By Dr. Efraim Karsh
This episode comes to mind upon reading Mahmoud Abbas's recent New York Times op-ed. Turning the saga of Israel's birth upside down, the socalled "moderate" PLO Chairman and President of the Palestinian National Authority says not a word of the Jewish acceptance of Palestinian Arab statehood, as part of the UN partition resolution of November, 1947, let alone the violent Palestinian response to the resolution. Instead, he reminisces on his childhood in an attempt to turn aggressors into hapless victims and vice versa.
"Sixty-three years ago, a 13-year-old Palestinian boy was forced to leave his home in the Galilean City of Safed and flee with his family to Syria," Abbas writes.
But was he expelled? Hardly. Not only did Abbas reveal a couple of years ago, in an Arabic interview, that his family had not been forcefully expelled and that his father was affluent enough to provide for them for a year after their flight (so no canvas tent), but none of the 170,000-180,000 Palestinian Arabs fleeing urban centers, in the five-and-a-half months from the passing of the UN resolution to Israel's proclamation on May 14, 1948, were expelled by the Jews.
Quite the reverse, in fact, huge numbers of these refugees were driven from their homes by their own leaders and/or by Arab military forces which had entered the country to fight the Jews, whether out of military considerations or to prevent them from becoming citizens of the prospective Jewish state.
In the largest and best-known example, tens of thousands of Arabs were ordered or bullied into leaving the City of Haifa (on April 21-22) on the instructions of the Arab Higher Committee, the effective "government" of the Palestinian Arabs, despite strenuous Jewish efforts to persuade them to stay. Only days earlier, Tiberias's 6,000-strong Arab community had been similarly forced out by its own leaders, against local Jewish wishes. In Jaffa, Palestine's largest Arab city, the municipality organized the transfer of thousands of residents by land and sea; in Jerusalem, the Arab Higher Committee ordered the transfer of women and children, and local gang leaders pushed out residents of several neighborhoods.
And what about Safed? Having declined an offer by General Hugh Stockwell, commander of the British forces in northern Palestine, to mediate a truce, the Arabs responded to the British evacuation of the city with a heavy assault on the tiny Jewish community, less than a quarter their size. "Upon the British evacuation on April 16, we occupied all the City's strategic positions: the Citadel, the Government House, and the police post on Mount Canaan," recalled a local Arab fighter.
What this prognosis failed to consider was the tenacity of the Jewish resolve to hold on to Safed, awarded by the partition resolution to the prospective Jewish state, on the one hand, and the intensity of Arab flight psychosis, on the other. As tens of thousands of Arabs streamed out of Tiberias and Haifa within days of the British evacuation of Safed, members of the City's leading families and ordinary residents alike decided that now was the time to escape – which is probably when Abbas's affluent family fled. In the words of a British intelligence report, "Such is their state of fear [that] Arabs are beginning to evacuate Safed, although the Jews have not yet attacked them."
In a desperate bid to save the day, a delegation of local notables traveled to Damascus, only to be reprimanded as cowards fleeing the battlefield and ordered to keep on fighting. A subsequent visit by Mayor Zaki Qadura to the royal court in Amman was far more affable, yet equally inconclusive. While King Abdullah was evidently moved by the mayor's pleas, he argued that there was nothing he could do before the termination of the mandate on May 15 and that Qadura had better return to Damascus and put his case to President Shukri Quwatly. The Mayor dutifully complied, and, following his visit to Damascus, some 130 pan-Arab fighters (of the socalled Arab Liberation Army) were sent to Safed, arriving in the city on May 9.
This was too little, too late. As fighting intensified, the trickle of escapees turned into a hemorrhage.
On May 2, following the bombing of the Arab quarter by the deafening, albeit highly ineffective, home-made "David's mortar," scores of Arabs fled Safed en route to the Jordan Valley, accompanied by a substantial number of Arab Liberation Army fighters. Four days later, the ALA's regional commander reported that "the majority of the inhabitants have left [Safed's neighboring] villages.
He added: "Their morale has collapsed completely."
Heavy artillery bombardments of Jewish neighborhoods failed to do the trick, and, as the final battle for the City was joined on the night of May 9, a mass flight ensued. By the time fighting was over the next morning, Safed's entire Arab population had taken to the road; a day later, Hagana patrols reported that "the [Arab] quarter had emptied to a man," with evacuees leaving behind "a huge quantity of weapons and ammunition."
Such were the circumstances of the fall of Safed. There was no act of Jewish expulsion, as there were none in other cities that were rapidly emptying of their Arab residents at the time.
Rather it was fear that acted as the foremost catalyst of the rapid unraveling of Palestinian Arab society, reinforced by the local Palestinians' disillusionment with their own leadership, the role taken by that leadership in forcing widespread evacuations, and, above all, a lack of communal cohesion or of a willingness, especially at the highest levels, to subordinate personal interest to the general good.
But why let the truth get in the way of a good story?
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Dr. Efraim Karsh, author most recently of the book, Islamic Imperialism: A History (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2007) and Research Professor of Middle East and Mediterranean Studies at King's College, University of London, U.K., is incoming Director of the Middle East Forum. A graduate in Arabic and Modern Middle East History from Hebrew University in Jerusalem and holding the M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in International Relations from Tel Aviv University, Dr. Karsh has held academic posts at Harvard University, Columbia University, the Sorbonne, the London School of Economics, Helsinki University, the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies in Washington, D.C., and the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.
Founder and Editor of the scholarly journal Israel Affairs, Dr. Karsh has written extensively on Middle East politics, Soviet foreign policy, and European affairs. A regular media commentator, he has appeared on U.K. and U.S. television and radio and contributed articles to leading newspapers in Britain and the U.S.A., among them the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Daily Telegraph, and The Times (of London).
The foregoing article by Dr. Efraim Karsh was originally published in the Jerusalem Post, May 20, 2011, and can be found on the Internet website maintained by the Middle East Forum, a foreign policy think tank which seeks to define and promote American interests in the Middle East, defining U.S. interests to include fighting radical Islam, working for Palestinian Arab acceptance of the State of Israel, improving the management of U.S. efforts to promote constitutional democracy in the Middle East, reducing America's energy dependence on the Middle East, more robustly asserting U.S. interests vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia, and countering the Iranian threat. (URL: http://www.meforum.org/2909/abbas-fable)
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