BACKGROUNDER: Palestinian Arab and Jewish Refugees

On May 15, many Palestinians and their supporters mark what they call “Nakba Day,” a commemoration focusing on their view that the reconstitution of a Jewish state in Israel was a “catastrophe.”

The commemoration is often accompanied by a flurry of opinion pieces and news stories conveying the Palestinian narrative of Israel’s independence, which frequently contain false charges.

In May 2008, for example, an Op-Ed in the New York Times claimed “a people had been expelled from their land in a comprehensive ethnic cleansing operation, given the name ‘Plan D’ by Israelis” (Elias Khoury, 5/18/08, “For Israelis, an Anniversary. For Palestinians, a Nakba”). In fact, notwithstanding a limited number of tactical expulsions, “a people” was certainly not expelled. And Plan D was not at all a “comprehensive ethnic cleansing operation” — you can read the text of that plan here.

A news story published in the Washington Post likewise passed along this false charge of mass expulsion. Reporter Sylvia Moreno relayed, from organizers of an anti-Israel rally, the accusation that every Palestinian that fled the war was actually “expelled.” She wrote: “To make way for Israel, 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes and more than 400 of their villages were destroyed, organizers of the event said” (5/18/08, “Palestinian Quilt Presents a Different Viewpoint; Creation of Israel Came At Great Cost, Some Say”). The reporter didn’t bother pointing out that this accusation has been debunked by prominent historians.

The piece below provides needed facts and context about the frequently distorted refugee issue.

During and after the 1948 war, hundreds of thousands of Arabs and Jews fled, and in some cases were forced from, their homes in Mandate Palestine and beyond. The effects of this flight are still today a major issue, as politicians, diplomats and other concerned parties try to resolve the Palestinian “refugee problem” — the status of the original Arab refugees and millions of their descendants, many of whom still live in refugee camps. The vast majority of Jewish refugees went to Israel, where they were absorbed with great difficulty. Despite having found a country committed to taking them in, they still seek redress and acknowledgment of their largely ignored plight.

Arab refugees


Estimates vary on the number of Palestinians who became refugees as a result of the war. Israel’s Foreign Ministry and Central Bureau of Statistics estimated the number to be between 500,000 and 600,000. [Update: Historian Efraim Karsh reached a similar conclusion after breaking down the flight by locale.] The British Foreign Office suggested the number was between 600,000 and 760,000. A 1950 report by the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine endorsed an estimate of 711,000 refugees by an “expert of the Statistical Office of the United Nations.”


Most broadly, the Arab flight can be divided into two time periods corresponding with the two major phases of fighting. Roughly half of those fleeing did so between November 1947 (when Palestinian Arabs responded to the United Nations partition recommendation with anti-Jewish violence) and May 1948 (when the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon invaded Palestine). During this period, the conflict more closely resembled a civil war, with Palestinian Jews battling Palestinian Arabs and several thousand Arab militiamen. A second phase of the fighting and flight occurred after May 1948, when neighboring Arab armies initiated the conventional phase of the war by joining in the fighting on the side of the Palestinians.

Some commentators divide the Palestinian exodus into three or four somewhat shorter waves. One prominent example of the ‘four wave’ characterization refers to 1) the flight of the Palestinian elite between November 1947 and March 1948; 2) a flight coinciding with the shift by the Jewish Haganah militia from defensive to offensive operations in April 1948 and lasting until a truce in June of that year; 3) the period between July, when that truce expired, and October, when a second truce ended; and lastly, 4) the period from October through November 1948.

Causes of Flight

Historians agree that there was no single cause of the Arab flight from Palestine. In large part, the masses fled because they saw the Palestinian elite doing the same thing. In part, it was in response to exhortations by Arab military and political leaders that Palestinian civilians evacuate their homes until the end of the fighting. Vast numbers were simply fleeing the heavy fighting that surrounded them, or that they expected to soon disrupt their lives. In some instances, Palestinians were forced from their homes by the Jewish military.

Following the Leaders

The Palestinian leadership and elite set an example for the rest of society by evacuating their towns and villages early during the conflict, usually long before fighting neared their towns, and some even before the civil war began. (Or as commander of the Arab Legion John Bagot Glubb put it, “villages were frequently abandoned even before they were threatened by the progress of war.”) This behavior not only shattered the morale of the Palestinian masses, but also, in the words of historian Shabtai Teveth, “amounted to clear — albeit unwritten — instructions to flee Palestine.”

The British High Commissioner for Palestine at the time, General Sir Alan Cunningham, described this phenomenon and its effect on the general population:

You should know that the collapsing Arab morale in Palestine is in some measure due to the increasing tendency of those who should be leading them to leave the country. For instance in Jaffa the Mayor went on 4 days leave 12 days ago and has not returned, and half the National Committee has left. In Haifa the Arab members of the municipality left some time ago; the two leaders of the Arab Liberation Army left actually during the recent battle. Now the Chief Arab Magistrate has left. In all parts of the country the [elite] effendi class has been evacuating in large numbers over a considerable period and the tempo is increasing.

Another British official, Palestine’s Chief Secretary Sir Henry Gurney, wrote that “It is pathetic to see how the [Jaffa] Arabs have been deserted by their leaders.”

Palestinian refugees in Lebanon

Palestinian refugees at the Ein al-Hilweh camp in Lebanon

After Haifa’s chief Arab magistrate abandoned that city, a British intelligence report described the act as “probably the greatest factor in the demoralization of Haifa’s community.”

Just as the residents of cities followed in the footsteps of their fleeing leaders, the cities in general served as examples for inhabitants of nearby rural villages. For example, the residents of Balad ash Sheikh and Hawasswa left their homes after seeing Haifa residents do the same; Salama, Al Kheiriya and Yazur followed the lead of Jaffa; and Dhahiriya Tahta, Sammu’i and Meirun followed Safed.

Explicit Instructions to Flee

Palestinian leaders also explicitly instructed Palestinians to leave their homes. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al Husseini, told a delegation of Haifa Arabs in January 1948 that they should “remove the women and children from the danger areas in order to reduce the number of casualties,” and continued to encourage evacuations in the months that followed. Indeed, just a few months later, when Haifa’s British, Jewish and Arab leadership were working to negotiate a truce, the Arab side, in line with the Mufti’s orders but to the great surprise of everyone involved, insisted on a complete evacuation of all Arab residents.

Similarly, the national Palestinian leadership (or “Arab Higher Committee”) published a pamphlet in March 1948 urging the evacuation of women, children and the elderly from areas affected by the fighting. The local Palestinian leadership (or “National Committee”) in Jerusalem heeded this call, ordering Jerusalem Arabs to evacuate these populations, and asserting that those who resisted doing so would be seen as “an obstacle to the Holy War” and as “hamper[ing]” the actions of the Arab fighters.

Jordan’s Arab Legion ordered women and children out of Beisan, a town near the Jordanian border and an anticipated point of invasion by the Legion.

In Tiberias, local Arab leaders chose to clear the town of its Arab residents, and did so with the help of the British authorities. In Jaffa, after the British forced Jewish militiamen to withdraw from the city, local Arab leaders organized the evacuation of the roughly 20,000 residents who hadn’t already fled during or before the fighting.

Similar scenes played out in dozens of Arab villages across the land.

Some villagers were not merely instructed to leave, but actually expelled by Arab militiamen from outside the country who feared local Arabs might ally themselves with the Jews, or who wanted to use the residents’ homes for lodging.

In a number of instances, the Jewish leadership appealed for the Arabs stay. The surprise announcement by the Palestinian leadership of Haifa that “the Arab population wished to evacuate” was immediately followed by a tearful plea by the town’s Jewish mayor, Shabtai Levy, for the leaders to reconsider. The Haganah’s chief representative in Haifa also assured the Arabs that if they stayed, “they would enjoy equality and peace, and that we, the Jews, were interested in their staying on and the maintenance of harmonious relations.” The British commander in Haifa, Hugh Stockwell, emphatically insisted that the Arabs were making a mistake, and also urged them to change their decision, which reportedly came from the Arab Higher Committee in Beirut.

Even as Haifa’s Arabs were streaming out of the city on British boats and trucks, the Jewish establishment continued to urge an end to the exodus and to insist that those who had departed should return. “[E]very effort is being made by the Jews to persuade the Arab populace to stay and carry on with their normal lives,” reported the British Superintendent of Police. A member of the Arab National Committee, Farid Saad, admitted that Jewish leaders “have organized a large propaganda campaign to persuade [the] Arabs to return.” (Most, however, did not return. The Arabs fleeing Haifa made up approximately 10 percent of the total number of Palestinian Arab refugees, and influenced countless others to follow in their wake.)

Likewise, in the town of Tiberias, which was evacuated with the help of, and perhaps at the behest of, the British, a senior Jewish representative appealed against the evacuation to the British governor, to no avail.

Although fighting between Jewish and Arabs in Palestine began in late 1947, the Jewish military began offensive operations only in April 1948. (Before this point, the Jewish fighters operated only defensively.) Things had been going poorly for the Yishuv early in the fighting. The combination of the Jews’ precarious position and the knowledge that professional armies of neighboring Arab countries would soon be invading prompted a change in strategy — loosely along the lines of the Jewish contingency plan known as Plan D, which called for gaining control of key territory in order to protect Jewish towns and the frontiers of the Jewish state against the attacking armies. Already before this Jewish switch to the offensive, about 100,000 Arabs, mostly those with the financial resources to relocate to somewhere more comfortable, had fled their homes. As the expected date of the invasion by Arab countries approached, Israeli military commanders saw the control of Arab villages along the borders (which were expected to soon become the front lines of fighting and points of entry for Arab armies) and of villages along key transport routes as a key objective. If a village could not be searched and controlled due to resistance, Plan D allowed for troops to force residents from their homes, something that indeed happened in a number of cases.

There were never any blanket orders to expel the Arabs, and in fact the new Israeli army, at the behest of the government, made clear in July 1948 that “it is forbidden … to expel Arab inhabitants from villages, neighborhoods and cities, and to uproot inhabitants from their places without special permission or explicit order from the Defense Minister in each specific case.”

Although no such orders would be issued by Defense (and Prime) Minister David Ben-Gurion, the military in some cases nonetheless chose, mostly for operational reasons (such as securing vital roads, preventing sniping, preventing the use of villages as a base for Arab armies), to expel Arab residents who remained behind after their neighbors’ spontaneous flight. These decisions were occasionally overturned by government officials.

Lydda, an Arab town near Tel Aviv, which was the temporary Jewish capital, is a prominent example in which the combination of military expulsion orders, the government’s overturning of these orders, the military’s interpretation of the government’s position, significant fighting, and spontaneous flight resulted in a substantial numbers leaving.

In July 1948, the Israeli army invaded Lydda and the neighboring town of Ramle to help secure Tel Aviv and drive out Arab Legion troops based in the towns. As the fighting began, a considerable number of civilians fled in panic. The battles ended quickly, and the towns surrendered, Ramle formally and Lydda informally.

Then, with a few hundred Israeli troops controlling a pacified Lydda, Arab Legion armored cars attempted to enter the town, only to encounter Israeli resistance. This minor encounter spurred local residents, who seemed to think — wrongly — that the vaunted Legion was staging a counter-attack, to themselves open fire on Israeli troops.

The troops, shaken by the attacks, aware of their small numbers, and worried about their vulnerable position in a town of thousands of hostile residents, responded harshly to end the attack, striking at homes thought to be used by snipers and firing at townspeople who violated curfew. Some estimate that 250 were killed by Israeli troops during the fighting. The incident helped convince further masses of Arab residents to flee, and simultaneously helped convince the Israelis to clear the town of its insurgent population. An Israeli military order called for immediately expelling the residents of Lydda.

But as troops were still figuring out how to transport the Arabs, many of whom were already streaming out of the town on their own, Israel’s Minister for Minority Affairs, Bechor Shitrit, arrived in Lydda. Shitrit was furious when he learned of the deportation orders, and indignantly reported what was happening to Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett, who in turn spoke with Ben-Gurion. Sharett and Ben Gurion, in turn, told the IDF leadership that those who wanted to leave must be allowed to do so, those who wished to remain behind would be responsible for themselves, and women, children, elderly and sick residents must not be forced out of the town. The new orders, though, failed to end the removal or the voluntary exodus of the towns residents.

Despite such incidents, though, the overwhelming majority of Palestinian refugees were not expelled by the Israelis.
Other Factors

Factors associated with war in general — the deterioration of public services, food shortages, demoralization, the breakdown of law and order, misbehavior by armed militiamen and, not least, the din and danger of the fighting itself — all put strains on Palestinian Arab life, and certainly contributed to the flight.

Volunteer Arab militiamen from neighboring states, ostensibly sent to Palestine to protect local Arabs, often terribly mistreated the population of towns that hosted them. According to an account by one leading Palestinian, militiamen based in Jaffa and other cities robbed the locals, looted their homes, and defiled the “women’s honor.” A British report noted that the officers of one of these foreign militias “treat the locals like dirt.”

Rumor was also a factor. Arab-spread rumors about supposed Jewish atrocities apparently compelled some already demoralized locals to flee, while others left as a result of Jewish psychological operations — which intentionally spread rumors about impending attacks so as to induce an exodus from several villages.

Mostly generally, and perhaps most understandably, it was fear of war that spurred the Arabs of Palestine to decide to leave their homes. Whether they fled well before the fighting began, just as a battle for their village was set to begin, or during the exchange of fire itself, local townspeople did not want themselves or their families in harm’s way.

Regardless of the causes, the bottom line is that had the Arab world, including the Palestinians, not chosen to launch a war of destruction against the Jewish state, the much-discussed Palestinian refugee problem would not exist.


  • “Charging Israel With Original Sin,” Shabtai Teveth, Commentary, September 1989
  • “1948, Israel, and the Palestinians — The True Story,” Efraim Karsh, Commentary, May 2008
  • “The Palestine Arab Refugee Problem and its Origins,” Shabtai Teveth, Middle Eastern Studies, April 1990
  • Fabricating Israeli History: The New Historians, Efraim Karsh
  • Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, Benny Morris
  • Genesis 1948: The First Arab-Israeli War, Dan Kurzman

Jewish Refugees

Iraqi Jewish refugees 1950

Jewish refugees from Iraq at Lod airport, 1950

Although relatively overlooked, a large number of Jews — over 800,000 — became refugees during and after Israel’s war for independence. An overwhelming majority were driven from their homes in the Arab world, a result of anti-Jewish sentiment amplified by the war. Others lost their homes in British Mandate Palestine as a direct result of the fighting — they either fled or were captured by Arab troops as the armies of neighboring states overran and destroyed their villages.

Jewish Refugees from Mandate Palestine

The number of Jews who lost their homes within the territory of Mandate Palestine as a direct result of the fighting was significantly less than the number of Arabs who fled from the region. In large part, this was because Arab armies failed to capture many Jewish towns, thus allowing many of the roughly 10,000 Jewish evacuees who fled the fighting to return to their homes after the war. It was also because, in the words of Palestinian leader Muhammad Nimr al-Khatib, “[t]he Palestinians had neighboring Arab states which opened their borders and doors to the refugees, while the Jews had no alternative but to triumph or to die.”

Still, in some cases Jews fled their homes when it became clear their village was on the verge of being lost to Arab forces. For example, women and children were evacuated from Gush Etzion, a block of four villages southwest of Jerusalem, as the situation there started to deteriorate. At Yad Mordechai and Kfar Darom, in the south, residents escaped just before the Egyptian army captured and destroyed the towns. The village of Atarot, north of Jerusalem, was evacuated under fire, its residents escaping on foot to Neve Yaakov. When the Arab Legion attacked Neve Yaakov the following day, the residents of that town fled and, along with the displaced from Atarot, found refuge in Hadassah Hospital.

Jewish villagers who did not flee before Arab forces gained control of their town were generally removed from their homes and held as prisoners of war. Prisoners from areas that remained under Arab control after the war were eventually transferred to Israel, where they had to find new homes. For example, residents of the Gush Etzion villages of Mesuot Yitzhak, Ein Tzurim and Revadim, which came under the control of the Arab Legion, were taken captive and resettled in new Israeli villages after the war. (The residents of the fourth Gush Etzion village, Kfar Etzion, were almost all massacred by Arab gunmen.)

The surrender of Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter to Arab Legion troops was immediately followed by the exile from the ancient city of roughly 1,300 Jews. Almost 300 others — males of fighting age — were taken captive. The impossibility of keeping a Jewish presence in the Old City, which had been inhabited by Jews from time immemorial, was underscored by the Arab mobs that marched on the departing residents and on a hospital housing severely injured Jews, only to be held off by the well-disciplined Arab Legion. The Jewish Quarter was ransacked and burned.

Even when Israel regained control of a captured village by the end of the war, residents generally could not return to their homes, as they were destroyed by the Arab conquerors. The residents of Mishmar Hayarden, for example, were taken into captivity by Syrian troops, who then destroyed the village before Israel regained control. The same happened when Nitzanim was overrun by Egyptian troops.

Jewish Refugees from the Arab World

Between 1948 and 1951, as a result of the War of Independence, about 400,000 Jewish refugees were absorbed by Israel after being driven from their homes from Arab lands. In total, well over 800,000 Jews indigenous to Arab and Muslim countries lost their homes and property following Israel’s independence, roughly 600,000 of whom found refuge in Israel. Although the number of Jewish refugees and the total area of their lost land exceeded that of their Arab counterparts, the similarity in the numbers of Jewish and Arab refugees has led some to describe the exodus of the two groups as a de facto population transfer.

With the UN’s 1947 decision to partition Palestine, the Jewish community in Iraq, which only a few years earlier had suffered a devastating pogrom, faced a new wave of harsh persecution.

The Iraqi government adopted what author and journalist Edwin Black described as “Nazi confiscatory techniques,” levying “exorbitant fines as punishment for trumped-up offenses.” Zionism was made a criminal offense. As Arab countries invaded the newly declared Jewish state, the Iraqi police ransacked Jewish homes and arrested hundreds of Jewish citizens. Hundreds more were dismissed from their public jobs. Crippling restrictions targeted Jewish commerce and travel. The government seized Jewish property, cut off municipal services to Jewish neighborhoods, and shut down Jewish newspapers

Researcher Esther Meir-Glitzenstein explained that “what had begun as voluntary emigration turned into an expulsion.” Eventually, about 120,000 people — almost the entire Jewish community — would escape the oppression, with little more than the clothes on their backs.

A similar scenario played out in Egypt. The events of 1948 brought a revival of anti-Jewish sentiment, complete with anti-Jewish riots and murders, the confiscation of Jewish property, legal restrictions affecting the employment of Jews and mass arrests. This prompted a wave of Jewish flight from the country, a trend that only increased in the decade that followed.

Violent anti-Jewish rioting in Yemen in the wake of the UN partition plan help spur tens of thousands of Yeminite Jews to leave their homes and migrate to Israel as part of Operation Magic Carpet. Murderous pogroms in Morocco in 1948 and 1953, and in Libya in 1945 and 1948, yielded similar results.


  • The Edge of the Sword: Israel’s War of Independence, 1947-1949, Natanel Lorch
  • Atlas of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, Martin Gilbert
  • Encyclopedia Judaica
  • “1948, Israel, and the Palestinians — The True Story,” Efraim Karsh, Commentary, May 2008
  • “The evacuation of the noncombatant population in the 1948 war: three kibbutzim as a case study,” Nurit Cohen Levinovsky, Journal of Israeli History, March 2007.
  • Jerusalem in the Twentieth Century, Martin Gilbert
  • The Case of the Jews from Arab Countries: A Neglected Issue, Maurice Roumani

Comments are closed.