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The Founding of Israel
By Learned Nand | 21st May, 2013 | 3:40 am | Here's Where You're Wrong

Here's Where You're Wrong
The Founding of Israel

I want to talk to you about the founding of the modern state of Israel. People opine on this subject with far too little information, and I aim to provide that information. I know what you're thinking: "Sure, let's discuss Israel, that's not controversial. Then maybe we'll judge Obama's presidency and decide whether the Yankees or the Red Sox are a better team, just to keep the tone light." Well first, shut up Craig (I know it's you, Craig). And second, this won't be controversial. It won't even be interesting. We're going to take one of the most inflammatory subjects in modern politics and make it tedious. So let's get started.

Part 1: The Ottoman Empire

We could start this article 3500 years ago with the emergence of the Israelites in ancient Canaan. We could start this article 2500 years ago with the Babylonian exile. We could start this article 2000 years ago with the Roman exile, or we could start it 1400 years ago with the Arab conquest of the Levant, or we could start it 1000 years ago with the Crusades, or we could start it 800 years ago with Saladin, or we could start it 500 years ago with the Ottoman Empire's conquest. But Israel's history goes back millenia, and going over all of it would take too long, so we're going to start in the late 19th century, a few decades before Israel's founding.

In the late 19th century, Jewish leaders were facing anti-Semitism in Europe. Though now, over 90% of Jews live in Israel and the US, before the Holocaust, most Jews lived in Europe. Mob riots, or Pogroms, would often form and attack Jews and Jewish homes and shops. Jewish leaders almost always had one of two reactions to anti-Semitism: some, like Theodor Herzl, suggested that the Jews should assimilate into European culture, and then Europeans would accept the Jews. Other Jewish leaders suggested that Jews should leave Europe. In the face of increasing anti-Semitism, Herzl changed his view, and became a zionist. Zionism is the philosophy that the best chance for Jewish safety and survival is a Jewish state in Israel.

In the late 19th century, the Ottoman Empire was collapsing. Political cartoons (which, back then, were just as asinine and blunt as they are now) would often portray the Ottoman Empire as a decrepit old man. As such, the Ottoman Empire could not exert any significant amount of political power over the areas under its control, including Palestine. Between the anti-Semitism in Europe and the open borders of their ancestral homeland, hundreds of thousands of Jews emigrated from Europe to Palestine.

Jews in Palestine were met with great success: they bought land, hired their fellow immigrants (often after firing the Arabs who had previously worked there), and established a thriving economy. Along with the Jews, tens of thousands of Arabs were also emigrating to Palestine. Unfortunately, the success of the Jewish economy in Palestine did not translate to the Palestinians, whose economy was separate. Though relations between Jews and Palestinians were xenophobic and tense, there was little active hostility until the 1920's, during British control of Palestine.

Part 2: The British Mandate of Palestine

World War I resulted in, among other things, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The British and French divided up, between themselves, areas of the Ottoman Empire that they would administer. France would control modern day Syria and Lebanon, and the British would control modern day Iraq and, of course, the Mandate of Palestine. The Mandate of Palestine comprised modern day Israel (but not the Golan Heights), the West Bank, Gaza, and Jordan.

Map of the British Mandate of Palestine:
Spoiler: show
Source: The BBC

Continuing their long history of royally (get it?) mishandling administration of their colonies, the British made several competing promises to Arabs and Jews. In the Balfour Declaration (1917), the British promised that they would establish a Jewish homeland in the Mandate of Palestine. In the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence (1915 - 1916), the British promised Arabs independence in approximately that area in exchange for help defeating the Ottomans. In 1922, the British gave all land to the East of the Jordan River (comprising 77% of the Mandate of Palestine) to the Hashemites, who established the kingdom of Jordan. Jordan immediately banned Jews from purchasing land within Jordan.

During this time, relations between Jews and Arabs deteriorated. In 1929, a series of riots were started when Palestinian Arabs saw Jews praying at the Western Wall. These riots spread across Palestine, and resulted in the death over a hundred Jews and Arabs, and the displacement of hundreds more. The Jewish community of Hevron, a community that existed for thousands of years, was displaced by British forces to protect them from the riots. Hostilities between the Arabs and the Jews resulted in the establishment of Jewish security forces, like the Haganah, who felt that the British were inadequately protecting their safety.

Though the Haganah operated mostly as a security force, some groups, like Irgun and Lehi, were much more militant. Irgun regularly engaged in terrorist attacks against the Palestinians, often as reprisal killings. Whatever accuracy the phrase "cycle of violence" may have describing the modern Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it certainly applied then. Mainstream zionist leaders denounced groups like Irgun as terrorist groups. David ben Gurion explained his opposition, saying, "From Jewish terrorism against Arabs it is a short step to Jewish terrorism against Jews."

In the face of violence between Jews and Arabs, Britain sought to expedite a final settlement, in which both a Jewish and an Arab state would be founded in the remainder of the Mandate of Palestine. Britain made several offers, in the 1936 Peel Commission and three more times in the 1937 - 1938 Woodhead Commission. However, though the Jews were either ambivalent to these offers or accepted them, the Arabs did not, stating that they would not accept any Jewish state within the Mandate of Palestine.

Maps of British Proposals for a Division of Palestine
Spoiler: show
Peel Commission Propsal:
Source: wikipedia. Red lines define the borders of the proposed Jewish state.

Spoiler: show
Woodhead Commission Proposal A:

Woodhead Commission Proposal B:

Woodhead Commission Proposal C:

Source: wikipedia.

Reacting to their failure to successfully establish a Jewish and Arab state in the Mandate of Palestine, and faced with increasing hostility between and from Arabs and Jews, Britain made two poor decisions in an attempt to appease Arab fears of a growing Jewish population. In 1940, Britain limited Jewish land purchases to small, specific areas along the coast and by the Galilee. Outside of these areas, Jews were not permitted to purchase land from Arabs.

Map of Land Purchase Restrictions:
Spoiler: show
Source: The Palestinian Land Society. I'm really loathe to use this source because they're very obviously biased in favor of Palestine, but they host the only online version of this map I can find.

But perhaps Britain's most disastrous administrative decision (and that's saying something) in their handling of the Mandate of Palestine was to impose a quota on Jewish immigration. This came at the worst possible time: 1939. Tens of thousands of Jews escaping the Holocaust would arrive in Israel and be turned away by British authorities, sent back to their deaths. This outraged Jews in Palestine, who not only wanted increased influence in Palestine, but also wanted their fellow Jews to stay alive.

In response to these British actions, Jewish militae rebelled against the British. Irgun in particular launched regular and vicious attacks against British military targets and Arab civilians. In the face of the Jewish Rebellion, Britain finally made the first and last good decision they would ever make in the Mandate of Palestine: they gave up. In 1947, Britain withdrew from the Mandate of Palestine, and left it to the UN to decide how to divide Palestine between an Arab and Jewish state. The UN came up with the 1947 Partition Plan for Palestine. The Jews accepted this plan and declared independence; the Arabs rejected the plan, attacking every Jewish settlement in Palestine at once, and then invading.

Map of the UN Partition Plan:
Spoiler: show
Source: wikipedia

Part 3: Israel's War for Independence

Israel's war for independence was messy, to say the least. With very few weapons of their own, the Jewish armies relied on smuggled weapons and aid from Czechoslovakia. Along with the fighting between Arabs and Jews, Jewish factions also fought with each other. The Haganah sunk a cargo ship, the Altalena, so that the weapons it was carrying wouldn't be transferred to Irgun. The Altalena Affair is still referred to today in Israeli politics, to illustrate the divide between political factions.

The Israeli war for independence produced over a million refugees, between the Jews and the Arabs. Jewish refugees fled or were expelled from Arab countries that, in response to Israel's declaration of statehood, initiated internal campaigns of genocide against their Jewish populations. Before 1948, Baghdad was home to one of the largest Jewish communities in the world. A quarter of Baghdad's population was Jewish, a higher percentage than even modern day New York City. Today, there are only about 100 Jews in Baghdad.

The war also produced 500,000 to 800,000 Palestinian refugees. The cause of their exodus is disputed. For a while, Israel's narrative was that Palestinians left at the request of their leaders, who wanted to invade and destroy those areas. However, documents declassified by Israel in 1980 demonstrate that this only accounts for about 5% of the Palestinian Exodus. The Arabs claimed that the Palestinians were forced out by Jewish forces trying to ethnically cleanse the areas they conquered. Though this happened on occasion, most ethnic cleansing was likely limited to Irgun, whose actions account for approximately 15% of the Palestinian Exodus.

Irgun regularly used terrorist tactics in the war for independence. Irgun killed over a hundred and displaced hundreds of Palestinians living in a village, Deir Yassin, that lay on the road to Jerusalem. The Deir Yassin massacre became one of the most infamous massacres of the war, and was swiftly condemned by the Arabs and by mainstream Jewish leadership. However, the majority of refugees from Palestine likely left because they were afraid of advancing Israeli armies or tried to resist them, and thought that they would win the war and be able to return. The Palestinians were unable to establish their own state: areas not captured by Israel were annexed by Jordan and Egypt.

After a mass regional exodus of hundreds of thousands of people, the war came to an end. Israel successfully defended itself against an invasion of all surrounding Arab nations, gaining additional land in the process. Israel and its neighboring states negotiated the 1949 armistice agreements, which drew de facto borders between Israel and its neighbors. With the exception of Lebanon, all Arab states insisted, in the armistice agreements, that the armistice lines did not represent final borders, and merely represented where the soldiers stopped fighting. They were temporary and existed only out of military necessity. Today, the 1949 Armistice Lines are often referred to as the 1967 borders, because the armistice lines acted as borders until 1967.

Map of the 1949 Armistice Lines

Obviously such a tentative and volatile agreement would not create lasting peace, but that is where this article ends. Hopefully now, if you're ever involved in a debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you'll be able to approach it with facts and figures, not racism and hyperbole.

Tags: history, Israel, politics 24

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