.Posted: May, 2000

The Birth of Isreal

The state of Israel was proclaimed by the Jewish leader, David Ben Gurion, on May 14, 1948, and officially came into being on the 15th, after British Mandatory rule ended at midnight. In many minds, the birth of Israel is closely identified with the Nazi terror in Europe and the Holocaust, but in fact the conception of and planning for a Jewish state had begun some 60 years earlier.

The Messianic idea of returning the Jews to their "promised land" had been a Puritan religious belief since the 16th Century. In the mid-19th Century, British politicians saw another value: that of having in place in the Middle East a Jewish entity sympathetic to the British Empire.

Two phenomena made real these and the Jews' own previously vague aspirations of "return": the burgeoning European nationalism of the time, from which the Jews felt excluded; and the massacres, or pogroms, carried out by Tsarist Russia against its six million Jews, the largest single Jewish population in Europe, which spread into the Ukraine and Poland.

By the 1880s, groups of desperate Russian and other Eastern European Jews were settling in Palestine, which was under the somewhat tenuous authority of the Turkish Ottoman Empire.

The visionary Austrian-Jewish journalist, Theodore Herzl, clarified and gave political weight to the concept of Jewish nationalism - or Zionism - and a national home for the Jews in Palestine at the first Zionist Congress at Basle, in Switzerland, in 1897. He won wide Jewish backing for it, and tried, at first unsuccessfully, to encourage the British Government to support it.

It was not until World War I, when British forces were at the gates of Jerusalem, in November, 1917, that the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, anxious for Jewish support in the war, issued his epic yet ambiguous Declaration.

This said the Government viewed "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 clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine..."

The Turks defeated, the British ruled Palestine as a military authority from 1917 until 1922. Then the League of Nations awarded Britain the Mandate to govern Palestine and prepare its citizens for self-government. From that moment, Jewish immigration from Europe increased phenomenally, with the British Cabinet pledged rigorously to honour Balfour's promise of a Jewish homeland, as it was interpreted by the Zionists.

Already during the 1930s, the displacement of the Arab population began The Arabs of Palestine, not even referred to by name in Balfour's document, were increasingly angry at what they feared would be their eventual replacement and domination by an alien, inspired and technologically superior people of different religion.

Bloody inter-communal rioting broke out during the 1920s, the most notorious example perhaps being the massacres of some 60 religious Jews in the town of Hebron, about 20 miles south west of Jerusalem.

The situation intensified in the 1930s as Nazism spread across Europe, bringing more persecution and more and even more sophisticated and determined Jews to Palestine.

The Arabs were incensed. In 1936, they rose in armed revolt, mainly against the British rulers they saw as authors of their plight.

But they were disorganised, factional and poorly equipped.

British soldiers searching Arabs during the revolt in the late 1930s By 1939, the British had crushed the uprising, ending for good effective Arab resistance to the Mandatory Power and the Zionist planners, and leaving behind a fractured Palestinian-Arab society.

The Arab resentment, however, did force the British, first, to abandon a plan to partition Palestine into Arab and Jewish sectors; and seriously to restrict Jewish immigration at that very crucial moment, in 1939-40, when Hitler was at his most dangerous, conquering Europe and launching his mission to exterminate the Jewish people.

The British idea was that the Arabs would rule Palestine, inside which would be established a finite Jewish entity. It was the Zionists' turn to be outraged and to work, successfully, to explode this stratagem.

In 1948, the Jews in Palestine managed to establish their own state, Israel. The price to pay were decades of war and violence.

The contrast between the growing Jewish society in Palestine - the Yishuv - and the indigenous, mainly Muslim Arab population could not have been greater.

In 1917, two-thirds of the roughly 600,000 Arab population, were rural and village-based, with local, clannish loyalties and little connection with the towns. What passed for "national" Arab leadership was based in the towns, though there was little national identity. Two or three established, rival families dominated Palestinian politics.

The majority of the Jews arriving in Palestine were well organised, motivated and skilled. In the early 1920s, they set up an underground army, the Haganah, or Defence. A Jewish shadow government was set up, with departments which looked after every aspect of society: education, trades unions, farmers, the "kibbutzim" settlements that spread across Palestine, the law, and political parties.

During World War II, Haganah fighters joined the British Army, acquiring military skills and experience. Not so the Arabs.

At the same time, extremist groups such as the Irgun Zwei Leumi and the Lehi, or Stern Group, began a brutal campaign of assassinations, bombings, kidnappings, intimidations, disruptions and sabotage. Their actions were directed against Briton, Arab and even Jews.

During the World War, the Zionist movement clearly defined its objective as a dominant Jewish state in Palestine. Deep plans were laid.

After 1945, as the facts and consequences of Hitler's death camps became evident, the Jewish underground intensified the terror campaign to oust the British, whom they accused of Arab sympathies. Jewish organisations tried to restart unlimited immigration.

Enormous emotional and political support for the Zionists came from the United States. The enfeebled postwar British Government no longer had the strength or the stomach to control Palestine or try to find a middle way that would suit both Jews and Arabs.

Arabs rioted followed the UN vote

Britain handed the problem to the United Nations. On November 29, 1947, the UN General Assembly voted to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab sectors.

There was violent and total Arab opposition, but wild Jewish acclaim. Fighting started almost immediately.

Even before the mandate ended, in April and May, Jewish fighters moved to protect, consolidate and widen the territory for the new Jewish state. Often they attacked areas designated for Arabs, and tried to depopulate Arab areas in the planned Jewish sector.

On April 9, Jewish fighters massacred more than 200 Palestinian villagers, including old people, women and children, in the West Jerusalem village of Deir Yassin, causing widespread panic and greatly augmenting the flight of Palestinians from their homes across the country.

As the Jewish authorities had predicted, Arab armies from Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon tried to invade Palestine as soon as the British forces actually left. But the Arab campaign was a generally badly organised, uncoordinated affair with untrained units who were no match for the Haganah and, later, the Israeli Defence Force.

The Palestinian militias and other Arab irregulars were also easily crushed.

There was one exception: the British-trained and British-officered Arab Legion, under the command of King Abdullah of Jordan. But it was constrained financially and politically by the British-dominated King, who had already colluded with the Jewish leaders on territorial matters and who had ambitions in Palestine.

The Arab Legion, therefore, was restricted to defending territory in and around East Jerusalem and the Old City and on the West Bank of the Jordan, which it did successfully.

By the middle of 1949 up to 700,000 of about 900,000 Palestinian Arabs had left the affected region, forced out by a combination of Jewish/Israeli terror tactics, the frightening thrust of war, the contagious panic of local residents, fractious and incompetent Arab leadership, the flight of some richer and therefore influential families and the actual sale of Arab land to the Jews without coercion, often by absentee Arab landlords.

These Palestinians had fled from their homes for ever, though they did not know it at the time. They ended up in the refugee camps of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egyptian-run Gaza and in the Palestinian territory of the West Bank, which was ruled by the Jordanian King Abdullah, as was Arab East Jerusalem.

Those Palestinian refugees and their descendants in the region now number more than three million. Israel has since refused to allow the refugees to return as long as Arab states remain pledged to its destruction, often claiming that there was no room for them anyway.

Peace treaties and agreements with Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian movement have not altered this.

In 1917, there had been 50,000 or so Jews in Palestine. By 1948, they had become 650,000 Israelis. At the same time, the majority of Palestinian Arabs had left Israel; only 200,000 or so withstood the war and other depradations and remained in Israel.

Israel became a state on May 15, 1948, and was recognised by the United States and the Soviet Union that same day.

Israel's Arab neighbours , however, united their forces to drive the Jews out of Palestine.

BY: Tim Llewellyn.

Israel - Land of Apartheid By Professor Tanya Reinhart, September 2000


Back to World Hot Spots

Homepage / Historical Views

^^ Back to top