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What really happened in the conquest of Lod?

In a series of books on the taking of Arab cities during the War of Independence, the Ministry of Defense launches an attack on the New Historians

By Tom Segev, Haaretz May 12, 2000

As the sun set on Sunday, July 11, 1948, IDF troops entered the town of Lod (Lydda), and its notables surrendered. Lod was conquered in the course of the Dani campaign; Ramle and some villages were taken as well. The objective was to take control of the airstrip and secure the route to Jerusalem. The significance of this story goes beyond the military results of the campaign, because the battle for Lod gave luster to the biographies of a number of army officers who subsequently became part of Israel's political leadership - including Yitzhak Rabin, Moshe Dayan and Yigal Allon. Battles fought during this stretch of the 1948 conflict became the crux of the political and moral arguments about what is permissible and what is forbidden in war, and about the future of relations between Israel and Palestinian Arabs. As the battle for Lod drew near, and then as the town's fate was sealed, local residents - 30,000 of them - left. They became refugees. Their story represents a central chapter in the Palestinian tragedy.The Haganah Archive and the Defense Ministry press are currently sponsoring the publication of a new book about the conquest of Lod. It is to be the first in a series, "The War for the Cities," whose publication is an important event. The intention is apparently to issue a book for each city, and together, they should constitute the most significant effort to consolidate an official military historiography since the publication of "Toldot Hahaganah."

The authors of the volume on Lod are two well-known historians from the Hebrew University, Alon Kadish, formerly the head of the university's history department, and Avraham Sela, a Middle Eastern studies expert. A section devoted to the city of Lod was written by a Haifa University geographer, Arnon Golan. The publication's political and moral importance should not be underestimated. A "peace of the brave" requires Israel to courageously recognize its own part in the tragedy that befell the Palestinians. This means disclosing war crimes committed in the past; any attempt to conceal those wrongs is liable to pave the way for crimes in the next war. With justification, the book's jacket says that the story of the conquest of Lod is of considerable interest. The discussion revolves around two fundamental questions: Did Palmach fighters massacre Arab prisoners who were taken after the city was conquered? And were the town's residents made to flee on the basis of a pre-prepared plan?

The formulation of the questions reflects a punctilious, almost legalistic, approach. The same can be said for the answers supplied: "There is no evidence" of a massacre; "There is no possibility of reconstructing with certainty" who initiated the deportation. Regrettably, however, such answers are inadequate.

The State of Israel has, over the years, been a prolific publisher of history books. The Defense Ministry and the IDF run their own publishing house to produce these histories. The Education Ministry, the Foreign Ministry and the Israel State Archives also release official histories. Such publishing efforts are, of course, perfectly legitimate, because the struggle over history-telling has been paramount in the struggle for control of the Land of Israel. By the same token, it's natural that the official version of history is rife with mythology, apologetics, and ideology. In fact, books about Israel's wars published by the Defense Ministry must be perused with the same critical attitude applied to publications of the Red Army press.

At the beginning of the 1980s, Israel opened some of its official archives to research. For the first time, researchers were able to test official histories with facts found in archival materials. A generation of Israeli historians, branded the "New Historians," arose; they based much of their work on the discovery that the state had often lied. Official published histories, and texts incorporated in school curricula did not tell the whole truth; and some of the stories they told, it turned out, were far from true. Israel's "new history" is no longer a new story. Innumerable articles have analyzed it; books and doctorates in virtually every language have been written about the it. Fifteen years after they emerged for the first time, virtually everything can be said about these historians, but they are not "new."

In Israel, they are still often treated with suspicion, and hostility as well; but the academic community abroad regards them as reliable scholars. The best-known figure in this group is Benny Morris, a professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be'er Sheva. Among other publications, Morris has written a book on the birth of the refugee problem. The new Defense Ministry volume on the conquest of Lod is designed to prove that Morris did not write the truth when he described the killing of civilians in the town as a massacre. Half the book's opening page is taken up by a quotation from an article published by Morris in Ha'aretz magazine - and the next 56 pages promote the conclusion that Morris' statements are unfounded. The tenor of the criticism leveled against Morris is acerbic, and verges on ridicule.

Kadish, Sela and Golan proceed as though they are writing for readers who are versed in the details of the Dani campaign, and who merely need some reinforcement to stand up against the likes of people like Morris. Basic questions, such as why Lod was conquered in the first place, remain unanswered; they are treated as though they are self-evident issues. It's not clear who decided to conquer the town or when this decision was reached. The state had already been established, and the government was already meeting. Was a comprehensive plan to conquer the country presented to it? Did the government discuss details of the conquest? Was there any argument about it? Was there a vote? No discussion about such issues appears in this book.

The volume's opening section furnishes historical, geographic, economic, demographic and military information about Lod. The section is written as though it was prepared by an intelligence officer. There were people in this town; they were born, and gave birth; they lived and died, loved and hated, believed and feared. They had illusions and hopes, daily burdens, intrigues. At the end of the day portrayed in the main part of this book, an entire community was gone. It had departed to become part of a dispersion, to become part of a terrible national and human tragedy. But Golan, Sela and Kadish write about Lod as though it were simply a point on the map to be conquered. Sometimes it seems as though they expect the readers to take up cudgels, and head off to battle themselves.

Soldiers in the 3rd Battalion of the Palmach's Yiftah Brigade are depicted in a more human way. The hours-long battle taxed them, the searing heat made it tough: "The hamsin boiled, and our skin became a sticky layer of mud," one soldier in this battalion relates "Our steel helmets were akin to white-hot frying-pans." Departing for battle, the soldiers grumbled that they didn't have time to eat some chickens they had slaughtered. Sardines eaten the night before caused indigestion, vomiting and headaches. Worse than anything, they were thirsty; it seems that they hadn't taken enough water with them to battle. Four soldiers were killed, and 42 were wounded.

Kadish details the battle plans and deployments, and the progress made by the various units. He devotes a portion of his analysis to Moshe Dayan's part in the conquest of Lod. Dayan was the commander of the 89th Battalion. Kadish sternly upbraids him: "The 89th Battalion's engagement was characterized by confusion, lack of familiarity with the territory, and battalion commander Moshe Dayan's difficulties controlling his troops in the battle - it [the battalion] brought about the collapse of the local Arab effort in Lod's eastern parts by accident. Due to a dearth of field and General Staff intelligence, an action that had originally been planned as a step to finish up a military operation based on the principle of the indirect approach, turned into a rash, full frontal assault."

Hence, the Defense Ministry is pitted here against Moshe Dayan. But the two salient questions are left unresolved: the massacre and the expulsion; or, to quote Kadish, faithfully, "the massacre," and the expulsion. @CROSStom:2. 'The Arabs are ridiculing us'Kadish cites two Arab authors: Nimr Al Khatib estimated that the number of casualties in Lod reached 1,700, and Aref Al Aref wrote that IDF soldiers killed 170 prisoners who were gathered at Lod's largest mosque. Though the first figure apparently includes soldiers and civilians, and does not relate to the massacre in the mosque, Kadish concludes that "there is no evidence for the massacre of 1,700 prisoners."

This constitutes a denial of a claim that was never made to begin with. Kadish writes that there is "no direct proof" of the massacre referred to by Al Aref. He believes that the story about the massacre in the mosque derives from a mistake: Armed Arab partisans who refused to surrender had congregated at another mosque in Lod, the "little mosque." Jewish soldiers charged, attacking this group. Many of the besieged in the little mosque were killed.

One of the Palmach's dispatches referred to 250 Arab casualties. According to Kadish, "it's reasonable to assume" that this reference applied to all persons killed during the various stages of the fighting. He derives his conclusion from the fact that this is the first number that surfaces in a Palmach report after the inception of the fighting in the town, on July 11. He is wrong. The enemy's losses were counted in daily reports. A dispatch relating to the events of July 11 is extant, and it says that 40 Arabs were killed. The report from July 12 refers to 250 Arabs killed. According to Kadish, "there's considerable doubt" that the number of Arabs killed on July 12 in fact reached 250, "or even half of this." He doesn't explain how he has reached this conclusion. He generally accepts at face value evidence furnished in Palmach dispatches concerning battle events and so there is no reason why he should dismiss its report about the number of casualties.

When a historian avers that "there is no evidence" of something, it behooves him to prove to the reader that he has undertaken a reasonable search to marshal such evidence. In this particular case, it would be worth knowing how Kadish and Sela conducted their search for eyewitness accounts of the events of July 12 in Lod. Perhaps some residents remain there who recall what happened; perhaps there are some to be found elsewhere, in refugee camps. Perhaps, as the years went by, eyewitnesses furnished testimony to Arab historians; there are today Palestinian research institutes that compile such recollections. Kadish and Sela, however, do not say whether they undertook such a research effort. It is reasonable to suppose that when they say that "there is no evidence" attesting to the killing of prisoners, the reference is to Israeli evidence.

In any event, Kadish confirms that on July 12, 1948, unarmed civilians were killed at Lod. That morning, Palmach fighters were seized by panic. They had believed that Lod was in their hands, when suddenly armored vehicles belonging to the Arab Legion rolled into the town, and snipers started to fire from windows. Israeli historiography treats this incident as a "rebellion." In one report, reference was made to what was apparently considered to be the most loathsome of all possible occurrences: "the Arabs have started to ridicule us." Palmach men received orders to "shoot at every target." Kadish quotes an American journalist, Kenneth Balibi, who was on the scene, and witnessed corpses of civilians strewn about the streets in Lod - including the corpses of women and children. @CROSStom:3. 'There are no Israeli Arabs'The major expulsion began that evening. About half an hour after midnight, "Dani" headquarters ordered the 3rd Battalion to "encourage the departure of residents" who were not being held prisoner, partly by threatening that the IDF "isn't responsible for their defense." According to the terms of this order, women, children and the infirm and elderly were not to be compelled to leave; nor did the order apply to the monasteries or the church.

Kadish's conclusion: The order applied "mainly" to army-age men about whom no special reason to delay departure could be adduced. Some evidence remains to suggest that Lod Arabs "wanted" to leave the town; Kadish finds that this evidence "isn't implausible." Kadish doesn't know who gave the order to carry out the expulsion: "On the basis of the available documentation, there is no possibility of reconstructing with certainty the source of the initiative whose result was the expulsion order; but it appears that it was done in consultation with all the parties, that is, the 3rd battalion's command, the operation's headquarters, and the political leadership."

Kadish quotes from Yitzhak Rabin's memoirs. Rabin and Yigal Allon turned to David Ben-Gurion, asking what should be done with the town's residents. Ben-Gurion responded with a wave of his hand, a gesture interpreted as meaning "expel them."

Rabin's story was originally included in his memoirs of his army days, "Pinkas Sherut," but the ministerial committee that reviewed the manuscript refused to authorize its publication. Word about Rabin's recollection got out after Peretz Kidron, who translated the book, told The New York Times correspondent David Shipler about it. Shimon Peres subsequently explained that Ben-Gurion's gesture was not fraught with meaning. Yigal Allon claimed that what happened in Lod was a "concerted flight," not an expulsion.

Kadish, that is, the Ministry of Defense, confirms that there was an expulsion. He believes it important to point out that the exodus "was not complete": 232 Christians and 332 Muslims remained in Lod. At this stage, the reader is likely to turn the pages back, wondering if he somehow skipped over the section detailing the suffering endured by those who left. It turns out that there is none. Kadish, Sela and Golan haven't supplied a single shred of testimony from those who experienced the torments of expulsion - as though they have no part to play in the story.

How were they brought out of their homes? What were they allowed to take with them? How were they transported beyond the town limits? What happened to the infirm, to the elderly, to the infants? Perhaps they too suffered from nausea, like the soldiers who conquered the town. Were they given food, water, medicine? Not a word about any of this appears in the text.

Some lines describing the expulsion come from the mouths of Palmach men. The thrust here is to show how hard it was for them to view the suffering of the deported: The abominations they witnessed reminded some Palmach fighters of the Holocaust. Kadish alludes to phenomena of looting and pillage, and quotes a story relating to abuse of an Arab. The author volunteers his own moral assessment of this last incident: "The behavior of some of the Palmach soldiers bears witness to vulgarity, insensitivity and childish cruelty, but no more than that." Here's Kadish on the looting: "The Palmach was not one of the IDF's worst units on the issue of plunder."

Any interested person can today visit the Israel State Archives' reading room, and peruse the minutes of meetings convened by the country's first government. Some discussion portions remain classified; words have been excised from these sensitive sections, but the deletions themselves provide some clues as to what the state is trying to conceal. On June 16, 1948, about a month before Lod's conquest, the government conducted an extensive discussion about the fate of refugees from towns and villages that had been taken up to that date. The question was whether they would be allowed to return to their homes. There was also some discussion about anticipated events ahead. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion said: "Two thorns remain, Lod and Ramle. And this hurts our status now." At this stage in the minutes, six lines have been deleted. The historian who writes that he cannot determine who initiated the expulsion "on the basis of available material" would be wise to acknowledge that the government held a discussion about Lod, and that the prime minister said something that the state finds cause to keep concealed.

Prime Minister Ben-Gurion made other statements which, 50 years later, remain out of bounds to historians. Almost all the deleted portions are located in a section that precedes a claim about what would happen were the Arabs to conquer Jewish cities - they would not show mercy to the population.

"Were the Mufti to take the Old City of Jerusalem, he would slaughter all its Jews," the minutes record. The context suggests that this claim served as a basis for Ben-Gurion to justify statements he had made beforehand, remarks which are in all likelihood sufficiently dreadful for the state to keep them top secret. Ben-Gurion's conclusion from the battles is recorded in another section of the government discussion: "Arabs of Israel aren't considered as a military force, or a political force." After some deleted words, the text continues: "There are no Arabs of the Land of Israel."

"When a Jew, in America or in South Africa, talks to his Jewish companions about 'our' government, he means the government of Israel."

- David Ben-Gurion, Israeli Prime Minister

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