Dossier 1914-1918

The Expulsion of the Jews from Tel Aviv-Jaffa to the Lower Galilee, 1917-1918

Before the advance of the British troops in Palestine, the Ottoman military governor, Jamal Pasha, ordered in March 1917 the evacuation of residents of Tel Aviv and Jaffa. The Jewish population were scattered mainly in Galilee, where hundreds of deportees died of disease and hunger. All residents were able to return home after the British victory at the end of 1918.

Sea of Galilee and the Town of Tiberias (Tabariya).
National Library of Israel/Palestine Exploration Fund and Frank Mason Good Photographs.

On March 27, 1917, Meir Dizengoff (later to become the first mayor of Tel Aviv) sent an emotional call to the Jewish settlements in northern Palestine for urgent assistance to the residents of Tel Aviv-Jaffa:

Brothers! An expulsion order has been decreed upon the Jewish Yishuv (Yishuv = the Jewish community in Palestine prior to the declaration of the state of Israel) in Judaea, and at this dire hour we are forced to appeal to you for help. At the present time, the Yishuv in the Galilee stands outside the sphere of catastrophe and now has the means to fulfill its important and historic duty of salvation. It may be assumed that a significant number of Judean exiles will be forced to enter into the cities and settlements of Galilee, and the Galilean Yishuv must therefore be prepared very soon for this entry. It is highly possible that the removal of the residents may have to be carried out within a very short time and we are therefore in need of many means of transportation at our disposal as soon as possible. [. . .] We do not doubt for a moment the feelings of fraternity and concern by our brothers in the Galilee and express our thanks in advance1.

The expulsion decree for the population of Tel Aviv-Jaffa was given a day earlier. The order was read out by the Governor (kaimikam) of Jaffa in the morning hours in front of a gathering of Jews and Arabs in the Saraya (government house) near the port. It commanded all the inhabitants of Jaffa to leave their places of residence and to go wherever they wished, but they were forbidden to go to Jerusalem and Haifa. The expulsion order did not include the farmers who had planted fields, winery workers in the settlement of Rishon Lezion, and the teachers and pupils of the Mikve Israel agricultural school. The expulsion was to be immediate. The city residents were not given time to organize and the order was executed on that very day.

The decision about the expulsion of the Arab and Jewish population from Tel Aviv-Jaffa should be seen against the background of the events of the First World War. In September 1916 a turning point occurred on the Palestine front when the Turkish-German offensive on the Suez Canal met defeat. At the beginning of 1917 the British Army conquered Rafah and stood at the gates of Palestine. From then onwards the conquest of the country was merely a matter of time. A month later, on February 22, 1917 allied ships began to bombard Jaffa.

The bombardment of Jaffa was the excuse for expelling the Jewish population from Tel Aviv under the guise of a necessary evacuation of a civilian population in concern for its safety. In actual fact this was an expulsion in every sense of the word that was deliberately aimed at the Jewish population with the attempt and intent to damage Zionist activity in Palestine as far as possible. The proof of this lies first in the fact that the expelled Arab population was given exemptions not offered to the Jewish population. For example, the Ottoman government overlooked the Arab citizens who fled near Jaffa, while the Jewish citizens were required to move northwards beyond the Jerusalem administrative district (sanjak). Moreover, the foreign nationals who were residing in Palestine in those days were allowed to remain in the area of expulsion but the Jews among them were not permitted to do so.

The expulsion order, as said above, was for the Jewish and Arab population in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, but in actual fact it was meant for the Jews alone. The reason for this discrimination was clear. The Ottoman government was afraid—and it should be said justifiably so—that the moment the British Army invaded Palestine the Jewish population would join it. Expressions of disloyalty in the Yishuv were not lacking: there were suspicions of an active spy network in Palestine; Hebrew regiments were formed that took an active part in the fighting against the Ottoman army; and various derogatory statements were made against the Ottoman Empire.

Immediately after the kaimakam read the expulsion order, the Jews of Tel Aviv-Jaffa began their preparations for the journey northwards. After about a week, Tel Aviv was almost entirely emptied of all its residents. The Jewish population obeyed the expulsion decree literally and no actions were taken in opposition to it. Ten thousand Tel Aviv residents accepted the order to vacate their homes peacefully and submissively. Packed all their belongings and left the city. Naturally one could not expect the residents of Tel Aviv to go out in violent confrontation against the Ottoman army with its foreseen outcome. Yet there were other ways in which it was possible to lessen the damage.

This compliant behavior raises questions and amazement, especially in light of the fact that the Arab population was also expelled yet—unlike the Jewish population—found ways to return to the homes they had left a few days later. The compliance was apparently due to the fact that most of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa residents were Jewish migrants who had experienced expulsions in Eastern Europe, and the demands of the government to leave their homes was not the first ones in their lives. Many had reached Palestine at the beginning of the 20th century after the pogroms of 1903–1906.

Some of these migrants had been in the country very long and their past experiences were so deeply and strongly implanted within them that from their viewpoint this was merely another painful event in the lives of the Jewish people. Expulsions and decrees by the government had occurred in Eastern Europe and were also occurring in Palestine. The Arab population, on the other hand, which was not used to such experiences fled to the orchards around the city and returned to Jaffa after a few days. *** The emotional appeal of Dizengoff to the people of Galilee to come to the aid of those expelled from Tel Aviv was not rejected. The moment it was received horse-carts were sent out from all the settlements in the Lower Galilee to Tel Aviv to help the refugees. A “migration committee” was set up to take charge of the expulsion arrangements for them and to provide relief for their distress. Among its other functions was to make certain the cart drivers did not overcharge, to fix standard prices and keep order in the departure towards the north. However, in spite of these attempts at supervision, the excessive charges and the cost of transport for the refugees from Tel Aviv and Jaffa to the northern settlements went beyond their economic means. As a result of the heavy costs in transport for the refugees and their belongings, it was decided to refrain as much as possible from using the carts, and the committee began directing them to the railway stations in Ras al-Ein (Rosh Ha’ayin), and from there northwards to the Arab village of Samach (Zemach) on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.

The journey northwards was conducted in stages. The first stop was at the settlement of Petach Tikva. Those with means among the Tel Aviv refugees who could pay the high cost of renting an apartment remained there while the poorer people were forced to travel to the Lower Galilee which in those days was a border area infected with disease and isolated from the central core of the Jewish Yishuv in Palestine. Out of the ten thousand of those expelled from Tel Aviv, about 2,400 reached Lower Galilee. This was a population of limited means, impoverished, comprising many elderly persons, women and children who found it hard to cope with the living conditions in the Galilee.

The death rate of the refugees was especially high. On the eve of the expulsion, the hygiene supervisor of the medical services in Palestine, Dr. Krieger, claimed that “according to his estimate there will be a very great increase in the numbers of the weak and sick along the way.” By his calculation, “the diseases in the camp of the exiles will eliminate about 25 percent of the exiles!”2

And indeed, the pessimistic forecast of Dr. Krieger was realized. 430 men, women and children (18% of the expelled population in the Lower Galilee) died. The mortality rate was much higher among all those expelled throughout the country, measuring 25%. It seems that there was no family expelled from Tel Aviv that did not lose one of its members during the period of expulsion. The causes for death were many, such as a weak and vulnerable urban population, effects of a harmful climate, and especially low hygienic conditions that spread many diseases among the refugees.

Distribution of Mortality Rates among the Refugees by Age (in absolute figures and percentages)
Age Number of deaths Percentage
Up to one year 10 2.4
1 to 10 84 19.5
11 to 20 36 8.4
21 to 30 24 5.6
31 to 40 48 11.2
41 to 50 63 14.8
51 to 60 59 13.7
61 to 70 44 10.3
71 and above 58 11.8
Age unknown 4 0.9
Total 430 100

Source: CZA, L2, File 191

22% of the deceased were children up to the age of ten, and 35.8% of the elderly population from the age of 50 and above. This means that nearly 60% of those who died from various diseases that affected the refugee population in the Lower Galilee were children or the elderly.

Distribution of the Deceased according to Illness
Disease Number of deaths
Feebleness of age 65
Dysentery 43
Cholera 39
Typhus (spotted fever) 33
Malaria 32
General weakness and lack of healthy food 45
Stomach illnesses 18
Typhoid 28
Pneumonia 12
Tuberculosis 11
Diarrhea 9
Intestinal infection 8
German measles 8
Unclear illness 34
Others 45
Total 430

Source: CZA, L2, File 191

From the diseases that the refugees died of, it is possible to infer what distress they suffered and the difficulties in the Lower Galilee. The elderly population found it hard to cope with the new living conditions, simply could not hold out, and died of exhaustion. A large number of sick people died of dysentery, various kinds stomach illnesses, typhus and cholera. Contamination was the result of dirt, spoiled food, and bad hygienic conditions that led to the spread of diseases. The various types of typhus testify to the harsh living conditions of the refugees they experienced.

Stomach typhus was a painful infectious disease in the digestive system which is conveyed through food and drink. Since most of the refugees lived on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and used the waters of the lake for their various needs they were contaminated with relative ease by that bacteria (salmonella) transmitted in food or drink, and the contamination mainly occurred during the hot summer days. Typhoid (spotted fever) on the other hand was transmitted by lice, the bites of fleas and various insects. Since the refugees did not shower or immerse in water, and rarely washed their clothes or took them off, they became a convenient home for raising those parasites.

In the middle of July 1917 it seems that the residents of Tiberias and the refugee population faced a real existential danger. The first case of cholera was discovered in a young girl who had previously had typhoid fever. Since there were fears of an epidemic outbreak, they began to take means against its spread. The sick were placed in isolation, the houses were disinfected, and “anti-cholera” inoculations were given to the refugees. Besides the diseases, the mental condition of the refugees was in a bad state. The refugees were urban dwellers with a bourgeois style of life and found it difficult to adjust to the way of life in the border areas of the country. Hunger, disease and the struggle for existence exhausted their strength. They found themselves deprived of everything, far from their homes, in despair and confusion in an impossible situation in which the future was unknown and not visible on the horizon.

The years of the First World War in Palestine badly affected the population in the country. It was disconnected from the world market, was ruled by a harsh military regime that tried to extort as much as possible for the war effort, and became a military base for the battle arena. About 65,000 Turkish soldiers were stationed in Palestine and Syria during the peak years of the war, while the British Expeditionary Forces that conquered it from the Turks consisted of 90,000 military men. Fierce battles were fought throughout the country and modern military technology, new kinds of weapons and airplanes were an integral part of the general conflict. During the war a railway network was developed that led to considerable destruction in the natural landscape of the country. Forests were cut down for charcoal which was the fuel used for steam engines. The military regime imposed by Jamal Pasha and his assistants added to the damage caused by war. The Turkish army confiscated food supplies, animals and tools, recruited many of the local people for enforced labor, expelled population from their homes, and imposed various decrees and death sentences.

The situation of the Jewish Yishuv in Palestine was especially difficult. On the eve of the war the Jews number about 85 thousand, and at the end after the expulsions, exiling and mortality rate they numbered about 50,000 only. The Jewish Yishuv was isolated from its financial sources. The military government not only froze the development of the Yishuv but actively tried to bring about the elimination of the Zionist endeavor. Only the intervention of the German ambassador and the American ambassador (until the United States entered the war) in Istanbul, and the fears of the Turks over public opinion in countries friendly to Turkey, prevented the military government from taking drastic steps against the Yishuv.

The Great War left many scars among many nations, including the Jewish population in Palestine. The expulsion of the Jews of Tel Aviv-Jaffa should be seen against the background of other expulsions that were made during the war. In the wider historical context it appears as though the Jewish Yishuv did not suffer more than others. Millions of people were killed in this violent and cruel war and the victims of expulsions were an inseparable part of it.

The period of expulsion was one of the most painful to be experienced by the Jewish Yishuv in Palestine. On the other hand, for the Zionist Movement, this period was one of its high moments during which, on November 2, 1917, Britain “view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” (Balfour declaration). It is doubtful if this diplomatic optimism reached the ears of those expelled from Tel Aviv-Jaffa who had sunk into despair and hopelessness. The war ended in October 1918. Palestine was conquered by the British Army and the refugees were allowed to return to their homes and rehabilitate their lives.

1Letter from Meir Dizengoff to the Organization of Galilee Settlements, Central Zionist Archives (hereafter: CZA), J-90, File 141.

2Mordechai Ben Hillel Hacohen, Milhemet Ha-Amim (War of the Nations), Vol. 2, p. 550.