Fatah chief Mahmoud Abbas says the Arabs of the Galilee city of Tzfat left in 1948 not because they were driven out, but on their own volition.
Many biographies of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas imply that his family became “refugees” because of the War of Independence in 1948. For instance, a BBC profile on Abbas when he succeeded Yasser Arafat as PLO chairman in 2005 writes, “In the light of his origins in Safed in Galilee - in what is now northern Israel - he is said to hold strong views about the right of return of Palestinian refugees.” Answers.com states, “As a result of the Arab-Israel War of 1948, he became a refugee.” Wikipedia articles on the topic say the same – all giving the impression that the Abbas family was driven out and became homeless.
It is notable that the Abbas family moved back to Damascus, as that is likely the place where it had originated less than 90 years earlier.
However, Abbas himself – co-founder of Fatah with Arafat, and known as Abu Mazen - now tells a different story. Speaking with Al-Palestinia TV on Monday, Abbas admitted that his family was not expelled or driven out, but rather left for fear that the Jews might take revenge for the slaughter of 20 Jews in the city during the Arab pogroms of 19 years earlier.
In the words of Abbas:
“I am among those who were born in the city of Tzfat (Safed). We were a family of means. I studied in elementary school, and then came the naqba [calamity, namely, the founding of the State of Israel – ed.]. At night, we left by foot from Tzfat, to the Jordan River, where we remained for a month. Then we went to Damascus, and then to our relatives in Jordan, and then we settled in Damascus.
“My father had money, and he spent his money systematically, and after a year, the money ran out and we began to work.
“The people’s basic motives brought them to run away for their lives and with their property. These [motives] were very important, for they feared the violence of the Zionist terrorist organizations – and especially those of us from Tzfat felt that there was an old desire for revenge from the rebellion of 1929, and this was in the memory of our families and parents.”
The “rebellion” Abbas referred to was a series of brutal Arab attacks on Jewish towns in the summer of 1929. Nearly 70 Jews were slaughtered in their homes in Hevron, 20 in Tzfat, 17 in Jerusalem, and others were murdered in Motza, Kfar Uriah and Tel Aviv.
The memory of the slaughter, Abbas said, “brought [our families] to understand that the military balance had changed, and that [we] no longer had military forces in their real meaning. There were only young people who fought, and there was an initial action. They felt that the balance of power had collapsed and they therefore decided to leave. The entire city was abandoned based on this thought – the thought of their property and saving themselves.”
Return to Roots - in Damascus
It is notable that the Abbas family moved back to Damascus, as that is likely the place where it had originated less than 90 years earlier. Joan Peters, in her scholarly work “From Time Immemorial” on the Arab population of Israel, writes that in 1860, “Algerian tribes moved from Damascus en masse to Safed.” She notes that the Muslims in the city were mostly descended from Moorish settlers and from Kurds – more evidence negating the claim that the Arabs in the Land of Israel had been there “from time immemorial.”