Most Americans are probably unfamiliar with Nakba Day. It’s commemorated annually on May 15 by the Palestinians, but it isn’t mentioned much in the US mainstream media. The New York Times is a case in point. When America’s “newspaper of record” does mention it (usually in passing), the explanations provided to readers vary with respect to what al-Nakba means to the Palestinians, but can be summarized essentially as follows:
In 1948, during the war between Jews and Arabs over Israel’s founding, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes in what is today Israel, and scores of Arab villages were destroyed.
This characterization of what happened, however, is greatly misleading. An examination of how the Times explains what “Nakba” means to its readers demonstrates how the newspaper systematically whitewashes the actual means by which the state of Israel came into existence.
The Zionist Version
It’s helpful to first understand what the Israeli perspective is on the Nakba. The spokesman for the Embassy of Israel in Washington, DC, conveniently summarized it for us in a letter to the New York Times on October 3, 2012. “Nakba”, Aaron Sagui wrote, is “inflammatory rhetoric” and “pure incitement” that “Palestinians use to refer to the founding of the state of Israel as ‘the catastrophe.’”
Obviously, by this account, the Palestinians, with their apparent rejection of the Jewish right to self-determination, are just anti-Semitic, and that’s all there is to it.
Tellingly, the New York Times occasionally adopts this version when explaining what Nakba means to its readers:
For example, on May 27, 2011, the Times described “the Nakba, or catastrophe,” as “a day that marks for Palestinians the creation of Israel in 1948.”
Isabel Kershner on July 7, 2011 similarly abridged the history down to a passing mention that May 15 is a day “which Palestinians have come to refer to as Nakba Day, marking the founding of Israel in 1948. Nakba means catastrophe.”
Again on May 14, 2012, Kershner wrote that May 15 was “when the Palestinians commemorate the ‘nakba,’ or catastrophe, on the anniversary of Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948.”
(To clarify, the “declaration of independence”—as Kershner euphemistically refers to the Zionists’ unilateral declaration of the existence of the state of Israel—occurred on May 14.)
On April 20, 2014, the Times told readers that “Nakba” was “the Arab term for ‘catastrophe’ by which Palestinians refer to the creation of the Jewish state, in 1948.”
Thus, when explaining what the Nakba is, the Times evidently does not consider it to be of any particular importance to inform readers that hundreds of thousands of Arab Palestinians were uprooted from their homes in the process of establishing the “Jewish state”.
To say that Palestinians simply objected to the establishment of Israel is, for the Times, good enough. If readers are left to presume that the Arabs had no other reason to object to Israel’s creation than just that they hated Jews, so be it.
Obfuscating the Origin of the Palestinian Refugee Problem
In the past five years, there have been thirty-five articles on the New York Times website in which the word “Nakba” appears.*
Two, as we’ve already seen, simply relayed the Zionist propaganda summation of what al-Nakba signifies.
Contrary to the implication of that crude propaganda narrative, however, it is not the establishment of the state of Israel, per se, that Palestinians call a “catastrophe”, but the means by which Israel came into being.
In other instances in which the Nakba is referenced, the Times does acknowledge that the establishment of the “Jewish state” was accompanied by the creation of hundreds of thousands of Arab refugees, but offers no explanation as to how this came about other than to say that they were displaced during a war:
The New York Times Magazine (included in the Sunday edition of the New York Times) on May 24, 2012, stated that “Arabs use ‘nakba,’ which means ‘catastrophe,’ to refer to the displacement of Palestinians during Israel’s war of independence in 1948.”
The Times blog “The Lede” on January 9, 2013, discussed a law in Israel known as the Nakba Law, which criminalizes commemoration of the Nakba, and parenthetically explained, “(Palestinians call the day that Israel declared its independence a ‘catastrophe’ or ‘nakba,’ because it led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands on [sic] non-Jews from their homes.)”
Steven Erlanger and Isabel Kershner on July 14, 2014, reported how thousands of Palestinians had fled their homes during Israel’s 2014 military assault on Gaza (“Operation Protective Edge”). The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had dropped leaflets warning residents in the north of Gaza to flee its bombardment, as it had done in prior operations, in 2008-09 and 2012. They quoted a Gaza resident’s reaction: “‘The 1948 Nakba is now happening every four years,’ she said angrily, referring to the Palestinian exodus, known as ‘the catastrophe,’ during the Arab-Israeli war.”
A piece by Anne Barnard on November 28, 2014, related how Palestinian refugees in the Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon, still treasure keys “from houses lost when they fled what became Israel in 1948.” She added that Nakba means “catastrophe” and is the “Palestinians’ term for the 1948 displacement.”
A Times article on February 20, 2015, had a passing mention of “the defeat and dispossession that Palestinians call the Nakba.”
On May 16, 2016, the Times offered a version only slightly more forthcoming than the Israeli embassy spokesperson’s summation, characterizing May 15th as “the 68th anniversary of what Palestinians call the Nakba, or catastrophe—essentially, Israel’s founding and the conflict that followed, which displaced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.”
The Nakba was described in passing on August 7, 2016, as “the Palestinians’ name for their displacement in 1948.”
So from these references to the Nakba by the New York Times, readers can learn that Palestinians were displaced and dispossessed during the 1948 war—but that’s it.
No clue is offered as to how they came to be refugees.
For the New York Times, that’s frequently good enough.
Wiping Palestine Off the Map
So far, what we’ve learned from the New York Times about what Nakba means is that it refers to the creation of Israel and the displacement of Arabs in the war that followed.
As an understatement, quite a bit of context is still missing for the Times to be able to properly inform its readers.
The Times does offer some additional clues in other instances. At times, the newspaper acknowledges how Arab villages were emptied and destroyed:
On May 13, 2014, the Times published an article by Jodi Rudoren about how she navigated around Israel using an iPhone app called iNakba (created by an Israeli group called Zochrot, Hebrew for “remembering”). “Using the iNakba app,” she wrote, “I saw scores of villages destroyed or abandoned as Israel became a state 66 years ago.”
In the next paragraph, she added that “Nakba” means “catastrophe”, which is “how Palestinians refer to the events surrounding Israel’s Declaration of Independence.”
Rudoren went on to describe the displacement of Arabs and destruction of their villages as a “painful, contested history” and added that, in Israel, “Ari Shavit’s new book, ‘My Promised Land,’ has begun to bring into the mainstream discussion the idea that Zionists must wrestle with the Nakba.”
Without explaining her meaning, she went on to explain how “Perhaps the app’s greatest promise is its social component—users can upload photos and videos, or ‘follow’ villages to virtually recreate lost communities.” Leaving Jerusalem, Rudoren passed Lifta, “which had nine followers, and included a picture captioned ‘the type of dress Yaakub’s father wore when they left.’”
Two days after that article of Rudoren’s was published, on Nakba Day, the Times published another of hers. This time, she reported on the shooting of two Palestinian teenagers by Israeli soldiers at a Nakba Day demonstration in the town of Beitunia, which is near Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Some context was obviously necessary, so Rudoren wrote that Nakba Day “commemorates the destruction of Arab villages in battles that led to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.”
The number of times the word “Nakba” appeared in Times articles was significantly higher in 2014 as a result of that shooting incident. On May 17, Rudoren referred to the killings again and mentioned in passing “the Nakba—Arabic for ‘catastrophe,’ and the word used to describe Israel’s destruction of Palestinian villages as it became a state in 1948….”
Again on May 20, Rudoren mentioned the Nakba. The piece was about a video that had been made public showing that the teenagers were shot despite posing no threat to their Israeli killers. “The deaths occurred on Nakba Day,” Rudoren wrote, “in which Palestinians commemorate the destruction of scores of villages around the founding of the state of Israel in 1948.”
To summarize thus far, of the thirty-five articles referring to the Nakba in the past five years at the New York Times, more than half (eighteen, or 51 percent) withheld from readers the fact that Palestinians were expelled from their villages by Zionist forces seeking to establish their “Jewish state”.
None Dare Call It ‘Ethnic Cleansing’
Let us turn now our attention to the minority of Times articles that do acknowledge the uncontroversial historical fact that many Palestinians did not simply flee the brutalities of war, but were deliberately expelled from their villages:
On November 29, 2013, Isabel Kershner explained that “Palestinians refer to the events of 1948 as al-Nakba, Arabic for ‘the catastrophe.’ About 700,000 Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes during the Arab-Israeli war over the foundation of Israel.”
On May 29, 2014, in another article about the shooting of the Palestinian teenagers and the suspension of a soldier captured on the video firing at demonstrators, Nakba Day was described as “an annual commemoration of what Palestinians call the ‘catastrophe’ suffered by their community in 1948, when hundreds of thousands fled or were driven from their homes by Israeli forces fighting to establish a Jewish state.”
“The killings took place”, the Times explained in a piece on June 20, 2014, “during an annual commemoration of what Palestinians call the ‘catastrophe,’ or ‘nakba,’ suffered by their community in 1948, when hundreds of thousands fled or were driven from their homes by Israeli forces fighting to establish a Jewish state.”
In another piece on the shootings on October 16, 2014, Jodi Rudoren acknowledged that Nakba Day “commemorates the Palestinian expulsion from the land that became Israel in 1948.”
A piece with Isabel Kershner as lead author on November 12, 2014, stated, in the context of the shootings, that Nakba Day is “when Palestinians mark Israel’s creation and mourn the expulsion and flight of hundreds of thousands in 1948.”
On November 24, 2014, in a piece about the arrest of an Israeli border police officer on suspicion of involvement in the shooting of the two teenagers, the Times described Nakba Day as “an annual commemoration of what Palestinians call ‘the catastrophe’ suffered by their community in 1948, when hundreds of thousands fled or were driven from their homes by Israeli forces fighting to establish a Jewish state.”
On December 9, 2014, Jodi Rudoren mentioned in passing “the Nakba, or catastrophe, as Palestinians call their expulsion as Israel was established.”
Relevantly, that article was about the inherent contradictions between Israel being characterized as both “Jewish” and “democratic”. To illustrate, Rudoren referred to two Israeli laws, one allowing municipal committees “to screen potential residents of small communities”, and the other prohibiting “funding for groups that commemorate the Nakba”.
To provide some additional context, the residency law Rudoren was referring to authorized “admissions committees” to reject applicants for residency in Jewish-majority communities who did not meet “social suitability” criteria. Human Rights Watch pointed out that the measure codified into law the already existing practice of “unjustly rejecting applications by Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel”, which was the declared intent of Knesset members who supported the law (the Knesset is Israel’s parliament). David Rotem of the Yisrael Beiteinu party said the law would allow Israeli towns to be “established by people who want to live with other Jews.” Yisrael Hasson of the Kadima party spoke of how it would “work to preserve the ability to realize the Zionist dream”.
The second law, passed the same day (March 23, 2011), banned any publicly-funded institution from commemorating the Nakba or any expression deemed by the government to “negate the existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.” Human Rights Watch pointed out that this included municipalities, theaters, and schools, and would make it illegal for such institutions to, for instance, put on plays or screen films about the Nakba. “Democracies shouldn’t quash expression even if it’s unpopular,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division, “and in this case, what’s unpopular to some legislators is central to the historical narrative of a million and a half citizens.”
In a Times piece on April 4, 2015, about the plight of Palestinian refugees in Syria, Anne Barnard included a passing mention of the “Palestinians who fled or were driven from their homes in the 1948 war over Israel’s founding.” She added that “Nakba, or catastrophe,” is “the Palestinians’ name for the events of 1948.”
These eight examples are all of the news reports in the New York Times over the past five years that acknowledged the expulsion of Arabs from their homes by Zionist forces.
Additionally, there were three opinion pieces that acknowledged this fact:
On May 23, 2012, the Times published an op-ed by Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the Jerusalem Fund, a non-profit organization based in Washington, DC. In an unusually detailed discussion for something passing editorial review, Munayyer illuminated:
Last week marked Israel’s 64th year of independence; it is also when Palestinians commemorate the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” during which many of Palestine’s native inhabitants were turned into refugees.
In 1948, the Israeli brigade commander Yitzhak Rabin helped expel Lydda’s Palestinian population. Some 19,000 of the town’s 20,000 native Palestinian inhabitants were forced out.
… Three decades later, in October 1979, this newspaper reported that Israel barred Rabin from detailing in his memoir what he conceded was the “expulsion” of the “civilian population of Lod and Ramle, numbering some 50,000.” Rabin, who by then had served as prime minister, sought to describe how “it was essential to drive the inhabitants out.”
Times columnist Roger Cohen on July 20, 2015, referred to a Palestinian friend of his who’d sent him “something she had once written about her search for her family’s home, from which they were ousted in 1948 during Israel’s War of Independence, which Palestinians call their ‘Nakba,’ or catastrophe.”
And on January 5, 2016, Israeli human rights lawyer Michael Sfard referred to an Israeli law enabling the Interior Ministry to refuse visas to anyone who supports the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement or publicly supports a boycott of goods manufactured in illegally constructed Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. He also noted that the Israeli government has enacted a law giving itself “the power to cut funding for institutions that commemorate the ‘Nakba’ (the Arabic word for ‘catastrophe’ that is used to describe the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes when the state of Israel was created in 1948).”
Additionally, in the past five years, there have been two mentions of the word “Nakba” that noted the expulsion of Palestinians in the Times’ blog pages:
Raja Shehadeh in the “Latitude” blog on October 16, 2012, wrote that “The Nakba refers to the expulsion of the Palestinians from the newly mined state of Israel.”
Robert Mackey in “The Lede” on May 19, 2014, wrote about the teenagers shot that Nakba Day, providing as context that “The demonstration was in commemoration of what Palestinians call the ‘catastrophe,’ or ‘nakba,’ of Israel’s creation in 1948, during which hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were driven from their homes into exile.”
One book review (of Khirbet Khizeh by S. Yizhar), on February 20, 2015, discussed the Nakba:
It’s not a pretty picture, but war never is. Israeli historians, most notably Benny Morris, have painstakingly documented the exodus of the Palestinians and, more problematically, the causes of their flight. In his book “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited,”  Morris lists the dozens of villages from which Palestinian civilians either fled military assault, left because they feared it, or, in more than 40 villages, were expelled outright by Israeli forces. Most historians who have examined the mass departure have found no formal Israeli plan to remove the Palestinians; the expulsions, it seems, grew out of the exigencies of the moment. Still, the actions were sometimes brutal: In the city of Lydda, now known as Lod and the site of Ben-Gurion International Airport, an Israeli unit killed at least 100 civilians. To this day, Palestinians refer to the events of 1948 as “al-Nakba,” i.e., the Catastrophe.
Finally, three pages under the “Movies” category of the New York Times website contained the word “Nakba”:
The fall movie release schedule for September 16, 2016 mentioned the documentary The Ruins of Lifta, the description for which began:
They stand near the western entrance to Jerusalem: dozens of stone houses that were once part of Lifta, a Palestinian-Arab village whose population was driven out by Israelis in the 1948 war—the only one of those villages, in fact, that wasn’t destroyed or hasn’t been repopulated. In the face of a plan to demolish the homes and replace them with luxury villas, Lifta is the setting in this documentary for a reconsideration of the Holocaust and the Nakba (Palestinian exile).
The movie listings published on September 29, 2016, mentioned the same documentary. Its description of the film began, “Plans to demolish an Arab village near Jerusalem whose residents were driven out in 1948—during what Israelis know as the War of Independence and what Palestinians call the Nakba (Catastrophe)….”
The Times’ review of the film on September 22, 2016, told how, “Among the hills on the western outskirts of Jerusalem stands an abandoned group of stone buildings, the remains of Lifta, an Arab village whose residents were driven out in 1948, during what Israelis know as the War of Independence and what Palestinians call the Nakba (Catastrophe).”
Thus, in the instances where it mentions the expulsion of Palestinians, the general impression the Times gives to its readers of what “Nakba” means is that the flight and expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in 1948 was simply an unfortunate consequence of war.
The Times almost never uses the phrase “ethnic cleansing” in articles relating to the creation of Israel and origin of the Palestinian refugee problem:
On November 4, 2012, in a report on how Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was planning to seek recognition of Palestine as a state by the UN General Assembly, the Times said, “There are about five million Palestinians scattered around the world who are descendants of the 750,000 who lost homes during the war that led to Israel’s establishment, many of them still clutching keys in hopes of someday returning. But Israelis see such ambitions as an existential threat to their state, and negotiators have tried to distinguish the moral question of the ‘right of return’ from the practical one.” The article mentioned how, in an interview on an Israeli news program, Abbas’s “tone was far more conciliatory than his United Nations speech on Sept. 27, when he accused Israel of ethnic cleansing and apartheid.”
On August 15, 2014, the Times had a piece about a Holocaust survivor, Henk Zanoli, who had become a strong critic of Israeli government policies. In a letter to the Israeli ambassador in the Netherlands, the Times informs, Zanoli “referred to the displacement of Palestinians … during the war over Israel’s founding as ‘ethnic cleansing’….”
The third instance found of a relevant use of the phrase “ethnic cleansing” occurred in the letter to the editors written by Aaron Sagui, the spokesman for the Embassy of Israel in Washington, DC. In the same paragraph where he described the use of the word “Nakba” as “inflammatory” and “incitement”, Sagui also noted that President Abbas “accused Israel of ethnic cleansing” in his UN speech of November 2012.
Thus, in the extremely rare instances in which it’s mentioned by the Times, the most readers can take away is that the use of the term “ethnic cleansing” in relation to the establishment of the state of Israel is controversial.
The implication of describing Abbas’s TV interview as “more conciliatory” than his UN speech is that his description of what occurred in 1948 as “ethnic cleansing” was merely provocative rhetoric.
The other instance of the phrase in a news article more neutrally relayed a Holocaust survivor’s use of it to describe what occurred in 1948. Due to the identity of the subject in this case, it cannot so easily be dismissed as inflammatory.
Summing Up the Times’ Reporting on “the Nakba”
To review, the New York Times rarely mentions the Nakba in its reporting on the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
In a few cases, the Times considers it accurate to summarize the meaning of Nakba Day by saying it is the Palestinians’ lamentation of the creation of the state of Israel, offering no context whatsoever to explain why they consider this a “catastrophe”. This characterization is identical to the Zionist version of events.
More frequently, the Times acknowledges that the establishment of Israel involved a war, and that during the course of this war, many Palestinians became refugees. When a number is provided, it is almost always “hundreds of thousands”. In one instance in the past five years, the more specific estimate of 700,000 was provided.
Sometimes, the Times notes that Palestinians’ homes and even entire villages were destroyed. No estimate is ever provided of the number of villages. When a number is suggested, it is usually described vaguely as “scores”.
On occasion, the Times acknowledges that, in addition to the flight of Arabs and destruction of their villages during the war, Palestinians were sometimes expelled by Israeli forces.
In a single instance, in a book review, the number of destroyed villages is put at “dozens”, including “more than 40” where the population was “expelled outright by Israeli forces.” However, the review asserted, “Most historians who have examined the mass departure have found no formal Israeli plan to remove the Palestinians; the expulsions, it seems, grew out of the exigencies of the moment.”
In only one other instance were details provided with respect to the scale of the expulsions. Readers of Yousef Munayyer’s op-ed could learn that in Lydda, “Some 19,000 of the town’s 20,000 native Palestinian inhabitants were forced out”, and in Lod and Ramle—as acknowledged by former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in a portion of his memoir censored by the Israeli government—50,000 Palestinians were driven out.
In sum, if one was to do a research project using the New York Times as a source to determine what “Nakba” refers to, the takeaway would be this: In 1948, during the war between Jews and Arabs over Israel’s founding, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes in what is today Israel, and scores of Arab villages were destroyed.
That much is uncontroversial. The question, however, remains: Was it ethnic cleansing?
The Nature of the Controversy
To answer that question, additional context well beyond that provided by the Times is necessary. But we can start with some of the clues the Times has already left.
Jodi Rudoren, in her piece about navigating around Israel using her iPhone, could have provided some useful context about the “painful, contested history” by filling in her readers who were not familiar with the book she mentioned: Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land.
In that book, the Israeli journalist candidly explains how the Zionist project of establishing a demographically “Jewish state” required the removal of most of the Arab population. This, he argues, was a tragedy, but in the wake of the Holocaust a necessary step—irrefutable “Zionist justice” despite the admitted “injustice caused to native Arabs by the Zionist project.”
Citing the example of 30,000 Palestinians from the town of Lydda, Shavit describes it as a necessary step toward realizing the aim of the Zionist project: the establishment of the “Jewish state” of Israel. Such expulsions were “an inevitable phase of the Zionist revolution that laid the foundation for the Zionist state.”
Highly attentive readers of Rudoren’s articles might have also picked up on one other clue:
Rudoren described villages destroyed not after the establishment of Israel, but “as Israel became a state”, “around the founding of the state of Israel”, and “in battles that led to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948”.
Robert Mackey, too, in his November 24, 2014, piece on the video showing that the teenagers shot by Israeli forces were posing no threat at the time, acknowledged that Palestinians “were driven from their homes by Israeli forces fighting to establish a Jewish state” (emphasis added).
That is, even prior to the Zionists’ unilateral declaration of the state of Israel on May 14, 1948, and the entrance of the neighboring Arab states’ military forces, the phenomenon of displacement of Palestinians and destruction of their villages was already underway as the Zionist forces were busy establishing their “Jewish state” through force of arms.
In fact, by May 14, 1948, around 300,000 Palestinians had already become refugees.
When the Times refers to “scores” or “dozens” of destroyed Arab villages, what it means is hundreds—including 200 villages already destroyed by the time of the Zionist’s unilateral declaration of Israel’s existence.
It’s also useful to look at an example of what falls under Rudoren’s definition of a “battle”:
The village of Lifta with its population of about 2,500 was among the first to be emptied of Arabs. On December 28, 1947, the Haganah—the Zionists’ paramilitary organization that was the precursor to today’s Israel Defense Forces (IDF)—entered the village and sprayed a coffee house with machine gun fire. Members of the Jewish terrorist organization Lehi, or the Stern Gang, meanwhile, stopped a nearby bus and fired into it randomly. This attack prompted a flight of villagers. The Haganah High Command ordered another assault on Lifta on January 11, 1948, in which all those remaining were driven out and most of the houses were blown up.
Perhaps Rudoren, while navigating around Israel with her iNakba app, passed by the pin marking the place where Lifta used to be, before it was emptied of Arabs in the “battle” between the armed Zionist organizations and the defenseless civilian population.
Lifta was but one example of how 700,000 Arabs came to be refugees starting not after May 14, 1948, but as early as December 1947.
An additional clue was left by Yousef Munayyer, who provided a link in his op-ed to the 1979 Times article he was referring to that had discussed the censored portion of Yitzhak Rabin’s book.
In that 1979 article, the Times explained how the Israeli Cabinet’s censorship board “prohibited former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin from including in his memoirs a first-person account of the expulsion of 50,000 Palestinian civilians from their homes near Tel Aviv during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.”
The article quoted from the censored portion at some length. In it, Rabin describes a meeting with David Ben-Gurion, who became the first Prime Minister of Israel, and Yigal Allon, who later became Foreign Minister. By Rabin’s account:
While the fighting was still in progress, we had to grapple with a troublesome problem, for whose solution we could not draw upon any previous experience: the fate of the civilian population of Lod and Ramle, numbering some 50,000.
Not even Ben-Gurion could offer any solution, and during the discussions at operational headquarters, he remained silent, as was his habit in such situations. Clearly, we could not leave Lod’s hostile and armed populace in our rear, where it could endanger the supply route to Yiftach [another brigade], which was advancing eastward.
We walked outside, Ben-Gurion accompanying us. Allon repeated his question: “What is to be done with the population?” B.G. waved his hand in a gesture which said, “Drive them out!”
Allon and I held a consultation. I agreed that it was essential to drive the inhabitants out. We took them on foot towards the Bet Heron Road, assuming that the legion [Jordan’s Arab Legion, the largest Arab contingent during the war] would be obliged to look after them, thereby shouldering logistic difficulties which would burden its fighting capacity, making things easier for us.
“Driving out” is a term with a harsh ring. Psychologically, this was one of the most difficult actions we undertook. The population of Lod did not leave willingly. There was no way of avoiding the use of force and warning shots in order to make the inhabitants march the 10 to 15 miles to the point where they met up with the legion.
The inhabitants of Ramle watched and learned the lesson. Their leaders agreed to be evacuated voluntarily, on condition that the evacuation was carried out by vehicles. Buses took them to Latrun, and from there, they were evacuated by the legion.
Great suffering was inflicted upon the men taking part in the eviction action. Soldiers of the Yiftach Brigade included youth-movement graduates, who had been inculcated with values such as international brotherhood and humaneness. The eviction action went beyond the concepts they were used to.
There were some fellows who refused to take part in the expulsion action. Prolonged propaganda activities were required after the action, to remove the bitterness of these youth-movement groups, and explain why we were obliged to undertake such a harsh and cruel action.
In a February 2007 judgment, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) noted that the term “ethnic cleansing” is used in practice “to mean ‘rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups from the area’”.
How is that not what occurred during the war to establish the “Jewish state” of Israel? What, exactly, is the controversy here?
The Times’ review of the book Khirbet Khizeh by S. Yizhar pinpoints it: While the Zionists’ actions, including expulsions and destruction of villages “were sometimes brutal”, “Most historians who have examined the mass departure have found no formal Israeli plan to remove the Palestinians; the expulsions, it seems, grew out of the exigencies of the moment.”
No formal Israeli plan to remove the Palestinians?
Omitting “Plan D”
Times readers would never know of the existence of “Plan D”, approved by the Zionist leadership on March 10, 1948—two months before their unilateral declaration of Israel’s existence and the entrance of neighboring states’ military forces into the war.
It’s not that the Times has never mentioned it.
Nearly three decades ago, on July 28, 1988, it received a mention. The article noted how Israeli historian Benny Morris had written in his book The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem (1987) that “As early as March 1948, moreover, Israeli leaders had approved a military contingency arrangement known as Plan D, which called on commanders to expel Arabs from militarily sensitive areas.”
The Times was silent about “Plan D” for twenty years, until it made its appearance again in an op-ed by Lebanese intellectual Elias Khoury, who wrote:
No one wishes to hear the Palestinian story. Their history has been written by the victors: Israel has thus succeeded in blotting out its “original sin,” as the French author Dominique Vidal referred to the situation. Were it not for the courageous voices of Israeli “new historians” like Ilan Pappé, the world would not have come to admit that a people had been expelled from their land in a comprehensive ethnic cleansing operation, given the name “Plan D” by Israelis.
“Plan D”, for “Dalet”, the fourth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, marks what Israeli historian Benny Morris describes in his book 1948 as the Zionists’ “war of conquest”.
Plan D essentially formalized into policy the expulsions that had already been taking place. Under Plan D, brigade commanders were to use their own discretion in mounting operations against “enemy population center”—meaning Arab towns and villages—by choosing between the following options:
—Destruction of villages (setting fire to, blowing up, and planting mines in the debris), especially those population centers which are difficult to control continuously.
—Mounting combing and control operations according to the following guidelines: encirclement of the village and conducting a search inside it. In the event of resistance, the armed force must be wiped out and the population must be expelled outside the borders of the state.
Zionism and the Idea of ‘Transfer’
In her article about navigating around Israel with the iNakba app, Rudoren passed up the opportunity to inform Times readers about the Zionist leaderships’ authorization for the complete destruction of Arab villages and expulsion of the inhabitants outside of the area they wanted for their “Jewish state”.
And far from Palestinians being expelled merely in “the exigencies of the moment”, Ari Shavit points out in My Promised Land that from 1937, “the idea of ‘transfer’—the removal of the Arab population—became part of mainstream Zionist thinking.”
Benny Morris, too, notes in 1948 how Zionist leaders first proposed a “transfer” of Arabs in order to create their Jewish state only privately; but from August 1937, by “a virtual consensus”, they “went on record in support of transfer”.
The impetus for the shift to openly calling for the mass expulsion of Arabs from 1937 onward was the publication of the report of the British Government’s Palestine Royal Commission, or the Peel Commission, as it was called after its head, Lord Robert Peel.
“Sooner or later there should be a transfer of land and, as far as possible, an exchange of population”, the Peel Commission concluded. It proceeded to draw attention to the “instructive precedent” of an agreement between the governments of Greece and Turkey in the aftermath of the Greco-Turkish War of 1922 that determined that “Greek nationals of the Orthodox religion living in Turkey should be compulsorily removed to Greece, and Turkish nationals of the Moslem religion living in Greece to Turkey.”
With the British having publicly endorsed the concept, the Zionist leadership felt free to more candidly express their intentions. Then head of the Jewish Agency, David Ben-Gurion advocated the forcible removal of Arabs after the Peel Commission’s recommendation.
“My approach to the solution of the question of the Arabs in the Jewish state”, Ben-Gurion said in June 1938, “is their transfer to Arab countries.” The same year, he told the Jewish Agency Executive, “I am for compulsory transfer. I do not see anything immoral in it.”
The absence of any discussion in the US mainstream media, as epitomized by America’s “newspaper of record”, the New York Times, is contrasted by the Israeli media, where one can find Israeli journalists and academics who do use the term “ethnic cleansing” to describe what happened in 1948.
Examples include Haaretz correspondent Amira Hass, Haaretz contributor Ehud Ein-Gil, Haaretz editor and adjunct professor at Tel Aviv University’s International Program in Conflict Resolution and Mediation Steven Klein, and Israeli historian and head of the Institute for Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Daniel Blatman (see also here).
The list also includes Israeli historian Ilan Pappé, whose books include The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, which was first published now over a decade ago (2006).
Israeli historian Benny Morris today argues that what occurred was not ethnic cleansing, but he does this by essentially redefining the term “ethnic cleansing” to mean only a total expulsion. In the case of Israel, while more than 700,000 fled the Zionist forces or were outright expelled, about 160,000 Arabs remained in the area that became Israel. Therefore, by Morris’s reasoning, it wasn’t ethnic cleansing.
Morris’s untenable denial is also challenged by his own acknowledgment, in a 2004 interview with Ari Shavit published in Haaretz, that “A Jewish state would not have come into being without the uprooting of 700,000 Palestinians. Therefore it was necessary to uproot them.”
Morris also said with respect to the use of the verb phrase “to cleanse” that it might not “sound nice”, but “that’s the term they used at the time. I adopted it from all the 1948 documents in which I am immersed.”
Indeed, Morris used the term repeatedly in his discussion with Shavit, in which he expressed his view that this “cleansing” of Palestine was morally justified:
“Ben Gurion was right. If he had not done what he did, a state would not have come into being. That has to be clear. It is impossible to evade it. Without uprooting of the Palestinians, a Jewish state would not have arisen here.”
Morris’s criticism of Ben-Gurion was that “Ben-Gurion did not complete the transfer”, but “left a large and volatile demographic reserve in the West Bank and Gaza and within Israel itself”.
“The non-completion of the transfer”, said Morris, “was a mistake.”
In the beginning of The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Ilan Pappé writes, “This book is written with the deep conviction that the ethnic cleansing of Palestine must become rooted in our memory and consciousness as a crime against humanity and that it should be excluded from the list of alleged crimes.”
It would be one thing if we could find an ongoing debate about whether the means by which Israel came into existence fits the definition of “ethnic cleansing” or not. But the fact that there’s not any discussion about it in the New York Times serves as a stark illustration of the extreme prejudice of the US mainstream media’s reporting on the conflict over Palestine.
In contrast with its willingness to relay the Zionist propaganda summation of the relevant history, in essence, what the Times is doing whenever it reports on the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is systematically omitting the central narrative of the Palestinians’ point of view.
So just keep in mind that when you read the Times explain what “Nakba” means by saying things like that it “essentially” refers to “Israel’s founding and the conflict that followed, which displaced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians”, this is the Times’ way of describing how the Zionist forces ethnically cleansed more than 700,000 Arabs from their homes in Palestine—300,000 even before the unilateral declaration of May 14—and wiped hundreds of Arab villages off the map in order to establish the demographically “Jewish state” of Israel.
Of course, this context is not only helpful in order to understand why, say, Palestinian teenagers might be demonstrating on May 15 in occupied Palestine, or why people traveling around Israel might be using an app called “iNakba”. It is absolutely critical for understanding every contemporary event relating to the conflict—which is evidently why the New York Times and the rest of the mainstream media, effectively serving their role to manufacture consent for the US government’s policy of supporting Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians, prefer not to bring it up.
* Based on a search of the New York Times website on May 11, 2017.
This essay was originally published at Foreign Policy Journal.