The Secret Letter Detailing Israel's Plan to Expel Arabs, 'Without Unnecessary Brutality'

Six months after the War of Independence ended, David Ben-Gurion sought to expel more than 10,000 Arabs from the north, for unspecified 'security reasons.' Why was a long-declassified letter describing that plan recently hidden again from public view?

Moshe Sharett with David Ben-Gurion, at Sde Boker.
GPO

The document reproduced here is important for three reasons. First, because of its content; second, because it's been classified; and third, because of the connection between the first reason and the second reason, which offers a lesson about the reciprocal relations between releasing historical documentation from archives and the recognition of history.

The document is a “secret” letter dated December 4, 1949, half a year after the official conclusion of the War of Independence (following the signing of the armistice agreement with Syria). Its author was Walter Eytan, the first director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, and its addressee was Moshe Sharett, the foreign minister, who was in New York at the time.

Eytan is reporting to his boss on a plan “to expel the Arab residents of a large number of places” in Galilee and elsewhere in the north of the country. He lists the villages: Fasuta, Tarshiha, Jish (where most of the uprooted inhabitants of the village of Biram had gone the year before), Hurfeish, Rihana, Majdal and Zakariya. Eytan noted that the plan called for the expulsion of more than 10,000 Arabs, most of them Christians, though some were Druze (Hurfeish) or Circassians (Rihana). The expulsion was to be carried out for “security reasons.” The deportees’ destination was not specified.

Eytan writes that David Ben-Gurion, the prime minister, had already approved the transfer of the residents “by force to other places,” but wanted the agreement of Sharett and Eliezer Kaplan, the finance minister, because the cost of the operation would be about a million Israeli pounds (including the resettlement of the uprooted).

Eytan had been briefed on the plan’s details from Zalman Lief, an expert on borders and land, who advised Ben-Gurion on these subjects. Lief noted that the scheme could be implemented “without unnecessary brutality.” Eytan emphasized to Sharett that the foreign minister’s agreement was needed for approval of the plan and added his opinion. “I expressed a sharply negative response for political reasons,” he wrote Sharett. “I thought it was right for you to know about the plan now, even if its fate will not be decided immediately.” During this period, Sharett was often deliberately left in the dark by Ben-Gurion and his colleagues.

The letter written by Walter Eytan to Moshe Sharett. Says "secret " on top.

The expulsion, of course, was not carried out, but in the years that followed a number of attempts were made to transfer tens of thousands of Christian Arabs from Galilee out of the country to Argentina and Brazil (the idea was described as a transfer by agreement, with or without the quotation marks). One of the plans was called “Operation Yohanan” (after Yohanan from Gush Halav – John of Giscala – a leader of the Jewish revolt against the Romans, in the first century C.E.), which the Israeli leadership considered briefly in 1952-1953, until it was shelved for lack of feasibility. As we know, the town of Gush Halav (Jish, in Arabic) is still intact. In the years after the war, there was a sharp dispute within the leadership concerning the “emigration” of Arabs from the country. Moshe Dayan, for example, thought that “the country should be homogeneous” and supported the removal of the Arabs by force.

We don’t know why the plan described in the letter wasn’t implemented, though it was probably due mainly to the “political reasons” Eytan mentioned in his letter. After all, the proposal entailed the expulsion of inhabitants many months after the end of the fighting. By the way, within a few years, both the Druze (1956) and the Circassians (1958) would be integrated into the Israel Defense Forces as regular conscripts. (In practice, many of them had volunteered for IDF service already during and after the 1948 war.)

The fact that Ben-Gurion insisted on Sharett’s agreement for implementing the plan reveals something of the relations between the two leaders. The political disagreement between the two top figures in Mapai, the ruling party and forerunner of Labor, went a long way toward determining the future of the two peoples that share the land and the dynamics between Israel and the Arab world.

Whereas Sharett urged that all the Arabs who remained in Israel be officially recognized and granted citizenship, with equal rights, Ben-Gurion was opposed to the idea and urged that the Arabs be viewed as a potential fifth column; anyone who thought otherwise was simply naive, he said. This is why, among other reasons, he opposed revoking control of the military government over the Arab population in 1966, during the period of the Levi Eshkol government. He considered its existence a necessity, contrary to the opinion of Sharett and other senior figures. Sharett probably shared Eytan’s objection to the expulsion plan.

Eytan’s letter was until recently held in a file in the Israel State Archives titled “Minorities – Matters of Organization, Religion, Policy toward Minorities” (File No. 2402/29). For more than 25 years, up until about six months ago, the file had been open for public perusal. The staff of the archives would even send a scan of it via email to anyone who so requested. (In the present case, it was sent to the Akevot Institute for Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Research, whose agenda also includes removing obstacles the state places in the way of researchers who want to uncover historical documentation). But now the letter (together with an eight-page letter written by Bechor-Shalom Sheetrit, Israel’s first and last minister of minorities) has been removed from the file and is no longer accessible.

Contrary to its obligations, the archives does not explain in the file why documents have been removed from it and makes do instead with leaving a blank page on which is written only the word “classified.” Sheetrit’s censored letter mentions the Riftin report, which was the subject of an article by Ofer Aderet in Haaretz earlier this year (“Why is Israel still covering up extrajudicial executions committed by a Jewish militia in ‘48?”). Sheetrit’s letter, headed “Minorities in the State of Israel,” signals its theme. The writer warns, among other points, about “theft and plunder [of Arab property] both by the army and by civilians […] violation of surrender agreements about preserving property [and adds that] the lust for robbery has turned the heads of army personnel.”

Why were two documents suddenly censored after having been available to the public for years? Answers are not forthcoming. A few months ago, I wrote in these pages (“What is Israel hiding about its nuclear program in the ’50s?”) that in a great many cases, the state’s representatives who are in charge of releasing historical documentation (in this case, the chief press and media censor) do not distinguish between documents that may adversely affect state security and foreign policy, and those that may simply embarrass the state.

The fact that, half a year after the end of the 1948 war, Ben-Gurion considered expelling thousands of Arabs from their homes is not very flattering (the more so because they were Christian Arabs, whose welfare would probably carry more weight in world public opinion). However, whereas the study of history is amenable (to a certain degree) to an individual’s choice, the uncovering of historical documentation should not be amenable to political considerations, must not become a privilege in a democracy and must never be susceptible to considerations that are not directly related to security.