History of Israel-Palestine Conflict
Prelude to the Middle East Crisis
Modern day Israel or as it is popularly known as “The Promised Land” has been repeatedly conquered and passed on from one ruler to another from 700 BCE onwards. The history of Palestine, as it was called archaically, is that of the region between The Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River. The area today is present day Israel and Palestine. The region is the birthplace of Judaism and Christianity and has been controlled by many kingdoms and powers including Ancient Egypt, Persia, Alexander the Great and his successors, the Roman Empire, several Muslim Dynasties and the Crusaders. It would take several books and articles to untangle the tumultuous history of the region and it is my attempt to demystify as much as I can for my readers. The Assyrians conquered Palestine in 8th century BCE, then the Babylonians in 601 BCE. The Babylonians destroyed the Temple of Solomon or the First Temple in 586 BCE. The Babylonian rule was followed by Persians who conquered the Babylonian Empire in 539 BCE. Alexander the Great conquered Palestine in the late 330 BCE beginning a long period of Hellenisation. In the late 2nd century BCE, the Hasmonean kingdom conquered most of Palestine from the Greeks which came to be known as the Revolt of the Maccabees (in honour of which Jews celebrate the Hannukah).
The Palestianan kingdom then came under the rule of the Romans in 63 BCE and subsequently destroyed the Jews’ Temple for the second time. The remains of the wall still remain in the Old city of Jerusalem, known as the “West Wall” or the “Wailing Wall”. In 4th century CE, the Roman Empire was Christened and Palestine became a center of Christianity, attracting a host of pilgrims, monks and scholars. As the map below depicts, the Holy City of Jerusalem encompasses, the Western Wall or the Wailing Wall which is remnant of the Old Jewish Temple, the Dome of Rock which is sacred to the Muslims and Mohammed the Prophet is believed to have ascended to heaven from here and Church of the Holy Sepulchure, holy place for the Christians where Jesus Christ is said to have been crucified and buried.
The Muslim conquest of Palestine took place in 636-640 CE and several dynasties succeeded to gain control of the region. The most notable of these dynasties were the Umayyads, who also built the Dome of Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. The Crusaders established the Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1099CE which was conquered by the Ayyubid Sultanate in 1187CE. The Mongols invaded, thereafter and were defeated by the Egyptian Mamluks in 1260CE. The Ottomans captured Palestine in 1516CE and ruled until 1832CE when Egypt defeated the Ottomans and on British Intervention the region was returned to Ottomans eight years later.
Balfour Declaration – 1917
The question now arises, though the Zionist Movement had been pursuing the idea of creation of a separate state for the Jews since late nineteenth century, what gave it a stamp of authenticity. The answer to the question is “The Balfour Declaration”, which was made in a letter by the then British Foreign Secretary, Arthur James Balfour to Lionel Walter Rothschild, a leader of the Anglo-Jewish Community on 02 Nov 1917.
Though the contents of the letter have been disputed and were contradictory to the earlier Sykes-Picot Agreement between Britain and France and Husayn-McMahon correspondences between Britain and emir of Mecca. The declaration was issued with the continued efforts of Chaim Weizman and Nahum Sokolow, two most prominent Zionist leaders in London. The declaration stated that, “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” The British Govt hoped that the declaration would make the Jewish communities, especially in United States, to rally with the Allied Powers against Central Powers during World War I (1914-18). Further, a pro-British Jewish population in Palestine would help protect the approaches to Suez Canal in neighbouring Egypt and ensure vital communication to British Colony in India.
The Balfour Declaration was endorsed by the principal Allied Powers and was included in the British Mandate over Palestine, formally approved by the newly created League of Nations on 24 Jul 1922. However, the British took a step back from this policy in May 1939 with a White Paper recommending an upper limit of 75,000 on number of immigrants to Israel and end to immigration by 1944 unless the Arabs of the region consented to further immigration. This was done by the British Government, then led by Neville Chamberlain in response to the 1936-1939 Arab Revolt in Palestine. The paper called for establishment of a Jewish national home in an independent Palestine state within 10 years, thereby, rejecting the Peel Commission’s idea of portioning Palestine. Au contraire, it also limited the number of immigrants to Palestine to 75,000 for five years and further immigration will be determined by Arab majority. The white paper was rejected by both Arab representatives and Zionist groups in Palestine. What followed from 1939-1944 is what we refer to as the “Holocaust”, extermination of the Jews from the face of this earth, led by Hitler who did on the pretext of ethnic cleansing.
Creation of the State of Israel
Throughout the history, Jews have been exiled and have lived in diaspora always desirous of returning to the Promised Land, The Jewish State of Israel. At the end of the Second World War, the Zionist Movement was marching full ahead and demanding for creation of a separate home for the Jews. Zionist leaders like Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion, who became Israel’s first Prime Minister, demanded a withdrawal of the White Paper limiting the Jewish immigration to Israel after the Holocaust and Jewish assistance to the Allied Powers.
The British Labour party in the meantime shifted its stance from being a Pro-Zionist to an Anti-Zionist party causing a lot of Zionist leaders like Jabotinsky in a more violent direction. The British were almost bankrupt at the end of the war and needed the support of the Arabs to secure its oil reserves. The Soviet Union was trying to make inroads into the Arab land and replace France and Britain as the new Arab ally and Britain needed alliances to halt the march of the Soviet Union in the Arab heartland. The British were unable to maintain a dominant military establishment in the Middle East, ergo the British resorted to appeasing the Arabs to eliminate the Anti-British sentiment and additionally entered into military agreements with the Arabs.
This sudden turnaround of the British Policy was not well accepted by the leaders of the Zionist Movement and in response they started an illegal immigration movement called the Aliyah Bet. The movement was supported by the French and the Italians as a measure to mitigate the British dominance and in response, the British blockaded Palestine from 1945-48. All ships carrying the immigrants were intercepted and diverted to Cyprus and only 18,000 Jews entered Palestine per year from 1945-48. The most famous incident is that of the ship Exodus (rightfully christened), a battered American ferry boat, which was carrying Jewish immigrants from Chesapeake Bay to France. The ship was intercepted by the British forces and all the Jewish immigrants, most of them Holocaust survivors, fought back and surrendered only when the British threatened to ram the boat. The ship was finally returned to Marseilles.
This outraged the Zionists and in 1945 Ben-Gurion and the Jewish Agency approved the measures of violence. The Haganah, the mainstream Zionist defense organization, began operations against the British, as did the Irgun and its radical fringe, Lechi (Freedom Fighters of Israel), a radical right fringe group under the leadership of Abraham Stern, also called the Stern Gang. In November 1945, the Irgun, Haganah, and Lechi agreed to coordinate efforts against the British. In February 1946, they conducted raids on three airfields, destroying three planes. On July 17, 1946, the Haganah blew up ten out of eleven bridges in Palestine. Differences started to creep in the three Zionist Defence Organisations wherein, the Haganah conducted raids and attacked only the military establishments. The Irgun gang and the Stern gang on the other hand also attacked the British Personnel. The most infamous of the Irgun gang activities being bombing of the King David Hotel, the British Military Headquarters in Palestine, killing 91 British and several Arabs and Jews.
It was evident by 1947, that security under the British Mandate had collapsed. Figuratively, between May 1945 to October 1947, 127 British nationals were killed and Eighty-thousand British troops and 16,000 British policemen were stationed in Palestine by 1947. Hence, there was a growing pressure on the British to abandon the mandate owing to escalating costs, insufferable loss of life in Palestine and pressure from the Truman regime in the United States.
By the end of 1947, it was clear that Britain could no longer hold on to Palestine, or many other colonial possessions. In addition, Indian independence in 1947 made Palestine strategically less important. In February 1947, Ernest Bevin, the British foreign secretary, suggested partitioning Palestine as a new solution. The matter was referred to the United Nations, which began to deliberate the prospect of an independent Jewish state in Palestine. President Truman mainly supported the creation of the State of Israel to win Jewish votes and because of a promise he made to Chaim Weizman, thus overruling the state department who were lobbying for pro-Arab stance due to the pressures of the oil industry. The Soviet Union also supported the creation of a Jewish state. Stalin preferred Jewish nationalism, with its socialist component, to Arab nationalism, which appeared more backward. In addition, an alliance with a Jewish state whose founders had a strong anti-British attitude seemed like a good way to oust the British from the region.
In May 1947, the United Nations formed a special committee on Palestine (UNSCOP). On August 31, 1947, UNSCOP recommended the creation of a Jewish and an Arab state, with the Jews receiving 62 percent of Palestine and the Arabs receiving 38 percent. On November 29, 1947, the UN approved partition of Palestine, with 34 votes in favour, 13 against (11 Arab countries, Greece, and Cuba), and 10 abstentions. The UN partition deviated from the recommendation by UNSCOP, allotting 55 percent of Palestine to the Jews and 45 percent to the Arabs, and placing Jerusalem and Bethlehem under UN administration. The Zionist executive accepted this resolution immediately. Arabs in Palestine and elsewhere in neighbouring states rejected it outright, claiming that “Jews had no legitimate right to any territory.”
The Jewish War of Independence
Hostilities between Jews and Arabs began in the winter of 1947-48, with the Haganah, Irgun, and Lechi engaging Palestinian Arab guerrillas and military units from other Arab countries and by May, 1948, these included regular troops from Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. The majority of Arab troops were not from Palestine. King Abdullah of Transjordan sent Legions, even though he did not favour the creation of a Palestinian state. On May 14, 1948, the British departure was followed by a declaration of the State of Israel as an independent state.
Arab military forces invaded the next day, beginning what came to be known to Israelis as the War of Independence. Arab forces had certain clear advantages, including superior military strength. Unofficially, Britain had aided the Arab military effort since late 1947, maintaining an embargo on Jewish immigration and military supplies for Jews. The British also continued to sell weapons to Iraq and Transjordan and made no attempt to prevent infiltration by Arab guerrillas. Finally, the British handed over virtually complete military installations to the Arabs.
Where on one side was the Jewish desire and commitment to safeguard their newly born homeland, the Arabs on other hand had no real commitment to fight in the war. Most of the Arab recruits were peasants who had been forcibly recruited to fight the war. It is said that many of the Iraqi troops were chained to their machine guns to stop them from deserting.
The Arabs also severely lacked military experience and a strong leadership. In contrast, many Israeli soldiers had served in the British army and had fought in North Africa. In addition, the Israelis had superior military leaders, most of who had been trained as officers of the Palmach, a British unit of Jewish strike forces. In addition, the Israelis recruited Mickey Marcus, a decorated American army officer, to lead their military campaign. The war lasted until January 1949; during the subsequent six months, Israel signed cease-fire agreements with Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria, based on the front lines at the cessation of military hostilities. Israel wound up with 80 percent of Mandatory Palestine, which happened to be 25 percent more than what was allotted during the partition. The West Bank, including East Jerusalem, was annexed by King Abdullah of Jordan. The Gaza Strip was annexed by Egypt.
The Jewish War of Independence is a separate subject all together. There are stories of great grit and valour that need to be elucidated separately
Plight of the Arabs post War
The fate of civilian Arab population during is undoubtedly the most controversial aspect of the War of Independence. The Jewish migration, legal and illegal, turned the Jews from being a minority population in 1947 in the Mandatory Palestine to being the majority by May 1948. It is estimated that around 600,000 Arabs had left the region between 1947-49. The bigger question here is what the motive behind this Arab exodus from Israel. Were they driven out or did they leave voluntarily? The answer to the question remains ambiguous till date. However, events have happened during the Independence War which might have instilled fear in the hearts of the Arabs and they chose to leave rather than stay.
The most tragic and controversial of the events was the massacre of Dier Yassin. The Arab village of Dier Yassin was captured by the Stern and the Irgun gangs on 09 Apr 1948 who in the process of capturing the village executed more than 200 men, women and children. The massacre of Dier Yassin is a black spot on the Israeli war of Independence. Many historians are of the opinion that it was this incident that instilled fear in the hearts of the Arab population and forced them to flee. Though Arab leaders and intellectuals believe that the Arabs had been driven out by the Israeli forces, the contradictory view of Israelis still maintain that the Arabs fled on instructions of Arab leaders who promised their return once the Israelis had been defeated and annihilated. There are a few documented instances of Arabs being driven out, but no evidence of a mass effort by the Israelis to pursue a policy of expulsion.
Moreover, many Arabs fled before Israeli forces reached their town or village, and more than 30,000 had fled before Israeli independence was declared on May 14. Many among the first to flee were Arab professionals and leaders, who left for Egypt and Lebanon. Their departure by May 1948 led to a collapse of Arab social services. As the Jews gained the upper hand in the war, a further exodus of traditional Arab leaders and communal leaders followed, along with thousands of town dwellers. Most thought they would return in the wake of Arab victory. As more Arabs fled, more Arab social services collapsed.
The extremist towline of the Israeli/ Zionist leaders was quickly vanquished after 1948 as the extremist leaders were quickly absorbed in Israeli politics and society and formed the core of opposition party. Menachem Begin, the principal disciple of Jabotinsky and the leader of the Irgun, led the opposition party until his election as Prime Minister in 1977.
The establishment of the State of Israel marked the fulfillment of Zionism and its multifaceted nationalist aims. Israel became a refuge for Jews around the world. The 100,000 Jews interned on Cyprus were welcomed immediately. During the five years after independence, thousands of Jews from Arab countries immigrated to Israel.
The purpose of this article was only for me to give an insight into the sequence of events that have led to one of the most debated, unresolved and tumultuous crisis in the Middle East. The aim of the article is not to pick any side or draw a conclusion on the authenticity of Jewish or Arab claim on the land of Palestine. But, there is one thing that I have concluded from my research. The frequent ping ponging of British policies from being Pro-Zionist when they wanted Suez Channels to be secured during WWI to be Anti-Zionist and Arab supporters to preserve their oil resources did play a big role in creating the current scenario. The British left the land of Palestine in May 1948 abandoning every watch post and bunker in a haste without even calling the representative state for a table of discussion. The British were so wary to abandon the colony of Palestine they did not even try to negotiate terms and conditions of British withdrawal and establish peace in the land. They were aware that their departure would simply open the flood gates and unleash turmoil in the state which would incurred huge loss of life and probably burn down the place. The scars of this War of Independence are still fresh amongst both the Jews and Arabs and the two sects have been at war ever since. This war of Independence was followed with the famous Six Day War in 1967 and then the Yom Kippur War in 1973. The incident of massacre of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972 by eight members of Palestinian terrorist group called Black September led to long drawn operation by the Israeli Intelligence Agency “The Mossad” to track down and kill those involved in the Munich Massacre. The operation was called “The Wrath of God”.
As one can imagine there is still so much history to be researched and so many conclusions to be drawn to demystify or untangle this intertwined history of the Middle East. This crisis of such importance and has kept the world peace always on a very delicate balance. The only way out is through a peaceful negotiation.
- Jews and Judaism in World History, Howard N Lupovitch
- O Jerusalem, Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins
- History of Palestine, www.wikipedia.org
- Arab-Israeli Wars, www.britannica.com
Israel is Real: An Obsessive Quest to Understand the Jewish Nation and its History, Rich Cohen
The Israel-Palestine Conflict: A History, James L Gelvin.