In 1948, three-quarters of a million Palestinians were forced to leave their land and country; Jewish settlers had managed to assemble a fighting force that used fear and superior military power to expel them from their cities, towns, and villages. According to some estimates, about 280,000 of those Palestinians went to the West Bank; 70,000 to the East Bank of the Jordan River; 190,000 to the Gaza Strip; 100,000 to Lebanon; 75,000 to Syria; 7,000 to Egypt; 4,000 to Iraq; and the rest to other Arab countries. The direction of their migration was largely determined by where they were. For example, the majority of those who fled from the northern districts of Acre and Haifa headed north across the border into Lebanon; those from Safad, Tiberias, and Baysan in the northeast fled to Syria. Most of the residents of the coastal cities Lydda and Ramla fled east to what later became known as the West Bank, and those from southern cities such as Isdud, al-Majdal, and Bir al-Sabi‘ went to the Gaza Strip or east to Hebron.
The exodus of this large number of Palestinians occurred in four stages, according to a Zionist-Israeli plan that was driven by territorial and demographic considerations.
The first stage started with the issuance, on 29 November 1947, of the UN resolution to partition Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state. It is estimated that the population of the Jewish state that would have been established according to the resolution was approximately one million people, of which 42 percent were Arabs. In the face of this reality, Zionist leaders deemed that the only solution to this population problem would be the displacement of the majority of those Arab citizens.
In December, an increasing number of random military operations were launched against Arab villages, towns, and cities by members of the Haganah and Irgun organizations. On 12 December, 1947, for example, Irgun forces entered the village of al-Tira (Haifa subdistrict), killing 12 Arabs and injuring 6 others. Another force attacked the village of al-Abbasiyya, to the east of Jaffa, on December 13, 1947, killing 7 Arab civilians and injuring 34. But the official beginning of operations aimed at the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian villages can be traced to late December attacks by Haganah units on the village of Balad al-Shaykh, where the tomb of the martyr Izzeddin al-Qassam is located; more than 60 people were killed there. Haganah units also attacked the village of Lifta (Jerusalem subdistrict). Lifta was completely cleansed of its 2,500 Palestinian residents by 11 January 1948.
The terrorization of the nearly 75,000 Palestinian residents of Haifa began in December 1947. This led to the early departure of between 15,000 and 20,000 of the city’s elites, who sought refuge in Lebanon and Egypt. Through February 1948, attacks by Jewish militias on villages in the subdistrict of Haifa – Qisarya, Barrat Qisarya, Khirbat al-Burj, and Daliyat al-Rawha -- and Sa‘sa‘ (in the Safad subdistrict) left between 60 and 80 killed and 35 homes destroyed. The survivors were driven out.
The second stage of the forced displacement of the Palestinians began on 10 March 1948, when the Zionist leadership established a plan for ethnic cleansing known as “Plan Dalet.” With this plan, a transition was made from sporadic attacks on the Palestinian population to broad and organized operations that were designed to seize as much territory as possible before the British ended the Mandate. The first of these, called Operation Nachshon, took place on 1 April 1948 on the rural plateaus on the western slopes of Jabal al-Quds. It was carried out by Palmach units, who faced intense Palestinian resistance but by 9 April had succeeded in occupying the village of al-Qastal and entering the village of Deir Yasin, where they massacred more than 100 men, women, and children. The same Palmach units then occupied four more villages nearby and expelled their inhabitants. Zionist propaganda spread the news of the Deir Yasin massacre all over Palestine to create fear and flight.
Although Palestinian villages continued to be targeted, in April and May the Haganah turned its attention to urban centers and depopulated them of their Palestinian residents. Tiberias, which had 5,000 Arab residents, was the first of these to fall; its inhabitants were expelled on 18 April. Attacks on Haifa beginning on 21 April prompted a mass exodus of the city’s 55,000 remaining Palestinians; they sailed to Lebanon. Attacks on Safad, which had about 9,500 Arab inhabitants, from the middle of April until the beginning of May, culminated in the expulsion of all of its residents. Attacks on Jerusalem began on 26 April, although a number of the city’s wealthier residents had left several weeks before. Attackers succeeded in “cleansing” eight neighborhoods in the greater Jerusalem area as well as thirty-nine Palestinian villages, whose inhabitants were forced into the eastern part of the city. Baysan and its surrounding villages were occupied on 12 May, followed by the coastal city of Acre on 16 May.
In the middle of April, 5,000 fighters from the Haganah and Irgun attacked the city of Jaffa and imposed a blockade. The residents remained steadfast for three weeks before the city fell to the attackers on 13 May, and all of its 50,000 inhabitants were expelled following British “intercession.” Throughout the month of April, Zionist forces occupied many Arab villages in the vicinity of Jaffa and Tel Aviv and expelled their residents.
The third stage of the ethnic cleansing campaign in Palestine began on 15 May 1948, after Zionist leaders proclaimed the establishment of the state of Israel. Arab armies entered Palestine and the Arab-Israeli war broke out. Before that date, sixty-four Palestinian villages in the region extended from Tel Aviv to Haifa; after the ethnic cleansing operations that took place there between May and July 1948, only two villages remained––al-Faradis and Jisr al-Zarqa. On 22 May, Israeli forces carried out a massacre in the village of al-Tantura, which, with 1,500 residents, was one of the largest villages on the coast. According to some estimates, 230 people were killed in the massacre. Israeli forces also occupied the villages of the lower and eastern Galilee in June and expelled their residents.
Before the second cease-fire went into effect on 18 July, Jewish forces had occupied the cities of Lydda and Ramla. The aerial bombardment of the coastal city of Lydda was followed by direct attacks on the city itself (10-14 July), which was home to 50,000 people; 426 men, women, and children, most of whom had taken refuge in the city’s mosque, had been killed by Jewish forces. The neighboring town of Ramla, with a population of 17,000, was also attacked (12-14 July). Residents of both Lydda and Ramla were forced to leave on foot, making their way to the West Bank without food or water. Many perished of hunger and thirst along the way.
Attacks on Nazareth began on 9 July, the day that the first cease-fire ended. The city surrendered on 16 July, but only a few of its residents left. This was because David Ben-Gurion, knowing that the eyes of the Christian world were watching, did not want to empty the city of its inhabitants. Thus, 16,000 of its residents remained, including 10,000 Christians.
The fourth phase of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine took place between October 1948 and the beginning of 1949. Israeli forces occupied the town of Bir al-Sabi‛ (21 October), home to 5,000 people, and forced its inhabitants to flee to Hebron. On 29 October, a massacre of 455 residents of the village of al-Dawayima (located between Bir al-Sabi‛ and Hebron) triggered an exodus of survivors. In November 1948, Israeli forces occupied the southern cities of Isdud and al-Majdal, expelled their residents to the Gaza Strip, and entered the Negev; by December, they had forced the Bedouin tribes that lived there to flee.
By the end of the war, over four hundred villages and towns were destroyed and depopulated and 13,000 people killed. The new state of Israel now controlled about 77 percent of the land area of Mandate Palestine, which had been depopulated of about 90 percent of its indigenous Arab population. After this massive uprooting and the dismemberment and de-Arabization of Palestine, it is no surprise that the Palestinians refer to the events of 1947-48 as the Nakba - the Catastrophe in Arabic.