60 Years of Division
The Nakba in al-Ramla
An account of the day in 1948 when 50,000 Arabs were forced from their homes.
Last Modified: 21 Jul 2008 20:18 GMT

An elderly Palestinian woman remembers the Nakba [GALLO/GETTY]











The Nakba in al-Ramla is the second part of Sandy Tolan's account of the fall of an Arab town in July 1948 and the expulsion of its residents. Click here to read the first part.

Firdaws Taji Khairi will always remember the voices of Israeli soldiers shouting through loudspeakers outside her home in al-Ramla, as the Nakba unfolded right before her.

"Yallah Abdullah!" they cried as they pounded on people's doors with the butts of their rifles. "Go to King Abdullah! Go to Ramallah!"

It was a scorching day on the coastal plain of Palestine in mid-July 1948. A couple of days earlier, the town had surrendered to Israeli forces after they stormed the nearby city of Lydda.

Moshe Dayan led the attack on Lydda [GALLO/GETTY]
Word had arrived in the al-Ramla shelters: After a lightning blitz on Lydda, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Moshe Dayan, which left dozens of Palestinians dead, Israeli troops had gunned down dozens more in Lydda's Dahmash mosque.

Hoping to avoid a similar catastrophe, al-Ramla's "notables" had signed the surrender, believing they would be allowed to stay in their homes in the city, now occupied by the Jewish army.

Instead, Firdaws, 16-years old, could hear the soldiers announcing the arrival of buses to take residents of al-Ramla to the front lines of the Arab Legion.

No matter what the terms of surrender, or what Sheikh Mustafa Khairi, the town patriarch, had tried to negotiate, tens of thousands of residents of al-Ramla and Lydda were being forced to leave their homes.

Furnace of dispossession

The expulsions from al-Ramla and Lydda, 60 years ago this week, form one of the most significant and brutal chapters in the Palestinian Nakba of 1948.

The stories of eviction at gunpoint, and of the forced march that followed, echo six decades later from across the Palestinian diaspora: from the refugee camps near Ramallah, to the white stone homes of Amman, to living rooms in Kuwait, London, Boston or San Francisco.  

The recollections of those who marched through the heat of mid-July, coupled with intelligence dispatches and the archived documents from Israeli and Arab commanders of the day, create an indisputable record of forced expulsions that runs counter to the comfortable narrative that Israelis and Americans have understood about the 1948 war: That the 750,000 Arab civilians displaced in the war somehow left their homes voluntarily; or that, in the vernacular of an Israeli children's textbook, the Arabs "preferred to leave".

It is in this chapter of the Nakba that one can understand both the power of the Palestinian memory, and how the burning wish to return, by any means necessary, was forged in a furnace of dispossession.

The morning of July 14 was blazing hot. It was the seventh day of Ramadan. Thousands of people had already been expelled from al-Ramla.

Firdaws and her extended family sat waiting at al-Ramla's bus terminal. There were perhaps 35 in all, the Khairis and their relatives, the Tajis. Sheikh Khairi was among them.

They carried suitcases and bundles of clothes; some had gold strapped to their bodies. Firdaws had packed her Girl Guide uniform (akin to that of the Girl Scouts) and brought along her knife and her whistle.

At home, the family had left behind nearly all of its treasured possessions: furniture, rugs, books, family pictures, cups and saucers, etched crystal drinking goblets; sweet dried chickpeas, sugared almonds on silver trays, grape leaves in brine; silk and linen, fezzes and gallabiyas, balloon pants and sashes and belts; amber, coral, indigo, and silver bracelets with Ottoman coins; fields of okra and wild peas; orchards of lemons, apricots, and olives. The families would be back soon to tend to them all; of that they were certain.

The bus came and the family boarded it, rolling towards the front lines at Latrun.

'Drive them out!'

Some Israeli officials had been pressing military commanders to suspend the expulsions. 

Two days earlier, on the afternoon of July 12, Bechor Shalom Shitrit, the Israeli minister of minority affairs, had arrived at a junction of roads between al-Ramla and Lydda, where he was greeted by the sight of throngs of people walking east. He was outraged. As the man responsible for Arabs in the new Israeli state, he protested against the expulsions in a conversation with the foreign minister, Moshe Sharett.  

David Ben-Gurion decided to expel al-Ramla's civilian population [GALLO/GETTY]
Shitrit, however, did not realise that the decision to expel had already been made, at a meeting between David Ben-Gurion, the prime minister, Lieutenant-Colonel Yitzhak Rabin and Yigal Allon, commander of the Israeli military's Operation Dani.

Rabin, the future prime minister, would recall in his memoirs that Ben-Gurion, when asked what they should do with the civilian population of al-Ramla and Lydda, "waved his hand in a gesture which said, 'Drive them out!'"

Shitrit also could not have known that Allon had already considered the military advantages of expulsion.

Driving out the citizens of al-Ramla and Lydda, Allon believed, would alleviate the pressure from an armed and hostile population. It would clog the roads towards the Arab Legion front, seriously hampering any effort to retake the towns. And the sudden arrival of thousands of destitute refugees in the West Bank and Transjordan would place a great financial burden on King Abdullah of Transjordan.

Orders to expel the residents of al-Ramla and Lydda were given in the early afternoon of July 12. The Lydda order, stating: "The inhabitants of Lydda must be expelled quickly without attention to age," was given at 1.30pm by Rabin.

Marched towards exile 

The Lydda residents, prodded forward by soldiers who fired into the air behind them, received the harshest treatment.

Numerous eyewitness accounts, corroborated by Israeli official Aharon Cohen in a July 1948 cabinet meeting, describe Lydda residents being forced to surrender their gold jewellery and other valuable possessions before being marched towards exile. 
"Regrettably, our forces have committed criminal acts that may stain the Zionist movement's good name," Shitrit would say later. "The finest of us have given a bad example to the masses."

When the bus carrying Firdaws and her family arrived at the front lines at Latrun, they were ordered off and told to march north, towards Salbit. It was only four kilometres – people from Lydda had to walk much further – but by now it was 100C. There was no shade and no road, just a steep rise across cactus and Christ's thorn.

Firdaws looked up across the hard-baked earth as knots of people moved slowly along in the waves of heat.

Today, from her exile in Ramallah, she remembers watching a pregnant woman stumbling through the hills. There, her water broke, and she gave birth on the hot ground.

Thirst gripped everyone's mind as white crusts formed around their mouths. They were always looking for shade and water. They crossed fields of corn, where they plucked ripe ears and sucked the moisture out of the kernels. Firdaws saw a boy peeing into a can and then watched his grandmother drink from it.

Meandering journey

By late afternoon, they still had not reached Salbit, and some feared they had become lost. Years later, people would recall that their confused, meandering journey over rocky terrain would turn out to be much longer than four kilometres.

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The fall of an Arab town in 1948

The Khairis and the Tajis began to shed their belongings. Their suitcases had been discarded long ago.

After a time people found a well, and rejoiced, but then learned to their horror that the rope was broken. Women removed their dresses, lowered them into the stagnant water, and lifted them back up, placing the fabric to their children's lips so they could suck on the wet cloth.

An estimated 30,000 people from al-Ramla and Lydda staggered through the hills that day; the total number of people expelled from both towns exceeded 50,000. 

One of them was Khalil al-Wazir of al-Ramla, better known as Abu Jihad, who, 17 years later, would join forces with Yassir Arafat as Fatah launched the first of many guerilla attacks on Israeli soil - efforts to avenge the dispossession and fight for the right of return for Palestinians.

Another was Dr George Habash of Lydda, a medical student in 1948 whose sister had been killed by Israelis, and who would later form the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, well known in the 1970s for its embrace of "armed struggle," including many airline hijackings and attacks on Israeli civilians - actions designed, Habash would say, to deprive Israelis of any sense of "reassurance and security".

City of refugees

As the Palestinians trekked through the hills, commanders on both sides began receiving cables.

John Bagot Glubb, the British commander of the Arab Legion, knew it was "a blazing day in the coastal plains, the temperature about a 100C in the shade". He knew that the refugees were crossing "stony fallow covered with thorn bushes" and that, in the end, "nobody will ever know how many children died".

On July 15, before the march from al-Ramla and Lydda was over, Ben-Gurion wrote in his diary: "The Arab Legion has wired that there are 30,000 refugees moving along the road between Lydda and Ramla, who are infuriated with the Legion. They're demanding bread. They should be taken across the Jordan river" - into Abdullah's kingdom and away from the new state of Israel.

In the evening, Firdaws and her family came to a grove of fig trees in the village of Salbit. Hundreds of other refugee families were gathered in the orchards. Someone brought water. Firdaws tried to rest.

The next morning, trucks from the Arab Legion took the family to Ramallah. They reached the crest of a hill just west of the city. Below them lay a vast bowl: the valley of Ramallah. The city had long been a Christian hill town and cool summer haven for Arabs from the Levant to the Gulf.

Now Ramallah had been transformed into a city of refugees. Stunned and humiliated, they milled about, looking for food, and determined, from that moment, to return home.

Sandy Tolan is the author of The Lemon Tree: An Arab, A Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East, from which this account is drawn. He is associate professor of journalism at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Southern California.

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