Three Case Studies of the War in Palestine in 1948

A review of three controversial events and processes during the war in 1948: Deir Yassin, the battle for Kastel, and Jewish refugees.

The topic of this review essay is two particular micro-events and one micro-phenomenon in 1948 Palestine. Since the last quarter of the twentieth century, microhistory—the history of apparently marginal events or phenomena, small places, groups, or organizations, and ordinary persons—has gained world-wide popularity (it is enough to mention names like Robert Darnton, Natalie Zemon Davies or Carlo Ginzburg) and the three above-mentioned works belong to this genre.

With a relatively small number of exceptions, microhistories of the modern period attract mainly those who were involved in the events, belonged to the groups, or lived in the places that constitute their subjects. In certain cases, however, microhistory renders an invaluable added value to macro-history. A cluster of microhistories can create a bigger, macro-historical scenario. Microhistorical topics can illustrate broader and more significant issues. A history of a small or marginal subject can be, in hindsight, essential for comprehending macro processes.

Deir Yassin is a typical model of this third category: a small and unimportant village and a marginal military action that, under the circumstances and in the context of later developments, turned into a central event in the history of the war of 1948. The significance and implications of the event in retrospect far exceed the importance of the event at the time.

Tauber deserves every kudo for his meticulous work, which is exemplary for this genre of historiography. He left no stone unturned and used all the available sources, written and oral, Arab, Jewish (Haganah, IZl, LHI, and political), British, and Red Cross. This resolution of microhistoriographic analysis requires a massive use of oral testimonies, extracting the valuable material from the rubbish and a careful scrutiny of the findings. His expertise in Arabic and on Palestinian society equipped him with vital tools for conducting such a study.

In examining the oral testimonies about the battle in Deir Yassin, Tauber has shown how the stories of witnesses on both sides, Arab villagers and IZL and LHI combatants, are close to each other. Of course, each witness speaks from his individual and national perspectives, but it is clear that they all speak of the same battle and that their stories are supplemental rather than contradictory. At the same time, the narratives that were circulated by both sides’ higher echelons immediately after the fighting was over are propagandist and conflicting.

The immediate background of the battle in Deir Yassin, as well as that of the adjacent Qastel that I discuss below, is the British decision to accelerate the withdrawal and concentrate their military effort on keeping the evacuation routes open and secured, leaving the adversaries to struggle almost freely over control of the other areas. In early April the British abandoned the main Jerusalem-Jaffa road (the evacuation route was Jerusalem – Ramallah – Latrun ˗ Majdal ˗ Gaza) and the battle for the road began in earnest. The Haganah launched Operation Nachshon and soon occupied two villages, Deir Mukhayzin near Latrun and Qastel. The IZL and LHI aspired for a similar achievement and targeted Deir Yassin. They informed the Haganah district commander of their intentions, and he approved the attack provided they garrisoned the village after its conquest and refrained from demolishing it.

At that stage of the war, occupying an Arab village was something new, still without precedent. Under the circumstances of the inter-communal civil war overshadowed by waning British sovereignty, it was also impossible to hold people in captivity and POWs should have been either released or killed. This axiomatic assumption forecasted the flight of the non-combatant population at the beginning of the raid. In the case of Deir Yassin, the axiom proved mistaken for various reasons analyzed by Tauber.

Seven IZL and LHI fighters were killed in Deir Yassin. There are various figures of wounded, fluctuating between 10 and 40. Tauber tends to establish the number as a little above 30. There are several estimates and nominal lists of Arab fatal casualties. Arab informers for the SHAI (Jewish intelligence) reported from the beginning on 100 to 110 killed. The conquerors boasted that they killed 240 Arabs and the foreign press as well as the Haganah adopted this figure for polemical or political reasons of their own. This figure was generally accepted, though Arab propagandists inflated the number up to 400. In the 1990s, the anthropologist Sharif Kan’ane published the findings of his research that put the number back at 107, based mainly on Arab lists and survivors’ testimonies. After reviewing all the existing lists and comparing them, Tauber compiled his own list that includes 101 names and is probably the closest to the real number.

Although the onslaught on Deir Yassin was not a glorious operation by any standard, a wide gap separates what happened in the village and the rumors that spread at the time and have persisted to the present. It was a bloody battle fought in the midst of the civilian population, but in 1948 there were bloodier encounters such as the fall of the Etzion Block and the conquest of Lydda. In Deir Yassin there was no pre-planned, deliberate massacre as the prevalent Arab narrative, backed by Israeli radicals, naïve or ignorant, has claimed ever since. Tauber skillfully disproves the massacre myth and refutes the allegations of atrocities such as rapes or executions.

The myth was created during the war of propaganda that followed the occupation of the village. The IZL and LHI inflated and glorified their accomplishment. The Haganah preferred the version of the SHAI’s Dissidents Section over the far more accurate version of its Arab Section, and the Jewish Agency panicked because of the possible diplomatic consequences and hurried to condemn the perpetrators and apologize to King Abdullah of Transjordan and to the world in general. The British were apologetic and apparently had some compunctions about their indifference, but they stuck to the plan of evacuation and refused to get involved in combat.

Hitherto, the bulk of the Arab population had looked on the fighting from the sidelines. The local Arab leadership in Jerusalem strove to excite the Palestinians, and bolster up their motivation to fight. This was the main purpose of the propaganda campaign that Hussein Khalidi, the only member of the Higher Arab Executive present in the country, and his associates launched in the following days. They achieved the opposite outcome: instead of inspiring the Arabs’ stamina and will to fight, the inflated numbers of casualties and faked atrocity rumors shocked and intimidated the non-combatant population and considerably encouraged the mass flight.

Nonetheless, I think that Tauber overstates the part of Deir Yassin in causing the Arab mass flight. Before Deir Yassin, about 100,000 Arabs left their homes, huts, or tents and wandered to the neighboring countries or to purely Arab regions in the depth of the country. The Palestinians have tried to minimize the scope of this early wave of refugees and claim that only members of the elites fled, but the flight was more varied and its scope was bigger. The early refugees did not consist exclusively of the elites and included additional categories, such as residents of frontier or mixed neighborhoods in the cities, Bedouins who camped in Jewish areas, or first generation immigrants from the countryside who lost their jobs in the towns and returned to their villages. Deir Yassin and the following propaganda campaign did not cause the mass flight and at most stimulated an already existing process. Indeed, they strongly affected the villages around Jerusalem and the Arab quarters outside the city’s walls, but their impact diminished in more distant villages and was marginal in the Arab and mixed towns from where the majority of the refugees fled.

Tauber is wrong in connecting the Arab armies’ invasion to Deir Yassin. Truly, the news shocked the Arab masses abroad but hardly affected the debates of the Arab League’s Council that convened in Cairo two days later. Hitherto they objected to invasion and relied on the Arab League (or Liberation) Army to defeat the Jews after the end of the mandate. The collapse of the ALA in Mishmar HaEmek and the defeat of the Palestinian militias and ALA detachments in the towns left them no alternative but invasion. The purpose was to save what was left of Arab Palestine rather than “throwing the Jews into the Mediterranean,” but Deir Yassin had little, if any, part in the decision.

One of the explanations of Deir Yassin survivors for the onslaught on their village was the participation of several villagers in the Arab attack on the nearby village of Qastel the day before. This is a lame excuse and probably no one on the Jewish side knew about their participation, but it leads me to the second book, Daniel Rubinstein’s The Battle on the Kastel.

The ambitious Hebrew title and sub-title of the book notwithstanding, the basis of Rubinstein’s thesis is invalid. The war in Palestine was not decided between Jews and Palestinians in its inter-communal phase. Militarily and politically, the Palestinians were a marginal factor in this war and incapable of playing a more significant part. They realized this and were satisfied with their limited role.

Rubinstein devotes a long, detailed, and interesting chapter to the Palestinian rebellion of 1936/9. He retells anecdotes about ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Hussayni and his fellow rebels in the mountains of Hebron and describes the whereabouts of those who survived after the repression of the revolt. He does not write a single word about the effects of the rebellion on Palestinian society, which collapsed and did not recover until the first Intifada in 1987. The Palestinian Arabs weren’t ready for another confrontation in 1947/8 and were totally dependent on the Arab states and League.

From the beginning of the war, and mainly because of their internal disputes, the Arab states were reluctant to invade Palestine and as an alternative decided on the creation of an army of the League, consisting of volunteers from the Arab states and Palestinian recruits, armed and equipped by the states. A military committee was established to raise and supervise the ALA with an Iraqi retired general as its chairman and another Iraqi general as its deputy. Between January and March 1948 the ALA infiltrated (or invaded) the Arab regions – Samaria, Galilee, Gaza – and deployed detachments in the principal cities – Jaffa, Jerusalem, and Haifa. The original mission of the ALA was to enlist, train, and organize the Palestinians for the decisive fighting that would erupt at the end of the mandate.

The al-Husseinis had other plans. Their leader, the Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, purported to lead the war and regarded the ALA’s mission as supporting a Palestinian war effort carried out by his loyal troops, the Jihad al-Muqadas under the supreme command of his cousin ‘Abd al-Qadir. Their aspirations were far beyond their capabilities. The hard core of jihadis never exceeded a few hundred who were occasionally joined by a faz’a of up to one or two thousand villagers, on the model of the 1936/9 rebel bands.

The mufti and his partisans regarded the war as an anti-colonial struggle in the manner of their 1930s guerilla warfare, and preferred to direct it from safe havens in Beirut, Damascus, or Cairo. They failed to grasp the different nature of this national war that required concentrated national effort. Mainly for this reason, they rapidly lost control over events in the country. The Palestinians’ refusal and inability to build institutional and administrative infrastructure that would take over the Arab areas from the receding mandatory power caused anarchy and created a vacuum that was only partly filled by the Arab armies later, after the invasion. The few vain attempts to create quasi-governmental institutions were an exception testifying to the rule and took place mainly in Jerusalem.

‘Abd al-Qadir al-Hussayni was a regional commander and hero, and only after 1967 entered the national pantheon. The mufti’s power base was in Jerusalem and its surroundings and this was the arena of the jihadis’ activity. At the beginning of the war, ‘Abd al-Qadir tried to extend his power to Samaria and enlist local youth in the Jihad al-Muqadas, but was rejected by local dignitaries, who had opposed the Hussaynis since the revolt of 1936 if not earlier. Subsequently, he confined his actions to the Jerusalem area.

In the early months of the war, the Jihad al-Muqadas combatants had a few victories, such as the annihilation of the Haganah detachment on its way to Etzion Block, or the ambush of the convoy to Nabi Daniel. The main cause for these accomplishments was the anachronistic tactical approach of the Haganah’s command, rather than Arab tactical ingenuity. The battles for control of Qastel in early April were not a turning point in the course of the war, but a milestone, indicating the Jews’ progress toward an army as opposed to the Arabs’ adherence to their traditional way of warfare. What lent them significance was the fall of ‘Abd al-Qadir.

Rubinstein did praiseworthy work in reconstructing ‘Abd al-Qadir’s personality from the stories and memoirs of his relatives, colleagues, friends, and acquaintances in various periods and places of his life. Yet, the subject barely justifies the effort, and certainly not the pretense to portray the battle for Qastel as a “turning point” in the course of the war. Both the hero and the battle were not important enough to warrant this claim.

The book is somewhat incoherent. Rubinstein’s chronology is confused and he frequently jumps forward and backward in time. Occasionally, the reader gets the impression that the author has nothing more to say and repeats what he already said elsewhere, or enter into side alleys and dead ends. A typical example is the well-known affair of the parachutists in Wadi Kelt in the fall of 1944. Rubinstein contributes innovative evidence for this odd story, based on the memoirs of D’u Kifl ‘Abd a-Latif, one of the Arab parachutists, and the testimony appears quite convincing and authentic. But after reading the four pages devoted to this affair, the reader may ask what is its relevance to ‘Abd al-Qadir, to Qastel, to 1948, to us or to them?

Rubinstein relies mainly on Palestinian sources, mostly oral or otherwise based on memory. The resulting narrative is rather folklorist than historical, and accuracy is by no means among the book’s virtues. Statements like “the battle for Qastel was the last Palestinian battle in the war” (p.329) are simply wrong – what about the successful assault on Hill 219 in September 1948? And there were several more battles fought by Palestinians in various sectors. Similarly, the claim that in 1948 the Iraqi generals settled their accounts with the Palestinian nationalists who found refuge in Iraq and stirred up the confrontation with the British in 1941 is also mistaken. On the contrary, in the summer of 1948 the Iraqi Expeditionary Force took the remnants of the jihadis under its patronage.

These are not mere pitfalls. A few critical comments notwithstanding, Rubinstein’s book reflects a Palestinian narrative that blames the Arab states for the nakba and portrays the Palestinians as innocent victims of others’ plots – Arab of all sorts, British, Americans and, of course, Jews. Surely, the Palestinians have been victims since then and to today, but they have been very far from being innocent and were the victims of their own follies and incompetence. Most of all they were ungrateful, particularly to King Abdullah of Jordan, who twice rescued much of what remained of Arab Palestine: first, when he joined the invading coalition in May 1948, and then when he dissented from it for all practical purposes in the fall of that year.

At the center of Nurit Cohen-Levinovsky’s work, based on her PhD dissertation, does not stand an event, a person, or a place, but a phenomenon. This is a well written combination of micro- and macro-historiography of a topic that for many years had sunk into oblivion: Jewish refugees and evacuees during the war of 1948. Her book was preceded by two articles that were published in 1993 and 2004, but it is the first comprehensive study that describes and analyzes this phenomenon and its full scope and complexity. Cohen-Levinovsky methodically probes the unique circumstances of every evacuation and manages to integrate them into a general framework and patterns of policy. At the same time, she differentiates between ethos, myths, ideology, rhetoric, and pragmatism.

The evacuation of settlements had been a controversial issue in the Yishuv since the chaotic post-World War I years and the dispute over the fate of Upper Galilee settlements. It reemerged in times of crisis: the disturbances of 1929, the Arab Revolt of 1936/9, and World War II. Between the emergencies, settlements disbanded and were abandoned also for economic and social reasons. The war of 1948 was the supreme test of the Zionist ethos that rejected the abandonment of settlements. The total number of evacuees and refugees was 60,000, far above what scholars and lay persons had believed before the book appeared. Cohen-Levinovsky ironically comments on the cliché that, while history is written by the winners, nonetheless they do not hurry to expose everything. In this way, she explains the relatively late awareness of this problem in the war’s historiography.

The less derogatory adjective “evacuee,” she tells us, was reserved mainly for non-combatants in frontier or isolated settlements. They left their homes in an organized manner upon orders from the regional or central command, and often after lengthy internal debates. By contrast, “refugees” were unorganized residents of frontier neighborhoods in mixed cities who left their homes, and sometimes their towns, on their own initiative, mainly in the early phase of the war.

Until the eve of the invasion, the official position of the political and military leadership was opposed to the evacuation of settlements and initially also to the evacuation of non-combatants. The intensification of the fighting and pressure from below forced a gradual change of this policy. Non-combatants, or at least children with their escorts, were evacuated from front-line and isolated settlements, mainly to Tel Aviv and Haifa. However, not a single settlement was abandoned until the fall of the Etzion Block on May 13, in sharp contrast to the Arabs’ mass flight. Cohen-Levinovsky convincingly shows how the endurance of the civilian population was a major contribution to the Jews’ triumph in the inter-communal civil war that ended on May 15.

After the Arab armies’ invasion, circumstances changed. Rural settlements and their settlers were capable of holding out against guerilla attacks, but could not be expected to withstand a regular army’s assaults backed by armor and artillery, and wherever possible were evacuated. Cohen-Levinovsky scrutinizes the living conditions of refugees in the towns, the ways local authorities coped with their absorption and hardships, the manifestations of solidarity as well as alienation on the part of the sheltering population, and the impact of all these on the people who were displaced from their homes. She does not hesitate to point to racial and class prejudices as the source of this alienation, but carefully abstains from inflating its scope and significance.

A specific issue was leaving the country and going abroad. Cohen-Levinovsky only touches on the tip of the iceberg. The amount of “shirking” was exaggerated in the following years and the real numbers were insignificant. In the early months of the war, a daily accounting at Lydda airport, Haifa harbor, and the passport offices produced lists of names and the personal details of those who left the country or wished to do so. Many were employees (mostly female) of the British Army who left the country with their units upon their evacuation to other parts of the empire. A few hundred World War II immigrants returned to Europe through the International Refugee Organization (IRO) and few hundred more were deserters who sought to avoid military service. In the second half of the war, shirkers were mainly women and new immigrants or internal refugees who deserted to provide for their families.

Cohen-Levinovsky’s book is an important addition to the expanding study of civil society in the war of 1948 and its significant function. The other two books reviewed in this essay supplement the picture by presenting the inherent weaknesses of the parallel Arab civil society that caused its rapid disintegration and ultimate collapse. The development of the Haganah from a militia to a regular army gradually released the military command from caring for the civilian population and released the formations to focus on military operations wherever needed. By contrast, in the absence of civil society and administration, the invading Arab armies had increasingly to devote attention and logistical resources to fill the vacuum at the expense of their military mission. Ultimately, the outcomes of the war were determined by the gap between a modern and a traditional-primitive society no less than by the military superiority of the IDF over the Arab armies and the Palestinian combatants. Reading these three books strongly emphasizes the differences between these societies.

*Eliezer Tauber, Deir Yassin: The End of the Myth (Hebrew), Dvir Shoham 2017.

*Daniel Rubinstein, The Battle on the Kastel: 24 hours that Changed the Course of the 1948 War between Palestinians and Israelis (Hebrew), Yediot Sfarim 2017

*Nurit Cohen-Levinovski, Jewish Refugees in Israel’s War of Independence, ‘Am ‘Oved 2014


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