From Al-Ahram Weekly archives: Fifty years of dispossession 1948-1998*
Issue: 16 April 1998
After the capturing of Arab villages along the Tel-Aviv-Jerusalem Road, the Zionist Haganah militia started in the second half of April its offensive against Palestinian towns. By the night of April 18 Tiberias' approximately 6,000 Arabs were fleeing the town, constituting the first batch in the mass exodus of approximately 800,000 Palestinians by the end of the 1948 war.
In his landmark book, ‘All that Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948’ (1992), Palestinian historian Walid El-Khalidi, argues that one of the most significant aspects in the fall of Tiberias was the way the British forces handled the situation. Till they were due to withdraw on May 15 ending the British mandate, it was their duty to maintain security and peace in Palestine. However, the only effort exerted in this respect while Tiberias was under the heavy mortar firing, was an "advice" to the commander of the Arab garrison "to stop fighting and evacuate the Arab inhabitants."
Justifying this passive stance, the British military historian Major Wilson said that the British forces were obliged to stick to a certain time schedule for the anticipated withdrawal. By the time the Haganah attacked Tiberias, the number of British troops was "too weak in numbers", ultimately making material intervention impossible.
The degree of British complicity with the Haganah was further questioned when few days later it was Haifa's turn. The town of Haifa was the concentration point for the would-be-withdrawing British troops who were waiting for May 15 to sail away. Haifa had a population of 140,000, more than half of which were Jews. The Jewish quarters were situated high on Mount Karmel, completely overlooking the Arab quarters-- a factor which facilitated the Haganah attacks later on. Since the UN partition resolution, fighting between the two parties became a common aspect in the daily life of Haifa; continuous snipping, explosions and exchange of fire.
The British troops were in charge of safeguarding the security in the town, and policing the main roads separating the Jewish quarters from the Arab ones. On April 1, a liaison office was formed between the British army and the Arab local national committee, in response to the orders of General Hugh Stockwell, the British commander. Although they established good relations for some time, it did not last too long.
According to El-Khalidi, the passive stance of the British troops in Tiberias was an encouraging signal for the Haganah to carry on the launching of Operation Misparayim to attack and occupy Haifa, and they were right.
On 21 April the British suddenly evacuated the residential quarters of Haifa.
At 11:00 AM, General Stockwell summoned Amin Ezzedien, commander of the Arab garrison, and informed him that he had ordered his troops to withdraw from the areas separating the Arab quarters from the Jewish ones, adding that he will not intervene in any clashes between the two parties. Meanwhile the Haganah were launching their 'general attack' on Haifa using mortar vessels indiscriminately. They filled barrels with explosives and rolled them down to the Arab quarters below. Despite the Arab's repeated pleas to the British army to send help, they were turned down.
In his book 'The Jihad of the Palestinian people in half a century', Saleh Masou'd Bouyassir points that the number of Jewish fighters in Haifa was 5,000, well trained and armed with American weapons and Russian armored vehicles. The Arabs on the other hand were desperately searching for weapons.
They succeeded in buying some from their own money and asked for more from the military committee formed by the Arab League. However out of 205 machine guns sent by the committee, only 89 were operating. Moreover, Haifa which was surrounded from its four sides with Jewish settlements "with the help of the British forces" was in a difficult situation, says Bouyassir.
The Jewish attack continued throughout the night of the 21st till the following day. The fighting grew fiercer "it continued, nonstop for 76 hours; in the homes, alleys and sometimes with knives, sticks or hands" points Bousier.
As the number of wounded Arabs swell- parallel to the escalation of the attacks- another plea was made to the British. And again, there request was rejected. A state of chaos prevailed as thousands of terrified Arab women and children rushed towards the port hoping to escape. But as the entire Arab area was exposed to the Jewish quarters above, the Haganah snipers killed tens of those trying to flee. And according to El-Khalidi, 10,000 refugees made it to the port and were placed into boats and ferries by the British which took them North to Acre.
As this was happening, the Arab Higher Committee was meeting with Stockwell who refused their demand to stop the Jewish attack which literally developed into "a human massacre" or to reconsider the passive British stance. His only suggestion was to "mediate" between the two parties and resisted the repeated efforts of the committee to reach a better compromise. And in a bid to put a fast end to the ongoing massacre, the committee's spokesman said the Arabs were ready for a truce but wanted to know its conditions.
Stockwell immediately excused himself from the room claiming that he will contact the Jews. Fifteen minutes later, he was back with a printed copy of a proposed 'truce'. But as El Khalidi points, it amounted to "unconditional surrender".
The conditions were: disarmament of the Arabs completely and handing in all their weapons within three hours, the assembly of all "male foreign elements" in a certain location on the condition that they depart Palestine in 24 hours, and finally a curfew.
The Arab delegation objected and asked Stockwell to add one more condition stipulating that signing this list would not entail any recognition on their part of the leadership of the Haganah or of any political changes in the country. The British commander promised to pass this to the Jews but asked the Arabs to meet with the Jewish delegation in his presence in the afternoon.
When the meeting took place, the Jews flatly rejected the proviso. The Arab delegation which felt the need to consult their co-inhabitants, asked for a 24 hour respite to think it over, hoping they can contact the Arab countries too. But both the Jews and Stockwell refused and the latter boldly stated that the Arabs have to sign the truce this evening if they want to avoid "300-400" casualties among them. Despite the strong pressure of the Arabs, Stockwell would not delay the meeting later than 7:00 pm that same day.
Once they departed the meeting, the Arab delegation called the largest number of the Haifa's men to discuss the situation. They agreed to delegate the committee to negotiate for the interest of the Arabs, which, at this stage, was simply to eliminate the killing of more innocent people. However, the committee felt it should not force the people of Haifa to recognize the authority of the Haganah, even if this resulted in a political backlash. At the seven o'clock meeting, they refused to sign the truce and asked to facilitate the departure of the inhabitants. Moreover, they requested delaying the meeting to the following day to work out the departure procedures.
On Friday April 23, all the parties met. The Arab delegation presented a memo addressed to Stockwell, quoting his warning that if the Arabs do not accept the Haganah's provisions, they will endure 300-400 more casualties. The memo also pointed out that "despite the fact the departure [of the Arabs] is our request, yet the main reason for this request remains your refusal to take up any action to protect the lives and the properties of the people." But Stockwell refused to receive the memo.
The delegation presented another one during the meeting addressed to the Jews this time. It objected to the continuing of shooting and killing of Arabs and the looting of their shops, homes and cars in addition to the detainment of hundreds. Moreover, the memo demanded that each Arab who chooses to remain in the city should enjoy full freedom in living and working. The property of those who depart, it added, should preserved.
The Jewish party did not respond decisively. A few days later, they established an 'administration for the enemy's properties', whereby they considered all of Haifa's Arabs as enemies. Therefore, all their properties, whether left behind or taken, subject to the regulations of property sequestration. By this, the Jews managed to prevent those who departed to take but the simplest personal belongings.
Within a week, only 8000 Arabs out of Haifa's approximately 70,000 Arabs remained in the city; the rest were driven out to a diaspora that remains until the present day.
This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly’s special pages commemorating 50 years of Al-Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe when Israel was created on 15 May 1948. These pages, published in 1998, were part of a year-long series of articles documenting the history and nature of the Arab-Israeli struggle, as well as that of Palestinian dispossession and exile.