The 1948 Arab-Israeli War was the inevitable result of decades of bitter, protracted and intractable hostilities between two national movements that embody a tangled and tortured history. The thesis of this essay maintains that the quintessential origin of the 1948 War is the clash and the inability to coexist of the Zionist movement and the Arab-Palestinian National Movement. This clash shall be explored in four main parts; the impact of Zionism, Britain and its Mandate, effects of rising Arab-Palestinian Nationalism and the United Nations (UN) Partition Plan. The different names for this war; al-Nakba and Milhemet Haatzma’ut, in themselves highlight the conflict of both narratives, ergo different ‘origins’ of the war. For Palestinians, Zionism is an outpost of colonialism, inherently belligerent and expansionist, bent on driving the Palestinians from their land, thus causing for them to react with hostility. Zionists, however, feel they have to act decisively to secure the Jews’ right to an independent state on their ancestral land: it is the aggressive Arab-Palestinian rejection of their right to a sovereign state that has caused for them to resort to violence. The ‘origin’ suggests the beginning, and it is arguable that the beginning is with Abraham’s Covenant; nonetheless for the purpose of the word-limit this essay shall only address the history of the 20th century.
Britain’s Three Promises and it Mandate of 1920 created the historical conditions for the successful implementation of the Zionist Project. It set the framework for the colonization of Palestine and the disenfranchisement of its own people, thus inducing the clash between two national movements eliciting the catastrophic war of 1948.
The Promised Land, which became twice promised, is one of the origins of the war. The McMahon-Hussein Agreement, the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration Britain made contradictory, irreconcilable and ambiguous promises. Under the Balfour Declaration, in 67 words, Britain became, “one nation promising another nation, the land of a third nation” : Britain provided the protective umbrella for the establishment of a “Jewish National Home”. The Balfour Declaration referred to 90% of the population as “the non-Jewish community in Palestine”: it was this arrogant, dismissive and racist tone that highlighted Britain’s pro-Zionist stance: thus the Palestinians need to resist. The Balfour Declaration was arguably the original sin, “creating a gangrene of suspicion and mistrust in the British-Zionist relationship in Palestine”, which was to haunt British rule for the next three decades. Britain’s colonial ambitions concocted with the expansionist Zionist ideology prompted a fearful and hostile Palestinian response.
The clash between Zionism and Palestinian Nationalism was not allayed during the British Mandate (1920-1948) but dangerously fueled. In essence the British Mandate favored the Zionist cause but by aiming to implement the Balfour Declaration, the British set up irresoluble and incongruous goals of self-rule of Palestinians and a national home for the Ashkenazi Jews. This fueled Zionist-Palestinian tension and can be identified in economic, political and social policies. Palestinian land was being leased to Jewish Settlers by British authorities (by 1947 this was 195 000 dunnums – 70% purchased by PLDC), this land was then exclusively for Jewish use . The withdrawal of so much arable land from access/use by Palestinian peasants to economic hardship and became a threat to Palestinian sovereignty. Palestinian activism and hostility against Zionism were higher after periods of high transfer; indicating that land acquisition was a strong cause of enmity. The mandate also permitted the Aliyahs, Jews would then come to inhabit land bought for them: it allowed for the rapid change of demographics without Palestinian consent: immigration and the growing presence of Jews only made real the threat that Palestinians faced.
The British Mandate provided settlers with monopolistic concessions and industrial protectionism, which facilitated the building of an exclusive Jewish economy. Britain provided for Jewish enterprises in an “incoherent but clearly recognizable” protectionist policy and preferential tariffs, this is exemplified in the Atilt Salt Company, who had artificially high salt prices which hurt all Palestinians as salt is a staple food. Pro-Zionist policies, which favored the separate Zionist economy, only fueled its success as well as Palestinian resentment. Consenting to the bifurcation of the country’s economy and by helping to create a Jewish privileged enclave, the British enhanced the chance of Zionist success in Palestine, ergo another reason of Palestinian resistance. Politically, the British mandate permitted for the Jewish State within a State by allowing for the establishment of an independent Jewish Agency, which was well organised and well financed, ergo able to mobilize the Jews. This autonomous Zionist nucleus allowed the Zionists to “conduct an affective internal war, against the less-organised and financed Palestinians” Moreover the rejection for the Palestinians to have their own centralized and independent political agency only electrified anti-Zionist passions: Palestinians began to feel economically and politically oppressed.
Pro-Zionist British social policies fueled Palestinian resentment. This is exemplified in the decision to make Hebrew an official language, even though Jews only constituted of 10% of the population. Britain also financed a separate and exclusive Jewish school system whilst denying Palestinians a private education system. In 1944 only 32.5% of Palestinians were enrolled in school, compared to 97% of Jews . Pro-Zionist policies under the British Mandate attempted to choke Palestinian nationalism whilst promoting Zionism. Balfour’s claim in 1922 that, “Zionism be it right or wrong, is of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700 000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land” not only embodies Britain’s pro-Zionist stance and its view of the Palestinians as a backward, Oriental, inert mass but also its amoral attitude to the future. This in essence accentuated the clash between both identities.
The origin of the 1948 War can also be identified in Zionism: “an arrogant, insolent and provocative ideology…that would precipitate a catastrophe” . Zionism’s core aims were to establish a Jewish state on their ancestral land, this would have to be done through “force and the Arabs will have to go, but one needs an opportune moment to make it happen, war” highlights Zionism’s preparation for an inevitable war that would decide destinies. Hence the very origin of the war can be identified in the inability to coexist of Zionist aims and Palestinian Nationalism. Nonetheless Zionist aims were actualized by the British mandate and by its own initiatives. Socially, politically and economically Zionism had secured its presence through the Jewish Agency, its own private schooling and health care service and its separate and successful economy: this was all making of the Zionist reality which would then “deal militarily with the demographic reality” . Ben-Gurion’s words embody Zionism’s urgent militancy, words which fueled Palestinian fear of this aggressive and expansionist ideology.
One of the origins of the war was that to achieve Zionist aims one needed the right opportunity: the only way to do this was to fuel nationalist tensions, secure a Zionist entity and prepare for war. Zionism did so in four distinct ways: informative preparation, military preparation, support overseas and the exploitation of events. Informative preparation is epitomized in the Village Files. This archive recorded topographic locations of each village: from access roads, ages of individual men to “hostility” towards Zionism, “quality of arms at disposals” in each village. The Village Files are evidence contrary to the standard Zionist narrative that the 1948 war was an attack on the Jews just because of the rejection of Resolution 181: these archives started in the 1920s show a movement preparing for war. Yigael Yaldin comments that “it was this detailed knowledge that enabled the Zionist military command in 1947 to conclude the Palestinians had nobody to organize them; it was the right opportunity. ” Military preparation is evident with the planning of the Haganah, (theft of arms from British barracks) , its military experience in WW2 and the offensive position of the Irgun and LEHI . These groups played an important role in inciting hatred and fear in the Palestinians; sporadic terrorist attacks on Palestinian villages as well as the British and the 1936 Arab Revolt gave these groups a chance to practice their skills. Support overseas was also of essence to a Zionist success, and is characterized by the 1942 Biltmore Conference. The resolution reached at this conference called for the opening of Palestine to immigration, and that “Palestine should be established as a Jewish Commonwealth” . The Biltmore Conference gave to American Zionism by appealing to the West’s guilt of allowing the Holocaust to occur. Zionism had managed to initiate a global pro-Zionist movement through sympathy, whilst simultaneously launching attacks on Palestinians. Zionism’s aims to create the right opportunity elicited Palestinian fear and fueled Palestinian nationalism.
The origin of the 1948 war can equally be found in the Arab Palestinian’s hostile and antipathetic reaction to Zionism and Resolution 181. The Arab mobilization to defend Palestinian Sovereignty was a militant and threatening response, endangering Jewish presence in Palestine. The Arab League began taking “military measures’ such as the formation of a military committee that was preparing the one million pound armament of the Palestinians and the many volunteers sent to Palestine to “bolster local militias” . Moreover before the passing of the Resolution, “Arab forces had been mobilized, equipped and trained volunteers along the Palestinian boarder” and the Syrians had not only set up training camps at Qatana but also deployed thousands of troops “whose exercises were alarmingly close” to the Palestinian boarder. However what was threatening to the Jews and galvanized nationalist tensions was the ominous Arab rhetoric such as that of the Iraqi Prime Minister, “If a satisfactory solution of the Palestine case was not reached severe measures should be taken against Jews in Arab countries.” Not only was this a menacing threat to the Zionist dream of securing its national home but also anti-Semitic intimidation reminiscent of previous Jewish persecution electrified the clash of nationalism.
The Arab reaction to the passing of Resolution 181 drove Zionist fear and highlighted to them a dire need to fight for the implementation of the Resolution. The Middle East and North Africa was rampant with violent demonstrations and pogroms, calls for “Jihad” echoed across the continent – whereby Syria “promised to comply and be at the forefront of the liberation of Palestine.” These events and political rhetoric managed to induce a frantic atmosphere burning with national fervor and forcing Zionism onto the defensive. The Zionist determination to form their own State mixed with the Arab resolve to Palestinian Sovereignty paved the path to a clash of nationalism in the three day strike, hence the beginning of the 1948 War.
The making of the partition plan and Resolution 181 sowed the seeds for war, by again spurring the clash of nationalism. “By voting for partition the UN provided, unintentionally, the signal for a civil war in Palestine.” To Palestinians the United Nations was inexperienced; none of the UNSCOP members had experience on solving conflicts or any knowledge about Palestinian history . Moreover the United Nations was not in a legitimate position to hand over Palestinian land to the nationalist claims of the Zionist Movement, out of sympathy and compensation for the Nazi Holocaust in Europe. Not only can the origins and makings of war be found in a biased UNSCOP but also intrinsically in Resolution 181: Jews owned 6% of land, formed less than one-third of the population but were given 56% of Palestinian land – the most fertile land went to the Jews . To the Palestinians and to humanity this was “both illegal and immoral” Walid Khalidi puts it succinctly, “Resolution 181 was a hasty act of granting half of Palestine to an ideological movement that declared openly ready in the 1930s to de-Arabize Palestine.” Hence the UN violated the basic rights of the Palestinians, instead of calming, it heightened tensions – with an overwhelming majority in favour of partition, not only did law and order in Palestine break down but also propagated the prerequisite for the 1948 War. Nonetheless, Resolution 181 did not only fuel the Arabs and Palestinians to war but also the Zionists: Ben-Gurion made very clear in October 1947 to his colleagues that the Palestinian rejection or acceptance of the Partition Plan would have made no difference, as the Zionists would accept and work against it , as to him a “valid Jewish State meant one that stretched over Palestine and allowed for no more than a tiny number of Palestinians.” The origins and makings of the 1948 War were only made possible by the arrogant, immoral and unjust passing of Resolution 181, which unleashed a surge of Arab and Zionist nationalism.
Nonetheless it is arguable that the War of 1948 was predestined in the contradictions between the Old Testament and the Quran, and is thus not originated in the clash of nationalism but in the rivalry of two brothers – Isaac and Ishmael. However Palestine/Israel has become another outpost of imperialism: its boarders a fiction created by rule under the Persian, Hellenistic, French, Ottomans, British and many more. In quintessence the framework for the 1948 War was set with rising Zionist and Arab-Palestinian nationalism, which was then galvanized by not only the original sin of the Balfour Declaration but by pro-Zionist British policies that alienated and marginalized Palestinians. Zionism was inherently an aggressive and driven ideology whose aims if ever were to be achieved would inevitably lead to war, and to a rise of pan-Arab nationalism. The rise of Arab-nationalism, fueled by the immoral and injustice unleashed upon Palestinians by Resolution 181 also sowed the seeds for war. War involves the need of an irrational emotional response – to go to war both your hearts and minds must have the same resolve and conviction: the events written above elicited this response – and so the catastrophe was promised. The ramifications of the 1948 War bear significant importance as peace now depends on deciphering and understanding not only the Zionist and Palestinian narrative, but recognising that when the hearts and minds are galvanised with such a passionate, irrational and emotional resolve, this translates to uncertainty that can elicit catastrophe or peace.
Views expressed in articles are the author’s and do not represent Comment Middle East
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