Kennedy’s insistence on right of return prompted Ben-Gurion to rewrite history: They fled ‘of their own free will’

Israel/Palestine
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Incredible piece of reporting on the Nakba at ‘Haaretz’ from Shay Hazkani, and meaningful at many levels. It shows what the scholar Victor Kattan has documented, that several US presidents were for the right of return. Kennedy wanted several hundred thousand to be allowed to return, and Israel said 20-30,000. And then US policy on the right changed under Clinton, in 1994, as Rashid Khalidi has stated. Hazkani:

Ben-Gurion appeared to have known the facts well. Even though much material about the Palestinian refugees in Israeli archives is still classified, what has been uncovered provides enough information to establish that in many cases senior commanders of the Israel Defense Forces ordered Palestinians to be expelled and their homes blown up. The Israeli military not only updated Ben-Gurion about these events but also apparently received his prior authorization, in written or oral form, notably in Lod and Ramle, and in several villages in the north. Documents available for perusal on the Israeli side do not provide an unequivocal answer to the question of whether an orderly plan to expel Palestinians existed. In fact, fierce debate on the issue continues to this day. For example, in an interview with Haaretz the historian Benny Morris argued that Ben-Gurion delineated a plan to transfer the Palestinians forcibly out of Israel, though there is no documentation that proves this incontrovertibly.

Even before the war of 1948 ended, Israeli public diplomacy sought to hide the cases in which Palestinians were expelled from their villages. In his study of the early historiography of the 1948 war, “Memory in a Book” (Hebrew), Mordechai Bar-On quotes Aharon Zisling, who would become an MK on behalf of Ahdut Ha’avoda and was the agriculture minister in Ben-Gurion’s provisional government in 1948. At the height of the expulsion of the Arabs from Lod and Ramle, Zisling wrote in the left-wing newspaper Al Hamishmar, “We did not expel Arabs from the Land of Israel … After they remained in our area of control, not one Arab was expelled by us.” In Davar, the newspaper of the ruling Mapai party, the journalist A. Ophir went one step further, explaining, “In vain did we cry out to the Arabs who were streaming across the borders: Stay here with us!”

Contemporaries who had ties to the government or the armed forces obviously knew that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians had been expelled and their return was blocked already during the war. They understood that this must be kept a closely guarded secret. In 1961, after John F. Kennedy assumed office as president of the United States, calls for the return of some of the Palestinian refugees increased. Under the guidance of the new president, the U.S. State Department tried to force Israel to allow several hundred thousand refugees to return. In 1949, Israel had agreed to consider allowing about 100,000 refugees to return, in exchange for a comprehensive peace agreement with the Arab states, but by the early 1960s that was no longer on the agenda as far as Israel was concerned. Israel was willing to discuss the return of some 20,000-30,000 refugees at most.

Under increasing pressure from Kennedy and amid preparations at the United Nations General Assembly to address the Palestinian refugee issue, Ben-Gurion convened a special meeting on the subject. Held in his office in the Kirya, the defense establishment compound in Tel Aviv, the meeting was attended by the top ranks of Mapai, including Foreign Minister Golda Meir, Agriculture Minister Moshe Dayan and Jewish Agency Chairman Moshe Sharett. Ben-Gurion was convinced that the refugee problem was primarily one of public image (hasbara). Israel, he believed, would be able to persuade the international community that the refugees had not been expelled, but had fled. “First of all, we need to tell facts, how they escaped,” he said in the meeting. “As far as I know, most of them fled before the state’s establishment, of their own free will, and contrary to what the Haganah [the pre-independence army of Palestine’s Jews] told them when it defeated them, that they could stay. After the state’s establishment [on May 15, 1948], as far as I know, only the Arabs of Ramle and Lod left their places, or were pressured to leave.”

Ben-Gurion thereby set the frame of reference for the discussion, even though some of the participants knew that his presentation was inaccurate, to say the least…

Ben-Gurion went on to explain what Israel must tell the world: “…[T]his was of their own free will, because they were told the country would soon be conquered and you will return to be its lord and masters and not just return to your homes.” In 1961, against the backdrop of what Ben-Gurion described as the need for “a serious operation, both in written form and in oral hasbara,” the Shiloah Institute was asked to collect material for the government about “the flight of the Arabs from the Land of Israel in 1948.”

Thanks to Omar Barghouti and Annie Robbins.

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