1948 – Benny Morris 1/11 Historical Background

This is my post on the first chapter of Benny Morris’s book “1948 A History of the First Arab-Israeli War”. I hope to cover each of the other chapters in turn.

This chapter briefly deals with the background from 1881, just before the first Zionist immigrants arrived, until early 1947, before the UN got involved in coming up with a plan/solution.

This is pretty much a summary of the chapter. For future chapters/posts I do not intend on following the text in such detail. But since this chapter covers such a large period it would have been difficult to just focus on one or two important points.

“In 1881, Palestine had about 450,000 Arabs — about 90 percent Muslim, the rest Christian — and 25,000 Jews. Most of the Jews, almost all of whom were ultra-Orthodox, non-nationalist, and poor, lived in Jerusalem, the country’s main town (population thirty thousand).”

Important to note that Palestine here refers to a region, not a separate province, let alone an independent political entity.

Also of note Palestine was at the time part of the Ottoman empire. That is until the end of World War I, when the Ottoman empire falls apart, and the British take over Palestine.

Ottoman Empire

The first wave of Zionist immigrants, the first Aliya, brought about 30,000 Jewish settlers between 1882 and 1903. Morris says that their goal was to build Jewish settlements and towns that would eventually result in a Jewish majority and the establishment of a Jewish state in all of Palestine. Though they generally kept this objective to themselves.

Most of the settlers from the first and second Aliya (1904 to 1914), settled in the lowlands of Palestine, less crowded areas largely owned by effendis, wealthy urban landowners (the peasants of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) and most of the Galilee owned their lands and were generally unwilling to sell). The Zionists succeeded in winning the demographic contest in the lowlands and this was to be the territorial base of their future state.

Around this time (the end of the 19th century) Theodor Herzl considered to be the father of modern political Zionism, writes about a Jewish State as being the solution to European anti-Semitism. He starts organizing and working toward this, but doesn’t get far by the time he passes away in 1904, though eventually the movement he helps create bears fruit.

Morris writes that nationalism was a foreign concept to most Palestinians, who were impoverished and illiterate. The elite, the ayan, were somewhat influenced by European ideas and they appealed from 1891 on to Istanbul to stop Jewish immigration. However the Ottomans never really stopped Jewish immigration, land purchases, etc.

By 1914 there were four dozen Jewish settlements including Tel Aviv and the first kibbutz Degania both founded in 1909, and 60,000 to 85,000 Jews about 2/3 of them Zionists.

There was not much conflict between Jews and Arabs at first until about 1909 it was mostly regular crime and disagreements between neighbors about land use, etc. In 1909-1914 there was more violence and of a more nationalist form. Though the outbreak of World War I temporarily halted the violence.

The Ottoman army made two offensives against British-ruled Egypt from Palestine in 1915 and 1916. In 1917 the British conquered the southern half of the country. In 1918 they conquered the rest and pushed onto Syria forcing a Turkish surrendered and the end of the Ottoman Empire. The British gave up most of the land back to various Arab rulers except for Palestine, which they either wanted to keep or give to the Jews.

The Balfour declaration of 2 November 1917, by the British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour, declared in a single sentence that: “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish People and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood 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”

The Jews who had lobbied for it, saw this as a huge breakthrough. The Arabs took this as a betrayal and a step backwards.

The British and the French carved up the Arab parts of the Ottoman empire between themselves. France got Lebanon and Syria, the British got Palestine and Iraq with indirect control over Egypt and Jordan.

British Mandate

On April 4th 1920 there was the first pogrom-like Arab rioting against Jews in Jerusalem. Six Jews died, many were injured and a handful were raped. This resulted in the formation of the Haganah (essentially a Jewish militia, which would eventually become the Israeli army).

There was more violence in 1921, 1929, and 1936-1939. Morris believes this was driven by a 1. growing national consciousness due to an increase in literacy and increased prosperity, 2. religious sources as well, but mainly 3. fear and antagonism toward the Zionist enterprise.

But Palestinian Arab society was fragmented. Divisions between Muslims and Christians, between the sedentary population and the nomadic Bedouins and between townspeople and villagers. Finally loyalties were to the family, clan and village, not to a nation.

The elites were divided by clan, the most powerful clan were the Husseinis, the opposition were the Nashashibis. The main conflict was a struggle for power, more than anything else.

There was an Arab Revolt during 1936-1939. Caused by fears of Zionist immigration, settlement, Judaisation of the country and fears of eventual displacement, but driven mainly by the large influx of immigrants due to the rise of anti-Semitism in Central and Eastern Europe. Between 1931 and 1939, the Jewish population went from 175,000 to 460,000.

Both the Jewish and Arab communities increased in size and power during this period. Though Morris says that the Jews fared better, because they “received enormous contributions and investments from Western Jewry and large British government loans” and the Arabs received “little foreign investment or loans”.

Jewish population:
1881: 25,000
1918: 60,000-85,000
1948: 630,000

Arab population:
1881: 450,000
1918: 650,000
1948: 1,300,000

Net domestic product Arabs:
1922: 6,600,000 pounds sterling (539,000 manufacturing)
1947: 32,300,000 pounds (6,700,000 manufacturing)

Net domestic product Jews (Yishuv):
1922: 1,700,000 (491,000 manufacturing)
1947: 38,500,000 (31,000,000 manufacturing)

The Jews had managed to create internal, democratic governing institutions which in 1947-1948 converted into the agencies of the new State of Israel. They had an effective taxation system. They founded a university, etc.

As a result of the revolt the British sent a committee headed by Lord Peel to examine the situation in Palestine, and it issued a long report. There was a partition plan that would give 20% of the land to the Jews, 70% to the Arabs and 10% would be kept by the British (Jerusalem and Bethlehem and a path from there to the sea at Jaffa). The plan also required removing 300,000 Arabs from the Jewish state.

Peel Partition Plan 1937

But with all its problems the Peel recommendations basically set up the idea of the two-state settlement. The Zionists accepted the partition plan (though the right-wing revisionist Zionists rejected it) and the Palestinians rejected it.

As a response to the Peel proposals the Arab rebellion started up again in September 1937. The violence was worse during this second period. The Irgun Zvai Leumi (IZL, National Military Organization), carried out retaliatory terrorist attacks against Arab towns, and the Haganah carried out selected reprisals. The British also cracked down and arrested or got rid of the rebels.

Though the rebellion failed militarily it kind of succeeded in changing British policy. The British wanted to assure quiet in the Middle East during the war and so issued a new white paper limiting Jewish immigration and land purchase.

The Yishuv (the Jewish community in Palestine) protested against the white paper, and the IZL carried out some attacks against British targets.

But between 3,000 and 6,000 Palestinian political and military activists were killed and thousands more were driven into exile or jailed. They were much weakened by this fighting against the British, and this did much damage to their war effort in 1947-1948.

The conflict between the Arabs, the Yishuv and the British was put on hold during World War II. The Jews supported the British, and many volunteered to serve in the British army. The Palestinians like most of the Arab world supported the Axis against the British (though five or six thousand Arabs joined the Allied armed forces, vs more than twenty-six thousand Jews).

After the war the weakening of British and French power resulted in the liberation of many regions from imperial rule, and the emergence of new countries. Lebanon, Syria and Jordan became independent, and Egypt and Iraq had looser imperial control.

On the one hand the Holocaust destroyed “Zionism’s main potential pool of manpower”, but on the other hand it created sympathy within the international community for the Jews and for their quest to create a national home for themselves. Just as World War I resulted in the Balfour declaration, World War II resulted in the UN partition plan of 29 November 1947, which would lead to the creation of the State of Israel.

In January 1942 Chaim Weizmann in an article in Foreign Affairs, demanded a Jewish state in all of Palestine. And in May at a Zionist conference, the demand for a Jewish state in the Land of Israel was adopted as an official policy.

Morris writes that in the US the Jews decisively won the battle for public opinion, “due to the impact of the Holocaust and effective Zionist propaganda”. The American Jewish community of five million was energized and united by the Holocaust, they were well organized and wealthy and were traditionally big donors to political campaigns.

Towards the end of the war and after the war the Zionist efforts were focused on allowing the survivors of the concentration camps in Europe to immigrate to Palestine. The British were still blocking it.

The LHI (Lohamei Herut Yisrael) or Freedom Fighters of Israel a small group also called the “Stern Gang” (after the name of its leader), sought to fight the British. It attempted to establish an “alliance” with Nazi Germany against the British, but failed to do so. It then carried out a campaign against the British rulers, but didn’t manage to do much, due to its small size, Haganah and IZL tip-offs, and British suppression.

In 1944 the IZL under the command of Menachem Begin resumed their armed struggle against the British. They believed that the main battle was not against the Arabs but against the British. They carried out attacks against the British. The mainstream Zionists condemned this, and there was an open-season called the “Saison” against the IZL from November 1944 to March 1945.

But after the war and with continued British opposition to letting the Displaced Persons (DPs) immigrate to Palestine, the Haganah joined them from November 1945. The three groups Haganah, IZL and LHI made a formal agreement known as the Hebrew Rebellion Movement. Two significant attacks were the blowing up railway tracks at 153 points around Palestine on November 1st and the simultaneous destruction of eleven bridges connecting Palestine to Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt on 17 June 1946.

At the same time the Haganah resumed its illegal immigration campaign. which managed to get 70,700 immigrants into Palestine between August 1945 and May 1948. (they had previously tried to get immigrants in, at the start of the war, but were blocked by the British, and by 1941 the Germans blocked all the boats from their side)

The Americans wanted 100,000 DPs to be allowed to immigrate immediately but the British opposed this. There was an Anglo-American Committee to examine the situation of the DPs. Their recommendation was to allow the 100,000 DPs as quickly as conditions would permit. But it rejected partition and suggested that the British Mandate should continue under UN trusteeship. Later Palestine should be independent either under a single state or a binational state.

The Zionists accepted the immigration recommendation but rejected the rest. The Arabs rejected everything. They wanted independence not binationalism.

After the report Jewish attacks against the British resumed. The British cracked down on the Haganah, but it didn’t have much effect because the intelligence of the Haganah managed to get advanced warning. In response the IZL blew up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, which was the British military and administrative headquarters killing 91 people.

The British tried to come up with another solution/plan. The Jews demanded immediate Jewish statehood, the Arabs demanded “immediate Arab independence”. And things didn’t get anywhere. That was the situation at the beginning of 1947.

The British basically gave up and handed the problem over to the UN, which is the subject of the next chapter.

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