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Why Did the Arabs Run? | The Nation

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Why Did the Arabs Run?

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The Nation's editor Freda Kirchwey travels to Israel and sends back an eyewitness report of the young country's struggles to survive.

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Freda Kirchwey
Freda Kirchwey was a former managing editor, literary editor, editor and, ultimately, publisher of The Nation. She died...

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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.

On the same day that I visited Jaffa I heard Count Bernadotte express his views on this matter at a press conference in Tel Aviv. A reporter asked whether he had any specific recommendations to make on the question. He replied, yes, the same ones he had made long ago. All the refugees should be allowed to return -- immediately. "How?" asked the reporter. "How would it be done? Their villages are mostly demolished, their jobs or businesses are gone, the fields the peasants worked in are deserted, the landlords moved to Beirut or Damascus or Cairo."

Certainly, it would be difficult, the Count said, but with whole families "living under olive trees" across the borders or in Arab Palestine, the refugees would do better to move back, even if their homes and their livings had been destroyed. "At whose expense should they move?" asked another reporter. "Who would support them when they got back? The Israeli government?" Count Bernadotte waved this aside as immaterial. "That cannot be dealt with until after peace is made," he said, and passed on to other questions, leaving this one ambiguously suspended in the air. The whole thing sounded vague and unconvincing. Now the U. N. has voted funds for the relief of the Arab refugees -- $29,500,000 to be made up of voluntary governmental contributions. This is a humane move which does not compromise the future solution of the problem. I believe, however, it should have been accompanied by a suggestion that rich Palestinian Arabs who went off with their money and fine rugs and European furniture, and the Arab states whose invasion of Palestine injected terror into the Arab masses should contribute a substantial share of the upkeep of the refugees. Their obligation is certainly greater than that of the Jews or of the other member nations of the U. N.

AS FOR the future, I can only speculate on the basis of what I heard. I met Israeli officials who believe that, when peace comes, the refugee Arabs should be readmitted after careful screening. I met others who look upon the Arab exodus as an unexpected and enormous favor conferred upon Israel by its enemies. The Arab problem had solved itself, they said, with the help of the Mufti; why should the Jews voluntarily revive it when, above all, they need land and houses for their own immigration and freedom from the endless vexations that arise from a big and unassimilable minority? "They fled. Let them settle somewhere else--in an Arab country. Evidently they don't want to stay in a Jewish state. Why should we be expected to take them back?"

One of the wisest men in Israel, a man whose life has been spent in intimate association with Arabs and who had always believed in the possibility of close and understanding relations with them, told me his views had been forcibly changed by their behavior. "We will not take them back," he said, "except perhaps in limited numbers. They have forfeited all claim on us. Those that stayed shall have every right of a citizen of Israel; those that went, none." He advocated an exchange of populations, Israel to take all the Jews now in the Arab states in return for the Arabs who had fled. He thought this might be negotiated as part of a peace agreement, especially if some financial compensation were included.

I asked him about the Arabs who had remained behind--perhaps 5,000 in Haifa, the whole Arab population of Nazareth, some 20,000, and scattered groups throughout the country, amounting, by Israeli estimates, to something less than 70,000, including "Christians and others." "You will see them," he said, "when you go to Nazareth. You can talk to their leaders. None has suffered any harm outside of what the fighting itself has done. In Haifa and Nazareth hundreds of Arabs are employed in the municipal services -- they worked in the Haifa refineries, too, until lack of oil closed down the operations. Wherever Arabs are employed in Israel they have the same conditions as Jewish workers, and the same pay. Almost the first act of the Israeli government was a measure equalizing wages. This may not make the Arab rulers and political leaders more anxious to make peace, but as the word spreads in the Arab countries it will have an effect on the masses, who have been taught to believe the Jews want only to oppress if not to murder them." "It may also incline the refugees to come back to Israel," I suggested. "It may; yes," he said, but his expression as he said it indicated that it would not matter much what their inclinations were.

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