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Sunday, May 16, 2010

Happy Nakba! Jaffa, 1948

The Palestinian Arab press is filled with articles about the "nakba" and all the horrible things that the Jews supposedly did to the Arabs in 1948.

Here's a typical piece, by Nabil Sha'ath:
For Palestinians, today marks the 62nd year since the Nakba – our national and personal catastrophe, involving the loss of our ancestral homeland and the dispersal of three-quarters of our people into exile.

To date, the Palestinian people await Israeli recognition of its responsibility in the catastrophe and agreement to resolve the conflict based on international law, including UN resolutions.

I experienced exile first-hand. On 13 May 1948 one day before Israel’s declaration of independence, my hometown of Jaffa was captured by Zionist forces. Seventy thousand Palestinian inhabitants of the city were forced to leave, most of them by sea to Gaza, Egypt, and Lebanon. We Jaffans were literally driven out to the sea. I was 10. We were never allowed to return.
What really happened in Jaffa in 1948?

The fighting in Jaffa did not start in May, 1948, as Sha'ath implies. In fact, the first people to become refugees in the War of Independence were not Arabs - but Jews from Jaffa, forced out of their homes in August 1947 as Arabs from Jaffa started a shooting and stabbing spree.

Another 5000 Jaffa Jews lost their homes when Arabs froom Jaffa attacked them in the immediate aftermath of the UN Partition resolution.


The real reason that Arabs left Jaffa was because of a combination of factors.

As soon as the fighting erupted in December, many of Jaffa's richer Arabs fled to Lebanon and Syria. These were the same people who left during the 1936-9 riots, and they assumed that they would be able to return after things calmed down. Yet their departure left Jaffa without much of their practical leadership.  This fact was not lost on the middle class of Jaffa, who felt abandoned.

As Efraim Karsh notes, the mayor of Jaffa started a rumor of a fictional massacre of hundreds of Arab men and women in his city, in order to create worldwide sympathy for Arabs. The result backfired and the Arabs panicked, leaving en masse.

Political leaders in Jaffa abandoned the city as soon as they could. The mayor himself said he would go on a 4-day leave - and he never returned.


Another huge factor was the Mufti himself. Jaffa was slated to be part of Arab Palestine. As Karsh writes in his book I am reading, Palestine Betrayed, as soon as it was apparent that the Jews were going to capture the city, he threatened the remaining residents under pain of death that if they didn't leave, they would be considered collaborators for agreeing to live under Jewish rule.

There is no doubt that Jaffa Arabs panicked and left, for the most part, out of fear. The important point is that both sides had the same fear - mortars being shot at them from the other side, bombings and shootings. In many ways the Jews had far more to fear, for the Arab leadership routinely promised that the Jews would be massacred to the last person, while the Jewish leadership tried up to the last minute to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

In the end, though, the Jews stayed in their homes unless absolutely forced to leave, while the Arabs panicked and left their homes out of nothing more than fear. Much of that fear was due to the Arab leadership themselves failing, and sometimes actively threatening, their own people.

The "nakba" was mostly an Arab-made tragedy, not a Jewish campaign of ethnic cleansing as it is characterized today. But as long as Palestinian Arabs do not acknowledge the truth they will continue to  perpetuate a problem that was, for the most part, self-inflicted.