Arab-Israeli War


By Benny Morris

On November 2, 1948, an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) patrol visited the campsite of a small Bedouin subtribe, Arab al Mawasa, just west of the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel. The area, along with the rest of upper central Galilee, had been conquered by the IDF three to four days before in an armored offensive code-named Operation Hiram.

The patrol, in search of arms, scoured the area. On nearby “Hill 213” the troops found the decapitated remains of two Israeli soldiers who had been missing since a skirmish one month before. According to the 103rd Battalion’s patrol report, “The men [then] torched the Arabs’ homes [tents?]. The men returned to base with 19 Arab males. At the base the males were sorted out and those who had taken part in enemy operations against our army were identified and then taken under Haim [Hayun]’s command to a designated place and there 14 of them were liquidated. The rest are being transferred to a prisoner of war camp.”1

Few such documents have surfaced in Israel’s archives during the past fifty years, partly because soldiers and officers who committed atrocities rarely left written descriptions behind, partly because those that do exist are mostly deposited in the IDF Archive, where internal censors make sure that documents explicitly pertaining to massacres or expulsions never see the light of day. But occasionally slips occur.

We now know, on the basis of United Nations, American, and British documents and a handful that surfaced in Israel’s civilian archives (the Israel State Archive, party political archives, private papers collections, etc.) during the 1980s and 1990s, of more than a dozen massacres of Arabs by Jewish troops in the course of the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948. These range in size from the shooting of a handful or several dozen civilians arbitrarily selected and lined up against a village wall after its conquest (as occurred, for example, in Majd al Kurum, Bi’na and Dir al Assad, Ilaboun, Jish, Saliha, Safsaf, and Sasa during Hiram) to the slaughter of some 250 civilians and detainees during a firefight in the town of Lydda, southeast of Tel Aviv, on the afternoon of July 12, 1948.

Over the years, the release of new documents and newspaper interviews with witnesses and participants has uncovered Israeli massacres of Arab civilians and prisoners of war in the subsequent wars of 1956, 1967, 1973, and 1982. The revelations came as a shock to much of the Israeli public, which was nurtured on a belief in its own moral superiority and on a doctrine of “purity of arms.” Jewish troops, it was believed, in the mainstream Jewish underground, the Haganah, before 1948, and in the IDF since then, had been trained not to sully their arms by committing atrocities. When an atrocity nonetheless came to light, it was always dismissed as a rare exception, a unique occurrence.

The truth is otherwise—and not surprisingly. Underlying the series of Arab-Israeli wars has been a deep hatred by each side of the other and deep existential fears, both among Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs. Moreover, the wars have been at least partly fought in areas crowded with civilians (the whole of Palestine in 1948, the Gaza Strip in 1956 and 1967, the West Bank and Golan Heights in 1967, and southern Lebanon and Beirut in 1982). Almost inevitably, civilians were hurt and killed, sometimes deliberately, more often unintentionally.

The bloodiest and most atrocity-ridden of these wars was, without doubt, the 1948 war of independence, which began, from November 1947 to May 1948, as a civil/guerrilla war between Palestine’s thoroughly intermixed Arab and Jewish communities, but ended, from May 1948 to January 1949, as a conventional war between the invading Arab States’ armies and the newborn State of Israel. The fact that the Arabs had launched the war—the Palestinian Arabs in November–December 1947 and the Arab States in May 1948—and that the war was protracted and extremely costly for the Jews (who lost six thousand dead, or 1 percent of a total population of 650,000) only exacerbated anger toward the Arabs and heightened the propensity to commit atrocities. The willingness to commit atrocities on each side was also fed by reports—sometimes accurate, sometimes fantastic—of atrocities committed by the other side; retaliation was a frequent motive for Arabs and Israelis alike.

Two out of the three massacres committed by Arabs against Jews during the 1948 war were triggered by Jewish atrocities against Arabs. On December 30, 1947, Irgun Zvai Leumi (National Military Organization, or IZL) terrorists threw a bomb at an Arab bus stop at the entrance to the Haifa Oil Refinery outside Haifa. Half a dozen Arabs were killed, and more were injured. The Arab workers inside the refinery immediately retaliated by turning on their Jewish coworkers with knives, crowbars, and sticks, killing thirty-nine of them. (In turn, the Haganah responded on the night of December 31 by raiding the nearby Arab village of Balad ash Sheikh, where many of the workers lived, blowing up several dozen houses and killing about sixty Arabs.)

Similarly, the Arab irregulars’ attack on the convoy of doctors, nurses, students, and Haganah militiamen making its way through East Jerusalem to Mount Scopus (the Mount Scopus Convoy) on April 13 was also a retaliation for the assault by Jewish (IZL-Lehi-Haganah) troops on the Arab village of Deir Yassin, just west of Jerusalem, on April 9, 1948, in which about one hundred villagers were killed during the fighting or just afterward.

The third and largest Arab atrocity of the war, the massacre by irregulars of dozens of surrendering Haganah troops, including some twenty women, at Kfar Etzion in the Etzion Bloc of settlements just north of Hebron, on May 13, was unprovoked by any immediate Jewish attack or atrocity.

But overall, the Jewish forces—Haganah, IZL, Lehi (Lohamei Herut Yisrael, or Freedom Fighters of Israel, or “Stern Gang,” as the British authorities called them), and IDF—committed far more atrocities in 1948 than did Arab forces, if only because they were in a far better position to do so.

The Haganah, and subsequently the IDF, overran large Arab-populated areas—some four hundred villages and towns—whereas Arab forces conquered or overran fewer than a dozen Jewish settlements in the course of the war. To this must be added the fact that the civil war in Palestine, which ended in mid-May 1948, raged in a country nominally ruled by a British administration. Neither Jews nor Arabs could legally hold prisoners and, for months, neither had facilities to hold large numbers, so prisoners either were not taken or were shot.

Massacres apart, 1948 was characterized by a great deal of random killing by Jewish troops of Arab civilians. Patrols and ambushes would randomly kill civilians scavenging for food or trying to cross the front lines for other reasons.

From the available evidence, it would appear that not one Jewish soldier or officer was ever punished in connection with these atrocities. Similarly, so far as the evidence allows, no Arab irregular or regular soldier was ever tried or punished for murdering Israelis.

The atrocities did not stop at killings; many Arab villagers and townspeople were expelled from their homes by conquering Jewish units. The largest of these expulsions took place in the towns of Lydda and Ramle on July 12 and 13, when upward of fifty thousand people were dispatched onto roads eastward. In retrospect, it is clear that what occurred in 1948 in Palestine was a variety of ethnic cleansing of Arab areas by Jews. It is impossible to say how many of the 700,000 or so Palestinians who became refugees in 1948 were physically expelled, as distinct from simply fleeing a combat zone. What is certain is that almost all were barred by the Israeli government decision of June 1948 and, consequently, by IDF fire, from returning to their homes or areas. Similarly, almost all of the four hundred or so Arab villages overrun and depopulated by Israel were in the course of 1948 or immediately thereafter razed to the ground, partly in order to prevent the refugees from returning. No Jewish soldier or commander was ever tried or punished for expelling an Arab community or destroying an Arab village (though as far as the evidence allows, neither was any Jewish soldier or official ever tried or punished for not expelling Arabs or for not destroying an Arab village or urban neighborhood).

In the course of the war Arab soldiers or irregulars expelled a handful of Jewish communities. Indeed, Arabs expelled Jewish communities from every site they overran, but there were less than a dozen such sites. These included the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, most of whose buildings were subsequently razed; the Etzion Bloc of settlements—Kfar Etzion, Massu’ot Yitzhak, Revadim, and Ein Tzurim (again, the buildings were razed to the ground by their looters-conquerors); and Kfar Darom, in the Gaza Strip. (All these sites were resettled by Jews after Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 1967 war. On the other hand, the hundreds of sites from which Arabs were driven out in 1948, and the buildings razed, remained uninhabited or were resettled with Jews.)

Following 1948, IDF discipline and ethics gradually improved. There-after, in each subsequent war, and in the interregnum between wars, there were progressively fewer atrocities, a point Gen. Rafael Eitan, the IDF chief of general staff, went out of his way to make when assailed for his troops’ behavior during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

In October–November 1956, the IDF overran the Gaza Strip, where it remained in control until March 1957. During the battle for this heavily populated zone and during the first weeks of occupation, the IDF killed some five hundred civilians, either in actual combat or in a subsequent series of massacres. Elsewhere during the Sinai-Suez War, IDF troops reportedly killed fleeing, and often unarmed, Egyptian troops by the hundreds and, occasionally, Egyptian prisoners of war. For example, at the end of October 1956, the IDF Paratroop Brigade killed some three dozen POWs near the Mitle Pass. Revelation of this affair in 1995 prompted Egyptian protests to Jerusalem and a demand for an investigation (whose results were never made public).

During the 1967 Six-Day and October 1973 wars, there were cases of IDF troops killing fleeing, and often unarmed, Arab troops and murdering POWs. Again, the victorious Israelis had greater opportunity to commit atrocities than their Arab foes, but there is evidence also that Arab troops, when given the chance, killed off surrendering Israelis and POWs. Such incidents occurred in the 1973 war’s first days, when the Syrians overran part of the Golan Heights and the Egyptians overran the IDF’s Bar-Lev Line along the east bank of the Suez Canal. Arab civilians and security forces also killed downed Israeli pilots on both fronts.

On the other hand, in the aftermath of these two wars there were almost no reports of atrocities by IDF troops vis-à-vis Arab civilians. Indeed, both the 1967 war (when the IDF overran crowded cities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip) and the 1973 war (when the IDF conquered the populated west bank of the Suez Canal) were marked by almost no civilian casualties. However, in the immediate wake of the June 1967 war, the IDF destroyed more than half a dozen Arab villages in the West Bank (Imwas, Yalu, Beit Nuba, Khirbet Beit Mirsim, Nabi Samwil, etc.) and expelled their inhabitants. The area of the first three villages was subsequently turned into a nature reserve, Park Canada, which remains to this day a favorite Israeli picnic spot.

Altogether, during and in the immediate aftermath of the 1967 war some 200,000 to 300,000 Palestinians left the West Bank and Gaza Strip for Jordan, many of them refugees for the second time, having moved to the West Bank in 1948 from areas that had become Israeli. In addition, fifty thousand to ninety thousand Syrian civilians (the exact number is disputed) fled their homes or were driven out of the Golan Heights during the IDF conquest. As in 1948, very few of these refugees, from the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan, were allowed back by Israel, and most still live in camps in Jordan and Syria.

In 1982, as well, the IDF troops who overran southern Lebanon, including Beirut and much of the Beirut–Damascus road, committed few deliberate atrocities, despite the fact that the war was waged in a heavily populated area in which there were more than half a dozen Palestinian refugee camps that stiffly resisted the invaders.

Nonetheless, thousands of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians were killed by Israeli airmen, guns, and tanks as the invading force slowly pushed northward, laying down before it a curtain of fire in order to soften resistance and keep down IDF casualties. The exact number of Arab civilians killed is a matter of dispute (Israeli officials spoke of “hundreds”; the Lebanese and Palestinians of “thousands,” and even, in one report, of as many as eighteen thousand). What is not disputed is that whole streets and blocks of Lebanese cities—Tyre, Sidon, and Beirut—were destroyed and a number of refugee camps were largely demolished (Rashidiye near Tyre, Ein al Hilwe near Sidon, and others) during the fighting.

Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, according to Israeli government spokesmen, was caused or provoked by Palestinian “terrorism” against Israeli targets from southern Lebanon. In fact, during the years between July 1981 and June 1982, when the invasion was launched, there had been practically no terrorist attacks from Lebanon against Israel. But between 1969 and 1981, southern Lebanon had served as a base for Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) attacks against Israeli targets, the most famous of which was the Coast Road Raid of March 1978, when seaborne Palestinian terrorists from Lebanon commandeered an Israeli bus on the road between Tel Aviv and Haifa and killed more than thirty of its passengers.

In September 1982, the largest deliberate atrocity of the Lebanon War took place, the massacre of several hundred Palestinian refugees (again the exact number is disputed, though apparently some five hundred died) in the Sabra and Shatilla camps or neighborhoods of southern Beirut at the hands of Lebanese Christian militiamen of the Phalange Party. While these militiamen, who were Israel’s allies, had been let or sent into the camps by the occupying Israeli troops, the Israelis had not intended or planned the massacre, though Israel’s defense minister, Ariel Sharon, was subsequently removed from his post on the recommendation of a commission of inquiry. The Kahan Commission found him “negligent” and indirectly responsible for what had happened. The massacre, and the previous destruction of the refugee camps in the south, had meshed with Sharon’s policy of pushing the refugee communities as far northward and away from Israel’s border as possible, and with the Phalange desire to rid Lebanon altogether of its (largely Muslim) Palestinian population.

In the years since, reports of only two deliberate atrocities, in which a handful of Lebanese villagers and Palestinians died, have surfaced in the Israeli press, and it is doubtful whether many more actually occurred. But during the years 1982–1985, as Israel’s security forces struggled unsuccessfully to suppress the Shiite resistance campaign against their occupation of southern Lebanon, Shiite militants were occasionally executed by Israeli security men, thousands of suspects were detained without trial, torture was used systematically against suspects, and houses of resistance fighters were occasionally demolished.

The Arab-Israeli wars also gave rise, of course, to Israel’s control of a foreign-populated territory (whether or not technically regarded as occupation of enemy territory in the West Bank and Gaza), resulting in resistance to that presence and Israeli efforts to suppress it.

From 1967 until 1995, Israel occupied and governed the Palestinian-populated West Bank and Gaza Strip, with the population increasing in number during this period from about 1 million to 2 million.

Periodically, groups of local inhabitants banded together to resist the occupation, occasionally using nonviolent political measures (strikes, school closures, demonstrations), at other times employing violence—which the Palestinians called “armed resistance” and the Israelis “terrorism.” These acts, both within the occupied territories and in Israel proper, as well as along Israel’s borders with Jordan and Lebanon, often involved deliberate attacks on civilians, which would qualify as terrorism on any ordinary definition. For example, in the bouts of Palestinian Islamic fundamentalist terrorism during 1994–1996, suicide bombers destroyed Israeli buses in the centers of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, killing dozens of Israeli civilians.

Israel responded to both forms of activism, violent and nonviolent, with a range of measures, many of which violated international law and human rights conventions. Over the decades, for example, Israel has expelled without trial from the territories hundreds of political activists, some of whom were suspected of links to “terrorism”; others were merely suspected of political “agitation” and “incitement.”

Severe punishments were usually reserved for persons suspected of what Israeli authorities characterized as terrorism or abetting terrorism. In the course of 1967–1981, the Israeli authorities demolished or sealed some thirteen hundred homes, usually of suspected terrorists. Another seven hundred or so homes were destroyed or sealed off during the Intifada, the semiviolent Palestinian uprising of 1987–1993. The homes in question generally also housed brothers and sisters, parents, and children of the suspects, rendering the measure a limited form of collective punishment. Usually, the families were not allowed to rebuild their homes. The homes were usually demolished before the suspect was brought to trial or convicted of any crime.

By far the most common antiresistance measure was arrest. During the thirty years of occupation more than fifty thousand Palestinians passed through the Israeli prison system, most of them during the Intifada years. Thousands more were detained on administrative orders, meaning that they were never tried or convicted by any court of law. The military authorities have the power to detain persons for six months without trial, renewable with a judge’s permission. Israel’s jails still hold more than one hundred administrative detainees, a few of whom have spent years in prison without ever having stood trial.

But most of the prisoners—Israel’s prisons today hold about five thousand Palestinian prisoners—were tried by military courts. The courts freed very few suspects, and sentences have often been criticized as being unreasonably severe. A boy of fifteen could spend a year or two in jail for throwing a stone at a car. On the other hand, Israeli military and civilian courts have tended to be extremely lenient toward Israeli soldiers or civilians who killed Palestinians, often making do with suspended sentences or orders to do community service. Israel’s General Security Service (and, less frequently, IDF and police units) has systematically employed various forms of torture, such as sleep deprivation, beatings, cold showers, and painful postures, against terrorist suspects over the years.2

In the course of the Intifada, IDF troops killed with regular and plastic-coated bullets about one thousand Palestinians, many of them minors. Most were killed during clashes between soldiers and stone-throwing rioters.

During the Intifada, dozens of suspected terrorists were killed by Israeli military and police undercover units who were often accused of acting like death squads. Israeli spokesmen countered that the peculiar conditions of operation of such units—small squads dressed as Arabs operating in the middle of Arab towns and without close support of regular troops—made haste with the trigger finger an imperative of survival. But over the six years of the Intifada, only a handful of such undercover troops were ever killed or injured by Arabs, raising questions as to whether they were typically in great peril during their operations.

Apart from specific action against suspected terrorists and their supporters, IDF troops frequently resorted to wholesale collective measures in order to suppress rebelliousness among the West Bank and Gaza populations. Often, twenty-four-hour or dusk-to-dawn curfews were imposed on whole cities or villages—preventing the inhabitants from going to work or otherwise living a normal life for days on end. Occasionally—such as during or after a nationally motivated strike—the authorities would close down schools, universities, or businesses. Sometimes the troops would cut off water, electricity, or telephone lines to specific localities as a form of punishment. Lastly, the security forces often arrested, and subjected to interrogation, family members of suspected terrorists in order to discover the suspects’ whereabouts.

Israel’s administration of the occupied territories has been a target of criticism, in part because Israel claims that it is not legally obliged to implement provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention relating to the occupation of territory. Israel is a party to all four Geneva Conventions but did not sign the two Additional Protocols of 1977.

The Government says in actual practice it applies what it calls the “humanitarian provisions” of the Fourth Convention to the territories, without specifying which provisions are “humanitarian.” The position has been assailed by Palestinians and the Arab States and is not accepted by Israel’s principal ally, the United States, or any other major power.

One reason that Israel refused to apply the Fourth Geneva Convention as a matter of law, is that the Labor government in power in 1967 feared that by applying the convention, whose second article refers to “all cases of partial or total occupation of the territory of a High Contracting Party,” it would effectively acknowledge Jordan as the previous sovereign. Israel viewed Jordan as a belligerent occupier that had unlawfully invaded and illegally annexed the West Bank.

In common practice, Israeli courts, guided by Supreme Court guidelines, operate in light of accepted international customary law and those international conventions adopted into internal Israeli law. Thus there is something of a dichotomy between Israel’s official public position in international forums and legal practice vis-à-vis the territories.

In summation, the Arab-Israeli wars, like most wars, have resulted in atrocities, mostly committed by the winning side or the side in a position to commit such atrocities, both against soldiers and civilians. The number and frequency of the atrocities has diminished over the years, in part because the wars have been shorter (the 1948 war lasted a full year, the 1967 war a bare six days), in part because of greater discipline among the Israeli troops. On the other hand, the increased firepower in Israeli hands has meant that troops, when advancing through built-up areas, as in 1982, have tended to lay down curtains of fire that have resulted in large numbers of civilian casualties, something that did not occur in the previous wars, when the IDF had less firepower or was not engaged in built-up areas.

At the same time, the decades of Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and Golan Heights has resulted in the systematic deployment of a variety of measures that are contrary to international humanitarian law, including torture of suspected terrorists, house demolitions, administrative detention without due process, and deportations.

1. “C Company,” 103rd Battalion report, signature illegible, November 2, 1948, IDF Archive 10964965.

2. B’Tselem, The Interrogation of Palestinians during the Intifada, 1991, Jerusalem; also B’Tselem, Routine Torture: Interrogation Methods of the General Security Service, Jerusalem, 1998.

Related posts:

  1. Arab-Israeli War: The Second Intifada