Using the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) — which it had occupied illegally since 1948 — as launching point, Jordan attacked Israel on June 5, 1967. During the subsequent war, as many as 325,000 Arab residents fled to escape fighting in the area. According to historian Howard M. Sachar, “most of these 1967 fugitives departed voluntarily; no [Israeli] attempts were made to influence them to leave.” Most crossed to the East Bank of the Jordan River, into Jordan proper.

Since most were Jordanian citizens fleeing one area under Jordanian jurisdiction (up to that time) to another, it is more accurate to describe them as displaced persons than as refugees. Israel — having acquired the territory in successful self-defense — became the legitimate military administrative authority. It expelled a handful of Palestinian Arabs for “strategic and security reasons,” but quickly allowed some to return.

As for other alleged expulsions, most if not all West Bank Arabs who fled to the East Bank (Jordan) after the war did so of their own volition. Often they or their families were originally from the East Bank, or they were civil servants or pensioners afraid they might lose their Jordanian income if they stayed. The New York Times reported (June 11, 1967) that Jordanian radio broadcasts urged people not to flee, indicating this was a matter of choice, not compulsion: ” … the refugees are on the move in spite of repeated Jordanian radio broadcasts that say: ‘To the Arabs of the West Bank, do not desert your homes. Be patient. Be men and do not desert your homes. Be patient. Do not create another refugee problem.'”

Although Arab regimes claimed that Israel was expelling thousands of West Bankers, a Times reporter found no supporting evidence: “At no time during a number of long talks with Arabs in this area was anything said to support Arab charges at the United Nations that thousands had been forced to cross the Jordan River from the west bank area occupied by the Israelis ….” (“War Brings Problems for ’48 Palestine Refugees,” New York Times, June 15, 1967).

A detailed U.N. report, filed by the Secretary-General’s Special Representative, Nils-Goran Gussing, also found little support for claims of expulsions. Among other things, the review noted that “during his visit to the area, the Special Representative received no specific reports indicating that persons had been physically forced to cross to the East Bank.” Gussing did record “persistent reports” of acts of intimidation by Israeli armed forces and attempts to suggest to Arab residents that they might be better off in Jordan. But he noted that “the inevitable impact upon a frightened civilian population of hostilities and military occupation as such, particularly when no measures of reassurance are taken, has clearly been a main factor in the exodus from the West Bank.”

The Special Representative recorded that the mayor of Hebron, one of the largest Arab cities on the West Bank, told him that even with an Israeli assurance there would be no fighting nearby, “when the Arab Legion (Jordanian army) withdrew from the area, people began to flee. Approximately 15,000 to 18,000 out of a population of 150,000 in the area had left,” the majority “before the arrival of the Israeli troops … They had left of their own free will without any pressure from the army. Many had come back, and about 90 percent of all those who had gone would like to come back.”

Israeli law, passed in the 1950s to deal with Arab refugees from the 1948 war, in general also barred the return of Arabs who fled in 1967. However, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol’s government, at United Nations’ urging, agreed to repatriate 40,000. The Israeli government, Gussing noted, decided that “persons who had resided on the West Bank, and who crossed over to the East Bank between 5 June and 4 July 1967” would be permitted to return. Israel arranged with the International Red Cross for the return of thousands who had fled.

But Jordan discouraged large-scale return; by August, 1967 only 14,000 West Bank Arabs had done so. In 1968, Jordan prohibited those who intended to remain in the East Bank from emigrating to the West Bank or Gaza Strip. Nevertheless, by the time of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel had permitted the return of another 40,000. Sachar says that “their homes, land, and other property at all times were maintained intact.”

After the Six-Day War, Israel made repeated attempts to move Palestinian Arabs out of Gaza Strip and West Bank refugee camps in the into new, permanent housing. The goal was to assist in their “rehabilitation” as settled residents integrated into the local economy. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) opposed rehabilitation, murdering a few Arabs who participated and intimidating many others. The Arab states successfully sought U.N. resolutions to keep the refugees in the areas now under Israeli control in the camps. This stemmed from an attitude exposed earlier by former U.N. Relief and Works Agency official Ralph Galloway, who said in 1958:

The Arab states do not want to solve the refugee problem. They want to keep it as an open sore, as an affront to the United Nations and as a weapon against Israel. Arab leaders don’t give a damn whether the refugees live or die.

It should be noted that a majority of the roughly 750,000 Arabs of the Gaza Strip and West Bank did not flee the fighting or Israeli military administration. As Israel maintained an “open bridges” program to reintegrate the economies of the West Bank and East Bank in the years after the Six-Day War, both the West Bank and Gaza Strip experienced greater material growth than they ever had under their respective Jordanian and Egyptian occupations.(Sachar gives a lesser figure for Arabs displaced during and immediately after the Six-Day War, 150,000. But he too puts the total number repatriated at close to 60,000.)  

General references

  1. Encyclopedia Americana Annual, 1968.
  2. Howard Sachar, A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time, Knopf, 1996 edition.