The first four-week truce declared in Palestine, which started on 11 June 1948, provided an opportunity for the Israelis to put the final touches on their plans to occupy Palestinian cities and villages and expel their residents. The cities of Lydda and Ramla were their next target. The Lydda massacre, one of many that occurred during the Palestine War, took place between the end of the first truce on 9 July 1948 and the beginning of the second on 18 July. The massacre took place in two stages: the first during the time of the city’s occupation, and the second during the operation of mass expulsion of its residents, which is considered one of the largest acts of ethnic cleansing (“transfer operations”) carried out by the Israelis.
Lydda lies fifty meters above sea level and is southeast of Jaffa and northeast of Ramla. It was known for the presence of a railway line and a train station that was considered second in importance only to the Haifa station. During the British Mandate period, Lydda grew as a result of the Qantara-Haifa railroad, which passed through it, and the Lydda International Airport. In 1945, the city had an area of 3,855 dunums, and in 1946, its population was estimated at 18,250. (At that time no Jews living there.) Lydda was famous for its olive and sesame oil presses, and its town market, held every Monday, was the hub of commercial activity for both itself and its surrounding villages and towns.
Lydda and Ramla were considered twin cities; both are approximately located in the center of Palestine, and they are only three kilometers apart. According to the UN Partition Plan of November 1947, the Lydda-Ramla region was to be part of the proposed Arab state. In July 1948, both cities were occupied by Zionist forces. The massacre was preceded by the following events:
- Between late April and mid-May, Jaffa and the surrounding villages fell to the Zionists, and its residents were evicted by force. Thousands of them sought refuge in Lydda. The twin cities were in a stranglehold.
- Hassan Salameh, commander of the Army of the Holy War [Jaysh al-jihad al-muqaddas] in the region, was killed at the battle of Ra's al-Ayn in late April. His death dented the morale of the people in the district. After the occupation of Ra's al-Ayn, the Lydda-Ramla area was cut off from the Palestinian “Triangle” and with it the food supply lines.
- The British Mandate ended on 15 May and the Arab armies entered Palestine. A company of the Jordanian army was stationed in an area between Lydda and Ramla. The company’s commander soon realized that the two cities would not be able to withstand the Zionist offensive with its tanks and artillery for more than a short period of time; he also noted the lack of organization and training. And so, when the Israelis attacked Lydda in July, the company retreated.
Meanwhile, the people of Lydda were preparing to confront the Israeli attack, so they formed a national committee, a military committee, a health committee, and a business committee. The National Committee had reached an agreement with the mayor of the nearby settlement of Ben Shemen, which stipulated that the road between Lydda and the villages in the surrounding hillside would be kept safe for civilians and civilian traffic. This road was important because it was the easiest and most direct way to transport goods to and from the city. Haganah forces blocked it off in mid-June and paved a small airstrip to the northeast of the settlement to provide for airlifts of supplies and military reinforcements. Notably, Lydda fighters managed to shoot down one of these planes in late June.
To relieve pressure on the semi-besieged city of Jerusalem, the Israeli leadership decided to secure the highway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem; Lydda, Ramla, Latrun, and the hilly areas north of the road that were at a greater elevation, including Ramallah, had to be occupied. It put into place several operational plans:
- Operation Ludar, an acronym for the names of the two cities Lydda and Ramla;
- Operation LRLR, which stood for the first letters of Lydda, Ramla, Latrun and Ramallah;
- Operation Dani, named after a Palmach officer who was killed in January 1948. This plan was the one that was finally agreed upon, and the date was set for the night of 9–10 July to launch it from the Ben Shemen settlement.
On the Eve of the Massacre
During the first two days of Operation Dani, and after fierce battles, the Israelis occupied the villages on the outskirts of Lydda on the northern and western fronts along with Lydda International Airport. They were able to establish communication with their forces in the neighboring settlements; the Jordanian Army was stationed with armored vehicles in Bayt Nabala, less than a kilometer away from the Zionist forces, but it took no action. In the nearby village of Jimzu, where Israeli troops were stationed, the commander of the Jordanian brigade sent a patrol to the village that managed to drive out the Israelis and eliminate a number of their soldiers, but the Israelis reoccupied the village soon after the withdrawal of the Jordanian patrol.
Just before the attack on Lydda and Ramla, Israeli warplanes carried out intensive bombing raids on the two towns during the early evening hours while residents (who were observing Ramadan) were breaking their fast; dozens were killed and wounded. The city hospital overflowed with the wounded, and while doctors, nurses, and other workers were busy treating their injuries, the men of the city worked to build barricades and lines of defense, rejecting the idea of surrender.
Chronology of the Massacre
On the morning of 11 July, Israeli aircraft dropped leaflets that called on the people of Lydda to surrender and leave the city before it collapsed on their heads, and at noon the Israelis commenced their assault on the city from the east, starting at the village of Daniel. The city defenders were able to repel the attack after a fierce battle in which they inflicted heavy losses on the Israeli forces, but they soon ran out of what little ammunition they had. The Zionists launched a new offensive backed by their armored vehicles. They entered the city in the evening and immediately began shooting indiscriminately.
On 12 July, the second day of the offensive, the Israelis concentrated their troops around the city center. Although Lydda never actually surrendered, and sporadic acts of resistance with modest capabilities continued, the Israelis managed to take full control of the city and detained dozens of civilians. They called on the male residents to gather in the Great Mosque, the Dahmash Mosque, and the churches, and they imposed a curfew in the city.
The Jordanian leadership sent a squad of armored vehicles to verify the actual situation in Lydda. The residents thought that it was a precursor to a larger force coming to launch a counterattack and rescue the city, so their morale was boosted and they began attacking the Zionist forces, especially on the northern side where the Jordanian armored vehicles had entered. To their surprise, the Jordanians withdrew after a short time, forcing the resistance fighters who had barricaded themselves in the police station to retreat toward the hills after they ran out of ammunition. A number of Israeli soldiers were killed, and as a result, the Israelis were even more brutal in their reprisals on the city's residents.
An Israeli woman conscript recounted that a soldier patrolled the streets of Lydda with a loudspeaker, promising that the residents would be safe as long as they remained at home or in the two mosques that hundreds of people had gone into. However, the Israeli soldiers claimed that snipers were in the homes and lobbed hand grenades into them; terrified residents ran out of their houses in an attempt to flee, and the Israelis opened fire on them. A journalist said that the corpses of men, women, and children piled up in the city’s streets and remained under the sun for more than ten days. Those who had taken shelter in the Dahmash Mosque were shot by the Israelis; between 80 and 176 people were killed. It is estimated that inside the city, the total number of dead exceeded 400.
The Forced Expulsion of the People of Lydda
The tragedy of Lydda was not limited to the indiscriminate killing and the massacre at the mosque. On the same day (12 July), a decision was taken by the Israelis to expel all the residents from the city, according to historian Benny Morris. When Palmach commander Yigal Allon asked David Ben-Gurion what was to become of the residents of Lydda and Ramla, the latter answered, along with an energetic, dismissive gesture with his hand: “Expel them.” Immediately after that, Yitzhak Rabin, the officer in charge of Operation Dani, signed a military order containing the following instruction: “The inhabitants of Lydda must be expelled quickly, without regard to age.”
The next day (13 July), the Israeli soldiers forced the residents of Lydda (and the neighboring towns including Ramla, who numbered approximately 70,000), to leave the city within half an hour and take a rugged, treacherous path to reach Ramallah. Hundreds succumbed to thirst, dehydration, and fatigue on the way, in an exodus that was horrifying in its cruelty. As Palestinians walked single file on this trail of death, a small Israeli military plane flew at low altitude over their heads to force them to continue moving. Morris quotes Shamaria Gottman, Israeli intelligence officer at the time:
A multitude of inhabitants walked one after another. Women walked burdened with packages and sacks on their head. Mothers dragged children after them… Occasionally, warning shots were heard… Occasionally, you encountered a piercing look from one of the youngsters … in the column, and the look said: We have not yet surrendered. We shall return to fight you.
Testimonies of the Exodus from Lydda
Of the testimonies by Palestinians from Lydda that sum up the tragedy, three are by individuals who were to play a significant role in the Palestinian struggle: visual artist Ismail Shammut, who was eighteen years old at the time; Reja-e Busailah, who later became a professor in the United States; and George Habash, who led the Arab Nationalist Movement and then the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine for several decades.
Shammut’s testimony is related by Michael Palumbo, who interviewed him about the “death march” he and his eight brothers and sisters endured. (One of his brothers died of thirst during the march.)
While marching in the blazing heat, he [Shammut] spotted some water. He rushed to fill a pot he was carrying. He later recalled: “At that moment, a jeep pulled up with three people. One of them, a Zionist officer, got out. He pulled a gun and put it to my head and ordered me to put the water down.” The Arab teenager had no choice but to obey. Ismail would never forget the thirst of the thousands of people who trudged on, not knowing where they were going. He saw people chewing grass in the hope of obtaining a bit of moisture. Others drank their children’s urine. By the roadside pregnant women were prematurely delivering babies, their labour brought on by the strain of their ordeal. None of these infants survived. Since no one had any opportunity to bury the dead, they were covered with grass and abandoned. Eventually Ismail managed to get some water out of sight of the Israeli soldiers. Although the water was dirty and obviously polluted he drank some while soaking his clothes in the reddish liquid. As Ismail attempted to return to his family, people followed him hoping to get a few drops of the precious fluid. One woman sucked at his moist shirt.
Reja-e Busailah was a visually impaired teenager during the forced departure from Lydda and relied on his sense of hearing to make his way:
The Jews were stationed here and there with loudspeakers and guns, loaded and ready. One loudspeaker repeated that we better leave in order to avoid what happened in the mosque. We were quickly directed off the main road and herded… onto a road, if you can call it that.... Indeed, it was now a road, now a path, now nothing but rock and stone, hill, ravine, bush, and thorn... For a long time we had no idea where we were heading… but the general movement was eastward and to higher ground. Jewish soldiers were stationed all along the “road” for a distance of two hours from the town. They were there apparently to make sure that the procession would keep moving. Mostly they would shoot into the air... That surely kept our fright and panic alive and accelerating. Every now and then, they would use the butts of their guns and shout obscenities in Arabic. They would search and take whatever they found. And there was much to find and take: cash, gold, jewelry, watches, fountain pens. Throughout that day and later, I heard of several incidents in which, whether in impatience or in wantonness, earlobes were taken with the earrings, fingers with the rings, hands and even arms with the bracelets. I heard of other incidents where young men paid with their lives simply because they were handsome or a bit taller or more muscular than the average.
George Habash had returned from studying medicine at the American University of Beirut to be with his family in Lydda. He remembers the sight of children dying and the sick and elderly walking with the sun beating down directly over their heads with no shade. He had used up all the strength and courage he had just to stay alive:
We were walking. It was a hot day in the month of Ramadan. Some near us were saying that this was the Day of Judgment, and others said that this was Hell. We arrived at the outskirts of the town where there was a large Jewish checkpost that had been set up to search those departing. We had no weapons. Our neighbor, Amin Hanhan, was apparently hiding some money on him. When he did not let them search him, a Zionist soldier shot him dead right in front of us. His mother and sister rushed towards him as they wailed loudly.
The trauma of this suffering would mark a turning point in Habash’s life. He did not forget, and on that day vowed to avenge the tragedy of his people.
As is often the case with massacres and instances of forced migration, there is no accurate count of the number of victims, but it is likely that the number of those killed in the city itself and those who died during the march of death totaled close to one thousand.
The fall of Lydda and Ramla symbolized a real catastrophe, especially since it took place in the period separating the two ceasefires, which the Israelis used to their advantage. The capture of the twin cities happened precipitously, while the Arab armies stood by as passive onlookers. Through the operation, the Israelis were able to achieve strategic goals, the most important of which were getting rid of the military threat to the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway, seizing control of Lydda’s airport and railway station, and expelling the residents of Lydda, Ramla, and the surrounding villages.
When the refugees arrived in Ramallah, they were distributed across already overcrowded camps, and the city could not handle this additional burden. Hundreds of refugees died after reaching the refugee camps. On 2 August 1948, Count Bernadotte, the UN mediator for Palestine, visited the refugees in Ramallah, and was deluged by thousands who demanded to return to their homes. Bernadotte later wrote about this visit in his diary, saying that he had visited many refugee camps in Europe during World War II, but never had he encountered such terrifying scenes as the ones he encountered in Ramallah. He described the displaced refugees as a group of frightened faces amidst a sea of human suffering.
Busailah, Reja-e. In the Land of My Birth: A Palestinian Boyhood. Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 2017.
Morris, Benny. The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Morris, Benny. “Operation Dani and the Palestinian Exodus from Lydda and Ramla in 1948”. The Middle East Journal 40, no. 1 (Winter 1986): 82–109.
Munayyer, Spiro. “The Fall of Lydda” (with an introduction and notes by Walid Khalidi). Journal of Palestine Studies 27, no. 4 (Summer 1998).
Neff, Donald. “U.S. Policy and the Palestinian Refugees.” Journal of Palestine Studies 18, no. 1 (Autumn 1988).
Palumbo, Michael. The Palestinian Catastrophe: The 1948 Expulsion of a People from their Homeland. London: Faber & Faber, 1987.
[Testimonies on Occupation and Displacement: Second Testimony, George Habash]. Majallat al-Dirasat al-Filastiniyya, no.34 (Spring 1998): 97–100.