Israel & Palestine: A Fairly Recent History (Part 2)
Current events can often use some historical context
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(Re-printed here from Part 1 for context)
When I started this newsletter, I decided to stay away from current events.
There are enough sources of news that I thought focusing on stories that most people would never come across would be best. However, sometimes what is happening today could use historical context — and that is not always readily available.
For example - what should be done around the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians? This is being widely debated. As I started to listen to impassioned speakers debate right and wrong, I found that I was often too ignorant to follow their logic, let alone provide any viewpoints of my own. I would be asked to voice an opinion — and all I could do was repeat the headline rhetoric I learned growing up in the central United States. These lines were almost entirely pro-Israel — and maybe that was fine, but I couldn’t tell you why it was right, if it was right.
However, I have learned to be wary of holding a viewpoint as my own when I cannot support it on my own. And a voice in the back of my head was telling me that anything I did say in these conversations was merely a parroting of what I had heard from others. So I decided to better understand the situation — and as with most things, that meant I wanted to start by taking a look at the history surrounding it.
Almost immediately, I found this difficult — but not for the reasons you are probably thinking. When trying to dig into the background here, I was consistently hit with one of two things — 1) partisan interpretations or 2) comments dismissing the current situation as having been going on for thousands of years (that’s too much history, even for me) or being “too complicated” to understand properly.
While it is easy enough to work around #1, #2 seemed to be a wall that was difficult to climb over — and I am not talking about the complicated nature of the situation. I’m referencing the widely held idea that things are “too complicated.” As I read more, I realized that while the history itself is somewhat complicated, it is no more complicated than most situations people feel competent enough to understand.
Thus, I concluded that #2 is said to reduce the number of participants in the discussion. It is a cop-out — on both sides — to allow a viewpoint holder the freedom to act on their own views unchallenged through a pseudo-ad hominem attack against anyone attempting to understand.
I don’t like that.
So let’s dive into the history here, in an as unbiased way as possible. It’s not too complicated — nor do I think you need to understand all the events that have happened over thousands of years — so we should be able to understand it with a little effort.
As part of going through this history and writing it out here, I am forced to make some judgment calls on what is relevant and form some opinions. I will do my best to lay out the logic for those items.
Part 2 continues below…
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Leading into World War II
Unable to get both the Jewish and Arab leaders to agree to a two-state solution in 1937, the British government attempted a few other paths forward. One of the more impactful was the unilateral British White Paper of 1939 that followed many failed trilateral British-led Jewish and Arab negotiations.
With this paper, Britain stated that the promises in the Balfour Declaration had more or less been fulfilled and, that in order to promote political stability in the region, Jewish immigration to Palestine would be limited and a single-state solution with a joint Jewish-Arab government would be pursued. Select quotes from the White Paper explain the British government’s rationale:
If (Jewish) immigration has an adverse effect on the economic position in the country, it should clearly be restricted; and equally, if it has a seriously damaging effect on the political position in the country, that is a factor that should not be ignored. Although it is not difficult to contend that the large number of Jewish immigrants who have been admitted so far have been absorbed economically, the fear of the Arabs that this influx will continue indefinitely until the Jewish population is in a position to dominate them has produced consequences which are extremely grave for Jews and Arabs alike and for the peace and prosperity of Palestine…
If in these circumstances immigration is continued up to the economic absorptive capacity of the country, regardless of all other considerations, a fatal enmity between the two peoples will be perpetuated, and the situation in Palestine may become a permanent source of friction amongst all peoples in the Near and Middle East.
This restriction on immigration came right as Nazi Germany was gearing up for war and anti-semitic genocide — meaning a logical place for Jewish populations to escape persecution would be increasingly difficult to find. James Rothschild, a member of the British parliament, summarized the Jewish migrant alternatives in opposition to the White Paper:
For the majority of Jews who go to Palestine it is a question of migration or of physical extinction…
The House, of course, knows the sufferings of the Jews in many parts of the world in the last few years. I will not describe the plight of refugees; I will not use them as an argument. But this I want to say, that no country in the world has shown more sympathy and more understanding than Britain… I firmly believe that if the great public outside, generous and noble-minded as they are, did realise what the Government have put before them, they would view it with intense disapproval.
During World War II
As was to be expected, the British immigration quotas were not viewed popularly by the Jewish population in Palestine. True to Rothschild’s warning above, Jewish refugees from Europe needed a place to escape, and while Britain did make some exceptions, the majority were cut off from immigration to Palestine.
This dynamic gave rise to anti-British movements and paramilitary/terrorist groups — such as the Lehi, a group that spun out of one of the main Jewish militaries in Palestine (the Haganah, which eventually became Israel’s military today, and the Irgun were the two largest groups). More broadly, however, Palestine's Jews did their best to support Britain during the war, with David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s future first Prime Minister, saying that the population must "assist the British in the war as if there were no White Paper and resist the White Paper as if there were no war”. In fact, many Palestinian Jews served in the British army, especially in campaigns in Africa.
Meanwhile, the Arab populations in Palestine seemed to be split on whether or not to support the Allied or Axis Powers. While some Arabs also joined British forces, one of the key Palestinian Arab leaders, Amin al-Husayni, became close to the Nazis in Germany. Husayni went on to serve in the Nazi military in Bosnia and Yugoslavia, and he secured promises that the Nazis would eliminate the Jewish people in Palestine following an Axis victory.
Resistance Following World War II
Fortunately, the Axis Powers lost and following the Allied victory, despite the number of Jewish refugees looking for places to settle in the fallout of WWII, Britain continued to limit immigration into Palestine, providing fuel for increased Jewish resistance movements. This prompted the three resistance groups mentioned above — the Haganah, Irgun, and Lehi — to merge together in 1945 into the Jewish Resistance Movement. Collectively, they fought for a Jewish state through acts of sabotage and what many would label as terrorism.
During the group’s period of activity, they attacked police stations, sabotaged bridges, bombed railroads & train stations, assassinated British officials, and released Jewish illegal immigrants from detention centers before they could be deported.
In response to these violent resistance activities, the British began Operation Agatha in 1946, which confiscated weapons in Jewish settlements and made arrests of members of the Jewish Resistance Movement. In retaliation (and there is a lot more than the summary I am going to give here), the Resistance Movement planted bombs in the basement of the King David Hotel, which was being used as the central offices of the British Mandatory Palestine government, and detonated them at lunchtime. The result was 91 people killed, including British citizens, and numerous injured — which marked a turning point in public British opinion on its government’s involvement in Palestine.
Two New Nations & A Civil War
By the spring of 1947, Britain was working through the newly formed United Nations to determine the best path to end its mandate over Palestine. After much back and forth, it was decided that the British would hand the reigns over to two newly formed states — Israel for the Jews and Palestine for the Arabs — in May 1948. (As a side, but important to note, in 1946 Transjordan gained independence from Britain as well, which is colloquially today known as Jordan)
As part of this process, the United Nations needed to determine the new borders of both nations — and a lot of consideration went into this and I’m not trying to cast stones here, but…
… whoever thought this non-contiguous state design was destined to bring about regional stability might have made a mistake.
While unhappy with losing control of Jerusalem (and worried, obviously, about the non-contiguous state), the Jewish leaders generally supported the partition. On the other hand, the Arab leadership in Palestine — along with every member of the Arab League — rejected the proposal on the grounds, amongst other reasons, of unfair partitioning as a majority of the lands would be under Jewish control despite the Jewish population being only 1/3 of the total Palestinian population. Both sides also worried about the fate of their respective populations that lived on land the other side would eventually control.
Tensions mounted as the British organized their withdrawal and fighting between Arab and Jewish Palestinian citizens erupted in the winter of 1947 into a civil war. Except in extreme circumstances, the British tended to remain on the sidelines, instead handing over control to local authorities charged with maintaining order as outlined in UN resolutions.
While both sides committed attacks against the other, the goals of the two sides were different. The Jews, having accepted the proposal, were mainly intent on transitioning to the new system. The Arabs, having rejected the proposal, were intent on resisting the transition, meaning they seemed to play the part of aggressor, at least at the start. This seems to be accepted at the time with an Iraqi general, Ismail Safwat, saying in March 1948 that:
Despite the fact that skirmishes and battles have begun, the Jews at this stage are still trying to contain the fighting to as narrow a sphere as possible in the hope that partition will be implemented and a Jewish government formed; they hope that if the fighting remains limited, the Arabs will acquiesce in the fait accompli. This can be seen from the fact that the Jews have not so far attacked Arab villages unless the inhabitants of those villages attacked them or provoked them first.
But that does not mean that the Arabs were the only ones, once the war got started, committing violent acts on the other — both sides massacred the other when the situation allowed. Additionally, by the time the May 1948 deadline for full British withdrawal was quickly approaching, the Jewish military forces had switched to offense and summarily defeated the local Palestinian Arab military.
Following these events, 250,000 - 300,000 Palestinians had been driven from their homes and communities while fleeing Jewish military action. This is a hotly debated historical issue, with plenty of finger-pointing, and a source of pain for Arab populations today, but in trying to understand both sides here, it’s important to remember first that this was just an all-around terrible situation for these families.
A New War
On May 14th, 1948, Ben-Gurion issued the following statement and Israel came into being, as supported by the UN, with both the Soviet Union and the United States immediately recognizing the new state:
Accordingly we, members of the people's council, representatives of the Jewish community of Eretz-Israel and of the Zionist movement, are here assembled on the day of the termination of the British mandate over Eretz-Israel and, by virtue of our natural and historic right and on the strength of the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly, hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz-Israel, to be known as the State of Israel…
It will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations…
WE APPEAL - in the very midst of the onslaught launched against us now for months - to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.
WE EXTEND our hand to all neighbouring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighbourliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the sovereign Jewish people settled in its own land. The State of Israel is prepared to do its share in a common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East.
Counter to the United States and the Soviet Union, the Arab League refused to recognize Israel, stating that any outward-facing comments made by Jewish leaders concerning good intentions for its Arab populations were misleading. It further proclaimed the Arab population had a right to the entire region and that it was necessary to protect Arab populations through military intervention:
Now that the Mandate over Palestine has come to an end, leaving no legally constituted authority behind in order to administer law and order in the country and afford the necessary and adequate protection to life and property, the Arab States declare as follows:
(a) The right to set up a Government in Palestine pertains to its inhabitants under the principles of self-determination…
(b) Peace and order have been completely upset in Palestine, and, in consequence of Jewish aggression, approximately over a quarter of a million of the Arab population have been compelled to leave their homes and emigrate to neighbouring Arab countries. The prevailing events in Palestine exposed the concealed aggressive intentions of the Zionists and their imperialistic motives…
(c) The Mandatory has already announced that on the termination of the Mandate it will no longer be responsible for the maintenance of law and order in Palestine… This leaves Palestine absolutely without any administrative authority… There is further the threat that this lawlessness may spread to the neighbouring Arab States where feeling is already very tense on account of the prevailing conditions in Palestine. The respective members of the Arab League, and as Members of the United Nations at the same time, feel gravely perturbed and deeply concerned over this situation…
(e)… For these reasons, and considering that the security of Palestine is a sacred trust for them, and out of anxiousness to check the further deterioration of the prevailing conditions and to prevent the spread of disorder and lawlessness into the neighbouring Arab lands, and in order to fill the vacuum created by the termination of the Mandate and the failure to replace it by any legally constituted authority, the Arab Governments find themselves compelled to intervene for the sole purpose of restoring peace and security and establishing law and order in Palestine.
It is important to compare the two declarations above and notice how both sides view the other as the aggressor. I believe that is genuine on both sides. Throughout all the violence so far covered, both sides, at the political level, viewed their actions as defensive against another provocative force.
In line with their promise to intervene, on the morning following the full British withdrawal from Palestine, a military coalition of the Arab League entered Palestine with the intentions of militarily forming an Arab state in the whole of the region.
Thus began the 1948 Israeli-Arab War…
And I will end Part 2 here.
The history following Israel’s victory in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War is better known generally and would require some significant effort on my end to piece together in a summary form. If this is something you would like to see, shoot me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or leave a comment on this post to let me know what you might like to see most in a potential Part 3.
Take care and have a great rest of the week,
If you find this article helpful, please take a moment to share it. This is a self-serving request, for sure, but I also think the topic covered today is important given the ongoing debate. If you have ever thought of hitting share, to however small or large of an audience, why not do it on this article?
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