With the creation of Israel on 14 May 1948, a new layer of frustration and suffering was brought into this troubled region. The British government’s Balfour Declaration of 1917, promising a “national home” for the Jews in Palestine, is commonly blamed for its loss, but this was only the beginning of the tragedy that unfolded over the last century, with echoes of religious turmoil, nationalist fervour, racist slander, and utter injustice that still reverberate in the Middle East and beyond.
Snatches of this tragedy have been preserved for us by photographers. One shows an image of Palestinian women demonstrating in the Haram Al-Sharif in Jerusalem to protest against police brutality in 1933. Others are of paramilitary fighters on both sides posing with their rifles, Jewish immigrants stranded on ships, Palestinian refugees forced off their land, and proud Israelis celebrating victories that ushered in further conflict.
One of the earliest clashes took place in Jaffa in 1921, claiming dozens of lives on both sides. A later inquired by the British Haycraft Commission found that hostility to Jews was rising among the Arab population, who suspected the British Mandate authorities of being biased towards the Jews at the expense of the Arab majority population. The Commission also noted that among the Arab population a firm belief was growing that the Zionist programme aimed to seize the country’s resources and deprive the original population of their livelihoods. Arabs who talked to the Commission complained that Jewish immigrants treated Arabs arrogantly and had no respect for their customs.
They were renewed clashes in Jaffa in 1924, and investigations showed that the hostilities had broken out when Jews made fun of the Arab dress code. By 1929, intermittent hostilities had grown into a full-blown Arab uprising. This was triggered by an incident in which the Jews had tried to seize the Wailing Wall, which Muslims venerate as Hay’et Al-Boraq and associate with the tradition of the Prophet Mohammad.
Trouble began on 14 August 1929, when Jews waving Zionist flags and singing national songs marched through the streets of Jerusalem. Arriving at the Wailing Wall, they made speeches asserting their ownership of the area, citing biblical tradition. This demonstration galvanised Muslim mistrust, and clashes broke out in various parts of Palestine.
Over the next 15 days, 109 Jews, 87 Muslims and four Christians lost their lives. The British authorities sentenced 20 Arabs to death, but only three were executed. One Jew was sentenced to death for killing an entire Arab family, but his sentence was commuted to 10 years in prison. From that moment on, it became an article of faith among the Arab population that the British were intent on selling them out, and they started attacking British targets as well.
In 1936, a religious scholar called Ezzeddin Al-Qassam was killed during a clash with British forces near Hebron. His name is now familiar to those who follow events in Gaza in the shape of the Al-Qassam Brigades. Exploring other tactics of confronting the British, the Arabs called for a general strike, which brought work to a standstill across the country. But the guerrilla tactics were not halted, for many young Palestinians, armed with rifles and light weapons, took refuge in the mountains and started attacking the Jewish camps that were starting to proliferate.
The British authorities, faced with increased Arab resistance, sent in more forces to flush out the rebels from the mountain areas. But this turned out to be an arduous task, for the Palestinian fighters were soon joined by volunteers from neighbouring countries such as Syria and Iraq — and some of the newcomers had seen active service in World War I.
Before long, the scattered resistance took a more organised fashion, with the rebels united under the command of Fawzi Al-Qawuqji, a Tripoli-born Syrian officer.
The revolution only ended when the kings of Hejaz, Iraq, and Transjordan and the imam of Yemen all called on the rebels to stop the hostilities and give diplomatic efforts a chance. As it turned out, diplomatic efforts were not more successful than military means, paving the way for more turmoil and mistrust.
On 29 November 1947, the UN decided that Palestine should be partitioned between the Arab and Jewish populations. To the horror of the Arabs, who rejected the deal, they were given only 43 per cent of the original land of Palestine under the British Mandate. The Jews, many of whom were newcomers from Europe, were granted 56 per cent of the land. Jerusalem, the UN decided, should be an international city open to all sides but run by an independent administration.
The Jews welcomed the decision, but Arab resentment was such that clashes erupted almost immediately after the partitioning decision. On 12 April 1948, the Arab League decided to send Arab armies into Palestine immediately after the withdrawal of Britain on 15 May. Israel was created on the night of 14 May 1948. It was recognised by US president Harry Truman minutes later. The Soviet Union recognised the newly-born country three days later.
On 26 May 1948, Israeli leader David Ben Gurion ordered the formation of the Israeli Defence Force. The images that followed were of mayhem and displacement, for the war that unfolded not only failed to give the Arabs the parts of Palestine they had resented ceding to the Jews, but also other areas as well.
Egypt sent 10,000 soldiers into the war, including five infantry brigades and one mechanised brigade. These had the airpower backing of bombers recently fashioned from regular transport planes by an innovative officer called Abdel-Hamid Mahmoud. They were joined in battle by 4,500 soldiers from Transjordan, 2,500 from Iraq, 1,800 from Syria, and two infantry brigades from Lebanon.
When the war broke out, king Abdel-Aziz of Saudi Arabia send a unit that was flown to the Egyptian front and saw active action in Beit Hanun, just north of Gaza.
The Arab armies were pitted against an Israeli force composed primarily of 45,000 Haganah fighters. When the war started, these were joined by 30,000 Jewish volunteers from Palestine and 20,000 from Europe.
The Jordanian army crossed the River Jordan into Palestine on 16 May 1948, fighting three major battles in Bab Al-Wad, Latrun, and Jenin. The Jordanians succeeded in asserting their control over parts of Jerusalem and what became known as the West Bank. By the time the fighting ended on 7 January 1949, Israel had grabbed most of the Negev, and a major section of the Egyptian army was besieged in Faluja. Among those caught in the siege were Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Abdel-Hakim Amer, future president of Egypt and army chief respectively. Their frustration over the military failure of 1948 caused them to form the Free Officers Movement that succeeded four years later in bringing down the monarchical regime in Egypt.
After the fighting had ended, negotiations opened in Rhodes with UN mediation. Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon signed four armistice treaties with Israel between 24 February and 20 July 1949. It was in these treaties that Israel’s ad hoc borders, often referred to as the Green Line, were first delineated. These are the borders that Arab negotiators have for the past two decades tried to get Israel to withdraw to, thus relinquishing land won in later wars, but with only partial success.
On 7 March 1949, the UN Security Council recommended the admission of Israel as full member of the UN. On 12 May, the UN General Assembly consented to the move, and Israel became a UN member state.