drove some 500,000 Arabs out of Jewish Palestine into the already overcrowded ranks of homeless, penniless "displaced persons." Should Israel take them back if they want to come? No one I talked to believed they should be readmitted -- any of them -- before the war ends. Aside from those who are hostile and potentially under the orders of Fawzi el Kaukji or the Mufti, they would be an intolerable burden on the new state's already staggering economy. Besides, the Jews feel no responsibility for. their flight and, consequently, little obligation to help them return. After the war the question of the refugees can be discussed on its long-range merits.