The Uses of Lydda

How a confusing urban battle between two sides was transformed into a one-sided massacre of helpless victims.

Lydda and the Church of St. George, taken between 1900 and 1920. From the G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection, Library of Congress.
Lydda and the Church of St. George, taken between 1900 and 1920. From the G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection, Library of Congress.
July 6 2014
About the author

Efraim Karsh is director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, emeritus professor of Middle East and Mediterranean Studies at King’s College London, and editor of the Middle East Quarterly. He is the author most recently of The Tail Wags the Dog: International Politics and the Middle East (Bloomsbury, 2015).

In “What Happened at Lydda,” Martin Kramer has performed a signal service by putting to rest the canard of an Israeli massacre of Palestinian Arab civilians in that city in July 1948. The charge has been most recently circulated by Ari Shavit in his best-selling My Promised Land. But Lydda is hardly the only instance of such allegations at the time of the founding of the Jewish state—or, for that matter, long afterward. As Kramer suggests at the outset of his investigation, “time and again over the decades, Israeli soldiers have stood accused of just such wanton killing when in fact they were doing what every soldier is trained to do: fire on an armed enemy, especially when that enemy is firing at him.”

Indeed. In late 1947, a violent Arab attempt was made to prevent the creation of a Jewish state in line with November’s UN partition resolution. No sooner had the Haganah rebuffed it than it was accused of scores of nonexistent massacres. The same happened in the run-up to the establishment of the state in May 1948 and the ensuing war launched by the Arab nations to destroy it. The fall of the city of Haifa in April 1948 gave rise to totally false claims of a large-scale slaughter that circulated throughout the Middle East and reached Western capitals. Similarly false rumors were spread after the fall of Tiberias (April 18), during the battle of Safed (in early May), and in Jaffa, where in late April the mayor fabricated a massacre of “hundreds of Arab men and women.” Accounts of a massacre at Deir Yasin (April 9), where some 100 people died, were especially lurid, featuring supposed hammer-and-sickle tattoos on the arms of Jewish fighters and fictitious charges of havoc and rape.

In later years, Palestinians and supporters of the Palestinian cause have even invented retroactive atrocities, unknown to anyone at the time of their supposed occurrence. A notable instance is the “Tantura massacre” of May 1948, an event glaringly absent from contemporary Palestinian Arab historiography of the war. And this is not to mention more recent trumped-up allegations of atrocities committed by Israel in, most notoriously, Jenin (2002) and Gaza (2009).


It is into this crowded field that the prominent Israeli journalist Ari Shavit has stepped. “In 30 minutes, at high noon, more than 200 civilians are killed,” Shavit writes dramatically; “Zionism carries out a massacre in the city of Lydda.” But as Kramer conclusively shows, it is likelier that there was no massacre: only casualties of war, killed or wounded in the fierce fighting between the small Israeli force in the city and the numerically superior force of local Arab fighters supplemented by Transjordanian troops and armored vehicles.

In its broad contours, the story of the conquest of Lydda, followed by the exodus of most of the city’s residents, was a matter of public knowledge shortly after the July 1948 events about which Shavit writes; in subsequent decades, Israeli historians filled in the remaining gaps. But then, beginning in the late 1980s, revisionist Israeli “New Historians” successfully transformed what the New York Times had described at the time as “heavy casualties,” incurred in the course of “considerable [Arab] resistance,” into a massacre of hapless victims.

Since Lydda (together with the simultaneously captured twin town of Ramleh) also constitutes the only case in the war where a substantial urban population was displaced by Israeli forces, the massacre trope won a position of pivotal importance in the larger Arab claim: namely, that there was a premeditated and systematic plan to dispossess and expel the Palestinian Arabs. Shavit has picked up this latter misrepresentation as well, writing that “the conquest of Lydda and the expulsion of Lydda” were “an inevitable phase of the Zionist revolution” (emphasis added).

If, however, there was anything inevitable about the expulsion of Lydda, the cause lay not in Zionism but in the actions of Palestinian Arab leaders and their counterparts in neighboring Arab states. Had these notables accepted the UN partition resolution calling for the establishment of two states in Palestine, there would have been no war and no dislocation in the first place. As for Lydda itself, no exodus was foreseen in Israeli military plans for the city’s capture or was reflected in the initial phase of its occupation. Quite the contrary: the Israeli commander assured local dignitaries that the city’s inhabitants would be allowed to stay if they so wished. In line with that promise, the occupying Israeli force also requested a competent administrator and other personnel to run the affairs of the civilian population.

All this was rendered irrelevant when the city’s notables and residents, rather than abiding by their surrender agreement with the IDF, attempted to dislodge the Israelis by force. The IDF, its tenuous grip on Lydda starkly exposed, thereupon decided to “encourage” the population’s departure to Arab-controlled areas a few miles to the east, so as not to leave behind a potential hotbed of armed resistance. In an area where Jordan’s Arab Legion was counterattacking in strength, it was essential to prevent any disruption of ongoing war operations.

As it happens, this spontaneous response by the IDF to a string of unexpected developments on the ground was uncharacteristic of general Israeli conduct. Then and throughout the war, inhabitants of other Arab localities who had peacefully surrendered to Israeli forces were allowed to remain in place. In this respect, Lydda was an one of the very few exceptions that proved the rule, not—as Shavit argues—the rule itself.

Those few exceptions, moreover, accounted for but a small fraction of the total exodus. Vastly more Palestinians were driven from their homes by their own leaders and/or by Arab military forces than by the Israeli army. In fact, no contemporary sources describe the collapse and dispersal of Palestinian society as, in Shavit’s words, “an inevitable phase of the Zionist revolution.” Here, from June 1949, is the (somewhat surprised) report of a senior British official from a fact-finding mission among Arab war refugees in Gaza:

While [the refugees] express no bitterness against the Jews (or for that matter against the Americans or ourselves), they speak with the utmost bitterness of the Egyptians and other Arab states. “We know who our enemies are,” they will say, and they are referring to their Arab brothers who, they declare, persuaded them unnecessarily to leave their homes.

Martin Kramer is to be congratulated for helping to reclaim these historical truths, distorted by decades of propaganda and revisionist history. In disposing of the Lydda “massacre” canard, he has also exposed the disingenuous and shoddy scholarship underlying the ongoing endeavor to rewrite Israel’s history.


Efraim Karsh is professor of Middle East and Mediterranean Studies at King’s College London, a senior researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and at the Middle East Forum, and the author most recently of Palestine Betrayed (Yale, 2010).

More about: Ari Shavit, Lydda, Martin Kramer, Massacre, My Promised Land, Zionism