Ethnic Cleansing or Negotiated Deal? The Arab Exodus From Lydda

Israeli soldier after capturing Lydda.

— by Naomi Friedman, The Jerusalem Post

On July 13, 1948, thousands of Arabs left their homes in Lydda (now Lod) and marched in the heat of the summer toward Ramallah, then held by the Arab Legion. Why they did this has been the subject of great historical and political debate.

One account explains the exodus as a product of the civil war that preceded the May 1948 attack on Israel by its Arab neighbors.

Another account, now making the rounds of Jewish book clubs across the U.S., is Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel. Ignoring the recent work of prominent Israeli academicians and the growing body of first-hand narratives and other primary sources, Shavit paints the exodus as an act of ethnic cleansing.

Israeli academicians Avraham Sela, Alon Kadish and Arnon Golan’s book, “The Occupation of Lod, July 1948,” meticulously documents the unfolding of events. The book cites primary sources, from Israel Defense Forces (IDF) telegrams and reports, to documents found at the Lydda Military Command, to personal accounts by both Jewish and Arab participants. Here is the account, in brief.

Continued after the jump.
On November 30, 1947, the day after the U.N. voted to partition the British Mandate of Palestine, Arab fighters launched the “War of the Roads.” Stationed in Lydda and other towns along the major trade routes, they attacked trucks, and later convoys carrying supplies to Jewish Jerusalem and other Jewish villages.

In July 1948, the IDF implemented Operation Danny, whose ultimate goal was to gain control of the road to Jerusalem. The first objective of the operation was to capture Lydda.

The attack on Lydda was not organized or carried out as planned, as indicated by IDF reports and telegrams. It was led by the Palmach, the “Strike Force,” then already part of the IDF. On July 11, Moshe Dayan‘s jeep force drove into the city, opened fire, came under heavy attack by the Arab Legion, and withdrew permanently.

Then 300 foot soldiers, led by Palmach commander Mula Cohen, with no heavy arms, and not aware of Dayan’s intention not to support their push, entered the city. They took a tenuous hold of part of the city center.

According to accounts by both Jewish and Arab sources, Arab fighters gathered at their headquarters, surrounding olive groves, and the police station. This is well-established by first-hand accounts of the Palmach leader in charge of negotiating with the Arab population of Lydda, Shmaryahu Gutman, and an Arab civilian guard member, Spiro Munayyer.

On the following day, July 12, two or three Arab Legion tanks entered Lydda and opened fire on the Jewish forces. Arab Legion forces stationed at the police station, and other local fighters, joined the attack.

After heavy fighting, the Palmach maintained its precarious hold on part of the city center. The Palmach exchanged fire with soldiers at the police station throughout the night, and by the morning of July 13. They discovered that all Arab forces but one injured fighter in the police station had abandoned the city.

Meanwhile, Gutman, according to his 1948 testimony, had spent two days negotiating with the Arab leaders of Lydda asking them to lay down their arms. They had sent a town crier to announce that all arms were to be placed in the front of the houses.

Not a single weapon was handed over. Like the Jews, the Arabs anticipated a counterattack by the Arab Legion and hoped to wait it out. The Palmach, however, had gathered approximately 4,000 Arab men of military age, held in a mosque and a church.

Still, the Arabs refused to surrender. Only after the city leaders realized that the Arab Legion forces had abandoned the police station, did they agree to make a deal: If the 4,000 men were released, the Arabs would leave the city. And so it happened that most, but not all, of the Arab residents left Lydda.

Ari Shavit’s Mistakes

The Arab fighters were wellarmed, and vastly outnumbered the Jewish forces. Palmach soldiers near a destroyed Arab armored car.

Shavit’s account rests on two false premises. The first is that the IDF captured Lydda from an unsuspecting civilian population who were easily overtaken.

Primary sources indicate that the Arab fighters were wellarmed, and vastly outnumbered the Jewish forces. Sela and Kadish estimate that at least 1,000 local fighters and 50 soldiers from the Arab Legion held 25 anti-tank launchers, 20 machine guns, armored cars, submachine guns and rifles.

The second false premise is that Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion issued a top-down order to the head of the Palmach, Yigal Allon, to expel the Arab inhabitants. This fallacy is enthusiastically embraced by those who accuse Israel of ethnic cleansing. Primary sources clearly show that the decision was initiated by the commanders on the ground under fire.

These mentioned sources include Palmach commander Mula Cohen’s reports and telegrams from Lydda, other first-hand accounts, and an official IDF directive issued on July 6, 1948.

The directive, found in the IDF archive 2135/50, File 42, on the subject of “Discipline,” orders that:

Outside of active fighting, it is forbidden… to expel Arab residents from their villages, neighborhoods, and cities and to displace residents without special permission or the clear instruction from the Defense Minister in each specific case. Anyone violating this order will be tried.

Mula Cohen, however, was unaware of this directive. In his memoirs “To Give and To Receive,” he wrote:

Let me be clear: I do not deny that it was I, as head of the brigade, who made the decision, and only after did I receive the permission of the commanders of Operation Danny.

Allon accepted Cohen’s view that the only way to hold Lydda was to expel the residents. Allon and Yitzhak Rabin, then his deputy, argued about it and went to Ben-Gurion. They were perhaps aware of the directive and of the fact that they needed to obtain his permission, since at the time he was also serving as defense minister.

Why Lydda?

Missing in Shavit’s books, and in most popular history books that are now being written, is why the IDF targeted Lydda in the first place.

Lydda had been housing both local and foreign fighters who attacked the Jewish convoys during the War of the Roads. Today, this war is gradually being written out of popular history and national memory.

Operation Danny, which precipitated the mass exodus of the Arabs from Lydda and Ramla, was the first in a series of three initiatives. The ultimate goal of those initiatives was to free the road to Jerusalem, to feed the 100,000 Jews living there.

When I tried to explain this to my Jewish book club members, nobody had heard of the War of the Roads, or of the Jewish children who were starving in Jerusalem. I could not forget, because my father was one of those children.

The author is an American-Israeli writer and development editor of textbooks and online education products for McGraw-Hill, Cengage, Pearson, Oxford University Press and other educational companies. She holds an M.A. in Political Science from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and is a former student of Avraham Sela, mentioned below.


Leave a Reply