Port in a Storm

The mass flight of Haifa's Arabs remains one of the most contested events of the 1948 war. Yet despite strong evidence to support Arab claims, Israeli historians remain economical with the truth. Here's the story they don't want you to know.

Shay Fogelman
Shay Fogelman
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Shay Fogelman
Shay Fogelman

Two months ago, the Knesset passed the Budget Principles Law (Amendment 39 ), more popularly known as the "Nakba Law." The ostensibly procedural clause is intended to prevent institutions that receive state funding from marking the "day of the catastrophe" - which is how the Palestinians refer to May 15, 1948, the day the British Mandate in Palestine came to an end.

Paradoxically, it is the determined attempt to erase the day from the Israeli-Jewish consciousness that has increased awareness of the Nakba among Jews. Recent months saw a surge in Internet searches for the word "Nakba," according to Google Trends (which shows word-search patterns on the Web ). The index shows the usual yearly leap in English and Arabic ahead of May, but indicates an unprecedentedly huge increase in Hebrew this year. Clearly, the unusually large scope of events on Nakba Day last month contributed to the growing public interest and heightened the emotional content of the term - sometimes absurdly so. Two weeks ago, for example, MK Aryeh Eldad (National Union ) objected to the decision to hang a painting titled "The Citrus Grower" in the Knesset building. According to Eldad, the work is a "Nakba painting." The painting, by Eliyahu Arik Bokobza, is based on a pastoral photograph taken in 1939, showing a rural Arab family dressed in traditional garb, with orange trees in the background. In his complaint to the Knesset speaker, Eldad wrote, "Why do you want to add an artistic expression by an Israeli artist with a twisted mind and afflicted by self-hate, who is calling the Arab lie the truth and thereby rejecting our truth?"

A girl waits at Haifa dock, April 1948.Credit: Getty Images

This year, the primal fear of the Nakba spurred an "appropriate Zionist response." Since Independence Day, members of Im Tirtzu - an ultra-nationalist group - have been distributing a pamphlet called "Nakba Nonsense - The Pamphlet that Fights for the Truth." In the course of 70 pages, the authors - journalist Erel Segal and Im Tirtzu co-founder Erez Tadmor - try to persuade readers that the Arabs, who view themselves as victims of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, are actually the aggressors. It therefore follows that Israel, which is generally perceived as the aggressor, is actually the victim. In their words, the pamphlet "tries to fight the lies, and it prosecutes a war against the terrible falsehoods in whose name our enemies seek to undermine the just path of Zionism and prepare the ground for the destruction of the Jewish state." The authors refer to the succession of lies they say they are refuting as "the myth of the Nakba."

In the pamphlet's second chapter, titled "The Abandonment - Haifa as a Case in Point," the authors discuss what they call the lie of the "deliberate expulsion." Drawing on the book "Fabricating Israeli History" by Prof. Efraim Karsh, they proceed to take issue with the so-called "new historians" - academics who question the conventionally-held Arab-Israeli narrative. According to the pamphlet, these academics are out "to spread the libel that the Jewish fighting forces perpetrated a series of brutal massacres in the service of a deliberate policy of expulsion and ethnic cleansing." The authors conclude the chapter by describing the conquest of Haifa in the War of Independence as evidence that the Israeli side did not pursue any such policy and that "the Arab leadership bears responsibility for the results of the war and the refugee problem."

It is not by chance that the authors chose the example of Haifa's capture in April 1948 by the Haganah (the pre-independence army of Palestine's Jews ), to rest their case. The events in Haifa are considered perhaps the most treacherous minefield in the history of the Nakba. Nearly every historian who has researched the period, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has tried to navigate his way through this field. Few have succeeded in reaching a firm conclusion without stumbling on one of the mines of mistaken interpretation. Many scholars have claimed that their predecessors failed to make it through. Despite a plethora of testimonies, documents and studies, the historical controversy has yet to be decided, and in the public debate each side often resorts to the case of Haifa to strengthen its case.

The facts and testimonies that Segal and Tadmor cite in their pamphlet are not new, nor do they contradict facts and data that have appeared in earlier works on the subject. But in the best tradition of political pamphleteering, they are presented selectively and one-sidedly, in order to support a predetermined narrative. Neither the pamphlet nor, still less, the chapter on Haifa, offer a true discussion or a balanced presentation of facts.

Segal and Tadmor traverse the Haifa Nakba minefield by means of leaps and bounds, refraining from dealing with facts or testimonies that might undermine the thesis they are propounding. In an era dominated by "narratives," in which "truth" is considered relative, the method used by the authors to choose their sources might even be considered legitimate; in the Israel of 2011, it is certainly also legal.

"Even though the pamphlet is not an academic study, I consulted with many academics while working on it," Tadmor says, in a telephone interview. "I chose to present the findings of Prof. Karsh and of other historians, such as Benny Morris, because they seemed to me to be reliable." Segal too maintains that the pamphlet "does not purport to be an academic study. Each side is able to choose the studies it finds suitable. In the same way that Palestinian propaganda chooses to relate certain things it finds convenient, we chose to tell our truth. I accept Prof. Karsh's study as scientific and reliable."

The flight from Haifa

History cannot be treated as propaganda in the old-timer's club in Haifa's Wadi Nisnas neighborhood. For the dozens of local Arab residents who visit the club every day, the Nakba is a chapter in their personal biography. One of them remembers how Jewish troops expelled his neighbors at gunpoint; another describes how Haganah snipers shot at his father as he returned home from work; a third recalls the small bundle he carried while fleeing. All of them remember the fear they felt as helpless civilians, caught in the storm of war.

The stories they tell are on a minor scale. They describe small moments: Looks they encountered, experiences of defeat, humiliation and, occasionally, arbitrary abuse by Haganah fighters. Some of them spice their personal tragedy with humor, though the sadness in their eyes remains constant. The years have blunted the memory of all of them. In some cases the stories get mixed up and details from later periods are added.

By most estimates, 62,500 Arabs called Haifa their home before the War of Independence. Under the United Nations partition plan, they were to live in a mixed city as citizens of the Jewish state after the expiry of the British Mandate. However, rising tensions between the sides and a series of mutual acts of hostility prompted many Arabs to leave the city in the weeks before the British departed. Most of the leavers were affluent and many of them were Christians who were given aid and shelter by churches in the Galilee. By mid-April 1948, fewer than 20,000 Arabs remained in the city.

Like the Jewish residents, they too waited to see how things would develop. In the meantime they tried to maintain as normal a life as possible amid the violence. "Life in the city became intolerable at that time," recalls Jamal Jaris, 90, in the Wadi Nisnas club, as he tries to explain why he fled the city a few days before it fell to the Jewish forces. "There were shots and bombs every day. No distinction was made between civilians and armed combatants. In certain parts of the city, especially in the Arab neighborhoods, everyone who walked in the street was exposed to snipers and machine guns."

On April 21, the commander of the British forces in Haifa informed both sides that his troops were evacuating the city immediately, apart from the harbor and a few key roads that the army would need during the organized withdrawal in mid-May. That same night the Haganah launched an attack on the Arab neighborhoods. The Carmeli Brigade, which spearheaded the assault, enjoyed numerical and topographical superiority. Its troops were also better trained and better equipped and fought in a far more organized manner than the Arab forces. In less than a day, all of Haifa fell to the Haganah.

Indiscriminate shooting

It was a short battle and a crushing victory, in which the Jewish side sustained relatively few casualties. The Arabs put up only minor resistance. Haganah troops who searched the Arab neighborhoods after the battle were surprised to find so few weapons. A week later, the Haganah journal Ma'arakhot (Campaigns ) wrote, "The battle of Haifa will perhaps not be counted among the great city battles in military history."

However, the Jewish victory spurred the panicky flight of most of the city's remaining residents. "Haifa, third largest city of Palestine and evacuation port of the British Army, became a virtual Jewish stronghold tonight after a series of savage thrusts by Haganah, the Jewish army, won control of most of the city's Arab areas and provoked a mass Arab exodus by sea," the New York Herald Tribune reported. On April 23 the New York Times wrote: "Tens of thousands of Arab men, women and children fled toward the eastern outskirts of the city in cars, trucks, carts and afoot, in a desperate attempt to reach Arab territory until the Jews captured Rushmiya Bridge toward Samaria and Northern Palestine and cut them off. Thousands rushed every available craft, even rowboats, along the waterfront, to escape by sea toward Acre."

The Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv wrote, "British harbor officials estimate that 12,000 to 14,000 Arabs left by sea and 2,000 to 4,000 by land. The Jewish and Arab numbers contradict one another. The Jews are trying to reduce the scale of the exodus. An official Jewish spokesman said that no more than 5,000 Arabs left. However, Arab leaders said that at least 20,000 left."

"We were afraid." That is the sole explanation - offered by another frequenter of the old-timers' club, 85-year-old Chana Mur - for the flight of the city's Arab residents. On the day the city was conquered, he says, he went to work as usual in the port's customs division: "For hours we heard explosions and gunfire from the direction of the Arab neighborhoods. The Jews shot at the houses and sniped at people in the streets. There was a huge panic. I remember people saying they felt the world was turning upside down. The port remained the only safe place for Arabs. They were protected there by the British soldiers. Whoever was able collected a few things in a blanket or a knapsack and fled to the port. Our feeling was that we were running for our lives.

"I remember a young couple who, in the panic of fleeing, forgot their little daughter at home," Mur continues. "They probably took some other bundle instead of her. She was found by the neighbor on the second floor. He heard her crying when he fled and took her with his family. Her parents eventually reached a refugee camp in Lebanon, and the girl was raised at [the neighbor's] home in Acre. I later met her; she now lives in the village of Kababir in Haifa."

Several history books published in Israel in recent years describe the flight of thousands of Haifa Arabs to the port on the day of the city's conquest, and their departure by sea to Acre and Lebanon. The event assumes greater import and significance in the newspapers of the time and in various archives. Segal and Tadmor write: "On April 22, as Haganah forces moved toward the market, a mass flight of thousands was recorded." They do not say what happened in the market, preferring instead to draw on Prof. Karsh's thesis. "The Arab leadership," they write, "urged the members of their nation to evacuate their homes, whether to clear the territory for the Arab forces or for propaganda purposes aimed at negating the legitimacy of the Jewish state."

Another source the authors cite for their chapter conclusions is the book by historian Benny Morris, "1948," (published in English in 2008 and two years later in Hebrew ). They write that Morris used to be a new historian "until he recanted," and add that he is the most respected and serious member of the group. Morris has written about the Haifa conquest and mentioned the flight of the Arab residents to the port in several studies. In "1948," he describes the events of April 22 as follows: "The constant mortar and machine gun fire, as well as the collapse of the militias and local government and the Haganah's conquests, precipitated mass flight toward the British-held port area. By 1:00 P.M. some 6,000 people had reportedly passed through the harbor and boarded boats for Acre and points north."

Morris sums up the reasons for the flight with these words: "The majority had left for a variety of reasons, the main one being the shock of battle (especially the Haganah mortaring of the Lower City ) and Jewish conquest and the prospect of life as a minority under Jewish rule." However, in his first book, "The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem" (first English-language edition, 1987 ), which was written well before his "recantation," Morris described the course of events in greater detail and shed a different light on them, quoting from a book by an Israeli historian: "The three-inch mortars 'opened up on the market square [where there was] a great crowd ... a great panic took hold. The multitude burst into the port, pushed aside the policemen, stormed the boats and began fleeing the town.'"

But this, too, is very much a partial description. Morris actually quotes from a book by Zadok Eshel, "Haganah Battles in Haifa," published in 1978 (in Hebrew ) by the Defense Ministry. Eshel was a member of the Haganah and offers first-hand descriptions of many of the unfolding events in Haifa. Here is his account of the events of April 22 (note the words which Morris omitted and replaced by an ellipsis ): "Early in the morning, Maxy Cohen informed the brigade's headquarters that the Arabs were using a loudspeaker and calling on everyone to gather in the market square, 'because the Jews have conquered Stanton Street and are continuing to make their way downtown.' Upon receiving the report, an order was given to the commander of the auxiliary weapons company, Ehud Almog, to make use of the three-inch mortars, which were situated next to Rothschild Hospital, and they opened up on the market square [where there was] a great crowd. When the shelling started and shells fell into it [the crowd], a great panic took hold. The multitude burst into the port, pushed aside the policemen, stormed the boats and began fleeing the town. Throughout the day the mortars continued to shell the city alternately, and the panic that seized the enemy became a rout."

"That is a mistake," retorts Ehud Almog, who was the commander of the auxiliary unit in the Carmeli Brigade's 22nd Battalion. "It was not a three-inch mortar. They were Davidka shells" - referring to homemade shells which were renowned for the loud noise they made. Of the other details he says, "The historical description is correct. Absolutely true. I remember the events vividly. We were ordered to shell the market when there was a large crowd there. There were tremendous noises of explosions which were heard across 200 meters." Almog adds that the shelling, which took place in the early afternoon, was short "but very effective."

Like Eshel, Almog also says the mortars fired by his unit spurred a flight of civilians to the port. Although not an eyewitness to the flight, officers from Shai (the Haganah's intelligence unit ) who were stationed near the port's gates gave him a real-time account of events. Another testimony (quoted by Morris in "The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem" ) comes from a British soldier who was stationed in the port: "During the morning they [the Haganah] were continually shooting down on all Arabs who moved both in Wadi Nisnas and in the Old City. This included completely indiscriminate and revolting machine gun fire and sniping on women and children - attempting to get out of Haifa through the gates into the docks. There was considerable congestion outside the East Gate [of the port] of hysterical and terrified Arab women and children and old people on whom the Jews opened up mercilessly with fire." (A truncated version of this quote also appears in "1948" - reduced to "completely indiscriminate and revolting ... fire," the ellipsis replacing the words "machine gun." )

Beyond the moral issues that arise from firing into a crowded market, the testimony of Zadok Eshel, which is backed up by that of Ehud Almog, indicates that the attack was carried out by order of senior Haganah officers. How senior they were is not known. Not all the Israel Defense Forces archival material about this period is accessible to the public. It is therefore impossible to determine whether the shelling was part of a general policy aimed at expelling the Arabs, or one of several similar instances that were documented during the war.

Bodies in the streets

The shelling took place as Arab representatives were holding negotiations with Haifa's Jewish leaders on the terms for a ceasefire. Most of the testimonies from the time suggest that the city's mayor, Shabtai Levy, believed in coexistence. Many studies note that he urged the Arabs to capitulate and remain in the city. At certain moments this actually seemed possible. A correspondent for United Press Associations (UP) reported that, even though nothing official had been said, it appeared certain that the conditions laid down by the Jews had been accepted by the Arabs, at least in the main. Reportedly, the Arab Legion and the Iraqi volunteers had already begun to leave the city.

However, Haganah headquarters operated independently; even as senior officers kept abreast of the progress of the ceasefire talks, their forces continued to fire on Arab neighborhoods. A cable from Carmeli Brigade to Haganah headquarters at 2:30 P.M. on the day of the battle stated, "Arabs in Haifa approached the general, the mayor, seeking a mediator between them and the Haganah, to accept the ceasefire terms." A copy of the agreement in English, as drawn up by the Haganah, was appended to the cable. The cable concluded, "Panic, flight among the Arabs. Resistance very feeble."

The Haganah mortars harassed the fleeing Arabs. According to the Jewish force's daily events sheet, the duty officer announced at 2:40 P.M.: "Three shells landed next to the gate of Port No.3. The shells are coming from the direction of the city's Hadar Carmel section [i.e. from higher ground, on Mount Carmel]. Similar case occurred this morning and the [British] Army is threatening to attack Hadar with artillery if this does not stop." In other cases, the British Army opened fire and scored hits on Haganah soldiers who had shot at Arab civilians.

At 3 P.M. the text of the agreement was resent, with several corrections inserted by the English general. Moshe Carmel, the brigade commander, reported to Haganah headquarters, "A joint meeting of Jews, English and Arabs will be held at 4 P.M. [today] to discuss the terms. We can assume that the Arabs will not accept them, because technically there is no possibility of an organized surrender." Haganah headquarters responded, "As long as it is not certain the terms will be met, you must go on attacking." The message concluded: "Be especially careful of a trap, in case the negotiations are [intended] to gain time."

At 4 P.M., under the mediation of British officers, the two sides began to discuss the surrender and ceasefire terms. The Arabs requested more time for consultations. The sides met again at 7:15 P.M. The Haganah report stated, "The Arabs claimed they cannot fulfill the terms. Because the Arabs will not obey them [sic], they prefer to evacuate the city of Haifa completely of its Arab residents." A Haganah intelligence report from the day of the battle relates, "There are signs that the Arab command in the city is falling apart. Arab headquarters have been abandoned. No one is answering the phone and there are reports that the commanders and their staff have abandoned Haifa. Exact numbers of enemy losses are unknown. The Arab hospitals are known to be filled with dead and wounded. Bodies of the dead lie in the streets, along with the wounded, and are not being collected because of disorganization and lack of hygienic means. There is great panic among the Arabs. They are waiting for an armistice to be signed and for the Jews to take over as a good development which will be their salvation. In the meantime, a report was received from an Arab source that they have accepted our armistice terms."

Silence of the historians

In the Palestinians' consciousness, the shelling of the crowded market in Haifa occupies a significant place in the history of the Nakba in the city. Sitting in the old-timers' club in Wadi Nisnas, Awda al-Shehab, 87, says the shelling "had a great influence on the flight to the port. People gathered in the market to discuss the situation and the terms being proposed for a ceasefire. Historians tell us now that the [Jewish] mayor wanted the Arabs to stay and that after the war the Haganah did all it could to prevent the departure, but acts are far more weighty than words. And when the mortar shells landed in the heart of the market, the Arabs took this as the Jewish response to the ceasefire proposal."

Similar claims were made 63 years ago. According to a UP report which appeared in Davar (the newspaper of the Histadrut labor federation ), the Arabs maintained that Jews had "violated the armistice in Haifa" and had created a "new wave of panic among thousands of Arabs" who were rushing to leave the city. Privately, the report continued, Jews admitted that during the battle and for some time afterward people lost their heads and there was some looting and shooting at civilians.

Over the years, some Israeli researchers tried to play down the significance of the shelling of the market. In his 2006 book "Palestine 1948: War, Escape and the Emergence of the Palestinian Refugee Problem," Prof. Yoav Gelber writes, "After several mortar shells fell in the vicinity of the market, where large numbers of Arabs had gathered, masses of people stormed the port, driven by fear of the gunfire and shelling." However, Zadok Eshel says explicitly that the shells landed within the crowd. Gelber does not explain how he arrived at the conclusion that the shells struck only "the vicinity of the market."

Gelber also ignores the testimonies of dozens of wounded Arabs who remained in the market after the mass flight. Most of the Palestinian researchers estimate that "several dozen were killed." Haaretz reported after the battle that "a member of the Arab National Committee said that the Jews had killed a large number of women and children who had tried to flee to the Old City, to the British security zone in the port ... Although the Jews denied the reports of heavy losses supposedly inflicted on Arab civilians, the Haganah spokesman said, 'Even if that is what happened, we are not to blame, as we broadcast over the radio and over loudspeakers 48 hours before our attack a warning in Arabic, which we also distributed via leaflets, calling on the Arabs to evacuate the women and children and send everyone who is not from Haifa out of the city. We repeated that this would be our final warning."

"An appalling and fantastic sight," David Ben-Gurion wrote in his diary after visiting the city's abandoned Arab neighborhoods on May 1. "A dead city, a carcass city ... without a living soul, apart from stray cats." The empty streets were strewn with dozens of bodies of Arab civilians. Red Crescent units that collected them initially estimated their number at more than 150; three days later, they revised the estimate downward to 80 Arabs who were killed in the battles and several hundred wounded. According to the Red Crescent, only six of those killed were combatants and the majority of the bodies were of women and children.

Many bodies remained in the area of the shelled market. A Haganah intelligence report relates that at least ten bodies were found in the Ajami Cafe there. They were removed only after all the unexploded shells in the area were neutralized. The report added: "It is hard to know the number of losses as a result of the explosion on Nazareth Street in the house of Abu Madi, as not all the bodies have as yet been removed from the rubble. The house was packed with families who moved there from outlying areas."

A few dozen Arab refugees remained in the port, waiting on the docks for boats to rescue them, fearful of returning to their homes. "The scenes in the port were pitiful," Davar reported. "Women and children were without food and water for the past two days. The British say they cannot help very much, while the Arabs maintain that this is a deliberate step by the British in order to force the Arabs to return to their homes."

In our conversation, the Arab old-timers in the Wadi Nisnas club often mention "coexistence" and "a state for two nations." They take great pride in the deep, friendly relations they maintain with their Jewish neighbors; a few of them say they have been involved over the years in attempts to draw Jews and Arabs closer together. From their viewpoint, the Nakba is a historical fact which needs no confirmation or legislation. Nor, in their view, need it frighten or threaten the Jewish presence in the country. As Awda al-Shehab says, "Only after we recognize mutually the suffering that was endured by the two peoples will we be able to create a common future. That is the true key to coexistence. Without it, each side will continue to live in the past."

When Golda cried

The commander of the Haganah in Haifa, Yaakov Lubliani, gave the following account of a visit to the city by Golda Meir, who at the time was a senior official in the Jewish Agencys Political Department: I suggested to her that we visit the Old City. She told me she did not want to see the ruins and the desolation. She wanted to visit an area where there were still Arabs. I took her to the Wadi Nisnas neighborhood. We came to Muchlis Street. We walked up some stairs. The apartments on the first two floors were abandoned. When we reached the third floor, an old Arab woman approached us, carrying some bundles. When she saw Golda she stopped and burst into tears. Golda stopped, looked at her, and tears streamed down her face. The two women stood there and cried. I looked at the weeping Golda and was angry at her. Although I did not dare chastise her, inwardly I thought: We are enthusiastic and happy because we have the upper hand, we eradicated the Arabs and you can walk around the city without thinking about gunfire and attacks, and she stands there, crying. From Haganah Battles in Haifa (1978) by Zadok Eshel

The importance of Haifa

On the day of Haifas conquest, the editor-in-chief of the Maariv newspaper, Dr. Ezriel Carlebach, published an article explaining the citys importance: At this moment we are fighting for Haifa, which means we are fighting for the state. If we control Tel Aviv and the cities of the coastal plain we will still be only a canton, an autonomous area, a ghetto. If Haifa is ours, we will be a state.

Everyone knows this. [Jordanian King] Abdullah knows that if Haifa is in our hands, he and Iraq have no outlet to the sea, and everything he will conquer from the western part of the land will be only an adjunct to the desert, not a gateway to the world. The English also know that if Haifa is in our hands, both the oil magnates and the naval strategists, both Whitehall and Wall Street and also Washington will have to take us into account, too, and not only the Arab oil kings. If Haifa is ours, the entire political and military picture will change. The whole fate of our state now hangs in the balance. Taken from Maariv, April 22, 1948

A positive byproduct

A post-battle article in Davar headlined The meaning of the victory in Haifa stated: We must also emphasize a byproduct. The thousands of Arab refugees who will arrive in a panicky flight in the Arab towns and villages are also a positive military element for us. Let us remember the millions of refugees in France and Poland during the German blitz, who blocked the advance of the army and sowed the seeds of defeatism and panic among their people and caused their everlasting defeat.
Article in Davar, April 25, 1948

The Arabs dilemma

Two Haganah intelligence reports about the situation in Haifas Arab neighborhoods were drawn up a week after the citys conquest. An excerpt from the first report said: Spoke today with a number of Muslims and Christians who remained in the city. They are extremely worried about May 15. On the one hand, they do not believe in the possibilities of an invasion of an Arab army from the neighboring countries; on the other hand, they are apprehensive that in the event of an invasion they will be in dire straits, as they have been informed that everyone who did not leave Haifa is viewed as a traitor and as having ties with the Jews. The situation has reached such a pitch that many who had thought to stay are now planning to leave the city during the week.

The second report related: Mr. Taharuna, the director general of the Spinni Company, said that all the Arab workers had left Haifa. They did not want to go, but apparently received an order from above. The workers said they would be back in another six to eight weeks. Elsewhere, the report states: The Arabs now in Haifa are desperate and do not know what to do to go or stay? Most of those who are here are waiting to get their wages from the [British] government and then to leave, as every Arab who remains in Haifa is considered by the public to be a traitor to his people.



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