The seeds of enmity: in continuing the discussion begun in the July/August 2002 Humanist regarding the origins of the strife between Israelis and Palestinians, events of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s figure strongly in the unfolding story

The seeds of enmity: in continuing the discussion begun in the July/August 2002 Humanist regarding the origins of the strife between Israelis and Palestinians, events of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s figure strongly in the unfolding story – Origins of the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict

David Schafer

On April 24, 1920, at San Remo, Italy, the League of Nations bestowed upon Great Britain a mandate to administer Palestine and Transjordan: France was given a similar mandate over Syria and Lebanon. The British mandate, which took effect three and a half years later, lasted roughly a quarter of a century and left an indelible imprint upon the future course of events in the area.

The league, recognizing the growing aspirations for eventual independence in this as well as many other parts of the world, made preparation for self-government a principal goal of the mandates. This emphasis gradually brought about a major change in the thinking of the local inhabitants, for whom government had always been in the hands of the Ottoman Empire. Although some of the independence-minded Arabs had fought alongside the British against the Ottoman Turks during World War I, the establishment of Britain as the ruling power in their region inevitably led to increasing resentment by Palestinians toward their new overlords.

Throughout the years leading up to and during World War I, Britain had been primarily concerned in the Near East with maintaining its access to petroleum and other natural resources there, as well as control of sea and land routes to India and the Far East. At the same time, Britain became increasingly preoccupied with the growing unrest in Europe, which would culminate in a second world war, the persecution of European Jews, and ultimately the Holocaust. Britain’s policies in Palestine required attempting to balance the aspirations of the indigenous Arabs against those of ever-growing numbers of immigrant Jews, but this balance was never fully achieved. Almost from the start, Arabs were suspicious of the ultimate aims of Jewish immigration, represented to them as a benign introduction of a relatively small group which desired only to live in peace with the Arab majority. Soon enough, Arabs came to view Jewish immigration as a conspiracy between the British government and the Jews to create a colonialist Jewish state out of the whole of Palestine, from which most Arabs would be excluded.

Even without Jewish immigration, the British would have had their hands full in Palestine. “The Arabs” were a highly heterogeneous population, sharply divided along many lines. The Ottoman Empire had encouraged a considerable degree of local autonomy which, taken together with the tribal origins of most Arab inhabitants, often led to long-standing internecine animosities among them. In Palestine, for example, there was considerable rivalry between the two main families centered in Jerusalem–the Husseinis and the Nashashibis–who tended to take opposing sides in disputes. Though both were anti-Zionist, the Nashashibis often sided with British efforts to manage Arab-Jewish conflicts in the apparent hope of achieving compromise.

Palestine’s Arab neighbors were angry about both Zionist inroads and British power and perfidy in their part of the world. Their rulers were proud, accustomed to respect. Sharif Hussain–ruler of Mecca and later of the whole Hijaz (western Arabia) and a Hashimite (member of the same clan as Muhammad), acknowledged keeper of the Holy Places of Islam–had been an ally of Britain during World War I. Hussain had received promises from Britain’s Sir Henry McMahon in 1915, and his second son Faisal had accepted help from Colonel T. E. Lawrence to capture Damascus in 1918 and had begun to see himself as the ruler of Syria. But Syria was awarded to France, and a bitter Hussain in protest refused to sign the postwar treaties–an inauspicious beginning for the British mandate.

Meanwhile, in March 1920, a Syrian national congress made Faisal king of Syria, but he was quickly defeated by the French and sent into exile. The next year the British crowned him King Faisal I of Iraq and appointed his younger brother Abdullah the amir of Transjordan. Since the area of Transjordan was at least 80 percent of the original Palestine mandate, the British believed the Arabs would be appeased and relinquish their claim to the other 20 percent. This was referred to hopefully as the “Hashimite solution.” Faisal I died in 1933 and was succeeded in turn by his son Ghazi I (1933-1939) and grandson Faisal II (1939-1958), so both Iraq and Jordan remained under Hashimite rule throughout the British mandate.

Egypt, a British protectorate from 1882 to 1914, was a monarchy under King Fuad I (1922-1936) and his son Farouk I (1936-1952). They looked upon the Hashimites and other Arabs to the east as their rivals. In 1924, Mecca was attacked by the Wahhabi kingdom of Ibn Saud of Riyadh in central Arabia, founder of the Saudi dynasty, and Hussain was defeated, forced to abdicate, and exiled to Cyprus. His eldest son, Ali, became king of Hijaz for one year, after which Ibn Sand became monarch of all Saudi Arabia.

But discord among the Arabs didn’t prevent hostilities toward British and Zionist intrusions into “their” Palestine. With an eye to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s emphasis on self-determination, Colonel Edward Mandell House, his aide, wrote of the British plan for Palestine: “It is all bad and I told [Lord Arthur] Balfour so. They are making [the Middle East] a breeding place for future war.” The King-Crane commission sent by Wilson in the summer of 1919 had observed the anger of the Arabs and reported back pessimistically on the future of Arab-Jewish coexistence. A month earlier, David Ben-Gurion had similarly told the main self-governing body of the Yishuv (Jewish settlers): “Everybody sees a difficulty in the question of relations between Arabs and Jews … but not everybody sees that there is no solution to this question. No solution! There is a gulf, and nothing can bridge it…. We, as a nation, want this country to be ours; the Arabs, as a nation, want this country to be theirs.”

But the Yishuv had several distinct advantages over the Arabs. While the Arabs were, and remained, generally disunited (beyond agreement to dislodge the Jews), the Yishuv was single-minded in its Zionist goal. The Arabs, overall, were comparatively uneducated and unused to European styles of thought and organization, while many of the Jews brought with them the benefits of European education and experience in various kinds of work. The Jews also had a demographic advantage in that young adult men were selectively preferred for immigration. Since Ottoman times, the Yishuv had developed its own systems for education, taxation, fundraising, land and labor management, and, since 1920, security–the latter being the militia known as the Haganah (“defense”). The Zionists had their own decision-making body, the Jewish Agency Executive (JAE), an outgrowth of the original Zionist Commission. The JAE was authorized by the British cabinet in 1920 and grew over the next decade into something like an actual government.

In the face of all this, Muslim and Christian Arab resentment of the Jews gave way to unprecedented rioting in Jerusalem, resembling a pogrom, over April 4-7, 1920, during competing observances of Passover, Easter, and Nabi Musa. Mobs headed for Jewish neighborhoods and shops. The Haganah, which then had about 200 members, with a few rifles and other small arms, rescued some 300 Jews. The British, however, caught completely off-guard, impeded the rescue and were themselves unable to restore order for three days, by which time six Jews were dead and more than 200 injured.

Sir Bernard Samuel, the new British high commissioner for Palestine (himself a Jew), assumed office on July 1 and took pains to display an even-handed approach to the Arabs. When the Third Palestinian Congress set up a Palestine Arab Executive (PAE) in Haifa in December, he emphasized that the Balfour Declaration had consisted of two parts of equal importance: promoting the Jewish national home and protecting and improving the conditions of the Palestinian Arabs. The Zionists took a dim view of this balanced statement and immediately began to strengthen the Haganah.

Meanwhile, the congress passed anti-Zionist resolutions which stirred up intense feelings that culminated in renewed anti-Jewish mob violence the next year, starting in Jaffa on May 1. This time, the rioting continued for a week, and the British distributed rifles to the Jewish settlers. In all, forty-seven Jews were killed and 146 wounded, and forty-eight Arabs were killed and seventy-three wounded.

The British, of course, were steadfastly sanguine about Palestine, outwardly at least. When Winston Churchill, then colonial secretary, had visited Palestine in March 1921, just after the “Hashimite solution” had been decided upon, he characteristically sought to soothe Arab feelings with a line much imitated by British diplomats in the years to come:

It is manifestly right that the scattered Jews should have a national

center and a national home and be reunited and where else but in Palestine

with which for 3,000 years they have been intimately and profoundly

associated? We think it will be good for the world, good for the Jews, good

for the British Empire, but also good for the Arabs who dwell in

Palestine…. They shall share in the benefits and progress of Zionism.

Churchill had also met with a Zionist delegation and warned them to consider “the great alarm” the Arabs were feeling. But the subsequent rioting proved neither side was persuaded.

Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky, a key figure in the paramilitary history of the Yishuv and one of the organizers of the Haganah, had a more realistic perception. In 1923, he wrote: “Palestine will remain for the Palestinians not a borderland, but their birthplace, the center and basis of their own national existence.” In 1925 he founded the Revisionist Party, bringing together those who had never accepted the separation of Transjordan from Palestine and whose mission was to reverse this loss. After independence, the Revisionists would become the Herut Party, which still later gave rise to the Likud.

Palestine managed to enjoy a period of relative quiet from the summer of 1921 to the summer of 1928 while Jewish immigration rates remained low. As Benny Morris explains in Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001, these were years of “prosperity and development due to improved infrastructure, efficient administration, cooption into the British imperial economy, and the de facto intercommunal truce.”

Nevertheless, repressed resentment continued to grow among the Arabs, causing heightened competition between the Husseinis and the Nashashibis for leadership of the Palestinians. Hoping to gain support from the Muslim masses, the British-appointed grand mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, turned openly against the Jews. On September 23, 1928, the eve of Yom Kippur, his Supreme Muslim Council objected to the erection of a screen to separate men and women at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. The Wailing Wall–the western wall of the Temple Mount, called the Haram al-Sharif by Muslims–is considered by Jews the most sacred place in the world; the Haram is for Muslims the third-most sacred place, after Mecca and Medina. When the Jews wouldn’t remove the screen, the British police did, and the Temple Mount became the focus of communal tension. Then on August 14, around 6,000 Jews in Tel Aviv marched and shouted, “The Wall is ours”; a few hours later 3,000 assembled at the Wall to pray. In the disturbances that ensued, one Jew was killed and a full-scale riot broke out that the British couldn’t control. During the next week, before more troops could arrive, 133 Jews and 116 Arabs were killed and many more wounded.

Nobody had been prepared for these events, and the British soon attempted to right matters with investigations, trials, and reports with mixed results. On the one hand, the investigations found that the Arabs had caused the violence and the trials condemned twenty-five Arabs to death. On the other hand, much of the ultimate blame was placed on the Balfour Declaration and the disappointment of the Arabs’ political and national aspirations and fear for their economic future. These reports led to the British White Paper of 1930, the second of three issued intended to slow Jewish immigration. But lobbing in London by Chaim Weizmann, who threatened to resign as president of the JAE, and promises of the Zionists to take the matter to the International Court in the Hague, caused a speedy reversal of the White Paper in a message from Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald to Weizmann, which the Arabs called “the black letter.”

Once again a deceptive calm fell over Palestine for several years, as both Jews and Arabs appeared to regroup for the next big confrontation. The Jews had learned from the 1929 riots that they couldn’t depend on the British to defend them from the Arabs, and the Arabs had learned from MacDonald’s “black letter” that they couldn’t depend on the British to defend them from the Jews.

In March 1933, Adolf Hitler was given dictatorial power in Germany. Later that same month, Hajj Amin al-Husseini told the German consul in Jerusalem, “The Muslims inside and outside Palestine welcome the new regime of Germany and hope for the extension of the fascist, anti-democratic, governmental system to other countries.” Britain’s inability to halt Mussolini in Africa in 1935 and 1936 and Hitler in the Rhineland in 1936 made Britain look weak in Arab eyes; this encouraged Arab nationalists to rebel. The Egyptians were able to get a treaty from the British in 1935 by rioting, and the Syrians secured a treaty with the French in 1936 after launching a general strike.

A number of secret jihad terrorist societies arose, the most important led by Sheik `Izz al-Din al-Qassam, based in Haifa. Most of his followers were poor peasants, and local groups conducted minor raids, killing a few Jews at a time. Qassam’s organization was discovered and he spent a period in hiding, then emerged in November 1935 to resume the raids. When his group killed a Jewish police officer, its members were hunted and killed by British troops on November 21. In death Qassam became a legend, inspiring Palestinian terrorists to this day.

When a general strike finally broke out in Palestine on April 15, 1936, terrorism spread rapidly throughout the countryside. Ten days later various Arab factions replaced the PAE with a single eight-man executive called the Arab Higher Committee (AHC), with Hajj Amin al-Husseini as its chair. It would lead the Palestinian struggle through the end of the mandate. In September Britain announced martial law, brought in 20,000 soldiers, and provided arms to Jewish settlements and 2,700 extra Jewish police, who succeeded in pushing the terrorists out of the urban areas. The Husseinis and Nashashibis were quarreling and unable to exploit the revolt, and the British called on Arabs from outside Palestine to help end the strike. Hostilities were interrupted pending the recommendations of a commission under Lord William Robert Peel, which finally arrived on November 11. During all this, the Jewish Yishuv courted British support with a new policy of havlaga (restraint) calculated to emphasize its willingness to be helpful.

What happened next replicated a scenario enacted many times before and since. The Zionists, realizing that the terms of the mandate favored them, were the soul of compromise and reasonableness. Ben-Gurion wrote to his son, “Every increase in power facilitates getting hold of the country in its entirety. Establishing a [small Jewish] state … will serve as a very potent lever in our historical efforts to redeem the whole country.” The Palestinians, confident of the righteousness of their cause and convinced that nothing but total victory for their side would do, pleaded the justice of their case in absolute terms. One said, “We will fight. We will struggle against the partition of the country and against Jewish immigration. There is no compromise.” As Morris writes: “The Arabs stridently opposed the Jews getting any part of the country they viewed as rightfully theirs, and as sacred Muslim soil. And they feared precisely what Ben-Gurion envisioned–that a small Jewish state would be a springboard for future expansion.” Sir George Rendel, the head of the British Foreign Office Eastern Department, concluded, “The Jews have played their cards extraordinarily well, [but the Arabs] have been so misguided in the conduct of their case that I sometimes wonder whether Jewish agents are not at work inside the Arab camp.”

The Peel commission’s report was published on July 7, 1937. Its most important recommendation was to partition Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states, declaring that the conflicts couldn’t otherwise be resolved. The Jewish state would be small, approximately 2,000 square miles along the Mediterranean. Jerusalem and a corridor to the sea would remain under British control. A second recommendation suggested an exchange of population between the proposed states–225,000 Arabs and 1,250 Jews–with just compensation to those transferred. The idea of “transfer” was an old one, which the Zionists had assumed would be necessary if their state was to have a Jewish majority. The Jews reluctantly accepted the proposals, but the Arabs rejected both the commission report and any suggestion of partition. All this was moot a few months later, however, as the British Foreign Office rejected the commission’s recommendations.

Arab terrorism resumed in September 1937 with arson, assassinations, and bombings. When the British district commissioner for Galilee was murdered, the British dissolved the AHC and the Supreme Muslim Council, arresting most of the Palestinian leadership. Hajj Amin al-Husseini managed to escape. The Jewish defense forces–the Haganah and the Irgun (the Revisionists’ paramilitary)–abandoned havlaga in favor of new policies of “aggressive defense” and counterterrorism, respectively. According to Morris, “For the first time, massive bombs were placed in crowded Arab centers, and dozens of people were indiscriminately murdered and maimed.” This Irgun practice of targeting civilians was soon imitated by the Arabs, who also began to control much of the countryside.

The British used severe measures to suppress the rebellion. More than a hundred Arabs were hanged in two years. This, coupled with the inevitable economic downturn during periods of fighting, caused the rebellion to subside by May 1939. “Physically decimated, starved of supplies, without popular support, and its leaders dead, in exile, or incarcerated, the rebellion petered out,” Morris writes. The Palestinians were worse off than they had ever been, becoming in effect wards of the Arab states.

In April 1938, the British government sent another commission under Sir John Woodhead to conduct a thorough review of the facts and to suggest “practical possibilities.” This commission again recommended partition, which the Arabs again duly rejected–but this time the boundaries were such that even the Jews turned it down. Shortly after this report was published the British themselves decided that any partition plan was impractical and attempted to deal with the impasse by once more curtailing Jewish immigration. William Ormsby-Gore, then colonial secretary, retired profoundly discouraged. Later he wrote, “The Arabs are treacherous and untrustworthy, the Jews greedy and, when freed from persecution, aggressive…. The Arabs cannot be trusted to govern the Jews any more than the Jews can be trusted to govern the Arabs.”

In February 1939, the British government held a “roundtable conference” in London including representatives of the Zionists, the Palestinians, and neighboring Arab states. In all but one meeting, separate talks were held with the Arabs and the Jews, since the Arabs wouldn’t sit in the same room with the Jews. Predictably, no agreement could be reached. On April 20, as war in Europe grew imminent, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain said, “We are now compelled to consider the Palestine problem mainly from the point of view of its effect on the international situation…. If we must offend one side, let us offend the Jews rather than the Arabs.” In May, the third British White Paper was issued, declaring that Palestine would become an independent Arab state in ten years, with Jewish immigration being limited to 75,000 a year for the first five years. The AHC, insisting that Jewish immigration should be stopped immediately, turned down even this plan. But any further discussion of these issues would have to wait until after World War II.

The Nazi pogrom against the German Jews began on Kristallnacht in November 1938; the full-scale massacre of Jews commenced about two years later. Adolf Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, and, two days later, Chamberlain declared war on Germany. That same day, the Jewish Agency Executive in Palestine issued a statement proclaiming: “The war which has now been forced upon Great Britain by Nazi Germany is our war.”

The majority of Palestinian Jews supported the British war effort out of a mixture of motives: moral principle, a desire to help Jews worldwide from Germany, and a desire to learn British military skills by fighting in British units. Anti-British activities by Jews during this period were suspended by the Haganah and the Irgun, except for a small terrorist offshoot of the latter known as LEHI, commonly called the “Stern Gang.” In mid-1941 the British helped the Haganah establish the Palmah, a highly trained “strike force,” which the British saw as an anti-Nazi guerrilla army; the Jews regarded it as both anti-Nazi and potentially anti-Arab. By 1945 the Palmah had grown to 2,000 troops, spending half of each month in military training.

Meanwhile, most of the Palestinian Arabs were lukewarm and opportunistic in their support of the British, unsure whether the British would be victorious and whether they would remain sympathetic to Arab concerns. During the first two years the war had gone badly for the Allies. Losses in Europe caused Chamberlain to resign on May 10, 1940, and pro-Zionist Winston Churchill to take his place. In April 1941 Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps was in Libya and seemed about to enter the Nile Valley, when a pro-Arab revolt, threatening Britain’s oil supply, broke out in Baghdad, where Hajj Amin al-Husseini was living. On April 18, British troops landed at Basra and headed for Baghdad, and a mixed Arab and British support force came overland from Transjordan. By May 29 the revolt had ended, and al-Husseini escaped to Berlin. Churchill, incensed at this Arab “treachery,” became even more strongly pro-Zionist.

A minority of Palestinian Arabs, following al-Husseini’s example, supported the Germans outright in expectation of a German victory and the subsequent extermination of the Jews in Palestine. In 1941 Benito Mussolini signed an agreement promising them as much. Many leaders throughout the Arab world were sympathetic to the Nazis–for example, Anwar Sadat of Egypt, who joined a Nazi front organization.

By September 30, 1941, fewer than half the 75,000 Jews permitted to enter Palestine by the 1939 White Paper had done so, legally or illegally. On January 20, 1942, German officials–both Nazi and non-Nazi–met to plan the “final solution of the Jewish problem.” As early reports of persecution filtered out of Nazi-controlled Europe, Zionists stepped up their pressure for accelerated immigration. On May 11, an Extraordinary Zionist Conference of leaders from Europe, the United States, and Palestine, meeting in New York City at the Biltmore Hotel, issued a declaration rejecting the 1939 White Paper and affirming the right of the Jewish people to establish a Jewish commonwealth “in Palestine.” In July the exiled Polish government in London reported the deaths of 700,000 Polish Jews. In August Ben-Gurion got the Yishuv leaders in Jerusalem to endorse the “Biltmore program.”

During 1942 the tide of war began to reverse in favor of the Allies, eventually eliminating Hitler’s influence over the Middle East. In Palestine this meant all parties began to look much more keenly toward the future, although in very different ways.

For the Arabs, this redirection took the form of attempts to become united and better organized. The British encouraged them to find unity, and delegates from seven Arab countries met in Alexandria, Egypt, from September 25 through October 7, 1944. The Arab League pact was signed in Cairo the following March 22, reading in part: “The rights of the Arabs [of Palestine] cannot be touched without prejudice to peace and stability in the Arab world,” adding, “There can be no greater injustice and aggression than solving the problem of the Jews in Europe by … inflicting injustice on the Palestine Arabs.” In early 1945 Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia all declared war on the Axis (now Germany and Japan), thereby obtaining a voice in the peace settlement and in the United Nations.

The Jews, already well organized and focused, looked for an opportunity to resume the revolt against Britain, postponed since 1939. General Harold Alexander, commander of British forces in the Middle East in May 1943, had warned of the “probability” of such a revolt after the war, writing that the Jews “mean business and are armed and trained.” During the war, the Haganah had stolen or illegally bought arms from British stockpiles and by 1944 its estimated strength was 36,000 troops with 14,000 light armaments. Although the Haganah and the Palmah intended to hold off their anti-British activities until after the war, the Irgun, under the new leadership of Menachem Begin, announced in February 1944 that Britain was now the problem and began to blow up or attack a variety of British government buildings in Palestine. The Stern Gang, which had never supported the British, likewise carried out attacks and In August actually tried to assassinate High Commissioner Harold MacMichael. Worse yet, in Cairo on November 6, it succeeded in killing Lord Moyne, the British minister resident in the Middle East and a close friend of Churchill. Profoundly angered, Churchill withdrew his longtime support of partition.

The Jewish leadership called the two renegade groups “misguided terrorists” and “young fanatics crazed by the sufferings of their people” and tried to get them to stop. The Stern Gang did stop after the Moyne assassination, but when the Irgun refused to call a halt, the Haganah and the Palmah declared a “hunting season” on the Irgun from November 1944 to March 1945. But events accumulated in rapid succession to produce a radical change extending to the Haganah itself. U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt died on April 12 and was succeeded by Harry Truman. The war in Europe ended on May 2. And in Britain, following general elections, Churchill and the Conservatives were ousted on July 27 and replaced by Clement Attlee and the Labor Party, with Ernest Bevin as foreign minister.

On balance, the two leadership changes made the United States much more receptive to Zionist claims and Britain much less. Truman was responsive to the increasing clamor of Zionist supporters in the United States, despite pressure from the State Department to accommodate the Arabs. The British Foreign Service, now increasingly influential in Britain, was willing to go to great lengths to avoid offending the Arab nations. Britain was fatigued and its empire on the verge of decline as its colonies asserted their desire for independence. The United States, by contrast, was just beginning to feel like one of the world’s superpowers and thus only too happy to show the British how things should be done.

The Allied armed forces that occupied Germany and areas that Germany had seized were shocked and totally unprepared for the conditions they encountered in the concentration camps. Also, the number of displaced persons was estimated around seven million in May 1945. By September, about 1.5 million of these remained, of which 50,000 to 100,000 were Jews. Zionists, supported by Truman, argued strenuously that 100,000 Jews should be allowed to immigrate to Palestine immediately. Bevin, whose decision it was, refused on several grounds, among them being the unremitting Arab opposition and the costs of transportation and arrangements on the ground.

As the end of the war had approached, the Yishuv had resumed its struggle for statehood. After Germany’s surrender, the Irgun resumed bombing British police and utilities targets. It also attacked Jewish targets belonging to the Labor Party, its political opposition. When Bevin began to hint that he would follow a pro-Arab line, the Haganah, the Palmah, the Irgun, and the Stern Gang in effect went to war with Britain. As William L. Cleveland says in A History of the modern Middle East:

Because Britain would not sponsor the gradual development of a Jewish

national home by eliminating immigration quotas, the Jewish state would

have to be seized by force … . Over the next two years, the combined

pressure of Haganah sabotage, Irgun terror (such as the blowing up of a

wing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946), and U.S. opinion placed

Britain in an impossible position.

On November 4, 1945, Bevin proposed an Anglo-American Committee of Enquiry into the refugee question. Six delegates each from the United Kingdom and the United States explored the issue and on May 1, 1946, unanimously recommended that 100,000 Jews be admitted into Palestine immediately. Bevin rejected the recommendation and, on February 14, 1947, the British took the case before the infant United Nations, where the future of Palestine was one of the first issues to be addressed.

The United Nations set up a Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) of eleven “neutral” nations: Australia, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Guatemala, India, Iran, the Netherlands, Peru, Sweden, Uruguay, and Yugoslavia. The committee spent five weeks collecting testimony from the JAE and nations of the Arab League; the Palestine Higher Arab Committee boycotted the hearings. Commenting on the predictability of such Arab intransigence, Abba Eban, the first Israeli delegate to the United Nations, would say, “They never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”

The UNSCOP report, issued August 31, 1947, unanimously recommended termination of the British mandate and independence for Palestine after a transitional period. Seven states favored partition into an Arab state, a Jewish state, and an international Jerusalem; India, Iran, and Yugoslavia backed an independent federal state; and Australia abstained. The Jews accepted the majority report but the Arab League threatened war if either report was accepted.

Immediately after the UNSCOP proposals were presented to the UN, Britain announced that the Palestine mandate would terminate on May 15, 1948. The UN General Assembly as a whole, recognizing the gravity of the situation, held thirty-four meetings over the next two months. Lobbying was frantic and, as balloting approached, Truman, who supported the majority proposal, abandoned his initial orders against arm-twisting to pressure votes. On November 25, 1947, the General Assembly barely passed Resolution 181 by a vote of thirty-three to thirteen, with ten abstentions (including Britain). The plan, an amended form of the UNSCOP majority proposal, allowed for partition of Palestine into an Arab state of 4,500 square miles with about 800,000 Arabs and 20,000 Jews, a Jewish state of 5,500 square miles with 538,000 Jews and 397,000 Arabs, and an international zone including Jerusalem.

In January 1948, a volunteer “Arab liberation army” made up mostly of men from Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, began to enter Palestine. They were instantly successful in controlling the roads and communication lines, and soon the position of the Yishuv seemed hopeless. Ironically, few Palestinian Arabs joined the liberation army and, even while it advanced, as many as 75,000 of the Arab townspeople began to leave their homes to escape the fighting. Then, at the end of March, a shipment of arms arrived from Czechoslovakia that enabled the Haganah to swiftly turn events around and go on the attack. After the start of this offensive, the number of Arab refugees grew quickly, in part because of the terrorist tactics employed by the Stern Gang and the Irgun. After a particularly infamous massacre of the inhabitants of an Arab village near Jerusalem, Arab guerrillas retaliated in kind. But on April 22 Haifa fell to the Jews and, shortly after that, much of northeast Palestine. By May 2, the Haganah had taken by force most of the territory allotted to the new Jewish state by Resolution 181.

Early on May 14, 1948, the Union Jack was hauled down for the last time in Jerusalem. By 4:00 PM leaders of the Yishuv gathered in the Tel Aviv Museum and heard David Ben-Gurion read the Proclamation of Independence, announcing the establishment of Israel. At 11:30 PM, British High Commissioner Sir Alan Gordon Cunningham sailed out of Haifa and the British mandate came to an end. Thus began a new chapter in the history of the Middle East–unfortunately with new hostilities initiated the very next day by Israel’s Arab neighbors….

David Schafer is a consulting editor for the Humanist and a recently retired physiologist who now devotes most of his time to humanist research, writing, and teaching.

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