May 14, 1948. At a ceremony broadcast live across the Middle East, David Ben-Gurion and his fellow Jewish leaders proclaim the establishment of the state of Israel. Within hours, six Arab armies will invade the infant nation. The Israeli War of Independence has begun, and brings with it a bitter ethnic and religious conflict that remains unfinished to this day.
For obvious reasons, this subject – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – is one of the most controversial historical matters to tackle because it is, to this day, a very real and ongoing conflict. With that in mind, I will editorialize as little as possible.
The lands now known as Israel and Palestine were occupied by multiple ethnic groups in ancient times, most famously the Hebrews; this Semitic people had a good run of kingdoms before the rising power of the ancient empires finally swamped them. The last of these empires was the Roman Empire, and in the 100s AD the Jews launched the Bar Kokhba revolt, an anti-Roman rebellion that resulted in disaster for the Jewish community.
The Romans responded by forcibly relocating almost all of the Jewish population, scattering them around the Empire – an event known as the Jewish Diaspora – which turned the people of David into a minority everywhere with strong links of tradition, religion, and culture with their fellows abroad.
The Jews remained scattered throughout the centuries, even as Israel was renamed into “Palestine” by the Romans – a reference to the Philistine tribe referenced in the Bible. By the 600s AD it had come to be ruled by the Arab Muslims, and despite brief interruptions during the Crusades Palestine remained a Muslim province until 1917. By this point it was ruled by the Turkish Ottoman Empire, centered in Constantinople, and was a virtual backwater with no real importance in the Ottoman state.
In 19th-Century Europe, however, a new idea called “nationalism” began to spread throughout the continent. As Germans, Italians, Poles, Hungarians, Serbs, and many other peoples all began to dream of united homelands, so too did Europe’s most oppressed and mistreated minority. A young Austrian Jew, Theodore Herzl, was the first to establish a Zionist Congress in 1897. This fully fledged political movement sought to restore Jewish national existence in their original homeland of Israel.
Return to Israel…was like a dream to most Jews. For seventeen centuries, they had preserved the ideal of Israel in their hearts and minds; it formed a central part of their prayers and religious ceremonies. The notion that there might be an end to exile, dispersion, pogrom and anti-Semitism seemed too good to be real. Despite this, Zionism had a slow start; by the 1880s, the Jewish population of Palestine was only 24,000, about 5% of the total. Slow levels of immigration inspired by Zionism raised the population by 1914 to almost 100,000 people – nearly 15%.
The other 85% were Arab Palestinians, who up until now had borne no real sense of collective nationalism or identity. While there were a few Arab secret societies spreading beliefs of Arab nationalism in small cliques before World War I, they had not penetrated to the pastoral Palestinian Arabs. The Zionist immigrants, then, experienced little hostility from the locals at first, especially since they typically settled in the swampy lowlands that are now some of Israel’s most fertile regions.
World War I brought a major sea change. In 1917, British Imperial forces overran Ottoman Palestine and set up their own civil government in the region. No one, Jewish or Arab, was very sad to see the Ottomans go, but that same year the British government issued the Balfour Declaration, an official endorsement of “the establishment in Palestine a national home for the Jewish people.” This brought a whole new dimension to the situation. Now the Arab Palestinians had reason to fear that they would be placed under the control of the Jewish minority; Arab nationalists such as the Hashemite Kings of Jordan, deplored the notion of Arab homelands being ruled by foreign immigrants. For the Jews, it was a dream come true…but not come true yet.
From 1917 to 1948, the British governed Palestine under a League of Nations Mandate – effectively, imperialism with a nice name. The British overlords, however, soon realized they had opened a massive can of worms. They had conquered their way into a multi-dimensional ethnic conflict. The Arabs and Jews began a series of violent disturbances and raids against each other, even as Zionist immigration began to pick up. Though the British tried to clamp down on Jewish immigration to Mandatory Palestine, feeling that it only fed the ethnic conflict, Jewish immigrants slipped in regardless, many escaping from Germany or Eastern Europe as the Nazi threat of Holocaust loomed larger.
By 1920, the Jewish population in Mandatory Palestine (known as the Yishuv) had formed its own unified militia organization known as the Haganah, the forerunner of the modern Israeli Defense Force. It received clandestine military support from Poland, and focused its efforts on defending Jewish settlements from Arab attacks and smuggling Jewish immigrants into Palestine.
Its leader, and the leader of the Yishuv in general, was David Ben-Gurion. Ben-Gurion was the Chairman of the Jewish Agency and, having been born in Poland, one of the original Zionists. One of Ben-Gurion’s challenges was to prevent Haganah’s terrorist splinter group Irgun from going too far against the Arab population, but by World War II a cycle of bombings, murders and atrocities had already begun in Mandatory Palestine.
By 1945, of course, another World War had changed everything. With half the Jews of Europe dead at the hands of Nazi Germany, and the other half still facing bitter discrimination, poverty, and the extinction of their communities, immigration to Israel became a flood. Haganah turned their militarist efforts into a serious war against the British occupiers, including the destruction of infrastructure, raids to free Jewish refugees that the British were trying to deport, and reprisal raids against the Arabs.
The Arabs, though, were fighting back. The end of World War II saw new and independent Arab states like Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan emerging into their own power, and these countries provided volunteers and support to the Palestinian Arabs. The tension was only growing worse, and Britain was preparing to give up Palestine. It fell to the newly formed United Nations to settle the question.
On November 29, 1947, UN Resolution 181 recommended a partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states, in addition to an international government over Jerusalem.
Jerusalem, of course, was holy to both Jews and Muslims. Though the Jews were only 32% of the population, even now, they received 56% of the land – though most of that was the uninhabitable Negev Desert. The borders were drawn so jaggedly that the new state would be virtually indefensible. Nevertheless, Ben-Gurion and the Jewish leadership accepted the partition as the best they could hope for, but both the Palestinian Arabs and Arab nations in the area rejected any partition as unacceptable. Had they known it, this was the best deal the Palestinians were ever going to get.
The UN partition plan caused explosions of joy in Jewish communities across the world, and widespread demonstrations of anger in Arab capitals. The true start of the war was thus November 29, as violence immediately erupted across Mandatory Palestine, even as the British tried to pull their forces out of the region. The British ended up intervening only occasionally as the crisis spiraled. Arab volunteer forces infiltrated Palestine and surrounded Jerusalem, subjecting its Jewish population to constant attack; Arab blockades placed isolated Jewish settlements across Palestine in critical condition.
By the start of April, though, Ben-Gurion’s Haganah was on the offensive. They broke the ring around Jerusalem long enough for convoys to come in and began to roll back Arab forces along the coast. This resulted in a mass Palestinian exodus, driven partially by their own leaders and partially by Jewish atrocities. Irgun, a terror organization composed of the most radical Jews, massacred 107 Arabs at Deir Yassin on April 9, 1948. This act was roundly condemned by Haganah and the Jewish leadership, but news of the massacre compelled more Palestinians to flee their homes.
The British had almost abandoned the country and were about to leave by May. Ben-Gurion and the Jews knew that the Arab states on Palestine’s borders were preparing to intervene as soon as the British were gone, and made their forces ready. The largest forces would be Egyptian from the south and Jordanian from the east. King Abdullah I of Jordan had no plans to found an Arab Palestinian state; he wanted to outright annex the territories. Other Arab nations, suspicious of Abdullah’s intentions, did not pitch in as much as they could have; this was one of the major causes of eventual Arab defeat.
On May 14, 1948, the day before the British Mandate expired, Ben-Gurion and the Jewish leadership met in Tel Aviv to declare the establishment of a Jewish State of Israel. He made this proclamation almost as the last British troops were stepping onto the boats in preparation to leave. Over the next few days, elements of seven Arab League armies stepped into the former territory of Mandatory Palestine. Israel, only a few hours old, was fighting for its life.
I realize I have left little room here today to talk about the course of the war. The long and short of it, of course, is that Israel survived. There were several major reasons for this. One of the biggest to my mind is motivation. After widespread persecution culminating in Holocaust, the Jews of Israel, many of whom had survived the Nazis, had their backs to the wall. To the Arabs, and to many left-wing historians worldwide, Israel is regarded as a “settler colonialist” state – that is, no different from the colonial enterprises of the 19th Century. In 1948, though, most of the Jews had no other place to go, and being a minority in any country was no guarantee of safety given recent history. To the Israelis, their only hope of survival was a Jewish state – and survival demands what survival requires.
The other major reasons include the truces. From May 14, 1948 to March 10, 1949, the Israeli War of Independence saw three truces. Almost all of these occurred at critical points in the fighting, and the Arabs and Jews both used the truces to their own advantage. Both Arabs and Jews bought arms from Czechoslovakia, improved their positions, and trained their armies – all in violation of the truces – but the infant Jewish state also absorbed thousands of Jewish immigrants from Europe and the Middle East during the truces. In one truce that lasted less than a month, the Israeli Defense Force doubled in size, and many of these men (and women) were World War II veterans of the American and Soviet armies.
Finally, the Arab nations were not united. Egypt and Jordan refused to help each other, and neither were particularly interested in the Palestinians. Though Egypt and Jordan could have split Israel in half if they tried, neither army could even communicate with the other. Palestinian refugees swamped both Egypt-held Gaza and the Jordanian-held West Bank. The reason for their flight is still disputed to this day, whether from fear of the Jews or at the command of their own leaders to join the victorious Arab armies. The flight of the Palestinian Arabs created the modern situation that persists so bitterly to this day.
By 1949, the Arab armies had not only been stopped but driven back. Israel had not only held their territories under the UN Partition Plan, but had taken multiple Arab-mandated territories and in many cases driven out their inhabitants. On July 20, the last truce was signed, and Israel’s War of Independence was over. At the cost of 1% of their tiny population, Israel had survived to fight another day. Egypt occupied Gaza to the west, and Jordan still held the West Bank to the east – with Israel narrowly holding the middle between them. Even if Israel had survived, their position was still very dangerous.
The demographic consequences were enormous. Almost 711,000 Palestinians were displaced from Israel, whatever the causes of their departure. Half fled to other Arab states; the others crowded into the West Bank and Gaza. On the other hand, hostile reactions to the 1948 War, including antisemitic pogroms and riots, compelled the Jewish population of Muslim states from North Africa to Bangladesh to flee to Israel. Almost 600,000 Jews fled to Israel from these states, along with many more from Eastern Europe, trying to escape Soviet oppression and antisemitism. In the next few years, Israel’s population doubled.
The 1948 Israeli War of Independence did not mean Israel was safe. The Arab-Israeli wars would continue until 1973, and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict lasts to this day. I have avoided expressing too many personal opinions on this subject, not because I have no strong opinion but because it is too easy to mischaracterize either side. It is hard to judge either side in the conflict of 1948, because both were victim peoples buffeted about by the winds of two brutal world wars. Sympathy in the West tends to lie with the Israelis, and the state of Israel has undoubtedly earned its right to exist. The Palestinians, though, have been condemned to permanent statelessness for decades, and are cornered like rats in tiny sections of land, hardened and committed to violence.
It is hard to ignore, though, that if Israel had lost the 1948 War of Independence there would be no Israel. After centuries of prejudice, persecution, and Holocaust, the long suffering of the sons of Abraham had finally achieved rebirth. Whatever else may have followed, Israel survives.