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Palestinian Refugees from the Demilitarized Zones (1949-1956)

The armistice agreements between Israel and the neighboring Arab states included the establishment of Demilitarized Zones (DMZs) in the north along the cease-fire lines with Syria and in the south along the cease-fire lines with Egypt. Israeli expulsion campaigns, most of them headed by Ariel Sharon, were undertaken mainly in the years 1949 - 1951 and were completed by 1956.

The case of the northern DMZs has received more publicity, as it was associated with Israel's diversion of the river Jordan and the draining of Lake Huleh. Currently, the subject is brought to the fore in connection with the renewal of Israeli-Syrian peace talks and Syria's insistence on Israeli withdrawal to the de facto borderlines established before the start of the 1967 war, the so-called "lines of 4 June 1967". The current number of Palestinian refugees from the ten villages in the northern DMZs is 23,100. Relocated by the Israeli government to the village of Sha'ab/Acre, some 20 percent continue to live there as internal refugees, the rest have become refugees in Syria.
The information presented here is based on research by Dr. Salman Abu Sitta and Benny Morris' Israel's Border Wars 1949-1956.(1)

Map: DMZ along the Israeli-Syrian armistice line (1949) The map reflects the northern DMZs as interpreted from the Armistice Agreement.

History of the Northern DMZ

The 1923 International Boundary between Palestine and Syria was drawn by the British and French governments to divide a homogenous Arab country (Greater Syria) and to establish colonial rule. All major water sources in the area, except the Litani river, were included on the Palestine-side of the boundary, much in accordance with the plans of the Zionist movement interested in access to maximum water resources for the future Jewish state. The new border dissected 22 villages from the Safad district from their lands and livelihood. Consequent unrest gave rise to the 1926 Good Neighborly Agreement between Syria and Mandatory Palestine. This agreement entitled Syria to free water access and use of the railway line to Samakh (southern edge of Lake Tiberias), and provided for the free movement of the local population and local goods.

The 1949 Armistice Line: The Armistice conditions prohibited political or military activity in the DMZs, provided for freedom of movement of the local Arab and Jewish population, and the administration of civil affairs by the UN Truce Supervision. The situation in, and the status of, the DMZs remained the major points of friction between Israel and Syria until 1956.

In April 1951, the Israeli cabinet proclaimed Israeli sovereignty over the DMZs. The Israeli Foreign Ministry argued that the area had been part and parcel of the British Mandate Territory and part of the Jewish state according to the UN Partition Plan (UN Resolution 181). Both arguments are inconsistent with Israeli policy. Israel had frequently denied its obligations as a successor state to pre-1948 Palestine (e.g. citizenship status to the Palestinian people), and treatment of the DMZs on the basis of UN Resolution 181 would have required from Israel the return of 24% of the Palestinian territory conquered and annexed in the war of 1948.

De-facto Division by 4 June 1967: Israeli efforts to assert its sovereignty over the northern DMZs led to a series of Israeli military campaigns and Israeli-Syrian confrontations over the area. The Hula Lake draining project, the Israeli attack on the Syrian police station at al-Hamma and the battle over Tell al-Mutilla in 1951, and especially the 1955 Israeli "Operation Olive Leaves" resulted in US, British, and French protests and the temporary freeze of arms deals with Israel. Despite international condemnations of the Israeli violations of the 1949 Armistice Agreement, Israel's campaigns resulted in the de-facto division of the northern DMZs. Israel took control over the bulk of the southern DMZ (except al-Hamma and its corridor) and the whole of the central DMZ west of the river Jordan. Syria controlled approximately 40 percent of the DMZ area, al-Hamma in the south, the strip of land east of the Jordan River in the central DMZ, and the northern DMZ. The " line of 4 July 1967" is thus not a borderline based on an agreement or treaty, and it lacks a legal basis. It was dictated by the intrusion of Israeli forces into the DMZs in violation of the 1949 Armistice Agreement.

Eviction of the Local Palestinian Population

The ten Palestinian villages in the DMZs were home to 3,770 inhabitants, which Morris notes were considered to be "something of a nuisance, as well as an impediment to the imposition of full Israeli sovereignty".(2) On 30 March 1951, the Israeli government decided to continue the Lake Huleh draining and irrigation project, despite a UN negotiated temporary halt of the Israeli project, and to assert Israeli sovereignty of the DMZs through a variety of measures, including the "transfer of Arab civilians from the area to Israeli territory".(3) That night, Israel forcibly transferred some 800 inhabitants of Krad al-Baqqara and Krad al-Ghannama, two Palestinian villages in the central DMZ, to the village of Sha'ab, near Acre. Also due to Israeli pressure, the villagers of Samra and Nuqeib left the southern DMZ. Despite a consequent UN Security Council resolution (18 May 1951) calling for the return of the expellees, Israel pressured them to remain in Sha'ab. Many, however, returned to the DMZ. Palestinians remaining in the DMZs were finally expelled by Israel in 1956, the majority crossing over to Syria, and a small number joining their relatives in Sha'ab. Their villages in the DMZ were then destroyed and ploughed over.

In 1999, Palestinians expelled from the northern DMZs and their descendents number 23,100, the majority living in Syria as refugees, some 20 percent as internally displaced persons in the area of Acre in Israel. Their right to return and restitution of property is to be raised and resolved by the Palestinian leadership and Syria in the political negotiations with Israel.

1. Salman Abu Sitta, "The Line of June 4, 1967," Unpublished monograph, October 1999. Benny Morris, Israel's Border Wars 1949-1956: Arab Infiltration, Israeli Retaliation, & the Countdown to the Suez War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
2. Population figures according to Abu Sitta. Morris uses the figure of 2-3,000, p. 377.
3. Morris, p. 378.

Eviction of Bedouin from the southern DMZs and the Israeli peace agreement with Egypt

November 1949: 2,000 Bedouin expelled from Beersheba area to the West Bank

May 1950: 700-1,000 Bedouin expelled to the southern Hebron area

September 1950: 6-7,000 Bedouin expelled

September 1952: 850 Bedouin expelled of as-Sanna tribe from northern Negev to southern Hebron Hills

1949-1953: Approximately 17,000 Bedouins expelled.