Last years of the British Mandate; UNSCOP partition plan and the outbreak of civil war

Historic roots of the conflict:
  • Both Arabs and Israelis have deep-rooted historical and religious connections to the territory of the 'Holy land' that in the second half of the twentieth century would become the state of Israel and the 'occupied territories'. The Jewish tradition sees Palestine as the 'promised land' of Israel that God gave to the Jewish people according to the biblical account of the Old Testament, and look back to the 'Kingdom of Israel' that existed before the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE as proof that the Jews 'were there first'. On the other hand, Palestinian Arabs point to the fact that they have been living in the area continuously over the past 2,000 years, and can also point towards Biblical references in the Old Testament to justify their claim to the land. For both Jews and Arabs, Jerusalem is a holy site for their respective religions.
  • However rather than seeing this as an ancient conflict, and as Kirsten Schulze argues, "the Arab-Israeli conflict emerged with the advent of nationalism in the Middle East and the conflict .... is one of competing nationalisms". This is reinforced by the fact that there has not been a continuous dispute between the Arabs and the Israelis since ancient times over the land of Palestine - these conflicting nationalist claims on the territory have their roots in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, with the emergence of modern Zionism and Arab nationalism.
  • Influenced by anti-semitism in Europe and Russia in the nineteenth century, and broader European trends towards nationalist thinking, Zionism as a modern ideology was developed by Theodor Herzl, an Austro-Hungarian Jew and journalist who argued that the creation of a Jewish national state in Palestine was the only solution to discrimination against the Jews. Zionism started as a small intellectual movement with the publication of Herzl's Der Judenstaat in 1896, but soon became an international movement.
  • Arab nationalism - the belief that the Arab people should be a single political community - developed simultaneously to Zionism in the later decades of the nineteenth century. Looking back to the glorious cultural achievements of the Arab renaissance, this nationalism was also built upon opposition to the Ottoman Empire, to European colonial interference in the Arab world, and to Zionism, with whom its territorial claims over the 'holy land' clashed and competed with.
  • In the early twentieth century Palestine was still ruled by the Ottoman Empire, the 'sick man of Europe' as it was known, but both Zionism and Arab nationalism were ideologies seeking to challenge and overthrow Turkish rule and establish control over the territory for themselves. This is therefore the basic issue at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict: two competing, and irreconcilable, nationalisms staking claim to the same territory! As Jewish philosopher Martin Buber stated in 1947, it is a conflict over "a land of two peoples" - something made clear by an early Zionist fact-finding mission to Palestine in the late 1890s which had reported that "the bride is beautiful but she is already taken" (i.e. already populated by Palestinian Arabs!)

The impact of WW1 and the arrival of the British:

  • Britain's desire to defeat Germany and her allies in the First World War led to policies that would have far-reaching consequences for the future of the Middle East. As the Ottoman Empire was an ally of Germany and the Central Powers, Britain was keen to try and de-stabilise the Middle East as a way of weakening the Turks' military capability. They also hoped to prevent the Ottomans taking control of the Suez canal, and secure control of newly-discovered oil supplies in the region.
  • To secure the support of the Arab tribes against the Ottomans, the British made an agreement that promised future Arab independence. In 1915 the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence were completed between Sir Henry McMahon and Sharif Hussein, Amir of Mecca, and promised that "Great Britain is prepared to recognise and support the independence of the Arabs in all the regions within the limits demanded by the Sharif of Mecca". This saw the Arabs enter the war against the Ottomans in 1916. The agreement did specify areas to be excluded from Arab control, and these were to be issues of contention after the war: while the Arabs took Palestine to be included, the British argued that it was part of the excluded territory.
  • This promise to the Arabs was severely undermined by the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, a secret agreement between Britain and France in which they carved up the Middle East into areas of interest in the event of Ottoman rule collapsing.
  • Furthermore, in addition to having promised the Arabs their independence, the British also made significant promises to the Zionist movement, hoping to secure their support for the Allied war efforts. The 1917 Balfour declaration, a letter from the British Foreign Secretary to a leading Zionist, stated that Britain "viewed with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people". Though it should be noted that this did not say that a 'Jewish state' should be created, and that no specific territorial borders were mentioned, this clearly offered a strong pledge of support to the Zionist cause.
  • The First World War therefore played a crucial role in sowing the seeds of the forthcoming Arab-Israeli conflict: both the Arabs and the Zionists believed that they had been promised control of Palestine, while Britain itself had cynically decided to move into the vacuum created by Ottoman collapse and rule the region themselves. Britain thus intensified the competing claims of both the Arab and the Zionist nationalist ideologies, and satisfied neither in their search for modern statehood.

British rule in the interwar period:

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  • British troops entered Palestine in 1918 and took provisional control over the territory, which was then formalised by the League of Nations in 1922 as part of the post-war settlements. The British mandate showed clearly that Britain had gone back on promises made to the Arabs and the Zionists in favour of the Sykes-Picot agreement.
  • The mandate given to the British placed them in a complex situation, and the contradictory aims of the mandate help to explain the long-term failure of British rule in the area. On the one hand, the British were supposed to put the country under "such political, administrative and economic conditions as will secure the establishment of the Jewish national home", but on the other hand, they were also supposed to safeguard the "civil and religious rights of all inhabitants of Palestine, irrespective of race and religion."
  • In other words, the British were supposed to keep both the Jews and the Arabs happy, an impossible aim which explains why the British often succeeded in pleasing neither of the two groups, with both claiming that the British were favouring the other group! The Arabs tended to think Britain was holding onto Palestine until a Jewish majority had been gained, while many Jews though that Britain was secretly arming the Arabs and restricting Jewish immigration and land purchase in order to prevent a Jewish state being created. In practice, Britain's attempt to deal with this mess often led to contradictory policies that only worsened the situation by increasing suspicions and tension all-round.
  • The 1920s saw relative peace in the mandate as the British encouraged both Jews and Arabs to engage in institution-building. The Jews were much more energetic in responding to this, establishing key institutions (ie. Haganah, Hebrew University) which would ease the transition to full statehood in 1948. Despite the forming of the Arab executive in 1920, Arab/Palestinian institution-building failed to proceed at the same pace, as religious, regional and local divisions got in the way.
  • 1929, Wailing Wall incident in Jerusalem put an end to this peace, and sparked significant inter-communal tensions. This led to disturbances which caused 133 Jewish deaths and 116 Arab deaths, and the massacre of most Jewish residents of Hebron. The British response - a White Paper blaming events on Jewish land purchases, and then restrictions on Jewish immigration - upset first the Jews and then the Arabs, when the Brits took a step back from the position in the White Paper.
  • Hitler's rise to power in Germany in 1933 led to an increase in Jewish immigration to Palestine, which increased problems in the region. Between 1930 and 1936 the Jewish population had more than doubled from from 160,000 to 370,000 out of a total population of 1.3 million in Palestine - which prompted Arab fears that they would end up losing their land. Arab opposition to this immigration took the form of the Arab revolt, which began as a strike in 1936 and went on to become a full-scale uprising which paralysed Palestine for months and took the British three years to contain.
  • The British response to the Arab revolt came first in the shape of the Peel Commision, 1937, which argued that co-existence was impossible and that partition was the only solution. The Arabs rejected this idea, seeing it as the theft of their land, but the British needed to try and secure Arab support in the face of an upcoming war with Hitler in Europe and therefore issued the 1939 White Paper. This limited Jewish immigration to 15,000 per year for the next five years, and then made it dependent on Arab consent thereafter. The Arabs rejected this as they demanded national independence, while the Jews saw this as against the terms of the mandate and an act of betrayal when they most needed protection (in the context of the Nazi Holocaust). This saw Zionists turn their focus away from Britain and towards the USA instead in search of support for their proposed Jewish homeland.
  • Summary - main issues: broken promises after WW1; tension caused by increasing Jewish immigration and land purchases; Britain's inconsistent policies.

The impact of WWII and reasons for British departure:
  • Winning the war against Hitler had virtually bankrupted Britain, who from 1945 was clearly an imperial power in decline. Faced with pressing reconstruction issues at home, and serious economic and financial problems. the British could no longer afford the expensive business of maintaining the mandate in Palestine.
  • The Biltmore program, calling for a Jewish state in Palestine, 1942, was endorsed by both Democratic and Republican candidates in the 1944 US election campaign, which clearly showed both the force of Zionist lobbyists in the US and also the direction in which postwar US policy was likely to take. Domestic political pressure in the US would play an important role in guaranteeing that the world's foremost superpower become involved in the Middle East .
  • Mass murder of c. 6 million Jews in the Holocaust led survivors and Zionists to pursue their goal of a Jewish state with existential urgency, as the only way to secure Jewish security from such atrocities. It also helped secure international sympathy for the Zionist cause.
  • War created a massive refugee problem in Europe, leading to increased pressure for ending restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine and on land purchase in Palestine.
  • The end of the war saw the situation in Palestine worsen considerably, as the Jewish waged an uprising against the British and Arab-Jewish tensions bordered on civil war. By 1947 127 British soldiers had been killed by Jewish attacks - particularly notorious was the Irgun's bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in July 1946 which killed 91 people - and the British departure was looking almost inevitable. Having failed to solve the conflict between Arabs and Zionists, and faced with more important issues at home to deal with, the British decided to hand Palestine to the UN and let them deal with the situation instead.

UNSCOP Partition Plan and outbreak of civil war:
  • During summer of 1947 the UN special committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) went to the region to investigate the situation and recommend future policy based on interviews with both Arabs and Jews. However, while the Jews worked carefully with the commission to communicate their position, the Arabs refused to co-operate with them, believing them to be already biased in favour of the Jews and that they had already decided to sacrifice Arab lands in order to placate the Jews after the Holocaust. This boycotting of the commission can not have helped the Arab cause.
  • UNSCOP concluded that both sides' claims were valid, that their aims were irreconcilable, and that the only solution was the partition of Palestine into two separate states to separate the communities into a Jewish and an Arab state.
  • The partition plan granted almost 57% of Palestine to the Jewish settlers, even though the 1.2 million Arabs constituted 70% of the population. Though there were to be separate Arab and Jewish states, Jerusalem was to come under international control. Beyond this, the three main problems with the plan were as follows: i) territorial fragmentation of both states, ii) though politically separate, the two states should be economically united, and iii) given the amount of land given to the Jewish state, what was to happen to the Arab population 'trapped' within the Jewish borders?

UNSCOP 1947 Partition Plan
UNSCOP 1947 Partition Plan
  • The Zionists accepted the plan as a first step to statehood, even though they disliked the status of Jerusalem and the fact that they did not have a clear defensible state. However, the Arabs could not see any redeeming parts in a plan which gave away large parts of their land to the Jewish settlers and guaranteed that a large number of Arabs would be part of the new Jewish state, and they therefore rejected the plan completely. The Arab League (Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Transjordan and Yemen) pledged to go to war to prevent a Jewish state - though such a united front was complicated by divisions within the league.
  • After the UN voted in favour of the plan, both the Arabs and the Jews began to arm themselves. Effectively from November 1947 until the declaration of the Israeli state in May 1948 (when the first Arab-Israeli war broke out), Palestine was embroiled in a civil war between the Arabs and Jews. The British could neither implement partition, nor intervene to stop the violence - really, they were just riding out the remaining time of the mandate and looking forward to handing the problem to someone else! This civil war started with the General Strike called by the Arabs from 2nd to 4th December, and continued until the State of Israel was declared, on 14th May 1948.
  • Bitter fighting between the two sides included the Deir Yessin massacre, 9th April 1948, in which Irgun and Lehi troops killed more than 250 Arab men, women and children as part of the controversial Plan D aimed at securing the areas of the Jewish state promised by the partition plan. This massacre had a huge impact on the Arab community, leading ultimately to a mass exodus of Palestinian Arabs (cf. historiographical debates about the causes of the Palestinian diaspora): it is estimated that 300, 000 Palestinian Arabs had fled before the State of Israel was declared.

Schulze, pp. 5 - 12.
Schulze, pp. 5 - 12.