An Indicative Archive: Salvaging Nakba Documents
Israeli archives

This Special Document File examines the closure of documents on the Nakba in the Israeli archives and argues that this closure must be juxtaposed with recent intensified U.S. and Israeli attempts to depoliticize the Palestine question and to delegitimize the Palestinian narrative in general, and that of 1948 in particular. The documents are important because they expose the systematic nature of the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine, both in planning and execution. Many of these documents have been copied and scanned by scholars over the years, but they are now no longer accessible to the public or to researchers. Collating, digitizing, and archiving these documents is the best response to the attempt to cover up the crimes against the Palestinian people in 1948.

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Starting in the late 1980s, a group of Israeli scholars known as the New Historians published several monographs challenging the Israeli/Zionist narrative of the 1948 war that led to the dispossession and expulsion of three-quarters of a million Palestinians and the destruction of more than five hundred villages and localities in what had been Mandate Palestine. Palestinian historians had already written about the Nakba extensively prior to that, but never before had the narrative been substantiated by declassified archival material. The research made possible by such material, which constitutes the main contribution of the New Historians' historiographical effort, categorically refuted a foundational Israeli propaganda claim that during what Israel calls its “War of Independence,” the Palestinians left their homes voluntarily to make way for the invading Arab armies coming to their rescue, thus becoming refugees by their own hands.

The documents on which this new historiography was based were housed in several archives, most important among them the Haganah Historical Archives, the Ben-Gurion Archives, the army archive (also known as the Israel Defense Forces [IDF] archive), and the Yad Yaari archive—the last being especially significant for the New Historians' early work, since the army would not declassify relevant military documents until later in the 1990s. The Yad Yaari archive houses the documents of the Mapam Party and its youth movement, Hashomer Hatzair, whose members formed the nucleus of the Palmach (the Haganah's commando units), which spearheaded military operations in 1947–49. Since Mapam had been a major partner in the provisional government formed on 14 May 1948 and in Israel's official government formed after the first elections held in January 1949, the Yad Yaari archive included otherwise inaccessible copies of early Israeli cabinet meeting minutes (in addition to providing access to documents that the IDF and Haganah archives had yet to declassify). Palestinian historians with knowledge of Hebrew added their own input and highlighted the usefulness of such documents for reconstructing the dispossession of 1948. Both the extent of Zionist brutality and the struggle against it have been fully exposed in the works of historians such as Nur Masalha, Mustafa Kabha, Mustafa Abbasi, Saleh Abdel Jawad, Adel Manna, and others.1

Many scholars view the Nakba as a structural catastrophe (typical of settler-colonial projects such as Zionism) in which Israel's policy of ethnic cleansing, whether in 1949 or in 2020, is part and parcel of the same history and tragedy. The historiography of the Nakba, whether produced by Palestinian historians or others, is not validated by the presence of documentation in the Israeli archive; but the value of such documentation is to expose the nature of the Zionist project's violence as structural, rather than incidental, and to discredit official Israeli discourse around the establishment of the state. Given the formative role of the Nabka in Palestinian identity and aspirations, as well as its ongoing nature—what Palestinians refer to as al-nakba al-mustammira—future generations of scholars, journalists, and researchers will undoubtedly want to revisit this rich documentation.

Revisiting this archival material has become increasingly difficult, however. As Seth Anziska analyzed in the pages of a recent issue of this journal,* a joint investigative effort between Haaretz and the Israeli research, documentation, and human rights organization Akevot has exposed the very deliberate hindrances to archival access in Israel resulting from an official policy to withdraw pivotal archival documents from the public domain. Included in the exposé was Akevot's publication of a twenty-five-page document detailing the Zionist military's record of events in April and May 1948, which demonstrates that expulsion and intimidation were tactics deliberately deployed by Zionist forces to induce the exodus of large numbers of Palestinians.2

In addition to presenting six Israeli documents, the originals of which are now no longer accessible despite being declassified, this Special Document File has a three-fold purpose: to analyze the reasons behind the State of Israel's intensifying clampdown on archival research, to assess the policy's implications for both future scholarly work and the broader struggle for justice in Palestine, and to challenge this new archival reality, so to speak, by creating what I will call an “indicative archive of the Nakba.”

Shuttering the Archives

As reported in the 2019 Haaretz/Akevot exposé, Israel's restriction of access to archival material is part of an official operation headed by Malmab, the Israeli Defense Ministry's secretive security department.3 The Israeli Defense Ministry organization which goes by the Hebrew acronym Malmab is a clandestine unit whose activities and budget are classified and whose existence was first exposed by Israeli historian Avner Cohen in an effort to shed light on Israel's nuclear policy.4 In the course of the investigation, Haaretz found that Yehiel Horev, who headed Malmab for two decades until 2007, had begun working on removing documents from the archives when he was at the helm of the secretive department, a practice continued today by his successors. (Horev was also responsible for preventing Cohen from publishing and accessing archival material for his research on Israel's nuclear arsenal.) Speaking to the newspaper, Horev argued that shuttering the archives was justified on the grounds that uncovering Nakba documents would, in the newspaper's wording, “generate unrest among the country's Arab population.”5

The argument is farcical on two counts: first, Israel's Palestinian minority, whom Israeli officials refer to as “the Israeli Arabs,” have, since the mid-1980s, been among the most active and conscious groups to engage with—and protect—the memory of the Nakba. The Association for the Defense of the Rights of the Internally Displaced, which represents displaced Palestinians inside Israel, alongside local Palestinian scholars and activists, has sustained public interest in the Palestinians' narrative of the 1948 events with no need of Israeli documentation to confirm their own experience of ethnic cleansing; second, as Haaretz pointed out, many of the documents now being reclassified had already been published, notably by the New Historians. Horev's comeback to the latter argument was that removing such documents would, in the newspaper's words, “undermine the credibility of studies about the history of the refugee problem.”

Settler-colonial movements such as Zionism are informed by what Patrick Wolfe defined as “the elimination of the Native.”6 Implicit in Israel's existence as a settler-colonial state is the expectation that it would want to hide evidence of its acts of elimination, particularly in an era that looks unfavorably on colonialism and in the context of a country that purports to be “the only democracy in the Middle East” and a “Jewish and democratic state.” The 1948 Nakba is thus not only an act of elimination, but its erasure from the archives is also part of that act. As Wolfe points out, not all acts of elimination are genocidal, as they were in North America or Australia. In Algeria and South Africa, for example, the removal of the indigenous population was achieved by a combination of land expropriation, ethnic cleansing, and apartheid. In Palestine, too, an incremental ethnic cleansing, which began in the mid-1920s, has been the principal means pursued to bring about “the elimination of the Native.”

Wolfe's comment that settler colonialism is not an event but a structure is also relevant to the present discussion insofar as it exposes the structural violence informed by settler-colonial ideology throughout the history of Zionist, and later Israeli, actions against the Palestinians. In more concrete terms, the vision of a de-Arabized Palestine fed the familiar violent junctures in the country's modern history: the ethnic cleansing of 1948; the imposition of military rule on various Palestinian population groups in the last seventy years; the assault on the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Lebanon in 1982; the operations in the West Bank in 2002; the siege of Gaza; and Judaization projects everywhere inside historical Palestine, to name just a few from a rather long list.

Still, despite a body of scholarship and research that frames the Zionist movement as a settler-colonial project—including the relatively new Settler Colonial Studies, a journal that, at this writing, has already devoted two special issues to Palestine—such a depiction is not accepted in mainstream academia (or the media generally).7 By and large, Israel/Palestine is still perceived as a conflict between two national movements that are equally responsible for violence—one of them a Western-style democracy that occasionally resorts to excessive power, and the other an Arab society endowed with a violent political culture.8

In recent years, a number of discrete processes—including the emergence of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement; the extreme rightward shift of the Israeli political system; and the rise of a new generation of pro-Palestinian politicians in the West—have led the ranks of “official Israel” to regard historical memory and historiography as tools that can be weaponized against the further erosion of Israel's already deteriorating public image internationally. During what I shall call the Netanyahu decade (2009–19), Israel has “managed” this shifting landscape by depoliticizing the Palestine issue, much in the same way as the current U.S. administration has done with its “deal of the century.” A depoliticized Palestine cannot also maintain a historical narrative that fuels political demands for a state, self-determination, or the right of return, and the plan unveiled by U.S. president Donald Trump in January 2020 thus portrays the Palestine issue as an economic and social problem that can be funded or subsidized into quiescence. Shuttering the archives through the removal of declassified material is part of the same strategy to “shut down” the Palestinian question altogether, which the Trump administration has already advanced by closing the PLO mission in Washington, moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, suspending U.S. funds to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, and portraying as legal Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.


The Nakba documents that would purportedly damage Israel's reputation, and on which the New Historians based their work in the 1980s, constitute less than 2 percent of all declassified documents in Israel, a tiny fraction by any measure. That, too, is now in the process of being disappeared.9 It is thus not unreasonable to conclude that the next generation of historians will neither be able to access new archival material nor revisit the references of their predecessors—at least in the near and foreseeable future. Scholarly challenges to the hegemonic framing of the conflict as a classic clash between two national movements entrenches the Nakba as a crime against humanity, a portrayal rejected by Israel and its apologists. But in light of the possibility of the complete denial of access in the future, do we today have enough “smoking gun” documents to support the notion of the Nakba as an act of ethnic cleansing and an attempt to effect the “elimination of the Native”?

Palestinian refugees bear witness to the depopulation of Palestine, and they certainly do not need Israel's New Historians to know that they or their forbears were ethnically cleansed—nor do we need archival documents to tell us that hundreds of villages have been destroyed and buried below new Jewish settlements and so-called national forests. Palestinian oral history was and remains the principal source for many of the horrific tales of brutality, including war crimes, during the Nakba—even though it took the span of an entire generation for most survivors to be willing or able to share their experiences and memories with researchers. That said, this particular archival material is essential for understanding the contemporary relevance of the 1948 ethnic cleansing, as well as the ideology and motives behind it. It also helps to fill gaps in the oral history descriptions of events as memory becomes less precise with the passage of time.


As a rule, and in other world contexts, there is no one so-called smoking gun document that maps out mass elimination or calls for, it in so many words—be it the genocide of the Native Americans in North and South America, of the Jews during the Holocaust, or of Rwandans in the contemporary era. Scholars working on genocide often raise the question of intent, on a grand scale, in cases where no “blueprint” can be found. But the absence of a smoking gun document seems to trouble academics more than jurists. As Alex de Waal has poignantly remarked, “While the absence of an ideological schema and transformational blueprint is important for diplomats and genocide scholars, it does not entail lack of guilt in law.”10 De Waal reminds us that the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (the special court set up by the UN Security Council to prosecute those responsible for the Rwandan genocide) established that what happened in Rwanda wasn't a genocide because of the existence of a blueprint but rather “from a number of presumptions of fact, including the general context in which deliberate harm was systematically inflicted on the target group.”11 Commenting on the situation in Sudan's Darfur region, he also makes the case for the occurrence of a crime against humanity on a genocidal scale without the existence of a master plan, something that is relevant not only for describing the Nakba but also for examining the incremental genocide Israel has been carrying out against the Gaza Strip since 2005. “The Sudanese government,” de Waal writes, “planned a counterinsurgency and gave its officers complete impunity to commit atrocities, which they have routinely done on a gross scale and an ethnic basis. This was ethics-free counterinsurgency, escalated to a genocidal extreme.”12

A similar point is made by legal scholar Alexander Zahar writing on the case of Rwanda. Zahar asserts that a master plan is never the sole explanation for the magnitude of a crime such as ethnic cleansing or genocide, emphasizing that the historical context is sometimes as important if not more so: “The Rwandan genocide was a flashpoint—one which now shines much brighter than others—along a path formed by constant conflict, beginning in the region many years ago and continuing to the present.”13 In other words, there is rarely a master document that lays out a careful and systematic plan for the mass murder or expulsion of a certain ethnic or religious group, although Walid Khalidi has demonstrated in the pages of this journal how close Plan D(alet) came to being just such a document.14

The absence of a master plan has led Benny Morris to conclude that the expulsion of the Palestinians was not premeditated or planned and that what occurred in 1948 was merely a matter of à la guerre, comme à la guerre.15 Be that as it may, the existence of a master document does not provide the principal proof for depicting an act as one of genocide or ethnic cleansing. The evidence is in the deed itself, not the documents behind it. But contextualizing the evidence both historically and (ideo)logically helps historians to assess the perpetrators' level of preparation and to expose the role of ideology in the execution of brutal policies of dispossession and destruction. No less important is the fact that such documents from the past can also be used to challenge absurdities like the Trump “peace plan” or other deal-of-the-century-type projects based on the notion that the Palestinian issue can be depoliticized and converted into an economic problem with humanitarian dimensions, thereby accomplishing the political “elimination of the Native” (what the late Baruch Kimmerling called politicide16) and a twenty-first-century version of terra nullius, “a land without a people.”

Truth be told, as professional historians, we need an abundance of such documents to validate the evidence of the Yishuv's and later Israel's criminal policy in 1948. Although the parallel task may be much easier for the post-1967 period, the continued examination of the intent and brutality behind the 1948 Nakba is actually far more critical to our understanding of the nature of the contemporary conflict. Fortunately, in addition to the incredible work that continues to be done on oral history, quite a few professional historians have managed, over the years, to come by seminal Israeli documents; and, of course, other archives, such as those of the United States, the United Kingdom, and the United Nations remain accessible and open to the public. In the Arab world, archives and their access can be problematic, but they are less relevant to the debate about elimination, ethnic cleansing, and structural violence against the Palestinians.

Documents in Jeopardy: Indicative Archive of the Nakba

In the pages that follow, I will discuss several documents, with accompanying images where possible, and comment on the significance of this evidence from the past that I came across and photocopied some time ago. The documents follow a certain logic, that of the chronological trajectory of ethnic cleansing operations in Palestine in 1948. Many other historians and journalists who have worked in Israel's archives have done the same, and we can thus assume that even after the recent reclassification of these documents, copies of them will continue to be found in many individuals' possessions and form an important source for future research.

The trajectory of conquest begins in April 1948 with the de-Arabization of much of Palestine's urban space and the Zionist occupation of the coastal area around Jaffa and Haifa in the weeks leading up to the end of the Mandate on 14 May (See figures 1 and 2). This initial phase of the military conquest of Palestine is followed by the period subsequent to the creation of the state on 15 May, when what is now the Israeli army targeted the northern coast and, in July, captured three remaining unoccupied Palestinian towns—Lydda, Ramla, and Nazareth (See figure 3). West Bank towns were spared by a tacit understanding between the Jewish Agency and the Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan reached before the outbreak of war. Gaza was also left untouched, becoming the major receiving center for the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians pushed out from the area starting south of Jaffa all the way down to Beersheba. The final stage of the military conquest, beginning in October 1948 and ending a month later, saw the Israeli takeover of the eastern plains between Jaffa and Jerusalem and the southern tip of the Hebron area (see the “Dear Comrade Eliezer Peri” letter). Simultaneously, Israeli forces occupied the northern and Upper Galilee (some of the atrocities there are documented in figure 4).

Even after Israel depopulated villages, their inhabitants attempted to return home once the fighting subsided, only to be driven out again. The final document (figure 5) is an order to expel such villagers from al-Majdal Asqalan in the Gaza district.

The documents presented here relate to major stages in the overall operation to dispossess and expel the indigenous population of Palestine, and they are corroborated by recent research based on oral history testimonies.17


In April and early May 1948, Zionist forces set their sights on Palestine's urban spaces. In a two-week span, they depopulated and de-Arabized Tiberias, Baysan, Safad, Haifa, West Jerusalem, Jaffa, and Acre. The urbicide was wholly premeditated, as evidenced by the following quote from Ben-Gurion cited in Simha Flapan's seminal work, The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities:

The strategic objective [of the Jewish forces] was to destroy the urban communities, which were the most organized and politically conscious sections of the Palestinian people. This was not done by house-to-house fighting inside the cities and towns, but by the conquest and destruction of the rural areas surrounding most of the towns. This technique led to the collapse and surrender of Haifa, Jaffa, Tiberias, Safed, Acre, [Baysan], Lydda, Raml[a], Majdal, and Beersheba. Deprived of transportation, food, and raw materials, the urban communities underwent a process of disintegration, chaos, and hunger, which forced them to surrender.18

Another area that was targeted before the end of the Mandate was the coastal plain that Zionist commanders and political leaders referred to as Hasharon Haviri (the Hebraic Sharon). The Sharon encompassed the coastal plain running southward from Jaffa all the way to the Zarqa River (where today lies the locality of Jisr al-Zarqa, about thirty kilometers south of Haifa). More than sixty Palestinian localities existed on this stretch of land; after the Nakba, only two remained: Jisr al-Zarqa and Furaydis.

Before embarking on the occupation of that part of Palestine, Zionist troops underwent intensive ideological indoctrination at the hands of their political officers (so-called politruks), most of it focused on the ancient history of the places they were about to capture. The narrative spun by the politruks framed the area as the “Hebrew coast that was occasionally invaded by foreigners.”19 Up to Roman times, tales of heroism abounded, according to this narrative; after that, the “Hebrew coast” was deserted because, “the Muslims, who were mainly land-oriented, did not require a developed coast; they preferred the desert. Since the Mamluks, the Sharon had remained deserted until the arrival of the first Zionists,”20 who found it totally devastated and no more than a plague-infested swamp. “Only with the Aliya and Jewish settlement at the end of the 19th century did a new period of prosperity begin [in the Sharon].”21 The Sharon was also portrayed as the launching pad for the Jewish “redemption” of Eretz Israel that was periodically and inhumanely disrupted by British policy. Despite the Zionists' best efforts, the area was still “full of aliens” and it was up to the Alexandroni Brigade to “liberate” it. The edited volume about the infamous brigade, which first appeared in 1964, describes this “liberation” as having begun with the eviction of the village of Sayyiduna Ali's two hundred residents in February 1948, followed by the expulsion of Qisariyya's eleven hundred inhabitants. Zionist paramilitaries perpetrated these mass expulsions as the British, who were responsible for law and order under the Mandate, looked on and did nothing. By March 1948, the entire stretch of the coastal plain had been cleansed but for a few Arab localities: ‘Ayn Ghazal, Jaba’, and Ijzim, which the Alexandroni book describes as stuck like a “bone in the throat,” and also al-Tantura that “had to be dealt with.”22 In the final days of the Mandate, the coast north of Haifa was de-Arabized, specifically the area lying between Acre and the Lebanese border that had been allocated to the Arab state under the United Nations Partition Resolution (United Nations Security Council Resolution 181), a fact that had no bearing whatsoever on Zionist plans to take as much of Palestine as possible.

My first two documents relate to Operation Ben-Ami's targeting of Palestine's northern coastal plain beginning in mid-May 1948. Although this has largely been overlooked by historians, the precursor to Ben-Ami—which was to have been executed before May 15, that is, before the end of the British Mandate—was initially named Operation Ehud. Ehud cannot be characterized as an à la guerre comme à la guerre operation because when it was ordered in April 1948, there was no war per se, and Zionist forces were being instructed to cleanse Palestine's urban space (an estimated population of 250,000) and the Galilee (where Palestinians constituted 97 percent of the overall population of 100,000).23 Documents such as these provide clear evidence of the systematic nature of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948.

Operation Ben-Ami targeted six villages, which the Haganah wiped out, committing massacres in the process. The villages were part of a densely populated rural area that the new State of Israel was determined to de-Arabize, and there was nothing whimsical or unplanned about the forced de-Arabization process. As attested to by the first document, the operation was meticulously planned on an hourly basis, with the high command estimating that it would take four hours to destroy all six villages.

Ben Ami/Ehud Operation Document Excerpts

Figure 1
April 1948 operational order detailing villages to be attacked by the Carmeli Brigade in the north of Palestine.24

April 1948 operational order detailing villages to be attacked by the Carmeli Brigade in the north of Palestine.24

The document in figure 1 reads in Hebrew, “Attack the villages of al-Kabri, al-Nahr, al-Bassa, al-Zib; destroy the gangs, the men, sabotage the properties and collect the loot. … Four hours after hour zero [the beginning of operations]: complete the mission in al-Kabri, al-Nahr, al-Ghabisiyya by inflicting maximum damage; the al-Kabri platoon moves to Umm al-Faraj and destroys the village; the al-Nahr platoon destroys [the village of] al-Tall.”25

The document in figure 2 contains similar instructions to the previous one and was issued on the eve of the operation which took place on 20 May 1948.

The document (figure 2) reads in Hebrew, “In the villages lying between Nahariyya and Tarshiha there are no foreign troops for the time being [a reference to the Arab Liberation Army, led by Fawzi al-Qawuqji]. The villagers are armed and ready for action.26 Your orders are to occupy, kill the men,27 destroy and burn down the villages of al-Kabri, Umm al-Faraj, and al-Nahr.”

Looking at these two documents simultaneously, it clearly emerges that prior to 15 May, the Zionist paramilitary thought the targeted villages might be aided by foreign troops or volunteers but were well aware by the eve of the actual operation that several villages would receive no such help.


During June 1948, the Zionist conquest continued, overpowering the contingents of regular soldiers that had arrived from various parts of the Arab world to aid the Palestinians. In this phase of the war, the areas targeted were the lower Galilee, the inner plain, and the northern Naqab. Additionally, two major Palestinian urban centers remained uncaptured: Lydda, including the adjoining town of Ramla, and Nazareth.

Information about exactly what happened in the urban center of Lydda and Ramla varies widely, both inside and outside the archive. Aside from the expulsion of the inhabitants, there is ample scholarly and journalistic evidence that 250 men, women, and children who had taken refuge in Lydda's great mosque were massacred, which hastened the depopulation of the two towns and cleared the way for the complete Judaization of the area between Jaffa and Jerusalem. More details have surfaced about the massacre thanks to unprecedented confessions by some of the men involved in the operation: in 2012–13, the filmmaker and scholar Eyal Sivan and I conducted interviews with more than thirty men who participated in the 1948 conquest, two of whom had been active in Lydda. An excerpt from their interview follows:

There is something. I'm not going to tell you what happened or did not happen; it does not matter.

What is it?

Drop it.

What about the massacre in the mosque?

You said it, not me [smiles]. They fled to the mosque, they thought it was the safest place, where they would not be killed. They thought Israelis will not destroy a mosque.

Do you know what a PIAT [Projector, Infantry, Anti-Tank weapon] is? Do you know this anti-tank bazooka? I used it to shoot at the mosque where they were sheltering.

Which mosque?

The one in [Lydda]. I went there with my PIAT. I fired a PIAT projectile in there.

Into the mosque?

Into the hall. Nobody was left alive.

What was the order?

What do you mean what was the order? “Shoot them with the PIAT.” Nothing can survive a PIAT.

How many people were killed?

A lot.

How many?

Plenty. I opened the door, I looked inside, and closed the door.

What did you see when you opened the door?

An empty hall and everyone [splattered] on the wall.

Lots of people?

A lot.

What ages?

Who can remember? But what I saw was enough.28 

Figure 2
Instructions dated 19 May 1948 for the capture and destruction of al-Kabri, Umm al-Faraj, and al-Nahr.

Instructions dated 19 May 1948 for the capture and destruction of al-Kabri, Umm al-Faraj, and al-Nahr.

The second major urban center relevant to the present discussion was Nazareth, which was occupied on 16 July 1948. With the occupation of Nazareth, Israeli forces completed the takeover of urban spaces in those parts of historical Palestine that became Israel in 1948. Nazareth was the only Palestinian town to be occupied but not “cleansed,” and we possess a crucial document, in the form of a telegram, explaining why it was spared.29 Immediately after overrunning the town, the commander in charge sent a telegram to military headquarters in Tel Aviv and received a handwritten reply from David Ben-Gurion: “Let me know urgently,” the commander writes. “Should I remove the inhabitants from the city of Nazareth? In my opinion, we should remove all of them, aside from religious dignitaries.” The telegram in figure 3 is annotated in Ben-Gurion's handwriting: “Do not remove people from Nazareth.”

The commander based his question on a known operational precedent: given that all the other Palestinian urban centers had been forcibly depopulated, he assumed that Nazareth would follow suit. But Ben-Gurion made the decision not to remove the Palestinians of Nazareth for fear of the Western—largely Christian—world's reaction. Historians writing about Ben-Gurion's decision have missed the most important part of the telegram, namely that the commander's very question implied that the default for a Palestinian locality was population removal, in other words, ethnic cleansing.

The months of October and November 1948 were devoted to taking over the rest of Mandate Palestine, other than what was later to become known as the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. During the fall of 1948, the Israeli army actively pursued the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in the east and north of the country. By this point, Palestinian villagers were putting up strong resistance to the Zionists' expulsion policy, which meant further massacres and atrocities. Without wanting to suggest a hierarchy of atrocities, it appears that the brutal massacre at al-Dawayima was a horror scene involving an exceptionally callous series of operations.

Figure 3
Telegram dated 16 July 1948 from field commander to military headquarters in Tel Aviv with handwritten response from Ben-Gurion instructing, “Do not remove people from Nazareth.”

Telegram dated 16 July 1948 from field commander to military headquarters in Tel Aviv with handwritten response from Ben-Gurion instructing, “Do not remove people from Nazareth.”


After Israeli forces occupied al-Dawayima on 29 October 1948, a soldier's eyewitness report was included in a letter to Al Hamishmar, the daily of the left-wing Zionist Mapam Party, dated 8 November 1948. Although the newspaper never published it, the letter was preserved in the Mapam archives where it was found by Benny Morris, who then provided a copy of it to historian Yair Auron.30 The letter enumerates details of the massacre at al-Dawayima as told to the author of the letter by a soldier who participated in the operation.

A number of scholars have made use of the letter as a “smoking gun” document. Their interest in it understandably lies in the graphic description of atrocities committed by the troops.31 However, what in my view is far more significant (see emphasis in excerpt below) is that the letter demonstrates that brutality and inhumanity were routinely and commonly used to advance the goal of “eliminating the Native.”

Dear Comrade Eliezer Peri,32

I read today's editorial in Al Hamishmar about procedure in our army, which conquers everything except its base instincts.

Eyewitness testimony given to me by a soldier who was in Dawayima on the day after its capture. The soldier is one of ours, an intellectual, 100-percent reliable. He told me what was in his heart because of a psychological need to unburden his soul of the horrific awareness that our cultured and educated people are capable of achieving this level of barbarism. He told me what was in his heart, because not many hearts today are capable of listening.

There was no battle and no resistance (and no Egyptians). The first conquerors [to enter the village] killed from 80 to 100 [male] Arabs, women and children. They killed the children by smashing their skulls with sticks. There was not a home without its dead. The second wave of the army was a company to which the testifying soldier belonged.

Arab men and women who remained in the village were shut into houses without food or water. Then came sappers to blow up houses. One commander ordered a sapper to put two old Arab women into the particular house that was going to be blow up with them inside. The sapper refused, saying he took orders only from his commander. So, the commander ordered his soldiers to shut the women in, and the horror was perpetrated.

One soldier boasted that he had raped an Arab woman and then shot her. Another Arab woman who was carrying a newborn baby was made to clean the courtyard, where the soldiers eat. She did that service for a day or two, and in the end she and her baby were shot. The soldier relates that their cultured, polite commanders, who are considered upstanding members of society, turned into base murderers, and not in the heat and passion of battle but in a system of expulsion and destruction.33The fewer Arabs that remain, the better. That principle is the political driving force of the expulsions and atrocities, to which no one objects, either in the operational command or in high command.34 I myself was at the front for two weeks and heard tales of boasting by soldiers and commanders of how they excelled at hunting and “screwing.” To screw an Arab, just like that and under all circumstances, is an honorable mission and there's competition for winning at this.

We are in a bind. To issue an outcry in the press is to assist the Arab League, as our representative rejects their complaints out of hand. Not to react is [to show] solidarity with baseness of spirit. The soldier told me that Deir Yassin is not the peak of the wildness. Can we shout about Deir Yassin and remain silent about far worse?35

Upon hearing about this letter, then-Mapam agriculture minister Aharon Zisling told his cabinet colleagues, “I felt that the things that were going on were wounding my soul, the soul of my family and all of us here. I could not imagine where we came from and where we were going … [even though the] British did commit Nazi crimes … now Jews too have behaved like Nazis and my entire being has been shaken. We have to conceal these actions from the public, and I agree that we should not even reveal that we are investigating them, but they must be investigated.”36

The letter is referenced by both Tom Segev and Morris in their respective books, but when Auron went to the archive to look it up, he discovered that it had disappeared.37


Yossef Vashitz was a member of Hashomer Hatzair who later joined the Palmach, the storm troops of the Haganah. Vashitz worked in Hashomer Hatzair's “Arab Department.” In his personal papers, an undated half-page document references Operation Hiram, a period of three-and-a-half days during which the Israeli army occupied the Upper Galilee at the very end of October 1948.38 The document states that, in Safsaf, “They caught fifty-two men, tied them to one another, dug a hole and shot them. Ten were still alive [when thrown into the pit] the women came and asked for mercy. They found the bodies of six old men, all in all sixty-one bodies, three [reported] cases of rape … one, a child aged fourteen, four men shot and killed. They cut off someone's finger in order to remove his ring.”

In this document, Vashitz quotes directly from the notes of a Mapam colleague, Aharon Cohen (who would later be indicted on charges of espionage for the Soviet Union), taken during a meeting with Israel Galili, one of the members of the Zionist cabal known as Ben-Gurion's “advisory council,”39 which planned and executed the 1948 ethnic cleansing. The full quote appears in several sources, including Morris's The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem.40 Another very similar description of the massacre in Safsaf, from Yossef Nahmani's diaries, appeared in the pages of this journal in an article penned by Morris twenty-five years ago.41

Vashitz also has an entry about Jish, which reads, “Four hundred inhabitants, a woman carrying a baby, both dead, four women [dead], eleven dead troops.”42 Jish was a village in the Safad district that, like other villages in the vicinity, initially resisted capture. It was one of the only villages spared after Operation Hiram ended. A week after the end of the operation, it was decided to ethnically cleanse all the villages lying parallel to the border with Lebanon, but the friendship of some of Jish's village elders with the Zionist leader and later president of Israel, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, saved them from being expelled. The villages in question—Nabi Rubin, Tarbikha, Suruh, al-Mansura, Iqrit, and Kafr Bir‘im—were all demolished. And in ‘Ayn Zaytun, a village in the same district that provides the setting for Elias Khoury's novel Bab al-Shams (Gate of the Sun), Israeli soldiers ripped the earrings off women's ears. Interestingly, Vashtiz's list does not include some of the more notorious atrocities that are reported in a number of other sources. The ones he does list here are those that were the worst in his eyes:

Kafr Bir‘im:
The same scene. Earrings with ears; killed without reason.

[a village in the Upper Galilee, which was destroyed] Cases of murder, especially of old people.

[a village in the lower Galilee, in the Tiberias District] One thousand people, the army received the surrender, massacre, food [looted]. The expulsion of the village by shooting began. Thirty people were killed. An order to expel the village. The rumors have reached beyond the border [with Lebanon].

Ninety-two old men, babies, and women, the house was blown up over them.

[a village not far from Nazareth] Wanted to surrender at the time of Qawuqji [Fawzi al-Qawuqji, the commander of the Arab Liberation Army of volunteers that tried to aid the Palestinians]. He took his revenge, now we did.43

While several sources mention some of these atrocities, they are always referred to as war crimes committed in the heat of battle. But as I have shown earlier in this essay, such actions were the rule and not the exception.

Israeli historian Tamar Novick first came across Vashitz's list in the Yad Yaari archive before it was closed. (Both Morris and I were familiar with this document, as I directed the peace institute at Yad Yaari for several years). Novick shared her findings with Akevot, and her translation of the document in figure 4 was part of the previously mentioned report published by Haaretz. When Novick went back to the archive and asked for the document, she was told researchers were barred from seeing it by order of the Ministry of Defense.

Figure 4
A half page from Yossef Vaschitz's personal papers detailing atrocities committed during Operation Hiram in the Upper Galilee villages of Safsaf, Jish, Kafr Bir‘im, Sa‘sa‘, ‘Aylabun, Saliha, and Mashhad.

A half page from Yossef Vaschitz's personal papers detailing atrocities committed during Operation Hiram in the Upper Galilee villages of Safsaf, Jish, Kafr Bir‘im, Sa‘sa‘, ‘Aylabun, Saliha, and Mashhad.


The last two areas that remained outside Zionist control in November 1948 were the Naqab, particularly its northwestern flank, which also formed the southern coast of the country stretching between Jaffa and Gaza; and the Upper Galilee. As mentioned earlier, by the winter of 1948, villagers from Palestine's rural areas had begun to put up resistance to Zionist attacks, including by attempting to return to villages from which they had earlier been expelled. These “unauthorized” returns led in turn to the staging of two more ethnic cleansing operations.

Figure 5
Order Number 40 of 25 November 1948 detailing how Palestinian refugees should be driven out of the villages in the Gaza district to which they had returned after earlier expulsion and flight.

Order Number 40 of 25 November 1948 detailing how Palestinian refugees should be driven out of the villages in the Gaza district to which they had returned after earlier expulsion and flight.

The document in figure 5, dated 25 November 1948, concerns the return of refugees to the locality of al-Majdal Asqalan and the surrounding villages in the district of Gaza.44 These villages are particularly relevant in the context of the Great March of Return protests that have been taking place on a weekly basis at the Gaza perimeter fence since March 2018. Protesters at the fence are in many cases third-generation refugees from these villages who are demanding, among other things, the right of return to their homes of origin:

Your role is to expel the Arab refugees from these villages and prevent their return by destroying the villages.

The method: [After] surveying the villages of al-Khisas, Jira, Khirbat Khuza‘a, Bi‘lin,

al-Jiyya, Barbara, Bayt Jirja, Hiribya, Dayr Sunayd, gather the inhabitants, load them onto vehicles and expel them to Gaza. They have to be removed beyond [Israeli] lines in Bayt Hanun.

Separate refugees and locals in al-Majdal and remove the refugees.

Burn the villages and demolish the stone houses.

The rest of the document outlines the logistics involved in the mission. This document too is no longer in the archive.

In a testimony to Zochrot, the Israeli nongovernmental organization dedicated to promoting accountability for the ongoing injustices of the Nakba as well as its redress, a Palmach soldier who took part in both the initial depopulation efforts, as well as in the second round, specifically mentions burning down villages as a tactic to depopulate them. In his testimony, Amnon Neuman says, “It became an open space [after we occupied the villages]. One you can navigate in. We did not enter villages to stay in them, but to expel them. By the morning nobody was left there. We burnt their houses with the hay [thatch] roofs.”45

Who was responsible for such actions from February to December 1948? Palmach veterans Khanovitz and Yehuda Kedar have little doubt. In the excerpt below, Khanovitz refers to the expulsion of Palestinians in eastern Palestine.

And Yigal Alon's plan [with regard to the villages in the eastern Galilee] was to expel everyone?

[after hesitation] [It was also] Ben-Gurion's plan, at the end of the day.

What do you mean?

It was said that Ben-Gurion gave the order to deport them. 

As for Kedar, this is how he described the Nakba expulsions:

The order Zvika [my commander] gave us was to expel.

Zvika Zamir.46

Yes, Zvika Zamir received the order from Ben-Gurion. From the highest authorities. Not to kill, there was no intention to kill. Those who refused to leave, we had to kill them.

So, this was in the order, that those who do not want to leave they will be …

Yes, yes! Those who do not leave a place we need to “take care” of them.47


      * * * * *      

“We did not come to collect their taxes. We came to seize the land from foreigners. That was the basis of our thinking. To inherit the land. And we inherited the land. And those that inherit dispossess the others. This is why they were not allowed to return, everywhere in the north and in the south.”48 In light of such testimonials by veterans of the 1948 war that encapsulate the truth which Israel is so eager to hide and cover up, there is no substitute for the documentary evidence found in the specific orders, commands, and other material that is today no longer accessible.

The few documents presented here form the tip of an iceberg; there are thousands, if not tens of thousands, of such documents in the possession of activists, journalists, and scholars. While they may be photocopies and scans of originals, they offer authentic and minutely detailed evidence of the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine. Continuing to collect, share, and publicize such documents is an important part of the ongoing struggle against Nabka denial and the attempt to depoliticize the Palestine issue. This is all the more important in light of the recent unveiling of the Trump administration's “deal of the century,” which blatantly disregards a historical narrative that clearly establishes the (ongoing) Nakba as a moral injustice and a crime against humanity. 


See Seth Anziska, “The Erasure of the Nakba in Israel's Archives,” JPS 49, no. 1: pp. 64–76. –Ed.
See Mustafa Abbasi, “The Battle for Safad in the War of 1948: A Revised Study,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 36, no. 1 (February 2004): pp. 21–47; Saleh Abd Jawad, “Colonial Anthropology: The Haganah Village Intelligence Archives,” Jerusalem Quarterly no. 68 (Winter 2016): pp. 21–35; Nur Masalha, The Expulsion of the Palestinians: The Concept of “Transfer” in Zionist Political Thought, 1882–1948 (Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1992).
See Hagar Shezaf, “Burying the Nakba: How Israel Systematically Hides Evidence of 1948 Expulsion of Arabs,” Haaretz, 5 July 2019,
Akevot claims that the removal of documents on the Nakba is illegal and without authority, although I doubt this is the case given the levels of indoctrination in Israel and the censorship structure that operates in the country. Still, these issues are very hard to “prove.”
Malmab barred Cohen from using research material he had gathered on Israel's nuclear arsenal and policy after designating him a subversive. See Avner Cohen, The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel's Bargain with the Bomb (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012); see also John Cassidy, “What about Israel's Nukes?” New Yorker, 5 March 2012,
Shezaf, “Burying the Nakba.”
Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research 8, no. 4 (December 2006): pp. 387–409.
Omar J. Salamanca, et al., “Past Is Present: Settler Colonialism in Palestine,” Settler Colonial Studies 2, no. 1 (2012): pp. 1–8.
Seyed H. Borhani, “Palestine Studies in Western Academia: Shifting a Paradigm?” Iranian Review of Foreign Affairs 5, no. 4 (Winter 2015): pp. 119–50.
On this situation, see Ilan Pappé, “Finding the Truth amid Israel's Lies,” Electronic Intifada, 30 May 2018,
10 Alex de Waal, “Defining Genocide,” Index on Censorship 34, no. 1 (February 2005): pp. 6–13, I reached a similar conclusion in my book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine when discussing the events of the Nakba from legal and moral standpoints. See Ilan Pappé, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (New York: Oneworld, 2007), pp. 1–7.
11 De Waal, “Defining Genocide,” p. 9 (italics added for emphasis).
12 De Waal, “Defining Genocide,” p. 9.
13 Alexander Zahar, “Focus on Rwanda,” Journal of Genocide Research 3, no. 2 (February 2001): pp. 293–300.
14 Walid Khalidi, “Plan Dalet: Master Plan for the Conquest of Palestine,” JPS 18, no. 1 (Autumn 1988): pp. 4–33.
15 Benny Morris, “Israel Conducted No Ethnic Cleansing in 1948,” Haaretz, 10 October 2016,
16 Baruch Kimmerling, Politicide: The Real Legacy of Ariel Sharon (New York: Verso, 2003).
17 See Nahla Abdo and Nur Masalha, eds., An Oral History of the Palestinian Nakba (London: Zed Books, 2019); Rana Barakat, “Lifta, the Nakba, and the Museumification of Palestine's History,” Native American and Indigenous Studies 5, no. 2 (Fall 2018): pp. 1–15; Samera Esmeir, “Memories of Conquest: Witnessing Death in Tantura,” in Nakba: Palestine, 1948, and the Claims of Memory, ed. Ahmad H. Sa'di and Lila Abu-Lughod (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), pp. 229–52; and Sherna B. Gluck, “Review Essay: The Voices of Palestinian Women; Oral History, Testimony, and Biographical Narrative,” Oral History Review 18, no. 2 (Fall 1990): pp. 115–24.
18 As quoted in Simha Flapan, The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities (New York: Pantheon Books, 1987), pp. 92–93. In both the Hebrew and English editions, the quote is cited incorrectly.
19 Gershon Rivlin and Zvi Sinai, eds., Hativat Alexandroni Bemilhemet Haqomemiut [The Alexandroni Brigade in the War of Independence], rev. ed. (Tel Aviv: Maarachot, 1992), pp. 26–28.
20 Rivlin and Sinai, eds., Hativat Alexandroni, pp. 26–28.
21 Rivlin and Sinai, eds., Hativat Alexandroni, pp. 26–28.
22 Rivlin and Sinai, eds., Hativat Alexandroni, pp. 58–59.
23 Ben Ami/Ehud operation documents to Carmeli Brigade, April 1948 and 19 May 1948, 100/35, Haganah Historical Archive, Tel Aviv. While the document is no longer accessible, original references appear in figures 1 and 2.
24 All figures, unless otherwise indicated, were scanned by Oshri Laad circa 2001 from the IDF archive and provided by the author.
25 All translations, unless otherwise indicated, were provided by the author.
26 Villagers in fact had no proper weapons, only hunting rifles and the rifles of Palestinian men who served in the police force; without Arab troops, who were absent, they stood no chance.
27 In April 1948, the intelligence arm of the Haganah defined a man as any boy above the age of ten.
28 Conversation with Binyamin Rosky and Yerichmiel Khanovitz, 23 July 2012, Kibbutz Degania. Videos of these testimonies were later part of the exhibition held at Zochrot from 2 October 2012 to 15 January 2013, titled Towards a Common Archive: Video Testimonies of Zionists Fighters in 1948. See
29 Military headquarters of Brigade 7 to general headquarters in Tel Aviv, 17 July 1948, 75/922/1025, IDF archive, Tel Aviv. See figure 3.
30 The letter and the circumstances in which it appeared can be found in Yair Auron, “Breaking the Silence: The Poem That Exposed Israeli War Crimes in 1948,” Haaretz, 18 March 2016,
31 For both Tom Segev and Benny Morris, I am using here the Hebrew editions of their books as the text of the letter and subsequent document are originally in Hebrew. See Tom Segev, 1949: The First Israelis (Jerusalem: Keter, 2001), pp. 87–88; Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947–1949 (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1987), pp. 295–97.
32 Styled per Haaretz.
33 Ha-shmada in Hebrew, often used to refer to the Holocaust as hashmadat ha-yehudim—the elimination of the Jews.
34 Italics for emphasis.
35 Auron, “Breaking the Silence.”
36 Auron, “Breaking the Silence.”
37 Auron writes that from Zisling's “private archive,” as it is designated, not only were minutes of cabinet meetings from decades ago removed, but also personal letters.
38 See the story of how a student came across this document in Shezaf's article, “Burying the Nakba.” See figure 5.
39 On the Advisory Council, see Pappé, Ethnic Cleansing.
40 Morris, Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, p. 307.
41 Nahmani, who was a director at the Jewish National Fund and purchased Palestinian land on behalf of the agency, wrote in his 6 November 1948 diary entry, “In Safsaf, after … the inhabitants had raised a white flag, the [soldiers] collected and separated the men and women, tied the hands of 56 fellahin [peasants] and shot and killed them and buried them in a pit. Also, they raped several women.” See Benny Morris, “Falsifying the Record: A Fresh Look at Zionist Documentation of 1948,” JPS 24, no. 3 (Spring 1995): p. 55.
42 From the personal papers of Yossef Vashitz, Givat Haviva, Israel.
43 This is a verbatim translation. The reference is probably to a famous attack by the Arab Liberation Army on Kibbutz Mishmar Ha-emek, in which Qawuqji participated, and the implication is that the attack on Mashhad was a kind of retaliation in Vashitz's mind. Photocopy provided to the author by Tamar Novik.
44 Message from the Coastal Plain District to Battalion 151, 25 November 1948, 6308/49/141, IDF archives.
45 Zochrot, “Testimony of Amnon Neuman,” posted 27 December 2011, YouTube video, 13:52, quote at 9:45,
46 Zvika Zamir was a battalion commander in 1948 and the head of Mossad, Israel's national intelligence agency, from 1968–74.
47 Yerichmiel Khanovitz and Yehuda Kedar, in conversation with the author, Tel Aviv, 2 October 2012. See Zochrot, Video Testimonies of Zionists Fighters in 1948.
48 Zochrot, “Testimony of Amnon Neuman,” YouTube video.
Author biography: 

Ilan Pappé is the director of the European Center for Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter. He is the author of twenty books, among them, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (Oxford: Oneworld, 2006) and his latest, Ten Myths About Israel (London: Verso, 2017).