Was Israeli looting in ’48 part of a broader policy to expel Palestinians? (I)

The dark reality of the Israel’s so-called War of Independence is illuminated in a new book on the massive looting of Palestinian property then, showing the link between the plunder and Ben-Gurion’s policy driving out the Palestinian inhabitants. The book’s name makes it clear from the start that the discussion is from a misleading colonial perspective | Like the author, the reviewer, Zionist historian BENNY MORRIS in Haaretz, refers to Palestinians as Arabs.

Arab refugees during the War of Independence.
Palestinian refugees during the War of Independence | Bettmann Archive / GETTY IMAGES

“The Looting of Arab Property in the War of Independence” by Adam Raz, Carmel Publishing House, in association with the Akevot Institute for Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Research (Hebrew), 332 pages, 98 shekels

(June 3) – In his new book, historian Adam Raz deals with the Jewish looting that occurred in 1948 – but not with the collective plunder of real estate, homes and lands of Arabs, confiscated by the Israeli government during the War of Independence and afterward (also long afterward, it must be said). Raz focuses on the looting of Arab movable assets by civilians, individual soldiers, army units and institutions of the state-in-the-making and of the state itself. Various historians have previously touched on this aspect of the war, but not with this level of focus or detail.

During the war, David Ben-Gurion, the provisional prime minister, said he was surprised by two phenomena: the Arabs’ flight and the Jews’ looting. In regard to the latter, he stated at a meeting of the Central Committee of Mapai, the ruling party and forerunner of Labor, on July 24, 1948: “It turns out that most of the Jews are thieves .… People from the Jezreel Valley stole! The pioneers of the pioneers, parents of Palmach [pre-state commando force] children! And everyone took part in it.”

He could have added that Palmach personnel themselves couldn’t resist plundering, here and there. On July 14, Shmuel “Mula” Cohen, commander of the Palmach’s Yiftah Brigade, convened his battalions in the Ben Shemen Forest, castigated them for looting in the conquered city of Lod a day or two earlier (“People from our units also started to plunder and to grab the abandoned property,” he wrote years later), and forced them to hand over the stolen property to the brigade’s headquarters or to destroy it.

Among those attending the central committee meeting at which Ben-Gurion condemned the looting, there were few – among them Joseph Sprinzak and Shmuel Yavne’eli, among the founders of Mapai – who protested the expulsion of the inhabitants of Lod and Ramle (while others, including Shlomo Lavie, one of the founders of Kibbutz Ein Harod, supported the population “transfer”). Ben-Gurion dismissed the opponents of the expulsion by using a well-worn diversionary ploy, declaring that “the Arabs fled before the various places were conquered by the Jews” – while naturally forgetting to mention that the expulsion from Lod had been implemented at his inspiration if not on his orders.

None of the participants in that meeting mentioned the massacre of Lod inhabitants that was perpetrated before the expulsion. So it was regarding the massacres of Arabs that occurred throughout the war (apart from the case of Deir Yassin in April 1948, which was “credited” to the Irgun and Lehi underground organizations), from the blowing up of the Semiramis Hotel in Jerusalem in January to the acts of massacre in Dawayima, Ilabun, Safsaf, Jish and Hule in October and November. In truth, references there to expulsion were equally rare. Looting, however, was something else. From a certain moment in the war there was a kind of tacit agreement to refer to the issue, even publicly, and even, albeit not much, in the press. By denouncing the plunder, the leaders of the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine, including its supreme leader, ostensibly demonstrated their Jewish conscience and emerged “moral.”

Ben-Gurion. He also exploited the looting for his own needs, says Raz, to besmirch the Palmach and to tie the “people of Israel” to the phenomenon.
Ben-Gurion. He also exploited the looting for his own needs, says Raz, to besmirch the Palmach and to tie the “people of Israel” to the phenomenon | Fritz Cohen / GPO

But the scale of the looting of Arab property, its full depth and breadth, were not revealed in 1948 in those public and semi-public accounts and denunciations. And here lies the power of Raz’s “The Looting of Arab Property in the War of Independence.” He has previously published works on diverse subjects relating to the history of Zionism, including on Theodor Herzl, the 1956 massacre in Kafr Qasem and Israel’s nuclear policy. After reading his latest book, no one will be able to deny its main findings: that many in the Yishuv took part in the looting – for months and not only immediately after the conquest of this or that site – and that few of them were punished for it.

Up and down the country

Raz draws on a wide range of sources, including memoirs. For the most part, he relies on documents generated by the bureaucracy of the state-in-the-making and the institutions of the State of Israel stored in the Israel State Archive and in the Israel Defense Forces and Defense Establishment Archives, and he describes in great detail the history of the looting up and down the country.

In the book’s first section, Raz proceeds from town to town – both mixed and wholly Arab towns – Tiberias, Haifa, Jerusalem, Jaffa, Acre, Safed, Beisan (Beit She’an), Ramle, Lod and Be’er Sheva. He elaborates on when and how the Arab neighborhoods and homes were looted, and by whom (neighbors, civilians, police officers, soldiers, state institutions). He also devotes subsections to the plundering of Arab villages (where, for the most part, there was little to take, because of the grinding poverty that characterized them) and to the looting and/or vandalism of churches, monasteries and mosques.

The book’s second part is devoted to an analysis of the looting, which Raz links, convincingly, to Ben-Gurion’s policy, or at least desire, to be rid of the country’s Arabs. As such, the author casts deep doubt on the sincerity of the professions by the prime minister and his associates, and maintains that the majority of the Mapai leadership actually wanted the looting to take place as part of the effort to uproot the Arabs from their lands and their homes.

As for the first part of the book, which provides accounts, one by one, of the plundering in different locales, it’s worth mentioning that when the phenomenon erupted, the commanders of the Haganah – which later became the IDF – did in fact condemn it, issuing warnings and threats, at least where their troops were concerned. As early as March 10, 1948, even before the Haganah moved to the offensive in early April and began the conquest of the Arab villages and Arab urban neighborhoods, Nahum “Sergei” Sarig, commander of the Palmach’s Negev Brigade, sent this message to his battalion commanders: “I have heard about cases of the killing of Arabs by members of the Knesset [a code name for the Haganah] with the aim of stealing vehicles. Acts of this sort – killing in order to obtain property, even if the property is meant to serve the Knesset – are strictly forbidden. Killing with the aim of expropriating property is liable to corrupt our camp, contradicts the content of the campaign and besmirches the Knesset.”

Haifa, 1948.
Haifa, 1948 | Fred Chesnik / IDF and Defense Establishment Archive

In the midst of the conquests, on May 3, the head of the Haganah’s national command, Israel Galili, who was effectively Ben-Gurion’s deputy in the political leadership of the nascent army, issued a directive to the commanders of its brigades and other branches: “Expropriation of property from abandoned and conquered Arab villages for individual use is absolutely prohibited …. [Soldier!] Do not be tempted to lay your hands on them. Restrain yourself from negative, repugnant temptation. Keep your distance from the looting that corrupts the individual and the camp. Remember that you are a Hebrew defender and fighter, and you are enjoined to preserve your honor …. Remember that only a thin line separates the honor of the fighter from the shame of the looter … Violators of this order will be punished.”

However, it’s noteworthy that in that same general directive, Galili wrote that abandoned property – booty – must be transferred to the Haganah, which “shall behave with this property according to the decision of the authorized institutions and in accordance with the stipulated rules.” In other words, stealing on behalf of the nascent state institutions was permitted, perhaps even desirable. Galili’s directives were in fact distributed within the Haganah. On May 11, they appear, almost word for word, in a circular that Givati Brigade headquarters distributed to its battalions “about cases in which men behaved repugnantly with abandoned property in the conquered and deserted Arab communities .… Expropriation of property … by the individual is strictly forbidden. The booty of the campaign will be in the possession of the Haganah and not the property of individuals – also not the property of the unit.”

The Jewish forces’ behavior in churches (though not in mosques) was a particularly sensitive issue in light of the possible reactions by the powers in the West. In August 1948, the IDF chief of staff, Yaakov Dori, wrote to the commanders of the fronts: “Uncultured and irresponsible people within the ranks of the IDF plundered and desecrated Christian churches and places holy to Christians …. These acts stain the reputation of the defense army and have the potential to undermine very seriously Israel’s struggle for recognition by the nations of the world … Accordingly, you must take vigorous and firm measures to ensure that these shameful deeds are not repeated, and also [to ensure] that the perpetrators of these deeds are punished with the full rigor of the law.” To this Dori appended an “Important note: The orders re the above are to be conveyed orally (not in writing and not by [radio]).”

However, here and there during the war, the top brass also issued contrary orders. It’s known that soldiers at checkpoints at the exits from Lod in July 1948 seized money and jewelry from expelled residents who were making their way to Ramallah, which was in the hands of Jordan’s Arab Legion. On October 12, 1948, Aharon Cohen, one of the leaders of the left-wing Mapam party, wrote to Yigal Allon, the head of the Palmach – and also commander of Operation Dani, in which Lod was conquered – that soldiers of the Yiftah Brigade had been ordered “to take from the expelled Arabs every watch, piece of jewelry, or money, or valuables, so that, arriving with nothing, they will be a burden to the Arab Legion.” Cohen noted that this was testimony he’d heard from a soldier who had been in Lod. Cohen wanted to know whether such an order had in fact been issued and by whom.

Allon’s reply, if there was one, is unknown.

Troops of the nascent Israeli army in Ramle during the War of Independence.
Troops of the nascent Israeli army in Ramle during the War of Independence | Bettmann Archive / GETTY IMAGES

Tiberias first

For the most part, officials and officers condemned the looting in real time and didn’t hesitate to send explicit reports about the incidents to their superiors. Raz quotes them at length (and perhaps a bit tediously). On April 22-23, Yosef Nahmani, from the Second Aliyah (the 1904-1914 wave of Jewish immigration to Palestine) and a member of the Tiberias municipal council, wrote in his diary about the looting in his town, the first town to suffer that fate in 1948: “Dozens upon dozens in groups, the Jews walked about and robbed the Arabs’ homes and shops …. The Haganah was unable to bring the mob under control after they themselves showed a bad example and took part in the robbery …. The special police officers who were appointed to guard the property turned a blind eye, and it’s said that they also received hush money. Old people and women, without difference of age and status, religious people, everyone took part in the robbery. I feel shame and disgrace, I feel like I want to spit on the city and leave it …. This will rebound on us and on the education of the youth and the children.” (There are several mistakes in the transcription of this text in the book; Raz also writes that Nahmani was referring here to the events in Haifa, which is incorrect.)

In regard to what was happening in Haifa, Ben-Gurion wrote in his diary on May 1 (he wrote these passages with a view to future historians): “There were cases in which looted objects were found in the possession of members of the Haganah, including commanders.” In Haifa civilians and soldiers raided homes whose owners were still in them, and stole property or demanded payment in return for not taking things. Apartments and houses whose occupants had left were simply seized by “invaders” (civilians and soldiers). Yosef Kushnir, director of the department in the municipal office that supervised the Arab property in the city, resigned in the wake of the lawlessness and plunder, and the inaction of the authorities.

It is not by chance that there are robberies and expulsions in this way – there are undeclared but very effective intentions that no Arabs should remain in the State of Israel.

Eliezer Bauer

In Jerusalem, Moshe Salomon, commander of a company in the Etzioni Brigade’s Moriah Battalion, wrote in his diary on May 7 about looting in the Katamon neighborhood, whose residents were middle-class Arabs: “Everyone was swept up, privates and officers alike …. The greed for property encompassed everyone. Every home was scoured and searched, and people found in some cases produce, in others valuable objects. This rapaciousness attacked me as well and I could almost not hold myself back …. It’s hard to imagine the great riches that were found in all the homes …. I got control of myself in time and shackled my desire …. The battalion commander, his deputy, they all failed in this regard.”

In some cases quarrels broke out between looters over one item or another, according to a witness named Hagit Shlonsky: “I was looking out from the window of our apartment and I saw dozens of people taking away booty .… This went on for days, not only soldiers, also civilians. They looted like crazy.”

The moral breakdown also led to Jews looting the homes of other Jews. In June, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, afterward Israel’s second president, wrote Ben-Gurion: “I cannot remain silent about the robbery, both [that which is] organized by groups and [that] unorganized by individuals. This robbery has become a general [phenomenon], and not only from Arab homes but also in the Jewish neighborhood of Talpiot [a Jerusalem border neighborhood from which Jews had fled] …. The booty is varied: refrigerators and beds, clocks and books, undergarments and clothes. A market already exists for selling these items.” Also looted were apartments of Jews on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem who were wounded by the detonation of car bombs by Arabs; and Rabbi Moshe Yekutiel Alpert complained about property “that was stolen by our brothers the people of Israel, and especially by members of the Oriental [Mizrahi] communities.” What the Arabs didn’t destroy, “the Freinkelech [derogatory term for Mizrahim] finished off.”

Similar scenes were repeated in Jaffa, which fell to the Jews in mid-May. Irgun personnel who entered the city committed “wholesale robbery,” according to journalist Jon Kimche. And what wasn’t stolen was smashed to pieces: “windows and pianos, ornaments and chandeliers were shattered in a frenzy of destruction.” Haganah and Palmach forces also “joined in.”

Here and there attempts were made to restrain the looters. A police or Haganah officer drew up a report to this effect on May 20 in Jaffa: “We found a large crowd of women, children and men who looted everything they could lay their hands on: chairs, cupboards and other furniture, household and kitchen utensils, sheets, pillows, bedding …. I organized my men in four squads …. In many cases we had to use force …. We were compelled to throw stun grenades …. The people [who were caught] … had to be released, as we did not receive orders about what to do with them.”

For his part, Yitzhak Chizik, the military governor of Jaffa, resigned at the end of July because of the authorities’ lack of help in stamping out the plunder. In mid-July, he wrote that since the end of May “around 5,000 trucks carrying 20,000 tons of goods were taken out” of the city, and that in most cases these were expropriations by state institutions. The private looting and theft persisted as well in the months that followed. In September, Meir Laniado, Chizik’s successor, complained that soldiers from the Kiryati Brigade had broken into the homes of Arabs, wounded the occupants and stole carpets, clothing, radios, clocks and more. “No results were achieved [in regard to returning property or trying looters],” he wrote to the minority affairs minister, Bechor-Shalom Sheetrit.

Fingers wrenched off statues

Vandalism accompanied the looting. Laniado, for one, reported the destruction of cemeteries in Jaffa by soldiers: “I must state regretfully that awful deeds were committed. Many headstones were broken, the crucifixes … were shattered by direct shooting, valuable marble sculptures from Italy were vandalized horrifically.” Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett told a meeting of the Mapai secretariat and parliamentary faction in the Knesset on December 31, 1949, that “soldiers [in various regions] turned places of prayer into sites of filth, into latrines and covered the floor with droppings …. Fingers were wrenched from sculptures in order to steal a ring, precious stones and gems were stolen from monasteries … [use of] ritual articles as material for heating purposes.”

Raz studied numerous files kept by the IDF military advocate general’s office and the police: Few of the looters were placed on trial, of those, only a small number were punished. That was apparently how the winds blew from above.

Based on remarks by Agriculture Minister Aharon Cisling, Minority Affairs Minister Sheetrit, Mapam leader Yaakov Hazan and others from the center-left (even though almost none uttered the guilty person’s name explicitly), Raz asserts that the source of the evil winds was Ben-Gurion himself. This was true, he writes, in terms of the expulsion of Arabs and also of the overall means taken to prevent the return of those who had become refugees. Those measures included the demolition of villages, settling Jews in homes that were evacuated, mainly in the cities, destruction of the Arabs’ crops – or, alternatively, dividing the abandoned lands among Jewish communities and preventing the return of refugees across cease-fire lines by shooting at them and planting land mines.

Moshe Sharett.
Moshe Sharett | GPO

Sprinzak stated (in a meeting of the Histadrut labor federation executive on July 14, just after the Lod-Ramle expulsion): “For weeks and months, things have been happening in a stychic [disorganized] way (we’ll use that word for the sake of politeness), facts are being created …. It’s the same with the robbery, looting and behavior of the Jewish occupation forces.”

At that meeting, Eliezer Bauer (Be’eri), of Mapam, drew a direct connection between expulsion and plundering: “It is not by chance that there are robberies and expulsions in this way – there are undeclared but very effective intentions that no Arabs should remain in the State of Israel. Accordingly, the robbery is not being encouraged – but nothing is being done to prevent it. Things are being done in a manner that is tantamount to depriving the Arabs of their economic basis.”

Had Ben-Gurion so wished, the looting could have been halted. Raz draws here on the example of Nazareth, which was conquered in mid-July. There Ben-Gurion effectively prevented the expulsion of the population (though such a move was being promoted by officers from Northern Front HQ), and also issued an order to prevent looting in the city, and so it was. However, Raz goes farther, arguing that Ben-Gurion not only encouraged the robbery and plunder as part of a policy to rid the country of its Arab residents, but that he exploited the looting for his own needs in two ways: to besmirch the Palmach, which was identified with Mapam, Mapai’s rival on the left (Ben-Gurion, Raz shows, incessantly pointed to incidents of theft and plunder in which Palmach personnel were involved), and, more importantly, to tie the “people of Israel” to the phenomenon and thereby render it an “accomplice to the crime” and a partner to the policy of uprooting the Arabs from the country. At the practical level, this partnership was translated into public support for the government’s policy of preventing the displaced from returning to their homes.

This connection is found in documentation (which does not appear in Raz’s book) from the beginning of June 1948. A delegation of Jewish dignitaries from Safed – which a month earlier had been conquered by the Haganah and emptied of its Arab population – arrived in Tel Aviv. The group, which met with Shlomo Kaddar, the “chief aide” to the cabinet secretary, had one central request: not to allow Safed’s Arabs to return to their city. Kaddar reported to cabinet secretary Ze’ev Sherf that the delegation offered the following explanation: “The Jewish community in Safed will not be able to withstand the pressure of the returning Arabs, especially taking into account that most of the Arab property in Safed was robbed and taken since they left …. And it’s hard to describe their reaction to this situation.” The delegation warned that the Jews would abandon the city if the Arabs were allowed to return.

This case brings us to the great flaw of this worthy book: Raz deals with the private looting and neglects the collective looting, the confiscation and/or destruction of the Arabs’ real estate by the state institutions, and afterward the takeover of these assets for agricultural purposes and by the state to settle new immigrants and others in the abandoned housing in the towns. Cupboards and kitchen utensils and gold can be returned – it wasn’t their looting that brought about the weakening of the refugees’ desire to return and the subversion of their ability to return to their towns and villages. But the plunder of the lands and their transfer to the ownership of the Jewish community, the cultivation of the lands by kibbutzim and moshavim, the destruction or settlement of Jews in the villages and the settlement of Jews in abandoned homes in the cities with new immigrants and the forcible prevention of their return by IDF soldiers – these were the principal causes of the refugees’ severance from their country (“There is nowhere and nothing to return to”). Moreover, they underlay the opposition of the hundreds of kibbutzim and moshavim (associated with Mapai and Mapam) and of tens of thousands of urban settlers to the return of the refugees. Here lay the firm basis for the collaboration between “the people” and its government in regard to preventing that return.

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