Our Roots Are Still Alive - Chapter 10

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    An Arab peasant asked an official at the Israel Lands Administration, "What are you offering me? Is my land worth only two hundred pounds per dunam?" The official replied, "This is not your land, it is ours, and we are paying you watchman's wages, for that is all you are. You have `watched' our land for two thousand years and now we are paying your fee. But the land has always been ours."

Inside the new state of Israel, the work of wiping out the memory of Palestine began as soon as the war ended. Printing presses churned out maps which marked the boundaries of Israel and displayed its new name. Writers hastily corrected manuscripts, scratching out the name of Palestine. Editors revised history textbooks for the schools. Road signs in Hebrew directed travelers to ancient Palestinian cities with new names. Jaffa, the lively port city, was forced to merge with Tel Aviv and become Tel Aviv-Yaffo. Lydda, emptied of its Arab citizens since July of 1948, became Lod. Many Arab villages, turned over to Jewish settlements, disappeared from the map entirely.

Zionist leaders planned to erase the Arab character of Palestine. They wanted to make Israel, in the words of the Zionist slogan, "as Jewish as England is English." As long as three hundred thousand Palestinians remained in Israel and on their land, that could not happen. Israel had already closed its borders to the refugees who wanted to return. It passed the Law of Absentee Property to seize the land they had left behind - 60 percent of the land of Palestine suitable for farming.1 Now Israeli leaders turned their attention to the Palestinians living inside the new state's borders.

Ironically, Israel's leaders launched their campaign against the Palestinians and their land by applying the old British Defense Laws. The British had passed these laws in 1945 to repress Zionist attacks on the mandate government. That year a conference of Zionist lawyers had demanded their repeal. One of the lawyers, Yaacov Shapiro, said then:

    The system established in Palestine since the issue of the Defense Laws is unparalleled in any civilized country; there were no such laws even in Nazi Germany .... No government has the right to pass such laws.2

Three years later, as the Attorney General of Israel, Shapiro ordered the vigorous enforcement of these laws against the Palestinians.

The Military Government

Israel used the Defense Laws to set up a Military Government in the areas where most of the Palestinians lived - the Galilee, the little Triangle and the Negev. BenGurion explained why: "The Military Government came into existence to protect the right of Jewish settlement in all parts of the state."3 Its purpose was to confiscate land and to suppress any Palestinian resistance.

In the first ten years of Israel's existence, Palestinians inside the country lost more than a quarter of a million acres of land.4 Israel seized some of this land under the Law of Absentee Property. This law defined an "absentee" as any Arab absent from the areas under Jewish control after the date of the United Nations partition, November 29, 1947. Thus a family from Nazareth that went on its annual Christmas pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which was under Arab control, was "absentee" even if the family returned the very next day. The people of Acre, who fled to another quarter of the city during the May 1948 Haganah attack, lost their homes and shops under this law.5

The Military Government also seized land by expelling Arabs from their villages for "security reasons." Then after a period of time, the Minister of Agriculture could claim the land for the state because it was technically "uncultivated." In the case of the village of Ikrit, in the Galilee, the Military Government went even further.

During the 1948 war, the Israeli Army had occupied Ikrit. Its farmers, who were mostly Catholics, offered no resistance. When the soldiers ordered everyone to leave their homes for two weeks until "military operations in the area were concluded," the villagers went to a nearby town. A military governor took over the area and repeatedly denied the villagers' appeals to return to Ikrit. The people of lkrit petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court, which made a rare decision in their favor in July 1951. But the Military Government still refused to allow them to return. On Christmas day, a month before the court was to hear a new appeal from the villagers, Israeli soldiers entered Ikrit and systematically blew up every house. Ikrit's land was then given to Jewish immigrants.6 These new settlers "made the desert bloom," in the words of Israeli press releases, by reclaiming land once green and fruitful under Arab hands.

Between 1948 and 1950, three hundred fifty of three hundred seventy new Jewish settlements were built on land taken from Palestinians.7 The Israeli government tried to "compensate" many Arabs for their land with small payments. But the Palestinians did not want the money. Many simply set up camp near the occupiers' settlements. Israel Hertz, a Zionist writer, reported:

    [These refugees] mostly live in humble houses of tin, sacking or wood, that they have erected on the outskirts of their villages .... The great majority of these refugees - nearly all of them - ask to be allowed to return to their villages, refusing to sell their rights to their land, in spite of unfavorable material conditions.8

Even when Palestinians managed to hold on to their land, the settlers, police and the Military Government harassed them constantly. In his book, To Be An Arab in Israel, the political journalist Fouzi el-Asmar described what happened to him as a child when he was picking figs one morning in his family's orchard. An armed settler ordered him to stop. When he refused, the settler took him to the police station, where a police officer interrogated him:

    "Aren't you ashamed to steal, you little thief?"

    "I didn't steal. It's our orchard - my father's. I went there to pick figs."

    "There is no such things as 'ours.' The land belongs to the Jews. Do you understand?"


    "You dog. You are answering arrogantly!"

    He took me and put me in an inner room and locked the door behind me. I burst into tears. I did not know what the policeman was talking about .... An hour later the policeman came again and took me to the room where he had previously questioned me. This time he asked me, "So whose land is this?" And I answered, "Ours. But I did not know my father had sold it to Jews." To this I received a crushing answer in a mocking tone. "I told you that the orchard is not yours. Your father did not sell it to the Jews. It belongs to the Jews."9

Such harassment was not confined to children. The Military Government and police made daily life almost unbearable for many Palestinians. Until the Military Government was finally ended in 1966, no Palestinian could enter or leave his military district without a special permit. The Military Governor of each area had absolute power to punish violators, including the authority to levy huge fines.10 Often he exiled Arabs to distant villages and forced them to return to their old village to report at the police station each day. In the Galilee, the authorities frequently expelled breadwinners from Israel, in the hope that their families would be forced to follow them into exile.11

Despite these attempts to expel the Palestinians, most remained and claimed their rights as citizens. Yet even their right to Israeli citizenship was threatened. The Israeli Knesset (Parliament) passed the "Law of Return" in 1950. It guaranteed immediate Israeli citizenship to any Jew who came to Israel from any country in the world. Palestinians living in Israel had to pass through a series of obstacles to become citizens. They had to prove that they had stayed in Palestine throughout the war and they had to show "some knowledge of Hebrew." During the Knesset debate on the Nationality Law that set these terms, Moses Sharret, Israel's Foreign Minister, criticized his colleagues for being too easy on the "foreigners," referring to the Palestinian Arabs.12

In the face of all these assaults, many Palestinians risked fines, jail and expulsion to fight for their rights. In 1951 the people of Nazareth organized a general strike to protest confiscation of their land. Their action sparked large solidarity demonstrations in other major towns in the Galilee. The Military Government did not tolerate such open defiance. It tried to find and expel the leaders of any demonstration or organization that Israel considered "hostile to the state." Yet by 1954 Palestinians had organized the Popular Arab Front, which demanded equality for all peoples in Israel and an end to the Military Government. The Front enjoyed strong support until it, too, was destroyed by the Military Government.

"Ingathering the Exiles"

This continuing Palestinian resistance led Zionists to insist on the need for an even larger Jewish majority in the new state. More immigrants would be needed to protect Israel from the Palestinians in exile and from those inside Israel. As BenGurion said, "We can have no real security without immigration."13 To attract Jewish settlers, the new government and the Zionist agencies gave all the support they could to immigrants, including jobs, housing and land.

Zionists had hoped that the "ingathering of the exiles" - the "return" to Israel of the Jews of the world - would bring millions of eager pioneers to build a "Greater Israel" whose final borders were still not defined. Instead, Israel's open invitation to Jews throughout the world was accepted by a far smaller number than expected. Most of those who came were poor and desperate. Among these were three hundred thousand Eastern European Jews and seventy thousand survivors of Nazi concentration camps who left war-ravaged Europe to go to Israel in its first three years of existence. Most American and European Jews simply expressed their commitment to the Jewish state by making annual donations, not by moving to Israel.

Yemeni immigrants wait in the shadow of the plane that will carry them to Israel.

When the "ingathering" of Western Jews did not happen in large enough numbers, the Israelis turned their attention to the communities of dark-skinned so-called "Oriental" Jews who lived in the surrounding Arab countries. The appeal of a better living standard made many willing to emigrate. Others left their homes because the creation of the Jewish state and the resulting Arab anger and suspicion had poisoned relationships among Jews, Christians and Moslems in the Arab countries. Jews were often suspected of being disloyal citizens and sympathetic to Israel. As a result of violent outbursts against Jews in Libya, Syria, Egypt and Lebanon, many fled to Israel.14

The Zionists took advantage of these tensions in order to swell the number of immigrants from Arab countries. One target of the Zionists was the Jewish community of Baghdad, the capital of Iraq. This community of Jews had existed for more than twenty-five hundred years. Its people lived peacefully and prosperously among the Moslems of Baghdad. At first, the Jews of Baghdad had no interest in going to Israel. However, a series of bombings aimed at Jewish stores, synagogues and cafes stampeded a hundred thousand Iraqi Jews in a panicked flight to Israel. Many years later, an Israeli magazine, Ha'olam Hazeh, published the confession of an Israeli agent, Yehuda Tager. Israelis had been responsible for the bombings in Baghdad, to "encourage immigration."15 At community gatherings the new Iraqi immigrants to Israel often sang this song:

    What did you do, Ben-Gurion?
    You smuggled all of us!
    Because of the past we gave up our citizenship and came to Israel
    If only we had come riding donkeys and hadn't arrived yet!
    Alas, what a black hour it was
    To hell with the plane that brought us here.16

Other planes chartered by the Israeli government flew forty-five thousand Jews from Yemen to Israel in a program called "Operation Magic Carpet." The Yemenites were told that the flight fulfilled an ancient Messianic prophecy; they were being lifted to a heavenly land on "giant silver wings."17 Hundreds of miles away from their traditional life, most Yemeni Jews ended up as unskilled workers in Israel, subject to ridicule and discrimination from European Jews.

These streams of penniless immigrants were vital for building the Jewish state, but they strained the Israeli economy to the breaking point. By 1951, seven hundred sixty thousand - half from Europe and half from the Arab countries and Asia - had entered Israel. The state spent an average of $2,250 on each immigrant, which it could barely afford. Many of the new arrivals were dissatisfied with the conditions they found in Israel. In 1950 immigrants demonstrated against the government, demanding better housing and an end to food rationing. Some Oriental Jews - such as the Jews from India - petitioned to return home, where they said they had not experienced the discrimination they faced in Israel.18 There were many complaints about the preferred treatment given to European Jews and to members of BenGurion's Mapai Party.

Watchdog for the West

The Israeli state could not meet the demands of the dissatisfied immigrants. A growing economic crisis seriously threatened Ben-Gurion's government. The wealth which Palestinian refugees left behind had helped sustain Israel through its first years of life, but Israel's needs were staggering. Its small industries needed constant injections of new money to grow. By 1950 Israel imported ten times as much as it exported. The Arab League's boycott of trade with Israel added to the new state's problems. A bloated military budget devoured half of the government's annual spending. Funds to cover the massive deficit had to come from somewhere.

Such a large sum of money could only come from outside Israel. Fund-raising from Jews in other countries had always kept the Jewish colony in Palestine afloat. However, this kind of fund-raising, although significant, could not keep the Jewish state solvent. In 1949 the U.S. government decided to make donations to Israel tax-exempt, to encourage private contributions. That same year the Export-Import Bank, controlled by the United States, loaned Israel $100 million. But this was not enough either. In 1951 Ben-Gurion shocked Jews in Israel and around the world by turning to West Germany for aid. The year before, the West German government had offered to pay Israel "reparations" for Nazi war crimes. Ben-Gurion ignored a storm of protest from Israelis who felt taking money would be a blatant whitewash of Nazi crimes. The Israeli government decided to accept $862 million as reparations payments over a period of twelve years. The money solved Israel's immediate crisis.

However, Ben-Gurion knew that in the long run only the Western powers, and especially the United States, could give Israel the massive aid it needed. They would do this, Ben-Gurion reasoned, because Israel was the West's most reliable ally in the Middle East. The publisher of the leading Israeli daily newspaper, Ha'aretz, expressed similar views in an article in 1951:

    The West is none too happy about its relations with the [Arab] states in the Middle East. The feudal regimes there have to make such concessions to the nationalist movements, which sometimes have a pronounced socialist-leftist coloring, that they become more and more reluctant to supply Britain and the United States with their natural resources and military bases .... Therefore, strengthening Israel helps the Western powers to maintain equilibrium and stability in the Middle East. Israel is to become the watchdog. There is no fear that Israel will undertake any aggressive policy toward the Arab states when this would explicitly contradict the wishes of the U.S. and Britain. But if for any reason the Western powers should sometimes prefer to close their eyes, Israel could be relied on to punish one or several neighboring states whose discourtesy toward the West went beyond the bounds of the permissible.19

United States policy-makers, however, were not preoccupied with Israel or the Middle East in the early 1950s. American troops were fighting in Korea as the U.S, government tried desperately to "contain" the expansion of socialism and of the Soviet Union's influence around the world. In the Middle East, the United States was attempting, with mixed success, to make allies of right-wing leaders of the Arab states and to support them against the nationalist movements in their own countries. American leaders were not yet ready to pin all their hopes on Israel. But events in the Arab countries would soon make the idea of the Israeli "watchdog" a popular one in Western capitals.


  1. Don Peretz, "The Arab Refugee Dilemma," Foreign Affairs (October 1954), pp. 137-38, cited by Turki, The Disinherited, p. 23.
  2. Cited by Sabri Jiryis, The Arabs in Israel, 1949-1966 (Beirut: 1969), pp. 4-5.
  3. Knesset Debates, vol. 36, p. 1217, 20 February 1963, cited by Jiryis, p. 46.
  4. Jiryis, p. 56.
  5. Don Peretz, Israel and the Palestine Arabs, p. 152.
  6. Jiryis, pp. 69-70.
  7. Don Peretz, The Middle East Today (New York: 1963), p. 297, cited by Petran, Zionism, p.13.
  8. Ner, April 1960, cited by Jiryis, pp. 86-87.
  9. Fouzi el-Asmar, To Be An Arab in Israel (London: 1975), cited in MERIP no. 40, p. 25.
  10. Jiryis, pp. 15-21.
  11. Jiryis, "The Land Question in Israel," MERIP no. 47, p. 7.
  12. Knesset Debates, vol. 6, p. 2134, 10 October 1950, cited by Jiryis, The Arabs in Israel, p. 179.
  13. Ben-Gurion, Israel: Years of Challenge (New York: 1963), p. 60.
  14. The whole question of the conditions of Jews in Arab countries, their relation to Zionism and the creation of Israel and the conditions under which they came to Israel is a matter of some dispute and much distortion. The classic work on the question from a Zionist perspective is Joseph B. Schectman, On Wings of Eagles: The Plight, Exodus and Homecoming of Oriental Jewry (New York: 1961), especially pp. 93, 138, 151, 158-163, 178 and 190. Also referred to was the book, The Israelis: Founders and Sons, by Amos Eton (New York: 1972), pp. 30-3. Another source which contains much documentation and presents an Arab perspective on the question is Ali Ibrahim Abdo and Khairieh Kasmieh, Jews of Arab Countries (Beirut: 1971).
  15. Ha'olam Hazeh, 29 May 1966, cited in Middle East International, (January 1973), pp. 18-20.
  16. Middle East International, p. 34.
  17. Schechtman, p. 55.
  18. Alfred M. Lilienthal, The Other Side of the Coin (New York; 1965), p. 225.
  19. Ha'aretz, 30 September 1951, cited in The Other Israel, ed. Bober, p. 17.