Why were the results of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war miraculous for the local Jews, but catastrophic for the local Arabs? How can one people’s ultimate joy involve another’s greatest pain? The answer to this question will help us understand why Israel emerges as a sovereign state upon British withdrawal from the region, while the Palestinian Arabs are stateless. And the answer to this question helps us understand why this conflict between the local Jews and Arabs of the former British Mandate of Palestine begins, and why it continues today.
British takeover from the Ottomans
Let’s begin this story a century ago with the fall of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled for a few centuries over the majority of what we today call the Middle East, but loses the majority of its territories to the British and French during World War I. While interested in expanding their empires, these two European powers desired the approval of their colonization from the international community, which came in the form of the League of Nations Mandate System. The point of the mandate system was that the colonial power was going to be the decider on who was going to be the sovereign in their mandate territory when they deemed it the right moment to hand off power.
In 1922, the British Mandate of Palestine is ratified by all members state of the League of Nations at the San Remo Conference, where in the land between the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, Palestine would be controlled by the British. The British made promises to different political groups that helped its fight during World War I, which influenced how they determined who they would empower following their colonial rule. Anticipating the Mandate, the Balfour Declaration pronounces British support for a “Jewish national home” in Palestine on November 2, 1917. The Balfour Declaration is adopted as international law by the League of Nations British Mandate of Palestine, committing the British Empire to eventually handing over their new mandate of Palestine to a Jewish autonomous entity. Additionally, the British promise various Arab groups power throughout the Middle East, like the Saudi family in what today is Saudi Arabia, and the Hashemites of what is today Jordan.
Beginnings of Conflict
But during the years of the British Mandate of Palestine, a conflict emerges between the local Jews and Arabs of the territory. While the pioneering Zionists, the nationalistic identifying Jews that had mostly immigrated to the territory in the previous half century, identified as an indigenous people returning to restore their inherent rights to sovereignty in a desolate land that had been unjustly taken away from them nearly two millennia ago and their people had miraculously survived in exile living as strangers among many nations and empires, the local Arabs saw themselves as the exclusive indigenous people of the land they had been a demographic majority in since the rise of Islam and the Arab conquest of the entire Middle East in the 7th and 8th centuries.
The British take over, and their promise that the land will eventually be given to the Jews coupled with increased Jewish immigration, sparks outrage among local Arabs who understood Zionist pioneering and British colonialism as a threat to their exclusivity over the territory.
So the Conflict begins in the early years of the British Mandate and ensues through the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s. By the end of the Arab Revolt of 1936-1939, the British are no longer committed to handing over their Mandate of Palestine over to the Jews. This is seen on the eve of World War II in 1939, as the British pass the White Paper, which limits Jewish immigration to just 15,000 individuals yearly to Palestine.
After the British – Who’s Next?
At the end of World War II, the British find themselves in control of a territory that two peoples are vying for complete control. They are an empire in retreat, hurting economically from World War II, and there’s no desire to have their soldiers shot at and killed by locals in Palestine revolting against British imperial rule. Therefore, the British turn to the United Nations to be “the decider” on who would be the next sovereign in Palestine. The UN forms a committee and comes up with a proposal that is passed on November 29th, 1947 by the United Nations General Assembly. This is called the Partition Plan (UN Res. 181), which proposes to split the British Mandate of Palestine into an Arab state, a Jewish state and an international protectorate over Jerusalem.
It’s important to mention that the point of the British Mandate was to eventually decide who was going to be the sovereign following British rule. But since they abdicate themselves of this responsibility in asking the United Nations to figure out the next ruler, the international community would supposedly — whether this was right or wrong is a different conversation — decide what the British Mandate of Palestine was going to look like. However, the only way for this to work out was if both sides agreed to the UN Partition Plan. If there was not an agreement on the compromise proposal, then the two sides – the Arabs and Jews – would most likely decide who would rule over the land they both want through war.
So what happened with the Partition Plan?
It’s important to mention that both the Arabs and the Jews were exclusivists. They wanted all of the land to themselves. The question is whether their leaderships understood compromise with the other side as beneficial for their goals. While the Jews compromised and accepted the terms of the Partition Plan, the local Arabs, represented by the Arab League, rejected the Partition Plan, seeing compromise as hurting, rather than aiding their cause.
Why were the Jews interested in compromise but the Arab League was not?
When the British were going to leave their mandate in Palestine, there was going to be a power vacuum left by the greatest empire known to mankind. The Arab League was composed of new states bordering this territory the British were going to leave, and they were ruled by dictators interested in solidifying power and territorial expansion on behalf of their own interests. So when introduced with a proposal to have Palestine divided into two states, one Jewish and one Arab, the neighboring Arab States simply saw a major power leaving an area and an opportunity to take it.
Additionally, the leaders of these Arab states subscribed to Pan-Arabism, a nationalism identifying one Arab nation that should rule over Arab territory, and Palestine was apart of this story, and therefore, it was not acceptable for a Jewish state to exist on Arab territory. Moreover, Palestine was apart of the original Islamic conquest – the Dar al-Islam – and was considered holy Islamic land that could only be ruled over by Muslims, which it had since the rise of Islam, except with a brief intermission with the Crusades. The Jews, a religious minority protected by Islamic law (dhimi), could live in holy Islamic territory, but they definitely could not rule over it, and not over Muslims in that territory.
So while the Arab states were ideologically opposed to partition because it would lead to Jewish sovereignty over Arab territory, they simply did not see it beneficial to their geopolitical interests to agree to partition.
On the other hand, the Jewish leadership headed by David Ben Gurion saw compromise as beneficial for the Zionist cause and lobbied hard for various countries to accept the Partition Plan because it would solidify what the Zionist movement had been preparing for more than half a century, an autonomous Jewish state in their historic homeland.
The Zionists were exclusivists just like the Arabs, seeing themselves as the sole natives of the land. However, Ben Gurion was an incrementalist and a democrat. He knew that it would be a step-by-step process to receiving sovereignty in the entirety of the land, but he also believed a Jewish state should be a democracy with a Jewish demographic majority. Since the Partition Plan didn’t include Jerusalem, a Jewish majority city where about 20% of the Jewish population of British Palestine lived, about half of the territory was the most they could get. With nearly 2,000 years of history behind him where sometimes it was good for the Jews to live as strangers among other peoples, but many times, it was tragic, and most recently, with the destruction of a third of the Jewish people during the Holocaust, there was an impetus for a Jewish state to be a refuge for Jews all over the world immediately.
Unlike the Arabs, the Jews of British Palestine, headed by David Ben Gurion, see compromise as beneficial to their interests, and therefore accept the parameters of the Partition Plan passed on November, 29th, 1947.
War is the ultimate decider
So what happened next? War. The reason why is simple. The British were supposed to decide who was going to rule next. But since they ask the UN to do this instead, and the Partition Plan is rejected by the Arabs, the two local groups will decide who rules next by military means.
Initially, it’s a civil war, as the British are still around and nominally ruling. The local Arabs start attacking the local Jews on November 30th, 1947, the day after Partition fails. From this point until May 14th, 1948, it’s a civil war between the two local groups of British Palestine. This conflict transforms from a local civil war to an interstate war on May 15th, 1948. The reason is because this is the day after the British leave, without giving over the keys of the land to anyone.
A few hours before the British leave, David Ben Gurion declared an independent Jewish state named Israel at 4PM, Friday, May 14th. The neighboring Arab states invade the following day on May 15th, supposedly on behalf of the local Arabs, but in reality, mostly for themselves.
Independence for one side, Catastrophe for the other
This war ends in early 1949, and the two sides have two very different names for this war.
The Jews call it the Independence War, because this very event births the State of Israel, whose borders are established based on where its army, the IDF, was at the end of the War. The IDF controlled 78% of the former British Mandate of Palestine when the last ceasefire is declared. Armistice agreements are signed between the IDF and various Arab armies. The Syrians maintain control over the Golan Heights, the Jordanians had conquered East Jerusalem (including the Old City) and an area which became known as the West Bank, and the Egyptians took over what became the Gaza Strip. The IDF controls the rest of the territory that once belonged to the British, and the newly declared state of Israel becomes an internationally recognized sovereign state admitted to the United Nations as legally controlling 78% of the former British Mandate of Palestine.
The Arabs on the other hand call this war the Nakba, meaning “the catastrophe,” in Arabic. As this war leads to their side losing over three quarters of what they say to be their historic homeland, an event which leads to the displacement of three quarters of a million local Arabs, the results of this war were simply tragic, and they claim to still be experiencing injustices due to the Nakba of 1948.
The Arabs absolutely had a right to reject compromise in the form of the Partition Plan of 1947. The question is whether there would could be an acceptance of the consequences of rejecting compromise if the war was lost. As in, would they accept the results of a losing war that a Jewish state would exist on three quarters of what the Arabs believe to be exclusively theirs?
Because unfortunately for the Arab states, and most specifically for the local arabs of the area, the results of this war were absolutely tragic. A Jewish state emerges on 78% of their historic homeland, and about 750,000 Arabs are displaced from their homes, with no opportunity to return as a new state, a Jewish one, is established where they used to live. The results could have been different. The Arabs could have won the war and prevented the Zionist dream of a Jewish state on their historic homeland; but the results were flipped, and instead of getting about half if they accepted compromise in the form of the Partition Plan, Arabs (and not Palestinian Arabs, but Jordanian and Egyptian dictators) would only rule over 22% of the former British Mandate of Palestine due to the means they chose to decide the fate of the territory – the result of war.
So who decided the original borders of the new state of Israel?
Many people say it was the United Nations or the British – which is both not true. Rather, it was the results of a civil and then interstate war in which the Jews and Arabs fought over who was going to be the sovereign over a territory they both claimed to be exclusively theirs, a territory that was ruled by an imperial power that retreated from the region. The results of this war decided the original borders of the state of Israel, which as written earlier, was 78% of the territory that IDF had fought to hold on to at the end of the War. And it was an Israel that held onto this territory that became the internationally recognized sovereign state admitted to the United Nations.
If the Partition Plan was accepted by both sides, the Conflict, which had been brewing for a few decades during British rule, would not have continued, as there would be two states existing side by side one another. But with a rejection of compromise, for seemingly legitimate geopolitical and ideological interests, the results of the war determined the sovereign borders of the former British mandate of Palestine.
Since 1948, have the Arabs of the region accepted the results of the war they unfortunately started? Will they accept that a sovereign state, whether they accept the philosophical justification for its existence, was established on 78% of what they believe to be their homeland? Will there ever be a recognition that the Nakba is rooted in an Arab unwillingness to share the land as proposed by the Partition Plan? On the other hand, is there an acknowledgement by most Israelis that the moment of their greatest joy is the greatest pain for the Palestinians? Can two peoples reconcile their different narratives of the same event – where one people experiences the greatest historical justice to two thousand years of exile and instability, while another people suffers the great injustice birthing the pain that the Palestinian nations still feels it is living every day?