In the opening episode of the iconic series Boardwalk Empire, Nucky Thompson, Atlantic City's bootlegging strongman, tells a group of pro-prohibition women activists a gutwrenching story about his abject childhood, ravaged by the vagaries of alcoholism. Asked by his driver, a young aspiring gangster, about the story's veracity, Thompson retorts: "The first law of politics is to never let the truth get in the way of a good story."
This episode comes to mind upon reading Mahmoud Abbas's recent New York Times op-ed. Turning the saga of Israel's birth upside down, the "moderate" PLO chairman and president of the Palestinian National Authority says not a word of the Jewish acceptance of Palestinian Arab statehood, as part of the UN partition resolution of November 1947, let alone the violent Palestinian response to the resolution. Instead he reminisces on his childhood in an attempt to turn aggressors into hapless victims and vice versa.
"Sixty-three years ago, a 13-year-old Palestinian boy was forced to leave his home in the Galilean city of Safed and flee with his family to Syria," Abbas writes. "He took up shelter in a canvas tent provided to all the arriving refugees. Though he and his family wished for decades to return to their home and homeland, they were denied that most basic of human rights. That child's story, like that of so many other Palestinians, is mine."
But was he expelled? Hardly. Not only did Abbas reveal a couple of years ago, in an Arabic interview, that his family had not been forcefully expelled and that his father was affluent enough to provide for them for a year after their flight (so no canvas tent), but none of the 170,000- 180,000 Palestinian Arabs fleeing urban centers, in the five-and-a-half months from the passing of the UN resolution to Israel's proclamation on May 14, 1948, were expelled by the Jews.
Quite the reverse in fact, huge numbers of these refugees were driven from their homes by their own leaders and/or by Arab military forces which had entered the country to fight the Jews, whether out of military considerations or to prevent them from becoming citizens of the prospective Jewish state.
In the largest and best-known example, tens of thousands of Arabs were ordered or bullied into leaving the city of Haifa (on April 21-22) on the instructions of the Arab Higher Committee, the effective "government" of the Palestinian Arabs, despite strenuous Jewish efforts to persuade them to stay. Only days earlier, Tiberias's 6,000- strong Arab community had been similarly forced out by its own leaders, against local Jewish wishes. In Jaffa, Palestine's largest Arab city, the municipality organized the transfer of thousands of residents by land and sea; in Jerusalem, the Arab Higher Committee ordered the transfer of women and children, and local gang leaders pushed out residents of several neighborhoods.
And what about Safed? Having declined an offer by Gen. Hugh Stockwell, commander of the British forces in northern Palestine, to mediate a truce, the Arabs responded to the British evacuation of the city with a heavy assault on the tiny Jewish community, less than a quarter their size. "Upon the British evacuation on April 16, we occupied all the city's strategic positions: the Citadel, the Government House, and the police post on Mount Canaan," recalled a local Arab fighter.
"We were the majority, and the feeling among us was that we would defeat the Jews with sticks and rocks."
What this prognosis failed to consider was the tenacity of the Jewish resolve to hold on to Safed, awarded by the partition resolution to the prospective Jewish state, on the one hand, and the intensity of Arab flight psychosis, on the other. As tens of thousands of Arabs streamed out of Tiberias and Haifa within days of the British evacuation of Safed, members of the city's leading families and ordinary residents alike decided that now was the time to escape – which is probably when Abbas's affluent family fled. In the words of a British intelligence report, "Such is their state of fear [that] Arabs are beginning to evacuate Safed although the Jews have not yet attacked them."
In a desperate bid to save the day, a delegation of local notables traveled to Damascus, only to be reprimanded as cowards fleeing the battlefield and ordered to keep on fighting. A subsequent visit by mayor Zaki Qadura to the royal court in Amman was far more affable yet equally inconclusive. While King Abdullah was evidently moved by the mayor's pleas, he argued that there was nothing he could do before the termination of the mandate on May 15 and that Qadura had better return to Damascus and put his case to president Shukri Quwatly. The mayor dutifully complied, and following his visit to Damascus some 130 pan-Arab fighters (of the so-called Arab Liberation Army) were sent to Safed, arriving in the city on May 9.
This was too little, too late. As fighting intensified, the trickle of escapees turned into a hemorrhage.
On May 2, following the bombing of the Arab quarter by the deafening albeit highly ineffective home-made "David's mortar," scores of Arabs fled Safed en route to the Jordan Valley, accompanied by a substantial number of Arab Liberation Army fighters. Four days later, the ALA's regional commander reported that "the majority of the inhabitants have left [Safed's neighboring] villages.
Their morale has collapsed completely."
Heavy artillery bombardments of Jewish neighborhoods failed to do the trick, and as the final battle for the city was joined on the night of May 9 a mass flight ensued. By the time fighting was over the next morning, Safed's entire Arab population had taken to the road; a day later, Hagana patrols reported that "the [Arab] quarter had emptied to a man," with evacuees leaving behind "a huge quantity of weapons and ammunition."
Such were the circumstances of the fall of Safed. There was no act of Jewish expulsion, as there were none in other cities that were rapidly emptying of their Arab residents at the time.
Rather it was fear that acted as the foremost catalyst of the rapid unraveling of Palestinian Arab society, reinforced by the local Palestinians' disillusionment with their own leadership, the role taken by that leadership in forcing widespread evacuations, and, above all, a lack of communal cohesion or of a willingness, especially at the highest levels, to subordinate personal interest to the general good.
But why let the truth get in the way of a good story?
Efraim Karsh is research professor of Middle East and Mediterranean studies at King's College London, incoming director of the Middle East Forum and author, most recently, of Palestine Betrayed.
Related Topics: Arab-Israel conflict & diplomacy, History, Palestinians | Efraim Karsh
receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free mef mailing list