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Middle East Kevin Dispatch

Setting the Stage for War
January 15, 2000

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1948: the year Israel gained its independence

Supper's on! And we are carving up the Middle East for dinner! This was the general attitude of the European powers at the end of WWI. The British and French arranged a deal to cut up the Middle East: The French controlled the Northern area where Lebanon and Syria are today; and the British (during an era called the British Mandate) took over the Southern area, today known as Palestine and Jordan. But what about the people who actually lived on these plots of land? Well, both Jews and Palestinian Arabs had nationalistic aspirations and had received what they thought were solid promises from the British to protect their interests. The Arabs were assured that their assistance against the Turks in WWI would be rewarded with political independence in the region. The Jews looked to the Balfour Declaration of 1917, in which England declared its support for "the establishment in Palestine of a national homeland for the Jewish people" (see Balfour Declaration in the Israel/Palestine Timeline).

Increasing Jewish immigration began to make the Arab inhabitants grow uneasy. Palestine became the site of many riots during the 1920s, and general unrest eventually escalated into the Arab Revolt from 1936-1939. Much of the Arab violence directed at the Jewish settlements was more than the British wished to contain. Jewish defense groups were thus left to fight the Arabs on their own-a reality that led to their attempt to get rid of the British altogether. The mainstream Jewish defense group was known as the Haganah. Rival militant groups such as the Irgun and the Stern Gang used more extreme measures of terrorism to fight the Arabs and the British.

In 1939 the British issued what was known as "The White Paper", a decree that restricted Jewish immigration to Palestine. This was done in a good faith attempt to pacify an Arab population they did not wish to confront-considering how the war in Europe was spilling over into Palestine as well. Zionists were enraged by (what they viewed as) these callous restrictions, given the plight of European Jews who had nowhere else to go. Zionists firmed up their political resistance by saying, "We must fight Hitler as if there were no White Paper, and we must fight the White Paper as if there were no Hitler." Once the war ended, the Zionists no longer needed to maintain strategic relations with the British, so they concentrated their efforts against them in order to bring about the new State of Israel.

In the wake of the Holocaust, the nations of the world were forced to acknowledge concerns for the safety of world Jewry and the Zionist movement (by that time, a geopolitical reality in Palestine). By November 29th the newly formed United Nations voted to partition Palestine into two separate nations, in an attempt to fulfill the nationalistic aspirations of both the Jewish and Palestinian people (Resolution 181).

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Map of UN Resolution 181

Thirty-one countries in the UN General Assembly voted in favor of partition, while all 13 of the Arab states vetoed it (10 nations abstained). Jews living in Palestine and around the world celebrated the outcome, seeing it as a major affirmation of the Zionist goal to achieve statehood. The Arabs felt justified in rejecting the partition predominantly because they felt that dividing the land 50/50 between Arabs and Jews was unfair. With 1.2 million Arabs versus 650,000 Jews living in Palestine, it seemed unreasonable for a foreign international body to come in and divide Palestine equally between the two groups. Furthermore, the UN General Assembly (as opposed to the Security Council) only possessed the authority to make recommendations, not enforce them.

Vocabulary Box

Callous - Unfeeling; emotionally indifferent
Partition - to divide into parts

From December 1947 until the following spring, Jewish-Arab riots escalated into clashes which eventually became full-on battles for towns and villages. Since many of the towns granted to the Jews were still inhabited by large Palestinian Arab populations, the Zionists fought fiercely for control while the Arabs fought to crush the Zionist movement once and for all (See my article about Safed).
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The 1949 armistice agreement (border of Israel until 1967) David Ben Gurion declaring the birth of Israel

As the British Mandate drew close to an end, the British had already begun to withdraw from Palestine. In the late afternoon of May 14, 1948, a special session was opened by the Jewish National Council of Palestine by the head of the Jewish Agency, David Ben-Gurion. He addressed the crowd in what was at the time Tel Aviv's only large hall (a museum exhibition gallery), and he declared the birth of the State of Israel as of midnight, the hour when the British Mandate was to officially end. He then read Israel's new Declaration of Independence which proclaimed Israel's "natural and historic right" to exist "on the strength of the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly." Several hours later, the armies of Israel's Arab neighbors (Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt) attacked, and Palestine was in a state of war for almost one full, bloody year. Some say that since its birth, Israel has always been in a state of war, always prepped and ready for attacks. The eternal question remains: What will it take to bring this volatile region a bit of peace?


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Relevant Links:

Links all about Zionism:

All about the history of Israel:

The Palestinian National Authorities official website:

Abeja - Can't We All Just Get Along?
Kevin - Safed: A Battle of Living History
Monica - Under the Sacred Rock
Team - Exercise Your Right and Write

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