Village by village, town by town – how Zionists tried to destroy Palestine in 1948

In the sixth and final part of his series on Zionism, imperialism and the Palestinians, Neil Rogall describes the Nakba – the establishment of the Israeli state and catastrophe for Palestine.

Palestinian refugee camp near Damascus
Palestinian refugee camp near Damascus

1948 was a year of horror. The majority of the Palestinian people were violently evicted from their homes and their communities. Families were broken up, often never to see each other again. People watched their brothers, fathers, children killed. Girls and women were raped. Massacre followed massacre as the year progressed.

These horrors had a purpose. The Zionists wanted a Jewish-only Palestine – “Israel” as they named it on 14 May 1948. By the time the first wave of ethnic cleansing came to a close, half the Palestinian population had been uprooted. Eight hundred thousand people had been evicted from their homes, 531 villages destroyed and 11 urban neighbourhoods emptied. Very few could ever return home.

This was not the only instance of ethnic cleansing after the Second World War. But it is the one case that is still denied. In Israel mentioning the Nakba can get you imprisoned or worse. Official opinion in Europe and North America still is in denial. Here the Israeli fairy tale of 1948 still dominates discourse.

The Israeli story of 1948 is a lie – a series of falsehoods that they propagate even in the face of overwhelming evidence. There are three lies that I want to challenge here:

  1. “We did not want the Palestinians to leave”
  2. “Our army is the most moral army”
  3. “The Jews of Palestine faced a ‘second holocaust’ at the hands of the invading Arab armies”

My argument draws heavily on Ilan Pappe’s scholarly and path breaking book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. But the horrors described in its pages have been told over and over again by Palestinians since 1948. For the timeline of the Nakba, please refer to the chronology at the end of this article.

Israeli Lie No. 1 – “We did not want the Palestinians to leave”

Official Israeli histories are fairy tales claiming the Zionists wanted the Palestinians to remain in the “Jewish” state. These stories say the Palestinians chose to leave of their own free will to make way for invading Arab armies bent on destroying the newly born Israel.

The UN partition plan for Palestine
The UN partition plan for Palestine

The truth is that the armies of the Arab states only entered Palestine on 15 May 1948. By that date a quarter of a million Palestinians had already been expelled. In fact the ethnic cleansing began almost immediately after the UN vote to partition Palestine in November 1947.

Systematic Zionist planning to expel the Palestinians began many years before. From the late 1930s onwards the Haganah had mapped and photographed every Palestinian village. By the end of the war they knew the quality of each village’s land, where they drew their water from and every road in and out. They had files on each village’s income, its class structure, and its religious allegiances. British officials supplied some of this information. Every man aged 16 to 60 was listed in the Zionists’ village files. They knew who had been active in the 1936 uprising, and which families had lost a relative in the fighting. And they highlighted anyone they thought might have killed a settler.Division of territory after 1949

The Haganah trained intelligence officers to do this and these spies developed a network of Palestinian collaborators to help them. These intelligence officers would play a major role in the Nakba. They had the final authority to decide which village would be destroyed and who would be murdered.

In 1947 the Zionists updated their information. They made sure they knew which villages had guards and weapons. They created extensive lists of people they wanted to kill. When Jewish forces entered a village during the Nakba the male inhabitants would be lined up. A Palestinian informer (usually with a sack over their head) would then pick out the men the intelligence officers wished to murder.

The Zionists saw the removal of the Palestinians as “purifying” (tihur in Hebrew) the country. They didn’t want Palestinians living alongside them in their new state: the demographic balance was vital to them.

As Yitzhak Pundak, who helped “cleanse” the south of Palestine, wrote:

“There were 200 hundred villages and these are gone. We had to destroy them; otherwise we would have had Arabs here [in southern Palestine] as we have in Galilee. We would have had another million Palestinians’.

‘Plan Dalet’ was the fourth in a series of Zionist strategic documents. It was drawn up in March 1948 as the destruction of Palestine was quickening. It outlined the strategy to conquer the 78% of mandate Palestine that Ben Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, wanted, and the methods of dealing with the one million Palestinians living in that space. This was two months before the end of the British mandate.

Ilan Pappe outlines the Plan in The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine:

“Villages were to be expelled in their entirety because they were located in strategic spots or because they were expected to put up some sort of resistance. … This was the master plan for the expulsion of all the villages in rural Palestine. Similar instructions were given, with much the same wording for actions directed at Palestine’s urban centres.”

The Plan did not disguise how this would be done:

“These operations can be carried out in the following manner: either by destroying villages (by setting fire to them, by blowing them up, and by planting mines in their debris) and especially of these population centres which are difficult to control continuously… In case of resistance, the armed forces [meaning any armed Palestinian opposition] must be wiped out and the population expelled beyond the boundaries of the state”.

This was not a set of rough guidelines. These were orders. Each commander of the Haganah was a given a list of villages or urban areas that had to be occupied and destroyed and the Palestinian population expelled.

Ben Gurion kept records of how many villages had been obliterated, the numbers expelled and the amount of fertile land conquered. At the beginning of June he organised a meeting to assess how much wealth had been stolen from Arab banks and how many citrus groves had been “acquired”.

The Israelis had no intention of letting the dispossessed return. Israel was going to be as exclusively Jewish as was realistically possible. Any villagers returning to their homes or attempting to salvage a few possessions or harvest their crops were shot and often killed. This continued into the next decade – desperate refugees were now labelled “infiltrators” and “terrorists” and could be murdered at will.

The Israelis didn’t simply aim to expel the indigenous population of Palestine; they wanted to obliterate any physical memory of their life. In August the government announced that new Jewish settlements would be built on top of Palestinian villages or forests planted on open land where once people lived.

Israeli Lie No. 2 – “Our army is the most moral army”

As Gaza was bombarded this summer, we heard the usual clichés from supporters of Israel. One particularly vile example came from the mouth of Colonel Richard Kemp, the former commander of all British forces in Afghanistan: “No other army in the world has ever done more than Israel is doing now to save the lives of innocent civilians in a combat zone”.

At the time of Israel’s onslaught on Gaza in the winter of 2008/9, the journalist Gideon Levy wrote: “The majority of the Israelis are still deeply convinced that their army, the IDF, is the most moral army in the world, and nothing else. Here is the strength of a very efficient brainwashing.”

Refugees leaving Haifa
Exodus from Haifa

This perfidious denial of reality is a founding myth of Israel. The sole exception acknowledged is the massacre at Deir Yassin in April 1948. This helps to reaffirm the myth because the murders were committed not by the Haganah (soon to be become the Israeli army) but by the far right Irgun and Stern Gang.

In the previous section I made reference to Plan Dalet’s instructions to use fire, dynamite or bombs to destroy villages. The new Israeli state was baptised in blood. Atrocities took place throughout the Nakba. Ilan Pappe discusses many horrors: Khisas and Balad al-Shaykh in December 1948, Sa’sa in February, Tantura in May, the city of Lydd in July, and Safsaf in October. Almost every time the Jewish forces captured a village, boys and men were lined up, victims were selected and assassinations took place. In several documented cases there were rapes of women and girls, sometimes in front of the whole village.

If anyone reading this article still believes that the “rot” only set in after Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 then the following two examples should convince them otherwise.

The first example is from Tantura, a village of 1,500 people on the Mediterranean coast. The massacre happened on 22 May, a week after the Zionists declared Israeli independence. Here the troops began a killing spree as soon as they entered the village. The men were then led to the beach, and a collaborator picked out certain ones from a prepared list. A Jewish officer reported later that soldiers would go to the battalion commander and say “My cousin was killed in the war” or similar. The commander would then order the execution of 5 to 7 prisoners. This really was making the Palestinians pay for the Nazis’ crimes.

After the massacre was complete, two Palestinians were ordered to dig a mass grave under the control of a local settler. In 1999 the settler, Mordechai Sokoler, said he remembered burying 230 bodies. We know of this massacre both through Palestinian memoirs and the MA thesis of a young Israeli in 1999 that collected survivors’ testimonies. His thesis was disqualified, of course.

The carnage at Dawaymeh – a village between Beersheeba and Hebron – took place on 28 October and was even more horrendous. Armoured cars opened fire on the village as they approached it. Jewish troops then jumped out, firing at random. The rampage lasted an hour. The next day, according to a sworn statement from the village head or Mukhtar, he

“Met with the villagers and agreed to return to the village that night to find out the fate of those that had stayed behind. He reports that in the Mosque there were the bodies of some sixty persons, most of them were men of advanced age who had taken shelter in the Mosque. His father was among them. He saw a large number of bodies in the streets, bodies of men, women and children. He then went to the Cave of Iraq El Zagh. He found at the mouth of the cave the bodies of eighty-five persons, again men, women and children. The Mukhtar then carried out a census of the inhabitants of the village and found that a total of 455 persons was missing of whom 280 were men and the rest women and children, There were other casualties among the refugees, the number of which the Mukhtar was unable to determine. The Mukhtar explicitly states that the village had not been called upon to surrender and that the Jewish troops had not met with any resistance”

Some Jewish soldiers who took part in the massacre reported horrific scenes to the high command: babies whose skulls were cracked open, women raped or burned alive in houses and men stabbed to death.

Similar horrors were perpetrated in urban areas. In Haifa, barrels of explosives and huge steel balls were rolled down the hillside into the Palestinian quarters of the town. The Haganah disguised themselves as Arabs, and brought cars packed with explosives to Palestinian owned garages.

The most monstrous urban massacre was at al-Lydd in July (today the Israeli town of Lod) where after aerial bombardment, Israeli troops entered and killed 426 men, women and children. 176 bodies were found at the mosque. 50,000 Palestinians were then forced to march without food and water to the West Bank. Many died along the way.

As Ilan Pappe asks “three years after the holocaust, what went through the minds of these Jews who watched these wretched people pass by?”

Ordinary Jewish soldiers carried out these killings just as ordinary German soldiers did the same during the holocaust. But it is the Zionist leaders who bear the main responsibility because they repeatedly portrayed Palestinians as Nazis. They knew this was a lie, but they did it to motivate their soldiers to destroy other human beings.

There was a purpose in these massacres. The Zionist leaders wanted the Palestinians to flee Jewish territory completely. And not just the 55% of Palestine awarded to the Zionists but the 78% that they had conquered by the war’s end.

Israeli Lie No. 3 – “The Jews of Palestine faced a ‘second holocaust’ at the hands of the invading Arab armies”

Growing up in a Jewish family the 1950s I was told again and again that the establishment of Israel was a “miracle”. “Plucky little Israel” faced an invading Arab army bent on driving the Jews “into the sea.” Certainly in public the Zionists claimed they faced a second holocaust, but in private it was very different. In a letter of 26 February 1948 Ben Gurion writes: “We can face all the Arab forces. This is not a mystical belief but a cold and rational calculation based on practical examination”.

The Palestinians had a few militias, but they were village based. They only possessed small quantities of arms. There was no national coordination, no national leadership, and no joint action. On January 9 1948, a small Arab volunteer army of five to six thousand entered Palestine but Jewish forces outnumbered it massively.

When the British finally left, the Arab League did send in troops – that is five and a half months after the ethnic cleansing began! They appointed King Abdullah of Jordan as the head of the military force. There was logic to this – Jordan had the one serious well-trained military force in the Arab world – the Arab Legion.

But – and this is a huge “but” – King Abdullah had made a secret deal with the Zionists not to take up arms against them. All this is documented in Avi Shlaim’s book, Collusion Across the Jordan. The other Arab leaders knew this. In return the King was promised the West Bank, 20% of Palestine. The only serious confrontation involving the Legion and the Zionists was over Jerusalem, which had not been included in the clandestine agreement. Here the well-trained Jordanian army successfully fought for the old city. Elsewhere the Legion did nothing even when it was next to Palestinian villages being destroyed.

The rest of the Arab armies were ineffectual. Their supply lines were overstretched. Their weapons were out of date. Ammunition ran out quickly, since Britain and France, who supplied the arms, refused to send any more.

There were 10,000 Egyptian troops, half Muslim Brotherhood members released from prison. The latter, untrained and badly armed did at least hold onto some villages and towns in the south. Small numbers of Syrian troops made little impact. The Lebanese army never crossed into Palestine. Iraqi troops engaged with the Zionists, defying orders, but they were only a few thousand strong. Overall the Arab armies made no serious dent on Israel’s activities.

Contrast all this with the Zionist forces. When Plan Dalet began there were 50,000 Jewish troops – half trained by the British army. This rose to 80,000 by the summer of 1948. They were also well supplied with arms. From June 1947 onwards the Zionists bought large quantities of weapons from Czechoslovakia both before and after the “Communist” takeover. The Israeli Communist party played a key role facilitating this. The Czech government also trained the first fighter pilots and ground crew of the Israeli air force.

By the summer of 1948 Israel had double the forces of all the Arab armies combined. They became so confident that they considered annexing the areas promised to Jordan. What held them back was not fear of defeat but having too many Palestinians in Israel.

The truth is clear. The Palestinians were leaderless, lacking any serious coordinated military means of their own. They depended on the Arab states who betrayed them lock, stock and barrel.

Carving up Palestine

Throughout this piece I have barely mentioned the British, the rulers of Palestine until the end of the Mandate. They had 75,000 troops stationed in Palestine and even after 14 May some remained. But they did nothing. In Jaffa for example they stood by “observing” whilst the Zionists threw bombs into people’s homes. In Jerusalem they disarmed Palestinians being attacked. The mandate government also blocked the UN from bringing in an organised force to supervise partition. No wonder many Palestinians blame the British for their tragedy. Certainly Britain is as culpable as the French were in the Rwandan genocide.

By the winter of 1948 Palestine was no more. The Jordanians annexed the West Bank. The Egyptians placed Gaza under military rule. A whole society was obliterated. The Israeli government seized £100 million of Palestinian property. All the cultural centres – the mosques, the churches, and the schools were gone. Most Palestinian villages and neighbourhoods were bulldozed and emptied of their citizens. Some choice properties were of course seized by settlers, sometimes turned into picturesque “artists’ colonies.” The only Palestinian town to survive in Israel was Nazareth. This was a majority Christian town and the Zionists knew that destroying it would damage Israel’s reputation among the world’s Christians.

The UN general assembly in December 1948 passed Resolution 194, granting refugees the right to return home or to accept a financial settlement. But of course this has always been ignored.

In contrast, in July 1950 the Israeli parliament passed the Law of Return giving all Jews the right to live in Israel.

The ethnic cleansing went onto until the summer of 1949. 8,000 Palestinians spent the whole of that year in prison camps. Many of them were murdered but none of their killers were ever charged. Others were used as slave labour. Outside the prison and labour camps life was just as hard for the 150,000 Palestinians who remained in Israel. Many were murdered for breaking curfew. Others were beaten and arrested. Their food stocks were stolen, and Israeli soldiers looking for “weapons” robbed their homes. Churches and mosques, convents and schools were ransacked. The Palestinians were to live under military rule in Israel until 1966.

Almost a million refugees ended up in over eighty refugee camps around the Arab world. Those in the West Bank and Gaza, the majority, were to face Israeli military might, and then occupation in 1967. By 1952, there were 80,000 Palestinians in Syria and over 100,000 in Lebanon and Jordan, not including the West Bank.

The Israelis expected the defeated Palestinians to disappear from history. But they did not. And they have not. After 1967 a new Palestinian movement emerged, first in the refugee camps, and then in the occupied territories and within Israel itself. The Palestinians survived as a people. Telling the truth about Israel’s origins is part of the battle for Palestinian liberation. At long last countless people around the world no longer believe Israel’s lies.

Brief Chronology of the Nakba

29 November 1947
The UN votes to partition Palestine. The Zionists are awarded 55% of Palestine although the Jewish population is only 37% of the total and they only own 7% of the land.

Early December 1947
Zionist attacks on the Palestinians begin the ethnic cleansing. Small units of Arab volunteers enter the country to defend Palestine.

10 March 1948
The Zionists officially adopt “Plan Dalet.” (Dalet is the fourth letter in the Hebrew alphabet and this was the fourth and final plan.) Its aim was to rid the new Jewish state of the Palestinians and to expand its borders way beyond what the UN “awarded” to the Jews.

End of April 1948
All urban centres of the future Jewish state have been occupied, and a quarter of a million Palestinians have fled.

14 May 1948
The Zionists declare the creation of Israel as a Jewish state. The first countries to recognise Israel are the USA and the USSR, the superpowers of the post-war world.

15 May 1948
Britain formally leaves Palestine though a small number of troops remain. Five Arab states send troops, supposedly to help the Palestinians.

By the end of July 1948
531 villages have been destroyed and there are no Palestinians in 11 urban neighbourhoods.

February 1949
An armistice agreement between Egypt and Israel brings Gaza under Egyptian military rule.

April 1949
An armistice agreement between Jordan and Israel brings the West Bank under Jordanian rule.

  • Ethnic cleansing of Palestinians continues until the summer of 1949.
  • The new Israeli state now controls 78% of mandate Palestine, not the 55% the UN awarded. There is no Palestinian state.
  • There are up to 1 million Palestinian refugees, the vast majority of whom end up in refugee camps in the West Bank, Jordan, the Gaza Strip, Syria and Lebanon

Previous Articles in this Series

1: The Origins of Zionism

2: Palestine, the Great War and imperialism

3: The origins of the Iron Wall: Zionist settlers during the mandate

4: The Birth of Palestinian Resistance and the 1936 uprising

5: Making the Palestinians the scapegoats for Nazi crimes



  1. What is the situation in Palestine/Israel?

    Some Europeans took the land from people already living on it. That was in 1948. The land was Palestine. Since then, the people who were forcibly displaced have been fighting to reclaim their land and establish their own country. * Village by village,…

  2. Thanks for your comment Michael. I focused on the pre-state history of Israel because I think people are less familiar with the history of the Yishuv, the 36-39 uprising and the Nakba. I also wanted to read and reread some of the literature – some of which I had never read previously. I take your point about dealing with the arguments that people have today with supporters of Israel (though I had debates during the summer with many of the points I dealt with in these articles). I certainly will give it a think through during the new year. I might try and gather a list of questions that people want answered. Originally I had intended continuing the narrative to the present. But I am not sure that would be the most useful way to proceed. Your suggestion might be better. Finally i am not sure middle of the road zionism is the dominant ideology that sustains Israel these days. The dominance of the ‘revisionists’ for the last 40 years has put paid to that and I don’t foresee a return to Labour zionism being on the horizon. Israel is now very much a neo-liberal state and much more integrated into the world economy. I also think there is a tremendous amount of good (and horrifying stuff) out there – on the Electronic Intifada, Jews for Justice for the Palestinians and the Israeli online +972 Magazine

  3. Thanks for bringing this together and summarising and name-checking recent books on all this. Don’t take this as criticism but I’ve found that even when these accounts are put in front of zionists, that they give themselves a get-out clause. This goes something along the lines that ‘all nations have discrimination and persecution in their founding moments…it’s too late to do anything about it now….any new arrangement would involve moving hundreds of thousands if not millions of jews out and two wrongs don’t make a right’.

    The reason why I am citing these is because it seems to me that these are the kinds of arguments that we need to counter. Yes, re-telling, re-framing and revising the accounts are necessary but of themselves these revised accounts don’t engage with what drives zionism…and by default, the support that zionism gets.

    It would be great to see a column from you, Neil, that took this historical account into an engagement with ‘middle of the road’ zionism – i.e. the dominant ideology that sustains Israel.


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