After Capturing Haifa, Ben-Gurion Gave Order to Stop Fleeing Arabs From Returning

A letter going to auction reveals that Israel's first PM tried to thwart British attempts to resettle 'the enemy' in Haifa. The letter contradicts a testimony by Golda Meir.

Arab residents leaving Haifa, accompanied by Haganah men, April, 1948.
AFP

David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, gave an instruction aimed at preventing Haifa’s Arab residents who have fled the city during the 1948 War of Independence from returning to their homes as long as the fighting continued. This was revealed in a letter bearing Ben-Gurion's signature, which will go on sale next week at the Kedem auction house in Jerusalem.

The letter was sent by Ben-Gurion on June 2, 1948, a month and a half after Haifa was captured and a few weeks after Israel's independence was declared. It was addressed to Abba Khoushy, the secretary-general of the Haifa Workers' Council, and later the city’s mayor.

“I hear that Mr. Marriot (Cyril Marriot, the British Consul in Haifa) is working to return the Arabs to Haifa. I don’t know how it is his business, but until the war is over we don’t want a return of the enemy. And all institutions should act accordingly” instructed Ben-Gurion.

The letter, signed by Ben-Gurion. Courtesy of the Kededm Auction House.

The contents of this letter were published in 2002 in a book about Abba Khoushy that was written by Tzadok Eshel ("Abba Khoushy – Man of Haifa"). As with many of the letters that Ben-Gurion wrote to different people and institutions, this letter fell into private hands and is now up for sale. The opening bidding price is $1,800.

Ben-Gurion’s attitude to the Arab population that fled or was expelled from their homes during the war was not consistent. In Nazareth, he specifically instructed Israeli forces not to expel Arab residents: “Do not remove these residents from Nazareth,” he wrote. In Lod, however, there is one testimony according to which he instructed Yitzhak Rabin and other field commanders to expel the residents.

In her new biography of Ben-Gurion (‘Ben Gurion – Father of Modern Israel," published in English by Yale University Press) historian Anita Shapira states that Lod is the only case in which there is testimony to an instruction given by Ben-Gurion to deport Arabs. Shapira describes consultations held by field commanders and Ben-Gurion concerning the fate of the city’s Arab inhabitants, after the city’s capture in Operation Danny. “Ben-Gurion listened and did not respond. He had an exceptional capacity to remain silent when he wanted to. Only at the end of the discussion, as the commanders were about to return to the battlefield, he made, according to Rabin's account,  a waving-off gesture with his hand, muttering 'expel them.'"

David Ben-Gurion and Abba Khoushy (behind him, facing the camera). Photo by Fritz Cohen / GPO

What about Haifa? Here things get more complicated. Out of 70,000 Arabs who lived in the city when the war broke out, tens of thousands left during the first months. On April 22, 1948, when the city was captured by the Haganah (the Yishuv's military forces), the Grand Mufti instructed Haifa’s Arab residents to leave rather than accept the terms of surrender. Shabtai Levy, the city’s first Jewish mayor, appealed to local leaders, asking them not to leave. The British tried to do the same, but to no avail. Except for a few thousand, the majority of Haifa’s Arabs left after the city was captured.
On May 1, after touring the area, Ben-Gurion wrote in his diary: “An amazing and terrible sight. a dead city with barns, shops, small and large houses, old and new - with not a living soul except for some wandering cats how did tens of thousands of people leave behind, in such panic, their houses and wealth?”

“What caused this flight? Was it just orders from above? It’s inconceivable that extremely wealthy people - and there were extremely wealthy people here, those with knowledge say, the richest in the whole land - would leave all their wealth behind just because someone commanded them to. Was it fear?”

A boat of Haifa refugees docking in Port Said, Egypt. Photo credit: Getty Images

Despite the shock felt by Ben-Gurion, the letter that surfaced and is now up for auction indicates that a month later he called for preventing Arab residents from returning to their homes. The letter contradicts the testimony of Golda Meir, who wrote in her book "My Life" that Ben-Gurion asked her to try and prevent the flight of Haifa’s Arabs.

“Ben-Gurion called me and said: 'I want you to immediately go to Haifa and see to it that the Arabs who remain in Haifa are treated appropriately. I also want you to try and persuade the Arabs who are already on the beach to return home. You have to get it into their heads that they have nothing to fear,' he said. And so, I went immediately. I sat on the beach there and begged them to return home I pleaded with them until I was exhausted but it didn’t work,” she wrote.

Meron Aran, one of the directors of the Kedem auction house, believes that Ben-Gurion ultimately preferred to prevent their return out of security considerations, but he also has another theory in mind. “It’s possible that he was already planning to house new immigrants who were already clamoring to get into the new country in the houses abandoned by the city’s Arabs.”

Haganah men walking in the streets of Haifa after the city was captured. Photo credit: Haganah archive.