Arab refugees stream from Palestine on the Lebanon Road, Nov. 4, 1948. These are Arab villagers who fled from their homes during the recent fighting in Galilee between Israel and Arab troops. AP/Jim Pringle
'A Story of Survival and Rebirth'

The Palestinians Who Didn't Flee During the Nakba

Historian Adel Manna tells the story of the 120,000 Palestinians who remained in Israel in 1948 while 750,000 were driven out

When he was in the fourth grade in elementary school in the Arab town of Majd al-Krum in Upper Galilee, Adel Manna took part in the preparations to celebrate Israel’s 10th Independence Day. At home, he told his father, Hussein, about how thrilled he was to be in a play about the achievements of the Zionist movement and the young state. His father’s face clouded over. Sitting Adel, his firstborn child, by his side, he explained with much forbearance why the event was not a cause for celebration for the Arabs, rather a day of grief and trauma. “It is not a day of istiqlal [independence] but of istakhlal [conquest, occupation],” he said.

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“My father told me about the murders that Israel Defense Forces soldiers committed in Majd al-Krum in November 1948, and that months after the end of the war, hundreds of residents were expelled, including our family,” Manna tells me during an interview in Jerusalem. In January 1949, his family crossed into Jordan and afterward went on to Ein al-Hilweh refugee camp in southern Lebanon.

Sixty years have passed since Manna grasped the difference between those two Arabic words. The circumstances of his family’s exile and subsequent return to the ancestral home have haunted him all his life. Now, following a difficult gestation, those experiences have produced a groundbreaking historical study, “Nakba and Survival: The Story of the Palestinians Who Remained in Haifa and the Galilee, 1948-1956,” which first came out in Arabic and has recently been published in Hebrew. The term Nakba, or “catastrophe,” is used to describe Israel’s War of Independence, when hundreds of thousands of Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes. In the Hebrew version of his book Manna uses the Hebrew word sordim for survivors, i.e., those who remained (as opposed to the term nitzolim, connoting Holocaust survivors, which he says has in essence been appropriated by the Jews).

Emil Salman

I begin our conversation by asking Manna when he arrived at the decision that the book’s protagonists would be those who survived/remained after the events of 1948-49.

“Survival is strength,” he replies. “It is the ability to confront a disaster, such as an earthquake, and to hold on and rescue your family and property. That is what happened to the Arabs in Israel, and that disaster did not end in 1948 but went on at least until 1956. The Palestinians became a minority ruled by the Jews, with whose language and laws they were not familiar. Formally they were citizens, but effectively they were under occupation. Their rights were trampled, their property was expropriated and plundered, they could not leave their village without a permit, and so on. One needs strength, and above all strategies, to survive. I call it the strength of the defeated: not to yield to despair, and to ensure that your family remains alive. [Israeli] historian Benny Morris and others like him hate my book, because I am taking the story from them and brazenly also claiming that the Palestinians survived, even though after World War II and the Holocaust, the Jews have a monopoly on the word ‘survival.’”

Aren’t you actually replacing the [Arabic] term summud – steadfastness – with [the Hebrew] hisardut, or survival?

“In the Arabic version of the book, I use the word bakaa, which means remaining alive. The Palestinians did not face extinction in the 1948 Nakba, as I emphasize in the book. Not everyone managed to come through and rehabilitate his life; some despaired and left. Families split apart and did not see one another for years. Some Palestinians preferred to remain in the homeland under military rule and to bend in order to survive, despite their private tragedy, which was also a national and political tragedy.

“This is also a story of rebirth. The term summud is from the 1980s, and connotes a political and ideological approach: namely, I must hold fast to the land. After the West Bank Palestinians despaired of the possibility of liberating Palestine, they spoke of a commitment to cling steadfastly to the territories that were occupied in 1967.”

When did the Palestinians in Israel grasp that it was incumbent on them to survive?

“At the start of the war in 1948, many fled for their lives, believing they would soon return. But in short order they understood that central Galilee and western Galilee, which in the United Nations partition plan were supposed to be part of the Arab state, would be lost. When you realize that those who left will not be able to return, and hear that the conditions in the refugee camps in Lebanon are dire, you realize that abandonment is not an option.

“The residents of the Arab city of Nazareth and its 20 surrounding villages were not expelled in Operation Hiram [in October 1948, aimed at taking control of the Upper Galilee from the Arab Liberation Army]. When the Israel Defense Forces reached locales such as Bana, Deir al-Assad, Nahaf and others” as part of the operation, Manna continues, “the soldiers entered the villages, put the men in groups, shot a few and ordered everyone: ‘Yallah, to Lebanon!’ The villagers ostensibly left and started to walk northward. The soldiers did not go with them. Often, after going five or 10 kilometers, and without a soldier in sight, they returned and found people to liaise with the Israeli commanders. People started to develop survival skills.”

The book, then, focuses on the Palestinians who were not expelled, and Manna focuses on groups such as the Druze, who joined the IDF as early as June 1948, and others such as the Circassians and some of the Bedouin villages in Galilee. In the main, Manna deals with Nazareth and many of its surrounding villages, which emerged almost unscathed from the Nakba in the wake of an Israeli decision of July 1948. The author analyzes the circumstances that allowed about 100,000 Palestinians to remain in Galilee and Haifa, whereas another 750,000 were dislocated and fled.

Christians vs. Muslims

“In 1948,” he says, “the high-ranking political decision makers issued explicit directives to IDF officers not to harm or expel the residents of Nazareth and many villages around it. Israel’s policy in regard to the Christians was more moderate than toward Muslims. There is the well-known case of the Christian village of Ilabun, where a massacre was perpetrated and the villagers were expelled to southern Lebanon – but, in a unique instance, those refugees were allowed to return to their homes and their land. In contrast, the Muslims in Galilee were victims of ethnic cleansing.”


On what basis do you maintain that most of the deportees were Muslims?

“If we focus on Galilee, the fact is that many Christians from Acre and Haifa were also expelled. This contradicts the account of Israeli historians to the effect that Haifa mayor Shabtai Levy drew up an emotional leaflet, urging the Arab residents not to leave the city where they had lived for so many years. I interviewed Haifa residents – members of the Communist Party who are not nationalists and certainly do not hate Israel. Not one of them ever heard of that leaflet, and on the day it was supposedly distributed, the Haganah [pre-IDF paramilitary organization] shelled the Arab neighborhoods from Mount Carmel. In Haifa there was no expulsion in the sense of people being forced onto trucks at gunpoint. But when entire neighborhoods were shelled, people rushed to the port. The same pattern was repeated in Acre and Jaffa.”

Did Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion pursue a policy or issue an order aimed at getting rid of the Muslims?

“I am not looking for a directive or a document bearing Ben-Gurion’s signature. He addressed the subject often, and I quote his statements in the book. For example, on September 26, 1948, he declared, ‘Only one task remains for the Arabs in the Land of Israel: to flee.’ The Israeli leadership understood and also concurred that, for the Jewish state, the fewer Arabs the better. The subject was mooted already in the late 1930s. Yosef Weitz, a senior official of the Jewish National Fund, supported extensive expulsion of Arabs and advocated a population transfer. The IDF commanders at different levels knew what the leadership wanted and acted accordingly. Massacres were not perpetrated everywhere. When you shell a village or a city neighborhood, the residents flee. In the first half of 1948, at least, they believed they would be able to return. When the fighting in Haifa ended, many residents tried to return from Acre in boats, but the Haganah blocked them.”

Does your study confirm, or prove, that ethnic cleansing took place?

“The book’s goal is not to prove whether ethnic cleansing occurred. My disagreement with [the review of my book in Haaretz by] Benny Morris did not revolve around the question of ‘whether ethnic cleansing took place or not,’ but deals with the question of whether the leadership did or did not make a decision in a particular meeting to implement a policy of ethnic cleansing.” In this connection, Manna quotes Daniel Blatman’s response (Haaretz, Aug. 4) to a review of his book by Morris (Haaretz, July 29). One might think from Morris’ book, Blatman noted, that “when Ratko Mladic decided to slaughter over 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica in 1995, he made his orders public.”

Indeed, Manna points out, “The first historian who uncovered the fact that ethnic cleansing occurred and that there were also cases of massacre, rape and expulsion was Benny Morris. He reached the conclusion that there was no [official] policy, in light of the fact that no authoritative archival documentation exists. In one village, they decided a certain way and in another, differently. Still, there is a pattern: The soldiers perpetrated another massacre and carried out another expulsion, and another massacre and another expulsion, and no one was brought to trial. If there was no policy, why weren’t these war criminals tried?”

A case in point: the atrocities that were carried out in the village of Safsaf, northwest of Safed, on October 30, 1948, which included murder, expulsion and rape. Manna writes that a member of his wife’s family was raped and murdered in cold blood by IDF soldiers: His wife, Aziza, is named for the rape victim. He heard the account nine years ago from a woman named Maryam Halihal, now 80, who was 10 at the time of the events.

Rape is considered a dishonoring of the family in Arab society. Did you have qualms about publishing the story and the identity of the victims?

“Rape generates deep shame in the victim’s family. Aziza Sharaida is no longer alive – why make her harsh story public and shame her family? When I met the woman who would become my wife, she told me that she was named for a cousin, Aziza Sharaida, without elaborating. As part of my research, I interviewed members of my wife’s family, and Maryam Halihal decided to talk about the incident, over her husband’s angry objections.

Emil Salman

“The soldiers entered the family’s house and tried to rape Aziza Sharaida in front of her husband and children. She resisted. The soldiers threatened to kill her 17-year-old, firstborn son if she went on resisting. She resisted with force and they shot her son. The soldiers threatened to shoot her husband, too, but she refused to give in, and they shot and killed him. The two younger sons, who witnessed the atrocity, went into exile in Lebanon. My wife’s mother, a relative of the murdered woman, decided 63 years ago to name her daughter Aziza. As I write in the book, even though Haim Laskov [later a chief of staff] was put in charge of the interrogation of the perpetrators of the horrors in Safsaf, none of them paid the price for war crimes, which included shooting prisoners and acts of abuse and rape.”

Manna began his research in 1984. Over the years, he interviewed 120 men and women and compiled documents, diaries and letters from the period, which in some cases had been stashed away in drawers. He also drew on written Palestinian sources, which helped him confirm oral testimonies. Memoirs published in Arabic and newspaper articles form the period, in Arabic and Hebrew, contributed to the research. Manna also made use of many studies by Jewish Israeli historians. However, he says, he did not resort to the sweeping preference for Israeli archives that characterizes such historians as Benny Morris. “The blatant manner in which oral testimonies are disdained and ignored by researchers in Israel reflects a domineering attitude,” he writes in the book’s introduction.

He will not deposit the material he’s collected over the years in an Israeli archive. It will go either to Bir Zeit University, near Ramallah, or to the Beirut-based Institute for Palestine Studies. “Palestinian students can’t get to the Hebrew University [of Jerusalem],” he says.

Palestinian ‘illegals’

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