The Lydda Death March and the Israeli State of Denial

Photo by Oren, Elhanan | CC BY 2.0

This week marks the 70th anniversary of the single largest mass expulsion of Arabs from Palestine during the Jewish ethnic cleansing campaign of 1948-49, the infamous Lydda Death March, in which attacking Israeli troops murdered and pillaged the people and property of Lydda, Ramle and surrounding villages while forcing some 80,000 men, women and children into the scorching wilderness, never to return.

“No Room for Both People”

In late 1947 Britain, worn down by a ferocious Jewish terror campaign led by men who included future Israeli prime ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, announced it would end its 30-year occupation of Palestine. The Palestine problem would now be for the fledgling United Nations to solve and, to that end, the world body devised a plan to partition the territory between Jews and Arabs. The latter were not consulted. Under the UN plan Jews, who comprised just over a third of Palestine’s population at the time, were given 55 percent of its land. This understandably enraged Arabs but even this heavily favorable distribution wasn’t enough for the Zionists. They wanted all of Palestine for themselves, despite the fact that it had been thousands of years since Jews constituted anything remotely approaching a majority there. As Joseph Weitz, director of the Jewish National Land Fund, had so unambiguously stated:

Among ourselves it must be clear that there is no room for both people in this country… and there is no way besides transferring the Arabs from here to neighboring countries… We must not leave a single village, a single tribe. 

The neighboring Palestinian Arab towns of Lydda and Ramle, home to some 50,000 people in 1948, were located inside the UN-designated area of Arab control. But they were also situated near strategically critical road and rail junctions, and Lydda was home to what would later be called Ben-Gurion International Airport. As fighting between Jews and Arabs intensified as British forces prepared to withdraw, Arab militants attacked Jewish military and civilian traffic along the roads, blocking important routes and prompting Jewish commanders to plan countermeasures.

The Nakba Comes to Lydda and Ramle

Israel declared its independence on May 14, 1948, with neighboring Arab nations then immediately launching coordinated attacks in a bid to destroy the nascent Jewish state. By this time there had been fighting ranging from skirmishes to pitched battles between attacking Jewish troops and defenders in villages and towns near Lydda and Ramle, but it wasn’t until Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion ordered Operation Dani, a major offensive to conquer Lydda and Ramle, that the two towns would face — and fail — an existential challenge.

By July 1948, Lydda and Ramle were swollen with tens of thousands of refugees fleeing what would come to be called the Nakba, or “catastrophe;” the wholesale ethnic cleansing of more than 700,000 Palestinian Arabs by Jews, many of them Holocaust refugees, seeking their own lebensraum in the land they ruled more than 2,500 years ago. The towns had been preparing for the inevitable Zionist assault, stockpiling food, medicine and weapons and reinforcing defensive positions. However, there were only 125 regular Arab troops stationed there, with the remaining defenders consisting of local and Bedouin volunteers. They were vastly outnumbered and outgunned by the newly-created Israel Defense Forces, which deployed some 6,000 troops, 30 artillery pieces, as well as armored vehicles and aircraft for the attack. Yet the Arabs were able to mount impressive resistance when the onslaught came.

“Orgy of Indiscriminate Killing”

On July 9, IDF troops commanded by Yigal Allon and future Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin launched Operation Dani and by the following day Lydda and Ramle were attacked from the air and ground. At around noon on July 11 a mechanized commando battalion led by future Israeli foreign and defense minister Moshe Dayan stormed Lydda, firing indiscriminately at defenders and civilians alike. New York Herald-Tribune reporter Kenneth Bilby, who was there, said the Israeli column rolled in “with guns blazing… blasting at everything that moved,” leaving “the corpses of Arab men, women and even children strewn about the streets.” Dozens of men, women and children perished during this 47-minute bloodbath. Six Israeli attackers died in this assault.

The Arab National Committee, the local emergency authority ultimately commanded by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, bears some blame for the high civilian death toll at Lydda and Ramle, having prevented women and children from fleeing the towns in the fear that the men would follow. Arabs often fled imminent attack by Jewish fighters, who had developed fearsome reputations as bloodthirsty murderers and rapists following brutal massacres like the one at Deir Yassin on April 9. Indeed, Jewish militias successfully used both massacre and the threat of massacre as psychological weapons to induce Arabs to flight. They sometimes even broadcast recordings of shrieking women over loudspeakers aimed at targeted villages.

By the evening of July 11, many residents of Lydda had gathered in the streets to wave white flags of surrender. The hospital was overflowing with victims, blasted bodies lined the streets and morale was abysmal after two days of ferocious Israeli onslaught. While women and children were mostly released after surrendering, thousands of local men were crowded into mosques where they feared they would face mass execution. Such killings never occurred, but other atrocities would soon follow. 

When a pair of Jordanian armored vehicles entered the conquered town and opened fire on the Israelis just before noon on July 12, local resistance renewed and panicked Israeli soldiers threw grenades into Arab houses and fired anti-tank rockets into the Dahmash mosque, where terrified civilians huddled seeking refuge. “We shot shells into a mosque where many people were hiding, there was no choice,” recalled Israeli soldier Yerachmiel Kahanovich, who described a grisly aftermath in which the remains of innocent men, women and children were “scattered on the walls.” Spiro Munayyer, a local volunteer medic, recounted how colleagues removed the remains of more than 90 bodies from the blasted mosque. According to Munayyer, “about 250 civilians died in an orgy of indiscriminate killing” that day.

Death March

On July 12 Israeli forces also seized neighboring Ramle, warning residents via loudspeaker that they had 48 hours to leave their homes forever. The order to ethnically cleanse the area of Arabs came straight from Rabin, who directed that they all “must be expelled quickly without regard to age.” What followed was the forced mass exodus of some 80,000 Palestinians from dozens of area towns and villages in the largest single act of Jewish ethnic cleansing of the Nakba, what is now known as the Lydda Death March. Israeli troops went from house to house, dragging terrified residents into the streets and ordering them to leave town and never return. They threatened to summarily execute anyone who didn’t comply. Arab families then streamed out of Lydda, Ramle and surrounding villages, forming a seemingly endless column that slowly and sadly plodded eastward under the scorching July sun as Israeli soldiers fired shots over their heads to hasten their flight. Wrote Israeli author and journalist Ari Shavit:

The road was narrow, the congestion unbearable. Children shouted, women screamed, men wept. There was no water. Every so often, a family withdrew from the column and stopped by the side of the road to bury a baby who had not withstood the heat; to say farewell to a grandmother who had collapsed from fatigue. After a while, it got even worse. A mother abandoned her howling baby under a tree. [Another] deserted her week-old boy. She could not bear to hear him wailing with hunger. 

Meanwhile, the victorious Israelis now occupying Lydda and Ramle occupied themselves with stealing everything of value that the fleeing Arabs left behind. Homes, stores and other businesses were looted wholesale, with trucks carting off everything the conquerers could carry. There were worse crimes than larceny. Ben-Gurion wrote of “acts of robbery and rape;” Amos Kenan, who served as platoon commander of the IDF’s 82nd regiment when it captured Ramle, later admitted that “at night, those of us who couldn’t restrain ourselves would go into the prison compounds to fuck Arab women.” Kennan explained that he “wanted very much to assume… that those who couldn’t restrain themselves did what they thought the Arabs would have done to them had they won the war.”

While the Israelis plundered, Arabs continued marching and dying under the blazing 100-degree sun. Palestinian historian Aref al-Aref, who interviewed survivors at the time, estimated that 350 people, mostly elderly and children, died of thirst and exhaustion as they marched eastward toward the Arab lines. The heat wasn’t the only danger the refugees faced. Not content with stealing everything the fleeing Arabs left behind in their homes and businesses, Israeli soldiers had set up roadblocks and were searching and robbing refugees of their money, jewelry and other precious family heirlooms.

Israel: State of Denial

By July 14, the Lydda, Ramle and some two dozen nearby Arab villages no longer existed. Lydda is now the Jewish city of Lod, while Ramle is now Ramla. While millions of Jews around the world with no connection to or even knowledge of Palestine have been granted automatic Israeli citizenship and the right to settle on stolen Arab land and in stolen Arab homes, the more than 700,000 expelled Palestinians are to this day denied the right to return guaranteed by the United Nations nearly 70 years ago.

In addition to cleansing Palestine of Arabs, Israel also earnestly set about cleansing the very memory and truth of the events of 1948 from historical memory. Zionists in Israel and abroad, but especially in the United States, vehemently deny there was any massacre at Lydda, or at Deir Yassin, or at any of the dozens of other towns and villages where Jewish usurpers committed mass murder in service of their new state. Even the more honest Israelis who acknowledge the horrors of the Nakba tend to fall into the “we did what we had to do” category. Shavit wrote that the ethnic cleansing of Palestine’s Arabs “laid the foundation for the Jewish state.” To him, “the choice is stark: either reject Zionism because of Lydda or accept Zionism along with Lydda.” He wrote:

I know that if not for [the IDF] the State of Israel would not have been born. If not for them, I would not have been born. They did the filthy work that enables my people, my nation, my daughter, my sons, and me to live. 

Still, honest voices like Shavit’s are the exception to the rule. Earlier Zionists were far more truthful. While serving as Israeli defense minister, Moshe Dayan declared that:

We came to this country, which was already populated by Arabs, and we established a… Jewish state here… Jewish villages were built in place of Arab villages. You do not even know the names of these Arab villages, and I do not blame you, because those geography books no longer exist. Not only do the books not exist, the Arab villages are not there either. Nahalal rose in place of Malalul; Givat in the place of Jibta; Sarid in the place of Haneifa, and Kfar Yehoshua in the place of Tell Shamon. There is not one place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population.

Today, denial dominates the conversation, where there is any conversation at all, about Israel’s past and present crimes. Not only are the massacres and ethnic cleansing of past decades denied, so is the illegality — or even the existence — of the ongoing half-century occupation of the West Bank. The same goes for the economic asphyxiation of Gaza, or what prominent international observers including Nobel peace laureates Desmond Tutu and Jimmy Carter have called an apartheid worse than what befell South Africa in dark decades past. The very existence of the Palestinian people, to say nothing of their right to return to their stolen homes or to earn a decent living or to even live with dignity and basic human rights, is also throughly denied by Israel. But the survivors of Lydda, Ramle and all the other atrocities of the Nakba will never forget, and the horrors of 1948 fuel the fire of Palestinian resistance to this very day.


Brett Wilkins is staff writer for Common Dreams and a member of Collective 20.