The nation of Israel was founded by Joshua over three thousand years ago. Yet in 2008, the modern nation of Israel celebrated its sixtieth anniversary. In 586 BC, Israel ceased to exist for over twenty-five centuries until a remarkable series of events led to its reformation in 1948.
The story of modern Israel begins in the late 19th century. During this period, Palestine, the name of the Roman province that incorporated ancient Israel, was ruled by the Ottoman Turks. Jews had been scattered throughout the world for thousands of years. As pogroms and persecution increased in Europe in the 1800s, some Jews began to immigrate into Turkish Palestine. These movements of Jews were referred to as “aliyahs.”
Jewish settlers initially purchased uncultivated and swamp land in Palestine. They worked the land and drained the swamps to create arable land. In these early days, Jews and Arabs peacefully coexisted in most cases, although the Jews were still persecuted by the Ottoman Turks.
Theodore Herzl was an early proponent of Zionism, the belief that a new Jewish state should be created. After covering the Dreyfus trial in France, Herzl was shocked at the rampant anti-Semitism in his country and promoted the aliyahs. In the midst of Jewish immigration to Palestine, Tel Aviv was founded as a Jewish city in 1909.
Chaim Weizmann was a Zionist contemporary of Herzl. Weizmann was also a chemist. During WWI, Weizmann worked with the British against the Central Powers. First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, charged Weizmann with developing a process for producing acetone, which was needed to manufacture naval artillery shells. Weizmann’s scientific success brought him, and Zionism, to the attention of the British government.
The Ottoman Empire, which ruled Palestine, was allied with Germany during WWI. Weizmann’s influence eventually helped convince the British that establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine would help convince Jews to join the fight against Germany and the Turks. The Allies also planned to dismember the losing empires to ensure that they would not be able to wage war in the future.
In 1917, the British formally issued the Balfour Declaration, which supported the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The declaration stated that British government "view with favour" the establishment in Palestine of "a national home for the Jewish people" on the conditions that "nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine" or "the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."
While several thousand Jews in Palestine were inducted into the Ottoman army, many others assisted the British. A group called the Gideonites spied for the British. In 1915, the Zion Mule Corps was founded to serve with the British army in Gallipoli. Two years later, a Jewish Legion, the 38th King’s Fusiliers, was formed from Zion Mule Corps veterans and other Palestinian Jewish volunteers. The Jewish Legion served with General Allenby in Egypt and Jordan. Later, the 39th and 40th King’s Fusiliers were formed with Jewish volunteers from other countries.
After the defeat of Germany and the Ottomans, Weizmann signed an agreement with future Saudi king, Faisal ibn Hussein. The Faisal-Weizmann agreements set the stage for a Jewish state in Palestine and a separate Arab state. The borders would be determined by the Paris Peace Conference and both sides agreed to allow the British to arbitrate disputes.
In 1920, the Allies signed a peace treaty with Turkey. The British were assigned a mandate to administer Palestine and Transjordan, including the responsibility for implementing the Balfour Declaration. The Turks had kept thousands of troops in Palestine, but British forces numbered only in the hundreds. These few troops and police would not be enough to keep the peace in the years that followed.
Soon relations between the Jews and the Arabs began to break down. Haj Amin al-Husseini, nephew of Jerusalem’s mayor, organized Arabs into groups of fedayeen “one who sacrifices himself” to attack Jews, beginning in 1919. Haj Amin helped to incite Arab mobs to riot in Jerusalem in April 1920. Six Jews were killed and 200 injured during the riots. The death toll would have been higher if Vladimir Jabotinsky had not already begun organizing a Jewish defense organization, the Haganah (self-defense).
After the riots, the British arrested both Arabs and Jews, including Jabotinsky. Haj Amin escaped to Jordan and was convicted in absentia by a British court. Jabotinsky was sentenced to fifteen years at hard labor followed by deportation for illegal possession of weapons.
A year later, Haj Amin was pardoned and appointed Mufti of Jerusalem for life by the British High Commissioner. This meant that Haj Amin was the pre-eminent Muslim scholar in Jerusalem. He used this position to consolidate power. No Muslim who did not support the Mufti could attain a position of influence. The Mufti killed Arab dissidents as well as Jews.
The Mufti also pressed the British for an end to Jewish immigration. In the wake of the riots, Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill issued a White Paper in 1922, which placed strict limits on Jewish immigration.
More riots occurred in 1925 and 1926 after Haj Amin spread rumors that the Jews were seeking to rebuild the Jewish temple on the site of the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock. British troops intervened after the fighting spread as far as Hebron and the Gaza Strip.
Again in 1929, Arabs were incited to riot by rumors that Jews had killed two Arabs as well as false rumors that Jews were attempting to defame Muslim holy places. 133 Jews were killed, primarily in the Old City of Jerusalem and Hebron.
In 1936, Haj Amin and six prominent Arab leaders formed the Arab Higher Committee. The Committee protested British rule and Jewish settlement by launching a full-scale revolt. The Arabs waged a war of terror against the British and Jews for three years, while Haj Amin continued to consolidate power through murder and intimidation of Jews and Arab resisters. In 1937, the Mufti went so far as to express solidarity with Hitler’s Germany and appealed for Germany to arm the Arabs and help stop Jewish immigration.
Haj Amin’s role in the Arab revolts, together with an assassination attempt on the Inspector General of the Palestine Police Force led the British to exile him again, this time to Syria. The Arab Higher Committee was disbanded and the British brought in massive reinforcements to crush the revolt, which lasted until 1939.
The Arab revolt led to the establishment of the Peel Commission to study the relationship of the Jews and Arabs with respect to the establishment of a Jewish homeland. The 1937 report recommended a limit of 12,000 Jewish immigrants per year for five years and the development of a plan for partition of Palestine. The report also recommended a population transfer due to the desire of Arabs for independence and their hatred and fear of Jewish state.
In response to war clouds in Europe and a desire to pacify the Arabs, the British issued the McDonald White Paper in 1939. The White Paper reversed the Balfour Declaration and stated that it was not British policy to form a Jewish state in Palestine. It also restricted Jewish immigration to 75,000 over five years, restricted land transfers from Arabs to Jews, and called for the establishment of a joint Arab-Jewish state.
During World War II, Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe were almost exterminated. Free Jews often joined Allied armies in the fight against fascism. The Jewish Brigade of the British Army, formed in 1944, was composed entirely of Jews. All the while, restrictive British and US immigration policies cost many Jews their lives. Unable to emigrate from Nazi areas, millions were shot and gassed as part of the Final Solution.
In contrast, Mufti Haj Amin spent the war in Germany. The Mufti met with Hitler several times and played a role in the Holocaust. He sought to keep Germany from allowing Hungarian Jews from emigrating and personally intervened when Adolf Eichman tried to orchestrate and exchange of German POWs for Jewish children with British government. The children were sent to death camps instead. Haj Amin personally visited these death camps, including Auschwitz. He also made numerous propaganda broadcasts throughout the war and encouraged Muslims, including those of German occupied Bosnia and Kosovo, to join Nazi units such as the Hanjar 13th Waffen SS division.
Pro-German sympathies were found in Arab nations throughout the Middle East as well. Even after the war was over, Arab nations became havens for Nazi war criminals on the run. These included the SS general in charge of the murder of Ukrainian Jews, who became Gamal Abdul Nasser’s bodyguard and Alois Brunner, who became a senior advisor to the Syrian senior military staff.
After the war, surviving Jews flocked to Palestine regardless of limits on immigration. The postwar illegal immigration to Palestine was referred to as the Aliyah Bet. Several pogroms, including one in Kielce, Poland in 1946 in which 46 Holocaust survivors were murdered, increased the movement from Europe. Many of the Aliyah Bet ships were intercepted by the British, who detained the Jewish immigrants on Cyprus.
As detentions of Holocaust survivors became known around the world, public opinion turned against the British. US President Harry Truman was instrumental in changing British policy. He pressured the British to allow the immigration of 100,000 European Jews. Truman also pressured the British to turn over the Palestine problem to the UN.
As Jewish immigrants flooded into Palestine, the Jews formed a United Resistance Movement from the Haganah, the Irgun, and the Lehi in 1945. The URM resisted Arab violence as well British rule. Public reaction to the kidnapping of British soldiers and the bombing of the King David Hotel, British military headquarters, eventually caused the URM to disband at the request of Chaim Weizmann. The Haganah complied with Weizmann’s request to suspend operations, but not the Irgun or the Lehi.
As violence increased, the British decided to ask the newly formed United Nations to help solve the problem. On November 29, 1947, the UN General Assembly voted to partition Palestine into two separate nations, one predominantly Jewish and one predominantly Arab. President Truman again played a prominent role in gaining passage of the partition by influencing Latin American countries to vote in favor of the resolution.
The partition was accepted by the Jews, but immediately rejected by the Arabs. Jewish forces were vastly smaller, but better organized, than the Arab forces. By the spring of 1948, the Jewish forces had secured most of the territory that made up the Jewish partition.
On May 15, 1948, the British evacuated Palestine and Jewish leaders announced the formation of the nation of Israel. Shortly after, Israel was invaded by the combined armies of Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Iraq. Both the United States and the Soviet Union immediately recognized Israel. Fighting was initially heavy, but as the Israel Defense Force (IDF) began to receive shipments of supplies from Czechoslovakia, the Arab armies were beaten back. Eventually, the IDF was able to secure much larger borders for Israel than the UN had originally allotted.
A controversial moment in the war occurred during the Battle of Deir Yassin. Irgun and Lehi forces attacked Arab troops at Deir Yassin on April 9, 1948. What happened is shrouded in controversy, but both sides agree that between 100 and 250 Arab civilians were killed. It is unclear whether they were killed accidentally in heavy fighting or if they were murdered by the Jewish soldiers. The incident has been frequently used as Arab propaganda ever since.
The Israeli War of Independence or War of Liberation ended with armistice agreements signed in early 1949 with Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. Israel was established as a Jewish homeland, while, ironically, the remaining areas of the Arab partition were annexed by Jordan and Egypt. Palestinians refer to the war as al Nakba, “the Catastrophe.”