Nipissing University

History 2805 -- History of Islamic Civilization

The Creation of Israel

Steve Muhlberger

The situation of Palestine in 1939:

It had been undergoing a tremendous population increase:  100% natural increase and a significant amount of immigration—Zionist immigration.   Also there had been rapid economic change:  the development of the coast, urbanization, a squeeze on peasant communities as land became scarce.

Increasing immigration of  Jews since WWI had upset Palestinian Arabs.  Various methods of resistance had been tried and there had been two uprisings, the more important one in 1936-39.

The 1936-39 revolts began with general strikes, progressed to violence, and eventually ended with chaos, becausePalestinians were not united.  The old notables were divided by their feuds.  The notables were also in a precarious situation with regard to the general Arab population.  Their power was based on the old Palestine—the old villages of the interior, religious leadership based in Jerusalem.  They had little in common with urban workers of the new coastal cities, or with the semi-migratory peasantry.  Although there was an Arab High Commission formed early in 1936 to unite the Arab opposition, it did not work.

During the rising the British had attempted to stabilize things by proposing a partition of Palestine:  A Jewish homeland, a British Mandate including Jerusalem, and an Arab state united with Transjordan. This was unacceptable to both sides.

In 1939, a revised plan was issued as a White Paper:

Once again, this was unacceptable to both sides.  But the Palestinians were in a bad position to resist.  The revolt had not thrown out the British or stopped immigration; it had led to the exile or flight of many of the leaders of their community.  Indeed, no one was very happy, and the way forward was very unclear.

By the end of WWII in 1945, the whole situation had become if anything more complicated.

This last factor compounded the impossibility of finding a mutually agreeable solution.  Political pressure on the British from pro-Zionist forces was very great, and Jewish terrorist groups were doing their best to undermine British rule in Palestine.  Middle East politics and British reluctance to abandon commitments to the Arabs pushed them the other way.

In 1947, Britain threw up its hands and dumped the problem in the laps of the new UN.  UN, led by the US and the USSR, took a rather pro-Jewish attitude, and proposed a partition, as Britain had 10 years before, with more territory to be given to Jewish state  than in 1937.  The lines, however, were complicated.  The General Assembly accepted this plan over the objections of the Arab states.  Britain then announced a withdrawal date (as in India):  May 14, 1948.

Unlike in India, the withdrawal deadline did not lead to any sort of negotiations or agreement between the contending sides.  Zionists were intent on getting as many Jews and as many guns into the country as possible before May 14; they fought the British, who eventually fortified themselves in their bases.  On the other side, it was very confusing.  Arab forces were preparing for the big day, too, but they were more divided than ever.  The old leaders of 1939 were still in exile, and had little connection with people who were actually in Palestine.  Palestinians had the support of the Arab League, but this was not entirely an advantage.  The Arab governments were using the Palestine situation to advance their claims as Arab leaders, and had little interest in the Palestinians themselves.  They showed a paternalistic attitude, and unwillingness to allow Palestinians to form a provisional  government of their own.  They also were competing with each other.

In May of 1948, the British withdrawal took place from a country where guerrila warfare and terrorism were already rife.  Isreal declared its independence (quickly recognized by US and USSR).  Palestine was immediately invaded by Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Iraq.

At first it looked like Israel would be destroyed almost immediately; but the Arab armies proved ineffective in working together.  The result of the war, which ended in ceasefire in early 1949, was a great gain by the Zionists.

They gained much more territory, and more defensible borders, than the 1947 UN plan had allowed them.

Also, a more Jewish state emerged.  Even before the British had left, Palestinians in the coastal cities (where terrorist was most common) had begun to flee to the hills in the interior.  All-out war led to further flight, sometimes to foreign countries.  As the war progressed, the Israeli forces began to expell Palestinians from strategic areas.

By 1949, at least 3/4 of a million of the 1.3 million Palestinians had been uprooted.

200,000 or more had fled outside Palestine, to Lebanon, Syria, Transjordan, Egypt, and Iraq.  150,000 remained within the borders of Israel, though not necessarily in their home districts.

The rest, close to 500,000, had been relocated to areas in Palestine not conquered by the new Israeli state.  Perhaps 90,000 had been crammed into the “Gaza Strip;” an area around the city of Gaza that Egyptian armies still held onto at the time of cease fire.  400,000 others fled to the hill districts of the interior—what we now call the West Bank, adding to the 200,000 Palestinians who already lived there.

This was an unbelievable disaster for the Palestinian community.  On top of the losses and suffering of all the individuals involved, there was the total dismemberment of what had just yesterday been a reasonably cohesive cultural community.  Everywhere Palestinians were subject to foreigners.

 In Israel, they were a small minority within a Jewish state.  Under military control until the mid-60s, they were excluded from participation in the main institutions of the State of  Israel.  One important exception:  they were granted citizenship; Israeli Arabs, as they were called, had the same right of political participation as any Jew, and this would prove very important in the future.

In some ways, the Israeli Arabs were better off than most of their former countrymen.

The Gaza strip a grim dead-end sort of place.  Few economic prospects, and no ability to take part in the Egyptian political system.  Egypt ran the show, the UN Refugee agency provided most of the social services you might expect from government.  There was a similar situation in Syria, Lebanon, where Palestinians were confined to camps, they werenot allowed out to work and were not part of the political system.   Again, in the care of the UN Refugee administration.

In the West Bank, controlled and then annexed by Jordan, the situation was a little better—Palestinians there were given Jordanian citizenship.  Nevertheless, the Jordanian monarchy kept them under close watch.  The King of Jordan was not shy about proclaiming himself the protector of Arab interests in Palestine, but was suspicious of the Palestinians themselves, and so they were politically discriminated against.

The Israeli War of Independence of Israel, which might also be called the “First Arab-Israeli War” or “al-Nakba” (the disaster), had the effect of making the Palestinians disappear from world consciousness.  The people themselves had never had that high a profile on the world scene, but no one had doubted before 1948 that there was a country, or at least a territory, called Palestine.  As far as the Israelis were concerned, that place had ceased to exist.   Despite the best efforts of the Arabs, they had re-established Eretz Israel.

The Arabs, specifically the Jordanians and Egyptians, had seized some territory too, and it was up to them to take care of any displaced Arabs.  The governments of the Arab countries bordering Israel talked a great deal about Palestine, about the illegitimacy of Zionism, but not much about the Palestinians.  The Arab governments insisted, more and more ritualistically, that the refugees should be allowed to return to their homes, but there was little talk about the Palestinian nation.  Zionism was seen as a colonialist crime against the Arab nation.

As far as the rest of the world was concerned, this conflict in the Middle East was a serious problem, but it was an Arab-Israeli conflict.  The two parties were the state of Israel and the various Arab countries that had fought Israel in 1948.  It was therefore a problem of international relations, mainly important because it took place in a strategic part of the world, and affected the relations of the Western countries and the Soviet Union with the various Arab countries.  Part of the problem was what to do with the refugees, but they were usually not thought of as “Palestinians.”

For the first 20 years after the creation of Israel, then, the Middle Eastern crisis looked quite a bit different than it has for the last 20 years or so.   Although the Palestinians received a certain amount of aid and attention—especially from the United Nations and from the various Arab countries—their problems were given a low priority.  If the world did not precisely leave them to rot, no one, even their supposed friends, thought of them as independent actors, with any real role in determining their own fate.  They were pawns, or symbols of Western disdain for the Arab nation.  It was a terrible, ghostly, position to be in.

What seemed far realer at the time was the existence of Israel.  The last great European colonial enterprise in the Muslim world took on a tremendous importance, simply because it took place when Muslims the world over were throwing off colonial rule and domination in so many other places.  Israel has never lost that symbolic value, and that is one reason that the various Arab-Israeli conflicts have proved so intractable.  Millions believe, for religious or nationalistic reasons or both that until the Zionist state is removed from Arab land, the Arab and Muslim world will never be free.

Copyright (C) 1999, Steven Muhlberger.