Mideastweb: Middle East

MidEast Web Historical Documents
Haifa Refinery Riots

December 1947

Middle East news peacewatch top stories books Documents culture dialog links more links donations


Immediately following the announcement of the partition plan, violence erupted sporadically throughout Palestine. This began as disorganized riots by Arabs in Jerusalem on December 1, and escalated into terrorist attacks by both sides, and systematic attempts by Palestinians to blockade Jerusalem. Below is one account of a major incident in Haifa, at the close of 1947.


The Descent into Madness

It is a sad irony that the single bloodiest incident of the first month of the Arab-Jewish violence that erupted immediately after the UN General Assembly endorsed partition not only involved workers employed at a mixed workplace but occurred at a site which had a history of close cooperation between Arab and Jewish unionists. This incident, one of the first massacres of the 1947–49 period though by no means the last, contributed greatly to the dissemination of fear and hatred among both Arabs and Jews in Palestine.

The site in question was the Haifa oil refinery, which at the end of 1947 employed some 1,700 Arab and 270 Jewish manual workers, in addition to 190 Jewish, 110 Arab, and 60 British clerical workers. As I discussed earlier, the refinery workers had been involved in important struggles in 1946–47. In these struggles Arab workers and union activists had played the leading role, not surprisingly given the composition of the workforce and its high degree of organization. But the Arab unionists' relations with the Jewish refinery workers seem to have been good: the Histadrut's clerical workers' union had close ties with some of the Arab white-collar employees at the site, while the local Jewish workers' committee was dominated by Hashomer Hatza‘ir members who had developed good relations with Arab leftists and labor activists at the refinery.

In the summer of 1947, for example, the members of the Jewish workers' committee at CRL were invited to attend the funeral in Acre of an Arab refinery worker who had been killed in an industrial accident. The Jewish activists accepted, and at the cemetery one of them eulogized the deceased. The Jews' participation made a positive impression on the Arab refinery workers and in Acre generally. The Arab and Jewish workers' committees also cooperated in organizing a brief memorial strike in the deceased's department at the refinery, together took up a collection to help his family, and joined in pressing management for fair compensation.

Whatever good feeling may have existed seems to have evaporated during the fall, and after the UN General Assembly voted to endorse partition the Jewish workers at the refinery became increasingly worried about their safety. On the morrow of the vote violence erupted in various parts of the country. At first this took the form of random attacks by Arabs against Jews and Jewish property and settlements, but Jews soon responded with attacks on Arabs. This quickly escalated into a cycle of violence and counterviolence using terrorist means, the first phase of an increasingly bitter and bloody civil war which would soon pit Arab and Jewish militias against one another in a deadly struggle for control of strategic roads, sites, and areas, and ultimately of Palestine itself.

On the Jewish side the leading role in this struggle was played by the Hagana, the Yishuv's largest military force, which was closely linked to the Histadrut and was under the control of the official leadership of the Yishuv, itself largely dominated by the labor-Zionist movement from the mid-1930s onward. There were, however, other Jewish military forces which did not accept the authority of the Yishuv's leadership. The most important of these (though much smaller than the Hagana) was ETZEL, commanded by Menahem Begin and better known in the United States as the Irgun. ... [I]t was ETZEL (linked to the right-wing Zionist Revisionist party, ancestor of today's Likud) which carried out the bombing of the King David Hotel in July 1946. And it was an operation planned and executed by this organization which at the end of 1947 touched off the orgy of bloodshed at the Haifa refinery.

During December 1947, as civil war erupted in Palestine, the Hagana focused largely on protecting Jewish lives and property and on securing key lines of communications and transportation; later it began to take the offensive by mounting a series of military operations designed to crush Arab resistance and secure territory for the future Jewish state. Although during 1948 ETZEL would also stage military operations, in December 1947 it devoted itself largely to retaliating for attacks on Jewish civilians—thereby, it insisted, deterring further such attacks—by targeting Arab civilians.

On December 29, 1947, ETZEL had staged a bomb attack at the Nablus Gate of Jerusalem's Old City which killed or wounded forty-four people. On the morning of the following day, Tuesday, December 30, 1947, ETZEL operatives threw bombs from a speeding car into a crowd of several hundred Arabs standing outside the main gate of the Haifa oil refinery in the hope of finding employment as day laborers; six people were killed and forty-two wounded. ETZEL would later announce, quite unapologetically, that these acts of terrorism in Jerusalem and Haifa had been carried out in retaliation for recent attacks on Jews elsewhere in Palestine.

{Dan Kurzman's Genesis:1948 for example mentions the massacre and not the Irgun attack; his book was a popular standard. -- Ed.}

Within minutes of the bomb attack at the Haifa refinery gate, some of the Arabs who had been part of the crowd outside surged into the refinery compound and, along with some of the Arab refinery workers, began attacking Jewish refinery workers. An hour passed before British soldiers and police arrived to restore order, by which time forty-one Jews had been killed and forty-nine wounded. This was the largest and most brutal massacre of civilians which Palestine had witnessed since the UN vote a month earlier.

A committee of inquiry appointed by Haifa's Jewish community concluded that the massacre of Jews at the refinery was unpremeditated and that it had been precipitated by the ETZEL attack on the workers outside the gate. The Jewish Agency, the official leadership of the Yishuv, promptly denounced ETZEL for the "act of madness" which had brought about the catastrophe at the Haifa refinery, but it simultaneously decided to emulate ETZEL by secretly authorizing the Hagana to retaliate.

A day after the refinery massacre, members of the Hagana's elite strike force, the PALMAH, attacked the village of Balad al-Shaykh not far from Haifa, where a number of Arab refinery workers lived, and nearby Hawasa as well. (The Nesher cement factory, where as we have seen the issue of Hebrew labor surfaced so contentiously in the 1920s and 1930s, was located near Balad al-Shaykh, and the village's cemetery contained the tomb of Shaykh ‘Izz al-Din al-Qassam, whose death in a gunfight with police had made him a nationalist martyr and would set the stage for the outbreak of the 1936–39 revolt.)  {other sources give entirely different reasons for the revolt -- Ed.} The Jewish attackers killed some sixty men, women, and children and destroyed several dozen houses. {Actual figure is probably lower, closer to a dozen dead more wounded, his figure is probably dead and wounded. Ed.}

The contrast between the Yishuv leadership's official stance and its actual response to the refinery massacre was not lost on many Arabs. When Eliyahu Agassi visited Haifa early in April 1948, an Arab worker berated him: "We know you Jews: you preach one thing and practice another. What was the crime of the Arab workers at Hawasa and Balad al-Shaykh whom your people attacked at night and slaughtered?"

The report of the Jewish committee investigating the refinery massacre noted that "there were isolated incidents of Arab workers and [white-collar] employees who in various ways warned and even succeeded in saving a number of Jews, their coworkers" and added that "not all the Arab workers at the enterprise participated in the rampage, and a significant number of the workers and employees did not participate in it." However, the committee also found that "some of [the Arab refinery workers] took an active part in the riot" and that "there was no effort by a group of Arab workers to prevent others from rampaging." This was, fortunately, not the case that same day at the railway workshops, located a short distance from the refinery.

During December 1947 tensions between Arab and Jewish workers there had sometimes run high, despite efforts by Arab and Jewish union activists and leaders to keep the peace. When news of the bomb attack at the refinery reached the workshops, tensions soared and some of the younger and more hotheaded Arab workers there stopped work, shut down the machines, and began arming themselves with whatever makeshift weapons came to hand. For some very tense moments it seemed that the massacre at the refinery might be repeated at the railway workshops. But Arab unionists, including veteran PAWS activists like Sa‘id Qawwas and AWC sympathizers as well, promptly intervened to prevent violence. At great personal risk they prevailed on the hotheads to calm down and preserved order until arrangements could be made for the Jewish workers to leave work and reach their homes safely.

A Jewish unionist at the workshops declared that "without a shadow of a doubt it is thanks to [the Arab unionists'] courage that what befell the workers at the refinery was not also our lot that day." The Arab unionists' effective intervention to prevent violence against Jews at the railway workshops received little public attention. Not surprisingly, the Yishuv focused on the massacre of Jews at the refinery, while the Arab community preferred to dwell on the preceding bomb attacks by Jews and the Hagana's subsequent retaliatory raid which took an even larger number of Arab lives. {Other places say more like a dozen or two - Ed.}.

The vision of Arab-Jewish worker solidarity and of peaceful coexistence which had once motivated so many people could not survive the atrocities and the mutual dehumanization which were the inevitable by-products of the ferocious intercommunal warfare which engulfed Palestine in the months that followed. Even less could it survive the actual physical displacement of much of Palestine's Arab population.

From: Comrades and Enemies: Arab and Jewish Workers in Palestine, 1906–1948 Zachary Lockman

Edited and commented by Matthew Hogan and Ami Isseroff.

UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS, Berkeley · Los Angeles · London © 1996

Main History Page

Middle East Gateway