Building Nations II: Palestine and Israel

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Building Nations II: Palestine and Israel

Palestine is a land claimed by two determined peoples, the Jews and the Arab Palestinians, who each have distinct religious and cultural traditions. Each of these groups can point to a long history of occupying this land, and both have physical landmarks—ancient holy temples, rural villages, groves of olive trees—that prove their claim. Both the Jews and the Arab Palestinians feel that they were promised access to and control of this land by foreign powers that governed Palestine during the 1800s and 1900s. These claims have caused conflict between the Jews and the Arab Palestinians, resulting in over 100 years of battles and wars between the two groups. This conflict has not only changed the lives of the people in them, but has also changed the culture of each group, causing people on both sides to commit what many view as terrorist acts to reach their goal of controlling Palestine. The conflict has also divided the countries of the Middle East and the rest of the world into those that support the state of Israel, the independent Jewish state created in 1948 on the land of the former country of Palestine, and those that wish to destroy Israel and return control of Palestine to the Arab people who once lived there.

For hundreds of years, Palestine was a peaceful outpost of the Ottoman Empire (a vast empire of southwest Asia, northeast Africa, and southeast Europe that reigned from the thirteenth century to the early twentieth century), noted for its coastal agricultural areas, its tranquil lake and river valley in an area called the Galilee, and a seemingly unlivable desert area called the Negev. For Jews scattered around the world, however, Palestine was the site of their ancient kingdom of Eretz Yisrael, a place in which the Jewish people had been united and powerful. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, Jews began to return to Palestine, hoping to recreate a community in which they would not find the persecution they encountered in so many other places in the world. To the Jews who looked to Palestine as a potential home, the land was mostly unused and barely populated, and thus perfect for developing into a Jewish state. But to the Arab Muslims (followers of the Islamic religion) who farmed and traded there, Palestine was their home.

The movement by Jews to create a national home in Palestine—known as Zionism—brought them into conflict with the existing Arab population from the beginning. As early as 1905, Naguib Azoury, a Christian Arab from the nearby city of Beirut, noted that Zionism and the awakening desires of Arabs for self-government were destined to cause trouble. In his book The Awakening of the Arab Nation (quoted in Charles Smith's Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict), he predicted that "Both these movements are destined to fight each other continually until one of them wins. The fate of the entire world will depend on the final result of the struggle between these two peoples representing two contrary principles." Azoury accurately predicted the nature of the conflicts which occurred in Palestine over the next 100 years. This chapter will examine the history of Palestine, from the beginning of Jewish settlements in the nineteenth century to the establishment of Israel in 1948, in order to explain how these two peoples became so locked into a conflict that continues to divide the Middle East.

The rise of Zionism: longing for the ancient kingdom

Over three thousand years ago, Jews made up a major population group in Palestine, the contested region of the Middle East that lies between the Jordan River on the east and the Mediterranean Sea on the west. Around 1030 bce an ancient people known as the Israelites took control of this territory. They called their land Eretz Yisrael, or Land of Israel, and established a powerful kingdom with a capital in the city of Jerusalem. In Jerusalem they built the Temple of Solomon, a temple dedicated to the Jewish king Solomon, which became one of the main holy sites for Jews to practice their religion, Judaism. For hundreds of years, the Jews remained the dominant controlling force in the region, but by 722 bce, the northern half of their kingdom had been conquered by Assyrians, an ancient people of western Asia. In 586 bce the southern portion was conquered by the Babylonians, a Mesopotamian empire known for its invasions of foreign lands and its destruction of foreign culture. The Babylonians destroyed the Temple of Solomon and drove Jewish religious and civic leaders from the land. This scattering of the Jewish people, called the First Diaspora, created a desire within the Jewish culture to one day return to their ancient homeland. When the Persians took over the region in 538 bce many Jews began to return to Eretz Yisrael, establishing homes and temples there over the next 200 years. The Persians allowed them to rebuild their temple in Jerusalem, calling it the Second Temple of Solomon, and Judaism once again flourished. Even when Alexander the Great conquered the area around 332 bce Jews continued to practice their religion with little oppression. However, when the Roman Empire took over in 27 bce, the Jewish people lost much of their status in the region as well as many of their religious freedoms. In 66 ce Roman troops destroyed the Second Temple and in 135 ce Roman troops responded to a Jewish revolt by driving Jews from the city of Jerusalem and forcing them to leave their homeland in great numbers. This was known as the Second Diaspora. From that time on, Jews were not welcomed in the land of Eretz Yisrael, which the Romans renamed Palestine, and a strong Jewish presence would not hold control in the region for hundreds of years.

Over the centuries, Jews settled in small communities in the Middle East, where they were generally tolerated, and in larger numbers in both Western and Eastern Europe. From the moment Jews formed communities in Christian-dominated European countries, they faced discrimination based on religion. Discrimination directed against Jews is known as anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism kept Jews from access to certain jobs, education, and from political representation; at times, anti-Semitism also led to brutal physical attacks on Jews. By the nineteenth century, discrimination against Jews had lessened in Western Europe, and Jews found themselves becoming incorporated into European society. In Eastern Europe, however, conditions for Jews grew worse. In Russia and Poland, areas with some of the highest Jewish populations, Jews faced terrible levels of harassment, intimidation, and oppression. Among these Jews especially, the longing for their ancient homeland became more than a cultural tradition. It became a matter of returning to a place where Jews were free to practice their religion without fear of imprisonment, injury, or death.

Reacting to violent anti-Jewish riots, or pogroms, Russian Jews began to leave their country to settle in Palestine in the late nineteenth century. The first such groups formed an organization called Lovers of Zion, with Zion being an ancient name for Eretz Yisrael. In 1881 a Russian named Leo Pinsker (1821–1891) wrote a book called Autoemancipation. According to William L. Cleveland, author of A History of the Modern Middle East, Pinsker's booklet "argued that anti-Semitism was so deeply embedded in European society that ... Jews would never be treated as equals.... Jews could not wait for Western society to change; they had to seize their own destiny and establish an independent Jewish state." Pinsker's book, along with the first wave of Jewish immigration to Palestine (known as the first aliyah), brought approximately thirty-five thousand Jews to Palestine, but the movement was not well organized and failed to gain any notice among Arabs living in the area.

The second wave of immigration was far more organized and determined. A Hungarian Jew named Theodor Herzl (1860–1904) independently came to many of the same conclusions as Pinsker, and in 1896 he published a book called The Jewish State, which drew mass attention to the Zionist cause. Herzl argued very convincingly that Jews living throughout Europe had all the characteristics of a nation—a shared religion, history, and culture—but that they lacked a state in which they could live out their hopes and dreams for the future. The Jewish State, wrote Cleveland, "had an electrifying effect on East European Jewry and provided Zionism with a clearly stated political objective." From 1896 on, Zionists grew ever more focused on creating a national home for Jews in Palestine. They also became far more organized: Herzl organized the world's first Zionist Congress in 1897, and he enlisted the support of prominent Jews from across Europe.

This great surge of Zionist organizing led directly to the second aliyah, which brought approximately forty thousand Jews to Palestine, mostly from Russia, between 1904 and 1914. This influx of settlers helped to establish some of the first stable and permanent Jewish social institutions in Palestine. Settlers built the foundations for the city of Tel Aviv, the first all-Jewish city. They joined together to create farms that would allow Jews to be self-sufficient, meaning that they could provide all of their own food. In 1909 they established the first kibbutz, or collective farm. They also began to form Jewish newspapers, published in their ancient language of Hebrew. The Jewish people were building an independent Jewish society alongside but independent of the Arab society that already existed in the area. The Jews, however, wanted more than simply an independent society within Palestine, they wanted to form an independent Jewish state. This task was difficult to achieve without the support of either the failing Ottoman Empire, which oversaw the region, or Britain, the dominant European power in the Middle East, and it was not until the creation of the Balfour Declaration that many Jews believed in the possibility of a truly independent Jewish nation in Palestine.

The Balfour Declaration: an impossible promise

Under Ottoman rule, which had provided stability in the Middle East starting in 1516, the populations of the regions of Palestine, Greater Syria, Lebanon, and Mesopotamia (later Iraq) were left under the control of leading Arab families. As long as the families paid their taxes to the empire, the empire did not interfere greatly in their affairs, including the affairs of Jews who began to represent a significant minority population in Palestine. But the coming of World War I (1914–18; war in which Great Britain, France, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their allies) brought immense change to the region. The Ottoman Empire sided with Germany in the war in the hopes of revitalizing the strength of the empire and keeping Western European powers such as France and Britain from gaining control over the Middle East.

Britain and France, however, were already developing plans to defeat the Ottoman Empire. They recognized that the Arab populations in the region had legitimate claims to self-rule, and that these populations were willing to help Britain and France fight against the Ottomans. In order to encourage Arab assistance, Britain and France promised that they would help the Arabs build independent nations. Britain was also very interested in gaining cooperation from the Jewish community in Palestine. High-placed Jews in London, especially Chaim Weizmann (1874–1952), a spokesman for the Zionists, convinced British diplomats that they could win the support of Russia (which encouraged Jewish immigration to Palestine) in the war if they offered support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Both Britain and France also wanted to secure their access to the Middle East at the end of the war. (Britain and France were not united in their policies, however; in fact, they were rivals in their goals for power in the region, and often acted independently.)

In order to secure all of its many interests, including its humanitarian interest in providing Jews with a safe haven from the worst aspects of anti-Semitism, the British government in 1917 issued a brief statement known as the Balfour Declaration. In its entirety, it read: "His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."

This statement was arguably the single most influential document in the history of the Middle East. Britain had committed itself to what would soon prove to be a nearly impossible task, creating an independent Jewish state in Palestine without taking away the rights or the privileges of non-Jewish people in the region. In the years that followed this statement, Jewish and Arab populations within Palestine would fight each other, and fight with and against the British, in an effort to gain permanent political power in Palestine.

British mandate of Palestine

Following World War I, the victorious Allies—Britain, France, and the United States—joined with other nations to decide the fate of the Middle East. The plan they devised, with help from the League of Nations (an organization created to promote peace and to assist countries with international relations), was called the mandate system. Under the mandate system, the Middle East was divided into territories that were expected to become independent nations; Britain and France would provide different levels of guidance and support for those countries, depending on how well developed the political systems of those territories were. France thus gained mandate power over Syria and Lebanon, and Britain gained control over Iraq, Transjordan, and Palestine. The Arab nations moved relatively quickly toward independence, but Palestine soon became deeply divided between the Jewish and Arab populations.

The British mandate of Palestine began in 1920 under the supervision of Sir Herbert Samuel (1870–1963), an experienced British politician. In many ways, the establishment of British mandate power was set up to favor the Zionists. Samuel was Jewish as well as a supporter of Zionism, and the documents authorizing the British mandate included the text of the Balfour Declaration and declared that the official language of Palestine would be Hebrew, an ancient language that was revived in the nineteenth century to unite Jews scattered across the globe. Britain had also openly supported Chaim Weizmann, who became the leader of the Jewish population in Palestine. However, Britain knew that it could not ignore the Arab Palestinians in its support of the Jews in Palestine. The British—and Weizmann—had pledged to cooperate with Arab leaders to develop the economy of Palestine. Samuel also publicly proclaimed Britain's duty to live up to their promises in the Balfour Declaration to uphold the rights of Palestinians, the Arab inhabitants of Palestine that the actual declaration had characterized as the "existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine." The promises the British had made to both sides of the emerging conflict for control of Palestine made it very difficult for them to commit their resources to the support of either side. As a result Britain's support continued to shift, favoring first one group, then the other, and this created an opportunity for the Zionists, one of the most organized and outspoken groups in Palestine, to slowly gain power with every passing year due to a lack of firm governing.

Zionist resolve

From the beginning of the mandate period, Jews were a distinct minority of the population of Palestine. Estimates indicate that they represented around 14 percent of the population in 1920, growing to 16 percent by the first reliable census in 1931. What they lacked in numbers, however, they made up for in motivation, funding, and organization. Many Jewish settlers who became Zionist had come from horrific conditions in Eastern Europe where they had left their homes with everything they owned to start a new life in Palestine. Most believed passionately that the creation of an independent Jewish state was the only way for Jews to be safe from persecution and this resolve and determination was important to the survival of the idea of Zionism, especially when obstacles such as Arab resistance and a lack of support from British policies threatened Zionist goals.

Zionist dedication was reflected in the organizations that they built. The World Zionist Organization, founded in 1897, helped to fund immigration to Palestine. It also helped to establish the Palestine Zionist Executive (later renamed the Jewish Agency), which acted as a form of government for Jews in Palestine. The Jewish Agency helped to build banks, health care systems, schools, and other institutions that helped accommodate the steadily growing Jewish population in the region. As president of the World Zionist Organization and later the Jewish Agency, Chaim Weizmann spoke for the Jewish community in its interaction with the British.

The Population of Palestine

Determining the population of Palestine during the British mandate years (1920–48) is not a simple matter. Prior to British rule, Ottoman census takers made no real effort to determine the population of what was then just a region. The first British census taken in 1922 is also considered unreliable due to British relations with Arabs and Jews not being as complete as they were in later years. The best early data comes from a 1931 British census, close to eleven years after the British had established itself in Palestine. Additional censuses were taken in 1936, 1941, and 1946, though the accuracy of the counts in these censuses was lessened by the difficulties of civil unrest in Palestine and later by the uproar caused by World War II.

In 1931, the Arab population numbered 864,806 which made up 82 percent of the Palestinian population compared to the 174,139 Jews, who made up only 16 percent of the population. Five years later, the Jewish population had swelled to 382,857, which made up 28 percent of the Palestinian population, almost double what they did in 1931. By 1941, the Arab population had grown to 1,123,168, but they only made up 68 percent of the population of Palestine while the 489,830 Jews made up 30 percent. The last British census taken in 1946 before the creation of Israel in 1948 showed that the Jewish population in Palestine continued to increase at a faster rate than the Arab population, which dropped to 67 percent while the Jewish population rose to 31 percent.

While Arabs were still in the majority in terms of population in 1948, most would be forced to leave Palestine due to the creation of the Jewish nation of Israel. Now most Arab Palestinians live in the Occupied Territories of Israel, area taken over by Israel in the Golan Heights, Gaza Strip, and West Bank during the Six-Day War in 1967.

The Histadrut, or Federation of Jewish Labor, began as a trade union but eventually became much more, as it started to develop a wide range of Jewish businesses and to encourage the growth of kibbutzim, the collectively owned and operated farms that provided the base for Jewish agriculture. The Histadrut also developed the first Jewish defense force, called the Haganah. The Haganah developed over the years into a well-trained, armed military force. By 1930, the Histadrut had joined with another union to form the Mapai Party, under the leadership of David Ben-Gurion (1886–1973), which became the leading Jewish political party in Palestine. When Israel was founded in 1948, Ben-Gurion, as the leader of the Mapai Party, became Israel's first prime minister.

Jews were not completely united in their views of how their life in Palestine should be organized. A small group that came to be known as Revisionist Zionists opposed cooperation with Britain, which they felt was slowing the pace at which Zionists could gain political control in Palestine. Led by a radical Russian Zionist named Vladimir Jabotinsky (1880–1940), the Revisionists called for massive Jewish immigration to Palestine and for the expansion of Palestine to include much of Transjordan. The Revisionists established their own political party; developed their own military force called the Irgun Zvai Leumi, or simply, Irgun; and took the lead in instigating conflicts with Arabs in the region. Two of the more prominent politicians in Israel's history, Menachem Begin (1913–1992) and Yitzhak Shamir (1915–), got their political start with the Revisionists.

Arab dissension

For a variety of reasons, the Arabs in Palestine never enjoyed the political unity or organization that was developed by the Jewish population. In part, the reasons were historic. For hundreds of years Palestine had been a territory of the Ottoman Empire, and governance of the region was entrusted to several powerful, established families who maintained peaceful, stable order. Arabs in Palestine had never needed to organize themselves to compete in politics in the region, and their defense had been entrusted to Ottoman soldiers. Because of this, Palestinians had no single representative to defend their interests when Britain took over the area after World War I. In 1921, however, a member of a prominent Palestinian family named al-Hajj Amin al-Husayni (1895–1974) was appointed as the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, a title which recognized al-Husayni as the leader of Muslim religious and political life in the largest city in Palestine, and by extension in all of Palestine. Al-Husayni felt that Zionism posed a threat to Arab Muslims in the region, but he pledged that he would cooperate with the British as long as they protected the rights of Palestinians. This plan to continue to work with the British divided many Palestinians, for while some felt that the British would help to maintain Arab rights in Palestine, many more felt that it was the British who were giving away Arab land to Jewish settlers.

Al-Husayni worked to build institutions to serve the Arab population, and many Arabs accepted him as their leader, but he faced several problems that kept him from advancing the Palestinian cause during the mandate years. He was opposed in his leadership by another prominent family in Palestine, the Nashashibis. Their constant challenges to his rule undermined his authority and convinced other factions to go their own way. The Palestinian community also had no real wealth with which to develop schools, businesses, and other social institutions. Unlike Zionists who received much of their funding from foreign countries, the Palestinians were not supported by other Arab nations and were not able to make their communities as stable or as prosperous as Jewish communities in the region. To add to the problems of Arab Palestinians, al-Husayni was indecisive about how to deal with the Zionist threat to Arab control in Palestine. Through the 1920s and into the mid-1930s, al-Husayni believed that by cooperating with the British he could protect Arab power. Only in the late 1930s, when the Zionists had become more powerful and open in their demands for control, and when the British revealed their inability to stop the expansion of Zionist power, did al-Husayni take a committed stand against the Jews. By then it was too late for a peaceful solution.

Zionists and Arabs clash in Palestine

Through the early 1920s, a Jewish society developed in Palestine without creating organized Arab resistance. Using their superior wealth, Jews purchased land from Arab landowners, who often did not occupy the land. They created towns under Jewish control and developed a social system that was largely independent of the Arabs' system. Before long, however, more and more Arabs, especially those who had been working the land sold by distant Arab landlords, began to express their anger at the way Jews were buying up the best farmland and forcing them to move. They also resented the fact that religious Jews increasingly demanded access to holy sites in the city of Jerusalem. It was at one such site, the Wailing, or Western, Wall, that the first serious outbreak of violence between Jews and Arabs occurred.

The Western Wall was all that remained of the great Jewish temples of the past, and for Jews it was the holiest site in their religion. Muslims also found great religious significance in the site, for it was part of a holy compound that the prophet Muhammad had visited on his trip to heaven, according to Muslim teachings. On that site Muslims worshipped at the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Muslims controlled the site, but they granted Jews access to it. However, they did not allow Jews to place seating at the site, nor did they allow them to put up screens to divide men and women, as the Jewish religion preferred. A series of clashes between Jews and Arabs over access to the site became violent in August 1929. Jewish and Arab mobs fought in the streets of Jerusalem, Hebron, and Safad. By the time the riots were over, 133 Jews and 116 Arabs had been killed. Activists on both sides proclaimed that they could not share these sites with each other.

These violent conflicts alerted the British to the problems between Jews and Arabs, but they could not envision a solution that would satisfy both sides. The commission appointed to study the issues discovered the lack of an easy solution to the problem. Its proposals—to limit the sale of land to Jews and to limit Jewish immigration—so angered Zionists that they were quickly discarded. This in turn so angered the Arab population that they began to push more strongly for limits to be placed on the rights of Jews. This increasing anger on the part of Arabs coincided with rising Jewish immigration as a result of the increasingly dangerous situation faced by Jews in Germany, where Nazi leader Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) had begun to formulate the policies that would lead to his attempts to exterminate all Jews during World War II (1939–45; war in which Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan). These events brought renewed conflict to Palestine in 1936.

In the spring of 1936, an Arab attack on a Jewish bus and the retaliation by Jewish Haganah forces sparked mass demonstrations by Arabs. Trying to contain the uprising and maintain his credibility among Arabs, al-Husayni condemned British policy and called a general Arab strike against British businesses and government regulations until Britain halted Jewish immigration and established a local government based on majority rule. The Arab uprising went on for three years, interrupted by periodic ceasefires, as the opposing sides considered and rejected plans to end the violence. By the time the revolt ended in 1939, approximately three thousand Arabs, two thousand Jews, and six hundred British had been killed.

The revolt of 1936–39, called the Great Uprising or the Arab Revolt, was in many ways a disaster for the Arabs. Their political leadership was splintered by disagreement, and al-Husayni fled the country after clashing with British officials. Many Arabs were killed or driven from their land. The revolt only increased Palestinian hatred of the Jews, which would hinder future relations. Despite the cost in lives and the disruption to the economy, the revolt may have strengthened the Jewish position. Both the Haganah and the Irgun gained new weapons from the British and others as well as valuable military experience as they fought the Arab revolters. More Jews began to express their willingness to fight in order to build a stable national home. Despite the efforts of the British to slow immigration, nearly 250,000 Jews came to Palestine between 1929 and 1939, effectively doubling the Jewish population.

Britain's slow withdrawal from Palestine

British policymakers were confounded by events in Palestine. They entered the region in 1920 hoping to pave the way for an independent nation jointly ruled by Jews and Arabs, thus fulfilling their promise. But by the late 1930s it had become apparent to all that the Jews and Arabs were not willing to live together in Palestine. In 1937 the British Peel Commission Report called for Palestine to be partitioned, or split, into independent Arab and Jewish states. Jews considered this solution, but wanted to modify it; Arabs rejected it outright, declaring that giving land to an outside minority was an unjust solution. Increasingly, neighboring Arab countries began to express sympathy with the Palestinian approach. In 1939 the British tried again, issuing a policy paper, called the White Paper, that tried to please Arabs in Palestine and in neighboring countries. The White Paper proclaimed that Britain no longer planned that Palestine would become a Jewish state and announced further limits on Jewish immigration to Palestine. By this time, gaining Arab support had become crucial. Britain knew that it must gain allies against Germany and Italy in the war that was beginning in Europe, and it wanted the Arab nations on its side.

The coming of World War II also posed a dilemma to Jews in Palestine. They could not support Germany, which was openly anti-Semitic, yet they could not support the British White Paper, because it threatened Jews who wanted desperately to escape from Germany, by denying them a share of political power in Palestine. Jewish political leader David Ben-Gurion expressed his people's difficult position when he said, as quoted by Cleveland, "We shall fight with Great Britain in this war as if there was no White Paper, and we shall fight the White Paper as if there was no war."

The end of the British mandate

The events of World War II brought about major shifts in power, both in the Middle East and in the rest of the world. Three of these shifts are particularly important for understanding politics in Palestine. First, the war exhausted Britain and, as the war came to an end, the British looked for ways to withdraw from its commitment to administer Palestine. Second, world opinion after the war was in favor of granting independence to the Arab nations of the Middle East. The Arab League, a coalition of Arab nations formed in 1945, was especially sympathetic to the desire of Arab Palestinians for their own nation. Finally, the world's horror at Hitler's "Final Solution," the ghastly name given to his attempt to exterminate all European Jews, created a great sympathy, especially in the United States, for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. These conflicting forces all contributed to the attempt to force a solution to the long stalemate in Palestine.

Overextended by World War II and attacked within Palestine by both the Jewish and Arab communities, Britain actively sought a way out of Palestine. The United Nations, a world organization formed in 1945 to promote peace and cooperation between nations, was asked to use its influence to provide a solution to the conflict. In February 1947 Britain requested that the United Nations come to Palestine to provide assistance. By August of that year the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) called for an end to the British mandate and for the partition, or division, of Palestine into two separate but linked political bodies. The British announced in September that they would end their mandate by May 14, 1948, leaving the problem of Palestine to the United Nations to figure out. The partition plan was voted on and passed in the United Nations on November 29, 1947, marking the first time that the international community publicly endorsed the idea of a Jewish state. Compared to the lengthy British mandate period, the next step in the conflict between Jews and Arabs in Palestine would be quite brief.

The United States and Zionism

For most of its history, Israel has had a close relationship with the United States. Though there are no formal treaties or alliances between the two countries, the United States has long been one of Israel's greatest supporters in its many struggles with the Arab world. That relationship has roots that go back in history to the Balfour Declaration of 1917. U.S. president Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924; served 1913–21) urged Britain to offer its support to the Zionist cause in 1917 as a key strategic step in winning World War I. As Britain's role in administering the mandate became increasingly complicated, and as Zionists came to believe that they could not rely on Britain to protect their interests, the center of support for Zionism shifted to the United States, which had a sizable and prosperous Jewish population of its own.

In 1942 some six hundred American Zionists met at the Biltmore Hotel in New York City to announce their support for a Jewish state and call on all democratic nations to offer their support. The United States embraced this role and became a vocal leader in building support for the United Nations' partitioning of Palestine, even though the United States turned away Jewish refugees during World War II. Although the United States did not directly intervene in Israel's war with its Arab neighbors after the creation of Israel in 1948, the United States was known to support the Israeli cause. U.S. support for Israel angered Arab leaders, however, and contributed greatly to the negative image of the United States in the Middle East.

The Intercommunal War and the Arab-Israeli War

From the moment that UNSCOP announced its plan of partition in 1947, the situation in Palestine changed from one in which politicians lobbied to win support for their land claims to one in which armed groups fought with each other to secure land. This scramble to claim land and define boundaries occurred in two distinct phases: the first in what has been called the Intercommunal War, when Jews and Palestinians fought among themselves, and then in the first Arab-Israeli War (called the War for Independence in Israel) in which the neighboring Arab nations fought to deny Israel its independence.

The Intercommunal War—literally, a war between two communities—began in September 1947, when well-organized Jewish troops of the Haganah began to take steps to secure territory promised to them under the partition plan. The Arabs were ill prepared to deal with these attacks. Former Palestinian leader al-Husayni tried to organize resistance from his base in Egypt, and other Palestinian groups also formed small bands of fighters to attempt to gain land. The Palestinians were lightly armed and poorly funded and organized; they proved better at harassing Jewish civilians and settlers than competing in armed battles. Slowly, Jewish forces gained control of strategic areas that would later become the focus of Jewish occupation. Their victories forced as many as four hundred thousand Palestinians to flee their homes and villages and to take refuge in areas remaining under Palestinian control.

A pivotal moment occurred in the midst of a renewed Jewish offensive to capture all the land indicated by the partition plan. Palestinian forces had offered extreme resistance in the villages around Jerusalem, but the nearby Arab village of Deir Yassin (also spelled Dayr Yasin) had remained peaceful. On the morning of April 9, 1948, however, Irgun forces joined with another radical militia group called Lehi to attack the village. What began as an organized attack soon degenerated into a reckless massacre; Jewish soldiers moved from house to house, robbing people and murdering many who resisted. Many of the events of the Deir Yassin massacre are contested—such as whether soldiers raped women or killed babies—as Matthew Hogan wrote in a 2001 Historian article. The number of those killed has also been questioned: some sources say that around 250 men, women, and children were slaughtered; other sources place the number closer to one hundred. But whatever the real number of fatalities, the surrounding Arab communities were terrified by the incident, which was widely reported by Arab radio stations. Jewish forces played up this terror, broadcasting announcements that Arabs should leave Palestine if they wanted to avoid such a fate. This atrocity helped enlist support from Arab nations to enter the growing conflict.

Unwilling to supervise the partition plan, British forces left Palestine on May 14, 1948, and on that same day David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the existence of the state of Israel roughly within the borders defined by the United Nations partition plan. The next day, the armies of Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Transjordan invaded Israel. These states, acting through the Arab League, had denied the legitimacy of the partition plan, and now they would use their combined armies to deny the creation of the state of Israel. From the very beginning, however, the Arab armies faced serious problems. First, they were outnumbered: their combined forces totaled 21,500, while the Israeli's totaled 30,000 (according to figures cited by Cleveland). Second, they were poorly organized: there was no central leader coordinating the attacks, and thus each Arab army acted alone. Only the army from Transjordan, under the command of King Abdullah, fought well. Third, they faced well-prepared Israeli forces, which had been trained to fight on Palestinian terrain and had been armed with weapons purchased with funds from many foreign countries that supported Zionism, including the United States.

The fighting in this war was largely over by August 1948. Israeli forces not only secured the areas granted by the United Nations partition, they also significantly expanded Israeli-controlled territory in the north, capturing the entire northern quarter of Palestine all the way to the Lebanese border, and making real gains on both the northern and southern edges of the West Bank, a Palestinian-dominated territory west of the bank of the Jordan River. Had it not been for the strong showing by the Transjordanian army, it is possible that Israel might have captured the entire West Bank (as it later did in 1967). By the middle of 1949, Israel had negotiated ceasefire agreements—though not peace treaties—with all its neighboring countries, and considered its borders secure and established. The state of Israel was now a reality, recognized by the United Nations and welcomed by many in the international community.

Israel had secured a victory and realized the Zionist dream, but in so doing, it had also created significant regional problems. The first and biggest problem was that of Palestinian refugees. An estimated seven hundred thousand Arab Palestinians were forced to leave their homes during the conflict for Israel's independence. These refugees fled primarily to the West Bank and Gaza Strip, occupied by Transjordan and Egypt, respectively, but also to other neighboring countries. Many Palestinians lost everything they owned as they moved, and others became sick and died in refugee camps where conditions were poor and medical supplies were in short supply. The creation of so many Palestinian refugees also created economic problems for the nations in which they took refuge. Another significant problem created by Israel's rise to independence is the lasting ill will and anger that it created among Arab nations. Arab nations would fight a series of wars with Israel over the next thirty years and would consistently deny Israel's right to exist. Most Arab nations sided with Palestinians in believing that Palestine had been stolen from its rightful owners, and they blamed the Western countries, especially Britain and the United States, for this crime since they supported Israel. Israel came to symbolize the invading power of the West (countries such as Britain, France, Germany, Canada, and the United States), and thus became a symbol for the great cultural clash between the West and the Arab countries of the Middle East. All of these issues—the Palestinian refugee problem, Arab anger toward Israel, and the cultural divide between the Arab and Western worlds—continued to be the focus of conflict in the region into the twenty-first century.

For More Information


Cleveland, William L. A History of the Modern Middle East. 3rd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2004.

Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East. 4 vols. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 1996.

Farsoun, Samih K., with Christina E. Zacharia. Palestine and the Palestinians. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997.

McCarthy, Justin. The Population of Palestine: Population History and Statistics of the Late Ottoman Period and the mandate. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.

Miller, Debra A. The Arab-Israeli Conflict. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 2005.

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Building Nations II: Palestine and Israel

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